Revelation, Book of
REVELATION, BOOK OF
The Book of Revelation, generally placed last in the New Testament canon, is known in many Catholic Bibles as the Book of the Apocalypse, which in Greek means "revelation." This article treats the book's authorship and canonicity, occasion, date of composition, contents, unity, the character of the visions, and methods of interpretation, but first it addresses the question of the Book's literary genre.
Apocalyptic Genre. One of the most debated points has been the literary genre of Revelation. It has traditionally been assumed that Revelation belongs to the genre of Apocalyptic works. It exhibits many characteristics of this genre: mythological influences, dualism, the role of angels and Satan, a rich symbolic matrix and an emphasis on the eschaton.
In spite of these similarities, Revelation lacks one of the most critical elements of apocalyptic works: pseudonymity. Apocalyptic works are normally attributed to famous individuals of antiquity. To explain the time lag between when they were supposedly written and when they appeared, the author posits a sealing up of the book until the author's day (Dn 12.9). The author of Revelation, however, openly calls himself John and never speaks of a sealing (in fact, the opposite in Rv 22.10). The suggestion that the author might be attributing the book to John, the apostle, is discounted by some (A. Yarbro Collins) who argue that the author never gives identifying information such as genealogies (as in 2 Ezr 1.1–3) or historical references to the apostle John's life (as is done with Paul's role in the pastoral epistles). These arguments, although impressive, are not entirely conclusive. The reference to Patmos in Rv 1.9, for example, might be a reference to a contemporary tradition in the early Church concerning John. Furthermore, the book expresses a certain urgency because the events described are already in process. The fact that the revelation was not sealed might be due to the urgency of proclaiming it in light of the impending eschaton.
Many of those who argue that the book is not apocalyptic suggest that it belongs to a prophetic genre (Aune, Hill, Schüssler-Fiorenza). The author describes his work as a prophecy (1.3; 22.7, 10, 18, 19), and in this prophetic role he affirms and corrects the seven churches of Asia Minor (2–3). He contrasts his true prophetic status to that of the false prophets Jezebel and Balaam. Finally, the seven angels of the seven churches could be local prophets who were to communicate and interpret the message to their communities.
The question remains, however, whether the author of Revelation wanted to make a distinction between the apocalyptic and prophetic genres. He shows tendencies of both, as well as influences from Wisdom literature (Vanni) and Greek drama (Blevins). He is similarly eclectic with his theology. In addition to the traditional attribution of the book to Johannine theology, Schüssler-Fiorenza has documented considerable Pauline influences. Thus, while accepting elements from the various genres and theologies, the author seems to have been producing his own original synthesis which defies easy classification.
Authorship and Canonicity. When giving his name as John (1.1, 4, 9. 22.8) the author identifies himself as
a Christian prophet (22.6, 9; see also 1.3; 10.11). An early tradition equates him with John the Apostle: the Gnostic Apocryphon of John (c. a.d. 150 or earlier), Justin Martyr (c. 160), Irenaeus (c. 175), the muratorian canon (c. 200), Tertullian (c. 200), and Clement of Alexandria (c. 200). Despite this persistent tradition, nowhere does the author claim the identification john the apostle. About this time the alogoi, led by the Roman priest Caius, in reaction to the abuse of Apocalypse by the Montanists, ascribed both the Gospel according to St. John and Revelation to the heretic Cerinthus and denied their canonicity. Though St. dionysius of alexandria (d. 264) considered Revelation an inspired writing, he questioned its apostolic authorship because of literary and theological considerations similar to those that prompt most modern scholars to posit different authors for the Fourth Gospel and Revelation. Dionysius' arguments are reproduced by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 7:25; Sources Chrétiennes 41:204–210), who also credits John the Presbyter with the writing of Revelation (ibid., 3.39.5; Sources Chrétiennes 31:154–155). Between a.d. 300 and 450 a number of the Fathers of the Church in the East, especially of the Antiochian School, excluded Revelation from the Canon. During the same period, however, it was accepted in the West and in the East by Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and others, all of whom assumed apostolic authorship of the book. In final analysis it seems hardly probable that both the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation were authored by the same person.
