Jamie Davies (PhD, St Andrews) is Tutor of New Testament and Director of Postgraduate Research at Trinity College, Bristol (UK). His research largely concerns apocalyptic thought in the New Testament and other Second Temple Jewish and Christian literature, with a focus on the letters of Paul and the book of Revelation.
How did you come to write a book on Revelation? What draws you to this subject?
I’ve been fascinated by the book of Revelation since I took a class on it during my Masters degree at St Andrews University (taught by Grant Macaskill, who went on to become my doctoral supervisor). I’m particularly drawn to its imagery and fascinating literary structure, and the way those effect a transformation of the Christian imagination. When I was invited to write the commentary on Revelation for the second series of Reading the New Testament it was therefore very hard to say no, even though taking on Revelation for my first commentary was a huge challenge.
What were you hoping to achieve with your new book, Reading Revelation: A Literary and Theological Commentary?
Given how many commentaries there are out there, I felt it was important that I was adding something to the conversation and not just offering a summary of existing scholarship. I hope I’ve achieved that (though that’s for others to say). I tried to produce something for readers with seminary-level education without making it an overly technical discussion that’s only accessible to the academy. I also tried to offer something fresh in terms of it being a ‘literary and theological’ commentary, bringing in the most pertinent historical and literary insights as well as offering a theological engagement with what the book of Revelation has to say about God and God’s world. One other thing I aimed for was to make the commentary ‘flow’ in larger sections rather than it being more like a reference work – hopefully people find it readable, maybe even enjoyable! I think the literary form of the book of Revelation is an important aspect of how it conveys theological meaning, and I’ve tried to make the same true for my commentary.
What is the impact of a literature and theological commentary for this subject? How did such considerations effect how you structured your book?
I think one of the main things that emerged as I prepared to write the commentary was that I wanted to integrate the literary and theological aspects of interpretation. Too often these are taken as separate steps in a process, and this separation is then reflected in the form of the commentaries themselves. What one often sees with contemporary ‘theological’ commentary is that historical and/or literary matters receive attention first (in a supposedly ‘neutral’ manner) before theological comment is then made as a separate (often secondary) step. This was not always the case (e.g. in pre-modern commentary) and I am not sure that’s the right way to go. Instead, I tried to bring the literary and theological together, not having a section on historical/formal matters followed by separate theological reflection, but weaving theology and literary insights together throughout. As I argue in the book’s introduction, I am convinced that such a theological and literary reading is an appropriate response to what the book of Revelation is as a locus of God’s self-disclosure.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the book of Revelation and its study? Where does the power lie within the book?
I suppose the biggest one, and the source of many misunderstandings of Revelation, is a failure to grasp what kind of literature it is and the significance of this for its meaning. Revelation is (among other things) an apocalypse, and indeed the only example of this kind of literature in the New Testament (though the Olivet Discourse in Mark 13 and parallels comes close) and many people simply don’t know what to do with such texts. Getting our heads around this ancient Jewish and Christian literary genre and how it effects meaning through its imagery and visionary material is essential for responsible reading. Once we start to do that, however, the power of its imagery for Christian theology and praxis really kicks in.
In the introduction, you describe that the act of reading the book of Revelation can be a “bewildering experience.” What do you mean by this? If this was someone’s first dive into Revelation, what is your advice in approaching this “constellation” of a book?
I suppose I’d say ‘use your imagination!’ Try to avoid treating it as a prosaic ‘code’ to be deciphered, which is not how its imagery is intended, but instead embrace the poetry of the book and the artistry of what John is doing. Poetic images can work in ways that prose cannot, and we need to be prepared for things to work in non-linear ways or have layers of meaning. I would also say this: make sure you know your Old Testament, especially the prophets. Although he never explicitly quotes the Old Testament, so much of John’s imagery and allusions is drawn from Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Daniel and the rest of his ‘comrades the prophets’ (22.9). He’s constantly alluding to them and weaving together different prophetic images: you simply can’t expect to understand Revelation without a deep familiarity with such writings.
As an academic, what was the most challenging and/or surprising aspect of writing Reading Revelation?
For one thing, finding the time! I work in a busy theological college, and I have a heavy teaching load, so finding the time to get up to speed with the vast secondary literature was a real challenge. I was helped by my students (I taught Revelation for a few years as I prepared the book) and my college granted me a brief sabbatical to do the first draft, which greatly helped. That happened during the pandemic, however, so I was locked in at home for much of the process — a challenge for both me and my family! An additional, more surprising, challenge was how much the process forced me to reflect on the question of what commentary writing is (or should be). I was pleasantly surprised how that thinking led me to try something different to what I expected to do.
How does your writing impact your faith? What does the writing process mean to you?
I’m the sort of person who externalizes my thoughts; I don’t really know what I think until I’ve said it out loud! Writing is an extension of this for me, and I find that writing helps me figure out what I think and believe. Since this was my first go at writing a commentary, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the process, but I found the daily rhythm of praying, thinking, and writing on the day’s passage to deeply enriching. The time flew by!
Outside of writing, how do you enjoy spending your time?
I have two children, aged 12 and 17, and I try to make as much time as possible to be with them — I’m increasingly conscious of how few years I have to do that. I enjoy watching films and try to get to the gym when teaching, research, and the demands of family life allow.