Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images (London: Dacre, 1949).
No one has applied himself to the question of the literary art of the Apocalypse with more relentlessness than Austin Farrer. The book is a masterpiece and a puzzle, at once impressive and bemusing. The entire book is dominated by the conclusion (or shall we say, conviction) that the Apocalypse “is the one great poem which the first Christian age produced” (6). Accordingly, in this study of the book of Revelation, Farrer claims “to introduce into the field of scriptural divinity a known method of poetical analysis” (20). The origins of Christianity were, in fact, a “rebirth” of the imagery of the Jewish Scriptures. The most complete rebirth was accomplished in Revelation; in John’s poetical labor, the images of the Old Testament were reborn completely with Christ as the new center. Farrer saw, more than many, the sophistication of the book. He approaches the book as a work of genius, not that of a madman, though the difference between the two has often thought to be slight. He traces the themes of the Apocalypse much like one might trace the genius of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. In fact, the result of the Farrer’s analysis is so complex and dense, one might wonder whether Farrer has seen more than is actually there.
There are three basic structural schemas that Farrer finds in the Apocalypse. One should not make too sharp a difference between questions of form and content, however, with respect to the analysis, because often the former relies on the latter for its full exposition. The first of the three is the seven-fold pattern. Farrer describes this pattern first according to the ‘symbolic week,’ which derives its leitmotifs from the seven days of creation (Gen 1). Within each of the sevens (seven letters, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven bowls), one can find a pattern that follows the themes of creation. Not only so, but the entire book is constructed on the scheme of the six days of creation and a final Sabbath-rest—a symbolic ‘week’ of weeks, so that the themes of creation are also spread across the whole book, and not simply found in successive repetition.
The next pattern Farrer discerns governing the book is the quarter pattern. More specifically, this is the pattern of the festal year. Farrer discerns four major festal quarters: Spring=Passover and Pentecost; Summer=New Year; Fall=Tabernacles; Winter=Dedication (Hanukkah). But the entire book is actually structured by six quarters; thus, a quarter, a year, and a quarter. Farrer relies on a reconstruction of Jewish lectionary (for which he claims no expertise ) to supply the themes for this progression in the book. The pattern of the festal year is augmented by the incorporation of the themes of the seven letters, the seven seals, the seven bowls, and the seven trumpets, which run through the seven-fold pattern of the book. In other words, Farrer aligns the seven-fold pattern with the four-fold pattern. At this point the reader may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the proposition, perplexed by dual (dueling?) suspicions: 1) that the themes of the Jewish Scriptures do infuse so much of the book; and 2) that there is no possible way this elaborate construction could have been conceived by a single author in the first century CE. But that does not stop Farrer from going further.
Three entire chapters are devoted to “the calendar of feasts” and two to “the sacred diagram.” This latter is the next and last schema in his analysis of the book. Farrer has already connected the seven-fold pattern with the four-fold. Now Farrer will add the twelve-fold, for in addition to all of the themes we have seen so far, Farrer now takes account of the astrological symbolism in the book. The zodiac is yet another structure, which links up also with the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve stones of Aaron’s breastplate. Farrer’s teasing out the themes of these images and their biblical connections, yields an exceedingly complicated diagram, reminiscent of, and yet exceeding, those of Joachim of Fiore. The end-result of the sacred diagram is a kind of interpretational key or shorthand to the Apocalypse, comprising seasonal (solstices and equinoxes), spatial (compass points), festal (Pentecost, Passover, Purim, Dedication, Tabernacles, Atonement, New Year), geographical (earth, sea, luminaries, fresh waters), symbolic-geographical (Heaven and Earth; Altar and Temple; God’s Throne; Beast’s Throne), tribal, gemological, and astrological dimensions. Farrer’s exposition, one might reasonably conclude, requires its own exposition and commentary.
In the remaining chapters, Farrer ties up loose ends with a discussion on numerology, a fascinating discussion of the divine name in the book, and the kingdom of darkness. The chapter on numerology offers what is still a fresh perspective on the number 666, and on the source (1 Chronicles) and nature (triangular, not square) of the numbers. The chapter on the divine name makes much of the popular (though by no means exclusive) Greek version of the Tetragrammaton, IAW, to help explain the phrase A and W. The chapter on the kingdom of darkness emphasizes a point Farrer had hinted at already: the parodic nature of all things from the kingdom of darkness, vis-à-vis God’s kingdom.
In his final concluding chapter, Farrer revisits the question of the mechanics of John’s composition of the Apocalypse. Three basic conclusions are made here. First, no matter what the process of inspiration entailed, John clearly consciously produced the Apocalypse. In other words, John was not mere a passive observer and recorder of visions. Second, the book is unique in the sense that it stands out from both antecedents and successors. It is a piece of literature sui generis. Third, the main mechanism for the composition of the Apocalypse is the sacred diagram, which worked as a cipher in John’s mind through which he worked, bit by bit and piece by piece.
