Nick Frederick has a gift for sharing thought-provoking insights about familiar topics. In Episode 92, we discussed intertextuality in the Book of Mormon. This time around we discuss the Book of Revelation, perhaps one of the most neglected books in our contemporary Latter-day Saint lexicon.
Lesson manuals usually refer to verses that encapsulate concepts or convey warm feelings about the gospel; the Book of Revelation defies this picking and choosing and demands a treatment that looks at the whole picture. But let’s admit it, wading through its ancient imagery is difficult.
Lucky for us, Dr. Frederick has done the heavy lifting and shares his insights on both the beautiful metaphors contained within the book and how Joseph Smith used this New Testament book to frame Restoration concepts.
Please join me as we dive for hidden treasures in the Book of Revelation.
About Our Guest:
Nicholas J. Frederick served a mission in Brussels, Belgium, then attended BYU where he received his BA in classics and his MA in comparative studies. He then attended Claremont Graduate University, where he completed a PhD in the history of Christianity with an emphasis in Mormon studies, after which he returned to work at BYU. His research focuses primarily on the intertextual relationship between the text of the Bible and Mormon scripture. He enjoys teaching courses on the Book of Mormon and the New Testament, particularly the writings of Paul and the Book of Revelation.
*Dr. Frederick is indebted to the scholarship of Craig R. Koester, author of the Anchor Bible Commentary on the book of Revelation, as well as the shorter (and cheaper—so everyone should buy it) book Revelation and the End of All Things.
Episode 114: The Book of Revelation with Nicholas J. Frederick*
This is not a verbatim transcript.
Some grammar elements and wording have been modified for clarity.
Introduction: Nick Frederick has a gift for sharing thought-provoking insights about familiar topics. In Episode 92, we discussed intertextuality in the Book of Mormon. This time around, we discuss the book of Revelation, perhaps one of the most neglected books in our contemporary Latter-day Saint lexicon.
Lesson manuals usually refer to verses that encapsulate concepts or convey warm feelings about the gospel; the book of Revelation defies this picking and choosing and demands a treatment that looks at the whole picture. But let’s admit it, wading through its ancient imagery is difficult.
Lucky for us, Dr. Frederick has done the heavy lifting and shares his insights on both the beautiful metaphors contained within the book and how Joseph Smith used this New Testament book to frame Restoration concepts.
Please join me as we dive for hidden treasures in the book of Revelation.
Laura Hales: This is Laura Harris Hales, and I am pleased to be here today again with Nick Frederick, one of my favorite people to interview and talk to about biblical studies. We’re going to talk today about the book of Revelation (no “s”) in the New Testament and Latter-day Saint scripture. Nick, what have you been doing since the last time I interviewed you?
Nick Frederick: I have been teaching here at BYU, working on my regular stuff, looking at the connections between the Book of Mormon and the Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants and the Bible. I have also been working on a paper on the Daughter of Jared from Ether 8, writing a couple of papers on D&C 93 (that’ll be coming out soon).
Laura Hales: When we analyze the book of Revelation, I’m going to break it into two parts—the historical analysis in its first-century context and then its theological project. Let’s first talk about what scholars have proposed as the first century historical meaning of the metaphors in the book of Revelation.
Nick Frederick: I think you can’t read the book of Revelation without seeing the first century through the problems that are highlighted, such as persecution, assimilation, and complacency. These are issues that the first-century church is dealing with. And this is what’s highlighted in that second and third chapter. By the way, I should mention that the book of Revelation is apocalyptic, but it’s also epistolary. There are letters contained within it. It’s also prophetic in nature, so it’s kind of a mixed hybrid genre. These letters are important because they show us what the church is dealing with—persecution, complacency, assimilation, which, by the way, are issues we have today and are reasons why the book of Revelation matters to us and has current relevance.
It’s hard not to see the “Whore of Babylon” in Revelation 17 as anything other than Rome. She is literally seated upon seven hills. So, there are things like this throughout the text. You see the dragon and his associates, which gives them a first-century context. The Lamb obviously is Jesus Christ, and his elevation to heaven after the resurrection was very much a first-century context.
But when it comes to interpretation, one of the major controversies surrounding the book of Revelation is what perspective people take. On one hand there is what’s called the historicist viewpoint, which is that the book of Revelation is simply history being revealed through symbols at the different stages of the earth. The preterist viewpoint is that the book of Revelation is a first-century text and should be understood as a first-century text. Futurists will argue that the book of Revelation is all about the future, and it needs to be read in that way. Then the viewpoint, which is actually my perspective on this, is what’s called the idealist viewpoint, which is that the book of Revelation has a story to tell. It’s a story that could apply to any age, and it’s the story of God intervening for his people amongst the evil forces that oppress them.
Most people will take what’s called the eclectic perspective, which is they’ll be a little bit idealist, a little bit preterist, and a little bit futurist, which is probably what I am. I’m probably a mixture of the three. Very rarely do we find anybody who takes one specific viewpoint.
And that’s why this book is so hard for people to discuss. Is it about the future? Is it about the past? Is it complete? Is it just a story—an allegorical account of how God interacts with his people? Is it a play-by-play of history? This is where a lot of the disagreements and a lot of the tensions come when it comes to the book of Revelation. I think the safest perspective is to say that there is a first-century context, but it is also about the future, and it has a story to tell.
