The Book of Revelation (Apocalypse of John)

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Who is the Author?

This is book is clear in the initial name of the author identified in 1:9 as John. Traditionally, it has been assumed that the author is the Apostle John, but there are voices that state otherwise and contests this. This is key to what we will investigate.

External evidence

So there are two sources against John’s authorship which we’ll ge into first.

Dionysius

By comparing the Gospel of John with the Revelation, Dionysius came to the conclusion that they could not both be authored by the same man. But what Dionysius is not telling us is the motivation behind the rejection. The arguments for rejecting the apostolic authorship stem largely from the theological climate of the third century. At that time the Alexandrian School of Theology, including Dionysius, opposed the doctrine of the millennial kingdom which is plainly taught in chapter 20 with its reference to the thousand years.” There is the belief of Chialism strong and prominent at this time that there will be a golden age before the end of the world, this contradicts Revelation. 

Scholars have given three reasons why Dionysius view should be plainly rejected

  1. His disagreements are subjective and not based on ancient testimony of those who have come before him. 
  2. “Dionysius’ statements about the Greek tend to be misleading for he seems to have overlooked the Semitic flavoring behind the Greek of the Gospel, and his opinion on the inaccuracies of the Apocalypse does not stand up to modern critical judgment, which generally admits that the grammatical deviations are not due to ignorance.
  3. Dionysius’ alternative suggestion does not inspire confidence, for his ‘second John’ has remarkably flimsy testimony to his existence.

Dionysius does not state it explicitly, he is basing his opinion on ancient inference. That is, he has more than likely adopted a certain reading of Papias’ famous statement about “the elder John,” inferring that this John is different than the apostle. It is appropriate at this juncture to turn to Papias’ comment, since so much really hinges on it. That leads us nicely onto Papias.

Papias

Although he doesn’t comment on the book of Revelation, he does open the door for two Johns, In the Fragments of Papias 2:3-4 he says this:

(2:3) But I will not shrink back [from telling] you even as many things as I have already well learned from the elders—and [as many things as] I have ably remembered to arrange systematically by interpretation, while [at the same time] confirming the truth concerning them. For I was not pleased with those who say many things (even though such is popular with the masses), but with those who teach the truth. Nor was I pleased with those who remember the other commandments, but [only] with those who [remember the commandments] from the Lord which have been given in faith and which come from it in truth.

(2:4) But if somewhere someone would come who has heeded the elders, [let it be known that] I [too] have often examined the words of the elders—[namely,] what Andrew or Peter or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples had said, even what Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were presently saying. For I did not entertain [the idea that] the words from books would benefit me nearly as much as those from a living and abiding voice.

Fragments of Papias 2:3-4

This famous passage, quoted in Eusebius, HE 3.38.4, has been used to infer Elder John wrote the rest and Apostle John stuck to the Gospel. But there are reasons to think otherwise.

  1. Only two titles are given here—elder and disciple (not apostle). Both mentions of John, indirectly or directly, ascribe such a title to the man. Thus, ‘elder John’ is not a title of inferior rank, because Papias does not here refer to ‘apostle Peter,’ etc.
  2. The second mention of John is the only name in the list to have the definite article The article could well be anaphoric. Still, in all fairness, the article is not obviously anaphoric and you may naturally expect some kind of qualifier if Papias wished to identify clearly one John with the other.
  3. The elder John has commonly been associated with being an apostle, no one else from this time bring sit up, apostle John’s disciples certainly don’t. Papias is an outlier in that regard
  4. No other church fathers assign Revelation to the Elder John as opposed to the Apostle John (Dionysius we’ve discussed). 

Though 2 clear conclusions should be made

  1. There’s some doubt Papias is talking about 2 Johns, despite Dionysius uses this has his arguments starting point
  2. Even if there were two, this has nothing to do with the book of Revelation

John The Apostle

This one’s rather plain and simple, it is supported by the majority from a number of locations and time periods early on such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Hippolytus. Origen is in the list is especially significant, since he, like Dionysius, was from the Alexandrian school. There are few books in the New Testament with stronger early attestation. Still, it should be mentioned here that the Revelation, even with all this support, struggled for canonicity longer than virtually any other NT book. It was resisted, however, not primarily over questions of authorship, but over questions of theological perspective—chiliasm which many did not want to embrace!

