A new way to see the Book of Revelation.
June 10, 2013 By Joel J. Miller
Thanks again to Jim Forest.
From the earliest days of the church Christians have illustrated the scripture. Whether it’s biblical scenes in catacomb art outside Rome or fully illuminated manuscripts like the Rabbula and Lindisfarne Gospels, Christians like to visualize holy stories and characters. Now comes The Book of Revelation, a graphic novel adaptation of John’s Apocalypse executed at the highest artistic level.
The Book of Revelation, illustrated by Chris Koelle
Enveloped in the arresting artwork is a gripping, new translation of the book, the labor of Frs. Mark Arey and Philemon Sevastiades (now sadly deceased). Fr. Mark has served in the ministry for more than thirty years and today, along with working as a lead translator for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, directs ecumenical and interfaith relations for the archdiocese. I recently spoke with Fr. Mark about the Revelation project — which was adapted by Matt Dorff and illustrated by Chris Koelle — along with his translation work.
The book is really stunning, the images and text both. What has the wider reception to the book been so far?
Very positive, from the publisher, Zondervan, and both the graphic novel community and the community of faith.
The most gratifying thing to hear from Christians is that our graphic novel makes Revelation easier to read. This was our very purpose — to provide a visually immersive narrative to the words of Holy Scripture. As anyone who has read the Book of Revelation in any translation knows, it is at various times quite difficult to follow, as it cuts back between Heaven and Earth, the future and the past.
Who came up with the idea of doing Revelation as a graphic novel?
The idea was conceived of by the adaptor and art director, Matt Dorff, a producer and screenwriter in Hollywood. Matt and I were introduced by the actor and my close friend, Chris Diamantopoulos, who had worked with Matt earlier in his career. It was really one of the those moments where three people come together to discuss a whole host of ideas, and one just jumps out. Matt has a deep admiration for the narrative of Scripture, and I shared with him my translation. Matt also knew the artist, Chris Koelle. Then the team set to work and the result is now in the hands of more than 40,000 people and growing.
What were the primary challenges in creating the final product? Did you have any concerns about the format?
Probably the greatest challenge was the sheer amount of labor. Our graphic novel contains all 22 chapters of Revelation, every one of the 404 verses, and over 570 separate illustrations to accompany the text. Think of a reverse illuminated manuscript, where, instead of illustration on the margin of text, the text is embedded in the illustration. It requIred not only conception and creation of the art, but placement and sizing of the text.
As far as the format is concerned, we were aware that no one had ever really tried to incorporate pure Scripture into the graphic novel model. There had been attempts at comic book formats, but these were most often paraphrases of Scripture at best. Ours is the text, and nothing but the text. The visuals are there to carry the reader like water upholds a boat.
We are not trying to imagine or re-imagine Scripture. Rather, our approach is imaging, in the same way that a translator “re-images” the inspired words of the original Greek into whatever language he is translating.
As a priest, do you see any pastoral application of the book? What role does Revelation play in the life of the individual believer?
From the Orthodox Christian perspective, there is great pastoral application, especially in connecting believers with worship. The Book of Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that is not read in the yearly liturgical cycle. Rather, the heavenly worship described in Revelation is enacted on earth in the local community Sunday to Sunday. Additionally, the moral, ethical and spiritual ramifications of the “Letters to the Seven Churches” in the first three chapters are inexhaustible storehouses of wisdom for believers of every confession.
The Book of Revelation, illustrated by Chris Koelle
The book utilizes your new translation of Revelation. What’s the backstory on that?
This goes back to 1999, when my dear friend, the late Fr. Philemon Sevastiades, and I conceived a project to translate the entire New Testament into fresh, understandable and precise English. We chose for the Greek text the official liturgical text of the Orthodox Church authorized in 1904 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. It bears more of a resemblance to the Received Text as opposed to the Critical Text because the Received Text was based on manuscripts from Constantinople.