Occasion. Like other apocalyptic literature, John's was occasioned by a religious crisis. He wrote to encourage Christians, in the first instance those of Asia Minor, to be steadfast even to martyrdom in the face of the social, economic, and legal pressures that made it increasingly difficult to avoid taking part in pagan religious practices, especially emperor worship. Many had become disheartened and disillusioned because the glorious return of Christ, His parousia, which they had been eagerly expecting, seemed to recede farther and farther from the horizon of their hope.
John himself had been exiled to the penal island of Patmos for having borne witness to the word of God (Rv1.9–10), probably for preaching Christianity and refusing to participate in the state religion. Intensely worried over the fate of the churches (5.4), he was caught up in rapture on a certain Sunday and received supernatural assurances from the glorified Jesus, whom he saw; these he was commanded to write on a scroll and send to seven important churches of Asia Minor (1.10–20). The visions and auditions granted him reminded the Christians that Jesus is Lord of all history, both as Son of God and as Redeemer; He is as truly present in the churches even now, though invisibly, as He will be in His Parousia, which is certain to come. The trials that Jesus' followers are suffering have been foreseen and foreordained; many more will be called to suffer martyrdom before the end. Pagan Rome, however, is doomed to destruction, and a glorious future of unending happiness awaits all those who suffer with patient endurance.
Date of Composition. Most commentators, ancient and modern, think that the Book of Revelation received its present form in the last years of the reign of Domitian (81–96). Internal evidence can be adduced that confirms this external consensus. Some scholars, however, believe that the historical background of Revelation was the reign of either Nero [54–68; the cryptograph 666 in Rv 13.18 is probably the name Nero by gematria; see numerology (in the bible)] or Vespasian (69–79). The simplest explanation of the enigmatic statement in 17.9 that "five [emperors] have fallen" indicates the reign of Vespasian.
A combination of both views is proposed by several authors: either the present Revelation resulted from the fusion of two earlier apocalypses (see below), or John resorted to the popular apocalyptic device of antedating his work, i.e., though writing under Domitian he adopted the standpoint of the time of Nero or Vespasian.
Contents. The introduction (1.1–20) includes a superscription (1.1–3); an epistolary introduction (1.4–6), like those of the Pauline Epistles; a solemn assurance of the Parousia (1.7–8); and the historical occasion of the work; the first prophetic investiture of John (1.9–20). The body of the book contains two main sections of unequal length: (1) the letters to the seven churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (ch. 2–3); and, (2) the main section that recounts a number of visions that are sometime referred to as "the apocalypse of the future" (ch. 4–22). An epilogue (22.6–21) confirms in Christ's words what has been previously promised.
The Seven Letters. The letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor provide an opportunity for the author to address specific problems in these communities. They are a type of examination of conscience conducted by Jesus. Ephesus is commended for its faithfulness and scolded for its lack of charity, possibly referring to an over zealous attempt to preserve orthodoxy which has led to judgmentalism and division. Smyrna and Philadelphia are encouraged to remain faithful in the face of persecution organized by the Jews. Sardis and Laodicea are warned that they must give clear witness to the truth and not allow themselves to be complacent. The Christians of Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira are warned about those with Gnostic tendencies who visit or reside in their communities.
The call in all seven of these letters is to faithful endurance. It is a theme which forms the core of the message of Revelation: trust in God and be faithful to him until the end.
