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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
General Editor: J. J. S. PEROWNE, D.D., Bishop of Worcester
s. john the divine
With Notes and Introduction
by the late
rev. william henry simcox, m.a.
rector of harlaxton
edited for the syndics of the university press
at the university press
[ All Rights reserved. ]
BY THE GENERAL EDITOR
The General Editor of The Cambridge Bible for Schools thinks it right to say that he does not hold himself responsible either for the interpretation of particular passages which the Editors of the several Books have adopted, or for any opinion on points of doctrine that they may have expressed. In the New Testament more especially questions arise of the deepest theological import, on which the ablest and most conscientious interpreters have differed and always will differ. His aim has been in all such cases to leave each Contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment, only taking care that mere controversy should as far as possible be avoided. He has contented himself chiefly with a careful revision of the notes, with pointing out omissions, with suggesting occasionally a reconsideration of some question, or a fuller treatment of difficult passages, and the like.
Beyond this he has not attempted to interfere, feeling it better that each Commentary should have its own individual character, and being convinced that freshness and variety of treatment are more than a compensation for any lack of uniformity in the Series.
T HE MS. of the Commentary as well as a Transcript of the Text for the Cambridge Greek Testament were substantially completed in 1883, so that in the first draught of his work my brother could not make use of the Revised Version; and though the MS. was subsequently carefully revised as to substance he did not insert systematic references. These have now been generally supplied. The third Appendix is from a paper read by request before a society of theological students at Oxford, which accounts for a somewhat personal tone. The substance would probably have been embodied in the Introduction if the writer had lived. I am responsible for the summary of Völter’s Analysis, which was not required by the audience, and for some additions to the First Excursus, of which I failed to discover a completed MS.
G. A. SIMCOX.
In the second edition a few details have been restated more precisely and a few corrections have been made.
Chapter I. Authorship and Canonicity of the Revelation
Chapter II. Date and Place of Composition
Chapter III. Principles of Interpretation
Chapter IV. Analysis
II. Text and Notes
Excursus I. The Angels of the Churches: Elemental Angels: the living creatures
Excursus II. On the Heresies controverted in the Revelation
Excursus III. On the supposed Jewish origin of the Revelation of St John
* * * The Text adopted in this Edition is that of Dr Scrivener’s Cambridge Paragraph Bible . A few variations from the ordinary Text, chiefly in the spelling of certain words, and in the use of italics, will be noticed. For the principles adopted by Dr Scrivener as regards the printing of the Text see his Introduction to the Paragraph Bible , published by the Cambridge University Press.
Much he ask’d in loving wonder ,
On Thy bosom leaning, Lord!
In that secret place of thunder ,
Answer kind didst thou accord ,
Wisdom for Thy Church to ponder
Till the day of dread award .
Lo! Heaven’s doors lift up, revealing
How Thy judgments earthward move;
Scrolls unfolded, trumpets pealing ,
Wine-cups from the wrath above ,
Yet o’er all a soft Voice stealing
“ Little children, trust and love! ”
Authorship and Canonicity of the Revelation
In the case of some of the books of Scripture, the questions of their authorship and of their canonical authority are quite independent of one another. Many books 1 1 e.g. Judges, Kings, and Chronicles; and in the N.T., Hebrews. are anonymous, many have their authors known only by a post-canonical tradition 2 2 e.g. the Synoptical Gospels. ; and the rejection, in any case where it may be called for, of this tradition need not and ought not to involve a denial of the divine authority of the book. Even in cases where the supposed author is named or unmistakeably indicated in the book itself, it does not always follow that the book must either be written by him, or can owe none of its inspiration to the Spirit of truth: the person of the professed author may be assumed dramatically without any mala fides 3 3 As is certainly the case with the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, and almost certainly with Ecclesiastes. It is conceivable that the case of the Pastoral Epistles of St Paul might be similar. . On the other hand, there are books which plainly exclude any such hypothesis, and must either be forgeries, more or less excusable but hardly consistent with divine direction, or else must be accepted as genuine and inspired works of their professed authors.
The case of the Revelation may be regarded as intermediate between the two last-named classes. The author gives his name as “John,” but gives no unmistakeable token, in this book itself, to identify him with St John the Apostle: and hence the opinion is rationally tenable, that the Revelation is the work of a person named John, writing what he bonâ fide regarded as a supernatural vision, but not having more claim on the reverence of the Church than his work can command on its own merits. On the other hand, we shall find that the book was so early and so widely received as the work of the Apostle, that it may well be suspected that, if not really his, it was falsely put forward as his, and intended by the real author to be received as his: so that the hypothesis of fraudulent forgery, if not necessary, can hardly be considered gratuitous.
It thus will be convenient to discuss the two questions of authorship and of canonical authority in connexion with one another, though remembering that the determination of one does not (except in one case) necessarily involve that of the other. The book may be either (1) the genuine and inspired work of St John the Apostle; or (2) a forgery in the name of St John the Apostle; or (3) it may be the genuine and inspired work of another John; or (4) a bonâ fide but uninspired work of another John. We may fairly set aside the logically conceivable cases, of the Apostle writing not under divine inspiration, or of a person writing indeed fraudulently, but not intending to personate the Apostle. Let us examine the evidence, external and internal, for each of these views:
I. The external attestation of St John’s authorship is extremely strong: it happens to be quoted, with the author’s name, earlier than any other book of the New Testament, with the one exception of St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew , says expressly, “There was with us a man named John, one of the Apostles of Christ , who in the Revelation made to him” says, in substance, what is said in Revelation 20:3-6 . The date of this Dialogue is variously fixed from a.d. 135 to 148: the scene is laid at Ephesus, where surely, if anywhere, the true authorship of the Revelation must have been known. The same writer in his First Apology , which was written not later than a.d. 160, refers unmistakeably to Revelation 12:0 or 20:2: but this is only evidence to the authority, not to the authorship.
We may regard as practically contemporary with this the evidence afforded by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, near Laodicea, who acknowledged the Apocalypse, as is stated by Andrew, bishop (in the fifth century?) of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, in the prologue to his Commentary on the book. Papias’s evidence, if we had it at first hand, would be even more convincing than Justin’s: for not only did he belong to the district where the Revelation was first circulated, 1 1 It has been observed that, while the Churches of Laodicea and Sardis must have known the facts about the origin of the Apocalypse, they had every interest in discrediting its authority, if they honestly could. but he is said to have been a hearer of St John himself he certainly was a zealous collector of traditions relating to him. But Papias’s own works are lost, and though Andrew was doubtless acquainted with them, his testimony is not quite decisive. Eusebius professes ( H. E. III. iii. 2), in his account of early divines, to state whenever they quote as Scripture books of which the canonicity was disputed: and he does thus note the passage of Justin already cited. In his account of Papias ( ib. xxxix. 13), he tells us that he quoted the First Epistle of St Peter, and that of St John, though, as the canonicity of these books was not disputed, he was not bound to note the fact. If then Papias had quoted the book about which there was the keenest dispute of all, Eusebius would surely have told us so; especially as he actually founded a conjecture as to its authorship (see p. xxii) on a passage in Papias. Thus the argument from the silence of Eusebius, which is worth very little as evidence that Papias did not know St John’s Gospel, is, as regards the Revelation, as strong as an argument from silence can be.
Moreover, he enables us to account for Andrew’s assuming that Papias knew the book, without his having expressly cited it. Papias certainly held the doctrine of a Millennium, which is not, even apparently, taught in any canonical book but the Apocalypse. Andrew may therefore have taken for granted that he derived the doctrine from it, while in reality he may have had no authority but the general belief of the Church. The only passage in the extant fragments of Papias bearing on the subject seems to be derived by tradition from the Book of Enoch. If he had read the passage of that book, which he seems to be reproducing, he could not have put the rather silly description of the ideal bliss which it contains into the mouth of our Lord.
But, even if Papias did not expressly quote the Revelation, it does not follow that he was not acquainted with it: and in fact we find it unhesitatingly received by the Churches of Asia during the second century. Of the many Christian writers of that age and country, almost all the works are lost: but we have catalogues of those of Melito, bishop of Sardis, the ablest, most learned, and most critical among them, who flourished in the reign of M. Aurelius, a.d. 161 180. He not only acknowledged “the Revelation of John,” but wrote a commentary upon it.
A colony from the Churches of Asia appears to have been established about this time, or earlier, at Lyons, in Gaul. In a.d. 177, they and their neighbours of Vienne were exposed to a savage persecution, of which a detailed account, addressed to their Asiatic kinsmen, was written by a surviving brother: and considerable fragments of this are preserved by Eusebius ( H. E. v. i iv). In this, the Revelation (22:11) is expressly quoted as “the Scripture.” Besides this, we have constant evidence of the writer’s familiarity with the thoughts, images, and phrases of this book: he speaks of Christ as “the faithful and true Witness” (Revelation 3:14 ), and of “the heavenly fountain of the water of life” (7:17, 22:1). The Church is personified as a Virgin Mother (c. 12): the Martyrs in their spiritual beauty and exultation are compared to a “bride adorned in embroidered robes of gold” (21:2): and throughout we have constant references, not only to the expected persecution of Antichrist, but to the imagery of the Dragon and the Beast.
Pothinus, the aged bishop of Lyons, who died in this persecution, was succeeded by Irenaeus. The latter was certainly a native of Asia, probably of Smyrna: and, though his works belong to a later date than Justin’s or the other writers we have named, he is not practically more remote from the source of authentic tradition. For in his boyhood he had known and heard St Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and remembered the account he gave of his personal intercourse with St John ( Ep. ad Flor., ap. Eus. H. E. v. xx. 8, 9). Now St Polycarp was burnt a.d. 155, and had then been a Christian 86 years: his conversion therefore, or birth in a Christian family, must have taken place a.d. 69 or 70. And St Irenaeus states ( Adv. Haer. III. iii. 3) that both his conversion and his appointment as bishop, was the act of “Apostles,” the latter can hardly have been the act of any other Apostle than St John, who (according to Irenaeus) “lived till the time of Trajan,” i.e. at least to a.d. 98. At that time Polycarp may have been from 30 to 40 years old; thus it appears that he had been the personal disciple of St John from early childhood to full maturity. His traditions therefore about the Apostle must have been absolutely authentic, and they must have served as a check on the circulation in Asia of spurious ones, at least among those who knew Polycarp personally. It thus appears that Irenaeus received authentic traditions about St John, passing through but one intermediate step; now Irenaeus’ testimony to the authorship of the Apocalypse is even more definite than any that we have yet met with. He not only everywhere ascribes it to the Apostle, but states ( Adv. Haer. V. xxx. 1) that “it was seen not long ago, but almost in our own generation, near the end of the reign of Domitian” (i.e. a.d. 95 6). And he tells us that this statement rests on the authority of persons who had seen St John possibly therefore of Polycarp, or at least of Papias.
Shortly before the date of the martyrdoms of Lyons arose the fanatical heresy of the Montanists, on the borders of Mysia and Phrygia. Their wild beliefs on the subject of the New Jerusalem would tend rather to discredit than to support the authority of the book they appealed to as teaching the like: but the fact that their opponents in Asia accepted it as a common ground for discussion proves how unanimous was the tradition respecting it. The Martyrs of Lyons themselves wrote on the controversy, which in their days had not amounted to an actual schism: one of their own number was a rather prominent member of the Montanist party. On the other hand, Apollonius, who is said to have been an Ephesian, wrote after the controversy had grown very bitter: but we are told that he quoted the Revelation as authoritative, and apparently as the work of St John.
Tertullian, who wrote in Africa at the very end of the second century and in the early part of the third, constantly quotes the book as St John’s, and seems to know nothing of any doubts about it, except on the part of heretics. His testimony is however the less valuable, as he admitted the Book of Enoch: he became a Montanist in later life, and his quotations from the Revelation seem all to be in works written after his fall into heresy. Still it is probable that this is due to a change of temper, rather than to a change of opinion: for everything indicates that the orthodox Church of Africa accepted the book without hesitation. It certainly did so in the next generation, as we know from St Cyprian’s works.
