What's the Deal With Revelation? Part 1: Introductory Issues

By: Robert Ward - July 21, 2021


 What's the Deal with Revelation?

Few biblical books have a reputation that precedes them quite like Revelation. With its vivid imagery, gratuitous violence, harrowing judgement scenes, and perplexing narrative, there should be little surprise it receives the attention that it does. While some attention is certainly negative, others have a fascination that can be described, understatedly, as “unhealthy” (a simple Google search for “mark of the beast” should be more than enough of a demonstration of this point!). However, there is also a greater disconnect between historical study and popular understanding of Revelation than the rest of the Bible. There are many aspects of Revelation that scholars take for granted which outright contradict many popular interpretations; for instance, the word “antichrist” never appears in the book.[1] My goal in this series of posts will be to discuss various controversial passages in Revelation using mainstream scholarship. To accomplish this task, it is best to begin with some preliminary issues, namely the date, authorship, and genre of Revelation.

Date of Revelation

Like many other Biblical books, there is some debate about when Revelation was written. However, the possible timeframe is much smaller than other works, since it is typically dated sometime between 69-110 CE. Generally, scholars will fall into one of two camps: the early date (usually mid-to-late-60’s CE),[2] or late date (usually mid 90’s CE).[3] In Recent years, the later date has been favored by scholars.[4] There are several factors that are considered; what follows will be a brief overview of the most important.

Irenaeus

The early Christian leader Irenaeus wrote that Revelation was written toward the end of Domitian’s reign, sometime in the mid 90’s CE.[5] However, he Also suggested that the Apostle John authored Revelation, along with the rest of the Johannine corpus, which is unlikely (as we shall see).[6] Given this inaccuracy, it is difficult to sustain that Irenaeus’ information about the Date of Revelation is credible. Yarbro Collins objects that since the apostle John would have been a very old man when Revelation was written, and therefore his writing Revelation would be prima facie unreasonable, then Irenaeus must have had good reason to date Revelation has he did.[7] However, this argument also works in reverse: perhaps Irenaeus had good reason to ascribe Revelation to the apostle John, and was simply wrong about the date! It is best to consider Irenaeus inconclusive at this point.

The Temple in 11:1-2

Those who favor an early date will often point to 11:1-2: “Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, “Come and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.” (NRSV). They argue that this passage addresses the temple as though it is still standing.[8] Commentators favoring a late date have offered two solutions to this: 1. They propose that 11:1-2 (perhaps even to verse 13) were written prior to the destruction of the temple, and were added to Revelation later,[9] or 2. They object that the depiction of the temple in Revelation is symbolic, so a reference to the literal temple would be out of place.[10]

 

The Use of the Term Babylon

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for a late date of Revelation is the use of “Babylon” in reference to Rome. Here Revelation follows other first-century Jewish writings, such as the Sibylline Oracles, 4 Ezra, and Baruch. She argues that the name would be improbably before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.[11] Wilson objects to this, saying that a) John likely would not have followed these other texts given his preference for the Hebrew Bible (HB), and b) the way these texts are dated is circular, since it is assumed some texts are written after 70 CE to support the late date for Revelation. However, there are issues with his approach. First, Wilson proposes an anachronistic understanding of the HB: he assumes that the texts like the Apocalypse of Baruch and 4 Ezra were certainly excluded from the HB. However, there is no evidence of a distinct canon until at least 70 CE, and possibly not until after 135 CE.[12] Additionally, Revelation’s similarity to the other texts makes it more probable that John was aware of them. Second, Wilson ignores the significance of why Rome is compared to Babylon: both empires destroyed temples in Jerusalem. Yarbro Collins rightly points out that other empires are equally, or even more likely to be chosen as symbolism for Rome.[13] In addition to the examples she lists (Egypt, Kittim and Edom), the Seleucid empire of the early second-century BCE would be a strong contender, given its prevalence in Daniel 7-12. The improbability of the use of Babylon only grows when one considers that it enjoyed such wide usage unless there was a specific reason Babylon was chosen. The use of Babylon in these texts is most easily explained if they were written after the destruction of the temple.

In view of the evidence listed above, a date post 70 CE is most likely for Revelation, though a more exact date is difficult to determine. The prevalence of the Nero Redivivus myth (more on that later) makes a date much after 100 CE unlikely. It is most likely that Revelation was written sometime between 80-100 CE.[14]

 

Author of Revelation

While the date of Revelation is a contentious issue among scholars, the author is less so. There are three broad possibilities for who the author of Revelation was (or was not): a) the Apostle John, who is traditionally thought to be the author of the Gospel of John and the Johannine epistles; b) an anonymous author, who is using the name “John” as a pseudonym; c) a prophet named John, who had a personal connection with the seven churches to whom Revelation is addressed. While a few scholars argue that the author is the apostle John on the basis that it was attributed to him by a few early Christians, this is unlikely since there is little similarity between Revelation and the Gospel of John.[15] Some scholars have argued that Revelation is pseudonymous, since it is a common feature among apocalypses; however, pseudonymous authorship does little to explain John’s apparent personal connection to the seven churches. The most likely explanation is that John was a prophet who had prophesied in churches in Asia Minor.[16]

 

Genre of Revelation

Revelation is generally divided into three genres: Apocalypse, Prophecy, and Epistle. I will address each in turn.