More importantly, it represents the living text of a living worshipping Church through 20 centuries of unbroken transmission and usage. We published Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in 2002. We were a small, struggling start-up, and when Fr. Philemon passed away unexpectedly on 2004, the project folded until I met Matt Dorff six years later.
What’s distinctive about the new translation, compared to others that are on the market?
First of all, the choice of source text. I think most Christians are probably unaware of the variations in the over 5,000 manuscripts that form the basis for the New Testament. Using the official text of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whose communities still worship in the language of the New Testament, provides a different perspective on how text is transmitted and received.
As for the English chosen to translate, we wanted to give it the feel of a palimpsest, an ancient manuscript whose writing has been effaced in order to be reused, but over time bears traces of the original text. What we aimed to do was to give, as much as possible, the same effect to our translation. A good example of this is the “opening” of the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation (chapter 6). Ancient seals (mostly lead or wax) had to be fractured to be opened — cracked, shattered, broken — and a reader of the original Greek would have known this and heard this when they read of the “opening” of a seal.
Knowing that Scripture was first meant to be heard would give any reader the best insight into the translation. We take very seriously that “all Scripture is inspired by God” and that “faith cometh by hearing.” (Yes, I do have a serious weakness for the majesty of the KJV!)
Your translation work is part of a larger project, a fresh translation of the New Testament. Can you tell us more about that? What can we expect from that work as far as style, approach, and publication?
Zondervan will be inaugurating the graphic novel series, The Last Adam in the Fall of this year, a multivolume harmony of the Four Canonical Gospels. The inaugural volume, Firstborn will begin with John 1.1 and conclude with Luke 3.6 and include at least someone from all Four. Firstborn will recount in lush visuals the annunciations of both John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus, the nativity of each, the childhood of the Lord, and the beginning of the ministry of John. Each volume will continue the Greatest Story Ever Told with a different artist, but in the same style of visually immersive storytelling.
For those who do not know, The harmonization of the Four Gospels is an ancient presentation that predates the canonization of the New Testament. In fact, the Diatessaron of Tatian was used to establish the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as he did not use any other in his harmony.
The harmony that forms the The Last Adam series is one that I constructed based on the original Greek, omitting only repetition, and trying to omit only those repetitions that were exactly the same in the original. The arrangement of necessity has new chaptering, but every verse, or even half verse is identified, so that the translation can be cross-referenced.
Again, the reigning principle is only Scripture — the visualization is there to reengage the reader, or maybe capture a reader for the first time. Ultimately, because we know that his words are spirit and they are life, we want the reader to delve in more deeply. It is our fervent hope and prayer that our graphic novels will be a gateway to deeper commitment and study of Sacred Scripture.
What an Orthodox bishop thinks you should know about the Book of Revelation.
June 11, 2013 By Joel J. Miller
Yesterday I posted a Q&A with Fr. Mark Arey about his stunning new graphic novel of Revelation. It features a fresh translation of John’s Apocalypse, all 404 of its enigmatic verses, along with some 570 images to illumine the text.
Though today Christians seem somewhat obsessed with Revelation, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the early church seems to have been rather ambivalent about it. While it’s regarded as Holy Scripture, as Fr. Mark pointed out in the interview, even now Revelation is the only New Testament book without a home in the Orthodox lectionary. You won’t hear it formally read in church.
Metropolitan Savas (Zembillas) of Pittsburgh
I decided to ask Metropolitan Savas Zembillas about the book’s controversial past and its place in the life of the church, and he was gracious enough to answer.
Some background is in order. His Eminence served for ten years as Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America before his December 2012 enthronement as Metropolitan of Pittsburgh. Last year, he participated as one of twelve members of the Holy Patriarchal Synod in Constantinople (that’s Istanbul for the less optimistic readers out there).
As mentioned in yesterday’s interview with Fr. Mark Arey, the Orthodox church does not include Revelation in its regular cycle of readings. That might strike some Christians as strange. What’s the church’s view of the book’s purpose in the life of the church?
First, let me say that Fr. Mark’s treatment of the Book of Revelation is visually arresting, and the translation both beautiful and alive.