Approximately contemporary with Tertullian perhaps rather earlier was Clement of Alexandria, who quotes the Revelation 1 1 This is not noticed by Eusebius, though he mentions the fact of his quoting other “disputed” books. This makes his silence as to Papias less decisive against his having quoted the book. as St John’s work, and refers historically to his exile in Patmos.
Of about the same age, probably, is the anonymous work on the Canon, known as the Muratorian Fragment , and supposed to be an African version of a Greek original written at Rome. In this “the Apocalypse of John” is recognised: so, if our text be right, is an “Apocalypse of Peter”; but we are told that some do not like to hear the latter read in the Church. This proves that the former was so read, and read as canonical Scripture.
About this same period there appears another kind of evidence, shewing still more plainly the belief, not of individual divines alone, but of large provincial Churches the versions of the New Testament made for ecclesiastical use in Churches where Greek was not generally spoken. The old Latin version was probably in use by Tertullian’s time, and if so must certainly have included the Apocalypse. The versions, however, in the different Egyptian dialects do not seem to have contained it till a later date. As to the Syriac, perhaps the oldest version of all, the evidence is more doubtful. The Peschitto, or vulgate Syrian version in use from the fourth century onwards, does not contain the book: but according to the view now taken by what seem to be the highest authorities, this is only a revision of the oldest version, that being one which has not been recovered, except (in part) for the Gospels. As the Apocalypse is quoted, and its authority recognised, by St Ephraim of Edessa, the great poet and divine of the Syrian Church, it cannot be thought an arbitrary opinion, that the Syriac canon did originally include the book: but neither can it be directly proved.
If we are now past the time when living tradition can be appealed to as decisive evidence, we have reached the time when scientific principles of criticism began to be applied to the traditional beliefs of Christendom. Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, were all well-educated men: the first and third ranked as “philosophers,” in the sense in which that term was used in their age: Tertullian was a man of real original power of thought. Origen, the pupil and successor of Clement, was not only a learned student, but an able critic. He discusses ably and sensibly the question, admitted to be doubtful, of the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews: he notices the doubts, though without doing much to solve them, that existed as to that of the Second Epistle of St Peter: but as to the Apocalypse, he seems to know of no doubts at all, or none worth heeding.
A man of almost equal learning, of about the same date, was Hippolytus, bishop of Portus, near Rome, or perhaps a claimant of the Roman see. In his extant works he constantly and unhesitatingly ascribes the Revelation to the Apostle John: but from a catalogue of his whole works it seems that he thought it necessary to defend its authenticity.
The last witness who need be quoted at this stage of the enquiry is St Victorinus, a bishop and martyr in the Diocletian persecution. His notes upon the Revelation are only known through an edition of St Jerome, to whom they were sent for revision by Anatolius. This edition which, according to Haussleiter (Luthardt’s Zeitschrift, May, 1886), was much enlarged by excerpts from Ticenius, a learned and thoughtful Donatist, whom St Jerome thought it indiscreet to name, has hardly reached us unaltered. Still enough is left to shew that St Victorinus is an independent witness to St John’s authorship.
Later fathers are witnesses, not to the belief of antiquity, but to the judgement of the Church of their own day. After Constantine that judgement was divided: the book was still received in Egypt and the West; in the interval between Eusebius and St Jerome it was rejected in Asia Minor and the East. St Cyril, who forbade all reading of apocryphal books, contrasts the ‘apocryphal’ Revelation with the canonical book of Daniel. St Gregory Nazianzen omits it from an exclusive list of genuine works, yet quotes it elsewhere, probably like St Gregory of Nyssa as an apocryphal work of the Evangelist. ‘Apocryphal’ was an ambiguous term: a book might be withdrawn from public use either as falsely ascribed to an inspired author, or as containing mysteries too high for ordinary believers. St Epiphanius, when the tide had turned, hints at the second sense. The ambiguity made the final judgement of the Church in favour of the book less difficult: but before it was reached the Church of the further East, speaking Syriac, was separated from Catholic Christendom by controversies with which this question had nothing to do. The Nestorian Canon is therefore still defective; the Jacobites under Egyptian influence soon came to receive the Apocalypse.
II. The earliest people we hear of as denying the authenticity of the Revelation are an Asiatic sect, extreme opponents of Montanism, who thought it necessary to discredit the writings of St John, because their Montanist countrymen appealed to his authority in support of their own views. These heretics were nicknamed by their orthodox opponents Alogi or Unreasonable, on account of their denial of the Logos , the Word or Reason of God proclaimed by St John. The fact that they rejected all the Johannine writings is evidence rather for than against the strength of the tradition in favour of the genuineness of this: for it proves that tradition was consistent and homogeneous in favour of all alike. It is plain that neither the ancient hypothesis, that the Gospel and Epistles were genuine but the Apocalypse not, nor the modern one that the Apocalypse was genuine but the Gospel and Epistles not, had occurred to anyone in Asia in the second century. Their objections seem to have been altogether à priori , or at any rate based on internal evidence: they said they found the book unprofitable very likely they did. A better argument was, that they alleged that no Church existed in Thyatira: but on this point the evidence of the Apocalypse itself is sufficient, whatever view be taken of the character of the book. Clearly these people do nothing to shake the credit of the book they attack.
A more respectable and sober opponent of the authenticity of the Apocalypse was Gaius, a learned presbyter of the Church of Rome in the early part of the third century a contemporary, approximately, of Tertullian and Hippolytus. He wrote against the Montanists, and in a work called an “Inquiry,” probably one concerned in this controversy, he speaks of “Cerinthus, who by revelations professedly written by a great Apostle passes off upon us false marvels, professedly shewn to him by angels; and says that after the Resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be earthly; and that the flesh will again be domiciled in Jerusalem, serving lusts and pleasures. And, being an enemy to the Scriptures of God, desiring to deceive, he says that the number is made up of 1000 years in a festive wedding” ( ap. Eus. H. E. III. xxviii. 1). There is no reasonable doubt, that in this he alludes to the now canonical Revelation of St John that he decidedly denies its genuineness and authority, ascribing it, not to St John but to St John’s opponent, Cerinthus. Gaius was, so far as we know, at least as consistently orthodox as Hippolytus, so that the testimony of the latter does not appear to prove that the book was received, at least unhesitatingly, in the Church of Rome: though this would be proved, if it were certain, as it is probable, that the Muratorian Fragment proceeded from the Church of Rome, and gives the canon there recognised at the end of the second century. It certainly seems strange to our notions, that an orthodox Church should include opposite opinions on a question so important as that of the canonicity or heresy of a book of the New Testament: but the works of Hippolytus prove that there were, in the Roman Church of the third century, very bitter disputes, if not an actual schism: and that both parties were headed by bishops, of repute as divines in their own day, and recognised as saints and martyrs by the later Church.
III. St Dionysius of Alexandria (bishop a.d. 249 265), the most famous of the famous and holy men who proceeded from the school of Origen, had, it is plain, received the Apocalypse 1 1 Ep. ad Hermamm. ap . Eus. H. E. VII. x. 1. , without question, like his master, as one of the New Testament Scriptures recognised by the Church. But, in what seems to have been a later work 2 2 On the Promises, ap . Eus. H.E. VII. xxv. , he had occasion to discuss the question critically. He recapitulates the arguments of those who rejected the book, with special reference, no doubt, to Gaius, and probably to the so-called Alogi. The argument sounds a little like theirs as quoted by St Epiphanius, “that the title is false: for, they say, it is not John’s, nor yet is it a Revelation, being completely veiled by the thick curtain of ignorance.”
But Dionysius himself treats the question in exactly the spirit, at once devout and critical, in which such questions ought to be treated: and the result is, that he sweeps away the bad arguments against St John’s authorship, and states the good ones in a form that really has never been improved upon between his day and ours. Those who denied the canonicity and orthodoxy of the book had only two grounds to go upon its obscurity, and its alleged description of the Kingdom of Christ as earthly. Now on the latter point St Dionysius thoroughly sympathised with the objectors: he had engaged in a controversy with Nepos, an Egyptian bishop who maintained millenarian views, and succeeded in convincing him and his followers that they were wrong. But Dionysius saw that it was neither reverent nor critical, to make the authority of the book stand or fall with a particular interpretation of a particular passage in it. To the charge of obscurity, he replies, “Even if I do not understand, I yet conceive some deeper sense to lie in the words. Not measuring and judging these things by private reasoning, but giving the chief weight to faith, I have supposed it too high to be comprehended by me: and do not reject these things which I have not seen, but admire them the more, because I have not.” He then expresses his own opinion, and the grounds for it, as follows:
“That he was called John, and that this writing is [St] John’s, I will not dispute: for I agree that it is the work of a holy and inspired man. Still, I would not readily admit that this John is the Apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, the author of the Gospel that bears the title according to John, and of the Catholic Epistle. I argue from the temper of the two, from the style of the language, and from what is called the purport of the book, that they are not the same. For the Evangelist never introduces his own name, nor proclaims himself, either in the Gospel or in the Epistle. St John nowhere [speaks of the Apostle by name?] either as being himself or as another: but the writer of the Revelation puts himself forward at the very beginning, ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which He gave to Him, to shew unto His Servants shortly. And He sent and signified it by His Angel to His Servant John, who bare witness of the Word of God and His testimony, whatsoever he saw.’ Then he also writes an Epistle, ‘John to the seven Churches which are in Asia, grace be to you and peace.’ But the Evangelist has not written his name even at the beginning of the Catholic Epistle, but begins without preamble with the mystery of the divine revelation itself, ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes.’ For on account of this revelation the Lord also called Peter blessed, saying, ‘Blessed art thou, Simon bar-Jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My heavenly Father.’ But neither in the second and third Epistles current as John’s, short as they are, is the name of John put forward, but ‘the Elder’ is written without name. But this writer has not even thought it enough, when he has named himself once for all, but takes it up again, ‘I John, your brother, and partaker with you in the tribulation and kingdom and in the patience of Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ And again, near the end, he says this, ‘Blessed is he that keepeth the words of the prophecy of this book, and I John who see and hear these things.’ Now that it is a John who writes this, we ought to believe on his own word, but what John is uncertain. For he has not said, as in many places of the Gospel, that he is the Disciple beloved of Jesus, nor who leaned upon His breast, nor the brother of James, nor that he was eye and ear witness of the Lord: for he would have said some of these things which I have mentioned, if he wished to indicate himself clearly. But, instead of any of these, he calls himself our brother and partaker with us, and a witness (or martyr) of Jesus, and blessed as seeing and hearing the revelations. But I suppose there were many of the same name as John the Apostle, who for their love for him, admiration, and desire to imitate him and to be beloved like him of the Lord, were glad to assume the same name, as Paul and Peter are frequent names among the children of the faithful 1 1 Of course this is an anachronism. John was a common Jewish name, and no doubt many Jewish Johns became Christians: but it had not had time to become a common Christian name, used for love of the Apostle, till long after the date of the Revelation. . There is in fact another John in the Acts of the Apostles, who was surnamed Mark 2 2 We may fairly gather from the way that this Mark is spoken of that St Dionysius did not identify him with the evangelist, the founder of his own Church. If he had, he could hardly have failed to notice the unlikeness of style between that Gospel and the Revelation. : whom Barnabas and Paul took with them, of whom it says again, ‘And they had also John to their minister.’ But whether he is the writer, I would not say: for it is written that he did not come with them into Asia, but ‘Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia; and John departed from them and returned to Jerusalem.’ But I think that there was some other of those who lived in Asia: for in fact they say that there are two tombs at Ephesus, each called that of John . And further, from their thoughts, language, and composition, this may reasonably be considered a different person from the others. For the Gospel and the Epistle harmonise with one another, and begin alike, the one ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ the other, ‘That which was from the beginning.’ The one says, ‘And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the Only-begotten from the Father:’ the other the same a little varied, ‘That which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we beheld, and our hands handled, concerning the Word of life: and the life was manifested.’ For this is his prelude to his main contention, as he makes plain in what follows, against those who said that the Lord had not come in the flesh: wherefore he continues carefully, ‘And we bear witness of that which we have seen, and declare unto you the life, the eternal [life], which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us: that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.’ He keeps close to himself, and does not withdraw from his announcement, and sets forth all by means of the same headings and names, of which we will briefly mention some. He who studies the books carefully will find in each frequently life, light , repulse of darkness , constantly truth, grace, joy , the flesh and blood of the Lord, the judgement , the forgiveness of sins , the love of God towards us, the commandment for us to love one another , the duty of keeping all the commandments , the condemnation of the world , the Devil , the Antichrist: the promise of the Holy Spirit, the adoption on the part of God, the constant demand of faith on our part, the Father and the Son everywhere: altogether, by every possible mark, we are allowed to see the same colouring in the Gospel and the Epistle. But compared with these the Revelation is utterly different and strange, neither touching nor approaching (one may almost say) any of these, nor having a syllable in common with them. Nor again has either the Epistle (I pass over the Gospel) any recollection or thought of the Revelation, nor the Revelation of the Epistle: whereas Paul in his Epistles has given some hint of his revelations, which he did not write separately. Further, one may also argue from the difference of language of the Gospel and Epistle compared with the Revelation. For they are written, not only without error in the Greek language, but with the greatest literary skill in the words, the reasonings, the arrangements of the exposition: far from there being any barbarous word, ungrammatical phrase, or in fact vulgarisms of any sort found there. For he had, as it seems, both forms of the Word, the Lord having granted him both, the word of knowledge and that of expression. But to this author I will not deny that he had seen a revelation, and received knowledge and prophecy; but I can see that his dialect and language are not correct Greek, but that he uses barbaric constructions, sometimes ungrammatical. These it is not necessary now to recount: for I do not say this for ridicule let no one suppose it but only defining the unlikeness of the writings.”