I think the more we can familiarize ourselves with the different approaches, then the more we will find, even as Latter-day Saints, that the book makes sense and has a story to tell. For example, in Revelation 6, we see the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The white horse is the first to be introduced. Historicists would say something like: “Well, the white horse represents the age after the destruction of Jerusalem.” It represents a specific point in time. A preterist who wants to look at it as first century and keep it in the first century will say, “Perhaps it represents Emperor Vespasian, who reigns in Rome from 69 to 79, or it’s his son Titus who conquers and sacks Jerusalem.” A futurist would say, “Well, no, it references the antichrist that’s going to come at a future age, and it’s something that hasn’t happened yet.” An idealist would say it represents the spirit of conquest that haunts humanity in any age. And so, you’ve got multiple possible interpretations for any one symbol. Now multiply that by every symbol in the book of Revelation, and you can see why this becomes such a difficult book to have a conversation about.
Laura Hales: Oh, I can imagine. As you were giving that example, I thought of how it illustrates how confusing New Testament scholarship can be. I can imagine an academic conference where four people stand up and give papers on the same verses and interpret them four different ways. And then, you just leave the room confused.
Nick Frederick: Absolutely.
Laura Hales: Our conversation today is going to follow some of the things you’ve written in two book chapters. The first is “The Paradoxical Lamb and the Christology of John’s Apocalypse.” Where can we find this chapter?
Nick Frederick: That was for the Sperry symposium in 2018.
Laura Hales: Great. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes, and then later, we’re going to talk about “The New Testament and the Doctrine and Covenants.” That’s Chapter 41 from Lincoln Blumell’s new edited anthology on New Testament culture, history, and society. I’ll put a link to that as well.
I found your treatment totally fascinating and something worth studying—something relevant. Let’s talk about how you looked at the metaphors in the book of Revelation and its theological project. How is Jesus symbolized in the book?
Nick Frederick: Let me just begin more broadly, perhaps, with what I see as the overall theological project, and then we can focus specifically on the Lamb. I see two broad things happening. The first is that the book of Revelation serves as a wake-up call against complacency—those who’d say “All is well in Zion, there is nothing to worry about.” John’s coming out saying, “Look, if you pull back the curtain, and if you look behind the scenes, evil is very real, and you can see that.” On one hand are the origins of evil, its reality, but on the other hand, the flip side of that is the sovereignty of God, and the hope that comes through Jesus’s conquest of that evil. Both those things are very, very present.
Nick Frederick: For example, Revelation 8 through 11 forms a really nice story, but 8 and 9 are where all the wacky things like the giant locusts and things like that happen. And whenever anybody wants to say that there is a war in the Middle East that’s prophesied in the book of Revelation, it’s usually from 8 or 9. What you get is these really violent, crazy scenes that scare a lot of people, but you have to read to 10 and 11 as well. By the time you get to Revelation 11, you have this scene that stands in contrast. Eight and nine are about all the people who wouldn’t repent and all the bad stuff that happens to them. And we’re kind of left with this idea that God is going to just destroy everybody in a really visceral, graphic, and terrible way.
Nick Frederick: And then in 11, we’re told there are these two witnesses, and they stand up, they preach, and they’re killed. Then they’re raised up again. What we find is that because these two witnesses preached, through their efforts—and these two witnesses represent the church as a whole, the kingdom or something like that—I don’t think they are two individual people. I think it’s the membership of the church as a whole in any dispensation. But because of that . . .
Laura Hales: Oh my gosh, are you kidding? That just breaks it all down. Weren’t there supposed to be two missionaries who went to Israel? And we’re all waiting for that to happen?
Nick Frederick: That’s how we talk about it as Latter-day Saints because D&C 77 says that, and Elder McConkie kind of promoted that. We have all this speculation about which two apostles are going to be the ones that die. To me, that doesn’t make as much sense in the context of chapters 8, 9, 10, and 11, where you have what changes things—what changes people. The threat of justice doesn’t change people. If God threatens judgment, people still aren’t going to repent. What chapter 11 tells us is when the two witnesses stand up, when you actually get up and witness to what you believe, that’s what changes people. That’s what averts God’s judgment. And rather than 9/10 of the population being destroyed, which is what was going to happen, only 1/10 of the population is destroyed.
Hope comes through people standing up and expressing what they believe. And that’s going to do more to bring a positive impact; that’s going to do more to spread God’s plan across the nations than the threat of judgment will. This is where I see a call to action. It is saying, “Get out there, believers, Christians, disciples, whoever you are, get out there and make your thoughts known. Your actions will have more of an impact than God’s sitting up there saying, ‘Repent or be destroyed.’”
Ultimately, then, I think the theological project of this book you can summarize in two words, which is “Jesus wins.” There is no doubt from the very beginning, from chapter 1, verse 1, all the way to the very end: this is all in God’s hand; God is in complete control. So, you’ve got to figure out what side you’re on. Knowing that God’s going to win, do you want to be one of these people who get left out? One of the people who won’t repent? One of the people who is going to be complacent or is going to be happy being assimilated into the world? Or are you going to be one of the ones who will stand up and show the mark on your forehead to demonstrate who you are as a disciple?
