The Elusive Macrostructure of the Apocalypse of John

The Complex Literary Arrangement of an Open Text

by Roman Mach (Author)
©2016 Thesis 429 Pages
Series: Friedensauer Schriftenreihe, Volume 13


The author applies Umberto Eco’s literary theory of the open work to the perennial problem of the literary macrostructure of the Apocalypse. Revisiting the complexities of its genre, intertextuality, language and communication, he cumulatively traces all indications of literary openness in Revelation. Then the book discusses the extraordinarily diverse scholarly approaches and analyses from this viewpoint. As a result, John’s multiple and varied structural signals are recognised as demonstrably clustered within specific subsections – complex transitions creating a specifically open literary arrangement. More generally, the wider concept of literary openness is offered as a theoretical framework applicable to the specific complexities of some apocalyptic writings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 The point of departure
  • 1.2 The suspicion of literary openness
  • 1.2.1 Revelation as “the open work” in other authors’ views
  • 1.3 The literary transmission of meaning
  • 1.3.1 Author, text, context, reader
  • Meaning and significances?
  • 1.3.2 Our accepted interpretative approach
  • 1.3.3 The literary view of texts
  • 1.3.4 Literary criticism in biblical studies
  • On the (potentially) negative side
  • 1.4 Eco’s theory of the open work among other interpretative approaches
  • 1.4.1 The basis: The transmission of meaning
  • 1.4.2 Our selective use of Eco’s theory
  • 1.5 General openness versus specific openness of literary texts
  • 1.5.1 The poetic field of meaning in literary texts
  • 1.5.2 Clarifying the wider terminology of ‘openness’
  • 1.5.3 The result of deliberate opening: specific ambiguity
  • 1.6 The nature of the open work
  • 1.6.1 The nature of the open work as defined by Umberto Eco
  • Specific poetic language
  • The open network of interrelations
  • Eco’s definition
  • The role of intertextuality
  • 1.6.2 Order versus disorder: The arrangement of the open work
  • Information and interpretative uncertainty
  • Information and order
  • 1.7 Biblical examples of opening strategies
  • 1.7.1 The newer literary view of metaphor
  • 1.7.2 The recent literary view of parables
  • 1.7.3 Series of literary units in ‘open’ mutual relationships
  • 1.7.4 Specific dimensions of narrative language
  • 1.8 Introduction proper
  • 2 Genre Analysis
  • 2.1 The purpose and legitimacy of a fresh discussion
  • 2.2 Revelation as Apocalyptic
  • 2.2.1 The former situation in the field
  • 2.2.2 Some preliminary cautions
  • 2.2.3 The SBL Genres Project and the paradigmatic definition
  • The Apocalypse Group and their paradigmatic approach
  • Important criticism
  • The resultant applicability of the master-paradigm
  • 2.2.4 Important supplements to the paradigmatic definition
  • 2.2.5 The Apocalypse among other apocalypses: The persistent difficulties
  • The term “ἀποκάλυψις” and the book’s prophetic aspect
  • Morton Smith on the occurrence of the terms “ἀποκάλυπτω” and “ἀποκάλυψις”
  • Fiorenza: Apokalypsis Iēsou Christou and prophecy in the Pauline context
  • The Apocalypse of John versus the paradigmatic definition
  • The old classic: Pseudonymity and pseudoprophecy
  • Other remarkable differences between Revelation and other apocalypses
  • Important similarities
  • John’s Apocalypse as a generic paradigm?
  • 2.2.6 The limitations of genre classification: important methodological restrictions
  • 2.2.7 A reader-oriented view of the Apocalypse’s genre
  • Numerous literary forms and their unusual sequence in Revelation
  • Linton and the limitations of the genre definition
  • The apocalyptic genre: a highly limited concept?
  • Revelation: A text difficult to classify?
  • The problem of selecting the texts and its implications
  • 2.2.8 Conclusions
  • 2.3 Revelation as prophecy
  • 2.3.1 The biblical-prophetic roots of apocalypticism
  • 2.3.2 Apocalyptic or/and classical-prophetic?
  • 2.3.3 Fiorenza: Revelation and early Christian prophecy
  • 2.3.4 The answer: Between prophetic and apocalyptic
  • 2.4 Revelation as letter
  • 2.4.1 The wider literary context
  • 2.4.2 The presence of the letter form in the book
  • 2.4.3 Imitation of Paul?
  • 2.4.4 Conclusions
  • 2.5 Three major genres and the implied field of communication
  • 2.5.1 Contextual studies: John’s referential power
  • 2.5.2 The indicated extent of communication
  • 2.6 The hidden Wisdom in Revelation
  • 2.6.1 Tracing the Wisdom tradition in apocalyptic writings
  • An example: “He who has an ear…”
  • 2.6.2 Adler and the apocalyptic esotericism
  • 2.6.3 Aune and “The Reveal/Conceal Dialectic”
