Elusive Allusions in the Apocalypse: Two Decades of Research into John’s Use of the Old Testament by Jon Paulien

, Andrews University
The essay focuses on the author’s two decades of research into the allusive use of the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation. Its value for the overall theme of the volume lies in issues of method and hermeneutics rather than in a focus on the unique situation of the Epistles. The author’s dissertation focused on the distinction between allusions and echos and the criteria by which an interpreter can distinguish the two. He challenged scholarship toward a more careful analysis of words, themes and structures and to be more systematic in laying out the evidence for affirming or denying John’s allusive use of previous literature in specific instances. While there will always be an element of subjectivity in assessing allusions, judgments should be grounded in the best available evidence. The author has also been involved in discussions regarding the Hebrew cultus in Revelation and more recent debates over authorial intention and reader response. The essay concludes with five proposals to help guide ongoing work in the intertextuality of the Epistles.

While this essay is focused on the Apocalypse, my purpose is to outline two decades of my own research in how New Testament writers make allusive use of the Old Testament. The value of the essay for this volume lies more in issues of method and hermeneutics than in any focus on the unique situation of the Epistles.

The Dissertation and Reactions I was first driven to consider issues of intertexuality by my interest in working on the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse for my doctoral dissertation.1 The seven trumpets (Rev. 8:2 11:18) are bewildering in their imagery. They have been the object of little scholarly attention, and Jon Paulien, “Allusions, Exegetical Method, and the Interpretation of Revelation 8:7-12.” (Ph.D. dissertation, Andrews University, 1987). The chair of the dissertation committee was Kenneth Strand, the external examiner was Adela Yarbro Collins. 1

what attention has been given to them has led to little consensus regarding their purpose or meaning. I quickly ascertained that if I wished to make a contribution to understanding of the trumpets, I would need to give careful attention to the detection and assessment of John’s allusions to the Old Testament. The results of my five years of research were published in 1988 in the form of a book, Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets, and two scholarly articles.2 What I discovered in my research was the haphazard way in which allusions to the Old Testament were cited in commentaries, lists of allusions, and even critical articles on the Book of Revelation.3 Among the defects I noted at that time were the lack of systematic search for possible allusions, a casualness in laying out the evidence upon which allusions were listed, and the lack of clear distinctions between allusions and echos. The work of Greg Beale, in particular, stood out as an exception up to that point.4 In my dissertation and the two spinoff articles, I challenged scholarship toward more careful analysis on the basis of words, themes and structures. I invited classification of potential allusions in relation to the relative probability of authorial intention. I encouraged making a clear Jon Paulien, Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets: Literary Allusions and the Interpretation of Revelation 8:7-12, Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series, volume 11 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1988); idem, “Elusive Allusions: The Problematic Use of the OT in Revelation.” Biblical Research 33 (1988): 37-53; idem, “Recent Developments in the Study of the Book of Revelation.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 26 (2, 1988):159-170. See the evidence laid out in Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets (121-154) and Jon Paulien, “Criteria and Assessment of Allusions to the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation,” in Studies in the Book of Revelation, edited by Steve Moyise (Edinburgh and New York: T & T Clark, 2001), 113-129. G. K. Beale, The Use of Daniel in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature and in the Revelation of St. John (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984).
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distinction between allusions (where the author’s intention is reasonably clear) and echos (where it is unlikely or non-existent). I invited future authors to be more systematic in laying out their evidence for affirming or denying John’s allusive use of previous literature. While all four challenges are important, I was particularly concerned that scholars of Revelation clearly distinguish between allusions and echoes when they cite parallels to the Old Testament in Revelation. Ironically, my own intention for the dissertation has not been clearly understood. Beale’s review of Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets5 and his restatement in the later John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation6 both exhibit his understanding that the concept of “echo” was not clearly explained in my dissertation. He felt that I gave echoes too much weight in my interpretation of Rev. 8:7-12, and that I, in practice, treat them the same as the intentional allusions I identify.7 I would continue to argue, however, that echoes are not of lower value than allusions in interpretation, they simply need to be handled differently. Echoes are an important window into John’s use of apocalyptic symbolism. Where he uses a term or a symbol in harmony with consistent usage in the Old Testament and Early Jewish literature, we have gained a clearer understanding of what his words mean. By echoing the language of the Old Testament, however, G. K. Beale, review of Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets by Jon Paulien (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1988) in Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992): 358-361. G. K. Beale, John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, volume 166, Stanley E. Porter, executive editor (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 19-21.
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Beale, John’s Use, 20.