Internal Evidence

There are essentially three internal arguments for apostolicity.

  1. Within the book
    1. The author is known be name to the seven churches. This would likely narrow the categories to at least the Apostles. 
    2. The author also expects to receive his authority favourably with obedience (1:3, 22:9, 18). 
    3. Many Jewish apocalypses referred to Jewish heroes of the past (Ezra,Enoch, Baruch), here it is “John, your brother”
  2. The synoptics describe John as one of the suns of thunder and an allusion is made that Revelation reveals as such fiery character, giving value to the nickname to us.
  3. It’s common Johannine literature with the Gospel of John and John’s three letters. Especially with John’s gospel, they both have common ideas, common theological motifs, common terms. Further, the symbolic use of seven repeated in this work is found in John as part of his argument (seven signs, seven “I AM” statements, etc.). Indeed, one could well say that the Revelation is closer in thought and verbiage to the Fourth Gospel than it is to any other book in the NT canon.

Manuscript evidence for Revelation

Other significant early manuscripts

  • Papyrus 47, 200-300AD: Revelation 9:10-11:3, 11:5-16:15, 16:17-17:2
  • Papyrus 18, 200-400AD: Revelation 1:4-7
  • Papyrus 24, 300-400AD: Revelation 5:5-8, -6:5-8
  • Papyrus 85, 300-500AD: Revelation 9:19-10:1, 5-9
  • Papyrus 98, 150-250AD: Revelation 1:13-20
  • Papyrus 115, 200-400AD: Revelation 2:1-3, 13-15, 27-29, 3:10-12, 5:8-9, 6:4-6, 8:3-8, 8:11-9:5, 9:7-16, 9:18-10:4, 8, 11:5, 8-15, 11:18-12:6, 9-10, 12-17, 13:1-3, 6-12, 13-16, 17-14:3, 5-7, 10-11, 14-16, 14:18-15:1, 5-7

As you can see above, there is a significant set of early manuscripts for the book of Revelation, one copy going back to potentially mid-second century, within a generation of John and possibly the lifetime of John’s disciples Ignatius and Polycarp. 

One of the great things about having an abundance of manuscripts is comparison, and this book is one of those books that has a lot riding on it. One possible point of contention has been some earlier manuscripts saying the Beast’s number is 616 instead of 666. This doesn’t undermine any Christian doctrine or value, if it does, then that congregation has built their foundations on some bizarre pillars since the number isn’t the point of the passage. Considering the deterioration rate of papyrus, this witness is excellent and by the time we get to the forth century, like with all New Testament books, we have a handful of complete manuscripts with less deterioration on surfaces more long lasting than ancient papyrus like Codex Sinaiticus, Vaticanus etc.

Audience & purpose

The occasion for this work was most certainly the heating up of the state persecution against Christians (1:9). If this is Domitian’s persecution, John may well be wondering how far off the final eschaton was. Most likely, he believed that the persecutions he was presently undergoing indicated that the end of the age was just around the corner. As it turned out, they were a second wave of earnest fulfillments (just as Hadrian’s leveling of Jerusalem in 135 AD would be a third wave, etc.). But the eschatological hope was always present with the writers of the NT—particularly during troubled times, just as the need for perseverance was always present.

The Revelation was intended to encourage believers in the midst of Roman persecution, by revealing that their Messiah was in control and would be the ultimate victor. John is using his present circumstances as a backdrop for the interpretation of the text, and at most, he himself might have written his tome in the way he did because he thought that the final days had dawned. 

Date

The writings of John are often assigned the latest dates of all New Testament literature, with a few secular scholars placing them well into the second century A.D., and even conservative scholars dating at least Revelation around 95 A.D., when John would have been over 80 years old. Of course John the son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus, could not have lived long enough to write anything much into the second century, so in this case establishing a date of writing should first involve establishing that John was in indeed the author.

