Sunday, June 5, 2011

Who Wrote The Book Of Revelation?

There are five books in the New Testament that are said to have been written by the apostle John: John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John and Revelation.  While many modern writers will agree that the apostle John wrote the first three books on the list, fewer would agree that the same man also wrote the book of Revelation.  The first four books are written in a simple, but good quality Greek.  The book of Revelation is another matter entirely.  The author does not just break rules of grammar he seems to make his own rules (Robertson, p. 109).  How could the same man have written in such very different styles? 

The author of Revelation identifies himself four times as "John" (Rev. 1.1, 4; 21.2; 22.8).   Although he did not call himself an apostle there was no dispute amongst early writers as to who this John was.  Justin Martyr (died 165 AD) held that the apostle John wrote Revelation (Dial. with Trypho 81.15).  Irenaeus (around 180 AD) often quoted from Revelation and called it the work of "John the disciple of the Lord" (Adv. Haer. 4.14.1; 5.26.1). Clement of Alexandria (died 215 AD) also quoted from Revelation and called it the work of the apostle John (Paed. 2.119; Quis Div. Salv. 42; Strom. 6.106-7).  Tertullian (died 220 AD) used Revelation and believed it to be written by John the apostle (Adv. Marc. 3.14, 24).  Weinrich wrote "Although nowhere in the Revelation is this John identified with the apostle and evangelist John, this identification was virtually universal in the early church" (Weinrich, p. xvii).

"Virtually universal" is not universal.  Not everyone agreed that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation.  Some said that it was written by the Gnostic Cerinthus (Weinrich, p. xviii).  Gaius (c. 198- c. 217), as quoted by Eusebius, wrote "Yes, Cerinthus also, by means of revelations purported to be written by a great apostle, fraudulently foist marvelous tales upon us, on the ground that they were shown to him by angels.  He says that after the resurrection the kingdom of Christ will be on earth, and that the flesh, dwelling at Jerusalem, will once more serve lusts and pleasures" (Eusebius, 3.28.2).  However, no one at this early date claimed that it was written by a John than the apostle.  That had to wait more than a hundred years after the book was written.

Dionysios, who became bishop of Alexandria in 248 AD, was not the first to claim that the apostle John did not write the book of Revelation, but he was one of the most important one.  He was struggling with the doctrine of Chiliaism which interpreted Revelation very literally.  Dionysios worked to remove the foundation of their doctrine by showing that the apostle John did not write the book of Revelation, he said somebody else named John wrote it.  He showed that the vocabulary and style of writing were so different from the gospel of John that the same person could not have written both books (Constantinou, p. 81).  Of the author he said "That the other saw revelations...I will not deny; but I observe that his language and style are not really Greek; he uses barbarous idioms...I have not said these things in order to pour scorn on him - do not imagine it - but solely to prove the dissimilarity between these books" (Eusebius, 25.19)

The next person to have a great influence against the belief that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation was Eusebius of Caesarea (c 256-339 AD).  His great work Ecclesiastical History (The History of the Church) is still in print to this day.  Eusebius was very biased against the book of Revelation.  He called it the "so called Apocalypse of John" (Eusebius, 3.18.2), and devoted a whole section to Dionysios' criticisms of Revelation (Eusebius, 25.6-25.19).  He also did a very odd thing. When he listed the books that were acknowledged to be inspired and the books that were disputed, he put Revelation in both groups.  Revelation was accepted into the canon of the bible, but who wrote it has been debated to this day, and writers quote Eusebius to this day.

The testimony that the apostle John wrote the book of John is almost as early and strong as for Revelation.  Ireneasus wrote "John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had, leaned upon his breast, had himself published a Gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia" (Against Heresies 3.1).  Others who wrote that the apostle John wrote the book of John are Theophilus of Antioch (c. 165), Clement of Alexandria (c. 220), Terullian of Carthage, Tatian (c. 150),  and Eusebius  (Historia Ecclesiastica 3.34.5).  Tenney wrote "The early Fathers did not hesitate to acknowledge the Johannine authorship of the Gospel, and from the time of Irenaeus there was almost unaminous agreement about this" (Tenney, p6)

If the testimony that the apostle John wrote the book of Revelation is so early and so strong, why is there a debate about it?  It comes down to the fact that the style and grammar are so different from the gospel of John, that it is hard to see how the same person could have written both Revelation and John. RH Charles, in his commentary on Revelation, did a detailed comparison of the word and grammar in Revelation and the book of John (p. xxix-xxxii) and concluded that there were two different authors.  The lists showing the differences can not be ignored.  Here are three examples: In Revelation the word for lamb is arnion, but in John it is amnos; in Revelation the word for Jerusalem is Ieousalem, but in John it Ierosaluma  and in Revelation the word for called is kalein, but in John it is legein (Charles, p. xxx).  However, even Charles had to admit that many of the concepts and ideas are the same and only found in John and Revelation (Charles, p. xxxii-xxxiii).  It is easy to look at these lists of words and say "So, he spelled it one way in John and another way in Revelation, why is this important?"  Think about it.  When you write do you use "OK" or "okay," "three times" or "thrice."  People tend to pick one way of spelling a word and stick with it.  And we are not talking about small changes that might be expected of someone's writing style as they mature.  These are major differences in how the two books were written.

