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INTRODUCTION

Reading fairy tales and novels result very attractive and someway easy, since the

situations are explicit and the drama is depicted so colorful as to maintain the attention of the

reader without blowing his/her mind, but just keeping the tension to the plot, when the drama

begins to evolve into a solution. By the other hand, reading history is less attractive for many

people. History is an interpretation of the past.1 And this is not the same as historiography,

which is defined as the history of history2 and hence makes it a separated topic, although

both are related in some point in the investigation process. However, reading history or

historiography is not often seen so fun as to keep the readers attention.

Now the book of Revelation in the New Testament is somehow like a fairy tale mingled

with history. Of course, it is not the same, but just similar in the sense that it is fashioned with

magnificent creativity and a powerful sense of religious convictions that overlaps the

persecution against the Christian believers that fight for survival among the hateful inhabitants

of the Roman Empire. In the book of Revelation, the main opponent of Christ is a religious

movement. Ironically, it seems that it is the same church that once gave birth too many

believers that now clashes with the forces of good in order to destroy the little remnant.

1
Why Study History?, https://history.hanover.edu/why.php (April 3, 2017)

2
What is Historiography?,
http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/writing/history/assignments/historiographic.html (April 3, 2017)

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This study is meant to provide the social and religious background upon which the

apostle John writes the book. As an apocalyptic literary masterpiece, the book of Revelation

contends with the actual realities of the Christian community amidst the Roman Empire to

share the hope of new heavens and new earth, where no death reigns, and where there will

be no more tears. Both social and religious backgrounds are going to be analyzed against the

apocalyptic literature of the Second Temple Period, when the apocalyptic movement arouse

with more intensity to encourage the Jews to keep their faith alive, while striving for survival.

Whenever the exegetical task is necessary, it will be used in order to clarity particular concepts

of the apocalyptic account. Nevertheless, the exegesis is an essential tool for understanding

the biblical passage, but this study is mainly focused on social and religious flows along the

book of Revelation.

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CHAPTER 1

SOCIAL-HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

When the book of Revelation was written down to the papyrus, it was fashioned on the

ground of the Jewish historical adversities. Those past experiences might have provided the

author of Revelation with the most sacred zeal and the honor of serving his God by encouraging

the believers to stand firm in spite of the fears infused to them by the beast. It seems like the

human spirit can overcome tremendous difficulties when there is determination. But this

requires hope and a sense of purpose.3 Any of these latter characteristics did not lack among

the Jewish people in the second century B.C.E.

The type of imagery present in the book of Revelation was popular among the Jews,

which suggest that the book was principally addressed to Jewish-Christian believers.

Nevertheless, there exist archaeological evidence of Christian settlements amidst the Roman

Empire.4 Although many converted Gentiles might have had the opportunity to read the book

of Revelation, they might have had too the company of certain Jewish-Christian believers that

interpreted this imageries in a certain way. However, both groups were inevitable near each

3
Larry R. Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature pf the Second Temple Period: A Guide of New Testament
Students (Downers Frove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 29.

4
Cf. Joseph P. Free and Howard F. Vos, Archaeology and Bible History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,
1992) 287-290.

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one from the other, since many Jews were deported after the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D.

70) and dispersed throughout all the Hellenistic world, where many other Gentiles abided.

The elders

Revelation 4:4 introduces the presence of the twenty-four elders seated on twenty four

thrones. First of all, the Greek word presbute,rouj presbutrous elder has a connotation not

just of an old man, but a wise counselor of Israel, a community leader5. This apparition at the

beginning of the book of Revelation may represent an echo of the exilic times, when the Jews

were carried out from the southern little kingdom of Judah to the city of Babylon under the

reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. But in spite of being left without any attention, the Ezra narratives

show that in the post-exilic times Jews were permitted to have a measure of self-governance.

This was performed by the family heads. Even more, the prophet Ezekiel mentions

that a group consisting of the elders of Judah and other elders of Israel functioned as a sort

of council (cf. Ezekiel 8:1; 14:1).6 Jacques B. Doukhan agrees in the point of taking these elders

as judges and also as priests.7 So far both points of view agree in some manner. The social

responsibility of the elders of Judah and Israel accounted as a civil judge, but they became

religious authorities, since they formed part of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Israel since

the First Century A.D.

5
James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak
Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).

6
Helyer, Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period, 31.

7
Jacques B. Doukhan, Secretos del Apocalipsis: Un Vistazo Judo al Apocalipsis (Doral, FL: Asociacin
Publicaodra Interamericana, 2008), 52.

