Who wrote Revelation? (Revelation 10)

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Unlike non-biblical apocalyptic works, Revelation is not attributed to a hero of the distant past. The author identifies himself as John (Revelation 1:1) and informed his readership that he was writing from the island of Patmos, where he had apparently been exiled because of his testimony to Christ. The author was clearly Jewish, based upon the numerous Old Testament quotations and allusions in the book and on his evident familiarity with the symbolic world of Second Temple Judaism. The traditional view, held from the early second century forward, is that this was the same John (John the apostle) who wrote the Gospel of John, as well as 1, 2 and 3 John.

The common view that John the apostle wrote Revelation was challenged, however, in the third century by Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, because he was disturbed at the millenarianism (a belief that in a 1000 year reign of Christ on earth, 20:2) that had arisen in his church as a result of reading the book in a literal fashion. Seeking, perhaps, to diminish the authority of Revelation, he claimed that the apostle could not possibly have written it, noting that the author of Revelation did not claim to be the beloved disciple, that the style of the book is markedly dissimilar to that of John’s Gospel and that there was in fact another early Christian leader named John. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.1-7), in a citation of the church father Papias, affirmed that there had been two church leaders by this name, the second of whom was known simply as “John the Elder”. John was indeed a common name in Jewish circles, and it would not have been surprising to find two significant figures in the early church bearing this name (some have even ascribed Revelation to John Mark, author of the Gospel of Mark). As a result of these criticisms, the authority of the book of Revelation in the eastern churches was greatly diminished, to the point that some came to deny that it was canonical.

Another reason for denying that John the apostle wrote Revelation is 21:14, which states that the foundations of the New Jerusalem have inscribed upon them the names of the 12 apostles. This wording may suggest that the author was not himself an apostle and that the age of apostles was indeed past. Nonetheless, there are strong reasons for holding to the traditional view:

  • Papias’ implied assertion that there was a “John the Elder” is controversial. We have only the citation of Papias (ca. A.D. 130), found in Eusebius (ca. A.D. 263-339), to work with. It is true that Papias’ statement as we have it appears to imply the presence of a second John, but the evidence would be more compelling if it were not found only in a secondary citation. The author of Revelation never called himself “the elder”, a surprising fact if he were indeed this second John, known in the churches by this designation. John the apostle, widely regarded to be the author of 2 and 3 John, referred to himself as “the elder” in both of these epistles. Thus it may be that John the Elder and the apostle were in reality the same individual. It would be surprising, if this profound book were written by this later “John the Elder”, for this individual to have been widely known and revered in the church of Asia and yet almost entirely forgotten until his name was recovered by the scholarly diligence of Eusebius. Neither Papias nor Eusebius claimed that the second John wrote Revelation. The Papias quote says nothing about Revelation, and Eusebius stated only that in one were unwilling to ascribe Revelation to John the apostle, he or she could alternatively opt to ascribe it to the second John.
  • Justin Martyr (mid-second century A.D.) and other church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, all believed that John the apostle wrote Revelation.
  • Despite their very different literary styles, there are thematic similarities between the Gospel of John and Revelation: Christ is the “Word” in both John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13 , and in both works He is also both the “Lamb” (John 1:29, Revelation 5:6) and the “Shepherd” (John 10:11, Revelation 7:17).
  • Both Revelation and John strongly contrast truth and falsehood, light and darkness etc.
  • Scholars cannot demonstrate that John the apostle did not write Revelation on the basis of a simple observation that the style of Revelation is unlike that of the Gospel. The Gospel was probably based upon sermons John had been delivering throughout his career and thus had a polished, oratorical style. The Apocalypse, a report of visions, is on the other hand in a genre unlike that of any other New Testament book. It is unreasonable to expect that Revelation would read like either a Gospel or an epistle.
  • Against the view that 21:14 requires a post-apostolic author, it is clear from Paul that the apostles were well aware of the high significance of their office (1 Corinthians 9:1-2, 12:28, Ephesians 2:20, 1 Thessalonians 2:6).
  • The author of Revelation implicitly presented himself as one of great authority. In Revelation 10:10 he symbolically ate a scroll (as did Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3:1), and in Revelation 22:18-19 he conferred upon his own book an authority similar to that of the law in Deuteronomy 4:2. It would have been strange indeed for an obscure Jewish Christian to have made such claims of authority for his own book.

 

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