Apocalypse

The word “apocalypse” has commonly been associated with destruction and the end of the world in popular culture. However, in terms of the word’s origins and scholarly usage, its meaning is quite different. The word comes from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις, which simply means “revelation.”[17] The word is used over a dozen times in the New Testament, and it is the first word found in Revelation. However, the apocalyptic genre is more complex than the word itself may suggest. Many scholars have noted the similarity of style between Revelation and some contemporary Jewish works, many of which pre-date Revelation.[18] While the term “apocalypse” does not appear to have been used in a technical sense until at least the time of Revelation,[19] the similarities between these works are difficult to deny. While not all apocalypses feature precisely the same content (e.g., Revelation is not Pseudonymous), the genre can broadly be defined like this: “a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.”[20] Other definitions of apocalypse also include a sociological function, such they may be “understood as a form of protest literature in which the oppressed rights of a minority are legitimated by divine revelation.”[21] All of these elements are present in Revelation. Recognizing apocalypticism provides an important starting point to understanding Revelation, especially in terms of it’s sociological function: Revelation consistently undermines the Roman empire, exhorting its readers to remain faithful despite their perceived crisis.

Prophecy

Though Revelation’s definition as an apocalypse can dominate scholarly discussions, it most often designates itself as prophecy. The precise relationship between prophecy and apocalypse is convoluted, since they share some features, and the apocalyptic genre is sometimes thought to derive from prophecy.[22] At any rate, several features of prophecy are present in Revelation, most notably divine oracles. These are seen most prominently in chapters 2–3, where John speaks on behalf of Jesus to the seven churches. There may be some predictive elements in Revelation (especially chapter 19 onward), but that is not an essential feature of prophecy in Revelation.[23] Revelation also makes extensive use of the HB prophets, frequently borrowing terms, symbols, and other features of HB prophets, and repurposing them for his narrative.[24]

Epistle

Though not as prevalent as the other two genre designations, Revelation also takes the form of a letter, especially in chapters 2–3. Letters in the first century frequently contained greetings and conclusions, both of which Revelation contains.[25] Revelation also names its author, and addresses its recipients. Most important is the function the Epistolary genre plays: it sets the interpretive context for Revelation as the seven churches to whom it is addressed. Koester describes it thus: “The book is not only ‘about’ John’s visions; it speaks “to” the situations of specific readers.”[26] When understood in this light, a problem emerges for interpreters who insist on Revelation as a primarily predictive text: what relevance would detailed descriptions of events thousands of years in the future had for the readers that Revelation was written for? Are we supposed to think that Revelation begins and ends by exhorting its addressed readers to action, only to spend the rest of the time detailing events that would never have any effect on its audience?

The genres of Revelation should not be thought of as separate and distinct from one another; it isn’t as though John is writing apocalypse at one point, prophecy at another, and epistle somewhere else. Rather, he uses all three, often simultaneously, but for distinct purposes: offering a narrative of triumph (apocalypse) with divine authorization (prophecy) for his readers specifically (epistle).

 

 

Bibliography

 

Aune, David E. Apocalypticism, Prophecy, and Magic in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

 

———. Revelation. Word Bible Commentary vol 52 A, B, and C. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.

 

Danker, Frederick William, et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Third Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000.

 

Gorman, Michael J. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011.

 

Koester, Craig. Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible Commentary vol 38A. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2014.

 

Middleton, Paul. The Violence of the Lamb: Martyrs as Agents of Divine Judgement in the Book of Revelation. Library of New Testament Studies 586. New York: T&T Clark, 2020.

 

Yarbro Collins, Adela. Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984.

 

———. “Dating the Apocalypse of John.” Biblical Research, 26 (1981) 33–45.

 

Ulrich, Eugene. “The Bible in the Making.” In The Bible at Qumran: Text, Shape, and Interpretation. Edited by Peter W. Flint. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. 61–66.

 

Wilson, Mark. “The Early Christians in Ephesus and the Date of Revelation, Again.” Neotestamentica, 39:1 (2005) 163193.

 

 

 

[1] The Greek word àντíχριστος (antichristos) is only used in First and Second John.

[2] E.g., Wilson, “The Early Christians.”

[3] E.g., Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis.

[4] Middleton, The Violence of the Lamb, 16.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis, 56.

[8] Wilson, “The Early Christians,” 169.

[9] Aune, Revelation, 52B, 436.

[10] Koester, Revelation, 494495.

[11] Yarbro Collins, “Dating the Apocalypse,” 35.

[12] Ulrich, “The Bible in the Making,” 65.

[13] Yarbro Collins, “Dating the Apocalypse,” 35.

[14] Koester, Revelation, 79.

[15] Koester, Revelation, 83.

[16] Aune, Revelation, 80.

[17] Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 112.

[18] Examples of Jewish Apocalypses include 1 Enoch, Daniel 7-12, and Baruch.

[19] Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 34.

[20] Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 5.

[21] Aune, Apocalypticism, Prophecy and Magic, 63.

[22] Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination, 25.

[23] Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly, 36.

[24] Koester, Revelation, 109.

[25] For a more thorough description of Revelation’s epistolary elements, see Koester, Revelation, 109–112.

[26] Koester, Revelation, 111.





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Robert Ward

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I completed my BA in Christian studies in 2018, and I am currently a graduate (MA) student in New Testament in Hamilton, Ontario. My research interests include: Old Testament textual criticism, Revelation, Apocalyptic literature, Bibliology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.


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