Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

Course No. 6433
Professor Craig R. Koester, Ph.D.
Luther Seminary
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The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History

Professor Craig R. Koester, Luther Seminary


Exiled to the island of Patmos over 1,900 years ago, a prophet named John wrote a remarkable letter to fellow Christians. That letter is the Apocalypse of John, also known as the book of Revelation, and Christians and non-Christians alike have been debating its message ever since.


The meaning of the Greek word for apocalypse is “disclosure,” and John’s book discloses dimensions of two age-old mysteries: the character of evil and the nature of hope. So influential was Revelation in the early Christian church that it was placed as the final text in the New Testament, and its popularity has intensified in the centuries since.


As a result, its rich language and symbolism pervade Western culture, often in ways not recognized as coming from this unparalleled biblical work:


•     The details of heaven in the popular imagination, with its pearly gates, streets of gold, divine throne, and tree and river of life, are taken from the vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of Revelation.


•     Paintings and sculptures of the Virgin Mary since the Renaissance typically portray her as Revelation’s “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.”


•     Revelation contributes some of the best-loved lyrics in Handel’s Messiah, including the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which takes singers and listeners to a realm of sublime mystery, just as John’s text does.


•     The words and images of many popular hymns were inspired by Revelation, including the “grapes of wrath” in “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the lyrics from “When the Saints Go Marching In.”


Revelation is also a touchstone for hopes and fears about the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. And its many baffling images have been studied for clues about the end of the world. The Apocalypse is both a terrifying vision of evil and a celebration of God’s ultimate victory over the forces of darkness. It has inspired great thoughts and great misunderstanding.


What are we to make of such a book? The Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History is your guide to this extraordinary work in 24 thought-provoking and enlightening half-hour lectures, divided into three parts:


•     The historical and intellectual background of the Apocalypse

•     A close reading of John’s text, focusing on the meaning of its images

•     The wide-ranging impact of the book on Christian and Western history


Your professor is a preeminent scholar and teacher of the Apocalypse, Professor Craig R. Koester of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Koester—who has translated the book of Revelation from its original Greek—draws on years of experience with students, pastors, and lay groups to engage you directly with Revelation, examining its meaning in John’s day and how it continues to be meaningful to contemporary readers.


Book of Predictions? Or Work of Literature?


Professor Koester notes that many of the questions people ask him about the Apocalypse are sparked by sensationalistic interpretations that see it as a book of predictions. Explaining that Revelation follows a literary genre with roots in the apocalyptic writings of the Hebrew prophets, Professor Koester discusses the reasoning behind the futurist perspective and why it is problematic. For example:


•     The Antichrist: The word “antichrist” does not appear in Revelation. Instead, it is a term taken from First and Second John in the New Testament, where it refers to those who have left the Christian community, not to any individual tyrant.


•     The Rapture: The idea that true Christians will ascend to heaven while others will be left behind to be ruled by the Antichrist occurs nowhere in Revelation. It is a mix of literal and symbolic readings of passages from other books of the Bible.


•     Number of the Beast: Today’s Internet continues a centuries-old search for the name encoded in 666, the number of the beast in Revelation. But the context of John’s passage and an ancient puzzle technique give the likely answer: the emperor Nero.


•     Armageddon: Now understood as a world-destroying conflict, the battle of Armageddon has a different meaning in Revelation. Instead of missiles and tanks, the only weapon is the sword from Christ’s mouth, symbolizing the power of his word.


Throughout these lectures, Professor Koester focuses on what John actually wrote in the Apocalypse, what his situation tells us about his meaning, how that meaning can be applied to our own lives, and how contemporary biblical scholars relate Revelation to the modern world.


Great Minds Struggling with a Great Book


Professor Koester also introduces major figures in history who have been powerfully drawn to the Apocalypse, among them:


•     St. Augustine: Writing in the 5th century in his magnum opus, The City of God, St. Augustine popularized a reading of Christ’s thousand-year reign from Revelation that sees it as timeless and symbolic rather than literal.


•     Martin Luther: Luther’s attitude toward the Apocalypse shifted from dismissing it to decoding it and finally reaching a remarkable theological insight. In his translation of the Bible, he included Dürer-inspired illustrations of Revelation that critiqued the papacy of his day.


•     William Miller: A former Deist, Miller rigorously analyzed the Bible, concluding from passages in Daniel and Revelation that the world would end in 1844. His ideas created a sensation in 19th-century America and sparked the Adventist movement.


•     Sojourner Truth: The African American social reformer Sojourner Truth was also a lay preacher, inspired by Revelation’s vision of a holy city to work tirelessly for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.