  • 2.6.4 The revelatory experience of the reader and the arrangement of the text
  • 2.6.5 Conclusions
  • 2.7 The myth genre in Revelation
  • 2.7.1 The Greek mythos and its specific communication
  • 2.7.2 Prophetic roots, mythological components?
  • 2.7.3 The language of apocalypses: An important shift in scholarly approach
  • 2.7.4 The views of the resultant communication
  • 2.7.5 The type of myth present in Revelation
  • 2.7.6 The repetitive arrangement of mutually corresponding visions
  • 2.8 Revelation as narrative
  • 2.8.1 A dimension to be further explored
  • 2.8.2 Repeated narratives in the Apocalypse
  • 2.8.3 The narratives and the progression
  • 2.8.4 Conclusions
  • 2.9 Other influences: the literary context of John’s writing
  • 2.9.1 The NT pictures of the future: Revelation and parables
  • 2.9.2 Ancient authors could write: Paratactic literature
  • 2.9.3 Ancient audience could understand: Greek oratory
  • The rhetorical level of John’s day
  • The major types of classical oratory
  • The structure of epideictic rhetoric
  • Conclusions
  • 2.9.4 Liturgy and ritual
  • The liturgical dimension
  • The ritual liminality
  • Conclusions
  • 2.9.5 Greek drama
  • A view largely abandoned
  • The points of contact
  • 2.10 The major implications of the genre analysis
  • 2.10.1 The complexity of genre in general: A mixtum compositum?
  • 2.10.2 Specific generic complexity: Cumulative indications of literary openness
  • 3 Other dimensions of literary openness in Revelation
  • 3.1 The intertextual dimension
  • 3.1.1 The types of John’s use of the OT
  • 3.1.2 The Nature and Extent of John’s Intertextuality
  • The extent of John’s allusions
  • The nature of John’s allusions
  • Beale and the issue of intentionality
  • John’s Specific OT Sources
  • John’s OT source texts: Hebrew and Aramaic, or the LXX?
  • Fekkes on John’s methods of interpretation
  • Mythological allusions
  • Conclusions
  • 3.1.3 The function of John’s OT allusions
  • The important progress of the recent decades
  • Is John’s intertextual language primarily poetic?
  • The context: Allusive intertextuality in other relevant writings
  • Dimant on the use of the OT in Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha
  • Rusam on imitation of the OT in Luke
  • Moyise’s approach: The dialogical intertextuality
  • Moyise and the dialogical tension in Revelation: the evidence
  • Is the dialogical tension deliberate?
  • Dialogical intertextuality elsewhere: Hays and the echo in Paul
  • 3.1.4 Summary and conclusions
  • An important dimension of the book’s literary openness
  • An example of intertextual (and contextual) openness: The response of the enemies in Rev 11:13
  • The corollaries for reading summarised
  • 3.2 The language dimension: OT allusions and the anomalies in John’s Greek
  • 3.2.1 The basic interconnection
  • 3.2.2 Beale: Solecisms as John’s Stylistic Use of the OT Language
  • 3.2.3 Beale: Solecisms as Signals of Old Testament Allusions
  • 3.2.4 The intentionality of solecisms and their link with the OT as discussed by other authors
  • 3.2.5 Conclusions
  • The intentionality of John’s grammatical anomalies: “Grammatical openness”?
  • John’s “Figurative and Narrative Grammar”
  • 3.3 The field of communication
  • 3.3.1 The literary-functional field of Revelation
  • The oral context of the Apocalypse
  • The resultant communication
  • 3.3.2 The social setting and function of Revelation
  • Written in a crisis: real or perceived?
  • A prominent example of the “real crisis” view: Fiorenza
  • Yarbro Collins and the “perceived crisis” view
  • Thompson and the official persecution under Domitian: An important change of view
  • Conclusion: The resultant balance
  • 3.3.3 Fiorenza and two levels of communication in Revelation
  • Poetic ambiguity reduced to a rhetorical meaning?
  • Two ways of communication: Poetry and rhetoric only?
  • 3.3.4 Who wrote that way?
  • Learned authors
  • 3.3.5 Who read that way?
  • Two types of audience and setting: Is it legitimate?
  • Bauckham: elaborate referentiality indicates its readers
  • Early Christian prophets as learned and inspired interpreters
  • 3.3.6 Conclusion: The openness of communication
  • 3.4 Summary: Literary openness and its implications for literary arrangement
  • 3.4.1 Literary openness indicated on each of the observed levels
  • 3.4.2 Literary openness and the implied literary arrangement
  • Open texts, their structure, readers and interpretation
  • Closed texts, their rules, readers and interpretation
  • 3.4.3 The structural signposts: What are we looking for?
  • 3.4.4 What type of labyrinth are we going to go through?
  • 4 The existing approaches to the macrostructure of the Apocalypse
  • 4.1 Introduction
  • 4.2 Intertextuality and the book’s literary structure
