Ed. note – The following in Scott McKellar’s series on Revelation is a response to a reader’s question on how the Woman in Revelation 12 could indicate both Mary and the Church. McKellar’s response is a useful lesson in how the ancients, and we, can read the Bible.
One common difference between our modern notion of Bible interpretation and the ancient one we see in the Bible itself, is the very modern idea that a passage has only one possible correct interpretation. In fact the New Testament has many examples of Jesus, and his apostles using methods of Scripture interpretation which acknowledge multiple layers of meaning. This involves firstly the literal meaning from the original context, but it is possible to see other spiritual meanings in the text. The earliest disciples of the apostles also consistently refer to the spiritual meaning of Scripture.
In Mathew’s Gospel Jesus replies to the crowd;
An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet.
Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. (Matthew 12:39-40).
Jesus sees the literal events of Jonah as a sign or predictive prophecy about His own death. More striking is Jesus comments in the Gospel of John. Jesus tells the crowd;
No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:13-15).
Although the events in Moses’ time have a meaning in and of themselves, they are also a ‘sign’ which points to the death that Jesus would suffer. When the Son of Man (Jesus) is lifted up, those who gaze upon him will receive eternal life (cf. Mark 15:39). Although in the context of John’s gospel Jesus is revealed as the manna or true bread from heaven (John 6:32; 6:51) which is rejected by some (John 6:66) because they deny the significance of Jesus words (compare 1 Corinthians 11:29-30).
In his letter to the Corinthians, St Paul notes,
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.
Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:1-5).
Without denying the literal events, Paul sees these events as anticipating Christian Baptism and the celebration of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian Church.
The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans,
Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned—for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world, though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who did not sin after the pattern of the trespass of Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)
Paul uses the Greek word “tupos.” This Greek word means; “A model or example which anticipates or precedes a later realization.” Adam is a ‘type’ of Jesus who becomes the New Adam. This pattern is often called a recapitulation. The first Adam is remade as the New Adam, while the first creation is superseded by the New Creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). This transformation occurs in baptism, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27) as Baptism “forgives our sins” (Acts 2:38).
In his letter to the Galatians the Apostle Paul refers to Abraham and his two sons and notes,
Now this is an allegory. These women represent two covenants. One was from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; this is Hagar. Hagar represents Sinai, a mountain in Arabia; it corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery along with her children. But the Jerusalem above is freeborn, and she is our mother. (Galatians 4:21-26)
Paul is quite clear here, “this is an allegory.” The Greek word used here is allégoreó which means, “to employ an analogy or likeness in communication” or “to speak allegorically.” Clearly Paul is not denying that Abraham did literally have two sons, but he is also able to use this as an allegory of two covenants pointing to the recapitulation of the first earthly Jerusalem in the new heavenly Jerusalem
Later the apostle Peter writes;
. . . God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, were saved through water. This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:18-21)
The word used for “prefigured” is the Greek – antitupos which means “pertaining to that which corresponds in form and structure to something else, either as an anticipation of a later reality or as a fulfillment of a prior type.”
As readers, we must be aware of the possibility of a secondary spiritual sense which may reveal types, or allegories. The idea of “recapitulation” was often used by the early Fathers to explain how Scripture “sums up all things” (Ephesians 1:10) and thus fulfills the previous revelation.
As a literary technique, scholars often refer to “recapitulation” as a method of narration which functions like a video replay in a football game. Instead of giving a literal step-by-step sequence, parts of the narrative repeat from different points of view and time sequences. For example in Revelation 12 you have a mysterious “sign’ of a woman who gives birth (12:2) to the messiah (12:5) but interspersed in this narrative we hear about the primordial war in heaven between the Archangel Michael and Satan (12:7) and learn that one third of the angels who rebelled, are cast down from heaven at Satan’s instigation (12:4, 9). This war took place before the creation of Adam and Eve. Jumping forward in time again, the dragon pursues the woman, and later goes off to wage war against her offspring (12:17).
If all of this was to add up in a literal step-by-step sequence, then we could not say that the first woman was Mary the mother of Jesus the Messiah. If on the other hand the passage is read using the ancient technique of “recapitulation” and typology, then the time sequences are not step-by-step and Mary could later be a type of the Church who certainly does have offspring. The Catholic Church has consistently maintained that Revelation 12 refers to both Mary and the Church.
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.