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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

The Revelation to John - Introduction

The Apocalypse * of John is a symbolic vision report containing elaborate descriptions (of Jesus, of a trip to heaven, and of the agents of evil in the world) and dramatic actions. It is unique among biblical works in its scope and intensity, though it shares certain symbolic elements with other New Testament descriptions of the end times (2 Thess 2; Mk 13; Mt 24–25; Lk 21 ). It also has numerous affinities with visionary literature in the Hebrew Scriptures * (esp. Dan 6–12 , but also Zech 9–14 and aspects of Ezekiel). The closest analogies, however, are in the numerous vision reports now known collectively as the pseudepigrapha, * a group of Jewish writings not in the Bible but often claiming to be written by some biblical person (for example, 1 Enoch, * 4 Ezra, Testament of Abraham).

Key traits of such visionary literature include the following:

  • 1. The claim that a secret revelation has been given to some seer or prophet. *

  • 2. This revelation is imparted in a dream, a vision, or a transportation of the seer to heaven—often the three means are combined.

  • 3. The revelation is usually mediated by some figure, such as an angel, who acts as guide and interpreter to the seer.

  • 4. The revelation is usually not self-explanatory, but is encoded in a variety of esoteric symbols involving animals (often composites of different animals, with multiple heads), mythological figures, and numbers.

  • 5. The revelation is often attributed to some figure who lived long before the time of the actual author: Isaiah, Moses, Enoch, * Daniel, Adam, Zephaniah, Peter, etc.

Revelation shares all these traits except the last; it is the only known example of a vision report that gives the actual author's name.

Most scholars accept a date around 95 CE, though a few maintain an earlier dating around 70. The late dating is supported by the testimony of the earliest commentators, especially Irenaeus (Against Heresies 5.30.3), as well as by data from the text of Revelation itself. Most persuasive is the use of the code name Babylon for Rome, suggesting that Rome has come to be seen as the second destroyer of Jerusalem as Babylon was the first. The argument for the earlier dating rests on allusions in the text, such as the ease with which 666 can be identified with Nero (see sidebar on p. 409 ; comments on 13.11–18 ). The earlier dating would place it in the context of Nero's persecution of Christians at Rome (64–68 CE) and of the great Judean-Roman War (66–74 CE). Both may be right. The Apocalypse is a complex book, consisting of visions no doubt recorded over many years but probably edited and published in the present form near the end of the first century.

The naming of the churches addressed ( 1.4, 11 ) places the work squarely in the Hellenistic * (Greek-speaking), Roman cities along the Western coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The author is identified as John, without further qualification. While tradition has long identified the author as John the son of Zebedee, one of Jesus' disciples, there is nothing in the text to suggest this, and one point makes the identification doubtful: The vision of the New Jerusalem

Chart The three basic stories in Revelation

Story One Story Two Story Three
Place Patmos Heaven Earth
Characters Jesus as majestic human; John; Churches Jesus as slain Lamb; Elders; Heavenly beings Jesus as heavenly warrior; Dragon and beasts; Woman and her children
Action Letter writing Worship War
John presented as Secretary Heavenly traveler Seer/prophet *
Mythic paradigm Theophany * Throne vision Holy war *
Chapters 1–3 4–11 12–22
shows it as founded on the twelve apostles, * making them appear to be figures of the distant past ( 21.14 ).

The once universal view that Revelation was written in response to Roman persecution has now been largely abandoned, for there is simply no evidence of any such persecution in this region in the late first century. In fact, Revelation speaks very little about actual persecution (and names only one martyr, * Antipas of Pergamum; 2.13 ); suffering is envisioned for the future. The historical and social context seems to be peace and prosperity, and the great temptation is not to renounce the faith (as it might be in a time of persecution) but to be seduced by the glamour and luxury of Greco-Roman culture.

There is no agreement on the best way to imagine the organization of the material in the Apocalypse; numerous possibilities can be argued depending on the focus. Most schemes concentrate on the four numbered series of seven visions (letters, seals, trumpets, and bowls), often adding other series of seven (unnumbered) visions. Here we will focus on the action of the story and see that action as occurring in three stages:

  • 1. Jesus appears to John and dictates seven letters ( 1–3 ).

  • 2. John is taken to heaven and sees how God's reign comes ( 4–11 ).

  • 3. Satan attacks Jesus' followers but is finally defeated ( 12–22 ).

These three stories are in some ways self-contained units, but they share a common frame (a letter from John to the churches) and overlapping themes and characters (notably, the Lamb of story two appears repeatedly in story three).

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