  • 4.2.1 The basic terminology
  • 4.2.2 Intertextuality and microstructure
  • The most important examples
  • An extra-canonical pattern: The Combat Myth in Rev 12
  • Summary and conclusions
  • 4.2.3 Intertextuality and macrostructure
  • The typical candidate: Ezekiel
  • Ezekiel summarised: A significant influence among other important ones
  • Another good candidate: Daniel
  • “The Daniel 2 marker”
  • Summary and conclusions
  • 4.3 The chiastic approach
  • 4.3.1 The chiastic awareness of John’s day
  • 4.3.2 Chiasmus on the macro-level?
  • 4.3.3 An example of a small chiasm in Revelation
  • 4.3.4 The large chiasm in Rev 17:1 – 22:5
  • 4.3.5 The chiastic proposals
  • The authors independent of Strand
  • Multiple patterns
  • An example: Rev 18
  • The authors dependent on Strand
  • 4.3.6 The problem of multiple short parallels between larger sections
  • 4.3.7 Redundant parallels?
  • 4.3.8 The recurrent ‘heavenly throne scenes’: the rhythm of John’s Revelation?
  • Noted by numerous authors
  • Looking for all of them: Seven distinct “scenes”
  • The “heavenly references” in Rev
  • The symmetrical links between the Heavenly scenes in Rev 4–22: A chart
  • 4.3.9 The major Christological motifs in Revelation
  • John’s Christology and the major narratives in Revelation
  • The indicated significance of the Christological motifs
  • 4.3.10 The Motifs and the Scenes: their indicated structural functionality
  • 4.4 Phrases as structural markers
  • 4.4.1 Recurrent phrases in other apocalyptic writings
  • 4.4.2 The role of specific phrases in Rev 2–3
  • 4.4.3 Structuring or stylistic?
  • 4.4.4 A confusing sample: the phrase “καἰ εἰδον”
  • Yarbro Collins: The unnumbered septenaries based on “καἰ εἰδον”
  • R. J. Korner and “καἰ εἰδον”
  • 4.4.5 The exemplary case I: The phrase “ἐν πνεύματι”
  • The function of the phrase: The evidence
  • Summary
  • The distribution of the phrase: An overview
  • Recent criticism following from the “καἰ εἰδον” stereotype
  • 4.4.6 The exemplary case II: Two pairs of longer angelic phrases in Rev 17–22
  • Rev 17:1–3 with 21:9–10 and Rev 19:9–10 with 22:6–9
  • An overview of the parallel wordings as presented by Thomas
  • The introductory formulas
  • The concluding formulas
  • The concurrence of structuring devices
  • The locations of the phrases: An overview
  • 4.4.7 Other relevant phrases
  • “The Daniel 2 marker”
  • “Thunders, voices, lightnings, and an earthquake…”
  • “A great portent in heaven”
  • “And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice…”
  • “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying…”
  • “And I heard… a loud voice saying, ‘Write…’”
  • “The word of God and the testimony of Jesus”: A thematic marker?
  • 4.4.8 The difficult proposed representatives
  • Rev 1:19 – a time-related structuring phrase?
  • Korner: “After these I saw”, “And I saw” (the “vision blocks” and the “individual visions”)
  • “Μετὰ ταῦτα εἶδον” in Revelation
  • Between the regular and the variable
  • Korner: “The space/time referent”
  • The definition
  • The referent in several apocalyptic writings
  • Summary and conclusions
  • Rev 1:9–10 among other structure-related elements: An overview
  • 4.4.9 The representatives of the phrasal approach
  • A prominent integrative example: Richard Bauckham (1993)
  • 4.5 The septenary approach
  • 4.5.1 A prominent representative: Adela Yarbro Collins
  • The foundations of this approach
  • Bornkamm and the “two great halves”
  • The Babylon and New Jerusalem “appendices”
  • Farrer and the “sabbath-visions”
  • The contributions
  • 4.5.2 Other septenary authors in examples
  • 4.6 Another prominent example: E. Schüssler-Fiorenza
  • 4.6.1 The proposed pattern (1977, 1985) and its basis
  • 4.6.2 The scrolls and the definition of major parts
  • 4.6.3 The pattern of seven and other numerical patterns
  • 4.6.4 The Babylon and New Jerusalem visions
  • 4.6.5 The role of hymns
  • 4.6.6 The joining strategy: “Intercalation”
  • 4.6.7 The emphasis on joining in Revelation
  • 4.6.8 The genre and the overall symmetry
  • 4.6.9 The role of structuralism in Fiorenza’s approach
  • 4.6.10 Summary
  • 4.7 The linguistic approaches I: Structuralist
  • 4.7.1 Introduction
  • 4.7.2 The “universal categories” and their inevitable difficulties
  • 4.7.3 Language as an autonomous system?
  • 4.7.4 Methodological conclusions
  • 4.7.5 A radical representative: Gager
  • 4.7.6 An atypical representative: Ellul
  • The emphasis on interconnectedness and ‘movement’
  • Structuralist or literary?
  • Summary
  • 4.8 The linguistic approaches II: Text-linguistic
  • 4.9 The content-based approach
  • 4.9.1 Briefly: Swete, Wolber, and Allo
  • 4.9.2 Summary
  • 4.10 The non-linear views of the book’s progression
  • 4.11 The recent indications of an integrative approach