If the styles are so different, why did it take almost 200 years for anyone to question the authorship?  We don't notice the differences because we read translations, but most of quotes we have about the authorship were from native Greek speakers.  Take Irenaeus for an example.  He was a native Greek speaker from Asia Minor and a student of Polycarp.  Polycarp had studied with the apostle John.  Irenaeus would have noted the difference in style, he had access to someone who knew John, and he had lived near where the book of John was written and where Revelation was sent.  With all this information he wrote that Revelation and John were written by the same person, the apostle John. I think the reason that the authorship of Revelation went unquestioned for 200 years is that early testimony was so strong and because people recognized that one person wrote both books in spite of the different styles.

I was taught that the reason the styles are so different between Revelation and John is because John was young when he wrote Revelation and he didn't know Greek very well.  John AT Robinson addressed that idea when he wrote "The Greek of the Apocalypse is not that of a beginner whose grammar and vocabulary might improve and mature into those of the evangelist.  It is the pidgin Greek of someone who appears to know exactly what he is about with his strange instrument and whose cast of mind and vocabulary is conspicuously different from, and more colourful than, that of the correct, simple but rather flat style of the gospel and epistles" (Robinson, p. 255).

Revelation is very complicated and well organized work with a large vocabulary.  It is not the work of someone just learning Greek, and it is isn't the work of someone who wrote it down in a hurry and didn't bother to correct it (another explanation I've heard).  The Greek of Revelation has a very Hebrew cast to it and, as Robinson wrote, it is a "pidgin Greek" or as we might say hick Greek.  Charles commented of the writer " He thought in Hebrew, and he frequently reproduces Hebrew idioms literally in Greek" (Charles, p. x).  That description fits what we know about the apostle John: Luke wrote in Acts 4.13 that Peter and John were "unschooled, ordinary men."  John would not have written correct schooled Greek.  Robertson wrote " is quite possible that here we have John's own uncorrected style more than in the Gospel and Epistles" (Robertson, VI p. 274).  

I think we have been framing our question incorrectly.  We shouldn't ask why Revelation is different from the gospel of John, we should ask why the gospel of John is different from Revelation.  Robinson quotes an account of the apostle John that says that he "dictated the gospel to his own disciple" (Robinson, p. 258).  Also, the end of the book of John includes a statement of endorsement from some group: "We know that his testimony is true" (John 21.24). "It seems clear that the Fourth Gospel underwent careful scrutiny and possibly by the elders in Ephesus (John 21:24)" (Robertson 1963, VI p. 274).  We know that Paul sometimes dictated his epistles to someone, or used an amanuenses.  For example "I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord" (Rom. 16.22). Also, in some letters Paul wrote something in his own writing so that the readers would know that it was from him: "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand," (1Cor. 16.21); "See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand" (Gal. 6.11); "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand" (Col. 4.18); "I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters.  This is how I write" (2The. 3.17).  

The use of an amanuenses may also explain the differences in style between 1 and 2 Peter.  1 Peter is written in a good quality Greek, but 2 Peter is written in a more "uncouth" style (Robertson 1963, VI, p. 75). In his first book Peter says "With the help of Silas...I have written to you..." (1 Pet. 5.12) while in 2 Peter he does not say that anyone helped him with the writing.  Zerwick, in his discussion of the prepositions eis and en, comments that "in the epistles the distinction between eis and en is observed."  An exception is 1 Peter 5.12.  Here Zerwick comments "...this clause of the epistle, and this one alone, was written by St Peter with his own hand, perhaps in letters as awkward as the expression..." (p. 37).  As we have already noted both Peter and John were described as "unlettered men" (Acts 4.13), Revelation and 2 Peter may be the books that show their true style of writing.

There is no reason for us to doubt that the author of the book of Revelation is the apostle John.  The testimony is early, strong and unanimous.  We appear to have a work that is  directly from his hand and in his natural idiom.  It is a pity that translators are unable to capture that, and it is a pity that people have used this difference to cast doubt on the authorship of the book.


Charles RH, 1920.  Revelation of St. John, Scribners.

Constantinou ES, 2008.  Andrew Of Caesarea And The Apocalypse In The Ancient Church Of 
The East: Studies and Translation, University Laval Quebec.

Eusebius, translated by GA Williamson, 1965. History of the Church, Penguin Classics.

Mounce RH, 1977.  The Book of Revelation, Eerdmans.

Robinson JAT, 1976.  Redating the New Testament, Westminster Press.

Robertson AT, 1963.  Word Pictures in the New Testament, Baker Book House.

Robertson AT, 1977.  The Minister and His Greek New Testament, Broadman Press.

Tenney, MC, 1981.  Gospel of John, Expositor's Bible Commentary.

Weinrich WC, 2005.  Revelation, Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture, InterVarsity

Zerwick, M., 1963.  Biblical Greek, Illustrated by Examples, Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici.

1 comment:

  1. Are our pastors telling us the truth?

    Are Christian pastors honest with their congregations regarding the evidence for the Resurrection? Is there really a "mountain of evidence" for the Resurrection as our pastors claim or is the belief in the Resurrection based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstitions, and giant leaps of faith?

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    ---A Review of LCMS Pastor John Bombaro's Defense of the Resurrection---

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