No ancient or modern critic has really added anything to this forcible argument against the unity of authorship of the Revelation and Gospel, with the exception of Eusebius. He calls attention to a passage of Papias, where he distinguishes, apparently, from the Apostle St John another “Disciple of the Lord,” whom he calls “John the Elder” or “Presbyter”; thus giving direct evidence of what, in St Dionysius, is not much more than a conjecture the existence at Ephesus, or at least in proconsular Asia, of two leaders of the Christian Church, both named John.
IV. No one in ancient times seems to have cared to question the inspiration, or reject the authority, of the Revelation, except those who, in the anti-millenarian controversy, thought it necessary to deny its orthodoxy. Thus the view that it is indeed a genuine work, belonging to the main stream of Christian thought, but that it can claim no higher inspiration than that of a subjective enthusiasm, does not present itself till modern times, and mostly on the part of rationalists: it involves matter of controversy which turns on à priori grounds, and cannot be discussed here: except so far as the question of interpretation involves the further question, “Have the Seer’s predictions been fulfilled, or have Christians reason to expect that they will be?” By this test, no doubt, we are justified in judging the claims of what professes to be an inspired prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:22 ): but we must ascertain what it is that is foretold, before we can judge whether it has “followed or come to pass,” or is in the way to do so. For the present, it will be enough to say, that practically the whole Church has agreed to recognise the authority of the book, and that this ought to compel us to recognise it: though its authority does not, perhaps, stand so high as that of those books “of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” Indeed, both in ancient and modern times, there has been a disposition to treat it with greater reserve, if not greater distrust, than the other canonical books. Everyone now past boyhood will remember, that in the English Church till 1872, while the rest of the New Testament was “read over orderly every year thrice, beside the Epistles and Gospels,” out of the Apocalypse there were “only certain Proper Lessons appointed upon divers feasts.” And something similar seems to have been the case in earlier times, from the fact that, while the theologians of Alexandria even St Dionysius acknowledged the canonical authority of the book, it was not translated till a comparatively late date into either of the vernacular dialects of Egypt. In the Greek-speaking Churches also it never came into general ecclesiastical use, and for this reason, probably, ancient copies of it are rare as compared with the other books of Scripture.
Conceding then the inspiration and canonicity of the book we approach without prejudice the question of its authorship. Its antiquity is undoubted, and the only person besides the Apostle suggested as its author was a personal “disciple of the Lord,” so that we can readily conceive his writing by divine inspiration. We have only to judge, whether the internal evidence against its being by the author of the Gospel and Epistles is so strong, as to set aside the great body of external evidence, whereby all alike are ascribed to St John the Apostle.
V. The theory has been advanced in modern times, that the Revelation may be the work of the Apostle, but that if so the Gospel and Epistles cannot be that they may at most be written by John the Presbyter, or some one else at Ephesus who inherited a genuine apostolic tradition. But to this the total absence of ancient support is an enormous objection. The question of the authorship of the Johannine writings was discussed, from the second century onwards, both from a theological and a critical point of view. Every theory was suggested but this: this could not fail to have been suggested, if there had been the smallest thread of tradition that could be alleged in its favour. No doubt the Revelation is rather more like than the Gospel to what we might have expected to be the work of the Galilean Apostle, the Son of Thunder: but the notion that, within 50 years of the Apostle’s death probably within 18 1 1 The Epistle of St Polycarp to the Philippians dates, if entirely genuine, from a.d. 116. In this the First Epistle of St John is quoted, though without the author’s name. the Gospel was accepted as his, when it was not his, becomes all the more incredible, if there was a genuine work of his current in the same Churches where the other was first circulated.
The internal evidence, moreover, for the apostolic authorship of the Gospel, though not obvious, is on the whole preponderating: on this question see the Prolegomena to the Gospel. If therefore the unity of authorship of the two be denied, it must be the Revelation that is non-apostolic.
We return therefore to the decisive question, Do St Dionysius’ arguments prove diversity of authorship, in the face of the strong external evidence of unity? And on the whole, strong as they are, they seem hardly sufficient for this. It is a very extreme measure, to set aside contemporary evidence to the authorship of a book; especially of a book ascribed to an author who had been prominent and universally known among the community who received the book as his. No doubt there would be a real tendency to be over-hasty in assigning to a venerable name a work that claimed, and that deserved, high authority: a really inspired book, written by a namesake of an Apostle, might easily be ascribed to the Apostle by future generations: but hardly by the generation that had known the Apostle himself, and received from him his genuine writings.
Moreover, strong as is the internal evidence against the unity of authorship, it is not altogether so strong as it seems at first sight: while internal evidence for the unity is by no means wanting. The arguments of St Dionysius, and of other critics who have maintained his view, may be divided under two heads, the unlikeness of style and grammar, and the unlikeness of the theological terms and ideas, between the Revelation and the other Johannine writings.
Indeed, a third element of unlikeness is sometimes alleged, between the moral tone and temper of the two writers. But this is too delicate a consideration, too much a matter of subjective feeling, for much weight to be given to it: and as a matter of fact, it is not put forward by those who have the best right to be heard. The character of a saint, at least of the greatest saints, is a complex and many-sided one: those who know most of the mind of the Spirit, and the saintly character which is His work, do not find much difficulty in forming a harmonious conception of the character of St John 1 1 See Keble’s stanzas on page viii of this book, and the whole hymn containing it. , which takes in, as one element, his authorship of the Revelation. And in fact, it is quite a mistake to think that the Apostle of love was incapable of severe condemnation. Not to mention the imperfectly disciplined temper shewn in St Luke 9:54 2 2 It is a mistake to see a sign of the same temper ib. ver. 49. What that shews is, not that St John was more zealous than the other Apostles in silencing the unknown man, but that he was quicker in inferring that the Lord was not certain to approve of their silencing him. , in the Gospel itself, in the Epistles, and in the best authenticated traditions of his later life 3 3 The story of his fleeing from Cerinthus in the bath, ap. S. Iren. III. iii. 4. , we see that his zeal could be stern, even fierce, upon occasion. See in the Gospel 1:10, 11, 2:24 5, 3:18, 19, 4:20, 5:14, 38 47, 6:70, 7:7, 8:15, 21 24, 38 47, 9:39 41, 10:26, 12:37 43, 48: in the First Epistle 2:15 19, 22, 3:1 fin., 8, 13 15, 4:3, 5, 5:16 fin.: in the Second, ver. 10, and in the Third vv. 9, 10, as evidence that the Evangelist sees nothing inconsistent with the “spirit he is of” in the stern condemnation of sin and unbelief or misbelief, either by the Saviour or by himself in His name. On the other hand, the tender charity of the Evangelist is not absent from the Apocalypse, though it may be admitted that the latter is, in its primary character, a vision of judgement: see 1:5 fin., 9, 7:14 17, 21:3, 4, besides many other passages where the tenderness, if less unmixed, is perceptible.
The differences of theological conceptions characteristic of the Revelation and the other Johannine writings respectively are to a certain extent real, though not more than superficial: and it is important to remember, that a reverent Christian temper will lead us to ascribe more importance, not less, to superficial differences than a rationalist might. For if all the writers of the New Testament had the same Spirit in them, it follows of course that the essentials of their doctrine must be the same: it can only be in superficial points in their different manner of stating the same doctrine, or at most in the proportion in which special doctrines are insisted on that their varying individuality can shew itself. If we thought that the doctrine of the Person of the Lord Jesus taught in St John’s Gospel was not held by the other Apostles, or by the primitive Church generally, it might be an argument for the Apocalypse being the work of the Evangelist, that the same doctrine is taught there. But if the doctrine is true if it formed part of the faith once for all delivered to the Saints there is nothing incredible in the view that two Saints received it alike and taught it alike. We can only conclude that we have the teaching of the same Saint, if he teaches, not only the same doctrine, but in the same manner.
Now there is one great and important point, wherein the manner or method of stating this doctrine is the same in the Gospel and the Revelation. It is in these books only, that the name “The Word ” is ascribed to the Lord Jesus. It is true, that the coincidence is not entire: in the Revelation (19:13) He is called “the Word of God,” in the Epistle (1:1) “the Word of life” (if there the term be used personally), and in the Gospel “the Word” absolutely: but there the context suggests that if the ellipsis be filled up, it can only be in the same manner as in the Revelation.
The case is similar as regards the description of the Son of God as a Lamb. Isaiah 53:7 is quoted in Acts 8:32 , and He is likened to a lamb in 1 Peter 1:19 : but He is not called a Lamb except in St John 1:29 , John 1:36 and in the Apocalypse passim . But different Greek words are used for “Lamb” in the two books. That used in the Apocalypse occurs in the Gospel, 21:15, but is not there used of Christ.