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The number 24 might reflect a duality of something, and encompasses a formula of two

times twelve. Number 12 depicts the number of the covenant, which according to Doukhan

represents four (the number of the earth) times three (the number of God).8 He also proposes

that the number 24 reflects the service at the Temple of Jerusalem, which was ministered by 24

priestly divisions (cf. 1 Chronicles 24:1-19).9 Ranko Stefanovic suggests that these 24 elders are

glorified saints, symbolic representations of the faithful and redeemed people of God. He

argues that these characters do not appear before in no vision in the Old Testament, so the

must have been inserted in the royal court-room around the time of the death of Jesus, after

his resurrection, as the first fruits of the harvest from humanity in the heavenly places.10

Nonetheless the fact that the history accounted the appearance of the elders of Judah

and the elders of Israel might suggest an alternative answer, not necessarily incompatible

with the before mentioned ones. These elders could represent the totality of the elders of

Israel, in its unified kingdom idealistic sense. This would not result so strange, since the Jews,

even in the time of Jesus, longed for the United Kingdom of Israel, remembering the messianic

figure of the legendary kings David and Solomon in the days of glory. From the Davidic dynasty

it would emerge a Messiah that would restore the Kingdom of Israel as a United Monarchy.

Thus, the 24 elders could express the so desired unity as representation of both northern

kingdom (Israel) and southern kingdom (Judah) into a single nation commanded by God (e.g.

Revelation 4:4 The elders were around the throne). This may function as an assurance that the

8
Ibid.

9
Ibid, 53.

10
Ranko Stefanovic, La Revelacin de Jesucristo: Comentario del libro del Apocalipsis (Berrien Springs, MI:
Andrews University Press, 2013), 195-196.

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people of God is still self-governed by the religious leadership, which preserves the holiness of

Torah and rests ultimately on Gods will, and not by the imperial mandates imposed on to

them, as to inflict upon them guiltiness for refusing to obey manly ordinances.

Commitment to the Mosaic Law

Resistance to the pagan arrogance and fidelity to the will of God have characterized

both Jews and Christians through different situations in which their faith has been put to the

test. Revelation 14:12 says: Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the

commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. (Rev. 14:12 RSV) It is strange that John does not

mention the Greek no,moj omos law, which normally is referring to the Torah of Moses.

Rather John uses the term evvtolh, entol commandment, which can be translated as

precept or instruction11. Although the terms may sound similar, they depict different

things. It seems that the Greek entol is more general. In this, John finds in the ancient Jewish

exile the motive to illustrate the ongoing obedience. As Larry R. Helyer mentions:

Commitment to the Mosaic law as its basic constitution characterized post-exilic


Judaism. Controversy over the law would arise, but it would always be a question of the
interpretation of the law, not its binding authority. 12

While the Jewish ancestors of the nation were obedient to the law of Moses, the

believers of the time of John pledged allegiance to Jesus commandments. Actually, the

comparison becomes more reasonable when it is recognized the great ability of the nation to

11
Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson
Publishers, 1994), 1112.

12
Helyer, Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period, 35.

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survive because of the strong faith of its leaders. Yehud13 survived in the hands of courageous

men that were ready to make necessary sacrifices and hard decisions.14 For the Christian era, in

the First Century A.D., when the book of Revelation was created, these pious men can be

regarded as those who keep the faith of Jesus along with the commandments of God. They

believe, live and preach the gospel and that religious piety keeps the hope of the pursued alive.

Also, a despotic version of Hellenism forced many Jews to make a choice between their

ancestral traditions or the Hellenistic life style.15 Unfortunately, many Jews dropped their faith

along with their traditions. But many others stood firmly in their traditions.

From rurality to urbanity

The book of Revelation presents many contrasts. Among them, location is one of

importance, since it places both the characters of the drama and the reader in perspective of an

important shift along the reading. This is suggested in the following words:

An interesting stylistic trait of Revelation is its strong contrasts. These include contrasts
in conflict (e.g., God struggles against Satan, the saints against the followers of the
beast, the bride of Christ against the harlot Babylon), imagery (e.g., the Lamb and the
dragon, the beautiful but deceptive [deadly] harlot, the Lamb that is a Lion), actions
(e.g., the establishment of the new Jerusalem and the destruction of Babylon, Satan
being allowed to harm his own human followers but not the followers of the Lamb),
location (e.g., heaven and earth, land and sea) and time (i.e., time and eternity). These
contrasts vividly convey the sense that vast forces of good and evil are in conflict in this
world, and we cannot hope for stability until the day of Christs triumph.16

13
This is the Aramean name for the region of Judea, known before as Judah.

14
Helyer, Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period, 35.

15
Ibid, 113.

16
J.I. Packer, Merrill Chapin Tenney, and William White Jr., Nelsons Illustrated Manners and Customs of
the Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 364.

