Bede on Revelation
Explanation of the Apocalypse
LETTER OF BEDA TO EUSEBIUS
Eusebius, or Huaetberht, was Abbat of the Monastery of Jarrow, to which he was unanimously elected on the resignation of Ceolfrid, in A.D. 716. Besides his obedience in the monastic life, he was distinguished for his "industry in writing, singing, reading, and teaching." His Letter to Pope Gregory II. on the occasion of his appointment, sent by Ceolfrid, is in part preserved. See Beda's Vita SS. Abbat. Mon. in Uuiram. et Gyr., ch. xiv sq.
TO THE BELOVED BROTHER, EUSEBIUS,
BEDA SENDS GREETING.
THE Apocalypse of St. John, in which God was pleased to reveal by words and figures the wars and intestine tumults of the Church, seems to me, brother Eusebius, to be divided into several sections.
In the first of these, after a copious preface to strengthen the faith of the weak, and a description of the sufferings of the Lord and of the glories which followed, he sees one like unto the Son of Man clothed with the Church, Who, after He has related what has happened, or is about to happen, in the seven Churches of Asia in particular, recounts the general conflicts and victories of the whole Church. And here, designedly, in the sixth place He has foretold that the Jews are to be made subject to the Church, and that there is to be a trial of the world at large, and that He Himself will come quickly; and He places in the seventh the lukewarm Laodicea. For "when the Son of Man cometh, will He," dost thou think, "find the faith in the earth?" [Luke 18.8]
Then in the second section, after that the four living creatures in the throne of God, and the twenty-four elders, have been described, he sees the Lamb, on the opening of the seven seals of the closed book, unfold the future conflicts and triumphs of the Church. And here, according to the custom of this book, he preserves the order unto the sixth number in the series; and then he passes by the seventh, recapitulates, and concludes the two narrations with the seventh. But the recapitulation is also itself to be understood according to its place, for sometimes he recapitulates from the commencement of suffering, sometimes from the middle period, and sometimes with a view to speak of the last affliction only, or a short time before. But this he observes as a fixed point, to recapitulate after the sixth.
Next, in the third section, under the likeness of seven angels sounding with a trumpet, he describes the various events of the Church.
In the fourth, under the figure of a woman bringing forth, and a dragon persecuting her, he reveals the toils and victories of the same Church, and assigns to both combatants their due rewards. And here the words and actions of seven angels are also recorded, but not in the same manner as above. So in mystic wisdom he almost always retains this number, for neither in his gospel nor his epistles is the same John accustomed to say anything with remissness and brevity.
Then, in the fifth section, by seven angels he has overspread the earth with the seven last plagues.
In the sixth, he has manifested the condemnation of the great whore, that is, of the ungodly city.
In the seventh, he has shewn the ornament of the Lamb's wife, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
I have also thought that the seven rules of Tichonius [fl. c. 390], a man of the most learning among those of his sect [The Donatists], should be briefly enumerated, inasmuch as those who are desirous to learn, receive great assistance from them for understanding the Scriptures. The first of these is concerning the Lord and His body, when there is a transition from the Head to the body, or from the body to the Head, and yet no recession from one and the same person. For one person speaks, saying, "He set a chaplet upon me, as a bridegroom, and adorned me with an ornament as a bride" [Is. 41.10]; and yet, certainly, it must be understood how much of this belongs to the Head, how much to the body; that is, how much to Christ, how much to the Church.
The second is concerning the twofold body of the Lord, or rather, concerning the true and simulated body of the Lord, as St. Augustine was better pleased that it should be termed. So the Church says “I am dark and comely, as the tents of Kedar, and as the curtains of Solomon" [Song of Solomon 1.5]; for she does not say, I was dark and am comely, but she has said that she is both, because of the fellowship in sacraments, and the commingling for a time of the good and bad fish within one net, seeing that the tents of Kedar belong to Ishmael, "for that he shall not be heir with the son of the free woman” [Gal. 4.20].
The third is concerning the promises and the law, which may otherwise be expressed as concerning the spirit and the letter, or concerning grace and the commandment This appears to St. Augustine to be itself a great question, rather than a rule to be applied to the solution of questions. For it was through failing to understand this that the Pelagians either began, or increased their heresy.
The fourth is concerning species and genus. For species is a part, but genus the whole of which it is a part, as each state is a part of the whole province, and each province a part of the whole world. These terms, accordingly, have come to the knowledge of persons in general, so that even the unlearned understand what is enjoined in any imperial command. This takes place also in respect of men, as the things which are said of Solomon are out of proportion to him; and it is only when they are referred to Christ and the Church, of which He is part, that they become clear. Yet the species is not always exceeded, for such things are often said as more evidently agree with it also, or perhaps with it alone. But when there is a transition from the species to the genus, as if Scripture were still speaking of the species, there the attention of the reader ought to be on the watch.
