Chapter 15: The Book of Revelation
The most enigmatic book in the New Testament is the book of Revelation, which consists of (1) a brief preface about the revelation which Jesus Christ gave through his angel to John, (2) letters to seven churches in Asia Minor describing aspects of a preliminary vision, (3) the revelation proper, and (4) an epilogue. This book had a tremendous influence on later Christian art and on the minds of Christians who were concerned with details about the future. To theologians, especially in the East, it was often embarrassing, especially since non-theologians tended to find chronology in it rather than symbolism. At an early date it was a favourite of those who expected the imminent coming of God’s reign on earth; Papias (early second century) made use of it and supplied other traditions about future miraculous fertility from what (he said) had come from John the Lord’s disciple. This point means that soon after the book was written it was ascribed to an apostolic Christian named John — presumably John the son of Zebedee. Such a view was accepted by Justin and Irenaeus in the later second century, although in the third century Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, attempted to minimize the authority of the book by proving that since John son of Zebedee wrote the gospel ascribed to him, he cannot have written the book of Revelation, since the two writings employ different ideas, styles and vocabularies. His point seems to be well taken. The two books were not written by the same author. But from a perspective perhaps more historical than that of Dionysius we should incline to say that if either book is to be ascribed to the son of Zebedee it is the book of Revelation.
Sometimes it has been claimed that the son of Zebedee cannot have written it, because (1) Irenaeus tells us that the vision was seen towards the end of the reign of Domitian (Ado. haer. 5, 30, 3; perhaps based on Papias) and (2) a late writer quotes Papias as having said that the sons of Zebedee were put to death by Jews. Since, however, we have no means of telling whether or not John was put to death at the same time as his brother James (Acts 12:4), it cannot be proved that John did not live on until the last decade of the first century. We may suspect that he did not write a book, but suspicions of this sort are not easily confirmed; moreover, writing in antiquity as in modern times often involved the practice of dictating.
We should therefore conclude that the book was written or dictated by an early and significant John, perhaps the son of Zebedee.
It is not, however, absolutely certain that it was written in the reign of Domitian. Perhaps we should know more about the date if we could understand the mystery concealed in the number assigned the ‘beast’ in Revelation 13:18, the number 666 or, in some manuscripts, 616. This number evidently is based on the practice known as gematria, treating the letters in a word or phrase as numbers and then adding them up. On a wall at Pompeii someone scribbled, ‘I love her whose number is 45’ — but we shall never know who she was. Thus various explanations of the numbers in Revelation have been given. Irenaeus suggested ‘teitan’ (Titan) or ‘lateinos’ (Latin), which in Greek add up to 666. Later guesses have included (1) in Hebrew, ‘gsqlgs qsr’ (Gaius Caligula Caesar) for 616 and ‘nron qsr’ (Neron Caesar) for 666, or (2) in Greek, ‘Gaios Kaisar’ for 616 and ‘A KAI AOMET XEB FE’ (abbreviations sometimes employed for the emperor Domitian’s name and titles) for 666. Of these the most satisfactory seem to be the ones which refer to Caligula or Nero. But if any weight be assigned to such guesses, the book of Revelation, or at least that part of it in which the number occurs, must go back to a time well before Domitian.
It may be that a reference to the ten diadems on the seven heads of the beast (13:1) is related to the number of emperors; by including Galba, Otho, and Vitellius we find Titus, Domitian’s predecessor, to be the tenth. On the other hand, we elsewhere read (17:10-11) that five kings have fallen (Augustus-Nero), one is (Galba), another has not yet come (Vitellius). In addition (?), ten kings have not yet received the kingdom (17:12). There may also be a reference to the idea that Nero was not actually slain (13:3). All we can say is that a situation between 68 and 70 is not excluded.
Revelation contains 9,830 words, with a vocabulary of 913 words; of these, slightly more than a hundred are found nowhere else in the New Testament. Among the author’s favourites are such words as the following (listed in Greek alphabetical order):
angel, open, number, lamb, star, book, thunder, dragon (snake), seven, animal, beast, throne, horse, smoke, white, great, repent, temple, conquer, like, wear (clothing), blow (‘plague’), gate, fire, blow (trumpet), mouth, seal, four, third, vial, voice, thousand, and gold — all of them characteristic of apocalyptic-symbolic writing. He is also fond of stereotyped expressions such as ‘a great voice’ (twenty times), ‘the kings of the earth’ (ten times), the Lord God, the Almighty’ (nine times), the adjective ‘true’ (‘alethinos’) with ‘faithful’, ‘holy’, or ‘righteous’ (nine times), ‘tribe and language and people and nation’ (six times; cf. Dan. 3:4), ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ (six times), ‘wine of wrath’ or ‘fierce wine’ (five times; cf. Jer. 25:15), and ‘the small and the great’ (plural, five times).