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Although the change is not presented explicitly through the book of Revelation, its

obviation might provide a clue to understand the shift from the earthly sphere to a celestial

urban setting. Revelation 21 presents the New Jerusalem as the city of God, where the saints

are welcomed after the great dangers experienced in the cosmic clash of the forces of good and

evil.

If studied against the Jewish exilic situation around the 6th Century B.C.E., it is possible

to find antecedents for such a change. The word of YHWH to his people, when they were kept

captives to the east, was to settle down and set about the business of earning a livelihood.17 It

is important to remember that God did not created cities in the primeval world, so few could

argue that to live there is a mere symbol or simply a disobedience. But in this context, the city

projects the best ideal from the perspective of a tragically experience with sin and its

consequences.

The geographical setting of the events that took place in Israel around the six century

B.C.E. and the ongoing situation of persecution against the Christians, imports an interesting

perspective of analogical character. Helyer expresses as follows:

Ironically, near the ancient site of Jericho, where Israels national history in the
Promised Land had begun so gloriously under Joshua centuries before (cf. Joshua 5-6)
the kingdom of Judah suffered its final defeat. Judah was no more.18

Although the shift from rural to urban setting takes the reader into a progressive

experience, it should be considered that this is real through the book of Revelation, but note

17
Ibid, 32.

18
Ibid, 28.

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that this is not that simply as it might appear in this research. It could be just an assumption,

but here the change from rural setting to urban setting might play a role in illustrating the

development of the apocalyptic events, delivering the people of God into its future.

Thus the apocalyptic society may appear as participating among the good and evil forces

in the cosmic battle. Fantastic wonders and extreme horrors fill the apocalyptic situation and it

provokes the readers imagination with a very high metaphorical and mythological language.19

Psychological trends in apocalyptic literature

In a highly developed literature, such as apocalyptic, the authors feeling and thought

shaped much of way the author himself portrayed what he saw into a single narrative to

compile different visionary experiences and make them appear so real. It is possible to note

sacred emotions, such as hope, gratitude, humility, awe, and reverence.20 Few scholars suggest

that the visionary process might be understood in some cases as hallucinations. Perhaps this is

true, or maybe not. Nevertheless, hallucinations are not necessarily psychopathological and

are not simply characteristic of organic deficiencies. What remains clear is that cultural and

social processes facilitate the reporting of imagery, whether or not it is defined as

hallucinatory.21

If understood against this valuable information, one might expect the author to be alone

in isolation, far from his loved ones, which is a facilitator of unanticipated and undesired

19
Stephan L. Cook, The Apocalyptic Literature (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 20.

20
Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill and Bernard Spilka, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach
(New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2009), 443.

21
Ibid, 314.

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imagery that can disrupt the activities.22 John was in Patmos alone. He suffered and probably

longed for help, but just deception was available for him. This was so until the first encounter

with Jesus (cf. Revelation 1). The need for prayer and meditation involve withdrawal from

external sensory attention, which may produce imagery that is religiously meaningful.23

This is someway the situation of John when writing the book of Revelation. The old man

has reached a horrible period for the believers in Jesus and now, because of his faith in Jesus

and the Word of God (cf. Revelation 1:9); he was in Patmos alone.

22
Ibid, 320-321.

23
Ibid.

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CHAPTER 2

RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND

Importance of the religious background for the understanding of the book of Revelation

One must remember that Scriptures are the product of a constant developing ancient

culture, such as the Ancient Israel. But more than mere letters, they claim to contain the

authority of God. In the case of the book of Revelation, the process is even more direct, since

while all the Bible was inspired (2 Timothy 3:16), not the whole was revealed. But the book of

Revelation is presented as the revelation of Jesus Christ (cf. Revelation 1:1). This must have

been the result of extreme experiences. John presents himself as being located at Patmos,

because of the Word of God. With highly probability he was sent as prisoner there by

Domitians mandate. In isolation, far from his loved ones, far from the churches of Asia Minor,

to whom he sends the letter to the seven churches, he experiments an extraordinary encounter

with his master Jesus, whose appearance now is not of a human aspect, but of a glorious

celestial prince.