  • 4.12 Transitionality as reflected in other approaches
  • 4.12.1 The proposed views of John’s interconnecting strategy
  • Thompson: The stream of interconnected wholeness
  • Paulien: Duodirectionality
  • Fiorenza: Intercalation
  • Summary: Intercalations or transitions?
  • Yarbro Collins: Interlocking
  • Rev 1:9–3:22
  • Rev 8:3–5
  • Rev 15:2–4
  • Interlocks in wider context: Longenecker
  • Summary: Interlocking or more complex transitions?
  • Hongisto: multiple markers of (narrative) change, opposite dimensions
  • 4.12.2 Summary and conclusions: Indications of transitionality
  • 4.13 Summary and conclusions
  • 5 The open structure of Revelation
  • 5.1 The major dimensions of literary openness summarised
  • 5.1.1 From the unique language up to the genre
  • 5.1.2 The openness of relationships
  • 5.1.3 The level of literary structure: The opposing qualities
  • 5.1.4 The result: Composite transitions, open macro-relationships
  • 5.2 Doing it all at once: John’s “open” transitions
  • 5.2.1 The Heavenly scenes
  • 5.2.2 Clusters of structuring elements
  • Example 1: Transition VII in Rev 16: [15-] 17 – 17:3a without a Heavenly scene
  • Example 2: Transition II in Rev 3:21 – 4:11 with a Heavenly scene (Rev 4) and a Christological motif (Rev 5)
  • Example 3: Transition III in Rev 7:9 – 8:6 – a simpler case with a Heavenly scene
  • 5.2.3 The effect of John’s transitions: Openness of macrostructural relationships
  • 5.2.4 Intentional or haphazard?
  • 5.2.5 The web of intratextual relationships: Examples
  • Numerous small parallels: Christological Motif I (Rev 1:10b–20) and the Seven Letters
  • Numerous small parallels: Revelation 2–3 and Revelation 19–22
  • Numerous small parallels: The Prologue and the Epilogue
  • Structural parallels: The series of the Seven Seals and Seven Trumpets
  • A macrostructural interrelation
  • Conclusion
  • 5.3 Syntagmatic foregrounding on the level of literary structure?
  • 5.3.1 The automatized text
  • 5.3.2 Automatization versus foregrounding
  • 5.3.3 Paradigmatic foregrounding
  • 5.3.4 Syntagmatic foregrounding
  • 5.3.5 The interaction between paradigmatic and syntagmatic foregrounding
  • 5.3.6 The instances of syntagmatic foregrounding in Revelation
  • The sequence of literary forms and generic markers
  • Narrative elements repeated in unexpected context(s)
  • The missing narrative element
  • Other narrative subsections inserted: The Heavenly scenes
  • The structuring phenomena multiple, combined, and redundant: the recurrent phrases
  • 5.3.7 Other symptoms of deautomatization
  • 5.3.8 Deautomatization, openness, and the role of form in Revelation
  • Modern concepts and an ancient apocalyptic work: “The How”
  • The defining limitations of literary openness and deautomatization
  • Form and content in the Apocalypse of John
  • 5.4 John’s levels of transitions: the Christological motifs and the Heavenly scenes
  • 5.4.1 Example I: Christological motif I and the first explicit septenary in Revelation
  • The basic interrelations
  • The resultant pattern
  • The functionality of Christological motif I
  • Conclusions
  • 5.4.2 Example II: The combination of structuring devices in Rev 19–21
  • Transition VII (Rev 16: [15-] 17 – 17:3a) as a special case
  • 5.4.3 The implied levels: The major stories and their subdivisions
  • Level one: The Christological motifs
  • The definition and nature of the Motifs
  • Their role in the book’s progression
  • The proposed major stories
  • Level two: The Heavenly (throne) scenes
  • The definition and nature of the Scenes
  • Their role in the book’s progression
  • A methodological note
  • Two special agents: The interludes
  • 5.4.4 Christological motifs and Heavenly scenes: An overview
  • 5.5 A literary comparison: The structure of selected apocalypses
  • 5.5.1 A simpler example: 3 Baruch
  • Open and closed apocalypses?
  • 5.5.2 A more complex example: the canonical apocalypse of Daniel
  • Similar strategies of literary organization
  • The major strategies
  • Multiple genres
  • Methodological notes
  • Conclusions
  • 5.6 John’s Transitions summarised: The resultant arrangement
  • 5.6.1 The nature of the proposed arrangement
  • 5.6.2 A detailed overview of John’s literary transitions
  • 5.7 The primary corollaries for interpretation
  • 5.7.1 Not a conventionally closed arrangement
  • 5.7.2 What it reveals
  • 5.7.3 What it conceals
  • 5.7.4 The first implication: “The levels of reading”
  • 5.7.5 The second implication: The necessity to reduce the field of possibilities
  • 5.7.6 Interpretive contributions in examples
  • 5.7.7 Examples of ‘open’ readings on the observed levels
  • 6 Appendix. Integrating the ‘Stories’: A chart
  • 7 Bibliography
  • Abbreviations
  • Series Index