Revelation is assumed by most scholars, including very conservative scholars, to have been written during a period of persecution under Caesar Domitian in 95 A.D. Supporting this date under Domitian are the early church fathers Tertullian, Victorious, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome. This should be considered as serious evidence, and the analysis that follows is the only instance on this web site in which the conclusions have deviated seriously from the tradition of the early church fathers.

In Revelation the situation is complex because there are several very different schools of interpretation of the book. However, the date situation is problematic for all of them. In Rev 11:1-2, the author is asked to measure the temple but to leave out the court. This is an earthly temple in Jerusalem, as Rev 11:2 makes clear. Two witnesses with supernatural power then testify from Jerusalem for a time, until they are killed. The city of Jerusalem is called “Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.” Then in Rev 11:13 there is an earthquake that destroys a tenth of the city, and 7000 people are killed. Now consider how strange this passage would be if written in 95 A.D. (a date often suggested for Revelation), when Jerusalem had been an uninhabited ruin for 25 years. Why would the author bother to criticize its spiritual condition, as in 11:8? What would be the significance of saying that a tenth of the city would be destroyed, when in fact the entire city had already been destroyed? 7000 people in Jerusalem are described as being killed in this earthquake, but no one lived in Jerusalem in 95 A.D. The best recourse that allows for a 95 A.D. date is to assume that the author knew all this, but was looking forward to a future time when Jerusalem would be rebuilt, and then these things would happen. This is not really possible with what is called a “preterit” interpretation of Revelation, which applies all of Revelation to the time it was written. The “futurist” interpretation of Revelation, which places much of the book in the future immediately prior to the Second Coming, could allow a 95 A.D. date, though even there a difficulty remains in that Revelation says nothing about Jerusalem being rebuilt – it just assumes it.

Revelation looks to have been written before there was a clear break between Christians and Jews. Rev 2:9 and 3:9 refer to those “who say they are Jews but are not”, while the 144,000 sealed in chapter 7 are from the twelve tribes of Israel. This joint association of Christians and Jews together disappears as the New Testament closes, as even the earliest church fathers address Christians and Jews with an “us and them” perspective.

So if Revelation is prior to 70, what date is most likely? The apocalyptic nature of the book fits best in the late 60’s. James, Peter and Paul had been martyred and the church in Rome was undergoing substantial persecution. Rome had been burned ( The multiple references to the burning of Babylon the great may call to mind the image of the great Roman fire). Nero has died, setting in motion a bitter and deadly power struggle that saw three different Caesars come and go within a year. And finally, Rome was locked in a death struggle with the Jews in the land of Israel. Since Nero died in June of 68, the year 69-70 seems most likely as a date of writing for Revelation, with the caveat that if it was written in 70 it was before July when Jerusalem was destroyed.

So there is the safe view of 95AD, within the lifetime of John the apostle, but with a level of historical information, Revelation, as well as the other Johannine works could all be placed prior to 70AD with inference to internal evidences. 

Canonical status 

What was the acceptance rate of Revelation as canonical by those early and later witnesses of the text? Well the heretic Valentinus is the first to include it in his Canon interestingly enough in the second century, this is followed by Justin Martyr who tells us a lot for the Gospels and includes Revelation also. From Justin onwards there is generally an unbroken chain of acceptance of the book, especially John’s authorship. But for many the view of Chialism which very much emerged still put this book in contention with parts of the church for hundreds of years more. 

See this table for a list on who recognised each book as canonical (key(s) below)

It does not mention every Church Father who used the New Testament books, this is just a survey of some of the most known
  • Ig = Ignatius
  • Po = Polycarp
  • M = Marcion
  • Va = Valentinus
  • JM = Justin Martyr
  • IR = Irenaeus 
  • C = Clement of Alexandria 
  • T = Tertullian
  • MC = Muratorian Canon
  • O = Origen
  • E = Eusebius
  • CS = Codex Sinaiticus
  • A = Athanasius
  • D = Didymus the Blind
  • P = Peshitta (Bible of the Syrian church)
  • V =  Latin vulgate 
taken from ntcanon.org/table.shtml 

Jesus, nor the apostles, nor Polycarp, Clement or Irenaeus left much for us to work with in terms of a formal “ok so here’s the rules of determination”. But what they did do is inform us that they had an informative way of knowing what was truth and what was not. And the truth had to have a connection to eyewitnesses.