When one gets into religious aspects of apocalypticism, one must know that actually the

whole process is impregnated with religion. Even more, the apocalyptic figure, the symbols,

the bizarre monsters, are just but literary tools for illustrate the religious situation in which the

prominence of God is still the rule for all events and the key for the big solution. Thus, this

apocalyptic literature is a special kind of writing that arose among the Jews and Christians to

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reveal certain mysteries about heaven and earth, humankind and God, angels and demons, the

life of the world today, and the world to come.24

The Jewish background of John serves as a proper start point to understand the religious

foundations upon which the apocalypticism of the book of Revelation is built. In other words,

the Christians apocalyptic writings were influenced, including the book of Revelation, by the

earlier Jewish apocalyptic writings, such as 1 and 2 Enoch, Jubilees, 2 Baruch, Assumption of

Moses, etc.25 The Christian apocalyptic writings are the counterparts of the Jewish apocalyptic

writings and the purpose might have been the same, though for different people and epochs. If

this is true, these writings must be studied carefully taking in consideration the literary

characteristics and how they express the reality behind the text. It needs to be remembered

that the reality did not emerged from the book of Revelation. The book emerged from the

reality of the end of the first century A.D. persecution times.

Religious factors

Those apocalyptic writings arouse then no to build faith, but to sustain it. Among the

general characteristics of this type of literature are visions, symbolism, pseudonymous

authorship, ethical messages, the presence of angels as part of revelatory system and universal

implications. Surely there are other characteristics to mention, but these ones are the most

commonly mentioned. Some of these represent part of the religious experience of the

prophet. Many could classify those experiences as ecstasies or hallucinations. But as far we it

24
Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds., Nelsons New
Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995).

25
Ibid.

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has been considered these possibilities, it has been argued above, in the last chapter that even

if such visionary experiences are considered hallucinations, there is no empirical proof to state

that it is a psychopathological problem or deficiency.

If, in fact, the search for the sacred is a defining feature of religion and spirituality, as

suggested by many, then we might expect such sacred emotions [hope, reverence, gratitude,

humility, awe]26 to be generated when the sacred is encountered.27 As it is clearly seen all

through the book of Revelation, John is found by God alone in an island and the encounter

turns to be a visionary experience. Sometimes, Johns reaction evokes reverence and gratitude.

Other times, perhaps most of the time along the book, the hope stands as an essential tool to

sustain John and the rest of the church and encourage them to have faith despite the difficult

situations they are passing through. As the Jewish people, the Christians might have rallied

around the notion that Gods kingdom was going to prevail rather the circumstances were

favorable or non-favorable for them.28

Immortality and apocalyptic literature

One of the major hopes for many believers is to experience immortality. In fact, many

people have understood life and death in different ways. There exist different types of

immortalities, such as nature immortality, creative immortality, biological immortality,

26
These specifications have been added so the reader can understand what the quote is talking about.

27
Ralph W. Hood, Jr., Peter C. Hill and Bernard Spilka, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach
(New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2009), 443.

28
Larry R. Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament
Students (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 30.

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experiential transcendence and theological immortality.29 This last one is of the interest of this

study. The theological immortality or how it has been called as well religious immortality

stresses spiritual attachment, implying the triumph of spirit over bodily death.30 The religious

immortality is perceived in Revelation 21:4, where it is written: he will wipe away every tear

from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain

any more, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:4 RSV)

Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet

The protagonist of the Christian religion, Jesus, was born in Judaism. Hence he knew

their Sacred Scriptures, among which there could be found the Pentateuch, the Writings and

the Prophets. It is not strange then, that Jesus, in many occasions, quoted the words of the

hagiographers of Israel. Also the gospels present that Jesus began his public life by accepting

the baptism that was being perform by his cousin John. This shows that by being baptized by

John, Jesus was subscribing himself to Johns eschatological message.31 This same Jesus

appears in the book of Revelation as the main focus of the book, thus making the book of

Revelation a presentation, whose eschatological portions must be understood through the real

mirror of proper interpretation, which is Jesus himself. Therefore, John must have had the

opportunity to study the visions he received through the lens of Christological understanding.

Religion attacks the believers

29
Hood, Jr., Hill and Spilka, The Psychology of Religion, 186-187.

30
Ibid.

31
Frederick J. Murphy, Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction (Grand
Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 287.

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When a Jew reads the book of Revelation, whether being a believer in Jesus or not, he

can perceive a correspondence between the post-exilic times for the Jews under the attack of

Antiochus Epiphanes IV and the antichrist of which the New Testament talks. Revelation 13:17

portraits this situation, when it says so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that

is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. (Rev. 13:17 RSV) The names in the Bible

are understood as to express the identity of a person, or even the identity of the Israelite God,

better known as YHWH or the Lord in relation with his people through the covenant.

To bear the mark of the name of the beast that Revelation 13 describes is to bear its

identity, by being as it is. Surely, anyone who compromises himself/herself with the work that

beast carries out with spectacular milieu, bears the name of the beast. For the Jewish-Christian

believers of the first century A.D., this work was but a reverberation of Antiochus Epiphanes IV

horrible threat against Israels religion.