1   Introduction

The literary macrostructure of the Apocalypse represents a perennial problem related to a highly difficult text. A discussion of the existing scholarly proposals alone would require more space than a dissertation allows while the related discussions tend to be similarly extensive, as gradually reflected below. In sum, the diversity and overall extensiveness of the related approaches are exceptional. We do hope that such circumstances justify a longer and less typical introductory section.

1.1   The point of departure

The last decades have brought renewed scholarly interest in apocalyptic writings producing fresh, valuable, yet quite diverse contributions from this area of research including Revelation. Boring summarised the state of Revelation research up to 1999 suggesting that “Most introductory issues have been confirmed and nuanced”.1 The following discussions, however, clearly show that the introductory literary issues related to the Apocalypse have actually remained unresolved to a surprising degree. Even the issue of the apocalyptic genre itself remains remarkably open-ended, as demonstrated below.

More specifically, references to the enduring lack of scholarly consensus about the Apocalypse’s literary macrostructure keep appearing in the related studies like a refrain in spite of their exceptional number. This polyphony can be illustrated by the following line of authors exemplifying at the same time the wide existing diversity of approaches and proposals: Brütsch (19702), Gager (19753), ← 23 | 24 → Yarbro Collins (19764), Kempson (19825), Popkes (19836), Mazzaferri (19897), Fiorenza (19898), Guthrie (19909), McLean (199010), Brown (199711), Garrow (199712), Böcher (199813), Mounce (199814), Aune (199815), Bailey and Vander ← 24 | 25 → Broek (199216), Boring (199917), Beale (199918), Stefanovic (200219), Osborne (200220, 200421), Tavo (200522), or Bandy (200923). Some of the authors have explicitly pointed out the importance of the problem (Bailey and Vander Broek, 199224) and the need of a more extensive specialised study in this respect: so, for ← 25 | 26 → example, Mazzaferri (198925) or Bauckham (199326). Prigent has aptly summarised the perennial problem in his question whether one can “reasonably expect today to discover a structure that has remained elusive for so long, after so many attempts that critical review has always ended up rejecting?”27

Now, if there are almost as many proposed outlines as there are interpreters,28 so disparate as indicated above,29 another attempt may indeed easily degenerate “into a purely subjectivistic enterprise.”30 Our purpose is, however, somewhat wider. Instead of trying to propose another literary pattern for Revelation following from another structural analysis only, we are first going to ask why/how the book has resisted the efforts to recognise its literary arrangement so successfully, and why the existing proposals are so extraordinarily varied. Interestingly, when viewed as specific reader-responses, these highly diverse studies and analyses can be seen as indicating a specific literary nature and communication of the text under scrutiny. Our proposed answers will, therefore, be based on a wider analysis of the book’s literary nature.

More specifically, in the course of the same analysis we are going to verify a suspicion that, if reasonably demonstrable, could significantly change our view of the Apocalypse’s literary arrangement: the possible quality of intentional literary openness. Due to the specificity and complexity of this literary concept, it will be useful to devote some space to its introduction here in order to clarify the direction of our quest.

1.2   The suspicion of literary openness

The mentioned state of research supplemented with the Apocalypse’s resistance to scholarly analyses could easily be understood as a strong motivation for the “no macrostructural pattern” view of the problem. However, the more we observed ← 26 | 27 → the elaborate literary qualities and strategies present in the book, the more we perceived the need for another explanation corresponding better to this specific resistance. Second, the mentioned suspicion related to the concept of literary openness emerged in the course of the studies. Tracing the resonances between the most important literary dimensions of the Apocalypse and the logic and effects of literary openness, our suspicion slowly grew into a crucial question. This modern literary comparison for John’s unique ancient text gradually turned up to be an extremely useful complex literary concept capable of surprisingly good explanations. At the same time, however, the necessity of its plausible substantiation on the most important literary levels was becoming no less clear.

These two lines of argument, therefore, define the order of our following research, that is: whether literary openness is present in the book and what that means for its literary arrangement. The verification of the open literary quality requires adequate space, and we acknowledge the inevitably heuristic nature of this comparison.

Our chief source in this regard will be the literary theory of the open work as proposed by Umberto Eco.31 We will, however, later show that certain major ← 27 | 28 → contours of the same literary strategy can be recognised also from a different methodological viewpoint.32

1.2.1   Revelation as “the open work” in other authors’ views

Some authors have already briefly connected Revelation with the “open work”. Royalty has, for example, stated from his rhetorical viewpoint that “The Apocalypse is what Umberto Eco has described as an ‘open work’”.33 Maier briefly explains the excessive range of Revelation studies and interpretations by the book’s literary openness in Eco’s definition.34 Further, Linton has suggested that “Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘writerly’ texts and Umberto Eco’s similar concept of ‘open’ works can be applied to hybrid genres”35 – Revelation, according to Linton, falls into the same category. Linton finally offers something more in this respect: his interesting reader-oriented observations of the unusual blend of generic conventions in Rev and the necessity of selecting some at the expense of others in order to produce a reading36 correspond to the same concept. However, a more detailed investigation of the proposed literary quality and its implications in Revelation is still missing.

1.3   The literary transmission of meaning

1.3.1   Author, text, context, reader

Our application of Eco’s theory of the open work to a specific type of biblical text is inevitably related to the issues of the literariness of texts, the transmission of meaning, and the poles of literary communication. The already classic debate between the traditionalist intentionalism as defended by Hirsch and its literary challenge as formulated by Wimsatt and Beardsley remains instructive in terms ← 28 | 29 → of its essential issues despite the methodological progress that has followed.37 It can therefore help us to briefly localise Eco’s theory within the context of literary methods applied in biblical studies.