Nick Frederick: I don’t see this as a codebook where these symbols need to be broken down and analyzed. Some people will say, “Well, it’s in code because John didn’t want Rome to know he was talking about them,” and things like that. But if that’s the case, “Lamb” isn’t very subtle. “Whore of Babylon” isn’t very subtle. This is about hope. This is not about fear. This is about letting people know God is in charge and that if they choose to follow him, if they choose to put his mark on their forehead, then everything’s going to be okay.
Nick Frederick: We talk about this text as if it’s scary and as if it’s just full of punishments and crazy things. But what gets lost is the hope that runs through every chapter. That’s what we should be focusing on, which takes us to this lamb that shows up in chapter 5. In chapter 4, a door opens in heaven, and John finds himself in the throne room of God, and you see twenty-four elders and four beasts before the throne of God. And then in chapter 5, God holds out a scroll in his right hand and says, “Who is worthy to open this book, this scroll?” And John seems to be getting a little bit anxious. He is looking around, and nobody is coming forward to open the scroll. Then he starts to hear that the lion of the tribe of Judah is going to come and be worthy to open this book. John turns around looking for a lion, a majestic beast. Instead, what he sees is a lamb, which is the primary way Jesus is identified throughout this book. He is mentioned in chapter one as Jesus, and he comes out as the King of Kings in chapter 19, but in between he is this diminutive little lamb, and that’s what John sees.
Laura Hales: This is where the historical interpretation becomes important. How is the lamb that’s portrayed in this book atypical for Christian literature?
Nick Frederick: In the Hebrew Bible, the lamb appears predominantly in a sacrificial context. The lamb is a burnt offering. In the New Testament, specifically in the Gospel of John, we see John the Baptist refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God. In I Corinthians 5, Paul calls Jesus “Our Passover Lamb.” In the Book of Mormon, which loves to take the rhetoric of the book of Revelation and run with it, “Lamb” or “Lamb of God” appear over 50 times. So by the time you get to Jesus, you’re expecting, when you hear that he is a lamb, perhaps something specific.
But then we have to deal with this issue of why a lamb? And how is this lamb atypical? You expect a lamb to demonstrate certain virtues, certain characteristics. They’re diminutive, they’re passive, they’re followers. Is that what this Jesus is going to be? The answer is going to be, “Absolutely not!” He is both victim and leader. He is both conquered and conqueror. By the time we’re done, we have a Lamb standing in judgment. This image of the Lamb seems to be set there to give us one expectation of who the Messiah is and then brake it down as the narrative unfolds.
Laura Hales: More than one lamb is portrayed in the book of Revelation. There are several different lambs, and they have different symbolisms. Let’s start with the conquering, paradoxical lamb. How’s that portrayed, and what historical concern was it meant to address?
Nick Frederick: As I read this, it seems to be looking on one hand at the Jewish expectation or confusion over what the Messiah was going to be. The lion of the tribe of Judah seems to be what some of the Jews, not all the Jews, but some of the Jews are expecting—this kind of Davidic ruler who’s going to come and throw off the shackles of the Romans. And what you get is this diminutive, bloody lamb. The salvation of Israel is not going to be through a regal figure; it’s by a bloody lamb. And there is pathos in that as you step back and recognize your Savior as a bloody lamb. You could follow a lion, but a bloody, diminutive, small lamb? You may point to that and say, “That’s where my salvation is going to come from? That’s what ultimately is going to save me—a conquered lamb?” And that conquered lamb is going to turn around and be the conqueror. That again, I think, forces us to reconfigure our expectations about deliverance and salvation. I think it suggests something about grace—a theme we’re going to see throughout the book of Revelation. Not only can I not do anything for myself, but also my salvation is going to come from this small, bloody lamb. Somehow, I need to come to terms with that.
Laura Hales: What is some of the imagery that is used in the text to portray this?
Nick Frederick: If, on one hand, the lamb has seven horns (which is again curious because horns are usually associated with rams and not little sheep) and seven eyes. Depending, again, upon how you want to make an interpretation here, horns could represent power and authority. Eyes could represent wisdom and foresight. So again, things we’re not used to associating with the lamb—power, wisdom, and the capability to be able to guide people through a difficult situation—those are curious attributes to be given to a lamb.
Laura Hales: To the reader, it’s probably obvious that the author focused upon the Lamb conquering through death to take the first century Christians back to the crucifixion. Am I correct?
Nick Frederick: I think so. I think that’s fair. One of the distinctions that is important for John to make here is that Jesus doesn’t conquer death like we would expect Jesus to do. It’s almost as if Jesus is conquered by death. In Revelation 5, these 24 elders that surround the throne of God begin to praise the Lamb, but they single out specifically that the Lamb is worthy to take the book, or the scroll, out of the right hand of God because he was slain and has redeemed us by his blood. There is no mention of Jesus’ resurrection. There is no mention that he conquers death. His worth is tied specifically to his bloody death—that he conquers through death. It’s his vulnerability and his sacrifice that are being highlighted here. I think this portrayal forces us as readers to ask the question, “If we want to be like Jesus, if we want to be followers of the Lamb, are we expected to have that same mindset—that same vulnerability and willingness to sacrifice—the qualities that we’re supposed to emulate?”