Of the 18 or 19 characteristic Johannine phrases enumerated by Dionysius, we certainly meet with few in the Revelation in exactly the same form or with the same frequency: but, in some form, we meet with nearly all. (1) We never have the phrase “eternal life,” but we constantly hear of “life” as an attribute of heavenly gifts the Book of Life (cf. Philippians 4:3 ), the Crown of Life (cf. James 1:12 ), the Tree of Life, and the Water of Life; which last only differs in construction, not in sense, from St John’s Gospel 4:10 14, 7:38. (2) The word “light” occurs rarely, and hardly ever in a directly spiritual sense: yet 21:11, 14 shew that the image was one that seemed to the seer natural and appropriate. (3) “Darkness” does not occur as a substantive, and the cognate verbs in 8:12, 9:2, 16:10 are images of punishment rather than of sin. (4) The substantive “Truth” does not occur, nor does the commoner of the Greek adjectives rendered “true.” But the rarer word, whose special sense, so far as it has one, is “real,” “genuine,” is characteristic of both groups of the Johannine writings. As an epithet of God or His Son, we meet it in the Gospel 7:28, 17:3, and virtually 1:9, 6:32, in the Ep. I. 5:20 (three times), and in the Revelation 3:7 , Revelation 3:14 , Revelation 3:6 :10, Revelation 3:19 :11: nowhere else but 1 Thessalonians 1:9 . And the use of the word in the Gospel 19:35 is very like that in Revelation 19:9 , Revelation 21:5 , Revelation 22:6 . (5) Grace is not really a frequent word in St John. Except in the salutation at the head of the second Epistle, which is paralleled by Revelation 1:4 , Revelation 22:21 , we have it only in the Gospel 1:14 17. Hence it proves nothing that (except in the two places cited), it does not occur in the Revelation. (6) “Joy,” and especially the phrase “joy fulfilled ” is, on the contrary, a phrase characteristic of the Gospel and Epistles, and absent in the Revelation. Even the verb “rejoice” is rare; it occurs only twice (11:10, 19:7), and only once of holy joy. Here then is a real diversity. (7) “The flesh and blood of the Lord” are mentioned in the Gospel 1:14, 6:51 sqq., 19:34, in the Epistles I. 1:7, 4:2, 5:6 8, 2:7. For the most part, these relate to the doctrines of the Incarnation and what is closely connected with this of the Sacraments: the latter subject is not mentioned in the Revelation, and the word “flesh” is not used in connexion with the former. But in Ep. I. 1:7 we have a closer parallel in thought and imagery to Revelation 7:14 , Revelation 22:14 (true text) than anywhere else in the N. T.: see also 1:5 (whatever be the true reading) and v. 9. (8) The word “judgement” is as frequent in the Revelation as in the Gospel, more so than in the Epistle: and the thought of the Divine Judgement is, of course, all-pervading. It is a question of interpretation, not a self-evident point of style, whether the nature of the Divine Judgement is conceived in quite the same way in the different books. (9) The “forgiveness of sins” as a phrase does not occur in the Revelation nor in the Gospel or Epistles: in the Gospel however we have the cognate verbal phrase in 20:23, and in the First Epistle in 1:9, 2:12: and it is these, doubtless, that St Dionysius is thinking of. The idea of course is frequent throughout the N. T. certainly not absent in the Revelation. (10) The love of God , as distinct from that of Christ , see 1:5, 3:9 and (with a verbal variation found also in the Gospel), 3:19 is only spoken of once, and that indirectly, in the Revelation (20:9). Here then is a real difference of manner and language not of temper nor of theological thought, for God’s electing love, as the first source of man’s salvation, is as plainly set forth in Revelation 13:8 &c. as anywhere in Scripture. (11) The command to love one another is probably, though not certainly, on the same footing. The “love” of 2:4, 19 may be mutual brotherly love, but probably is special love to Christ. If so, here is a very great difference indeed from St John’s acknowledged writings Christian love or charity being absolutely unnamed. (12) The phrase “keeping His Commandments,” on the contrary, is as emphatic if not as frequent in the Revelation as in the Gospel and Epistle: see 12:17, 14:12 ( not 22:14; even if the received text were right, the phrase in it is varied). (13 15) The world is never used in the Revelation in an ethical sense, only in a physical (13:8, 17:8: 11:15 is not really an exception): and the Devil and Antichrist are usually designated, not by those names (see however 12:9, 20:2), but as “the Dragon” and “the Beast.” As however the whole subject of the book is, God’s judgement on the sinful world, on the Devil, and on Antichrist, this difference is no evidence at all against unity of authorship. Of course the two books differ in kind and method, and allowing for this, we find a unity not a diversity between their thoughts. (16) “The promise of the Spirit,” spoken of in the Gospel cc. 14 16 &c. is not mentioned in similar terms in the Revelation: and “the seven Spirits of God” of Revelation 1:4 , Revelation 3:1 , Revelation 4:5 , Revelation 5:6 are decidedly unlike the Gospel in language, whatever be the relation between the two theologically. “The Spirit” of the Epistles to the Churches (2:7, &c.) and of 14:13, 22:17 is indeed spoken of in a way like enough to that of the Gospel and Epistles: but the likeness is not greater than the common belief of the whole Church would necessitate. On the other hand, there is a likeness perhaps rather more individual between Ep. I. 4:1 6, and Revelation 16:13 , Revelation 16:14 . (17) The word “adoption” is nowhere used in the Johannine writings, being, in the N. T. peculiar to St Paul. We have the thought in Revelation 21:7 , but not only is it less prominent than in the Gospel and Epistle it seems there to be spoken of as a present blessing, here as a future. Here then the discrepancy, though not very great, is real. (18) The word “Faith” occurs four times in the Revelation (2:13, 19, 13:10, 14:12), once in the first Epistle (5:4), and nowhere in the Gospel. But what St Dionysius is thinking of is, the constant occurrence in the Gospels and Epistles of the various phrases “to believe God” or Christ, “to believe in Christ” or “in His Name.” And it is certainly remarkable, that the word “believe” does not occur in the Revelation: but hardly more so, than that the word “faith” does not occur in the Gospel. The one can hardly be more than accidental, and so the other need not be. (19) The names of “the Father” and “the Son” are never coupled as correlative, or used absolutely, in the Revelation, as they are constantly in the Gospel and Epistles, and even in our Lord’s saying reported in St Matthew 11:27 , St Luke 10:22 . The nearest approach Isaiah 14:1 (true text). Christ is called “the Son of God” in 2:18, and speaks of “My Father,” as in the Gospels, in 2:27, 3:5, 21: but such expressions as these, and 1:6, belong to Christian theology, not Johannine phraseology.
On the whole then it appears that the difference of ideas is much less extensive than it seems. In the points numbered (3), (6), (10), (11), and perhaps (9), (16), (17) there is a real difference in the thoughts, but otherwise the matter resolves itself mainly into a difference of language sometimes so merely a matter of style and grammar as that one book has an abstract word and the other the cognate concrete. Thus we pass to the other branch of the argument the unlikeness in style and language of the Revelation to the other Johannine writings.
Now this unlikeness is undeniable, though it has been overstated, and some people, by refuting over-statements, have seemed to minimise it. It may perhaps be said that St Dionysius overstates it, not by exaggerating (as some modern critics have done) the peculiarities and harshnesses of the Revelation, but by over-estimating the literary power shewn in the Gospel and Epistles. It is quite true, that the author of these has a sufficient mastery of language for the adequate expression of his sublime and profound thoughts. Moreover, he writes in correct grammatical Greek, with less trace of Hebrew idiom than most of the N. T. writers: and he is rather fond of refining a point, sometimes of some theological importance, by the use of some delicate distinction of the Greek language, often quite untranslateable: e.g. the two nearly synonymous words rendered “ask” in ch. 16, and those rendered “feed” and “love” in ch. 21. And yet he does not write like a master of the Greek language. He does not write in the literary dialect of his time, echoing the language of the classical period, as St Luke does when he chooses: he does not, like the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, write under the influence of the Alexandrine school of Hellenising Jewish literature: if his theology has something in common with Philo’s, his language is unaffected by him. He says what he has to say in short, weighty, simple and rather unconnected sentences: his Greek is correct, because he never ventures on constructions complicated enough to risk a blunder.
The language of the Apocalypse, on the other hand, is fairly characterised by Dionysius. Indeed, the Greek is not so ungrammatical as it seems, nor are all its offences against the laws of grammar to be ascribed to ignorance or inability to write correctly: see 1:4 (true text) for a solecism obviously conscious and intentional. Moreover the language has laws of its own, e.g. as to the apposition of nouns, the connexion of participles with finite verbs, which, though they are not the laws recognised by classical or even by Hellenistic Greek, still are laws of language, and are observed with fair consistency. Still the fact remains that the Apocalypse is written in a language which, however well adapted to its subject and purpose, cannot be called good Greek, nor even good ecclesiastical Greek. It seems the work of a man who thinks in Hebrew, and turns the Hebrew sentences embodying his thoughts into Greek, not according to the traditional rules by which, since the composition of the Septuagint, a compromise had been made between the genius of the two languages, but quite independently, by rules of his own making.
Some of the grammatical peculiarities of the book will be pointed out in the Notes: it is impossible to discuss them fully here. With a few exceptions (see on 12:7) they do not affect translation. But it must suffice here to say, that primâ facie the style of the Revelation is so utterly unlike that of St John’s Gospel and Epistles, as to make it all but incredible that they are the work of the same author. We say all but incredible: for it is just conceivable that a man may change his style entirely, so that his writings of different periods shall seem like the writings of different men.
Is it then possible to assign the Apocalypse and the other Johannine writings to quite different periods in the Apostle’s life? If so, it may be possible to reconcile the conflict between external and internal evidence. If we suppose (see the next chapter) that the Revelation was written by St John the Apostle between a.d. 68 70, and the Gospel and Epistles a.d. 80 100, we get a credible view of the history of the Apostle’s mind, or at least of his style. A Jew of Palestine, habitually familiar with both the biblical Hebrew and the Aramaic vernacular, he was perhaps altogether ignorant of Greek till the age of 50 or 60. Then, being called on to take the pastoral charge of Greek-speaking Churches, he addressed them in their own language, which he had learnt as far as he could: but he refused to let his imperfect knowledge of the language hamper or even modify his expression of the message entrusted to him: he would say what he had to say somehow , even if he did not know how to say it in grammatical Greek. But, when he had lived from ten to thirty years in the midst of these Greek-speaking Churches, he learnt their language thoroughly, and became able to compose in it with vigour and correctness, if not with the mastery of a native. It is quite true that “the Greek of the Gospel and Epistle is not the Greek of the Apocalypse in a maturer state” (Alford), but it is conceivable that the man who had the one to unlearn might learn the other.
On the whole then the question of authorship must be made to depend on that of date. The internal evidence forbids us to believe that this and the other Johannine writings were composed by the same author at the same time still more, perhaps, that the Apocalypse was composed after the Gospel. But if it appear that the Apocalypse is some years earlier than the other books, it becomes credible, though hardly à priori probable, that they may be by the same author: and we have such strong external evidence that they are so, as to justify a confident belief that they are.
Date and Place of Composition
The book itself tells us (1:9) where the vision recorded in it was seen: it does not follow that the record was written in the same place. Such is, however, the probable conclusion. The English reader might indeed understand from the words “I was in the isle” that the writer was no longer there: and tradition, such as it is, seems to regard the book as written after the Seer’s release. But the indications of the book itself are decidedly in favour of the composition in Patmos. The words just cited really mean, “I had come to be in the island,” and do not in the least imply that he had left it: just as Daniel might equally have written “I became dumb” (10:15) if, like Ezekiel and Zacharias, he had continued so for a long time, and had written in that state. And in 1:11, 19, 14:13, 19:9, 21:5, and still more 10:4, it seems almost implied that the successive visions were written down as fast as they were seen; see however note on 10:4. But the command to write and send to the Seven Churches seems inconsistent with the Seer being, at the time of writing, resident at one of them, and free to visit the rest personally: and the style of the book, so far as any argument can be built on it, suggests that it was written in the same ecstatic state of mind in which the vision was unquestionably seen . Altogether, it seems likeliest that the book was written at Patmos, but the point is one of no great importance.
This cannot be said of the question of the date; which is much disputed, with strong arguments on both sides. We have already seen (p. xiii) that there is very strong evidence for ascribing it to the last three or four years of the Apostle’s life, a.d. 95 98. “It was seen,” says St Irenaeus, “… at the end of the reign of Domitian;” if it was not written till his return from exile, this was probably in the reign of Nerva. It is needless to quote later writers who say the same, for it is probable that most if not all of them derived their belief from this passage of Irenaeus. But it is certain, that his testimony was generally accepted by the Church at large, and that there is no trace of controversy as to the date of the work, independent of the controversy as to its authorship.
Nevertheless, there are statements in early Christian writers which seem to shew that the tradition on this point was not absolutely unanimous. Several of the earliest who refer to St John’s exile avoid naming the emperor who condemned him, while the earliest of all who refer to the book do not, as it happens, mention the fact of the exile. Thus there is no evidence earlier than St Irenaeus either opposed to his or merely negative.
