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Revelation, Book of

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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REVELATION, BOOK OF . This single representative of the literature of apocalypse (Gr. apokalypsis , whence the alternating name, ‘ The Apocalypse ’) preserved in the NT belongs to a large group of Christian writings of a similar sort. It was characteristic of the early Church to build up a literature about the names of the various Apostles. Normally this literature consisted of a narrative, an apocalypse, and some form of doctrinal writing; as, for example, the Gospel of Peter , the Apocalypse of Peter , and the Preaching of Peter . With the exception of the present book, no Christian apocalypse is held to be even possibly authentic.

1. Canonicity . The Revelation was not universally accepted by the early Church as canonical. There is no evidence of its existence worthy of consideration in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, although it is just possible that Papias may have known of it. By the middle of the 2nd cent., however, Revelation is well known, and is declared by Justin to he by the Apostle John ( Dial . lxxxi. 15). It is also used, among others, by Melito, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, and attributed to the Apostle John by the first-named as well as by Irenæus. The fact that it appears in the Canon of the Muratorian Fragment is evidence that by the middle of the 2nd cent. it was accepted in the West. After its defence by Hippolytus its position was never seriously questioned except in the East. Jerome is, in fact, the only Western theologian of importance who doubts it, and he puts it among those books which are ‘under discussion,’ neither canonical nor apocryphal.

In the East, as might be expected, it was rejected by Marcion, and, because of disbelief in its Apostolic authorship, by Dionysius of Alexandria (middle of the 3rd cent.). Palestinian and Syrian authors ( e.g. Cyril of Jerusalem) generally rejected it, in large measure because of the struggle with the Montanists, by whom Revelation was used as a basis of doctrine. It does not appear in the lists of the Synod of Laodicea, the Apostolic Constitutions , Gregory of Nazianzus, Chrysostom, the Chronography of Nicephorus, the ‘List of the Sixty Books,’ or in the Peshitta version of the NT. It was included by the Gelasian Decree at the end of the 5th cent. as canonical, and was finally recognized by the Eastern Church. Yet as late as 692 a Synod could publish two decrees, the one including the Apocalypse in the Canon, the other excluding it. It was not held in high repute by the reformers Carlstadt, Luther, Zwingli, all of whom doubted its Apostolicity, or apparently by Calvin, who omitted to comment upon it. At most, the first two of these theologians were apparently inclined to recognize a division of sacred writings similar to that of Jerome.

2. Authorship . The title, ‘Revelation of John,’ which occurs in several MSS, including the Codex Sinaiticus, is an obvious expression of a belief regarding authorship. This John was believed by many in the early Church to be the Apostle. Whether this view was correct or not is to-day a subject of lively debate. The book itself contains little internal evidence serving to substantiate this claim, for the author simply states that he is named John ( John 1:1; John 1:4; John 1:9; john 22:8). Justin ( Dial . lxxxi. 15) distinctively states that Revelation is by ‘John, one of the Apostles of Christ,’ and Tertullian along with the Western Church generally held to its Apostolic authorship. Eusebius, however, suggests that it may have been written by John ‘ the Presbyter ,’ mentioned by Papias but otherwise unknown. At the present time the belief is divided as to whether the author of Revelation is John the Apostle or John the Presbyter. The chief argument against the view that the author is John the Apostle lies in the differences existing between Revelation and the Gospel and the Epistles of John, both in style and in method. Notwithstanding the use of the term ‘Logos’ (19:13), these divergences are too obvious to need specifying. If Johannine authorship be assigned the Gospel and Epistles, it is difficult to claim it for Revelation; but, on the other hand, it is difficult to believe it to be either pseudonymous or written by the mysterious John the Presbyter. As the case now stands, criticism seems to have reached an impasse , and the plain reader may best use the book in disregard of questions of authorship, a procedure the more justifiable because its teaching is independent of personal matters.

3. Date . Although the fixing of the date of Revelation presupposes conclusions as to its composition and purpose, it may here be said that in all probability the book reached its present form in the latter part of the reign of Domitian (a.d. 81 96).

