Introduction to Revelation

The Apocalypse is a difficult book to interpret, though easier on the whole than the Gospels. This is because there are few source-critical problems to fight through. The primary problems in studying the Apocalypse are four: the symbolism; the structure of the book; the debate among historicist, preterist, idealist, and futurist interpretations; and the use of the OT in the book. The function of the symbolism is greatly debated, especially in terms of its relation to the past (apocalyptic mind-set behind the book), present (the events of John’s day), and future (future events in the history of the church or at the eschaton). This is, of course, closely related to the schools of interpretation regarding the book. The one area of general agreement among most commentators is that the background is to be found in the common apocalyptic world of John’s day. No one has yet come up with any outline that approaches consensus. There are two further problems: the relation between the seals, trumpets, and bowls, and the lengthy interludes that interrupt the seals, trumpets, and bowls (7:1-17; 10:1-11:13; 12:1-14:20); these have not been adequately accounted for in current structural hypotheses.

The consensus interpretation among nonevangelicals is preterist. In the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) seminar it is assumed that the book uses a future orientation not to describe future reality but to challenge the situation of the original readers. However, conclusions must come via study of the apocalyptic genre. Do ancient Near East, OT, and intertestamental apocalypses take a futuristic or a preterist point of view? I am convinced of two things: first that they are predominantly futuristic in perspective, and second that it is a disjunctive fallacy to take an either-or stance. A basic element in defining apocalyptic is its pessimism toward the present and the promise of restoration in a sovereignly controlled future. However, this does not mean that there is no preterist element, for the message regarding God’s sovereignty over the future is intended to call the church in the present to perseverance, and many of the symbols in the Apocalypse are borrowed from the first-century situation, for example, the Roman Empire in chapters 17-18. The Antichrist and his forces are depicted as the final Roman Empire, but there is a twofold message in this: the current empire will be judged by God, and the final empire will be defeated and destroyed. In short, the book is both preterist and futurist in orientation.

The definitive work on the use of the OT in the Apocalypse has yet to be written. It has no actual quotation yet far more allusions than any other NT book. These allusions are as essential to understanding the book as the symbolism. Virtually every point made comes in some way via an OT allusion. Contrary to popular opinion, the Book of Daniel is not the key to the Apocalypse. Isaiah, Zechariah, and Ezekiel are found almost as often. The key interpretive element is typology. As in the Gospels with Jesus, now the current time of trouble and the final conflagration are presented as reliving and fulfilling the prophecies of the OT.

Authorship

Internal Evidence. The author of the book identifies himself as “John, the slave of (Jesus/God)... (exiled) on the island of Patmos” (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), and he is the recipient of a series of visions sent from God for the churches of the Roman province of Asia. He is to provide prophetic “witness” to these churches of the message God is sending to them through him (1:2). Yet the identification of this “John” has led to centuries of disagreement on the part of scholars, for he never identifies himself as the “apostle” but simply calls himself “slave” (1:1), “prophet” (1:3; 22:9), and one among his “brothers the prophets” (22:9; cf. 19:10). There have been several suggestions: (1) John the apostle; (2) the elder John; (3) John Mark; (4) John the Baptist; (5) another John; (6) Cerinthus; and (7) someone using the name of John the apostle as a pseudonym.

Three can be dismissed rather quickly. Dionysius the Great, bishop of Alexandria in the mid-third century, thought it possible that John Mark may have been the author but dismissed it as unlikely on historical grounds (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.25). The only one to suggest that John the Baptist was the author was Ford (1975b: 28-41, 50-56), who believed John and his followers produced it in three stages: first, chapters 4-11 as visions given to the Baptist before Jesus began his ministry; then, chapters 12-22 by one of his disciples before a.d. 70; and, finally, chapters 1-3 by a final editor. However, no one has followed her because it is difficult to explain how such a work on the periphery of Christianity would be accepted into the Christian canon. Also, the Gnostic Cerinthus was proposed by two groups who opposed the Montanists: the Alogoi of the late second century and Gaius, a Roman presbyter of the early third century. It seems their entire purpose was to oppose Montanism and the Book of Revelation that was so important to that movement. There is no serious evidence to suggest such a connection except that Cerinthus was a millenarian (see Aune 1997: liii).

External Evidence. Justin Martyr in the mid-second century wrote that the apostle John was the author (Dialogue with Trypho 81.4), and this became the accepted view (so also Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.20.11; Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.14.3; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.108; Origen, De principiis 1.2.10). Helmbold (1961-62: 77-79) points out that the Apocryphon of John, a likely mid- to late-second-century work, also attributes the book to the apostle John. The first to reject apostolic authorship was Marcion, the second-century Gnostic who rejected all non-Pauline books (apart from an edited version of Luke) because of their Jewish influence. Dionysius also doubted the apostolic authorship of Revelation, and he was followed by Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Chrysostom. Dionysius is particularly important because he was the first to develop a series of arguments for his position, focusing on three problems: the absence of a claim to be an apostle or eyewitness, the different structure and thought patterns of Revelation from the other Johannine writings, and the difficult Greek of the book (see below).

