Content and Structures.
The book calls itself an apocalypse (1.1) or revelation, which Jesus gave, for his servants, through his angel to John, but it begins in letter form, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia, grace to you and peace” (1.4), and ends like a Pauline letter with the “grace” (22.21). The risen Christ appears to John on the island of Patmos, off the coast of the Roman province of Asia, and orders him to write to the seven churches (chaps. 2 and 3); the messages warn the complacent and the worldly, and encourage the faithful. Summoned up into heaven, John sees God enthroned, holding a sealed scroll no one can open. He hears that the lion of the tribe of Judah has won the right to open it, and he sees standing by the throne a lamb bearing the marks of sacrificial slaughter (chaps. 4 and 5).
The Lamb's opening of the seals unleashes the first of three series of disasters, which represent God's wrath against an idolatrous and impenitent world: seven seals opened (6; 8.1), seven trumpets blown (chaps. 8 and 9), and seven bowls poured out (chap. 16). Symbolic visions in between depict the opposing forces in cosmic war, which comes to a climax in chap. 19: the Lamb and the 144,000 who bear his name and God's seal, over against the seven‐headed beast, Satan's emissary (the Antichrist), and those who bear his mark. The beast's city, Babylon, the “great whore,” is destroyed, the beast is defeated, Satan is bound and the saints reign for a thousand years (the millennium), until Satan is released for his final assault (19.11–20.10). Then follows God's judgment of the world, and a new heaven and earth replace the old. The holy city, Jerusalem, the bride, comes down from God, and all earth's splendor is gathered into it.
It is a bewildering kaleidoscope of scenes, punctuated by voices and bursts of heavenly hymnody. Scholars have seen a variety of structural patterns, based on liturgy (Jewish or Christian), or drama (each city had its theater), or astrology or numerology (both staple diet for first‐century folk). Each suggestion may contain some truth, but none has won general assent. The clearest structural element is the four series of seven (letters, seals, trumpets, bowls). The background for this structure is the apocalyptic discourse of Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), of which John's apocalypse may be seen as an updating.
- Chaps. 1–3. Seven letters warning against deception and lawlessness (cf. Matt. 24.4, 5, 9–12)
- Chaps. 4–7. Seven seals on a heavenly scroll, opened by the Lamb
- 6 War, famine, plague (Matt. 24.6–8; birthpangs of the new age)
- 7 God's servants sealed: 144,000
- Chaps. 8–14. Seven trumpets of warning
- 8–9 Disasters modeled on the plagues of Egypt (Exod. 7–11)
- 10–11 Counterpoint of witness (the little scroll)
- 12–13 Victory in heaven, disaster for earth—Antichrist and false prophet (Matt. 24.15–24)
- 14 The 144,000 over against worshipers of the beast. Judgment
- Chaps. 15–22. Seven bowls of God's final wrath
- 16 Disasters for the beast's worshipers and city (Exod. 7–11 again)
- 17–18 Destruction of the whore, Babylon
- 19–20 Coming of Christ, the millennium, and the last judgment (Matt. 24.27–31)
- 21 Descent of the bride, New Jerusalem, in counterpoint with the fall of Babylon (17.1 and 21.9)
In the three series of disasters there is both recapitulation—each covers the same ground—and development. The seals serve as overture, centering on the “beginning of the birthpangs” (Matt. 24.8). The trumpets lead up to the “desolating sacrilege” (Matt. 24.15), Rome and its emperor. The bowls set out their destruction and the “coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24.27)—bridegroom and bride over against beast and harlot.
Two further structural points are important for interpreting the book. Enclosing the scenes of destruction are the visions of God, creator and redeemer (chaps. 4 and 5), and of the new creation (chap. 21): the destructions are not simply negative; the rebelliousness of earth is finally overcome. Enclosing all the visions is the epistolary opening and ending: the whole disclosure is a message to Christians of the day in their particular situations. Scattered among the visions are calls for discernment and fidelity (13.9, 10, 18; 14.12; 16.15; 17.9).
This analysis suggests that the aim of John's revelation was to warn the churches against compromise with the religious, social, and economic values of a world heading for self‐destruction because of its idolatry, and to encourage them in the witness to God and purity of life which alone could defeat the deceptions of Satan and his minions. The letters to the churches show that some were sliding into a worldly lifestyle (2.14, 20), while others were asleep (3.2), complacent (3.17), or lacking in love (2.4). There is wholehearted praise only for Smyrna (2.8–11) and Philadelphia (3.7–13), where faithful Christians were suffering on behalf of Christ.
At first sight, John is writing to seven particular congregations; many other cities in the Roman province of Asia are known to have had Christians (see Acts 19.10, 26; 1 Cor. 16.19; 2 Cor. 1.8). But seven is the number symbolic of wholeness (see below), and these churches probably represent the whole church. The seven cities were all centers of communication, set on a circular route beginning at Ephesus, the nearest to Patmos. The writer knows the geography and traditions of each city, and clearly is acquainted with the circumstances of each church. But the particular warnings and encouragements add up to a message for all the churches (2.23; cf. 22.16), and he claims divine authority for his book (22.18, 19).