Laura Hales: Great insights. Those are timeless comments on what it means to be a Christian. What is the redemptive Lamb that John describes in Revelation 7?
Nick Frederick: In Revelation 5, we were introduced to this lamb who conquers by being conquered—this victory comes through vulnerability. In Revelation 7, this is expanded to what the blood of the Lamb does. In Revelation 7, John sees 144,000 individuals (we’re told 12,000 in each tribe). They’re all dressed in white, and John is told that these are people who’ve come out of tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. And again, we’re supposed to step back from this, I think, and see that this doesn’t quite make sense. You don’t make something white by washing it in blood. Blood stains something red; it doesn’t make something white. And so, there is, again, something curious at work here. I think we’re supposed to see that it doesn’t work this way for us. We can’t wash ourselves through our blood. Right? Again, this emphasis on . . .
Laura Hales: I just have to interrupt you! That is so great! I had never thought of it that way. So many of us want to earn our way to heaven, and we can’t. We can’t! It’s all about grace. Who would have thought the book of Revelation talked about grace?
Nick Frederick: Grace and hope all the way through the book.
Laura Hales: That is wonderful.
Nick Frederick: But it’s a weird image. You’re cleansing through an act of violence. A lamb is slain, and that’s what makes you clean and pure. It’s not what you do. It’s what happens to this lamb, but then what this lamb accomplishes extends to you; he makes you clean.
Laura Hales: I love it. What is the parodied lamb?
Nick Frederick: In Revelation 12, we are introduced to this dragon that represents Rome and Babylon or the powers of the world. And in Revelation 13, we see that this dragon has two associates. There is a beast that comes from the sea, and there is a beast that comes from the land. The beast from the sea, in particular, has qualities that seem to mimic this true Lamb we’ve been following, this picture of Jesus. But this parodied lamb, this beast from the sea receives power and authority from the dragon, just as Jesus receives power and authority from his Father. This beast is mortally wounded to the point where he should be dead, but miraculously he is healed. Similarly, Jesus was mortally wounded but was healed and raised up. This causes people to marvel after this beast, much as people marvel and admire after Jesus.
Nick Frederick: So, you see this, whatever you want to call it, a parodied lamb, kind of a false Christ or an Antichrist, this image that’s being set up to mimic the true lamb. That’s how the dragon is going to act. The dragon’s vice-regent is a slain and living beast in contrast to Jesus who is the slain and living Lamb. The moral of the story, again, is we need to look carefully. Just because something from a distance may look like we understand what it is, we have to look closer and make sure we truly see and know what we’re looking at.
Laura Hales: How could Jesus, as a lamb, a small creature, be a providing Lamb?
Nick Frederick: This is another really nice image in the book of Revelation. As we get closer and closer to the end—Revelation 19—typically, sheep need a shepherd to provide and protect them. That’s what a shepherd is supposed to do. Sheep don’t provide and protect others. It doesn’t work that way. Yet, in Revelation 19, we witnessed the union of the Lamb as a bridegroom meeting his bride. It’s a wonderful moment as Jesus, who faithfully served as a lamb, who followed his own shepherd (the Father), now assumes the role of our shepherd. He is the bridegroom to the church. He will provide and protect for us, just as the shepherd provided and protects his sheep.
Laura Hales: Lovely. That fits in so well with Latter-day Saint theology. How does the revelation of the Lamb speak to the relationship between Jesus the Christ and God the Father?
Nick Frederick: I mentioned earlier that one of the thematic similarities between the book of Revelation and the Gospel of John is this unity of Father and Son. Jesus says, “I only do what I see my Father do. The Father and I are one.” You have this weird passage in Revelation 22, where we’re told that the Lamb and the Father share one throne and form one temple. They’ve become so unified that a singular pronoun can now refer accurately to both of them. This paradox that the book of Revelation has been advancing, with these different characteristics the lamb has taken on, and things not making sense, isn’t resolved with the defeat of the dragon by Jesus. There is not a nice tidy bow that you can wrap on the end of the book of Revelation. A lot of the questions that haunt Christian theologians: “How can two deities be one? How can they share one throne? How can they form one temple?” —These are Christological questions that have captivated theologians for 2000 years. The book of Revelation throws out there a riddle and says, “Chew on this. See if you can solve it.”
Laura Hales: And people have done that for nearly 2000 years.
Nick Frederick: They’ve definitely done their best.
Laura Hales: From this vision, what do we learn are some of the characteristics of the Messiah, this Lamb who’s going to die for us?
Nick Frederick: I think one of the most obvious ones is this unity with the Father. If the book of Revelation is about the sovereignty of God, then that God is in complete control; the Messiah is going to be one with him. The Father’s plan, the Father’s motivations, are going to be the same as the Son’s.