The Church and Judaism. The visions of the main section are partly parallel and fall into two clearly defined sections: the Church and Judaism (ch. 4–11 ), and the Church and the antichrists. The preparatory vision in heaven (ch. 4–5) serves as a second prophetic investiture for the revelation of God's interventions from the Resurrection of Christ to the fall of Jerusalem, including the rejection of the Jews and assurance of their ultimate conversion. Transported to the heavenly temple, John sees in God's hand a seven-sealed scroll, containing the divine decrees that govern all history. Only Christ as Redeemer can open and disclose the contents of the scroll. As the first four seals are successively broken (ch. 6), four horsemen appear—white [representing either the victory of the Gospel (cf. Mk 13.10) or imperialism], red (war), black (famine), and pale green (pestilence and death); the scene is like that in Jesus' apocalyptic discourse (Mk 13.5–8 and parallels, especially Lk 21.8–11). The opening of the fifth seal discloses the martyrs praying for a hastening of divine judgment and vengeance upon their persecutors, while the sixth introduces upheavals in nature, described in current apocalyptic clichés. An intermediate vision (ch. 7) shows how the elect, both Jewish and Gentile Christians, are preserved from the punitive aspect of the plagues.
The seventh seal, silence in heaven (8.1), ushers in the seven apocalyptic trumpets, introduced by a vision that depicts them as the answer to the prayers of Christians (8.2–6). The first four trumpets (8.7–12) herald calamities reminiscent of the plagues of egypt, though it is futile to ask what specific realities the seer had in mind. An eagle (8.13) warns that the last three trumpet blasts are to be special woes. The fifth shows a huge infernal invasion, while the sixth summons a vast demonic horde from the Euphrates to destroy a third of mankind (9.1–20). S. Giet here finds apocalyptic allusion to different phases of the Jewish War of a.d. 66–70.
A second intermediate vision (10.1–11) prepares for the universal character of the revelations to follow and includes a third prophetic investiture of John, that to the Gentiles, symbolized by the eating of a small scroll (10.8–11). This vision, however, anticipates (as frequently in Revelation), since John has not yet finished his predictions regarding Judaism.
The measuring of the Temple and the preaching, death, and resurrection of the two witnesses (11.1–14) depict parabolically the temporary rejection of the Jews, the witness of the Church through "Moses and the Prophets" to Christ in the face of Jewish opposition to Him, and the final conversion of the remnant of israel, referred to also in Rom 9–11, especially 11.25–29. The seventh trumpet depicts the culmination of the covenant in the opening of heaven (11.15–19).
The Church and the Antichrists (ch. 12–19).
Seven "signs" seen by John portray various aspects of the conflict between the Church and anti-God forces, as incarnate initially in pagan, emperor-worshiping Rome. The Church is presented as the woman clothed with the sun, who gives birth to the Messiah, whom the great red dragon, Satan (cf. Gn 3.15), tries in vain to destroy; the Church is driven underground (12.1–6). The heavenly counterpart of this battle shows Michael casting Satan to earth (12.7–12), where he pursues the woman, divinely protected in the desert (12.13–18). Satan calls up two lieutenants: the "beast from the sea," the political antichrist, the Roman Empire with its emperor worship (13.1–10); and the "beast of the earth," the philosophical and theological antichrist (13.11–18).
As in 7.1–17, an intermediate vision portrays the heavenly security of the faithful with the Lamb (Christ) on Mount Sion (14.1–5). Three angels successively warn all mankind to fear God, predict the fall of Babylon-Rome, and threaten eternal damnation (14.6–11). A heavenly voice proclaims that the faithful who have died even now enjoy their reward (14.12–13). An anticipatory vision shows the Last Judgment, the reprobation of the wicked, and the ingathering of the elect (14.14–20).
After a brief introductory scene (15.1–8), the final septenary of plagues is hurriedly described as the outpouring of the wrath of God from seven bowls. The effects that follow remind the reader, though in heightened form, of the Egyptian plagues and the first four trumpets (16.1–12). Probably they create a dramatic effect rather than specify concrete happenings of the future. Between the sixth and seventh bowls three frog-like evil spirits summon the kings of the earth for the great final battle with the forces of God (16.14–16). After the last bowl, Babylon-Rome falls amid great upheavals in nature (16.17–21).