What kind of Christians were they? The warnings against Nicolaitans and others who teach Christians to “eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication” (2.6, 14–15, 20) remind us of issues at Corinth (1 Cor. 6.12–20; 8; 10.14–30). Later writers connected the Nicolaitans with gnosticism. It looks as if there was an influential movement for compromise with the world, based perhaps on Pauline teaching about Christian freedom and the divine mandate of the state (Rom. 13.1–7), and on gnostic belief in present spiritual salvation to which behavior in the material world is irrelevant. The emphasis on Christ's imminent coming may be directed against an assumption that eternal life is already here, which might have been drawn from the teaching of the Fourth Gospel. Paul, and later the apostle John according to tradition, had both been active at Ephesus. The books seems to be recalling Christians to the apostolic standard; there is perhaps an echo of the decree of the Apostolic Council (Acts 15.28) in the letter to Thyatira (2.24).
Situation and Date.
Irenaeus (ca. 180 CE), who came from Asia and had known Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (ca. 70–150 CE), and others of his generation, dated the book of Revelation toward the end of the reign of Domitian (81–96 CE; cf. Against the Heresies 5.30.3, as usually interpreted). The picture of the Antichrist reflects popular belief that Nero, who had stabbed himself in the throat, would return from the dead (13.3, 12, 14), and many scholars see Revelation as a response to the enforcement on Christians of Domitian's demand for worship as “Lord and God.” But the evidence that he persecuted the church, as opposed to a few individuals who may or may not have been Christians, dissolves on inspection, and the letters to the churches reveal no state persecution, only Jewish “slander” (2.9; 3.9). The only martyr mentioned is Antipas (2.13—referring to a past event), and the general picture is of affluence and complacency.
On the other hand, Nero's mysterious death evoked immediate rumors that he was still alive, and would return with an army from the east; and the civil wars that followed his death (68–69 CE, the Year of Four Emperors), coinciding with the Jewish War (66–70 CE), seem to lie behind the breakup of the Roman world depicted in chaps. 6–18. Consequently, some scholars date Revelation about 68–70 CE: the intensity of hatred against Rome (17.6; 18.24; 19.2) does at first seem to demand a date close to the fire at Rome (64 CE) and Nero's massacre of Christians (Tacitus Annals 15.44). Irenaeus's date is open to question.
There is an apparent clue to the date in the interpretation of the beast's seven heads as emperors, “of whom five have fallen” (17.7–11), but in fact there is no telling which emperor the series starts with, and seven is probably again symbolic. The seven heads represent the empire as a whole, and the beast that “ascends from the bottomless pit” is “an eighth, but belongs to the seven”; it is the quintessence of imperial power, latent now but soon to be revealed in its true colors.
But this is not yet. The present is a time when the beast‐like character of the empire is out of sight. In the Roman province of Asia, the Flavian emperors (Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian) were popular, being efficient and generous administrators. Inscriptions hail them as “savior,” “benefactor,” “son of God,” and there was a local zeal for the emperor cult. So Irenaeus's date in fact fits the evidence from the letters well: a time of patriotic enthusiasm, expressed in terms of religious veneration, from which Christians were not holding aloof. There was as yet no state compulsion for ordinary people to take part in the emperor cult, as long as they kept clear of law courts and the taking of oaths. Pliny's letter to the Emperor Trajan (ca. 112 CE; Letters 10.96), about people being accused of being Christians in the neighboring province of Bithynia, shows the danger; once accused they had the choice either of cursing Christ, worshiping the gods, and praying to the emperor's statue, or of cruel execution. Trajan agreed, but said they should not be sought out. So if Christians did not provoke their neighbors by active witness and by nonparticipation in the ordinary social and patriotic decencies, then they would come to no harm. But in John's view they would be buying temporal safety at the cost of eternal loss (14.9–11). The chief threat to the church was not physical danger, as at Smyrna, but social, economic, and religious temptation. Its chief need was discernment: “let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (2.7, 11; 13.9).
Author and Sources.
Irenaeus and most later writers assumed that the author was the John who wrote the Gospel and letters, and that he was the son of Zebedee. But some, like Dionysius of Alexandria (third century), anticipated the majority of modern scholars by questioning this identification because of differences of thought, style, and language. Dionysius relied on hints that there had been two writers named John in Ephesus; and Papias (ca. 140 CE) mentions a John who was an elder, as well as the apostle.
Another possibility is that Revelation is pseudonymous, claiming a great figure of the past as author, like much other apocalyptic literature. There is a later tradition that the apostle John was martyred as his brother James had been (Acts 12.2; cf. Mark 10.39; Matt. 20.23, which may be the source of the tradition); as one of the inner circle, associated as he was with Jesus at the Transfiguration and on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13.3), he would have been a good figurehead for an apocalypse calling Christians to face martyrdom. If it was published ca. 95 CE, its later acceptance as genuine could have given rise to the widely held belief that John lived to a great age in Ephesus.
