The Apocalypse of St. John: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes, and Indices. Henry Barclay Swete. London: Macmillan, 1911. 338 pp. plus 220 pp. of introduction.
H. B. Swete was Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge from 1890-1916. His predecessor in that position was the well-known B. F. Westcott. Swete’s commentary on the book of Revelation continues to be referred to today, because it is a helpful volume for the scholar, seminarian, and pastor. In this second post on Swete’s commentary, I want to draw attention to his helpful introduction and then provide some observations about his overall approach to interpreting the book of Revelation.
Value of Swete’s Introduction
1. History of inpretation and of commentaries on Revelation
Swete contains two separate sections on the history of interpretation. Both are valuable. His section called “Commentaries” introduces the reader to many ancient commentaries on the book. It provides brief comments about the characteristics of each commentary and information about how they have been preserved and where to find them (in Swete’s day, of course). A second section called “History and Methods of Interpretation” is complementary to the section on commentaries. It has more details about ancient approaches to the book than modern ones. He introduces the early second century comments of Justin and Irenaeus, who both have close associations with Asia Minor, Revelation’s place of origin. Tyconius is another important early expositor whose “mystical exegesis” winds up influencing many (ccx). Augustine’s interpretation of Revelation 20 (the millennium) “agrees in the main with Tyconius” (ccx). Swete also provides many examples of the historicist approach to the book that enjoyed a lot more popularity in the past than in contemporary times. The historicist approach is the approach that tries to correlate the prophecies of the book with specific historical events. The interpreter tries to show that much of the book of Revelation has already been fulfilled in specific historical events up until his own time. This generally leads to the conclusion that the interpreter is living in the last days.
While Swete wants to “keep an open mind” regarding the authorship of Revelation (clxxxv), he provides helpful information in favor of John the apostle’s authorship. Two examples are worth mentioning. First, when he discusses early opponents of John the apostle’s authorship, he provides a good summary of Dionysius’s opposition to apostolic authorship and the effect that Dionysius winds up having on the “Greek-Speaking East” (cxvi). Dionysius’s rejection of apostolic authorship is greatly aided by the historian Eusebius, who circulates Dionysius’s reasoning (see Ecclesiastical History, 7.24-25). It is very helpful to know that Dionysius’s rejection of apostolic authorship is motivated by his dislike for and opposition to the millennial views of some other Christian teachers (like Nepos). If Revelation is written by an apostle, then Revelation 20 is the inspired work of an apostle and has the authority of an apostle behind it.
Second, in his section on “Vocabulary, Grammar, and Style,” Swete provides examples of similarities and differences between Revelation and the Gospel of John. He does not discount the differences. Yet he finds some interesting similarities, especially in terms of style (cxxix-cxxx). These are helpful and worthy of further investigation. Swete ends this section with the conclusion that there is sufficient evidence to suggest “a strong presumption of affinity between the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse” (cxxx).
Overall Approach to the Book of Revelation
In his introduction, Swete states his tendency toward preterism as his primary approach to the book. He says, “With the ‘preterists’ it will take its stand on the circumstances of the age and locality to which the book belongs, and will connect the greater part of the prophecy with the destinies of the Empire under which the prophet lived; with the ‘futurists’ it will look for fulfilments of St. John’s pregnant words in times yet to come” (ccxviii). By “Empire,” he means, of course, the Roman Empire. As a result, Swete’s comments on Revelation 13, 17, and 18 include many references to the Roman Emperors, Roman Empire, and Rome herself. He provides little attention to other options for interpreting these chapters.
In terms of millennial positions, he identifies his interpretation with Augustine’s amillennial interpretation, but he is not really following closely in Augustine’s footsteps. He makes a few confusing comments about the millennium that provide a more preteristic interpretation. Perhaps, he says, the millennium began “with the Conversion of Constantine, or of the [Roman] Empire.” He then provides another option; perhaps is began with “the final break up of the Roman world-power and its ally, the pagan system of priestcraft and superstition” (266). Once again, it appears that Swete’s true preference is for preterism over futurism. Swete also claims that only martyrs reign with Christ in the millennium (266).