But to the question, Revelation — also known as the Apocalypse, literally, “The Unveiling” — has had a very interesting history. And here, I should point out, we are talking about the Church before all the various schisms and divisions. It’s not only the last book of the New Testament canon, but it was also the last book to be accepted as canonical by the Church.
From its first appearance, bishops and theologians have had serious concerns about the book’s apostolic credentials. One third-century bishop, for instance, argued from a very careful comparison of the book’s vocabulary and syntax with that of the Gospel and three epistles attributed to the Apostle John that the Apocalypse had to have been written by a different person!
Others, including St. Gregory the Theologian in the fourth century, characterized it as difficult to interpret and easily misunderstood and misused.
In the Christian West, St. Jerome had his reservations, and St. Augustine, who discouraged eschatological speculation, favored an ahistorical, allegorical reading. Even Martin Luther initially included it among the works he considered “questionable,” and it was the only book of the New Testament for which John Calvin did not write a commentary!
As you mention, to this day, it remains the only New Testament book from which the Orthodox Church does not read aloud. This is not to say that the Church does not consider it a God-inspired text! On the contrary, the Church draws heavily from its rich and mysterious symbolism and imagery, and in fact can be said to act it out liturgically.
Why is the book not included in the lectionary?
Apocalyptic writings, of which this is the most famous but by no means the only text, have a tendency to excite the imagination in ways that have almost always proved unfruitful.
Time and again, people have been led astray, especially in times of political instability, by preachers who have claimed to know the meaning of its many symbols and the timing of the prophetic events described. In my own lifetime, I can remember televangelists asserting with certainty that the ten horns of the beast were the ten nations of the European Union — now there are of course more member nations in the EU — and that the birthmark on President Mikhail Gorbachev’s head was proof that he was the beast!
But while we may not read from the text in the lectionary, we do make plentiful use of it.
Some examples would include the symbols of the Evangelists in the pendentives, the thrones, the incense, the relics of martyred saints in the altar, the prostrations, the constant use of the Trisagion: “Holy, Holy, Holy. . . .” These are all echoes from the Book of Revelation, but echoes we put into practice every day in the divine services of the Church.
Does the Orthodox church have an official interpretation of the book?
No, and I’m not aware of any church that does. Several Orthodox saints and theologians have offered commentaries on the Book of Revelation, but the Church has not singled any out as the “official” reading.
Andrew of Caesarea, for instance, offered a commentary, which has been newly translated by Presvytera Jeannie Constantinou, Ph.D. You can find out more about that here, and InterVarsity Press has also published a translation of Andrew’s commentary, which you can find here. More recently, Archbishop Averky wrote a widely read commentary under the title Apocalypse.
If all of that seems daunting, Fr. Thomas Hopko has a helpful three-part introductory lecture on the book, which you can listen to below.
Whatever commentary you consult, it’s important to remember the Church has always endorsed the idea that there are multiple layers of interpretation. The first-century readers to whom the book was addressed understood certain things in Revelation that later readers do not. But there are truths that transcend that original audience, which is why it’s relevant today.
What are the most startling images in the book for you? And how about the most comforting as well?
There are many shocking and even monstrous images in the book, but what I am most startled by are the absences. In the New Jerusalem, for instance, there is no temple! Instead the lamb that was slain lives. And there is no sun. The radiance of God illumines the saints.
As for the most comforting images, I’d have to point to Revelation 2.17:
To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
The idea there that God takes care to provide for our spiritual sustenance is deeply moving, so especially is the idea that God alone knows our true selves. Not even we know it fully, but someday God will reveal it to us.
And then of course there’s Revelation 7.15-17:
He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
What more needs to be said? That is the sum of our hope.
One last question: Does the book say anything to Christians today enduring persecution?
Fear not, little flock. God is in control. The victory has been won. Christ has conquered the world.
A WALK THROUGH THE APOCALYPSE (click each part)
by Father Thomas Hopko
A CATHOLIC APPROACH TO THE APOCALYPSE
by Dr Scott Hahn
(click each title)
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