Isaac Newton pored over the mysteries of Revelation even as he revolutionized the study of science. D. H. Lawrence’s struggle was so intense that at the end of his life he wrote his own Apocalypse.


The Real Revelation


Describing the Apocalypse as a roller coaster that hurtles you down into the abyss amid scenes of monsters and plagues, only to send you flying upward toward views of pure light, Professor Koester stresses that if you are reading Revelation and want to despair, then you’ve stopped reading too soon; you’re still in the abyss. You need to turn the page and look to the next chapter, because there will be a wonderful message of hope waiting for you.


And as you read, you will find that the Apocalypse you’ve heard about pales beside the real one. “People tell me time and time again,” says Professor Koester, “that when they actually read the book, study the book, reflect on the book, it really doesn’t look much like all of the impressions that are generated by the popular media, the Internet, the contemporary discussions. You find something much more life-giving.”

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Revelation and the Apocalyptic Tradition
    Professor Koester introduces one of the most discussed books of all time: the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. Learn the original meaning of "apocalypse" and the importance of the apocalyptic tradition. Also survey the three-part structure of the course. x
  • 2
    Apocalyptic Worldview in Judaism
    Investigate the world of the Hebrew prophets, whose writings deeply influenced the author of the Apocalypse. First, focus on the themes of evil and hope in such works as Ezekiel and Isaiah. Then, see how these themes are taken up in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the apocalyptic book of Daniel. x
  • 3
    Apocalyptic Dimension of Early Christianity
    Consider how the apocalyptic worldview, with its strong sense of conflicting powers, was taken up and transformed by Christian writers in the New Testament. Apocalyptic themes had an important place in the early church, creating the religious matrix out of which the book of Revelation arose. x
  • 4
    Origins of the Book of Revelation
    Begin your close study of the text of the Apocalypse by looking behind the legends to surmise what can be said about its origins and author, identified only as John. Also examine the peculiar quality of John's Greek, which is not apparent in most translations. x
  • 5
    Issues Facing Revelation's First Readers
    The first two chapters of Revelation discuss the issues facing the Christian communities that first received the book. Delve deeper into the experiences of the men and women addressed by John. What was the nature of the persecution and other problems they faced? Who was this book written for? x
  • 6
    God, the Lamb, and the Seven Seals
    John's distinctive images—his "word pictures"—have captured the imaginations of readers for centuries. Plunge into some of John's most vivid scenes, including the breaking of the seven seals, which unleashes the four horsemen and other startling visions. x
  • 7
    Seven Trumpets, Temple, and Celebration
    Analyze the middle section of the Apocalypse from two contrasting perspectives: first, from the futurist view that Revelation is a book of ominous predictions; then, from the literary perspective that seeks to understand how John organizes his details into a narrative that is surprisingly hopeful. x
  • 8
    The Dragon and the Problem of Evil
    Turn to some of the most dramatic scenes in the Apocalypse, which deal with the problem of evil, personified by Satan, the great red dragon. John's account draws on an ancient fascination with stories of good battling evil, but he gives a bold new interpretation to the conflict. x
  • 9
    The Beasts and Evil in the Political Sphere
    Trace John's depiction of evil through the images of the two beasts. The beast from the sea, whose name equals 666, works in the realm of politics. The beast from the land supports the beast from the sea through practices that serve worldly empire. x
  • 10
    The Harlot and the Imperial Economy
    Encounter Babylon the harlot, one of the most remarkable figures in the Apocalypse. She symbolizes the city of Rome in all its ancient opulence. Two literary forms useful for understanding John's metaphor are satire and the obituary. John is both satirizing Rome's decadence and sounding its death knell. x
  • 11
    The Battle, the Kingdom, and Last Judgment