The evidence nearest in time to his is negative, but on the whole harmonises with the date under Domitian. St Clement of Alexandria, in his treatise “Who is the rich man that can be saved,” tells the beautiful and often-repeated story (which, he is very careful to assure us, is historical not legendary) of St John reclaiming a young convert who had become a robber chief. He dates the beginning of the story “when, after the death of the tyrant , he had returned from the isle of Patmos to Ephesus.” Now we know that Domitian sentenced many Christians to banishment, and that they were released after his death by his successor Nerva: moreover, Domitian’s character, and that of his government, was far more likely to make a Greek writer describe him as a “tyrant 1 1 Under the later Empire the word “tyrant” came to be used as modern historians use “usurper.” In this sense, neither Nero nor Domitian can be so called. ” than that of any other early emperor. The only other emperor whose victims we can suppose to have been, as a matter of course, released on his death was Nero: he certainly did persecute the Christians, but we do not hear of banishment as ever inflicted by him, as it certainly was by Domitian.
Yet Clement’s story that follows seems far more consistent with a date under (we may say) Vespasian than under Nerva or Trajan. At the later date, St John must have been at least ninety years old, and it is most improbable that his bodily vigour can have been unimpaired. In fact, a still better known legend (though not resting on equally early authority 2 2 The legend of “Little children, love one another” is told by no extant author before St Jerome. ) describes him as being, for some time before his death, entirely decrepit, though fully retaining his mental faculties. But St Clement (and here all tradition agrees with him) describes the Apostle after his exile as making Ephesus indeed his head-quarters, but travelling thence in all directions, “in some places to establish bishops, in some to arrange whole churches, and in some to ordain to the clergy one or more of those indicated by the Spirit” Some months, at least, are implied to have been thus spent: some years seem to be required for the instruction of the young man, his gradual fall into vice, and the time when he is recognised by the Church as “dead to God.” But at the end of this time, we find that the local Church “when some occasion arose, again summoned John:” and not only does he readily make the journey when summoned, but, as soon as he hears of the fall of his disciple, he rides off on horseback to the mountains to seek for him. When the robbers have seized him and (presumably) taken his horse, their captain recognises him and, from shame, takes to flight: then no doubt it is thought remarkable that the Apostle “pursued him at full speed, forgetting his old age:” but this, which would be remarkable in a man of 70, is all but incredible in a man of 97 1 1 If we consider, not St John’s appearance in modern pictures, but the nature of the work to which our Lord called him, a year before the Crucifixion, then, as the latter probably took place in a.d. 29, we can hardly date the Apostle’s birth later than a.d. 5. . And finally, it is implied that the robber had to pass through a long course of penance before he was restored to the Church, through which the Apostle was able to guide and assist him.
Tertullian, in a work apparently orthodox and therefore early ( Praescr. Haer . 36), says that at Rome “the Apostle John, after he had been plunged in burning oil without suffering anything, was banished to an island.” He mentions this in close connexion with the martyrdoms of SS. Peter and Paul, which certainly took place under Nero: still it cannot be said that he implies that it was at the same time. But St Jerome ( adv. Jov. i. 26) quotes Tertullian as saying that “being put by Nero into a jar of boiling oil, he came out cleaner and more vigorous than he went in.” Now St Jerome was quite capable of lax quotation, of improving upon his authorities, and of confusing what he inferred from them with what they said. But on the other hand, we know that he used works of Tertullian now lost; and that, unless Nero was really mentioned by Tertullian (or someone else who repeated the same tradition), it would have been far easier to infer from the mention of St John’s banishment that his intended martyrdom took place under Domitian than from the mention of the other Apostles that it took place under Nero. And the banishment, it is quite plain from the extant passage, followed immediately on the miraculous escape from death.
Origen, in his commentary on St Matthew 20:22 sqq., speaks of “tradition” as teaching that “the Emperor of the Romans condemned John, being a witness” (or “martyr”) “for the word of truth, to the isle of Patmos. John,” he continues, “teaches us about his own martyrdom, not telling who condemned him , saying ‘I John … was in the isle that is called Patmos for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (Revelation 1:9 ). And he seems to have seen the Revelation in the island.” Here it is implied that there was a tradition about St John’s banishment, independent of the book itself: perhaps also, that this tradition stated the name of the Emperor who condemned the Saint. But, if Origen knew a tradition on this subject, he does not give it: and, in default of evidence to the contrary, it is presumable that the tradition was the usual or Irenaean one that if it named anybody it named Domitian.
St Epiphanius twice ( Haer . LI. 12, 33) ascribes St John’s banishment to Claudius , dating his return also in the same reign. In the former place, he says that, “in his advanced old age, after 90 years of his life, after his return from Patmos which took place under Claudius Caesar,” he wrote the Gospel. This singular statement is probably taken from some Gnostic acts at least as old as St Irenæus. It is just possible that it may contain a distorted echo of a genuine tradition that some of the visions were seen in the days of Claudius. As it stands it is quite incredible. If it means anything it must mean that St John wrote the Gospel when aged 90, some 40 years after his exile , which took place when he was hardly 50. Moreover in the reign of Claudius Christianity had not begun to attract the notice or hostility of the Roman Government except perhaps as the occasion of Jewish riots at Rome, which only led to the banishment of the riotous Jews. The only judicial persecutor we know of then was Herod, who had no power to banish to Patmos. Possibly the writer of the Acts fancied that when Claudius banished the Jews from Rome he banished St John from Ephesus. If so the Acts are a romance. Possibly as Eusebius through a mistake in reading or quoting the title of the Apology of Aristides confounded Antoninus Pius with Hadrian, the writer of the Acts may have confounded Claudius Nero with Nero Claudius his successor and adopted son. All an emperor’s names were often recited in his life, afterwards he was spoken of by one: so such a mistake would imply the misuse of almost contemporary evidence.
Traces are found in later writers, of about the sixth century, of a tradition ascribing the Apostle’s banishment to Nero: but they, like the fifth century Acts ascribed to Prochorus (Acts 6:5 ), associate with his banishment the composition, not of the Apocalypse but of the Gospel; the latter must be almost certainly of the age of Domitian. These stories seem therefore to have their roots, not in any real tradition reaching back to the time when the facts were known, but to an unreal conventional treatment of sacred history, whereby it was attempted to supply the missing links between the age of the New Testament and that of the fully constituted Church.
It is otherwise with the evidence of St Victorinus, if we could be sure what his evidence was. In the present state of his Commentary , the Revelation is distinctly ascribed to the reign of Domitian. On the other hand, we are told very positively, that “he wrote the Gospel afterwards:” now if the Revelation was a work of the close of Domitian’s reign, the Gospel could not be written very long afterwards. For no one supposes the Apostle to have lived later than the early years of Trajan, cir. a.d. 100; now it is scarcely credible that tradition it is impossible that internal evidence should have defined the exact order of two works so nearly contemporaneous as these would then be. Who imagines that a writer of the fourth century knew confidently whether St Paul wrote to the Galatians before or after the Corinthians? to the Philippians before or after the Ephesians and Colossians? On the other hand, if the two works belonged to quite different periods of the Apostle’s life, there would be no more difficulty in remembering the distinction between them than in noting that between the Pastoral Epistles and those written before St Paul’s imprisonment.
And further, the passage where the date under Domitian is most definitely affirmed is one which it is scarcely possible to suppose to be in its original form. In the Commentary on 17:10, the “seven kings” are identified as Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus (“five are fallen”): “one is,” Domitian, “the other is not yet come, and when he cometh, he must continue a little space,” i.e. Nerva, who only reigned two years. Now we ask, on what earthly principle the enumeration of the Emperors of Rome (if these be meant by the “kings”) should begin with the ephemeral princes of disputed title who struggled with one another through the eighteen months after Nero’s death? In popular apprehension, among the provincials at least, the first Roman Emperor was Julius Caesar: in strict constitutional law, the first who held the Empire as an established form of government was Augustus. The series of Emperors might legitimately begin with either of these, but with no one later. If the principle of interpretation here adopted be right if the “seven kings” be individual Roman Emperors it can hardly be doubted that they stand for the first seven, and that the Apocalypse was seen in the days of the sixth though there is room for differences of calculation as to who the sixth is.
Further, the above interpretation of the series would, if consistently followed, lead to an utter and scandalous absurdity. Who is “the Beast that was and is not,” who “is both himself the eighth, and is of the seven”? If the seventh king is the shortlived Nerva, the eighth must be the noble, upright, conscientious Trajan, the best ruler that the Empire ever had! It is almost blasphemous to suppose that St John or even that a general Christian tradition, accepted by a holy Christian Bishop like Victorinus can have taken such an unworthy view of Trajan’s character and historical position. It is true, that Trajan gave a partial sanction to the persecution of the Christians in Bithynia: we may perhaps accept the tradition, that he was personally responsible for the condemnation of St Ignatius of Antioch. But though Trajan was a thorough Pagan, ignorant of the Gospel and contemptuous towards it, it is absurd, or worse than absurd, to suppose that he can be described as the great enemy of God and of righteousness.
Almost certainly, then, either Victorinus or the editor who has reduced his commentary to its present form is here distorting the traditional interpretation he means to give, in order to reconcile it with the common story, that the Revelation was seen under Domitian. Assume that the Apostle is writing under Nero or Nero’s successor, and all becomes clear. The five fallen kings are the first five Emperors (whether beginning with Julius or Augustus): the character of the sixth is not defined, but he must have been more or less of a persecutor. The seventh will have a short but (apparently) not a merely ephemeral reign: the eighth will be an Antichristian revival of one of his predecessors.
Now it is possible to point out several schemes, according to which this prediction was more or less accurately fulfilled. Perhaps the most satisfactory is, to take the five fallen kings to be those from Augustus to Nero inclusive, and to suppose the three claimants of empire, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, not to be counted as actual emperors. Then the sixth will be Vespasian, the seventh the shortlived Titus, and the eighth Domitian, a tyrant and a persecutor, who was recognised both by Christians and Pagans as a revival of Nero. It is probable that this was the interpretation really given, if not by St Victorinus, at all events by the authorities he used and ought to have followed.
It harmonises with this, that in ch. 11. Jerusalem and the Temple there are apparently spoken of as still existing. It is true, we cannot be sure how far we are to understand such passages literally, how far “the Holy City” and “the Temple of God” are to be understood spiritually of their evangelical antitypes. But on the whole it appears simplest to take the literal sense, which appears to be the traditional one. There is even a respectable amount of traditional evidence for referring to the fall of Jerusalem the vision of the seven seals in ch. 6: and this interpretation is supported by the close resemblance between the imagery there, and that in our Lord’s prophecy, St Matthew 24:0 &c.
Thus on the question of date, as of authorship, we seem to find external evidence in conflict with internal. On the former question, we found the possibility of reconciliation between the two to be conditional on our decision on this point: on the other hand, it is a consideration in deciding this, what view will best harmonise all the evidence on all the questions affecting the book. And on the whole, the most probable view seems to be, that the Revelation was written by the Apostle John, at some time between the death of Nero in June a.d. 68, and the capture of Jerusalem in August a.d. 70: the Gospel and Epistles being much later works of the same author. Thus we accept all the mass of well-attested evidence which, as we have seen, we have to the authorship of the book: while its peculiarities, and the difficulties in the way of referring it to the Evangelist, if not entirely explained or accounted for, cease to be insuperable objections. There is only one well-attested statement that we are obliged to reject that of St Irenaeus about the date. And it is possible to account for this, without supposing it a mere blunder. If the story in Tertullian be true, it is likely enough to have happened, as St Jerome understood, under Nero. Savage punishments like those mentioned were inflicted by him on the Christians, and turned the popular hatred against them into pity; and it is credible that, when one of the victims was saved by a miracle or what looked like one, public opinion should have enforced a commutation of his sentence to simple exile. But, as exile was not a penalty often inflicted in Nero’s persecution, but was in Domitian’s, Irenaeus may have assumed that St John’s exile took place at the same time as that of other confessors. Or it is possible, that the Apostle was condemned by Domitian, or at least in his name, in the beginning of a.d. 70, when he, after the victory of Vespasian’s army, was the only member of the new imperial family at Rome, and enjoyed the titular office of city praetor. It would then be a comparatively slight error if St Irenaeus, knowing that St John was sent into exile by Domitian, assumed that he was sent at the same time as other ‘witnesses’, i.e. at the end of Domitian’s own reign, instead of the beginning of his father’s.