Once more the fall of Babylon is depicted, now under the image of the great harlot who leads the world astray and persecutes the Christians (17.1–18). Her destruction is dwelt upon with relish (18.1–24) and hailed by heavenly songs of triumph (19.1–10). Seated upon a white horse, Christ appears, His garments red with His own blood, or, according to many interpreters, with the blood of His enemies (19.11–16). Again the destruction of the beasts is proclaimed (19.17–21).
Next Satan is chained, the millennium (see mille narianism) is rapidly mentioned, and Satan is unloosed but summarily defeated along with his followers and cast into hell after the judgment (20.1–15).
The Consummation (21.1–22.5). The new heaven and the new earth (21.1–8) and the heavenly Jerusalem, of which God and the Lamb are temple and sun, with the river and tree of life, are the figures used to disclose final glory, which the elect enjoy for all eternity.
Unity. The inconsistencies and repetitions in the Book of Revelation have often raised the question: Is this a single composition or a conflation of more than one writing? Impressed by the uniformity of style and vocabulary and the closely knit character of the work, most scholars judge that Revelation is the work of one author. M. E. Boismard has revived and modified the opinion of R. Charles that both divergences and unity of style can be accounted for by distinguishing two apocalypses, both written by the same disciple of John the Apostle. Boismard dates what he calls Text 1 from a time toward the end of Vespasian's reign; Text 2, the reign of Nero; the letters of ch. 2–3, that of Domitian. The fusion of the three parts was made by another writer, who slightly retouched his sources [M. E. Boismard, "L'Apocalypse ou les Apocalypses de saint Jean?" Revue biblique 56 (1949) 507–541].
Character of the Visions and Literary Form. Do the visions of Revelation purport to be a precise description of what John actually saw and heard? Or are they merely a literary device, as in the case of the noncanonical apocalyptic writings and probably also of the Book of daniel? The first alternative must be ruled out because of the inconsistencies and contradictions, the improbable images that this would involve. The second alternative, while it would not militate against the admittedly inspired nature of the book, yet fails to account for the realism of the descriptions and the impression conveyed that the writer seriously intended to report a supernatural mystical experience.
Accordingly, many students of Revelation today hold that John actually had a supernatural vision (or visions) with accompanying revelations from Christ that he was told to write down. When he carried out this order, he naturally resorted to the apocalyptic literary form, because it was the best-known vehicle, using symbols and imagery of every kind, to report as best he could experiences that defied the limitations of human speech.
One characteristic of the Book of Revelation that must be stressed is its use of the OT. It has been computed that in the 404 verses of Revelation, 518 OT citations and allusions are found, 88 of them from Daniel; 278 of the 404 verses are made up of reminiscences of Scripture, especially (besides Daniel) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Psalms, and Exodus. Revelation is, then, a rereading of the OT in the light of the Christian event. There is also good reason to surmise, with Origen, that the scroll that John saw (5.1–8) is the OT. Christ alone could open it because it finds in Him its ultimate meaning. The Christological reading of the Scriptures is, in the last analysis, the answer to the anguished questions and problems that faced the churches in John's day and in all times.
Methods of Interpretation. A. Feuillet has classified the systems of interpretation relevant to this study ("Les diverses méthodes d'interprétation de l'Apocalypse …," Ami du Clergé 71 [April 27, 1961] 257–270). The labels he attached to the five different systems summarized here indicate emphasis of each.
Recapitulation. This method goes back to victorinus of pettau (martyred under Diocletian); it was adopted by Tyconius, Augustine, and other commentators, medieval and modern. In its most developed form, that of E. B. Allo, it may be summarized thus: the septenaries of the seals (6.1–8.1) and the trumpets (8.2–9.21) describe the future of the world from the glorification of Christ to the Last Judgment, mentioned as early as 11.15–18, with emphasis upon world events. The section 12.1–21.8 covers the same period, but centering on the role of the Church. The millennium describes the same period from another viewpoint (20.1–15), and even the description of the heavenly Jerusalem (21.1–22.5), though it offers a transcendent image of the Church, takes in the Church both on earth and in heaven, under the regime of grace as well as of glory.
