The Violence of the Lamb: Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation

The act of martyrdom in the worldview of the Apocalypse has been considered to be an exemplification of non-violent resistance. Paul Middleton argues here, however, that it is in fact a representation of direct participation by Christians, through their martyrdom, in divine violence against those the author of Revelation portrays as God’s enemies. Middleton shows that acceptance of martyrdom is to grasp the invitation to participate in the Revelation’s divine violence. Martyrs follow the model laid down by the Lamb, who was not only slain, but resurrected, glorified, and who executes judgement.

The world created by the Apocalypse encourages readers to conquer the Beast through martyrdom, but also through the experience of resurrection and being appointed judges. In this role, martyrs participate in the judgement of the wicked by sharing the Lamb’s power to judge. Different from eschewing violence, the conceptual world of the Apocalypse portrays God, the Lamb, and the martyrs as possessing more power, might, and violent potential than the Emperor and his armies. Middleton believes that martyrdom and violence are necessary components of the worldview of Revelation.

Bloomsbury sent a review copy.  Following are my thoughts on the work.

In his introduction, Middleton discusses the notion of violence and martyrdom in the book of Revelation in terms of the way he reads ‘violence’ in the Apocalypse and in terms of how he reads ‘martyrdom’ in the book.  He then outlines for readers the road ahead (presumably so that readers can decide right off if that path is one they wish to travel).

Following on that is the first chapter wherein our guide to things apocalyptic describes the notion of Christian ‘persecution’ (his scare quotes) and the dating of the Apocalypse.  Chapter two is a discussion of the Christology of the Apocalypse.  Then, naturally, chapter three, which seems to me to be the heart of the matter, is a thorough discussion of the Lamb of the Apocalypse and his role as proto-martyr.  Here Middleton puts on the hat of the exegete and he wears it well.  It fits, it’s fair to say, and he doesn’t do a terrible job of it.  And that, it must be said, is something that cannot be said of so much of the work which passes as exegesis of Revelation.

Chapter four continues the exegetical task and this time the focus is on the Lamb as the divine judge.  Chapter five is titled ‘A Theology of Martyrdom in the Book of Revelation’ and serves as a theological exposition on the basis of the exegetical work performed in the previous two chapters.  Here, in this reviewers estimation, Prof. Middleton is at his best.  He’s a good historian, a better exegete, and a really very fine systematician (though for some reason I think he would see things in exactly the opposite way).  Yet I must suggest that Middleton has truly shown a gift for theological exposition in this final chapter: a gift that very few New Testament scholars in our time possess (with the very notable exception of Peter Stuhlmacher, who is the finest New Testament theologian presently working).

Read the conclusion first, though, because it summarizes the work so helpfully that reading it first will help readers immensely.  Middleton (or his editorial team) then provide a bibliography which is quite up to date and indices of references and authors.

This, to be sure, is not a commentary on the Book of Revelation.  It is a classic monograph.  It looks at one aspect of the text and then musters all the evidence necessary in order to show modern readers what the ancient text is attempting.  Yet unlike many (too many) academic monographs, Middleton does it in an interesting and at times entertaining way.  So, for instance, a sample can be seen in his discussion of the four horsemen:

This is a wonderfully enjoyable book.  It is the ideal supplemental text for a course on Revelation (along with a couple of good commentaries as the primary text of course).  And it is the ideal book for anyone interested in violence in the Bible and / or martyrdom in the early Church.

I cannot resist recommending it.