He lays down a fifth rule, which he names concerning times, and it may, as appears to me, also be called concerning numbers. This he states to be of force, even in the case of legitimate numbers, by the figure synecdoche. For the figure synecdoche is either to infer the whole from a part, or a part from the whole. And by this manner of speaking is the question of the resurrection of Christ also solved. For unless the last part of the day on which He suffered is taken for the whole day, that is, with the addition of the past night too, and unless the night in the latter part of which He rose again is taken for a whole day, that is, with the addition of the dawning Lord's day, there cannot be the three days and three nights, in which He foretold that He should be in the heart of the earth [Matt. 12:40]. Now by legitimate numbers he means those which the divine Scripture more eminently commends, as the seventh, or tenth, or twelfth; by which, for the most part, either the whole course of time, or the perfection of anything is designated, as, "seven times in a day I sing praise unto Thee," [Ps. 98 (AV 99): 164)] is nothing else than, "His praise was ever in my mouth" [Ps. 33:2 (AV 34:1)] And they are of the same value also when they are multiplied either by ten, as seventy and seven hundred, in which case, the seventy years of Jerusalem may be taken spiritually for all the time during which the Church is among aliens; or by themselves, as ten by ten are a hundred, and twelve by twelve are a hundred and forty-four, by which number the whole body of the saints is denoted in the Apocalypse.
The sixth rule Tichonius calls recapitulation. For some things are stated in the Scriptures as if they follow in the order of time, or are related in the succession of events, when, indeed, the narration is tacitly recalled to what has been omitted. As it is said in Genesis, "These are the sons of Noah, in their tribes and their tongues. By these are the isles of the nations upon the earth overspread” [Gen. 10:32; 9:19] and immediately, "But the whole earth was of one lip, and of' the same speech" [Gen. 11.1] So it seems to be stated, as if at the very time when they were dispersed, they all had one language, when rather, by a recapitulation, he was secretly adding in what manner the tongues were divided.
His seventh rule is, concerning the devil and his body. For sometimes that is stated in respect of the devil which cannot be recognised in himself, but only in his body; as the Lord saith, among other things, to the blessed Job, in exposing the deceit and power of this enemy, "Will he make many prayers to thee, or will he speak soft things to thee?” [Job 41:3]. And it is not the devil himself who is anywhere read of as repentant, but his body, which, when condemned at the last, will say, “Lord, Lord, open unto us" [Matt. 25.11].
So then, if any one will observe carefully, he will find these rules to prevail in all the canonical Scriptures, and especially in the prophetical parts, as well as in the Apocalypse, that is, the Revelation of St. John the Apostle, which the same Tichonius both understood with a lively apprehension, and expounded with truthfulness, and in a sufficiently Catholic sense, excepting only those places in which he endeavoured to defend the schism of his party, that is, the Donatists. For here he laments the persecutions which they endured from the religious Emperor Valentinian, as heretics, when their churches, and followers, and houses, and possessions were given up into the hands of the Catholics, and their priests were driven into exile; and he calls these things martyrdoms, and boasts that they were foretold in the same Apocalypse. Now we have followed on our part the sense of this author in the present work, but in so doing we have omitted some things beyond the purpose which he inserted, in order that we may be more compendious; and we have taken care to add many more, which to him, as a man of genius, and who flourished, as was said of him, like an open rose among thorns, appeared plain and unworthy of investigation; and this we have done, so far as we have been able to attain, either by the tradition of masters, or the recollection of reading, or even our own capacity; for this, too, is among the commandments which we have received, to return to the Lord with usury the talents which have been committed to us. Now, although it had seemed fit that the aforesaid work should be divided into three short books to relieve the mind; for in some way or other, as the blessed Augustine says: “The attention of the reader is refreshed by the termination of a book, as the toil of the traveller by resting at an inn" [Contr. adv. leg. et. proph., Bk. I. Ch. 33]; nevertheless, that it might be rendered more easy for those who search to find, it was thought good that the continuous order of paragraphs should be preserved throughout, which I had previously noted in the book itself by prefixing marks. For, as I think that the indolence of our nation, I mean of the English, ought to be taken into account,--which too, not long since, that is, in the time of the blessed Pope Gregory, received the seed of faith, and has cultivated the same remissly enough, so far as reading is concerned,--I have arranged my plan, so as not only to elucidate the sense, but also to compress the sentences, inasmuch as brevity, if it is clear, is wont to be fixed in the memory more than prolix discussion.
I bid thee farewell in Christ, most beloved brother, and desire that thou mayest deign to be ever mindful of thy Beda.