Dionysius believed that “another (unknown) John” wrote Revelation, and he pointed to two tombs at Ephesus said to be John’s as evidence (also the view of Sweet, Krodel, Wall, Aune; Beasley-Murray, DLNT 1033). A version of this view believes that John’s Gospel, the Johannine epistles, and the Apocalypse were all the product of a Johannine “school” or circle of prophets, perhaps originating with the apostle himself (so Brown, Culpepper, Schüssler Fiorenza). This is certainly a possibility but rests on the larger decision as to whether the differences between the Gospel and Revelation are so great as to demand separate authors (see below).

Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, believed that the answer to the authorship of Revelation lay in Papias’s mention of “John the Elder”: “And if anyone chanced to come who had actually been a follower of the elders, what Andrew or what Peter said... or what John (said); and the things which Aristion and John the elder, disciples of the Lord, say” (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.2-4). Eusebius believed there were two Johns at Ephesus, with the apostle writing the Gospel and the elder the Apocalypse. However, two comments must be made. First, it is indeed possible that these are not two Johns but one, with the past “said” linking John with the apostles of the past and the present “say” linking him with those witnesses still alive in the time of Papias (so Smalley 1994: 38). Gundry (1982: 611-12) argues strongly that Papias equated John “the elder” with “the Lord’s disciple” on the grounds that Papias was writing before a.d. 110 and was more likely referring to first-generation witnesses rather than second-generation elders. If he was speaking of the second generation, one would have expected him to speak of the elders receiving the traditions from the disciples. Therefore, Eusebius must have interpreted it as two different witnesses because of his own bias against Revelation, and Papias equated John the elder with John the apostle. Second, even if these were two separate Johns, there is no evidence that the one wrote the Gospel and the other the Apocalypse. This is a theory that cannot go beyond speculation.

Another common view (though more frequent in the 19th century) is that Revelation is a pseudonymous book, similar to others widely seen as written under the pseudonym of a famous “hero” (e.g., 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, the Pastorals, 1-2 Peter). However, this does not fit the ancient apocalyptic characteristic that pseudonymous authors were long in the past. Moreover, one would expect a more explicit identification if a later writer were doing so, for example, “John the apostle” (so Beale 1999: 34). Also, it is uncertain whether pseudonymity was practiced in the early church (see Guthrie 1990: 1015-23; Carson, Moo, and Morris 1992: 367-71).

Differences from the Fourth Gospel. The primary reason why many scholars reject Revelation as a Johannine creation is the alleged differences from the Gospel of John. First, the Greek differs greatly. Guthrie (1990: 939) provides a good summary: the author “places nominatives in opposition to other cases, irregularly uses participles, constructs broken sentences, adds unnecessary pronouns, mixes up genders, numbers and cases and introduces several unusual constructions.” Several explanations are possible for the differences in Greek, however, such as an amanuensis who helped smooth out similar rough Greek in the Gospel, or (perhaps more likely) the apocalyptic form itself and the effects of the visions on John as he wrote. It is commonly conceded that there is a type of Hebraic Greek in the Apocalypse (so S. Thompson 1985 passim; Aune 1997: clxii; though see below on “Language”). Moreover, many of the solecisms appear deliberate, perhaps due to theological emphasis (see on 1:4) or the visionary experience. Such powerful experiences as the ecstatic visions would naturally affect one’s writing style. Thus after his extensive discussion of syntax and style, R. H. Charles (1920: 1.xxx-xxxvii) sees as many similarities as differences between John and Revelation.