One of the gifts of Farrer’s book is its humility. Before he has even finished a third of his exposition he admits Farrer admits his own doubts: “If [the reader] feels at a given point, ‘This is no more than possible, it is not proved,’ he may rest assured that he has the author in agreement with him. If he will read on, he will be able to decide in the end whether enough has been proved, or not—proved with such proof as the subject-matter allows: we are not doing geometry here” (96). Indeed, there is much that is not more than possible, and at times even scarcely seems possible, in Farrer’s study. Certainly one of the great benefits of Farrer’s labor is the intense relationship he builds between Revelation and the OT. Whether or not Farrer is correct in the details, he has at least succeeded in holding readers of Revelation accountable the deeply intertextual nature of the text, a point further buttressed by G. K. Beale’s commentary. There is immediately a problem here, however. For his reconstruction of the sacred diagram, Farrer has relied heavily on reconstructed synagogue lectionary readings. As he himself mentions in the preface, the reconstruction that Farrer follows is not without criticism. In addition, it was not as common when Farrer wrote to extensively document critical discussion in footnotes as it is today. One is therefore left with a suspicion that the lectionary Farrer uses is one of convenience and little more.
An equally important shortcoming in this study is the sporadic lack of coherence. Farrer begins with a pattern, but quite often finds himself pointing out or explaining away exceptions to or anomalies in the patterns he discerns. It would be burdensome to point out all of these, but maybe one example will suffice. As soon as Farrer begins his discussion of the symbolic week, we find him explaining difficulties. In aligning the seven symbolic days with the seven days of creation in Gen 1, Farrer has to posit John’s stretching of the works of the third day to cover the first and the second, since light and firmament would be burdensome to carry through. This is a serious alteration that is posited without much evidence, save the logic and elegance it bestows on Farrer’s hypothesis. Moreover, after the seven trumpets have sounded, it seems as though the series of sevens have been interrupted. Not so, says Farrer, but instead we have an unnumbered series of seven from 11.15-14.20. But this is surely an odd anomaly, considering John will return to the seven-fold pattern with the bowls. For Farrer, this is a reason to suppose the blanks are likewise structured, but it is certainly a bold move to continue to posit such an elegant schema for an author who interrupts his own ordering devices. In other words, Farrer fairly begs the question as to why the unnumbered series are unnumbered.
In the end, the reader is left with some such experience as Farrer imagines: “An elaborate and unfamiliar hypothesis about [John’s] manner of working is put before us, and we say, ‘How far-fetched, how unnecessary’” (304). We might well wish to put an exclamation point behind that imagined interlocution. Farrer’s concept of the sacred diagram is elegant and complex; whether it retains interpretive utility or is economical is another matter. One cannot help but feel that Occam would have been very displeased. Even so, the real value of Farrer’s book is its provocation. He continues the previous quotation with, “Well, the proposed hypothesis may, in fact, be a bad one, but if so, we have to find a better” (304). The book is an invitation to continue, criticize and improve what Farrer had begun.
The issues raised by the study are legion, but I isolate five areas of research opened up, advanced, or given new life by Farrer. First, the structure of the book of Revelation. This is a question that continues to vex scholars. Farrer’s structural analysis based on at least three overlapping schemas seems very uneconomical. But if that is so, a better suggestion must be made. Those are still in short supply. Second, Farrer contributed to the scholarly recognition that the Apocalypse is shot through with OT imagery and typology. Third, Farrer rightly insisted that John relied also on astrological imagery in constructing his apocalypse. This is one area that has, to my knowledge remained underexplored. Fourth, regardless of how unique a literary work he considers the Apocalypse to be, and of how ingenius he considers its author, Farrer insists on understanding John as a product of his age. He does not point to the apocalyptic tradition, as though John were an unreflective parrot of such a tradition. Instead, he dares to imagine what kind of Sitz im Leben would have given John the resources he needed to accomplish this literary feat. This is a question unresolved with apocalyptic literature in general, much less John’s apocalypse. In particular, the question of the relationship between this (or any) apocalypse and the lectionaries of the synagogues invites further research. Fifth, Farrer succeeded in arguing that although real visionary experiences may lie behind the book of Revelation, what we in fact have is a literary work. This is perhaps Farrer’s greatest legacy to study of the book. “To ask whether St John saw his visions by means of a mystical diagram or through the Holy Ghost, is like asking whether the flight of an eagle is sustained by his wings or by the air. On whatever wind of spirit St John ascended, he moved the sinews of his mind, and we can observe the motions” (304). This legacy is confirmed by G. B. Caird, in the acknowledgements to his own classic commentary on the book: “But above all my thanks are due to A. M. Farrer, who first opened my eyes to John’s use of the imagination and taught me to see in him both an exegete and a supreme literary artist.”
In the end, Farrer’s conclusions may be indemonstrable, indefensible, and passé. But the questions he raises are far from settled, some deserving of a second look and some of rebirth.