John was not directing the reader to import elements of the OT context in which that language occurs. The difference between myself and Beale is that he would like to limit the meaning of John’s echoes to the way they are used in passages to which John clearly alludes. I, on the other hand, argue that echoes come to John not out of his reading of the Old Testament, but “in the air” of the environment in which he lived (which included knowledge of how words are used in the Old Testament).8 John was not conscious of specific Old Testament usages when he echoed the language of the Old Testament. Usages outside of the contexts he alludes to, therefore, could also be helpful in our quest to understand his intention. Beate Kowalski, in her Habilitationsschrift,9 highlights the five categories in which I place proposed allusions to the Old Testament in Revelation.10 She argues that the categories are too subjective and imprecise. I would respond that both the subjectivism and the imprecision were deliberate. The assessment of an ancient author’s intention with regard to allusions will always be an exercise in probability. There will always be an element of art in the process as well as science. Kowalski is, perhaps, a bit more optimistic than I am that one can offer a final word with regard to allusions. Helpful to my understanding of echoes have been the works of John Hollander (The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981]) and Richard Hays (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). Beate Kowalski, Die Rezeption des Propheten Ezechiel in der Offenbarung des Johannes, Stuttgarter Biblische Beiträge, volume 52 (Stuttgart: Katholische Bibelwerk, 2004), 57-59. Certain allusions, probable allusions, possible allusions, uncertain allusions and nonallusions. 4
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What I was calling for in my dissertation was 1) a clear sense of the distinction between allusions and echoes and 2) the need for scholars to be very open about the evidence and the process upon which they assess the probability that John (or any NT writer) is making a direct allusion to a prior text. What is ironic to me it this. While Kowalski may not have picked up on my primary purposes in the dissertation (since Beale didn’t either, the fault must be mine more than hers), her Habilitationsschrift is the best example in print of exactly the method I was calling for in my dissertation. She canvasses all major predecessors for possible allusions to the OT in Revelation. She uses tools like Bible Works for Windows to discover possibilities that have not yet appeared in the literature. She assesses all of these possibilities in terms of words, themes and structures, utilizing both the Greek and the Hebrew of the OT. She is completely open about the grounds upon which she decides when John is alluding to the OT and when he is not. In my mind her book is the state of the art on assessment of allusions in biblical studies and her method should be a helpful starting point for work on the intertextuality of the epistles.

The Hebrew Cultus and the Apocalypse In the early 1990s I became interested in the way the Hebrew cultus of sanctuaries and sacrifices plays into the way John chose to express his visions. I offered a paper on the subject at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 199011 and published a revised version in Andrews University Seminary Studies.12 I argued in the article that John has a systematic Jon Paulien, “The Hebrew Cultus and the Plot of the Apocalypse,” a paper presented to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at New Orleans, November 18-21, 1990. Jon Paulien, “The Role of the Hebrew Cultus, Sanctuary, and Temple in the Plot and Structure of the Book of Revelation.” Andrews University Seminary Studies 33 (2, 1995): 2455
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intention for the way in which he utilizes OT cultic imagery in the introductions to the various visions of the Apocalypse.13 John is also conscious of the interplay between Tamid and Yom Kippur, and seems to build somewhat on the annual cycle of feast days.14 Work in this area has been continued by Robert Briggs15 and others.16

Beyond Authorial Intention In the middle of the 1990s, a new development in understanding of the Apocalypse’s use of the Old Testament arrived with the work of Steve Moyise.17 Building on the work of Thomas 264. This appears to be an original contribution, based loosely on the structural work of Kenneth Strand. Note his work in the following articles: “Chiastic Structure and Some Motifs in the Book of Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 16 (1978): 401-408; “The Eight Basic Visions in the Book of Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 25 (1987): 107121; Interpreting the Book of Revelation, (Worthington, OH: Ann Arbor Publishers, 1976); The Open Gates of Heaven, 2nd edition (Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Publishers, 1972); “The ‘Victorious-Introduction’ Scenes in the Visions in the Book of Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 25 (1987): 267-288. The most significant of these works for my article was the one entitled “The Eight Basic Visions in the Book of Revelation.” This part of the article exhibited considerable dependance on the insights of D. T. Niles (As Seeing the Invisible [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961] ) and Michael Goulder (“The Apocalypse as an Annual Cycle of Prophecies,” New Testament Studies 27 [1981]:342-367). Robert A. Briggs, Jewish Temple Imagery in the Book of Revelation, Studies in Biblical Literature, 10, Hemchand Gossai, general editor (NY: Peter Lang, 1999). John and Gloria Ben-Daniel, The Apocalypse in the Light of the Temple: A New Approach to the Book of Revelation (Jerusalem: Beit Yochanan, 2003); G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology, 16, edited by D. A. Carson (Downer’s Grove: Apollos/InterVarsity Press, 2004). Steve Moyise, The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, 115, Stanley E. Porter, executive editor (Sheffield: 6
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Greene,18 Moyise argues that the ambiguity of allusion argues for a more open approach to the subject than the limits of authorial intention.19 Moyise provided the first serious attempt to apply the literary perspective of intertextuality and reader response to the use of the Old Testament in Revelation. Moyise’ book precipitated a hot debate with Beale over the relative merits of authorial intention and reader response.20 I summarized the debate between Beale and Moyise in a 2001 article, to which each published a reply.21 It is difficult to say how much the debate is semantic or real. Beale fears that the inroads of reader response intertextuality will result in the rebirth of allegory, which he understands as the “creation of meaning” when interpreting texts. Moyise, on the other hand, also fears allegory, but sees the danger as interpreters picking and choosing textual evidence that fits their presuppositional lense and then declaring their understanding the author’s intention. Sheffield Academic Press, 1995). Thomas M. Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
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Evidence for this ambiguity can be found in the works cited in footnote 3.

