So who did write Revelation? Can we even answer that?
Thankfully, yes, to a great degree, just from what is contained within the book itself.
I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.Revelation 1:9 (NRSV)
Already, we have been given a great deal of information.
- The writer was a man named John.
- He was a brother in Christ.
- He had experienced the same persecution the believers he was writing to experienced.
- He had been now exiled to the Island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, most likely because of something associated with his expression of faith in the Lord Jesus.
At the very beginning of the book, where the salutation and credentials of the writer would usually be found, we find out even more, as the author wrote,
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.Revelation 1:1-2 (NRSV)
When compared to the language of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, these phrases mark John as a recognized prophet delivering the very words of God to his audience. We also know John made the claim Revelation is written as prophecy, so we may add the title “prophet” to John.
We can surmise, then, that John was confident the churches he wrote to would receive his letter as prophecy, as scripture, as the very words of God, in the same way Paul commended the assembly in Thessalonica,
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.1 Thessalonians 2:13 (NRSV)
Scholars who specialize in the archaic languages of the ancient near east recognize the style of Greek the Book of Revelation is written in. It has the distinctive characteristics of someone whose native language was Aramaic. It is safe to surmise, then, that the author was either Judean or at least of Jewish descent.
Still, many scholars today think it unlikely that the Apostle or even someone named John the Presbyter authored the Book of Revelation. Instead, they only acknowledge this ancient writing is attributed to someone who wrote Greek in the manner of a native Aramaic speaker, so therefore a Jewish Christian, and one who wrote confidently as an accepted prophet to their audience.
However, Christian commentators from antiquity were far more certain.
John the Elder or John the Apostle
The early church debated who this Prophet John might be. Was he truly the Apostle, one of the Twelve?
No, John the Apostle did not write Revelation
Dionysius of Alexandria (died 264 C.E.) noted there were two tombs in Ephesus attributed to people named “John,” and felt certain the other John must have been the writer of Revelation, according to Eusebius (c. 260-339 C.E.) in his Ecclesiastical History, 7:24.1-2.
Both Dionysius and Eusebius objected to the idea that the Apostle John, with all the authority of one who had been discipled by the Lord Jesus Christ, would be associated with the Revelation’s teaching on the millennium.
Did that catch you by surprise?
Did you think that was only a modern-day dispute?
Eusebius added to his argument against John the Apostle as author of the Book of Revelation by quoting Papias (c. 60-130 C.E.), a disciple of John the Apostle.
(4) If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders–what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.”
(5) It is worth while observing here that the name John is twice enumerated by him. The first one he mentions in connection with Peter and James and Matthew and the rest of the apostles, clearly meaning the evangelist; but the other John he mentions after an interval, and places him among others outside of the number of the apostles, putting Aristion before him, and he distinctly calls him a presbyter.
(6) This shows that the statement of those is true, who say that there were two persons in Asia that bore the same name, and that there were two tombs in Ephesus, each of which, even to the present day, is called John’s. It is important to notice this. For 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.Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.4-6
You and I can decide ourselves, after reading Papias’ words, whether Eusebius is correct in his analysis. Was Papias’ simply interchanging the title of “elder” or “presbyter” (they’re the same word, one in English, and one a transliteration of the Greek word), with the role of disciple, or was he meaning to communicate there were two different men named “John”?
There was another side to the conversation, of course.
Yes, John the Apostle wrote Revelation
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 C.E.) claimed first-hand knowledge, saying he had himself heard John the Apostle preach on Revelation.
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.Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho (81.4), written around 135 C.E.,
Irenaeus, (c. 130-202 C.E.) in his Against Heresies 4.20.11, included a number of quotes from the Book of Revelation, then asserted John the Apostle had written them in his Apocalypse. Irenaeus had evidently spent time in Smyrna as a young man, with Polycarp, a disciple of John. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.20.6; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4)
Notice how close both of these writers are to the time Revelation would have been written.
And added to their number were several more highly respected scholars:
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 C.E.)
- Tertullian (c. 155-220 C.E.)
- Hippolytus (c. 170-235 C.E.)
- Origen (c. 185-253 C.E.)
- The Muratorian Canon, a seventh century Latin translation of a Greek manuscript dating to perhaps as early as 170 C.E.
The Debate Continues
The debate continues to this day, particularly since second and third John are signed “The Elder.” Some scholars contend that the Gospel of John and the letters of John were actually written by John the Presbyter and attributed to John the Apostle. The Elder, in this theory, would have been a close friend and student of the Apostle, and would have had access not only to all his notes, but also his teaching.
Others contend (and I lean in this direction) that the Elder and the Apostle are the same person. (Though I believe the Gospel of John, whose authorship is also similarly disputed, that we have today is a republished version with John’s later teaching inserted within it, and an appendix that explains his death.)