4. Composition . The prevailing hypotheses may be grouped in three classes.

(1) The currently accepted view that it was written entirely by the Apostle John . Such a view is, however, open to serious objections, because of the similarities, if not identities, existing between Revelation and other apocalyptic literature of the period, as well as because of the evidences of composite character of the writing, implying sources of different origins and dates, such as the various breaks in the process of the vision (the lack of any single historical point of view is seen by a comparison of Revelation 12:3; Revelation 13:1; Revelation 17:3 , in an effort to identify historically the two breaks, or in a comparison of Revelation 11:1-13 with Revelation 17:11 ).

(2) The view that the work, while essentially a literary unit, is a Christian redaction of a Jewish writing . This view would attribute to the Christian redactor the first three chapters and important sections like Revelation 5:9-14; Revelation 7:9-17; Revelation 13:11 ff; Revelation 22:6-21 , in addition to separate verses like Revelation 12:11; Revelation 14:1; Revelation 14:5; Revelation 12:13; Revelation 12:15; Revelation 16:15; Revelation 17:14; Revelation 19:9-10; Revelation 19:13 b, Revelation 20:4-6; Revelation 21:5-8 . The difficulties with this position are not only those which must be urged against any view that overlooks the evidences of the composite authorship of the work, but also the impossibility of showing that ch. 11 is Jewish in character.

(3) Theories of composite origin . These are of various forms ( a ) The theory according to which an original work has been interpolated with apocalyptic material of various dates ( Revelation 7:1-17; Revelation 11:1-13; Revelation 12:1-17; Revelation 13:17 ) and subjected to several revisions. ( b ) The view that Revelation is a Christian book in which Jewish apocalypses have been framed. ( c ) The theory according to which Revelation is composed of three sources, each of which has subdivisions, all worked together by a Christian redactor. ( d ) Notwithstanding the difficulty in determining the sources, critics are pretty thoroughly agreed that, as the book now stands, it has a unity which, though not inconsistent with the use of older material by its author, is none the less easily recognized. Some of this older material, it is now held, undoubtedly represents the general stream of apocalyptic that took its rise in Babylonian mythology. The structural unity of the book appears in the repetition of sevenfold groups of episodes, as well as in a general grammatical and linguistic similarity. In achieving this remarkable result, the redactor so combined, recast, and supplemented his material as to give the book an essentially Christian rather than Jewish character.

5. Analysis . As it now stands, literary and critical analyses do not altogether coincide, but until criticism has finished its task, literary analysis must be of primary Importance. Authorities here differ, but the following analysis does not differ fundamentally from that of other writers.

i. Introduction (ch. 1).

ii. The message of the Spirit to the Seven Churches (chs. 2, 3).

iii. The period of struggle and misery (chs. 4 7).

iv. The final Messianic struggle (chs. 8 14).

v. The victory of the Messiah (chs. 15 20).

vi. The vision of the Messianic Kingdom (chs. Revelation 21:1 to Revelation 22:5 ).

vii. Epilogue (Revelation 22:6-21 ).

6. Interpretation . No Biblical writing, with the possible exception of the Book of Daniel, has been so subjected to the vagaries of interpreters as Revelation, ( a ) On the one extreme are those (‘Futurists’) who have seen in its pictures a forecast of universal Christian history, as well as all the enemies of Christianity, both within and without the Church. To such interpreters the book has been a thesaurus of that chiliastic doctrine which the Greek as well as the modern scientific attitude of mind has found so repugnant. ( b ) At the other extreme there are those interpreters who see in Revelation simply a reference to the historical conditions of the first century of the Christian era. ( c ) There is a measure of truth in each of these two methods, but the real method of interpretation must be independent of dogmatic presuppositions. As narrative matter must be interpreted by the general principles applicable to all literature of its class, so must Revelation be interpreted in accordance with the general principles applicable to apocalypses as a form of literary expression. The fundamental principles of such interpretation involve the recognition of the facts (i.) that apocalypses are the outgrowth of definite historical situations; (ii.) that they attempt to stimulate faith by an exposition in symbolic terms of the deliverance which God will give His suffering people from actually existing sufferings; (iii.) that the message of deliverance gains authority because of its claim to superhuman origin reinforced by pseudonymous authorship; (iv.) that the deliverance which is thus supernaturally portrayed is dependent upon the introduction of a new age whose conditions are set miraculously by God rather than by evolving historical forces, and is not described with the same detail as are the conditions from which God is to deliver His people.