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

2 Peter 1:16 

2“So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection

Acts 1:21-22

One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also may continue to believe.)

John 19:34-35

“God raised Jesus from the dead, and we are all witnesses of this.

Acts 2:32

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. And we are witnesses of this fact!

Acts 3:15

We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.”

Acts 5:32

“And we apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a cross,but God raised him to life on the third day. Then God allowed him to appear, not to the general public, but to us whom God had chosen in advance to be his witnesses. We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he ordered us to preach everywhere and to testify that Jesus is the one appointed by God to be the judge of all—the living and the dead. He is the one all the prophets testified about, saying that everyone who believes in him will have their sins forgiven through his name.”

Acts 10:39-43

[Paul] With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it.

Romans 9:1

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church.

1 Corinthians 15:3-9

And now, a word to you who are elders in the churches. I, too, am an elder and a witness to the sufferings of Christ. And I, too, will share in his glory when he is revealed to the whole world. As a fellow elder, I appeal to you:

1 Peter 5:1

Caius the church father in 200AD writes how they knew of two fake letters circulating in Paul’s name. 

“There are also in circulation one to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, forged under the name of Paul, and addressed against the heresy of Marcion; and there are also several others which cannot be received into the Catholic Church, for it is not suitable for gall to be mingled with honey”.

Caius, Church leader

How did they work this out? How did they know what was the divinely inspired word of God? We can thank Eusebius for beginning to help us clear up this territory. In his Ecclesiastical History, he mentions his four categories of books with descriptions as to why some were accepted, disputed, rejected and seen as heretical from his survey of the church fathers history going back and into the apostolic age. This is the structure we will take when we assess the books of the New Testament and this includes investigating the books the church rejected. 

So these summarised standards are these:

  1. Apostolicity. Was it written by an Apostle or one of their colleagues?
  2. Orthodoxy. Was the teaching orthodox? Consistent with Old Testament and the Christian worldview?
  3. Catholicity. Not the Catholic Church (that doesn’t exist for a few hundred years yet!)… This meaning widely agreed upon
  4. Relevance. Was it relevant to the church? Or does it seem completely detached from what we already have in the canon? (I.e. everything Gnostic)
  5. Inspiration. Did it have the ring of truth, the life changing power within?

Apostolicity

There is an obvious apostolic connection in John the disciple being the author and an eyewitness to what was written. Whether, he, or a scribe, his style of content is similar across the board. We have investigated strong reasons internally and externally for the Apostle John’s authorship.

Orthodoxy

The happenings of Revelation are scattered throughout the New and Old Testament, we see images that the prophets of old tried to describe as John does, we see Jesus alluding to a time to come and and hints at the end of John’s Gospel suggestive of John’s long life and that being for a reason. Revelation is consistent with Jewish thought also of this great Messiah returning as a king, but again perhaps not necessarily in the way they first anticipated. As well as revealing new information, it very much continues and concludes the New Testament narrative in looking towards the final event of humanity.

Catholicity

As we have explained, it was widely attested to John being the author that helped in canonisation but it was not widely agreed upon on the Far Eastern churches (For example the Bible of the Syrian church) but Father’s like Athanasius agreed with it. 

Relevance

Christians were facing persecution, this message certainly allowed believers to stand strong in the faith and assurance of what was to come, some expected it in their lifetime, others didn’t but wished it did. This hope was relevant then and it’s relevant now. A lot of the message is new, especially the strong end times material but nothing Jesus hadn’t alluded to in his preaching. 

Inspiration

Apostles are sent by God, literally meaning God’s messengers. John was such a messenger and in Jesus’ inner circle. John fits the above criteria and would make sense to say his work is inspired and be considered scripture. He is known as the disciple Jesus loved and in the book of Revelation, John is the one who reveals Jesus’ direct message. So this Apostle was entrusted by God more frequently than some other figures.


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