While there is much truth in this reading of Apocalypse, the evidence of chronological progression rules out the sweeping nature of Allo's parallelism. It seems true, nevertheless, that while alluding to specific events of his time and of the past and predicting the future to the end of the world, John has in mind some succession of events, which he sees, perhaps, less as individual facts than as "laws" that mark God's dealing with mankind and the Church through all ages.
World History. joachim of fiore (d. 1201) popularized the system that sees in the septenaries of Revelation seven periods in the history of the Church; Nicholas of Lyra (d. 1340) systematized this exegesis and gave it a stricter chronology. Again and again, in various forms, it has been proposed, even in modern times, especially in popularizations. Because it was based upon a misunderstanding of prophecy and of the apocalyptic genre, it has had to be revised and corrected whenever events belied previous conclusions drawn from it.
Eschatological. The originator of this interpretation was Francisco de ribera, whose commentary appeared in 1591; it has been called the beginning of scientific study of Revelation. Ribera held that only the first five seals refer to the primitive Church down to the reign of Trajan. The last seals and the rest of the book have to do with the end-time. Since then this system has been favored by many commentators, some of whom assume that John thought the Parousia near and did not reckon with the possibility of a long future for the Church.
Historicizing. To some extent this method is at opposite poles from the eschatological. Inaugurated by J. Henten in the middle of the 16th century, it holds that at least part of Revelation refers to contemporary or past events. Henten interpreted ch. 6–11 as referring to the abrogation of Judaism, ch. 12–19 as referring to the destruction of paganism. Modern proponents of this view differ in regard to the amount of contemporary or past material they find in Revelation.
Liturgical. John intended his work to be read in the liturgical service of the churches (1.3). Revelation is admittedly full of references and allusions both to the liturgy of the OT and to the Christian Eucharistic service. John receives his inaugural vision on a Sunday, possibly during the liturgical service. He is invited up to heaven (ch. 4), where a cosmic service of praise and adoration takes place that is reminiscent of OT inaugural visions (cf. Isaiah ch. 6, where the vision takes place in the Temple, and Ezekiel ch. 1–3) as well as the Christian service (the throne of the bishop surrounded by the 24 elders suggesting the sanctuary setting of the ancient Eucharistic service). The description of the heavenly Jerusalem (ch. 20–21) is also cast in liturgical forms. Again, the hymns scattered throughout Revelation are probably echoes of Christian hymns at the seer's time. That the structure of Revelation itself was modeled upon the early liturgy has been argued by M. H. Shepherd, The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse, Ecumenical Studies in Worship 6 (Richmond, Va. 1960).
See Also: apocalypse, iconography of; apocalyptic movements.
Bibliography: a. feuillet, L'Apocalypse: État de la question (Bruges 1963), introductory problems to date and thorough bibliog. e. b. allo, Saint Jean: L'Apocalypse (3rd ed., Paris 1933); Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 1:306–325. e. lohse, Die Offenbarung des Johannes (Das Neue Testament Deutsch 11; 8th ed. Göttingen 1960). s. giet, L'Apocalypse et l'histoire (Paris 1957). j. blevins, "The Genre of Revelation," Review and Expositor 77 (1980) 393–408. g. caird, A Commentary of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York 1966). d. hill, "Prophecy and Prophets in the Revelation of St. John," New Testament Studies 18 (1971–72) 401–418. j. lambrecht, ed., L'Apocalypse johannique et l'Apocalyptique dans le Nouveau Testament (Louvain 1980). r. mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1977). e. schÜssler-fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Philadelphia 1985). j. sweet, Revelation (Philadelphia 1979). u. vanni, "La Riflessione Sapienziale come atteggiamento ermenuetico costante nell'Apocalisse," Rivista Biblica Italia 24 (1976) 185–197; La Struttura letteraria dell'Apocalisse (Rome 1971). a. y. collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia 1984).
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