The Messiah is going to have a high degree of power and knowledge, which is represented by seven horns and seven eyes. He is a warrior figure. He comes with a vestment dripped in blood on a white horse. He conquers the world. He has a sword coming out of his mouth that he uses to conquer. So, there is definitely this warrior imagery when he is finally unveiled as King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Revelation 19. He is the rightful ruler of the earth. He is unchallengeable. The battle of Armageddon is hyped in the book of Revelation. We’re told that there is going to be this great battle between the dragon and the Lamb. Then in Revelation 19, Jesus shows up, and the battle is over. He just takes the dragon, gets rid of him, takes the beasts, gets rid of them. There is no actual battle. The narrator makes it very clear that this is Jesus’s realm. He is here to rule; he is the rightful ruler of the earth.
Laura Hales: Is this a unique picture?
Nick Frederick: I don’t know if it’s necessarily a unique picture. I think that you can piece this together from the way that Paul talks about Jesus—a lot of his Christology in, say, Philippians and Colossians. You can see those elements there, but this is the most graphic description of it. We actually have a battle that happens, but it’s not like a battle that we’re expecting. All this time, it’s been hyped up as something, and then Jesus just shows up, and it’s over. Revelation’s message seems to be one specifically of submission and trust. God is in control. Jesus submitted to the Father’s will. He trusted the Father. He became the shepherd. Will we make the same choice when this world offers us everything we could possibly want? When the world seems like it’s just too scary and evil and dreadful will we trust that God is in control, that his hand is over all things, and submit ourselves to him? Will we take his seal on our forehead and wash our clothes in his blood? It’s ultimately about the crisis of decision. I think other texts bring this up, but I can’t think of any text that brings this up as squarely and in your face as the book of Revelation does.
Laura Hales: One insight you shared that I thought was fascinating was that you said that Jesus was one with the Father, not because of his parentage, but rather because of his behavior. How did you come to that conclusion?
Nick Frederick: The Gospel of John suggests that Jesus is doing what he saw his father do. There is an element of following behavior in that, but in the book of Revelation, Jesus is the lamb. He does what the Father, the shepherd, wants him to do. He goes where he is supposed to go. He does what he is supposed to do, but he does that because he is the lamb. He is the lamb of the Father, and then he turns around and becomes a shepherd to us. So there is very much the sense that the oneness comes from Jesus’ own decisions, Jesus’ own actions. The crisis of decision that he makes is to be one with the Father. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, if we want to have his image in our countenance, we must make the decision to be one with him, which, in the book of Revelation, you do by putting his seal on your forehead. You do it by going out there and being the witness to what Jesus can do.
Laura Hales: That is just beautiful, Nick. We could stop there, but we are not going to because you wrote another wonderful chapter for Lincoln Blumell’s compilation called “The New Testament and the Doctrine and Covenants.” Let’s move on to another aspect of the interpretation of the book of Revelation, and that is Joseph’s Smith’s affinity for it. He loved it. Tell us about it.
Nick Frederick: Joseph obviously loves a lot of books from the Bible, but he seems to really, really enjoy the book of Revelation for a number of different reasons that we can talk about as we work our way through here. But again, the book of Revelation is all over the Book of Mormon; it’s all over the Doctrine and Covenants; it’s all over Joseph’s sermons. He devotes a section of the D&C just to the book of Revelation. Just a couple of weeks before his death in June of 1844, he gives one of his most famous sermons, which is known as the Sermon at the Grove where he gets up and reads Revelation 3, then quotes Revelation 1:6 and does an entire discourse on just a few words from Revelation 1:6. From beginning to end, the book of Revelation seems to have really resonated with Joseph. He was almost enamored with the book.
Laura Hales: Joseph Smith used the book of Revelation in his teachings and in the Doctrine and Covenants as he was recording his revelations. We call that intertextuality, and we have done an entire podcast together on that topic, but can you briefly remind listeners of the meaning of that term?
Nick Frederick: This is another one of those terms, like apocalypticism, that a lot of people throw around, but it’s a little bit difficult to define. Essentially, it is a study of how two texts interact with one another. If you have statements from the Bible that appear in the Book of Mormon, how do you evaluate those? What does it say about authorship? What does it say about meaning? Can you interpret the new context-based upon the old context? Maybe just to give a broader picture, you look at something like Virgil’s Aeneid, which borrows from the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and just kind of transforms them from a couple of Greek narratives into a Roman patriotic epic. Then you have James Joyce, who takes the Odyssey and uses it in his work Ulysses, and it becomes a completely new book, but it’s built upon the framework, and echoes, and allusions to previous work. Intertextuality studies deal with the significance of this borrowing. What meaning can we draw out of that? Is there significance in that? How do you identify when a work is referring to another work?
Laura Hales: The Doctrine and Covenants clearly adopted the language of the New Testament and adapted it into a 19th-century religious context, specifically Latter-day Saint. There is complex intertextuality there, correct?
Nick Frederick: Yeah, absolutely. And the Book of Mormon does this, too. The language is kind of a King James rhetoric, but there are hundreds if not thousands of allusions to the New Testament and the Old Testament all the way through the Book of Mormon and all the way through the Doctrine and Covenants. One of our challenges in studying this is not just simply to identify where those allusions are and try to figure out not only what they’re alluding to but also their meaning. Why borrow that specific phrase?