    Revelation's final chapters feature scenes that have had a powerful effect on the modern imagination, ranging from the battle of Armageddon to the final defeat of Satan and the Last Judgment. Learn the ancient context for these images, which mark the climax of God's battle against the forces of evil. x
  • 12
    New Creation and New Jerusalem
    Conclude your close reading of the text of Revelation with John's vision of the new creation and the New Jerusalem. Professor Koester explores this triumphant ending, which is the source for the popular image of the pearly gates—along with so much more. x
  • 13
    Antichrist and the Millennium
    Start a new section of the course in which you probe the impact of the Apocalypse on Western history. Study the early debates about the nature of the Antichrist and the Millennium, two ideas that drew heavily on writings outside of Revelation. x
  • 14
    Revelation's Place in the Christian Bible
    How did Revelation get into the Bible? Discover that, although it is unlike any other book in the New Testament, the Apocalypse met three broad criteria that early church leaders used to determine which books were authoritative and which were not. x
  • 15
    The Apocalypse and Spiritual Life
    By the 4th and 5th centuries, leading Christians were reading the Apocalypse for its spiritual truths, rather than what it had to say about coming events. Explore three topics that were especially important to this view: Revelation's symbolism, internal repetitions, and timeless message. x
  • 16
    The Key to the Meaning of History
    Trace medieval responses to Revelation through the ideas of several influential thinkers, including the controversial monk Joachim of Fiore, whose struggle with the Apocalypse led him to the mystical insight that it was the key to the meaning of history since the Creation. x
  • 17
    Apocalyptic Fervor in the Late Middle Ages
    See how certain followers of St. Francis of Assisi carried Joachim's ideas even further, styling themselves players in an apocalyptic drama and predicting that the present age would end in the 13th century. x
  • 18
    Luther, Radicals, and Roman Catholics
    Move into the world of the Reformation, where a renegade monk named Martin Luther first rejected Revelation but later used its imagery in his controversy with the papacy. During this period, Catholics discovered much of their standard iconography for the Virgin Mary in John's text. x
  • 19
    Revelation Takes Musical Form
    Explore Revelation from a completely different perspective: its rich musical heritage. There are many songs within Revelation, and much music has been inspired by it. Examine Handel's Messiah, the hymns compiled by Charles Wesley, and gospel songs such as "Shall We Gather at the River?" x
  • 20
    Revelation in African American Culture
    The Apocalypse has played a vital role in African American culture. Its visions of hope inspired the spirituals sung by slaves in the American South and the Dixieland favorite, "Oh when the saints go marching in." Scenes of New Jerusalem caught the imagination of Sojourner Truth and others who worked for social change. x
  • 21
    The Apocalypse and Social Progress
    In the 18th and early 19th centuries, many Americans believed that Revelation outlined a progressive social destiny pointing to the great millennial age of peace on Earth. Meet leaders in this movement, including Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, and Julia Ward Howe, who wrote "Battle Hymn of the Republic." x
  • 22
    Awaiting the End in 1844 and Beyond
    Chart a pivotal end-times crusade in America led by William Miller, who drew on the Apocalypse and book of Daniel to predict that 1844 would see Christ's Second Coming. The heirs to this movement include the Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses. x
  • 23
    Rapture, Tribulation, and Armageddon
    Turn to today's most popular futuristic perspective on the end times, Dispensationalism, held by those who believe that all true Christians will be spirited up to heaven in an event called the Rapture. Examine the origins of this view, its connection to Revelation, and its mix of literal and symbolic interpretation. x
  • 24
    The Modern Apocalyptic Renaissance
    Finish the course by meeting some of the contemporary theologians who show how dynamic and engaging the study of Revelation continues to be. The book has an unparalleled ability to both challenge and encourage, proving that the Apocalypse is as powerful today as it was 1,900 years ago. x