Of course, another religion was trying to be implemented, to wit, the Hellenistic

philosophy and lifestyle among the Jews. Alike, many Christians refused to praise the emperor

or his gods, hence they were taken as atheists, and thrown unto the lions and burnt publicly.

Again it is possible to discern in the book of Revelation a similitude with the second century

B.C.E., the last half of the Intertestamental period.

Revelation 12:7 presents the archangel Michael as the winner of the battle between the

dragon and Gods forces. Again, this could be a reverberation of the work of the Maccabees

against Antiochus Epiphanes IV, when they defeated him and got him out from their land.

However, such an interpretation must be taken as an alternative approach to the text, but it

must be submitted to questioning, since not every detail from both situations may engage

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perfectly, especially because of the nature of the events. While the event of the Maccabees

revolt against Antiochus IV is taken as history, the story of the battle of Michael against the

dragon seems more like a tale or a myth.

Angels and demons in apocalyptic literature

The most important angelical figure in the book of Revelation might be the archangel

Michael. George A. Barton analyzed the appearance of angelic beings in apocalyptic literature

and found that Michael is one of the four angels of the throne, and the guardian angel of

Israel.32 Other angels, such as Gabriel (cf. Daniel 8) appear in visions to prophets a lot of time

before the second century B.C.E., as in the time of the Persian period, when the prophet Daniel

received the vision of the sheep and the goat.

It can be suggested that the dragon of Revelation 12 may represent Semyaza the

serpent, present in the Ethiopian version of Enoch, although Revelation itself identifies it as the

evil or Satan, according with the early Christian tradition, rooted in late Jewish concept of evil

forces.

Apparently, angelic figures, that appear to explain visions to the seers in the apocalyptic

visions, serve as figures of hope, since they can explain, by the power given unto them by the

Creator, what humans cannot explain. Therefore the human can feel more comfortable,

though not everything has been explain unto him. In this case, angels function as supportive

for human troubles. They talk when human is striving for understand, at risk to lose the last bit

of hope.

32
George A. Barton, The Origin of the Names of Angels and Demons in the Extra-Canonical Apocalyptic
Literature to 100 A.D., Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 31, No. 4 (1912): 157.

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CONCLUSION

When understood against a social and religious background, the book of Revelation, as

an apocalyptic writing, appears as a literary masterpiece, and indeed it is. No one could never

imagined such existential truths to be expressed in such a manner. Thus it can be said: it was

inspired by God. There are many reasons to believe that John did not have everything to create

an apocalypse in the book of Revelation, but his own experiences and the ongoing events. All

the scenes present at the book express the relation between John and his contemporary world,

his fears, his hopes, his worldview and the everlasting gospel he believed in. Many can debate

about the interpretation of the symbols, the history behind its stories and tales, the spirit

behind the creation of such an amazing book, but no one can negate the impact of the book of

Revelation through all the centuries that have passed until today, when many have lost hope,

but when they read this amazing book, the hope reborn in their hearts.

Therefore, the social-religious mindset of John will help us to place us in his place and

feel his fears and then feel the hope resting upon the victory of Jesus.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barton, George A. The Origin of the Names of Angels and Demons in the Extra-Canonical
Apocalyptic Literature to 100 A.D. Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 31, No. 4 (1912):
156-167.
Cook, Stephan L. The Apocalyptic Literature. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003.
Doukhan, Jacques B. Secretos del Apocalipsis: Un Vistazo Judo al Apocalipsis. Doral, FL:
Asociacin Publicaodra Interamericana, 2008.
Free, Joseph P. and Howard F. Vos. Archaeology and Bible History. Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, 1992.
Helyer, Larry R. Exploring Jewish Literature pf the Second Temple Period: A Guide of New
Testament Students. Downers Frove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Hood, Jr., Ralph W., Peter C. Hill and Bernard Spilka. The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical
Approach (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2009.
Murphy, Frederick J. Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction.
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.
Packer, J.I., Merrill Chapin Tenney, and William White Jr. Nelsons Illustrated Manners and
Customs of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997.
Youngblood, Ronald F., F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds. Nelsons
New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995.
Spicq, Ceslas and James D. Ernest. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Peabody, MA:
Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.

Stefanovic, Ranko. La Revelacin de Jesucristo: Comentario del libro del Apocalipsis. Berrien
Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2013.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New
Testament). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
What is Historiography?.
http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/writing/history/assignments/historiographic.html (April 3,
2017).
Why Study History?. https://history.hanover.edu/why.php (April 3, 2017).

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