An application of these principles to the interpretation of Revelation demands (1) that an historical interpretation be given the pictures describing the miseries of the Church. The conditions of such interpretation are most naturally fulfilled in the persecution under Domitian (81 96), although there may be references to that under the dead Nero. The persecuting force is clearly Rome, as represented both by the Emperor and by Emperor-worship, whatever the origin of the pictures with which the oppression of the Church is set forth. A point of departure for the identification of the historical figures who are to be subjected to the Messianic punishment might be thought to be the number of the Beast 666 that is to say, the Emperor Nero, who was expected to return from the dead (see Beast [in Apoc. [Note: Apocalypse, Apocalyptic.] ]). Pseudo-Nero did, in fact, appear in Asia Minor in a.d. 69, and among the Parthians in 79 81 and 88. The identification, however, is not altogether satisfactory, as the Hebrew letters, whose numerical equivalents give by the process of Gematria 666, are not precisely those in Cæsar Nero. If the correct reading be 616, the equivalent is Gaius Cæsar. Another interpretation would make ‘the Latin or the Roman Empire.’ The best that can be said, however, is that if the interpretation by Gematria is unsatisfactory, the interpreter is forced back upon the general references of ‘the hills,’ ‘the city,’ and ‘the horns’ or kings, as a basis for regarding Rome as the great enemy of the Christian and his Church.

A further difficulty in formulating precisely the historical situation, arises from the fact that the author, though producing a book of great literary unity, has embodied sources which refer to conditions of different times. Thus Revelation 11:1-13 would naturally infer the existence of the Temple, which was destroyed in 70; ch. 13 may have come from the days of Caligula; Revelation 17:10 most naturally implies some time in the reign of Nero; Revelation 17:11 apparently implies Domitian, the eighth emperor; Revelation 17:8 would also argue that the book was written during the period that believed in Nero redivivus . The redactor (or redactors) has, however, so combined these materials as to give a unified picture of the approaching Messianic struggle.

(2) On the other hand, the deliverance of the Church is, like all apocalyptic deliverances, miraculous, and described transcendentally. Besides the martyrs, the only identification possible in this connexion is that of the conquering Lamb with Jesus the Christ. The fall of Rome is foretold definitely in ch. 17, but the seer is true to the general apocalyptic form in that he makes Rome and its religion the agents of Satan. The ultimate victory of the Church is similarly portrayed as the victory of God, and is identified with the return of Jesus to establish His Messianic Kingdom.

Such a method of interpretation, based upon general characteristics of apocalypses, preserves the element of truth in both the futurist and the historical methods of interpretation, the pictures of persecution symbolizing actual historical conditions, but the forecast of deliverance reverting to the general Messianic expectation of events lying outside of history.

The sublime theme of Revelation thus becomes evident the victory of the Messiah over the Roman Empire, together with the miseries to be inflicted on His enemies and the blessings to be enjoyed by His followers.

7. Religious value . If properly interpreted, Revelation is of really profound religious value. It cannot serve as a basis of theology, but, like any piece of imaginative writing, will serve to stir the emotion and the faith of the Christian. Its literary form is so remarkable, the passages descriptive of the triumph of the Messianic Kingdom are so exquisite, its religious teaching is so impressive, as not only to warrant its inclusion in the Canon, but also to make it of lasting value to the devotional life. More particularly the Letters to the Churches are of value as criticism and Inspiration for various classes of Christians, while its pictures of the New Jerusalem and its insistence upon the moral qualifications for the citizens of the Messianic Kingdom are in themselves notable incentives to right living: Stript of its apocalyptic figures, the book presents a noble ideal of Christian character, an assurance of the unfailing justice of God, and a prophecy of the victory of Christianity over a brutal social order.

Shailer Mathews.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Revelation, Book of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​r/revelation-book-of.html. 1909.
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