Joseph does this in a really interesting way. He rarely will just take a phrase or a passage and put it wholesale into the D&C or the Book of Mormon. There are always a few words that are changed. Maybe the order of a few words is changed. Maybe some words are put in between a couple of phrases until it feels very, very organic; it doesn’t stand out. There are exceptions, but, for the most part, it’s this wonderful interweaving of Biblical text into modern scripture.
Laura Hales: Or even just the concepts.
Nick Frederick: Yeah, absolutely.
Laura Hales: You are a numbers person. Usually, you include a chart at the back of your articles where you’ve numbered little references to what you have discussed in the article. You have done that for the references—the intertextuality in the D&C. Which New Testament books are referenced most?
Nick Frederick: This is interesting because this is actually true for the Book of Mormon as well as for the D&C, but in both the Book of Mormon and the D&C, Matthew is cited the most. Then, second is the book of Revelation, and third is the Gospel of John. Then, as far as specifically in the D&C, Hebrews and I Corinthians show up a fair amount. Those are the five that show up the most. There are a couple that don’t show up at all. Philemon doesn’t show up. Second Thessalonians doesn’t show up. Jude actually shows up quite a bit. I was interested to see which ones show up and which ones don’t and which verses show up and which verses don’t. But, yeah, they are Matthew, Revelation, and John for both the Book of Mormon and the D&C.
Laura Hales: The book of Revelation gets 65 verses that are referenced. Let’s use the remainder of our time to go over those verses in the D&C, which employ the most language from the book of Revelation. They’re mostly found in D&C 29, 76, 77, and 88. What are the themes of D&C 29?
Nick Frederick: D&C 29 is this fascinating revelation. You are going along in the D&C, and it’s very practical up until this point. Here is the constitution of the church. Here is what to do with people who have already been baptized, and you want to re-baptize them. Emma Smith needs to put together a hymnbook. Then you hit 29, and it’s this stunning eschatological text centered around agency and how agency affects the fate of humanity at the resurrection and the judgment. The millennium is imminent. The gathering of Israel is commencing. Joseph had already received Moses 1 by this point in fall of 1830 when section 29 is received. But this really, to me, is his coming out as a biblical prophet. It’s like reading Isaiah or reading Jeremiah when you read D&C 29.
Laura Hales: You mentioned eschatology, which means, basically, end-time theology.
Nick Frederick: The study of the end times, the eschaton.
Laura Hales: How does Joseph Smith use Revelation imagery, which we just went over, to portray Latter-day Saint eschatology?
Nick Frederick: Maybe just to contextualize this, Joseph Smith is far from the only one to do this. The book of Revelation really influences a lot of the primary religious founders and movers in the 19th century. Alexander Campbell put passages from Revelation 14 within his periodical The Millennial Harbinger—the same verses we use: “And I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven.” The same verses we use to talk about the Restoration, Campbell used in his publication. William Miller, the founder of the Millerites, relied mostly on Daniel but did use the book of Revelation a little bit in calculating the day of the Second Coming in 1844.
In the wake of the great disappointment when Jesus doesn’t arrive in 1844, one of Miller’s followers, Ellen White, uses Revelation 11 to reorient William Miller’s calculation to say that, well, maybe Jesus cleansed the heavenly sanctuary, but not the earthly sanctuary. She is the founder of Seventh-day Adventists who come about because of this reorientation. And by the way, they use Revelation 13 to back up the belief that a Sabbath should be on Saturday rather than Sunday. Those who worship on Sunday—it’s the mark of the beast.
Nick Frederick: Then Charles T. Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, recalculates Miller’s numbers using the book of Revelation to come up with 1914. Another follower says it is 1925, a little bit later. The 144,000, the elect the Jehovah’s Witnesses promote, comes from Revelation 7. So Joseph Smith is far from the only one who really digs into the book of Revelation. It seems like a lot of religious figures are looking to that text; he is playing in the same stream. But Joseph is really the only one who rewrites the book of Revelation, as you see from sections like D&C 29.
In D&C 29, Joseph uses the seven signs from the sixth seal in Revelation 6 to describe the Second Coming. He uses imagery from Revelation to describe the fate of the wicked. The source of wickedness on the earth is the great and abominable church, described as the whore of all the earth, alluding to, among other things, Revelation 17. He discusses the millennial earth—the dead rising from their graves. There is a section on the new heaven and the new earth from Revelation 21—details on the fall of Satan using Revelation 12—that we talked about earlier. It’s almost like a 30-second highlight video of major book of Revelation events that hit us in D&C 29. Joseph has taken these fairly powerful images, saying, “Okay, here’s how they fit.” He rewrites them, restructuring them for a 19th-century audience.
Laura Hales: Oh, I love that. It’s like he is saying, “Okay, you’ve heard it from all these other people. This is my take on it.”
Nick Frederick: I think that’s part of it. I think he recognizes how much potency the book of Revelation has because it’s being used by others around him, and it will continue to be used by others later, but he wants to get his own interpretation of that out there because the book of Revelation has power. It attracts people.
Laura Hales: If you were to ask any Latter-day Saint, “What is D&C 76 about?” they would say, “The three degrees of glory.” However, you maintain there is a lot more to that section than we typically think about.
