The Mysterious John of Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

Curiously only one of the five books in the New Testament attributed to John bears the name of John. Many believers and conservative scholars maintain that the Gospel of John, the first, second and third letters of John, were authored by the apostle John despite the author’s name nowhere appearing in those texts.

It is of course the nature of religious history that people will believe it without necessarily having the kind of source-based authentication that generally historians are looking for. And so there is always a tension between what a religious tradition may say about the past and what the historian may say about the past. (Tom Holland, in John Cleary in conversation with Tom Holland, about 26 mins)

And so it goes. Tradition has assigned the name of John to the Gospel and three letters of the New Testament. Perversely, it may seem, the book that does claim to be written by John is one that critical scholars doubt came from the same pen as anything else attributed to John.

A study of the authorship of the Book of Revelation opens up a number of interesting methodological curiosities of New Testament scholarship. But for most part here I will set out the reasons why critical scholars widely believe the book of Revelation is not from the same author, or even “theological school”, responsible for the Gospel of John.

Saint John on Patmos
Saint John on Patmos (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Book of Revelation makes unambiguous claims about the identity of its author. It came from God via Jesus Christ who commanded John to write it all down:

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John . . . .

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,

Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.

And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;

And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.

His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.

And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter . . . .

The setting on the isle of Patmos and the identity of an author (or scribe) as a persecuted exile appropriately sets an atmosphere of fear and dread, relieved by a moment of seclusion to be with God alone and to receive his messages uninterrupted. He identifies himself as one of the saints who is being trodden under foot — another motif common to this genre of literature. This is all part of the literary conceit of another Daniel (or any persecuted visionary prophet) being pulled aside by God and struck down to humbly soak up the glories and mysteries of the heavenly realms that would leave lesser mortals dead. The setting is as much atmospherics as are the eyes like fire and the seven headed beast. Yet New Testament scholars will so often be found referring to the author being a persecuted exile on Patmos as if this were a veritable fact of history.

A face-value reading guided by the light of church tradition leads many readers concur with the following:

One may readily suppose that after the Jewish War (66-73/74 CE.) John left Palestine and worked in Asia Minor, as did other Jewish Christians (cf. Eusebius, HE. 3.31.3) (Udo Schelle, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings, p. 520)

The traditions of the ancient church

The first to identify the John of Revelation with one of the twelve apostles was Justin apparently writing around the 140s:

And further, 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, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place. (Dialogue with Trypho, 81.4)

Irenaeus, around the 180s, followed:

Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. (Against Heresies, 2:22.5, proving from the witness of John that Jesus died at age 50)

Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Against Heresies, 3.1.2, affirming the apostle John who authored the Gospel lived at Ephesus.)

There are also those who heard from him that John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” . . . . Then, again, the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles. (Against Heresies, 3.3.4, affirming the apostle John was based at Ephesus)

Those, moreover, who follow Valentinus, making copious use of that according to John, to illustrate their conjunctions, shall be proved to be totally in error by means of this very Gospel. . . . (Against Heresies, 3.11.7, that the apostle John was author of the Gospel)

Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies[of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; . . .  for if it were necessary that his name [of the beast] should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign. (Against Heresies, 5.30.1, 3, that John was the author of Revelation and lived in the time of Domitian)

Tertullian of the Christianity known to north Africa west of Egypt also accepted Revelation as the work of John the apostle.

Presumably on the basis of these surviving works (and the hundred plus years later account of Eusebius) we are to understand that the more or less “proto-orthodox” Western Christianity generally accepted the Book of Revelation as an authentic work of the apostle John by around 200 CE. Others in the east, even in the very region John was said to have been known, claimed the book was composed by John’s arch enemy, Cerinthus.

Thus we read in the History of the Church (6.25) by Eusebius that Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, observed:

1. Afterward [Dionysius] speaks in this manner of the Apocalypse of John.

Some before us have set aside and rejected the book altogether, criticising it chapter by chapter, and pronouncing it without sense or argument, and maintaining that the title is fraudulent.

