Final questions: Who wrote the New Testament's Book of Revelation?

JOHN (the perfect name for this question) ASKS

I thought the John of Revelation was the Beloved Disciple. The sermon today tried to disabuse me of that notion. What do we know about this?


One cherished Christmas tradition is dramatic presentation of the story of Jesus via Handel’s “Messiah,” the most-beloved, most-performed musical setting of Bible verses ever composed.  This 1742 oratorio concludes with a stirring chorus taken from the Book of Revelation 5:9,12-14 in the King James Version:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing…. Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever…. Amen.”

Who received this book’s elaborate vision and wrote it down? That’s among many mysteries about Revelation, a.k.a. the Apocalypse, along with what its many lurid symbols mean, and whether it addresses 1st Century persecution, church struggles throughout history, future culmination in the end times, or some combination. The early church, especially in the East, was reluctant and late in deciding this unusual book belonged in the New Testament.

The text names the writer as a “John” who lived on the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) due to “tribulation” and testimony to Jesus Christ, indicating he was in forced exile. There is early and strong tradition that this was John, the “beloved” apostle among the Twelve chosen by Jesus, though the text doesn’t say so. That belief was embraced by a parade of 2nd and early 3rd Century notables including Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian. A present-day conservative, Walter Elwell of Wheaton College in Illinois, is less absolute but thinks the apostle is “quite likely” the author.

But, as with many biblical questions, the situation is complicated. The 3rd Century Bishop Dionysius, as cited in the early 4th Century “Ecclesiastical History” by Eusebius, ruled out the apostle due to the book’s character, thought, language, construction, and rough Greek idioms and grammar. Some modern literary critics agree. But the grammar argument didn’t sway the late G.B. Caird of Oxford University. His 1966 commentary contends that Revelation “is not ungrammatical, but has a grammar of its own, unparalleled in any other ancient writing, but nonetheless real and consistent,” that reflected a writer “thinking in Hebrew” while writing in Greek.

Important early evidence on this, also in Eusebius’s history (Book 3, chapter 39) reports debated assertions about New Testament authorship from the early 2nd Century Bishop Papias. He indicated there were two noted figures who shared that very common name, the apostle and a second person:

“The other John he mentions after an interval, and places him among others outside the number of the apostles, putting Aristion before him, and he distinctly calls him a presbyter… This shows that the statement of those is true who say that there were two persons in Asia that bore the same name… It is probable that it was the second, if one is not willing to admit that it was the first that saw the Revelation, which is ascribed by name to John.”

Continue reading "Final questions: Who wrote the New Testament's Book of Revelation?" by Richard Ostling.

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