The Genre of Revelation (Rev 6)

The New Testament genre “gospel” was an invention of the apostles. The genre “epistle,” as used in the New Testament, adopting a common writing style, was also largely an invention of the apostles. But the genre of Revelation, “apocalypse,” is an adopted genre. It is the only work of its kind in the New Testament, but there were many works like it in the ancient world, particularly within Judaism from around 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.

According to the scholarly definition, an apocalypse is a form of revelatory literature, which means it claims to directly communicate information from God to humanity. This is accomplished in the form of a story, a “narrative framework,” rather than poetry or some other form. The revelation is communicated to a human being by “otherworldly beings” such as angels or the 24 elders of Revelation. The revelation discloses “transcendent reality” (beyond the ability of the five senses to apprehend), about the course of history leading up the End, and about the heavenly, “supernatural” world.

Scholars also distinguish between two types of apocalyptic literature, the historical and the mystical. The historical type, characteristic of Daniel, gives an overview of a large sweep of history, often divided into periods, and climaxing with a prediction about the end of history and the final judgment. Historical apocalyptic visions tend to be highly symbolic, referring to heavenly and earthly beings and events (Rev 12 is a good example). The mystical type of apocalypse, on the other hand, describes the ascent of the visionary into heaven (as in Rev 4-5). While symbolism may be used in mystical apocalyptic, there is more of a sense of reality in the description, the visionary ascends into a real place where actions take place that affect the readers’ lives on earth. Both types can occur in a single literary work, Revelation being a clear example.

Ancient apocalypses sought to encourage faith in God and hope in God’s future kingdom among those facing difficult times. John seems to have adopted Daniel’s apocalyptic visions as the model for understanding his own visions (Rev 1:1, cf. Dan 2:28, 45). But Revelation itself is also called a prophecy (Rev 1:3, cf. 19:10; 22:7-10, 18-19) and is also heavily dependent on prophetic books like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah. In addition, there are echoes of epistolary genre in chapters 2 and 3. So Revelation has come to be seen as a mixed genre, the main part of the book a mixture of prophetic and apocalyptic features. It could be called a prophetic apocalypse or an apocalyptic prophecy.

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