The author identifies himself as John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). He does not identify himself as an apostle but rather calls himself a servant (1:1; 19:10) and a prophet (1:3; 22:7, 9, 18-19). He received his revelation on the island of Patmos (1:9) and wrote to communities in the Roman province of Asia (1:4). “The author’s matter-of-fact approach and his extensive knowledge of the precise conditions that existed in each of the seven churches indicate that he wrote as a person of authority to Christian communities that were in some sense under his jurisdiction” (Mounce loc. 680-682).
The identification of this John has been a matter of disagreement for centuries. Proposed suggestions include: (1) John the apostle, (2) John the elder, (3) John Mark, (4) John the Baptist, (5) another John, (6) Cerinthus, and (7) someone using the name of John the apostle as a pseudonym. Some of these proposals can be dismissed rather quickly.
A John the elder is mentioned by Papias in the early second century (Eusebius, HE 3.39.2-6). Eusebius suggests that John the apostle wrote the Gospel and John the elder wrote Revelation. He notes that there were two tombs of John at Ephesus (HE 3.39.6; 7.25.16). There are a few problems with this suggestion. First, it is possible that Papias does not mention two Johns but rather equates John the elder with John the apostle (meaning Eusebius misinterpreted Papias’ words). Second, the two tombs at Ephesus may have been memorials to the same John (Jerome, De Ver. Ill. 9). Third, if there were two separate Johns, there is no evidence that John the elder wrote Revelation. Fourth, if there were two Johns in Ephesus, it is strange that the author does not clarify which John is speaking (if there was only one John in Ephesus it was surely the apostle).
John Mark is linked with Jerusalem (Acts 12:25) and Cyprus (Acts 13:5; 15:39). He is said to have returned to Jerusalem when Paul sailed to Asia Minor (Acts 13:13; 15:37-38) so we can’t place him in Asia Minor. There is no evidence that he wrote Revelation and there are no significant linguistic similarities between the Gospel of Mark and the Apocalypse.
J. M. Ford is the only scholar to suggest that John the Baptist and his followers wrote the book. She proposed that chapters 4-11 were visions given to the Baptist before Jesus began his ministry, chapters 12-22 were composed by one of his followers before AD 70, and chapters 1-3 were composed by a final editor. Her hypothesis has not been adopted by other scholars because: (a) her view of the composition of Revelation is unnecessarily complex; (b) the book is not essentially Jewish for it is permeated with Christian teaching; and (c) it is difficult to explain how a work that would have been on the periphery of Christianity became accepted into the Christian canon while clearly Christian apocalypses were excluded.
The Gnostic Cerinthus was proposed as the author by the Alogoi of the late second century and Gaius, an early third century Roman presbyter, both of whom opposed the Montanists. The book of Revelation was important to the Montanists so these groups opposed the book of Revelation as well. There is no serious evidence to suggest this connection except that Cerinthus was a millenarian.
A popular suggestion is that the author used the name of the apostle John as a pseudonym. This is an unlikely hypothesis since ancient pseudonymous apocalypses were written in the name of a famous individual from the distant past. It is also surprising, on this hypothesis, that the author did not explicitly identify himself as the apostle (e.g., Apoc. Paul, 2 Apoc Jn).
Starting with Justin Martyr in the mid-second century it was widely accepted that the author was the apostle John (Justin Martyr, Trypho 81.4; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.1-3; 4.20.11; Tertullian, Against Marcion 3.14.3; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.108; Origen, De principiis 1.2.10; Apocryphon of John). It should be noted that Justin Martyr lived for some time in Ephesus and that as a boy Irenaeus had known Polycarp, who had a close relationship with the apostle John. The second century Gnostic Marcion rejected the apostolic authorship of the book because he rejected all writings except for Paul and an edited version of Luke due to their Jewish influence. Dionysius the Great, the mid-third century bishop of Alexandria, argued that the book was not written by the apostle John because the author did not claim to be an apostle or eyewitness, the structure and thought patterns of Revelation are different from the other Johannine writings, and the difficult Greek of the work (Eusebius, HE 7.25). He concluded that it was written by another John.
Many modern scholars compare Revelation to the Gospel of John to determine whether the same author wrote both works. The Greek of the Gospel differs from the Greek of Revelation. This may suggest a different author but it could also be explained on other grounds such as the use of different amanuenses (or perhaps the exiled John had to write Revelation himself without an amanuensis), the difference in genre, the difference in audience, and the effects of the visions on the author. The theology of the Gospel and Revelation are similar but with different emphases. These similarities may suggest a common author to both works. If the Gospel was written by the apostle John (which is debated among modern scholars) then Revelation was probably also written by the apostle.
That Revelation was written by the apostle John makes the most sense of the internal and external evidence. It better explains the early, widespread identification of the author as the apostle than does the hypothesis that the book was written by another John. Arguments against this position can be rebutted. Some object that the author identifies himself as a prophet and servant rather than an apostle. While this is true it rests on the false assumption that an apostle cannot also be a prophet and a servant as well (Rom 1:1; 2 Cor 12; Gal 1:10; Jas 1:1; 2 Pet 1:1; Jude 1). Another objection is that the reference to the twelve apostles in 21:14 implies that the age of the apostles is in the past. However, this is a vision of the future and therefore does not tell us that the apostolic age was over at the time of writing.
Early Christians proposed four different date ranges for the writing of Revelation:
- The reign of Claudius (AD 41-54; Epiphanius, Haer 51.12, 32)
- The reign of Nero (AD 54-68; Syriac versions)
- The reign of Domitian (AD 81-96; Irenaeus, Adv Haer 2.22.5; 3.4.4; 5.30.3; Victorinus, Apoc 10.11; 17:10; Eusebius, HE 3.17-18; 3.20.9; 3.23.1; Clement of Alexandria, Quis Dives Salvetur 42; Origen, Matthew 16.6; Jerome, De Vir Illus 9)
- The reign of Trajan (AD 98-117; Dorotheus; Theophylact, In Matt 20.22).