Most recent critics are disposed to admit both St John’s authorship of the Revelation and its early date. In England, indeed, many, perhaps most, orthodox commentators still adhere to the Irenaean or traditional date. But it is utterly unfair to suppose that there is any necessary connexion between the interpretation mentioned above of ch. 17 and the rationalistic views of some of its advocates: as we have seen, believers in the divine truth of the prophecy need be at no loss for seeing how, on this view, it received at least a partial and typical fulfilment. How far that fulfilment was adequate in what sense this or other predictions of the book have yet been fulfilled, or to what extent they yet remain to be fulfilled these are questions of interpretation. If the date and circumstances of the vision can be determined on critical grounds, they will throw some light on the interpretation, when we come to attempt it: but the critical question may be, and ought to be, treated without prejudice from the supposed necessities of exegesis.
Principles of Interpretation
Every student of the Apocalypse must be aware, that the interpretation of its visions has been a matter of controversy, almost ever since the age when it was written: and in view of this fact, it would clearly be presumptuous to propose any detailed scheme of interpretation with any approach to confidence. Still more obviously, it would be beyond the scope of an elementary sketch like the present Introduction, to enter into the controversy, or even to put forward the arguments by which the various schools have maintained their respective causes. And it would be beyond our limits to trace, in more than the barest outline, the history of opinion on the subject of the interpretation of the book: though that history may serve for a patient student, at once to suggest true principles and to warn him of the need of caution in applying them.
The presumptuous confidence with which, a generation or two ago, definite and detailed predictions of the future history of the world were grounded upon the visions of this book, and supposed to enjoy its authority, has now provoked a reaction. Many orthodox readers are content to leave at least the bulk of the book absolutely uninterpreted. The letters to the Seven Churches, it is obvious, are full of moral and spiritual instruction to the Church of all ages: the imagery of the first, fourth, and fifth chapters, perhaps of the twelfth, and certainly of the two last, is so transparent that no believer can fail to see the foundation of our salvation figured in the former, and its consummation in the latter. But the rest of the book is commonly left unread, or read only with a literary interest, as a phantasmagoria of sublime images: if people are too reverent to regard the book as a riddle without an answer, they treat it as one which they can never hope to guess, but must wait till the answer shall be told.
It is however scarcely credible that this can be the right spirit in which to regard any part of God’s Word: it is quite certain, that it is not the spirit in which the author of the Apocalypse expected or intended his own work to be regarded. Plainly, he throughout considers that he is conveying valuable information to his readers: this appears from the very title of the book, and the explanation which follows it in the opening words: see also 1:3, 13:9, 10, 19:9, 10, 20:6, 22:6, 7. It is true, that we are told that certain things contained in the vision are intentionally concealed (10:4), and that certain others can only be interpreted by a rare gift of discernment (13:18): but the general purport of the prophecy is expected to be intelligible, and most of its details to be instructive, to the Church at large.
If then the visions contained in the book were expected and intended by the author to be intelligible, it is only reasonable to suppose that we shall find them so, if we will read them without prejudice, and from a point of view as near as possible to that of the readers who were addressed in the first instance. For, while it is likely that the book (assuming it to be a truly inspired prophecy) will be of greater value to the generation that sees its complete fulfilment than to any before, it is plain that it was expected to edify its first and immediate recipients: it can scarcely then be unintelligible or useless to the many generations that lie between.
I. This may then be taken as the first of the principles to direct us in the attempt to understand the book: its first readers must have had a clue to it. Such a clue may have been furnished in any of three ways (1) by the Old Testament prophecies which the Seer repeats and makes his own, if we can ascertain the sense in which Jews or Christians of St John’s day understood them; (2) by the oral teaching of St John and other Apostles, or by the earlier writings of the New Testament; (3) by the events of past or contemporary history.
(1) The Revelation of St John is full of reminiscences of what may almost be called imitations of the prophecies of the Old Testament. In some cases it may sufficiently account for these, that the Seer uses an image or a phrase familiar to his own mind and his readers’, though not using it exactly in its original sense. But there are other cases more important if not more numerous where it is plainly implied that the new prophecy has a meaning analogous to, if not identical with, that of the old: e.g. in 2:27 the promise of Psalms 2:9 is applied to the faithful and courageous Christian: but the last words of the verse shew that St John understood the original promise as made not to the Christian but to Christ. On the other hand, it is quite certain that the Beast described in 13:1, 2 is either identical with one, or is an embodiment of all, of the beasts described in Daniel 7:0 . Again, the “time, times, and half a time” of Revelation 12:14 , and the apparently coincident 42 months or 1260 days (11:2, 3, 12:6, 13:5) plainly stand in a close relation with the identical or similar periods in Daniel 7:25 , Daniel 7:12 :7, Daniel 7:11 , Daniel 7:12 : though here it may be said that the earlier prophecy is at least as obscure as the later. In fact, familiarity with Daniel’s prophecy, and the generally received interpretation of it, must have made St John’s readers readily understand his prophecy as directed against Rome, and against a person wielding the power of Rome (though the power in his hands was separable from Rome locally), who was to be such an oppressor to the new People of God as Antiochus Epiphanes had been to the old.
(2) And such an oppressor or at least such a blasphemous enemy to God had been foretold by the Apostles from very early times: more plainly, perhaps, in their oral teaching than in their writings. For the only place where he is clearly foretold in an apostolic writing earlier than the Revelation 2 Thessalonians 2:0 : and there St Paul seems to use a certain reserve, and certainly refers to his oral teaching as serving to supplement what he writes. In this subject, therefore, it seems that the tradition of the early Church is entitled to more than usual authority, as to the interpretation of the designedly obscure predictions of the Apostle’s written words. And here the earliest tradition agrees approximately with the doctrine of the Apocalypse, while it is manifestly independent of it. The Beast in the Apocalypse is a support and ally of Rome, yet becomes in the end the enemy of Rome, and his most daring defiance of God is after her fall. The Man of Sin in 2 Thess. is only to be revealed in his full self-deifying lawlessness, when “that which withholdeth” (variously described as a person or as a power) is taken out of the way: that is, if tradition be trusted, when the Roman Emperor or Empire has been put down.
At the same time, the dominion of the Man of Sin is connected, not with Rome only but with Jerusalem. This power will be at least as much spiritual as temporal, and thus it affiliates itself as well to the divinely chosen Sanctuary as to the divinely appointed seat of Empire. But in the one case, even more than in the other, his enmity to the divine purpose is as distinctly marked as his desire to serve himself heir to it. “He sitteth in the Temple of God, setting himself forth as God,” says St Paul. St John describes how the dead bodies of his victims shall lie “in the street of the great City … where also their Lord was crucified.” And both Apostles tell us, how his power would be supported by the quasi-spiritual evidence of miracles miracles as striking as those of our Lord Himself, or any of the Prophets before Him, and only distinguished from theirs by the absence of the spirit of charity and of holiness.
Looking on to the tradition of the post-apostolic ages, we find that, though the details of apocalyptic interpretation were as obscure, and opinions about them varied as much, as in modern times, yet as to the outline of future events revealed in this Book and elsewhere, there was an agreement complete except in one point (that of the Millennium). From the time of Tertullian and St Hippolytus not to say of SS. Justin and Irenæus we have a consistent expectation of the course of events that will precede the Last Judgement. Their views are not indeed derived from the Apocalypse exclusively, but they almost always give a meaning, and always give the same meaning, to its predictions. The Roman Empire was to be broken up into ten kingdoms, bearing (we must understand from Daniel) the same relation to it that the Hellenised kingdoms of the East bore to the Empire of Alexander. Among these kingdoms will arise a new Empire, reviving the old pretensions of Rome to world-wide instead of merely local dominion; but instead of resting on law, patriotism, and submission to the will of Providence, this new Empire will have no other basis than the self-will, the self-assertion, at least the self-deification, of its Ruler. He will come (if one may apply to the kingdom of evil the analogies of language used of the Kingdom of God) “in the spiritual power” of Epiphanes and of Nero: he may be called Nero in the sense in which our Lord is in prophecy called David, or His forerunner Elias. He will be a man free from coarse vices, such as hinder the consistent pursuit of any aim, but equally free from any restraint imposed by the fear of God, or by regard for human opinion. Claiming for himself the honour due to God and the supreme obedience due to His Law, he will persecute the Christian Church: his persecution being so relentless, so systematic and well-directed, that the Church would be exterminated did not God supernaturally interpose to “shorten the days.” But, while persecuting Christianity, he will extend a more or less hearty patronage to Judaism, being possibly himself of Israelitish birth. Having in some sense revived the Roman Empire, he will yet shew himself an enemy to the City of Rome, which will be finally destroyed, either by his armies or by the direct act of God: and he will, perhaps on occasion of this destruction, choose Jerusalem for his seat of empire. To this end he will restore the Jews to their own land: he will perhaps be recognised by them as their Christ: he will restore their Temple, but will make it serve rather to his own glory than to that of the Lord God of Israel.
So far, his career has apparently been unchecked. Now God sends against him two Prophets probably Moses and Elijah, or Enoch and Elijah who, by their words and miracles, to some extent counteract his. But they will be put to death in his persecution, and then his power will appear finally established: but only for a few days. God will raise them from the dead, and call them up into Heaven: and by this miracle, together with the preaching that preceded their death, the Jews will be converted. Elijah will have fulfilled his destined work, of “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children,” i.e. of God’s old People to His new.
Still Antichrist’s universal empire appears scarcely shaken by the secession of the one little nation of Israel: he will assemble the armies of the world for its reconquest, and it will seem far easier for him to reduce his second capital than his first. But when in the Land of Israel, he and his army will be met and destroyed, not in a carnal battle with the forces of Israel after the flesh, but by the power of God in the hand of His Son.
Here, according to what seems to be the oldest form of the tradition, and certainly that standing in closest relation to the Apocalypse, follows what is popularly called the Millennium. The whole reign of Antichrist lasted, apparently, but three years and a half: the divine triumph after his overthrow will last for a thousand years. This will begin, perhaps, with the appearance of the Lord Jesus on earth, certainly with the resurrection of the Martyrs, Prophets, and other chief Saints. Whether these remain on earth or no, the condition of the earth is made such that it shall not be an unworthy abode for them. Moral evil, if not annihilated, at least has its power broken. Jerusalem remains what Antichrist had made it the spiritual and temporal metropolis of the world: but this world-wide power is now in the hands, not of God’s enemy, but of God Himself: and the world under the rule of Jerusalem realises the most glorious prophetic descriptions of the Kingdom of God.
Yet this Kingdom of God is not the final and eternal one: indeed some in all ages have been disposed to doubt whether such an earthly Kingdom of God will be established at all. From the time of SS. Jerome and Augustine (the latter distinctly changed the older opinion for this), the general opinion of the Church has been that such a measure of liberty and pre-dominance as has been hers since the conversion of Constantine is the only earthly Kingdom of God to be looked for. And if feeling the inadequacy of this fulfilment to the language of St John and other Prophets we incline to recur to the earlier view, we must confess that even so Pauca tamen suberunt priscae vestigia fraudis .
