Monday, October 31, 2016

Revelation 12:1-The Woman

I want to outline a few points about Rev. 12:1 and possibly open the way for discussion. I am immediately aware of at least four contemporary interpretations for this text. (Actually, I know of more than four, but I personally do not take certain proposals seriously.) Before I list the interpretive suggestions for 12:1, however, I would like to set out the verse for everyone's benefit:

"A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" (NRSV).

The NRSV renders the Greek SHMEION MEGA as "A great portent." The NWT Rbi translates this construction, "a great sign," implying that the GUNH beheld by John in vision is a symbolic or figurative woman--not a literal one. In view of Rev. 1:1, and taking into consideration how SHMEION is used throughout Revelation (compare Rev. 12:3), I take the GUNH in 12:1 to be figurative. I.e., she is not a matter-of-fact woman, but rather points to a supersensible reality adequately depicted by a celestial woman. (Note John's use of feminine imagery in Rev. 17, 18 & 21-22.) But just who is this heavenly woman? Whom does she represent?

Here are four views that try to answer these questions:

(1) Some commentators have suggested that the woman in Rev. 12:1 is Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Catholic New Jerusalem Bible even claims that the author of Revelation, when he wrote 12:1, was potentially "thinking also of Mary, the new Eve, the daughter of Zion, who gave birth to the Messiah" (Ftn. on Rev. 12:1). However, Robert W. Wall (with good reason, I think) points out: "Most would contend that this woman refers to a community rather than to an individual person such as Mary" (Wall, Revelation, page 159). This view seems preferable to the Marian interpretation in view of what the Apocalypse has to say about this supernal woman.

(2) The Woman represents the EKKLHSIA QEOU ZWNTOS. That is, she pictures the Church of the living God. One problematic aspect for this approach, however, is how the "male child" (Rev. 12:5) should be understood. How does the EKKLHSIA QEOU ZWNTOS give birth to a "male child"? While scholars have proposed answers to this query, insoluble problems may remain. Therefore, while the communal model is to be preferred, the present author does not believe that the woman is representative of the Church. In fact, the apostle seems to clearly distinguish the Church from the woman later in the same chapter (Rev. 12:17).

(3) The woman depicts the persecuted people of God. Again, while I think the communal model has merit, this particular interpretation does not adequately make sense of the context, to wit, the fact that Rev. 12:17 discusses the persecuted "seed" of God and the woman. The latter gives birth to the godly "seed."

(4) Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the woman is a symbol of Jerusalem above (Gal 4:26). According to the Witnesses, Jerusalem above is the figurative "wife" of God. No, God does not have a literal helpmate who complements Him. YHWH is not like Zeus: He does not literally have relations with alluring women (heavenly or otherwise) and impregnate them by means of carnal procreation. To the contrary, God has a symbolic wife, say the Witnesses. In short, this "wife" of God is His heavenly organization of loyal and holy angels. The "male child" is thus said to represent the Kingdom of God that the woman brings forth. The woman gave birth to this Kingdom, which includes the persecuted seed mentioned in Rev. 12:17, in our century (according to the Witnesses). I would like to build on these thoughts in a separate post. Suffice it to say that I prefer view (4).


David Waltz said...

Hi Edgar,

In your opening paragraph, you wrote:

==I am immediately aware of at least four contemporary interpretations for this text. (Actually, I know of more than four, but I personally do not take certain proposals seriously.) ==

Two of the interpretations that you chose not to include are quite popular within the Evangelical community. One is the dispensational understanding which interprets the "woman" as Israel—i.e. Jehovah's 'wife' who gives birth to the promised Messiah. The other is Reformed covenantal view which interprets the "woman" as Jehovah's covenantal people—both the OT and NT 'church'.

Now, I own, and have read, more than three dozen commentaries on the book of Revelation (including the four published by the WTBTS), and have come to realize that the highly symbolic nature of the book lends itself to a good number of viable interpretations (including the somewhat unique understanding/s by the Baha'i faith). As such, it seems to me that one's interpretation of the book will ultimately be determined by one's overall theology; perhaps suggesting that it is almost impossible to interpret the book in a truly objective sense.

Anyway, just wanted to share some musings that came to mind after reading your post...

Grace and peace,


Edgar Foster said...

Hi David,

Thanks for your input. I wrote this piece years ago, and I'm now doing edits to this writing. I am familiar with the Israel understanding, but chose not to discuss that approach since I wanted to include our understanding of the text. You likely know about Hippolytus' remarks on this verse too, and his suggestions for understanding Rev. 12:1. They are interesting.

Good to know you love reading the Apocalypse and commentaries that deal with John's revelation. My focus is chiefly on how commentators of the church have interpreted Revelation, and with all due respect, I can't help but reckon that some proposals for Rev. 12:1 cannot be taken seriously. Some must also be ruled out by virtue of grammar, syntax, and problems of coherence.

I'm not trying to be cantankerous. Yes, theology often (always?) influences one's exegesis of Revelation. But some interpretation just appear to be objectively wrong.

Best regards,


David Waltz said...

Hello again Edgar,

I agree with you that, "some proposals for Rev. 12:1 cannot be taken seriously", and that, "[s]ome must also be ruled out by virtue of grammar, syntax, and problems of coherence".

I think the same can be said for a good portion of the book of Revelation too. But with that said, there remains a number of viable interpretations that are consistent with the paradigms which produce them.

Grace and peace,