2. For they say that it is not the work of John, nor is it a revelation, because it is covered thickly and densely by a veil of obscurity. And they affirm that none of the apostles, and none of the saints, nor any one in the Church is its author, but that Cerinthus, who founded the sect which was called after him the Cerinthian, desiring reputable authority for his fiction, prefixed the name.

3. For the doctrine which he taught was this: that the kingdom of Christ will be an earthly one. And as he was himself devoted to the pleasures of the body and altogether sensual in his nature, he dreamed that that kingdom would consist in those things which he desired, namely, in the delights of the belly and of sexual passion; that is to say, in eating and drinking and marrying, and in festivals and sacrifices and the slaying of victims, under the guise of which he thought he could indulge his appetites with a better grace.

A sect in Asia Minor Epiphanius called the Alogi or Alogians are said to have attributed both the Gospel and the Apocalypse to the gnostic Cerinthus, not the apostle John.

The testimony of the book itself

Revelation itself refers to the apostles as figures of the past who are unrelated to the author who is presented as a prophetic scribe:

Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her. (18:20)

And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (21:14)

Udo Schnelle questions the likelihood of a man in his 90s (as John the apostle would have been at the time of the apparent writing of the book) producing such a “powerful writing”.

We have accounts of another John known as the “elder” or “presbyter” in Asia Minor at this time. (These come from Eusebius who appears to be relying on writings of a certain Papias.) Though some (including Eusebius) have attributed the Book of Revelation to this John, again the witness of the book itself counts against this. The title of “elder” indicated a church teacher, not a prophet, and the ostensible author of Revelation was a prophet. He at no time suggests he was an elder. Indeed, elders, for him, are twenty-four angelic beings in heaven who are by no means modelled on any earthly office of presbyters.

Could the author(s) of the Gospel and Epistles of John have written Revelation?

There are certain thematic points of contact between Revelation and the other “Johannine” literature.

Kronheim's Baxter process illustration of Reve...
Kronheim’s Baxter process illustration of Revelation 22:17 (King James’ Version), from page 366 of the 1880 omnibus printing of The Sunday at Home. Scanned at 800 dpi. The greyish border around the flowers is a metallic silver ink, however, shininess cannot be reproduced in an electronic medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Living water

Revelation 7:16-17; 21:6; 22:1, 17

John 4:10, 13-14; 7:37-39

Jesus Christ = The Word of God

Revelation 19:13

John 1:1

Jesus Christ = The Lamb of God

Revelation about 30 times — τὸ ἀρνίον

John 1:29, 36 — ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (a different word from that used in Revelation)

Theme of Conquering, Victory

Revelation 17 times

Johannine corpus 7 times

Motif of witness/testimony

13 times in Revelation

64 times in the Johannine writings

Further, we have the word ὄψις (face) being found only in Revelation and 1 John; and σφάζω (slay, kill) unique to 1 John 3:12 and Revelation passages.

But don’t get too excited by these common terms and themes, warns Udo Schnelle:

These lines of contact do not permit certain conclusions concerning the relationship of the documents themselves, however, since both the purely linguistic statistics and the common motifs, when examined individually, manifest either theological concepts that differ widely from each other, or the agreements may be attributed to derivation from a comparable stock of traditions in their respective backgrounds. (p. 521)

J. Frey, for example, would reverse the direction of borrowing and argue that the Fourth Gospel, being “more developed”, draws upon an earlier (less sophisticated) writing, the Revelation.

The theme of victory or conquering is quite different. In the Johannine literature it denotes

the victory of faith in Christ as the (already accomplished) overcoming of the world. By contrast, in Revelation the dominant idea associated with the term is the struggle and victory of the Lamb . . . or the preservation of Christians in the world as the place of struggle. . . .

The witness theme is also quite different. In the Gospels and letters it references the person of Jesus; in Revelation it is what is seen in a vision.

