The Book of Revelation and Its Author (Rev 1)

I am working on a series of blogs regarding LGBT issues and the church. But that is taking a little longer than I had expected. I plan to begin posting by the end of August. In the meantime I have completed a first draft of a Bible Dictionary entry on the book of Revelation. I thought you would find this interesting and helpful and I would love feedback, positive and negative (hopefully constructive either way). The total article is about 3200 words and will cover five or six blogs.

The title of the book (Revelation) is a translation of the Greek word for apocalypse (apokalupsis). Apokalupsis is a compound word that means revelation, disclosure or uncovering. What is uncovered in Revelation is a cosmic picture of Jesus Christ and a vision of “what must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). Revelation is the last book of the New Testament and is the great finale of the biblical symphony, drawing together names, places, stories, and themes from the rest of Scripture (AA 585).

The authorship of Revelation. The author of Revelation identifies himself as John (Rev 1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), God’s servant or slave (Rev 1:1), and “your brother” (Rev 1:9). Apparently he was well-enough known to the churches of Asia Minor that he needed no further designation to gain the confidence of his readers. Though he is not directly called a prophet (but see Rev 22:8-9), his book is several times called a “prophecy” (Rev 1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19).

All known Christian writers through the middle of the Third Century attributed Revelation to John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, the author of the Gospel and epistles known by the same name. These writers believed that John was living in Ephesus until the time of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) and was buried there. So the traditional view of Revelation’s authorship has had strong external support through the centuries.

The first serious challenge to the traditional view came from Dionysius of Alexandria (died around 265 A.D.). He offered the following arguments: 1) There are substantial literary differences between Revelation and the Gospel of John, 2) the author did not claim to be a disciple or eyewitness of Jesus, 3) the Greek of the Gospel is grammatically correct but that of Revelation is not, 4) the author of the Gospel is anonymous while the author of Revelation names himself several times. In addition to these arguments, Eusebius of Caesarea (circa 325 A.D.) understood Papias (early second century) to believe that John the Apostle had died much earlier than the writing of Revelation. These considerations seem to have exacerbated the Eastern church’s doubts with regard to the canonicity of the book.

The evidence just cited is not as strong or convincing as might appear at first glance. 1) While there are differences between John and Revelation, there are some striking similarities as well; “the water of life” (Rev 21:6; 22:17, cf. John 4:10; 7:37-38), “keep the (my) word” (Rev 3:8, 10, cf. John 8:51, 52, 55; 15:20), the use of “name” (Rev 6:8, cf. John 1:6; 3:1). While the word for “Lamb” is different, only the Gospel and Revelation apply the concept of lamb to Jesus Christ (Rev 5:6 and 27 other times, cf. John 1:29, 36), both books refer to Jesus as “the Word” (Rev 19:13; John 1:1, 14), and both books make unusual use of the verb for “tabernacle” (Rev 7:15; John 1:14). They also have in common words like witness, life, death, thirst, hunger and conquest. Many of the differences between the Gospel of John and Revelation can be attributed to the difference in genre between gospel and apocalypse.

As noted above (items 2 and 4), the author of the Gospel is anonymous, so in neither case does the writer feel the need to detail who he is. 3) Greek was not John’s native language and editorial assistance would have been much more available to him in Ephesus than on Patmos. In addition, Semitic thinking and allusions to the Greek Old Testament explain a lot of the “solecisms” in Revelation. John wrote in Greek but thought in Hebrew. 5) The works of Papias are lost and the fragments cited by Eusebius are ambiguous. While historical certainty in this matter is not possible, the arguments for the traditional view of John the Apostle as the author of Revelation are at least as reasonable and valid as those that deny his authorship.

Unlike many books of the New Testament, determining the identity of the human author of Revelation is of relatively little importance to interpretation. This book is not, as earlier editions of the Bible had it, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” the book is “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1).

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