Beale, John’s Use, 41-59; Steve Moyise, “The Old Testament in the New: A Reply to Greg Beale,” Irish Biblical Studies 21 (May, 1999):54-58; G. K. Beale, “Questions of Authorial Intent, Epistemology, and Presuppositions and Their Bearing on the Study of The Old Testament in the New: a Rejoinder to Steve Moyise,” Irish Biblical Studies. 21 (1999): 152-180; Steve Moyise, “Intertextuality and the Study of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” in The Old Testament in the New Testament: Essays in Honour of J. L. North, JSNTSup 189, edited by Steve Moyise (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 16-40. Jon Paulien, “Dreading the Whirlwind: Intertextuality and the Use of the Old Testament in Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 39 (1, 2001): 5-22; G. K. Beale, “A Response to Jon Paulien on the Use of the Old Testament in Revelation, Andrews University Seminary Studies 39 (1, 2001): 23-34; and Steven Moyise, “Authorial Intention and the Book of Revelation,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 39 (1, 2001): 34-40.



Beale is afraid that in abandoning the quest for the author’s intention, interpreters will become mired in a sea of subjectivity where any interpretation of the text will be of equal validity. Moyise, on the other hand, is concerned about arbitrary and totalizing interpretations based on overconfidence in having attained the author’s authoritative intention. It strikes me that this is one of those times when both sides are right, at least in part.

Aune and Beale Finally, in the late 1990s, came the publication of the two largest commentaries on Revelation in the history of the English language, those by David Aune and Greg Beale.22 In 2001 I reviewed both commentaries with the intent of assessing the degree to which their respective assessments of John’s allusions to the Old Testament were sound.23 Aune and Beale were both operating from a traditional stance of seeking John’s own intention with regard to OT parallels. Moyise’ work came too late to be largely reflected in these massive volumes.24 I noted that Beale, in selected test passages, sees twice as many certain or probable allusions to the Old Testament as Aune. Given the weakness of Aune’s approach,25 Beale’s David E. Aune, Revelation, 3 vols., Word Biblical Commentary, vols. 52a-c, edited by David A. Hubbard, Glenn W. Barker, and Bruce M. Metzger (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997, and Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998); G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999).
23 22

Jon Paulien, “Criteria and Assessment,” 113-129.

Aune does not cite Moyise at all, while Beale briefly summarizes his position on pages 97-99 of The Book of Revelation. Cf. Jon Paulien, “The Book of Revelation and the Old Testament: Thoughts on David Aune’s Approach,” Biblical Research 43 (1998), 61-69. 8


expanded list seems the result of more careful attention to the evidence rather than overly generous assessments of probability. Until Kowalski came along, Beale’s attention to detail was the gold standard among scholars interested in John’s use of the Old Testament. His commentary continues to be the best reference for interpreters seeking to understand this phenomenon from the perspective of authorial intention.