But the evidence for John's martyrdom is flimsy, and if “John” is a fiction, it is odd that no capital is made out of it; the author is simply “your brother,” and mentions the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21.14) without hint that he is one of them. The only status he claims is, by implication, that of prophet (1.3; 22.9). This tells also against genuinely apostolic authorship, but not decisively; and Dionysius's comment concerning differences in thought and style may be due to differences in situation and genre; there are also many marks of Johannine theology and expression. John's language is indeed extraordinary, breaking all sorts of grammatical rules—but not out of incompetence; he can write correct and powerful Greek. He seems to be echoing Hebrew constructions, perhaps to give a biblical feel to the book.
The whole book purports to be what John has seen and heard, but it is clear that his visionary experience has been shaped both by canonical and apocalyptic writings like Enoch and by the Gospels (or the traditions on which they depend)—so much so that some see the book as a scriptural meditation, based perhaps on the Sabbath readings from the Law and the Prophets (see Lectionaries, article on Jewish Tradition), which has been cast in visionary form. Probably it is a mixture of genuine experience and literary elaboration. Biblical metaphors and images—dragon, lamb, harlot, bride—come to new life in his imagination. There are allusions to or echoes of practically every book in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel and Ezekiel are particularly formative; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and the Psalms are pervasive influences; so too are the stories of creation and Exodus, and of the return from Babylon and rebuilding of Jerusalem, which Isaiah depicted as a new Exodus and act of creation. Revelation is a rereading of biblical tradition in the light of the death of Jesus, and though no doubt Jewish, the author is also a citizen of the Greco‐Roman world and knows its myths and astrology (see, for example, commentaries on 12.1–6).
Visionary experience and scriptural meditation may indeed be inextricably woven together, but is the book as it stands a unity? At first sight it is full of loose ends, inconsistencies, and repetitions, and many scholars have detected interpolations, revisions, and dislocations of the text. For example, there are two “last battles” (19.9; 20.8), and two visions of the holy city coming down (21.2, 10). “See, I am coming like a thief! …” (16.15) seems manifestly out of place in the middle of the vision of the sixth bowl, but at home in the letter to Sardis (3.3). There are obvious glosses, interpreting the heavenly incense as “the prayers of the saints” (5.8), or the bride's fine linen as “the righteous deeds of the saints” (19.8).
But the glosses may come from the author himself. The apocalyptic genre is by nature dreamlike, and thus apparently incoherent; it is best to try to make sense of what we have on its own terms, in the absence of evidence in the manuscripts for disorder.
Symbolism and Interpretation.
The symbolism of Revelation is kaleidoscopic and multivalent. One picture melts into another. God's people can appear as a woman (who can be virgin, wife, or mother) or a city, and the great city where the two witnesses are killed is “spiritually called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified” (11.8).
Satan is both God's ancient enemy and has a place in heaven (12.7–9); likewise the sea is both an adornment of heaven (4.6), and the abode of the seven‐headed beast, which represents the powers of chaos (13.1). Here is implicit the belief that evil is a corruption of what God has created good, a corruption that he can redeem; if Jerusalem can become the “great city” that murders the Lord and his witnesses, cannot the great city become the holy city? In the final vision, the kings of the earth bring in all the glory of the nations (21.24–26), though they have been slain by the Word of God (19.13, 21). In the new creation, the dualism of this age, the gap between God's will and earth's obedience, has been overcome; there is no more sea (21.1).
Numbers, like places, are also symbolic (see Number Symbolism). There are twelve months, signs of the zodiac, tribes of Israel, apostles of the lamb (21.12–14). There are seven planets, days of the week, colors of the rainbow. These are numbers of wholeness. The slain Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes (5.6); the slain beast, the Antichrist that parodies his death and resurrection, has seven heads (13.1, 3, 14). His number is six, one short of seven. Satan was created the highest of the angels, but the good claiming to be the best is the very devil. His number is intensified as 666 (13.18). Second, the ancients did not have Arabic numerals, but used the letters of the alphabet (A = 1, B = 2, etc.). So by adding up numerical values (gematria) a number could represent a name. Nero Caesar, written in Hebrew letters, adds up to 666; Jesus, in Greek letters, makes 888. He died on the sixth day of the week, and rose on the eighth, the first day of the new age.
John wrote to illuminate his own situation. Later, when his specific circumstances were forgotten, some took Revelation as a literal prediction of the future; others, in reaction against crude literalism, especially with regard to the millennium, interpreted it allegorically and saw the millennium as the present age of the church. In the twelfth century, Joachim of Fiore drew from Revelation (along with the rest of scripture) an understanding of the whole movement of history; his vision came to be widely influential. At various times, people have seen Revelation as a veiled picture of the subsequent history of the world or of the church, placing themselves at the penultimate moment and identifying beast and harlot with current bogeys, whether emperor or pope, church or sect. But it is now clear that John wrote for a past situation and that to look for literal fulfillments in the events of our day is misguided.
In spite of Alexandrian doubts, Revelation has had a firm place within the New Testament canon; it has had an immense influence on later Christianity. It can be seen as the most un‐Christian book—the Judas Iscariot of the New Testament, according to D. H. Lawrence (Apocalypse )—but, with its echoes of the beginning, the tree of life restored and no more curse (22.2, 3), it is a fitting climax to the whole Bible story.