Wimsatt and Beardsley critically defined the authorial intention behind a work of art38 as a “design or plan in the author’s mind” emphasising its mental dimensions.39 Not dismissing all basic dimensions of the authorial context,40 these New Critics41 focused their polemic rather on the quest for what the author wanted to do.42 Such an intention was then viewed as unavailable and even undesirable as “a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art”43 since “If the poet succeeded in doing it, then the poem itself shows what he was trying to do.”44 Text ← 29 | 30 → itself is brought into focus45 and authorial intention resides in the text in this view.46 It is not alone there, however: poetry exemplifies the literary richness in meaning that is wider than the verbal here.47

From the opposite stance, Hirsch unfortunately also located authorial intention too much into the realm of the author’s mind.48 Thus his opposition to the semantic autonomy of texts49 made his notion of the intended meaning almost non-textual50 and then, as a dimension of written texts with multiple potential meanings,51 fatally paradoxical:52 since, in the end, the authorial intent still has to be inferred ← 30 | 31 → from the text,53 its distinction among the other (acknowledged) potential meanings has remained unresolved.54

Further, viewing the author as the determiner of the meaning of the text,55 Hirsch could not admit its ambiguity.56 Moreover, being restricted to the verbal,57 Hirsch’s view of meaning is implicitly tied to directly communicating texts.58 ← 31 | 32 →

Consequently, Hirsch’s critical overview of contemporary ways of liberating textual meaning(s) from the authorial intent59 is short of at least one legitimate possibility, that is, “The author intended more than one discrete (semantic) meaning” instead of allowing multiple contextual ‘significances’ only.   Meaning and significances?

Hirsch’s emphatic distinction between meaning (i.e., “the whole verbal [authorial] meaning of a text”) and significances (“textual meaning in relation to a larger context, i.e., another mind, another era… to some context, indeed any context, beyond itself”) fails on the same grounds. Continuing the defence of “determinacy and stability of meaning and hence to the possibility of hermeneutical knowledge” by these terms,60 Hirsch a priori reduces the potential (and possibly intended!) multiple meanings of literary texts to subjective significances.61 However, while the notion of “another mind” would have to include the reader as another pole of intentional communication (along with the related context62), even “another era” in biblical (and other) texts does not necessarily go beyond the authorial intention. Thus Hirsch himself later had to admit “transhistorical intentions”: textual meaning was allowed to “embrace many different future fulfillments without thereby being changed.”63 This, however, makes Hirsch’s rigorous distinction between authorial and non-authorial contexts and meanings just a little less unsatisfactory.64 We will, however, demonstrate that neither Eco nor other newer literary approaches necessarily sug ← 32 | 33 → gest a complete denial of the author resulting in an “autonomous” text the meaning of which can be “equated with everything it could plausibly be taken to mean.”65

1.3.2   Our accepted interpretative approach

The above discussion obviously does not result in “undoing the author’s intention”,66 but in the necessity of a more adequate view. Thiselton’s excellent summarising arguments reflecting significant developments will help us to refine the key issues and terminology:

1)   The interpretative weight of external factors (contexts, including authorial) depends on the actual measure of “rootedness” of texts (rather than their authors) in time and place.67

2)   “The Intentional Fallacy” already aimed specifically at poems and poetry, that is, literary texts less “rooted in time and place”.68 Types of texts matter: even Hirsch acknowledged that certain texts invite literary (or “aesthetic”) study.69

3)   As for authorial intention, it is better to speak more specifically about intentional directedness70 as recognisable in texts.71 Such “intending” is not “separable ← 33 | 34 → from the linguistic act or process itself.”72 Or, in Vanhoozer’s words, “intention is not a psychological event that precedes an action, but an intrinsic aspect of the action that in fact makes the action what it is.”73

Similarly, Jeannine Brown proposes Brett’s interesting concept of communicative intention:74 “…an author’s intention may be relatively explicit in the text or it may be only implied – something which must be inferred from the often unstated circumstances of utterance.”75 While the emphasis on authors, according to Brett, “failed to notice that texts have a kind of public existence independent of their authors”, the emphasis on texts themselves “attributed too much independence and coherence to literary artifacts and failed to realize that meaning is always created by readers.”76 We will, nevertheless, later suggest that meaning is rather finalised by readers. It is sobering to note the epistemological challenge as formulated by Fish: “Rather than intention… producing interpretation… interpretation creates intention and its formal realization by creating the conditions in which it becomes possible to pick them out.”77 ← 34 | 35 →

1.3.3   The literary view of texts

While the Bible can be viewed as “a literary anthology” in a more general sense,78 we are going to deal with the term literary in its specific methodological sense. Usually, aesthetic form and wider potential of meaning are anticipated in literary texts. These basic characteristics already indicate that methodology is inevitably inherent in any similar definition:79 to say the least, some texts can be viewed as specifically literary and the resultant utility has to be tested.