Conclusion and Prospect What impact should these two decades of research have on the future study of the intertextuality of the epistles? What methodological foundations should we be building on? For starters, it is important that students of the New Testament epistles have a common approach to the base of evidence. While there will always be some uncertainty regarding a New Testament author’s intention, interpretation requires that we make an effort gain as much certainty as is reasonably possible. So I would suggest the following principles. 1) We should make a strong effort to categorize references to the Old Testament into four groups: citations, quotations, allusions and echos. With citations and quotations, we are certain that an author had a specific previous text in mind. With allusion, we are reasonably certain of the same. With an echo, we are reasonably certain that there is no intention on the part of the author to refer the reader to a particular pretext. The first two categories are fairly easy to determine, the latter two require more rigorous effort. Results will be compromised if an author’s intention to allude to the OT is ignored or if intention is seen where it was not intended. The methodology of Kowalski strikes me as foundational for making these categorizations. The intertextual judgments we make need to be 9

grounded in rigorous attention to the detailed evidence of words, themes and structures. I also agree with my critics (Beale and Kowalski) that further work on the function and significance of echos is needed. 2) While Kowalski and others may wish to define matters differently than I have done, it would be helpful for us to move toward consistent terminology in our judgments regarding an author’s allusions to the OT.26 Much confusion could be avoided by the consistent adoption of terminology such as Probable Allusion, Possible Allusion and Echo. While Beale has done superior work on the OT allusions in Revelation, his commentary frequently leaves the reader confused as to exactly what level of certainty he ascribes to potential allusions.27 3) In assessing allusions it seems wise to err on the side of caution, to apply a bias toward minimalism. Interpretation is harmed less by missing the occasional allusion than by the confident application of allusions that do not exist. As Beale pointed out in his JBL review,28 my own early work on the subject suffered from a tendency to see more allusions than there actually were. This can lead to a distortion of the text and its author’s intention. While I have repeatedly lauded Kowalski’s work as foundational for our efforts, my initial impression is that she too may be a bit generous in her assessments of John’s allusions to Ezekiel. 4) An excellent starting point for work on the use of the Old Testament in the New This point is made in a general way by James E. West in his review of G. K. Beale, John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation, in Review of Biblical Literature found at www.bookreviews.org/Reviews/1850758948.
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Paulien, “Criteria and Assessment,” 126-127. G. K. Beale, Review of Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets, 358-361.



Testament epistles would be to create a weighted listing29 of the best efforts of prior scholarship in the area of allusions.30 Proposed allusions could be listed as certain, probable, or possible based on the extent of usage in earlier scholarly literature, such as the margins in Nestle-Aland and the suggestions made in major commentaries for each epistle. While such a weighted listing will not prove to be correct in every instance, it will have pruned away a plethora of casual or mistaken connections and point interpreters to a relatively “educated” starting point for individual work. The weighted listing would provide a solid starting point for evaluation. 5) As a group we will want to grant that literary critics such as Moyise have a solid point. Certainty regarding an author’s intention will remain somewhat elusive in spite of our best efforts. The multivalent and ambiguous nature of allusion invites reader involvement in the process of interpretation.31 When we speak of intertexuality I believe we should involve all three common definitions in our operating process.32 According to Moyise, the first type of intertextuality is “intertextual echo.” Grounded in the work of Richard Hays,33 this approach demonstrates that a particular allusion or echo can be By “weighted listing” I mean accumulating a list of the suggested allusions in previous scholarship with the assumption that collective wisdom is greater than the efforts of an individual scholar. Greater weight is given, therefore, to the suggested allusions that are cited by at least a majority of the secondary sources examined. This would function along the lines of Richard Hays’ sixth criterion of “history of interpretation.” Hays, Echoes of Scripture in Paul, 31. An example of such a weighted listing is found in my Decoding Revelation’s Trumpets, 130-154.
31 30 29

Steve Moyise, The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation, 131-146.

The following is based on the summary by Steve Moyise, “Intertextuality and the Study of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” 16-18.


Echoes of Scripture in Paul. 11

more important to the meaning of a text than its minor role in the wording might indicate. The second category Moyise proposes is “dialogical intertextuality.” In this category the interaction between text and subtext operates in both directions. The third proposed category is “postmodern intertextuality.” Postmodern intertextuality seeks to demonstrate that the process of tracing the interactions between texts is inherently unstable. While meaning can result from interpretation, it only happens when some portions of the evidence are privileged and other portions are ignored. While Beale would appear to be comfortable with the first two categories,34 it is the third that troubles him because it leaves open the possibility that the interpreter might “create” meaning. To be fair to each other I think we should always be open about which definition we are operating under. Nearly all of my work over the last two decades has centered on the first definition. I have been interested in how John’s intentional use of the Old Testament enlightens our understanding of the meaning and purpose of his book. Work along the lines of the other two definitions also interests me, but we will want to avoid the confusion that will come if we are not candid with each other about our approach and its effect on our results. Work on the basis of these five suggestions cannot help but direct future work on the intertextuality of the epistles in a more rigorous and productive direction. The end result will be a better understanding of both the original authors’ intentions and of the body of evidence that can evoke more stimulating contemporary readings of these texts. According to Moyise, “Intertextuality and the Study of the Old Testament in the New Testament,” 31.


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