Not only does the natural order of the world go on with deaths and (what shocked fourth century feeling most) marriages and births occurring; but there must be some root of moral evil remaining, to account for the end of this age of peace. The Devil will at last for a short time recover his power: while the central regions of the world remain faithful to God, the outlying ones are stirred up to revolt against Him, and press in to crush His Kingdom by the brute force of numbers. They are on the point of success nearer to it, perhaps, than their predecessor Antichrist had been when they are, like Antichrist, overpowered by the direct interposition of God. Then, all God’s enemies being subdued, comes the end of all things the General Resurrection of the Dead, the final Judgement, and the Eternal Kingdom of God.
(3) If we heartily believe that Daniel, St Paul, St John, and the other Prophets from whom the foregoing anticipations are derived, had received from the all-knowing God genuine revelations of the future, there is really no difficulty in accepting this as, in the main, the true interpretation of the Apocalypse. It is not of course a complete interpretation of all its details, but it gives a framework, in which every detail may find its place: and for the explanation of details we may be content to wait, till the time shall come when they are manifest to those whose faith sees the consistent fulfilment of the prophecy as a whole. Yet those who have faith to expect the entire fulfilment cannot help asking indeed they are bound to ask what special predictions are already fulfilled or fulfilling, what signs of the coming end are already visible: and so they are led to go over the same ground as unbelievers, who, not recognizing the Prophets as recipients of a supernatural revelation of the future, are obliged to ask how their predictions were suggested by the circumstances of the present.
And if the view be accepted that the Apocalypse was written within a year or two after the death of Nero, circumstances that might have suggested such forecasts are certainly not wanting. Nero himself realises the character of Antichrist in almost every feature. He was a cruel persecutor of Christianity: he was indifferent or even hostile to the national sentiments and national religion of Rome. Though the nearest approach he had to ruling principle was derived from the aesthetic culture of Greece, what religious feeling he had was oriental, perhaps even Jewish: his mistress and empress Poppaea seems to have been a Jewish proselyte. When his loss of the empire was imminent, he spoke of destroying Rome and transferring his throne to Jerusalem; and it was held that his motives for this plan were as much superstitious as political But in truth Nero was too self-willed to “regard any god:” even the “Syrian goddess,” to whom he had shewn some of the devotion which he denied to “the gods of his fathers,” was discarded before his death: if he did not openly deify himself, like his predecessor Gaius, he shewed himself incapable of hearty worship for any other god but self.
One feature only is wanting to complete the resemblance of the two characters. Antichrist (if we accept the application to him of the latter part of Daniel 11:0 ) “shall not regard the desire of women 1 1 In the natural sense of these words they are as little appropriate to Antiochus Epiphanes as to Nero. It is usual, though hardly natural, to understand them of that “Syrian goddess,” whose temple Antiochus vainly attempted to profane. Even so, Nero’s apostasy from her worship seems a suggestive parallel. ,” he shall be free from the sensual vices to which Nero was enslaved from boyhood to the end of his life. And, while with this one exception the characters of the two coincide so closely, their careers do not. Nero was a legitimate Roman Emperor, acknowledged as such by the Apostles themselves: it was in the early days of his reign, that the benefits of the Empire to mankind were most fully realised. And atheist, tyrant, and persecutor as Nero was, he certainly did not accomplish half of what the Revelation ascribes to Antichrist. He did not destroy Rome, nor reign and claim divine honours in Jerusalem: at most, it may be believed that he for a moment partially effected the first, and contemplated the second. Neither was he overthrown in the same way as Antichrist While his generals were engaged in a successful war with the unbelieving Jews, he himself was overthrown by a revolt, or series of revolts, on the part of the army and the Senate by a course of events in which there was the same mixture of good and evil as in ordinary human action, and in which it is impossible to see any direct or miraculous intervention of God.
This admits, however, of a more or less satisfactory reply. The career of Antichrist is the career, not of Nero as known to us, as a personage of ancient history, nor as known to the Seer, as a personage of recent history, but of Nero as, the Seer thought, he was to be of Nero risen from the dead, or restored after a period of seeming death. Although there appears to have been no room for reasonable doubt of the fact of Nero’s suicide, there was a widely spread popular belief that he was alive, perhaps in the far east, and that his return from thence might be looked for. During his own generation, this belief gave occasion for pretenders to appear: we hear distinctly of two if not three, one as late as the reign of Domitian, who nearly succeeded in engaging the armies of Parthia in his cause. When it had become manifestly impossible that Nero could, in a merely natural way, be alive and in hiding, still the expectation of his reappearance by no means died out: only it assumed the form of a superstition. Both among heathens and Christians, the expectation continued down to the age of the Barbarian inroads: and among the Christians, it connected itself more or less closely with the expectation of the Antichrist foretold in the Apocalypse. Was this connexion recognised by the Seer of the Apocalypse himself?
We have already had occasion to notice an opinion according to which it was. If the Beast’s seven heads, in 13:1, 2, 17:10, 11 are rightly understood of individual Emperors of Rome, there can hardly be a doubt that Nero is one of them, and that he is, in some sense, identified with the predicted Antichrist. In all probability, the head “smitten unto death” symbolises the death (not denied to have been real) of Nero: he is reckoned (together with Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius) among the five kings that are fallen. But his reappearance as Antichrist is anticipated: after the reign of the contemporary Emperor and the short one of his immediate successor, will appear “the Beast which was, and is not,” who “both himself is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.” That is, the eighth Roman Emperor will be the revival of one of his predecessors (viz. the fifth), only in his revival he will be animated by the spirit of devilish, instead of merely human wickedness, as he will be possessed of devilish instead of merely human power.
Of course, it is certain that the Roman Empire was not terminated, or the visible kingdom of God established by a miraculous interposition cutting short the reign of the eighth Emperor of Rome. If the Seer of the Apocalypse commits himself to the assertion that this was destined to happen, it is certain that his prediction failed. This will present, of course, no difficulty either to unbelievers in the communication to the Prophets of supernatural knowledge of the future, or to those who deny the claims of the Apocalypse to the character of a true supernatural prophecy: on either of these principles it is easy to say, “This is what the Seer expected to happen, but it did not.” Does it follow that, if we accept the divine authority of the Revelation made to St John, we must reject this interpretation of his visions, as one not borne out by the events? The analogy of other prophecies will suggest another course. The resemblances between the Nero of history and the Antichrist of prophecy are too close to be accidental: so are the resemblances, it may be added, between several other historical characters and Antichrist. On the other hand, Nero and each of these other Antichristian figures differs from the Antichrist of prophecy in some more or less essential features: and none of them has done the acts, or achieved the career, or met with the end, foretold for him. The inference seems to be, that in these “many antichrists” there have been partial and typical fulfilments of the prophecies of the Antichrist, in whom they will find their final and exact fulfilment: just as the various Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament have found or will find their final and exact fulfilment in Christ, while many of them were partially fulfilled some of them even suggested by events which the Prophets who foretold them lived to see.
In particular, there is absolutely no room for doubt that this explanation must be applied to the prophecies of the Old Testament which most closely resemble the Apocalypse those in the seventh, eighth, and eleventh chapters of Daniel. The eighth chapter, and at least part of the eleventh, undeniably describe the reign, the persecution, and the overthrow of Antiochus Epiphanes: but, if these be regarded as having no further reference, the latter at least must be condemned as wanting that perfect truth which appears essential to a divinely inspired prophecy. If however we regard Antiochus as a type of Antichrist, it becomes credible one may even say probable that those parts of the prediction which have not been fulfilled by the one will be by the other. Thus understood, the three separate visions throw light upon one another. In c. 7 the reference is, apparently, to the final Enemy only the imagery is almost 1 1 Only it seems that Daniel’s beast had one head, not seven (ver. 20). exactly that afterwards used by St John in the Apocalypse, and the meaning presumably the same. In c. 8, on the other hand, while the imagery is not indeed identical, but closely parallel with that of the preceding chapter, it seems plain that the Enemy described is Antiochus, and his history forms an adequate fulfilment of the prediction. Lastly, in c. 11 we have the historical antecedents of Antiochus described, in even more unmistakeable detail than in c. 8: we hear of Antiochus himself, and of the conflict between him and Israel: then suddenly the historical Antiochus, with his ridiculous follies and miserable human vices, seems to vanish, and make way for a figure of demoniac grandeur, defying God on what, except to faith, seem equal terms. When this Enemy of God and His People has arisen, and developed his full power, the remedy is no longer to be looked for in the sword of the Maccabees: the champion Israel needs is the Archangel Michael, or indeed the Almighty Himself: the general Resurrection follows, and the general Judgement.
If the Book of Daniel be accepted as a really inspired prophecy, this series of visions admits of but one explanation. The oppression of Antiochus is foretold, in part for its own sake, as an important episode in the temporal and religious history of God’s People: in part also as a type of a greater and still more important oppression. And it seems probable, that Nero is treated by the New Testament Seer exactly as Antiochus was by his predecessor that the historical Nero is treated as the type of Antichrist, that the descriptions of the one pass insensibly into descriptions of the other. We may, consistently with our reverence for the prophecy, say, “So much of this prediction was realised in the Seer’s age: the rest has not yet been fulfilled:” for we shall hold that the partial fulfilment was a foretaste and a type of a fulfilment which, when it comes, will be complete.
The partial fulfilment of the prophecy concerning the Empire has been already mentioned (p. xlix). We may say that Nero’s real successor in the Empire was Vespasian the 18 months between his accession and Nero’s death being really a time of anarchy. The pretenders or claimants of empire who arose in almost every province may or may not be indicated by the “ten kings that have received no kingdom as yet,” but it is arbitrary to select from among them, and recognise as de facto emperors, the three who were, for a few months, successively recognised at Rome. If we accept Nero then as the fifth of the “five fallen” emperors, Vespasian, the destroyer of Jerusalem, is the sixth, under whom, it is on this view probable, the vision was seen. His successor Titus was “not yet come, and when he came was to continue a little space” i.e. not to have a merely ephemeral reign like those of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, but yet a short one about two years. And his successor his brother Domitian was to be a Nero: and so he was.
This is, however, an imperfect and inadequate fulfilment of the prophecies of Antichrist in this book. Domitian was, it is true, a revival of Nero in his cruelty; he was like Nero, a persecutor of the Church: he was also like Nero and unlike the predicted Antichrist foully unclean in life. But he differed from Nero in possessing talents and principles which, while to some extent they bring him nearer to the type of spiritual wickedness, may also be regarded as giving him the dignity of that power which “withholdeth” the manifestation of the Lawless One. Domitian was no blasphemous atheist, but was, as a Pagan, sincerely and even fanatically religious: and his gross personal vices did not prevent his having a zeal for virtue, which seems to have been sincere. And, for good or evil, he was a Roman not like Antiochus, Nero, or Antichrist, a denationalised cosmopolitan. It may be doubtful to what extent the Empire suffered dishonour in Domitian’s days: but at worst he must be acquitted of having wilfully betrayed its honour.
Thus it seems necessary to look for a completer fulfilment of the prophecy than any that has yet been seen, while yet it is possible to point to a fulfilment that, to some extent , corresponds with the prediction even in the minutest details. We may thus recognise an element of truth in the two rival schemes of interpretation commonly called the “preterist” and the “futurist” that which sees in the Revelation only a prediction or forecast of events near the Seer’s own time, and now past, and that which sees a prediction of events wholly or almost wholly future, and only to be fulfilled in the few last years of the world’s existence. Just as the 72nd Psalm is recognised as setting forth the greatness of Solomon’s, “in type, and in truth of Christ’s Kingdom,” so the Revelation may be regarded as a picture of the persecution of the Church, “in type” by such Emperors as Nero and Domitian, “in truth” by the Antichrist of the last days, and as a prophecy of Christ’s victory over both enemies, the type and the antitype.