As a representative of recent (and refined) literary approaches within biblical studies, Ryken proposes several interesting defining dimensions: literature “aims to get a reader to share an experience” (“enacts rather than states propositionally”), represents an art (or aesthetic) form, displays beauty and technique (pattern, design), and communicates meaning through form.80 We will gradually demonstrate that some of these qualities play interesting roles in the strategy of literary openness ← 35 | 36 → as pursued here. Among various biblical texts, narrative and poetry81 represent typical literary “master genres” (with subgenres).82

1.3.4   Literary criticism in biblical studies

If biblical studies and the New Criticism kept their separate ways during the 1950s and 1960s, literary theory began to enter approximately since the 1970s.83 Thiselton put it well: “Literary theory, for good or for ill, brings into biblical studies an intimidating and complicated network of assumptions and methods which were not in origin designed to take account of the particular nature of biblical texts.”84

The impact of the former New Criticism on biblical studies was limited85 while more moderate views of the semantic autonomy of literary texts subsequently appeared among literary critics.86 From those text-centered approaches that have eventually found expression within biblical studies, narrative criticism together with moderate reader-response criticism87 represent the lines most closely related ← 36 | 37 → to our selected approach. As Powell summarised in his excellent brief discussion, the historical-critical method with its preoccupation with the referential function of biblical texts largely ignored their poetic function88 underestimating at the same time “the nature of biblical materials in their current form.”89 In terms of literary communication, if historical criticism analyses its “sender” pole, literary criticism seeks to learn more about the “message”, and its reader-response aspect about the “receiver”.90 This turn has helped us to understand biblical poetry and narrative with their literary devices91 along with intertextual allusions and “the place of ambiguity”.92 Indeed, “the power of creative language” has been reap ← 37 | 38 → preciated in this process,93 announcing the interpretative relevance of ‘the world in front of the text’.94

Significantly, “most biblical literary critics view their work as supplementary to the task of historical criticism…”95 While, according to Powell, “most literary critics now consider total disregard for authorial intent to be extreme”, they “would accept as axiomatic the idea that the meaning of literature can transcend the intentions of historical authors.”96   On the (potentially) negative side

On the other hand, instances of uncritical acceptance of the semantic autonomy of texts appeared as well.97 We believe that the major implied concerns related to our approach have already been well treated by Thiselton’s summarising arguments above. However, due to their undisputed importance, we are going to trace these potential issues further. Several authors have usefully summarised the major objections raised against literary criticism in biblical studies.98 From these we choose the following ones as potentially most relevant to our approach: ← 38 | 39 →

1.   Imposing modern literary concepts on ancient literature.

2.   Ignoring the historical referentiality of the text.99

3.   Eliminating the author.

3.   Treating composite texts as coherent wholes.

The first point is certainly relevant for any ad hoc use of a modern literary concept. We will return to this issue in our final chapter since this kind of question cannot be answered in advance: it applies to all these points that the related research itself has to substantiate the final answers. We have, nevertheless, already indicated that we do not dismiss authorial intention; it will also soon be clear that historical referentiality has a prominent status in our view of the text under scrutiny.100 Further, it is a matter of scholarly consensus with very few exceptions101 at present that Revelation is approached as a unified text in contrast to the numerous (untenable) source-and redaction-critical theories of the past.102

As for more general assessments such as that literary criticism represents methods “devised for the study of fiction” or “fundamentally at odds with Jewish or Christian theology”, it is important to remember that, indeed, “Similar accusations have also been leveled with regard to historical-critical methods…”103 This kind of ← 39 | 40 → argument is always related more to the respective philosophical presuppositions of any particular method,104 first, and to the actual way the method is applied, second. Thus we can summarise together with other authors that, while the potential pitfalls of literary criticism to biblical interpretation are avoidable,105 it can positively supplement and inform the more traditional approaches,106 especially in terms of close reading of whole texts.107

1.4   Eco’s theory of the open work among other interpretative approaches

1.4.1   The basis: The transmission of meaning

The above discussion has demonstrated that a proportionate view of each pole of the communicative chain between author (intention) – type of text – context(s) – reader108 ← 40 | 41 → is vital for our approach. Let us, therefore, briefly assess Eco’s theory of the open work on this ‘transmission of meaning’ basis.109

Text approached qua text. Eco’s literary approach is text-focused; ‘author’ is recognised in the text as a textual strategy.110 Significantly, various types of texts are carefully distinguished here as differently located on the scale between “closed” and “open” according to the directness of their communication.111 In this way, the ‘author’ aims at a specific Model Reader112 determined by “the sort of interpretive operations he is supposed to perform” or detect.113

Textual meaning. While the open texts provide more space for legitimate readings, they nevertheless do not lose all of their “rights” (including the primary role of lexical meanings!) in favour of the “rights” of their interpreters.114 Interpreta ← 41 | 42 → tive freedom comes only after (and is limited by) the detection of literal lexical meanings, contextual referentiality, and other indicators within the text (that is, in-text constraints).115

Open texts can, nevertheless, intentionally mean more than that.116 Literary openness is brought about by the work (and thereby by the author);117 thus the resultant ambiguity (when present) is intended.118 Between the authorial intention, viewed as “very difficult to find and frequently irrelevant”, and the intention of the interpreter, Eco locates “an intention of the text119 Thus, instead of a denial ← 42 | 43 → of the author,120 this concept resonates with our view of the (authorial) directedness of the text.

Contextual meaning.121 While “contextual and circumstantial selections” (that is, meanings implied from these contextual relationships, including intertextual ones) are by no means denied here,122 the (intended) meaning of the work can exceed them.

It is perhaps already apparent that the basic historical-critical procedures of interpretation are extended (rather than contradicted)123 by Eco’s literary concepts.124 Indeed, specific ‘literary’ texts (typically narratives and poetry125) less ‘rooted in time and place’ (where also the accessibility of the original contexts can be limited) imply and invite such corresponding text-oriented methods of study.