Nick Frederick: The impetus of D&C 76 is this question about the resurrection, which is taken from Joseph Smith’s study of John chapter 5, which is about the resurrection. It’s this concern with the resurrection, how and when the resurrection is going to happen—what it’s going to look like—that moves Joseph on this. But what’s interesting to me is, before the vision really begins, he and Sidney see the holy angels who stand before the throne worshiping God and the Lamb. It’s almost as if he is reenacting Revelation 4 and 5. He is standing where John the Revelator stood. What we then get with the rest of D&C 76 is a recapitulation of events from the book of Revelation, just talked about in, perhaps, more pragmatic terms: celestial, terrestrial, and telestial kingdoms. But where the language of the book of Revelation plays a key role in 76 is on the fate of Satan and his followers, Satan and his minions, the punishment of the wicked—all that language is borrowed straight from the book of Revelation.
Laura Hales: That’s some great insight. We talked earlier about the book of Revelation being in the air in the 19th century when Joseph Smith was preaching and established the church. D&C 77 is a Q&A on meanings of the imagery in the book of Revelation. How does it go against the contemporary analysis of the text?
Nick Frederick: Looking at Joseph Smith versus, perhaps, how people read the book of Revelation today, Joseph gives a very pragmatic reading. I like to say he demystifies the book of Revelation—he has concrete answers for things. History is very realistically portrayed in the book of Revelation. I’ll give you a couple of places where Joseph, perhaps, parts ways with how modern scholars would read it. We have to remember D&C 77 only goes through chapter 11, so we only have half of the book of Revelation before Joseph moved on to other projects. And it’s also worth noting that Joseph doesn’t include D&C 77 in the 1833 Book of Commandments or the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants. It’s not until 1876 that Brigham Young puts it in the D&C, so it’s kind of hard to know how Joseph wanted us to interpret the book of Revelation.
When you look at the Q&A that Joseph does in D&C 77, there are a couple of really big ones that stand out to me as far as Joseph’s diverging from modern scholarship, or modern scholarship diverging from Joseph Smith, however you want to look at it. The first is the seven seals that appear on the scroll that the lamb opens. Joseph looks at those seven seals and says these are seven distinct, thousand-year historical periods. All the way up till today, we still talk about the earth as being 7,000 years old—that Adam and Eve, perhaps, are 4,000 BC, and we’re at the end of the 6,000th year right now, or something like that. That really doesn’t work as far as the book of Revelation goes, partly because you have three sets of seven in the book of Revelation. You have seven seals and seven trumpets and then seven bowls, and they seem to be recapitulations of the judgments that are going to come upon the earth. It’s hard to see the seven seals as acting so differently from the trumpets and the bowls that come later.
The second way Joseph parts with modern scholars (and we kind of hinted at this earlier) is in regard to these two witnesses in Revelation 11. There is this kind of fascination amongst Latter-day Saints for these being two actual people—two apostles who are going to travel to Jerusalem, who are going to be killed, who are going to lie dead in the streets, then who are going to be resurrected. Again, when you read chapter 11, it doesn’t really fit that these are actual individuals. It seems pretty clear that what’s being talked about in the church as a whole. That’s the church people being unified, the membership, however you want to look at it. It’s when they do their job as witnesses. It may be hard, they might suffer, but ultimately God will vindicate them. That seems to be the point of those two witnesses. The witnesses can do what God can’t with his threats of judgment, which is to bring repentance.
Joseph’s answers to this are very pragmatic. They are periods of time, and they are two actual people—but I don’t know how well those really work within the context of the book of Revelation itself. Hyrum M. Smith made the comment that D&C 77 is not an interpretation, but it’s a key. It’s enough to get you into the house, but you have to do the interpretive work yourself. One of the problems I see a lot with Latter-day Saint commentaries and statements on the book of Revelation is that we just plug in the answers from D&C 77 and say, “Well, here’s the interpretation.” I don’t know if that’s what Joseph wants us to get. I wonder if this is, in fact, a key—we should be building on that—more than just assuming this is the interpretation.
Laura Hales: Would you say that scholars nowadays maybe take a more nuanced view?
Nick Frederick: Yeah, I would say that. Absolutely. Especially the historicist viewpoint that we’re actually dealing with periods of concrete time here—that’s really fallen out of favor. Most of your scholars today are going to be preterists, and they tend to be idealists. They tend to see the book of Revelation telling a story. I think most of them would agree that John does have a sense of the future in this. Those are the three—a merging of eclectic perspectives—at work here. This historicist one really hasn’t carried a lot of weight, really, for quite a while.
Laura Hales: Joseph generally approached scripture from a historicist point of view, which was typical in the 19th century, don’t you think?
Nick Frederick: I think so. I don’t think he is misreading the text. He is not necessarily doing anything that was out of sorts for what would happen in the 19th century. He is trying to make sense of a text that he thinks has clues. You look at someone like William Miller, who is taking apocalyptic literature and taking numbers and using that to calculate the exact day Jesus is going to return. In my mind, that’s a little bit farfetched—that’s going way beyond what Joseph’s doing. I like Joseph’s reading. I think Joseph presents an interesting reading of the book of Revelation. I don’t think it needs to be the only reading of the book of Revelation. I think Joseph shows that. When he comes back to the book of Revelation later in Nauvoo, he is reading it differently than he does in 1832 when D&C 77 is received.