More important are the so-called differences in theology between Revelation and the Fourth Gospel. The tone of the two books seems radically different, with the God of John a God of love who seeks the conversion of the “world” (e.g., John 3:16; cf. 1 John 4:9-10), while the God of Revelation is a God of wrath and judgment. Yet this is a false contrast, for judgment is also central to the Gospel (5:22, 30; 9:39), and in Revelation God also seeks repentance (see on 9:20-21; 14:6-7; 16:9, 11). Also, while John’s Gospel has a soteriology centering on belief and conversion, Revelation seemingly has no such purpose. I argue below (“Theology”), however, that there is a mission theology that does resemble that of the Fourth Gospel in some ways. Furthermore, certain terms common to both the Gospel and the Apocalypse are used differently, such as “lamb” or “Word.” Yet there may well be an apocalyptic as well as a paschal aspect to the “lamb” of John 1:29, 34 (see Carson 1991: 149). There is certainly a distinct difference between Jesus as the Word in John 1:1-2 (where he is the living revealer of God) and in Rev. 19:13 (where “his name is the Word of God” connotes the proclamation of judgment), but in both places λόγος (logos) connects Jesus with the Father and highlights the oneness between them. In fact, only in these two books is Jesus called λόγος in the NT. The differences are due to genre rather than authorship. Smalley (1988: 556-58) argues that the three main christological titles—Word, Lamb of God, and Son of Man—are so similar between the Gospel and the Apocalypse that they suggest unity of authorship. Similarly, the Spirit is the “Paraclete” in John 14-16 but the “seven spirits of God” in Rev. 1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6. Yet again the differences can be accounted for in the purposes of the two books. In the Gospel the Spirit is “another paraclete” following in the train of Jesus (14:16), while in the Apocalypse he is the perfect “sevenfold Spirit.” The function is quite similar, however, as the Spirit challenges the church and convicts the world in both works (cf. John 16:8-15 and Rev. 2:7; 5:6; etc.). Finally, the realized eschatology of John is seen to be incompatible with the final eschatology of Revelation; but it has long been recognized that the actual eschatology of the Gospel is inaugurated, with a final aspect in John 5:28-29 and 14:2-3, and again the differences are the result more of emphasis than final content.

The problems of the authorship of Revelation are indeed formidable, for the author makes no explicit identification of himself with John the apostle, and there are distinct differences between it and the Fourth Gospel (the authorship of which is also widely debated). Yet there are good reasons for upholding the viability of Revelation as penned by the apostle John and for downplaying the differences between it and the Fourth Gospel. First, there is sufficient evidence of acceptance from the early church fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria) to support apostolic authorship. Second, the similarities between the Gospel and the Apocalypse are sufficient to support that decision. The only two books in the NT to argue for the deity of Christ on the basis of the “oneness motif” between God and Jesus are John and the Apocalypse (see below on “Theology”). Also, there is a similar mission theme between them, as God seeks to bring the world to repentance. Mounce (1998: 14) mentions that Zech. 12:10 is quoted in John 19:37 and Rev. 1:7 “using the same Greek verb (ekkenteō), which in turn is not used by the LXX and is found nowhere else in the NT.” Ozanne (1965) finds a series of terms common to John and the Apocalypse: “conquer,” “keep the word,” “keep the commandments,” “dwell,” “sign,” “witness,” “true”; and Swete (1911: cxxx) concludes that the linguistic and grammatical data support a close affinity between John’s Gospel and the Apocalypse. In short, the internal evidence supports the external witness of the earliest fathers; and of the options noted above, Johannine authorship makes the best sense.

Date

Carson, Moo, and Morris (1992: 473-74) state that four dates were proposed by early Christian writers: the reigns of Claudius (a.d. 41-54, by Epiphanius), Nero (a.d. 54-68, by the Syriac versions), Domitian (a.d. 81-96, by Irenaeus, Victorinus, Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen), and Trajan (a.d. 98-117, by Donotheus, Theophylact). Of these, most contemporary scholars opt for either Nero or Domitian. Aune (1997: lvii) points out that the Domitianic date prevailed from the second through the eighteenth centuries and again in the twentieth century, while the Neronic date dominated the nineteenth century (Aune himself believes that the first edition appeared in the 60s and the final in the mid-90s). To determine which view is best, several issues must be discussed.

Emperor Worship/Imperial Cult. It is clear in Revelation that one of the primary problems of the believers in the province of Asia is some form of emperor worship (13:4, 14-17; 14:9; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). In the Roman world this began early on with the deification of Julius Caesar and Augustus, followed by Claudius and Vespasian. But the practice was to deify the emperor after he died rather than to worship a living emperor. Caligula demanded to be worshiped, but he was not recognized as divine by the senate. Tiberius and Claudius refused deification while they were alive. More important for the issue here is that Nero was not deified, though there is some evidence that he wished to be. However, there was no widespread demand that he be recognized as such. Domitian may have wished to be recognized as deus praesens (present deity) and to be called “our lord and god,” and coins show him enthroned as “father of the gods” (Jones, ABD 5:807). To be sure, as Giesen (1997: 28-30) states, the emperor was seen not so much as a god but more as the earthly representative of the gods, a mediator between the gods and the people. Yet this role was popularly seen as divine, as evidenced by the temples and idolatrous images/statues. But this theory regarding Domitian’s demand to be recognized as a god has been challenged by L. Thompson (1990: 101-15; so also Warden 1991: 207-8, 210-11), who argues that Domitian’s critics (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius) were biased against him and so painted him in a bad light because it was politically expedient to do so in the early years of Trajan. Thus Domitian was not a megalomaniac but was on the whole a good emperor beloved by his provincial subjects. There was no true persecution of the church during his reign.

