By Ferrell Jenkins
The proper study of any book begins with survey of its background. A consideration of the author, the date of composition, and the people addressed, and the purpose of the book is of utmost importance if one expects to understand it properly.
In addition to these general areas of investigation, some books have special areas that need examination. Such is true of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. The nature of apocalyptic literature, the use of symbolism and the consideration of various theories of interpretation become vital in the study of this book.
Revelation has been almost universally regarded as the most difficult book of the New Testament. It has been disregarded by the masses, skipped over by many Christians, and made a happy hunting ground for those who desire to show some special insight into difficult matters or to “prove” some hypothetical speculation.
Within the past one hundred years and especially since the turn of the century. Biblical scholarship seems to have found the key to Revelation. “What still remains dark in the book consists of ‘puzzles rather than problems.’ ” 1 Hunter suggests that all of this is due to the discovery of two important truths: (1) Revelation is not sui generis, 2 and (2) the book was written for its own time. 3
The book under consideration is usually called “The Revelation of John,” but it actually is the “revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him” and which was communicated by His angel “to His bond-servant John.” (Rev. 1: 1). The word “revelation” is from the Greek word apokaluptis which means “revelation” or “disclosure.” 4 This book is the uncovering, or unveiling of certain things of God, which He wanted His servants to know. This concluding book of the canon is also commonly called the Apocalypse.
The Revelation comes under the classification of apocalyptic literature. 5 It is unique in the New Testament scriptures, but it shares a common classification with three canonical books of the Old Testament, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, and with a “kind of literature which was the commonest of all literatures between the Old and the New Testaments.”6 The book of Enoch, Assumption of Moses, Baruch, and Fourth Ezra are apocalyptic literature that, among others, form that group of non-canonical writings commonly referred to as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. 7 It should be noted that not all books in this group are apocalyptic in their nature. One should recognize that there has always been the conflict between the true and the false. The Prophets presented Jehovah as the true God over against the idols of their day. In the apocalyptic literature we have the same type of situation. While not all of the books are considered as inspired, they are all of some benefit in coming to an understanding of a book, such as the Revelation, which partakes of the same general characteristics.
Apocalyptic literature was occasioned by certain discernible conditions. Summers describes these conditions.
“It is readily seen that troublous times gave birth to apocalyptic literature. Trial, suffering, sorrow, and near-despair furnished the soil in which this type of writing grew. Written in the days of adversity, this form of expression always set forth the present as a time of great persecution and suffering, but, in glorious contrast, the future as a time of deliverance and triumph.” 8
These were dangerous times in which one might lose his life by describing the opposing forces in literal terms. The authorship of apocalyptic literature was generally pseudonymous. Such is not true, however, of any of the canonical books. The writer of Revelation was presently enduring persecution and could hardly be described as being fearful of more (Rev. 1:9).
This literature was highly relevant to the historical situations of the day. Daniel and Ezekiel wrote during the Babylonian exile to comfort the chosen people in their faithfulness, and to prepare them for trials even down to the times of Antiochus Epiphanes, and finally to the Roman Empire. The book of Revelation was written when God’s saints were being severely tried in the crucible that was called Rome. It served to reveal God’s power to overcome all enemies and His disposition toward His afflicted ones. This book should serve as an encouragement to God’s people, whenever they are persecuted, down to the end of time.
In literature like the Apocalypse, one expects to find a great use of visions and symbols. These will be discussed subsequently.
The authorship of the Apocalypse has been much discussed through the years. The human penman identifies himself as John in four places. He is variously identified as the “bondservant” (Rev. 1:1) Of Christ, one who is a “brother and fellow-partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus” with the seven churches that are in Asia, (Rev. 1: 9, 4) and the one who “heard and saw” the things he wrote (Rev. 22:8). It is interesting to note that this John did not at any time claim apostleship. It will be remembered, however, that Paul did not always claim such, but like John identified himself as a “bond-servant” of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1: 1). When there was no questioning of apostolic authority it was not necessary to assert it. The simple way in which the writer identifies himself seems as though lie was so well known that no other leader among the Christians of the area could be confused with him.
It is evident that the writer was familiar with the topography of Asia where the seven churches were located, that he was acquainted with the churches, and was thoroughly versed in the Old Testament. 9 In this connection Tenney stated that he was probably “one of the earlier disciples of Jesus, since the Aramaic influence did not last long in the church.” 10
As early as the first half of the second century there is evidence that John the Apostle was the writer of the book of Revelation. Justin Martyr, about 140 A.D., said that “there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him. . . .” 11.
Eusebius repeatedly ascribes the book to John, 12 as does Tertullian. 13 Clement of Alexandria, after quoting either Revelation 4: 4 or 11:16 says “as John says in the Apocalypse.” 14
Dionysius was one of the first to record information denying that the book was written by John the Apostle. He stated that some before him had rejected the book altogether. Critical of it they pronounced it without sense or argument, maintaining that the title was fraudulent. They did not consider it the work of John, or a revelation; it was too obscure to be so called. They denied that anyone of the apostles or even any one in the church had written the book. The real author was considered to be one Cerinthus, founder of the Certinthian sect which had been named after him. According to them, Cerinthus desired reputable authority for his fiction and prefixed the name of John. Dionysius did not reject the book, but gave reasons for not thinking that the Apostle John was the writer. In closing he said: “But that he who wrote these things was called John must be believed, as he says it; but who he was does not appear.” 15 He suggests that there were others by the name of John in Ephesus and records a tradition he had heard to the effect that there are two tombs bearing the name of John in Ephesus. 16
Papias also commented on the two tombs in Ephesus, which are both called John’s. There was John the Apostle and John the Presbyter. Eusebius concludes that if the Apostle was not the one who saw the revelation, perhaps it was the Presbyter. 17
The preponderance of evidence indicates that John the Apostle wrote the Revelation. There seems to be no good reason to look elsewhere for a writer. Thiessen gives a brief, but thorough evaluation of the evidence for the authorship and concludes: ” We take it, then, as fully proved that the Apostle John wrote the Apocalypse.”
1. Archibald M. Hunter, Interpreting the New Testament, 1900-1950 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951), p. 97.
2. One of its kind.
4. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 91.
5. For a more detailed study of apocalyptic literature and its relationship to the book of Revelation see my The Old Testament in the Book of Revelation (Marion, Ind.: The Cogdill Foundation, 1972).
William Barclay, The Revelation of John (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1962), Vol. 1, p. 2.
7. For a study of these one should consult the monumental work by R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, with Introductions and Critical and Explanatory Notes to the Several Books (2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913).
8. Ray Summers, Worthy is the Lamb (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1951), p. 5.
9. Merrill C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957), P. 15.
11. Justin Martyr, “Dialogue With Trypho the Jew,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), 1, p. 240. Hereafter this set of books will be designated by the initials, ANF.
12. Eusebius Pamphilus, The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius Pamphilus,Lrans. C. F. Cruse (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), III, xxiv; xxxix. Hereafter this work will be designated by the name Eusebius.
13. Tertullian, “Contra Marcion,” 3: 14, 24, ANF.
14. Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromator or Miscellanies,” ANF, II, 505.
15. Dionysius, “Dionysius on the Apocalypse,” A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1954), 1, p. 309.
M. Eusebius, VIII, xxv.
17. Ibid., III, xxxix.
18. Henry C. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), p. 320.
TRUTH MAGAZINE XVII: 24, pp. 10-12
April 19, 1973