Bede: The Explanation of the Apocalypse
THE EXPLANATION OF THE APOCALYPSE
TRANSLATED BY THE REV. EDW. MARSHALL, M.A., F.S.A.
FORMERLY FELLOW OF CORPUS CHRISTI COLL., OXFORD.
Oxford and London:
JAMES PARKER AND CO.
Bede's Introductory Letter to Eusebius, with the
Rules of Tychonius
THE Explanation of the Apocalypse by Ven. Beda is the earliest of the many works of our
own writers on that Book, and, as such, may well deserve to appear in a form accessible to
English readers. But independently of this, it is a commentary of much value and
interest in itself, as is shewn by the constant use of it by Isaac Williams in his volume
on the Apocalypse (The Apocalypse, with Notes and Reflections, Lond. 1852), and the
notices of it in two recently-published Lectures of the Bishop of Lincoln (On the
Millennium, Lond. 1875), who also, in his "Introduction to the Book of
Revelation," terms it, "A valuable and interesting exposition" (Greek
Testament, Gen. Ep. and Rev., p.152, 1872).
The chief characteristics of Beda's method of exposition may be thus stated.
The several visions are considered not to be successive, but contemporaneous, with
occasional recapitulations, and to represent the condition of the Church in all ages,
under different aspects. The thousand years, in the twentieth chapter, are
interpreted of the present period of the Church's existence, in accordance with the
opinion of St. Augustine, in the second part of his De Civitate Dei. The attention
is closely directed to the text, and to corresponding passages of Holy Scripture, that the
meaning of the symbolic language may be elicited. The previous exposition of
Tichonius is mainly, but not exclusively followed. Beda appears, for example, to have
adopted several opinions from St. Gregory the Great, and Primasius, as well as St.
The date of the " Explanation" is circ. A.D. 710-716. It is
described by Beda as an "Exposition." But it is called an
Explanation" in the printed editions of his works.
The translation is made from the edition of the Works of Beda by Dr. Giles,
Lond. 1844, vol. xii., which, in this part at least, is merely a reprint of the earlier
text. The notes are limited to the references required by the text, and the
occasional notice of various readings, with some illustrations from other writers. Some
additional notes will be found at the end.
For the sake of conciseness, the text, as read by Beda, which is not given completely
even in the editions of the original Latin, where there frequently occurs the sign of
omission, has not been translated in full. But the Commentary itself, by the
addition of the usual numbering of the verses, and the insertion of catchwords in
Clarendon type, has been rendered available for use with the original Greek, or with any
translation. These words, though not necessarily so, are yet, by far the most
frequently, from the Authorised Version. Care has been taken that the version may be
as literal an one as is consistent with a proper rendering into English.
It may be stated, on information derived through the favour of Mr. E. A. Bond, that the
MS. of the thirteenth century in the British Museum, No. 223 of the Harleian Collection,
containing a Commentary on the Apocalypse, ascribed in the colophon to Beda, is a
different work from that printed in Dr. Giles' edition.
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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
In the sixth, he has manifested the condemnation of the great whore, that is, of the
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 <a> 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 through out, 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.
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<a> The first Book extends to ch. viii. I, the second
to ch. xiv. 20, and the third to ch. xxii. 21. The seven sections into which Beda
considered (supra, pp.1-3) the Apocalypse to be divided, are these, Sec. I, ch. i. 1-iii.
22; sec. 2, ch. iv. 1-vii. 17; sec. 3, ch. viii. I xi.18 ; sec. 4, ch. xi. 19-xv. 8 ; sec.
5, ch. xvi. I-xvi. 21; sec. 6, ch. xvii. I-xviii. 25; Sec. 7, ch. xix. 1-xxii. 21. Return
Bede (The Venerable Beda): The Explanation of the Apocalypse,
Translated by Edward Marshall, (Oxford and London: James Parker and co. 1878)
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998