II. With the “Preterist” and “Futurist” schemes of interpretation is usually coordinated a third, called the “Continuous Historical.” According to this scheme what is foretold in the Book is not only a series of events contemporary with the Seer, or at least within his natural range of anticipation, nor only the series of events which will immediately precede the Lord’s final coming to Judgement, but the whole series of events, from the first to the last, beginning at the date (whenever we suppose that to be) of the vision, and ending with (or rather after) the end of the world, but embracing the whole course of history in between.
The strong point of this view is, that it enables us to give a meaning, not merely to every vision, every image, in the Apocalypse, but to the order and connexion in which the visions and images are arranged. It is quite certain, that that order is not arbitrary nor accidental, that the arrangement is (if we may apply the terms of human criticism) as elaborate, as artistic, and as symmetrical as any of the descriptions: and consequently it may fairly be held, that the arrangement forms an essential part of the Seer’s teaching, and that no interpretation can be adequate which does not give a reason and a meaning for the arrangement. And the most obvious and natural view of the meaning is, that the arrangement is chronological that every successive vision is a description, more or less figurative, of events successive to one another in the same order.
Yet no one has attempted to carry out this view quite consistently, and to interpret every vision as describing an event later than the vision before it. It is quite true that, as a rule, the visions are not only described in successive order, but are felt by the Seer to be successive in the later ones he refers to the earlier (e.g. 14:1 (true text), 20:2, 17:1, 21:9). But not only do some of the visions remain in view while later ones have risen which seem to take their place (see 11:16, 19, 15:5 8, 16:7, 19:4): there are cases (e.g. 11:7, 13:1 10, 17:3) where we seem to have unmistakeably the same figures or events described twice over, with only a difference in the point of view. Hence, some have gone so far as to analyse the whole book into a series of groups of visions, each one of which covers the whole range of human history, from the Seer’s time (or even earlier) to the end of the world.
And certainly, it is difficult to understand 6:12 17 of anything except the time immediately before the Last Judgement, or 14:14 20 of anything but the Last Judgement itself. Yet, when we find the latter passage immediately followed, not by the “beginning of the eternal rest 1 1 See note on 8:1. ,” but by a fresh series of plagues, which are, we are told, “the last, for in them is fulfilled the wrath of God,” it is hard to avoid reconsidering the obvious and natural interpretation: and in no other case do we find anything resembling a description of the final Judgement, till it is described, quite unmistakeably in 20:11 15: often as the Judgement has been prepared for and worked up to.
In fact, the method and plan of the book seems to be, that we have again and again a series most frequently a group of seven of pictures that plainly symbolise the approach of the Judgement. Up to the penultimate stage, everything would lead us to think the Judgement was immediately to follow: but the penultimate stage itself is prolonged and expanded: and when at last it ends, and the series is complete, it is found to usher in, not the end of all things, but the beginning of a new series of events, still preparatory for the final Judgement.
Now whatever predictions of the Apocalypse have been or have not been fulfilled, there is no doubt that this feature of it has been realised conspicuously. In the first century in the third in the fifth in the ninth in the sixteenth in the age of the French Revolution perhaps in our own time the signs of the coming Judgement have multiplied. The faithful have seen them beginning to come to pass, and have looked up and lifted up their heads, as though their redemption were drawing nigh: while those who were not faithful, or at least whose faith was without love, have sought to hide from the face of Him that sitteth upon the Throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb. And yet, after a generation or two, the signs have passed away: the Judge has not come, the whole world has not been judged; rather, it has taken a new lease of life, and become a battlefield between new forms of good and evil, a court for new judgements of God between them. We cannot say indeed that those were wrong who expected the Judge to appear. They were bidden to expect Him they were bidden to expect Him all the more, when they saw such signs as they did see: and so how could they do otherwise than they did? Indeed, dare we say that their expectation was disappointed? The world has not been judged, but the nation, the polity, the generation has been: the Kingdom of God’s eternal rest has not been set up, but they that have believed do enter rest. The Vision of Judgement has been fulfilled in part and in type: the partial fulfilment serves to stay and support, without satisfying, faith’s hunger for the final fulfilment.
Thus it seems possible to recognise an element of truth in both the “continuous” and what may be called the “resumptive” methods of interpretation, as we did in both the “preterist” and the “futurist” theories. We may believe, that the chief object of the book is, to teach the Church how to prepare for the Lord’s coming to Judgement. With that object, we are told, not only in general terms what signs will mark His approach, but, in some detail, what events will immediately precede it. But in the providence of God, the signs of His approach, and events more or less resembling those immediately preceding it, have occurred repeatedly: and this Book accordingly intimates , that they will occur repeatedly. To Christians who had seen an almost perfect image of Antichrist in Nero, it was foretold that a new Nero, a perfect Antichrist, was to come: it was, not improbably, intimated that there would be in some sense a new Nero in the next generation, which was fulfilled in Domitian. Yet the “wars and rumours of wars” of the year 69 70 did not usher in the Second Advent: they passed off, and left the Empire in peace and prosperity. Jerusalem had fallen, and Rome had tottered: but the whole earth sat still and was quiet: and Rome, at least, had recovered from the shock. Again, in the conquests of the Teutonic barbarians, of the Arabs, of the Turks; or in the paganising apostasies of Julian, of the Renaissance, of the great Revolution, and of our own day, we may see likenesses, more or less close, of the things foretold in this Book: He Who inspired the Book doubtless intends that we should. Only, while the Book was written for the Church of all ages, it was written specially for the Church of the Apostles’ own age, and for the Church of the last age of all: we need not therefore expect to find any intermediate age of affliction, or any intermediate enemy of the truth, indicated with such individualising detail as Nero and his persecution on the one hand, or Antichrist and his on the other.
Certainly, there is this objection to the various forms of the “continuous historical” theory, which have attempted to identify special visions in the Apocalypse with special events in mediaeval or modern history that no just view of the history of any polity or system will support such a series of identifications. Indeed, there is this element of truth, or at least of plausibility, in such schemes, that the one national or local feature indicated by the Seer coincides with what men have learnt, more and more as time has gone on, to be the centre and heart of the continuous life of the world’s history The City on the Seven Mountains. The Revelation, it is plain, tells us what the history of Rome is in God’s sight: and the history of Rome is the one thread that runs unbroken through the history of the world. But it is only by the most arbitrary treatment passing without warning from the figurative to the literal, and from the literal to the figurative that any appearance can be maintained of a resemblance between the history of Rome, or of the world gathered round Rome, and the successive visions of the Apocalypse: nor is it possible, in honesty or in charity, to ascribe to the Rome of past history a uniform character such as is ascribed to the Babylon of the Apocalypse. No doubt, there have been times, (much later than those of Nero and Domitian,) when a Roman Emperor or a Roman Pope has presented a figure which, to the eyes of faith and righteousness, looks terribly like that of Antichrist. Godless profligacy like that of Frederic II., cultivated, heathenish indifference to righteousness like that of the age of Leo X., was certainly felt was, we cannot doubt, rightly felt to be the antichristian power of their time, by the moral reformers of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance: but it is unjust and unreasonable to hold the Empire in all ages, or the Papacy in all ages, responsible for the sins of the Empire or the Papacy in those ages. We who in our own age have seen the rival powers of the Empire and the Papacy represented by honourable Christian men like William I. and Leo XIII., ought to be able to do justice alike to Pagan Emperors like Trajan and Diocletian, to Christian Emperors like Henry III. and Barbarossa, and to Popes like Gregory I., Gregory VII., Innocent III., and Pius V. To treat either of these groups of men as the champions and representatives of Antichrist is hardly less than blasphemy against the work of God.
And in fact, the identification of the Papacy with Antichrist admits of direct refutation. “He is the Antichrist,” says St John, (Ep. I. 2:22) “who denieth the Father and the Son:” he defines “the spirit of Antichrist” as the “spirit which confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (Ep. I. 4:3). Now, whatever the errors of the Papacy and of the Roman Church, it is certain that no Pope has ever denied the truth on the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. The most questionable of Roman doctrines in particular those relating to the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary so far from contradicting the true doctrine of “Jesus Christ come in the flesh,” presuppose it and are deduced (however unwarrantably) from it It is likely enough that the Papacy has in many ages incurred “the Babylonian woe,” not in respect of theological opinions, but in proportion as “the mitre and the crosier” were, in Bishop Coxe’s words,
“Sullied with the tinsel of the Caesar’s diadems:”
but, when the Caesars themselves were the bar against Antichrist, their successors or their apes can hardly be identified with him. One thing is plain about the Apocalypse that it describes a clearly defined moral conflict between good and evil, between Christ and His enemies: not a controversy in which good men, and men who love Christ in sincerity, are to be found on different sides. It is an idle latitudinarianism which assumes that in such controversies truth is unimportant, or that compromise is the only guide to it: but it is something worse to waste on such controversies the zeal that should be reserved for the true war with the real Antichrist.
1:1 3. Title and description of the Book.
1:4 3:22. Prologue and Dedication, shewing how St John received from Christ the command to write the vision, and send it to the Seven Churches.
1:4 20. The vision of the Son of Man.
2:1 3:22. The Epistles to the Seven Churches.
5:1 22:7. The Vision or Revelation itself.
A. 4:1 5:14. Vision remaining visible through all the rest; shewing (ch. 4) the Divine glory (see Ezekiel 1:0 ; Isaiah 6:0 ), and (ch. 5) the Lamb that was slain sharing it.
( a ) 5:1 14. The book of the seven seals and the Glory of the Lamb who is worthy to open it.
B. 6:1 8:1. The opening of the seven seals, and the judgements attending thereon. Before the last seal, there appear
( a ) 7:1 8. The sealing of the 144,000, and
( b ) 9 17. The assembly of the multitude of the justified.
C. 8:2 11:19. The sounding of the seven trumpets, and the judgements attending thereon. Before the first trumpet appear
( a ) 8:3 5. The Angel censing the prayers of the Saints. The last three trumpets are proclaimed (8:13) as Woes. Before the last of them appears
( b ) 10:1 11. A mighty Angel having a little Book, which the Seer is commanded to eat: and
( c ) 11:1, 2. The measuring of the Temple.
( d ) 11:3 14. The prophesying of the two Witnesses (Moses and Elijah?), their martyrdom and resurrection.
D. 12:1 14:13. The signs in Heaven and in Earth: the heads of the Kingdoms of God and Satan, or of Christ and Antichrist.
( a ) 12:1 13. The Woman giving birth to the Man, persecuted by the Serpent (see Genesis 3:15 ), and the War in Heaven.
( b ) 13:1 10. The Beast to whom the Serpent or Dragon (the Devil) gives his authority (see Daniel 7:11 :36 sqq.; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10 ).
( c ) 13:11 18. The second Beast (the False Prophet) who secures the deification of the first Beast, and persecutes those who refuse him worship.
( d ) 14:1 5. The Lamb with the 144,000 of the redeemed.
( e ) 14:6 12. Three Angels proclaim God’s Judgements, and ( v. 13) a voice from Heaven His mercy.
E. 14:14 20. A symbolic vision of the Judgement of the earth (see Joel 3:13 ).
F. 15:1 16:21. The outpouring of the seven vials, and the judgements attending thereon. Before the first vial there appears
( a ) 15:2 4. The triumph-song of the victors in the war with the Beast.
Before the last vial,
( b ) 16:13 16. The spirits of devils gather the armies of Christ’s enemies.
G. 17:1 18:24. The fall of Babylon.
H. 19:1 21. The campaign of the Word of God against the Beast.
( a ) 1 8. The triumph-song inspired by the fall of Babylon: the Lamb, the Victor and the Bridegroom (see Psalms 45:0 ).
( b ) 9 10. The revealing Angel proclaims himself not divine.
( c ) 11 21. The martial procession, and the victory.
I. 20:1 6. The Millennial Peace.
K. 20:7 10. The last campaign of the Devil.
L. 20:11 15. The universal Judgement.
M. 21:1 22:7. The glorious reign of God and His saints in the New Jerusalem.
(8, 9. The revealing Angel again refuses divine honours.)
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26