Laura Hales: And it’s telling that he didn’t include it in the Doctrine and Covenants himself.
Nick Frederick: Yeah, and that it was never finished. It ends with Revelation chapter 11. There is another Revelation right after this. It’s what’s on the pure language document that is also in Q&A form that was never included in the D&C. I don’t know if Joseph ever meant either of those documents to be anything more than a pragmatic, scholarly academic approach to try to understand how scripture works. Short of knowing more specifically what Joseph thought and the process behind the Q&A of D&C 77, I would say, as Latter-day Saints, if we use that, I think that would need to be part of the interpretation, but it doesn’t need to be the only interpretation.
Laura Hales: Let’s go over the last section that uses the book of Revelation. What does D&C 88 attempt to do?
Nick Frederick: As Richard Bushman eloquently put it, “D&C 88 is a cohesive compound of cosmology and eschatology.”
Laura Hales: Oh, wow!
Nick Frederick: That’s Richard, right? He is just fantastic at that kind of descriptive rhetoric.
Nick Frederick: D&C 88 tries to quantify the universe, make it relatable to each person living on earth—this is a blueprint of the unknown world that’s out there. What does the universe look like if we could pull it back and just show a blueprint? So, specifically, when you get to the end, 88 and 92 to 95 specifically borrow from the book of Revelation to describe some of the events that will precede the Second Coming—angels flying through heaven, Babylon drunk on the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and silence in heaven for half an hour—all these are drawn from the book of Revelation, and they become this eschatological blueprint right there in D&C 88. So, I guess, what we see in these sections in the D&C (when you look at 29 and 76, 77, 88 and maybe some of these other smaller places) where we see the book of Revelation is Joseph Smith taking older texts and giving them a new form, a new context, and a new direction.
I find this really fascinating because that is what the book of Revelation does. There are 404 verses in the book of Revelation, and there are at least 275 allusions to Old Testament texts like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Isaiah, but they’re never overtly obvious appropriations of the Old Testament. They’re very carefully woven into the book of Revelation in a way that feels organic. When I read the Book of Mormon or I read the revelations in the D&C, and I see how restoration scripture weaves biblical texts and recontextualizes them, what I’m reminded most of is Revelation. They share a very similar style and mode of intertextuality—something that I think really needs to be explored further.
Laura Hales: I love that. Thank you so much for spending time with me today. I love these articles. I’ve learned so much about the book of Revelation. It came to life to me, and it was pertinent and relevant, just like you told me a year ago.
After contemplating these two articles, I went back to our discussion a year ago. You show in these articles that the book of Revelation gave Joseph Smith a vocabulary to express revealed theology. So perhaps we should study this text, not necessarily to learn more about what the author was saying, but rather what Joseph was saying. What do you think?
Nick Frederick: Yeah, I like that. There is obviously a part of me that would say we have to study the book of Revelation on its own terms and see what John was saying to the first century because these problems are still problems for us today, but there is something very true about trying to understand what Joseph saw in the book of Revelation. And I’m hard-pressed to find another biblical text that seemed to impact Joseph as much as this one did. I mean, he is all about eschatology and pre-millennialism, even apocalypticism. I think he finds in John the Revelator a kindred soul of sorts, kind of like what Nephi does with Isaiah. It’s almost like Joseph finds in the book of Revelation the language to express his thoughts and teachings.
Nick Frederick: Again, going back to what I mentioned earlier, one of these last sermons that he gives in June of 1844, the Sermon at the Grove, when he gets up there and reads Revelation 3, and then he gives a sermon on Revelation 1:6. Revelation 1:6 is “God hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father.” And you look what Joseph does with that: kings and priests, queens and priestesses. He interprets God and his Father to be Heavenly Father and Heavenly Father’s father. Questions of seals on foreheads being connected with sealings, and high priests, and linking that with calling and election, white stones, and new names, sitting on thrones in deified states. There is a lot of Nauvoo theology that Joseph seems to arrive at, or at least find the language for, from what he gets from the book of Revelation. Joseph consistently draws upon it; the Book of Mormon and the D&C keep returning to the book of Revelation. I think there is a message there for us today. I don’t think it’s as simple as: “Here’s how the end of the world is going to come; now break the code and figure out what the symbols mean.”
I think the challenge is to read the book of Revelation and find ourselves in it. When God pulls back the curtain, where will we be found? What side will we be on? How will we fit into the big picture? Where will we find our hope? Where will we turn when things get crazy? In our haste to be victorious, will we remember to be vulnerable? Will we remember the message of the Lamb?
Laura Hales: Oh, I love it! Thank you so much, Nick, for spending some time with me today.
Nick Frederick: My pleasure, Laura.
Narrator: Be sure to check out LDSPerspectives.com to subscribe, catch up on past episodes, download transcripts, and find show notes.
Disclaimer: Latter-day Saint Perspectives podcast is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed represent the views of the guests or the podcasters alone. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of Latter-day Saint Church leaders, policies, or practices.
*Dr. Frederick is indebted to the scholarship of Craig R. Koester, author of the Anchor Bible Commentary on the book of Revelation, as well as the shorter (and cheaper—so everyone should buy it) book Revelation and the End of All Things.