Differences in Language

Again I cite Udo Schnelle:

The semitizing Greek of Revelation has been considered a compelling argument against the thesis that Revelation and the Fourth Gospel were written by the same author since the time of W. Bousset and R. H. Charles. (p. 522)

Specific semitisms listed:

  • Neglecting the correspondence of cases (cf Rev. 1:5, 2:13, 20; 3:12; 4:1; 5:11-12; 11:15, et al.)
  • Introducing sentences with και (= and, also, even) analogous to w-consecutive (cf. Rev. 3:20; 6:12; 10:7; 14:9-10)
  • The tenses are used with great freedom, so that e.g. past, present, and future can stand in the same sentence, even though they all refer to the same time (cf. Rev. 4:9-11; 6:15-17; 11; 14:2-3; 16:21; 20:7-8)
  • The substitution of a finite verb by an infinitive (cf. Rev. 12:7; 13:10) or a participial clause (cf. Rev. 10:2; 12:2; 19:12; 21:12, 14)
  • Unusual use of prepositions (e.g. ἐπί, upon)

Differences in Christology

At the center of the Christology of the Fourth Gospel and the Letters of John stands the concept of the incarnation. It is based on the essential unity of Father and Son, so that the incarnate one is none other than the pre-existent and exalted one . . . . In contrast, in Revelation the Lamb, i,e, the Son, is clearly subordinate to God (cf. e.g. Rev. 3:5; 5:6-7, 13; 6:16; 7:10; 14:14; 15:3; 20:11-15). It is not the incarnation of the Son of God (υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ only in Rev. 2:18), but the idea of the installation of Christ as Lord of the world and history that determines the Christology of Revelation. (p. 522)

Differences in Ecclesiology

Already in the messages to the seven churches the dominance of ecclesiology is signaled (ἐκκλησία [church] in Revelation 15x in chapters 2-3). The seer John struggles against an accommodation of the church to the political ideology of his time. For him the key issue is the right relationship between church and society, which finds its expression in the vision of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21). These determinative universal components are lacking in the Fourth Gospel and in the Johannine letters. There state and society come into view only in rudimentary ways or not at all. (pp. 522-23)

Differences in Eschatology

Little needs to be said here. One of the first differences that confronts most readers is that Revelation is about the future, the coming judgment upon the world where a new city and new age will be established. The Gospel of John, of course, appears to be straining to argue against an apocalyptic Jesus with its emphasis on Jesus having already come and having brought salvation to all those who receive him.

He which testifieth these things

For such reasons I believe most critical scholars are unable to accept common authorship of Revelation and the Fourth Gospel.

It is beyond the scope of this post to examine the character of Revelation itself, so let’s just mention in passing that some scholars see evidence in this work that it originated as a Jewish (non-Christian) writing that was redacted for Christian purposes. J. Frey is one scholar who has suggested that the name of John in this work is itself part of this later redactional effort (Frey, Jõrg. ‘Erwägungen zum Verhaltinis der Johannesapokalypse zu den übrigen Schriften des Corpus Johanneum,’ in Die johanneische Frage, ed. Martin Hengel, WUNT, 67. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1993 326-429.)

Some have suggested that there were two independent Johannine schools (Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. ‘The Quest for the Johannine School: The Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel,’ NTS 23 (1977) 410-418)

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “The Mysterious John of Revelation”

  1. Thank you very much for that explanation. There is certainly much to look into regarding the authorship of the books traditionally attributed to John. And I am no fan of any opinion from Eusebius now, generally speaking. So whatever he may have offered on the topic of the authorship of Revelation we may need to take with two grains of salt instead of one, is my feeling now, though he apparently had certain gifts that quite a few must have liked during his time.