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Your professor

Craig R. Koester

About Your Professor

Craig R. Koester, Ph.D.
Luther Seminary
Dr. Craig R. Koester is the Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. He attended St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary, then earned his Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary in New York before returning to Luther Seminary to teach. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, a scholar-in-residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey,...
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Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 67.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thanks Professor. I didn't know what to expect when I bought this course. I feel gratitude to Professor Koester; opened my mind, was engaging, funny.
Date published: 2020-10-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting topic, irritating teaching style After reading the Bible in its entirety earlier this year, I've watched seven Teaching Company courses covering various aspects of the Old and New Testaments. I watched Koester's course "Reading Biblical Literature." While I liked the subject matter, I found Koester's presentation to be measured, almost mechanical. I also found that Koester has a way of grooming the material so as to make it more spiritually instructive than it actually is. (In the "Reading Biblical Literature" course, he describes the Book of Esther but neglects to mention the slaughter that takes place at the end of the book.) Well, I decided to take "Apocalypse: Controversies and Meaning in Western History." Going in, I knew I had issues with Koester's manner of presentation and also with the religious/moral overtones of his teaching. But I decided to take the course anyway. To his credit, Koester was more passionate in this course than in the earlier one I took. His speaking was less measured and mechanical. But I was still bothered by his moral reading of what is, to say the least, a very wild text. The first twelve lectures purport to be a literary analysis of Revelation. There was some literary analysis but the main way Koester reads is to draw out moral/spiritual points from the material. He might as well be preaching to a congregation. The second set of twelve lectures concerned the impact of Revelation throughout western history. You will find these lectures to be quite informative. He discusses early Christian reaction to the book, medieval reaction, protestant reformation reaction, and American reaction, including reaction in the African American community. Noteworthy topics include the origins of the Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah's Witness denominations (Denominations is not the right word but I can't think of a better one right now) and contemporary evangelical interpretations of Revelation. All this material is quite good. Koester believes Revelation should be treated not as predicting future events but as a commentary on early Christianity during the Roman empire and as an inspirational Christian text. If you're looking for a Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins take on Revelation, you will not find it here. That's about all I have to say except that I do want to comment on Koester's affect. There is an overall lack of warmth to his presentation style (even when he's speaking passionately) and this is off-putting.
Date published: 2020-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Apocalypse This was an outstanding course on the Apocalypse. Not only did Professor Craig Koester examine Bible perspectives, great writers of the topic but he also presented parallels to great art and music. I loved the course.
Date published: 2020-05-08
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Apologist, Apocrypha or Apocalypse? One definition of 'apocrypha' is: 'writings or statements of dubious authenticity' (from Merriam Webster). An 'apologist' is defined as: 'one who speaks or writes in defense of someone or something' (same source, Merriam Webster). And, finally, 'apocalypse' (despite being commonly depicted with an image of an atomic bomb mushroom cloud) simply means: 'a Greek word meaning "revelation"', (or something that is revealed). Merriam Webster goes a little deeper with: 'one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom'. Dr Koester, in my estimation, fills the role as an apologist, trying to bring clarity and perspective to a very complex book in the Christian bible. His lecture style is clear, well organized and well researched, but I thought his attempt to offer interpretation as to the meaning the book has as 'scripture' just didn't hit the mark. Initially the good doctor attempts to put the book ("Revelations") into the context of the times in which it was (presumably) written and examines the veracity of 'John' (the John) as the author. Later, he discusses Martin Luther's initial conclusion that the book just didn't belong in the Christian canon. Here, I go back to the definition in the expanded Merriam Webster that states (in part): "one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery..." During that time period, the Christian canon was barely established, and much that was coalescing was primarily based upon the Hebrew bible... and agrees with many of the gnostic writings, as was found at Nag Hammadi. Those many authors had quite the imagination! It seems to me that Koester is attempting to find meaning where there is none. 'Revelations' may be a book of hope mixed in with a bit of the old fire and brimstone, but it just doesn't 'feel' like a Christian doctrine espousing love and forgiveness...rather it's a very exclusionary message that threatens to condemn those who don't 'believe'. I'll try it again...learning is always an effort (especially when it's on sale with a coupon).
Date published: 2020-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Topic! Professor Koester not only provided interesting details about the context and passages of the Book of Revelation but he also presented interpretations that made it relevant to today's world.
Date published: 2020-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from In depth lectures I bought this course to help me understand the unusual symbolism expressed in the Book of Revelation. Professor Koester does an outstanding job explaining the meaning of the symbolism and the history of the time of the writing. I like the course so much I also purchased Reading Biblical Literature by the same professor.
Date published: 2019-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lectures, well-structured and compelling Not a course for one who has set, firm opinions about the book of Revelation, as Professor Koester expounds on Revelation in the context of the time it was written. Dr. Koestler has a very pleasing, clear method of lecturing, with no annoying tics. The first half of the course is devoted to the book of Revelation itself; the second half deals with how Revelation has had influence in so many fields, including music (Bach and Handel), the arts, and, of course, speculation about the end of time, and how the Book of Revelation is relevant today. Professor Koester presents Revelation as a book of hope for the future, as opposed to a prophecy of destruction and disaster. Rather than dismissing the book as a fantasy, Dr. Koester makes the case for relevance whatever faith the viewer/listener may have. He explains how, through the centuries, right from the date it was written, Revelation has been "interpreted" with reference to the society and mores of the time; he connects the text with actual events of the various ages, with very specific reference, quite rightly, imho, to how the book would be read and understood by readers back then. Of great interest to me was the clear identification of Nero as "666"; this is what I have always believed, and precisely what John intended. It is fascinating to see how, along the years, the "beast" has been named as Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, even certain US Presidents, among others. I feel that Dr. Koester's emphasis on the "word pictures" in Revelation simply cannot be stressed too strongly. We have to bear in mind always that today we use political cartoons this way, e.g. the donkey and elephant in the USA, the bull and bear for the stock market, even the bulldog to represent Great Britain, ditto the bear for Russia. In John's Revelation we see this technique used extensively. This is an enjoyable, stimulating course by a thoughtful, charming and articulate teacher. I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2018-12-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Revealing the meaning of Revelation I could not stop listening to the lectures. It is a great presentation, treating fairly all of the various methods of interpretation and providing a literary sense of the writing. It was so good I purchased Koester's book, titled Revelation.
Date published: 2018-12-10
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