However, Beale (1999: 6-12) argues that Thompson has overstated his case, and that while there was no policy regarding worshiping Domitian as a god, the title was expected as a form of flattery and that the negative evaluation of his reign has some basis in fact. Indeed, Janzen (1994: 643-49) points out that the coins of the 90s prove Domitian’s megalomania; they show that even his wife was called the mother of the divine Caesar. While it is debated how much persecution was attributable to a refusal to participate in the imperial cult, some limited persecution did probably occur. However these issues are resolved, the imperial cult was apparently much more developed and prominent in Domitian’s day than it was in Nero’s time. Botha (1988: 87-91) states that there was no single “imperial cult” but rather each city developed its own rituals. While the cult was voluntary, it was part of the benefactor system, with the emperor especially chosen by the gods and thus a portent of deity that should be worshiped. As such it gave great stability to the empire and was a sign of the status quo of Pax Romana. This reappraisal of Domitian’s role is summarized by Slater (1998: 234-38): the evidence does show that Domitian was loved by the people in the provinces because he curbed the economic exploitation caused by the governors, and as a result the elite disliked Domitian. Also, historians like Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius did write under Trajan when it was politically advantageous to exalt the new dynasty at the expense of the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus, and especially Domitian). But there is still good evidence for the growth of the imperial cult under Domitian’s reign. This evidence is provided by Biguzzi (1998a: 280-89): Asia was the epicenter of the imperial cult, and cities competed for the privilege of erecting a temple. In 29 b.c. Pergamum was the first to erect a temple, and Smyrna the second in a.d. 21 after a vigorous competition. Ephesus was the third, and it was especially linked with establishing the Flavian dynasty in Asia. A seven-meter statue of Titus (some think Domitian) was erected in the temple, and worship of the emperor was meant to bind the province of Asia together under the Pax Romana. Brent (1999: 101-2) believes that John was seen as the counterpart to the theologos or pagan official who guided the ritual, with Revelation the counter to the mysteries of Roman idolatry. While this is overstated, the importance of the imperial cult for Revelation will be noted often in the commentary.

Persecution of Christians. Revelation speaks of a certain stability in the situation of the churches but yet a fair amount of persecution (so 1:9; 2:2-3, 9-10, 13; 3:8, 10). Most of the persecution was Jewish (2:9; 3:9), however, and the martyrdom of Antipas (2:13) was in the past. There is little evidence in the book for official Roman persecution at the time of writing, and only two of the letters mention affliction (Smyrna and Thyatira), although the letter to Philadelphia presupposes it. The perspective of the book is that most of the oppression is yet to come (6:9-11; 12:11; 13:7, 10, 15; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4). A number of scholars have questioned the evidence for official persecution under Domitian (Yarbro Collins 1984: 69-73; L. Thompson 1990: 105-9), and the general feeling is that very little had yet occurred (Aune 1997: lxiv-lxix; Barr 1998: 165-69). Thus Bell (1979: 96-97) believes that this favors a date around a.d. 68 following Nero’s death, arguing that Nero is the fifth emperor in 17:9-11 (with Galba the sixth—see on that passage). But the prophetic stance of the book regarding imminent persecution (if it is written during Domitian’s reign) did come to pass, as Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan in a.d. 110 demonstrates (Pliny, Letters 10.26-27, reproduced in Barr 1998: 166-68). L. Thompson and Aune argue again that the reports of widespread persecution in Tacitus, Suetonius, and others were the result of “a relatively tight circle of politician-writers associated with the senatorial aristocracy with which Domitian was frequently in conflict” (Aune 1997: lxvii). Thus he may have been placed in an unfairly harsh light for political reasons. If this is true (see also the previous section), the intense persecution under Nero could provide a better setting, for there is absolute evidence of a terrible persecution instigated when Nero blamed Christians for the burning of Rome to shift the blame from himself (a.d. 64-68). Wilson (1993: 604-5; see also Lipiński 1969; and Moberly 1992: 376-77) argues for a pre-a.d. 70 date on three grounds: the only true persecution occurred under Nero; the “one who is” in 17:10 is either Galba or Nero; and the temple was still standing according to 11:1-2. But the Neronian persecution was limited to Rome as far as the data tell us, and there is no evidence for it extending to the province of Asia at that time. Also, 11:1-2 is symbolic and does not demand a literal temple.