    My impression so far follows what you laid out on the continuing themes or threads through the Gospel of John, John’s epistles, and Revelation, even though as you indicated, different people may have written Revelation and John while drawing from a similar theological milieu. And I have found at least one more theme running through those, which is a particularly important one to me anyway, which I see as critical to what must have been ongoing early Christian debate—John’s emphasis with regard to following the commandments of God [to which I would ask John were he here: Which ones? Meanwhile I do not think he was a Judaizer]… comparing that emphasis by John of obeying God’s commands as evidence of people being real Christians to what I have for many years called (and many years going way back to when I was a Christian) Paul’s idiom about salvation being not of “works,” which Paul himself contradicts in Romans 2:6-8… which, by the way, no other New Testament author ever reinforces [which theological problem, by the way, contributes a bit to a thoughtful Christian deconverting]. Moreover, I have a a bad habit of starting sentences with and a little too often as well, much like the author of Revelation (which is overused in the Seventy Weeks Prophecy also), which seemingly bad habit I think I can explain, however, since being very pragmatic is my nature [my not being as aesthetic, which contributes to my constant use of parentheses and brackets], writing to me is an attempt to get a certain job done which very often includes continually pointing readers back to what they have just read while proceeding, in a hope that they will keep the line of thought going in the way I do when writing it down. So I’m fairly sympathetic to Bible authors who had that habit even though it’s not considered proper and certainly isn’t like Shakespeare.

    Regarding a mixture of tenses, I sympathize with that too, since the subject matter of Revelation is far more ambitious than the Gospel of John, in my opinion. To see what the book’s author was hoping to accomplish, one must go back into the Jewish prophets concerning things like “candlesticks” (in Zechariah), the destruction of Babylon (in Isaiah and Jeremiah), also a bit elusively to the “seven churches” which the author of Revelation was, in my opinion, trying to show how Isaiah 4:1 was an allusion to seven churches instead of what it indicated at face value—polygamy—with mention of the seven churches used in Revelation to solve an embarrassing problem for the Christian movement: that the Messiah might need to be or have been a polygamist who would take seven wives. Babylon’s destruction problem I see as very similar since that didn’t come off as predicted by those two “authoritative” books for the Christian faith—again, Isaiah and Jeremiah—which must have been seen as a big problem in the view of some Christian leaders since Jesus was supposedly authorized to be their Messiah by coming according to those very same scriptures [check this example of a huge theme throughout the New Testament, Acts 26:22, about the importance of fulfilled prophecy to the movement]… which scriptures, however, had non-believing Jews who were meanwhile maintaining Isaiah and Jeremiah in their extant first-century forms which prevented Christians from fudging those to remove those type of underlying problems to their religious enterprise.

    Anyway, I see Revelation as a very ad hoc patch-up job for proto-orthodox Christian theology and think using those mix of tenses, as referred to above, was seen as theologically implied by the present, past, and future running together in Christian theology, in view of its important predestination tenet that says everything was “finished” before “the foundation of the world” (Hebrews 4:3b), which Christian ideas would allow wholesale mixing of tenses. I think it’s the nature of what Revelation was trying to accomplish for the Christian faith, which is so ambitious, leads to it being given such underrated status. But don’t get me wrong: I consider it nothing but deception, while the person who wrote it I see as having been a very Machiavellian human being, or else stuck to pursuing this by one decision he made that he could not reverse for the rest of his life—someone who also knew a great number of those crazy Jewish prophecies quite well… which may not have been John but someone helping him on his old age perhaps. I have been wondering if he could have been 79 or 80 when that book was produced.

    1. Hi Doug,

      As for the mix of tenses indicating a running together of present, past and future — I have since added a link to those instances in Revelation where the tenses are mixed, and one can see that it really is a grammatical quirk and not about past-present-future coming together in some theological sense.

      You are probably aware of the suggestions that Revelation takes a swipe at Paul’s views in the letters to the seven churches. On the other hand, Paul-Louis Couchoud addressed the other side of the conflict by noting how Paul’s writings take a swipe at the Christology found in Revelation: The Christ of John’s Revelation — Nemesis of Paul’s crucified Christ.

      And on top of all this, there are new ideas (new for me) I want to follow up about the paraclete (comforter) in the Gospel of John being interpreted as Paul among early Christians: see the FRDB discussion (between Huller, Doherty and Parvus) on pages 4 and 5 of the thread About Doherty’s Sacrifice in Heaven.

  2. Revelation is one of those books where one would have to already know the interpretation in order to interpret it. Jerusalem has been destroyed and the kingdom of Israel is no longer the kingdom of God – now, the kingdom of God belongs to the Christian Church. That’s its message and all the rest of the gobblety goop is made to mystify the reader,.

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