The external evidence strongly favors a date during the reign of Domitian. Likewise, the consensus among modern scholars is that the book was written around AD 95 while a minority maintain it was written prior to AD 70. The internal evidence also suggests a date during Domitian’s reign.
A primary problem faced by the Christians addressed by Revelation is some form of emperor worship (13:4-8, 14-17; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). The Roman emperor, if he was deified, was usually deified after his death and not during his reign. However, coins and written sources indicate that the emperor Domitian was referred to with deific language. The imperial cult was more developed in the time of Domitian than in the time of Nero, though it probably differed from city to city (it is known to have existed in cities addressed by Revelation). While it is debatable how much persecution took place for refusal to join the imperial cult, at least some persecution did occur (Pliny, Letters 10.26-27). Pliny’s letter to Trajan implies that there was not an established policy for how to deal with Christians prior to AD 110. But it also notes that some Christians had apostatized 25 years earlier, during the reign of Domitian, and may thereby indicate sporadic persecution had occurred at that time.
Whatever the date, the author and readers of Revelation faced some persecution (1:9; 2:2-3, 9-10; 3:8-10) and, in at least one case, death (2:13). There is little indication of official Roman persecution at the time of writing (e.g., some churches are criticized for their complacency and compromise in 2:4, 14-15, 20; 3:1-2, 16) and most of the persecution is seen as future (6:9–11; 12:11; 13:7, 10, 15; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4). Nero persecuted Christians in Rome after he blamed them for the city’s fire (AD 64-68) but there is no evidence that Christians in Asia were persecuted at this time while there is evidence they were persecuted to some extent during the reign of Domitian. 1 Clement (1:1; 7:1), written in Rome around AD 96, reflects a similar situation.
A number of other relevant points depend on one’s interpretation of the text but further support or are compatible with a date around 95:
- Some scholars believe the spiritual lethargy of the churches at Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea suggest a period of time has elapsed since their founding. This would support a later date over an earlier date. This argument is weak since the “spiritual stamina” of a church does not follow a set course.
- Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake in 60-61. The citizens refused imperial aid (Tacitus, Annals 14.27.1) and the city was rebuilt by about 80 (Sib Or 4.107-108). Some take the great wealth of Laodicea (3:17) to be a better fit for a period after 80 than before.
- Some think the note to not harm the oil and wine (6:6) may refer to an edict by Domitian in 92 restricting the growing of vines in Asia. However, in the commentary we found this to be unlikely.
- Those proposing a pre-70 date (the year the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed) point to the mention of the temple in 11:1-2. However, this reference is symbolic and does require that the Jerusalem Temple was still standing. In fact, John’s description alludes to the temple in Ezekiel 40-48.
- The idea of the beast’s mortal wound that is healed (13:3-4, 12, 14; 17:8, 11) may allude to the Nero redivivus legend. If this is the case, then the book must have been written after Nero’s death in 68.
- In chapters 17-18 Babylon is used to describe imperial Rome. Some scholars believe the link between Babylon and Rome could only be made after Rome, like Babylon before it, destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70. But this ignores the fact that Babylon was also viewed as an oppressor of God’s people (Isa 47; Dan 5; cf. Rev 18) and a place of exile (Ps 137:1; cf. Rev 1:9) which makes the comparison suitable in a number of contexts.
- Revelation 17:9-11 mentions eight kings. It is implied that John is writing during the reign of the sixth king. Some commentators identify these kings with Roman emperors and try to date the book by identifying the king. This leads to a few questions: What king should we begin with? What kings are to be included? What are we to make of the eighth king who is “one of the seven”? These questions are answered differently be different scholars. A different approach, which I hold, is to view the kings symbolically and to not date the book on this basis.
I join the scholarly consensus in dating Revelation to about 95.
The book of Revelation was apparently accepted almost from the beginning in the Western Church (Papias according to a commentary by Andreas; Ignatius, Eph 15.3, Phld 6.1; Barn 6.13; 21.3; Justin Martyr, Dial. 81.15; Irenaeus; Tertullian; Hippolytus; Clement of Alexandria; Origen; Muratorian Canon). Marcion rejected it for its use of Jewish sources and Gaius and the Alogoi rejected it because of its use by the Montanists. Doubts over the book were common in the East (Dionysisus [Eccl Hist 7.24-25], Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, Council of Laodicea, Peshitta).
In evaluating the opposition to Revelation, one should keep in mind the rise of Montanism, which found in the work support for its apocalyptic extremism. Prior to any universally accepted and authoritative canon individual scholars felt free to undermine the heretical movement by denying to it the one NT book that seemed to lend it some legitimacy. The age of persecution had passed without the major prophecies of Revelation being fulfilled, so questions naturally arose in the popular mind concerning the validity of the book. It is worth noting that those who opposed Revelation did not appeal to the testimony of early history. (Mounce loc. 951-956)
Athanasius accepted it and it was on the canonical list at the Council of Carthage in 397. It was given canonical status at the Council of Constantinople in 680.
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Boxall, Ian. Revelation of Saint John, The. Black’s New Testament Commentary. Baker Academic, 2009.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. 1st ed. Yale University Press, 1997.
Brown, Raymond Edward, ed. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Pearson P T R, 1991.
Fee, Gordon D. Revelation. Kindle ed. New Covenant Commentary Series. Cascade Books, 2010.
Freedman, D. N. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Metzger, Bruce M. Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Revised. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
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