Reader-response. Now, the Model Reader (a textual strategy, too) is supposed to recognise similarities, games, intertextuality, etc. present in the text; thus he can also be defined by his “capability to cooperate in order to reactualize” the specific style of the author.126 Through the open text, then, its author aims at a specific response, “imprecise”127 but active, cooperative, requiring “a series of interpretive choices”128 of a specific (‘intended’) reader. Much more intensively than in directly communicating texts, meaning is finalised (not created) by reading here. Thus the ← 43 | 44 → essential chain author (and his intent) – text – context(s), however specifically viewed, is only completed by this kind of consideration of the reader.129

In sum, the reader-response component of Eco’s approach is focused on textual strategies,130 oriented to a specific (and meticulously analysed) category of “open” literary texts131 allowing them a field of legitimate readings implied from their nature and limited by textual and contextual constraints, and thereby quite moderate.132 To put it vice versa, if such a specific reader-role is recognisably implied by such texts,133 it is telling about their nature and strategies. Hence the positive ← 44 | 45 → appraisals of the utility of Eco’s approach (in contrast to more radical literary views) for biblical studies.134

The related types of texts. As for this specific reader-response, Thiselton interestingly suggests that “Arguably many biblical parables, a number of narratives, many parts of the wisdom literature, and biblical apocalyptic precipitate reader-activity of this kind”135 where meaning is ‘completed’ by the reader.136 Before we exemplify the intentional openness indicated by corresponding biblical texts, we are going to clarify the whole strategy and its primary effect in Eco’s terms.

1.4.2   Our selective use of Eco’s theory

On the basis of this critical evaluation, we are going to investigate and apply Eco’s theory of the open work as an ‘ad hoc’ selection from his broader semiotic theory. Such methodological eclecticism is not entirely unusual in biblical studies137 – its adequacy and utility obviously have to be demonstrated. With the help of this theoretical framework, we will focus on textual strategies in Revelation. This does ← 45 | 46 → not require an acceptance of the full sweep of Eco’s wider hermeneutical philosophy, especially in terms of its humanist and postmodern presuppositions.138

1.5   General openness versus specific openness of literary texts

1.5.1   The poetic field of meaning in literary texts

If the view of literary meaning as transcending the original authorial intention has gradually become axiomatic in literary criticism,139 we need to trace this concept more specifically now. For Jakobson, a message becomes poetic by way of self-focusing. The poetic function is not restricted to poetry; its dominance among other functions of language characterises the message as “verbal art”.140 In this way, ambiguity as “an intrinsic, inalienable character of any self-focused message” appears. Significantly, “The supremacy of poetic function over referential function does not obliterate the reference but makes it ambiguous.”141 Following the same concept, Eco calls this function of the message aesthetic (his preferred term) and defines such ambiguity as “a mode of violating the rules of the [semiotic] code.”142

1.5.2   Clarifying the wider terminology of ‘openness’

It is important at this stage to distinguish between a certain measure of openness of literary texts that inevitably follows from their very nature (and from textuality itself), and specific literary openness in terms of authorial literary strategy.

For example, when Ricoeur argues phenomenologically that the text – similarly to “human action” – is “open” to interpretations using such terms as “open work” or “a limited field of possible constructions”,143 he describes the “plurivocity” of ← 46 | 47 → whole literary texts as “open to several readings” by their nature.144 Or, when Watson introduces The Open Text,145 he means “the biblical text as the site of a proliferation of meanings that accords with its character as a sacred text, constantly read and reread without ever being exhausted” as opposed to an (academic) “single, restricted interpretative paradigm within which one must operate…”146 All that is of importance as far as literary works are concerned. We, however, look for more here: Eco’s theory proposes specific literary openness that deliberately (intentionally) surpasses the general aesthetic openness of literary texts by way of a specific strategy recognisable in the text on multiple literary levels.

1.5.3   The result of deliberate opening: specific ambiguity

If classical art “could give rise to various responses” and yet it remained “in an essential sense unambiguous”, that is, directing the responses in general towards “one way of understanding what a text was about”, this is not the case with much of modern art that is “deliberately and systematically ambiguous.”147 Eco’s theory of literary openness, then, further continues and develops the ‘natural’ interpretative openness of literary texts tracing ambiguities that “are not realized at random but follow a precise design”, indeed, an “aesthetic idiolect” governing “all deviations at work at every level of a work of art” and making “all deviations mutually functional…”148 Thus such a work as a whole intentionally leaves interpretative decisions within the resultant ‘field of possibilities’ up to the reader to a larger degree. This basis makes the resultant openness closer to Paul’s (Ricoeurian) concept of metaphorical ‘multivalence’ rather than to sheer opacity and uncertainty of meaning.149

1.6   The nature of the open work

1.6.1   The nature of the open work as defined by Umberto Eco


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Eco's literary theory of the open work .Apocalyptic genre Literary criticism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 429 pp.

Biographical notes

Roman Mach (Author)

Roman Mach, a pastor and a seminary teacher, studied at Newbold College (Bracknell, England) and at the International Baptist Theological Seminary (Prague). He received his PhD in Biblical Studies from the University of Wales and his major research interest is in the area of specific literary hermeneutics of creative texts.


Title: The Elusive Macrostructure of the Apocalypse of John