John’s grammar is quite strange. He sometimes uses singular verbs with plural subjects, apparently because he views the subjects as units (8:7, 9:12). At one point he uses an adjective in the nominative case to modify a noun in the dative (1:15); at another, a nominative singular noun (with a collective meaning) is followed by a nominative plural participle, then by one in the accusative plural (7:9. Another feature which can be reproduced in English is the odd doubling of words with approximately the same meaning. (1) ‘Behold, I gave before you an opened door, which no one can close it’ (3:8). (2) ‘And the woman fled to the desert, where she has a place there, prepared by God’ (12:6).
It has sometimes been argued that these phenomena are due to translation from Hebrew into Greek. The Greek of Revelation contains many grammatical constructions which are normal in Hebrew but — to say the least — unusual in Greek. Ordinarily in Greek, nouns in apposition with other nouns agree with them in case (if accusative, accusative, etc.); not so in Revelation (1:5, 2:13; six other examples). When one writes, ‘Grace and peace to you,’ one does not continue, ‘from he who is and was and is to come’ (1:4). Furthermore, there are words which as they stand are practically unintelligible in Greek or to a Greek. ‘These things says the Amen’ (3:14); ‘the “accusing” of our brethren was cast down’ (12:10); ‘the place called, in Hebrew, Harmagedon’ (16:16). ‘Abaddon’, which means ‘destruction’, is explained as meaning ‘the destroyer’ (9:11). What do such passages show?
It is not altogether clear that they show that Revelation was translated from Hebrew into Greek. The expression ‘the God Amen’ is found in Symmachus’s Greek version of Isaiah 65:16; someone like John, then, could have believed that it was adequate Greek among Greek-speaking Jews. ‘Abaddon’ is used of Sheol or the abyss in several Old Testament passages, and if personified (as sometimes in the New Testament) could be translated as ‘the destroyer’. ‘Harmagedon’ is explicitly described as ‘Hebrew’, and it is an attempt to transliterate the Hebrew of Zechariah 12:11. As for ‘the accusing’ (a Greek word used in Hebrew by the rabbis), it points not to a work written in Hebrew but to a Greek work written by someone whose native tongue was probably, indeed almost certainly, Semitic.
We should conclude that as in other New Testament books any evidence which can be adduced to prove that they were written in Hebrew or Aramaic points just as clearly to their having been composed by someone who was imperfectly bilingual. If it be argued that certain passages contain mistranslations of hypothetical Semitic documents which are more comprehensible than the text we possess, it must be answered that we do not know that such documents existed and that exegesis of non-existent documents is hardly the task of the New Testament scholar.
John’s style is characterized by pleonasm (unnecessary fullness of expression) both in smaller and in larger units of the book, and by asyndeton (lack of clear connection) in similar fashion. There are also abrupt changes and, indeed, contradictions within the book.
1:10-4:1 John is in the Spirit; 4:2 he is in the Spirit (again);
3:12 there is a temple in heaven; 21:22 there is no temple;
8:7 all the grass is burned; 9:4 the grass is not to be harmed; 16:1 angels are to pour vials on the earth; 16:8 one does so on the sun; 16:17 another does so on the air;
17:3 a woman is sitting on a scarlet beast; 17:15 on waters;
At the same time, he (1) carefully introduces sections which are to come in his book; Revelation 1:12-20 prepares the reader for the letters to the churches already mentioned in 1:11; chapters 4 and 5 lead up to chapter 6; and (2) on the other hand, introduces various matters without explaining them until later (the ‘morning star’ of 2:28 is not explained until 22:16; the ‘seven thunders’ of 10:3 are never explained).
All these features are characteristic of the writing of books of revelation and do not require explaining by means of theories of various sources or even of various documents. Above all, like other apocalyptists, John uses symbols throughout his book and is especially fond of the hidden significance of numbers. The most striking example of a hidden meaning is provided by the beast-worship of Revelation 13:8, to which the following verse refers with the words, ‘Whoever has an ear, let him hear.’ The beast, as we have seen, is given a secret number in Revelation 13:18.
Revelation begins with a brief statement about the nature of the book: it is a revelation given by God to Christ and indicated by an angel to God’s servant John; and it concerns what is to take place in the near future (1:1-3). Next come letters dictated by Christ to John for seven churches in Asia Minor, beginning with Ephesus and proceeding north through Smyrna to Pergamum, thence south-east to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:4-3:22). They are constructed on a general pattern as follows:
These things says he who . . .
I know your works . . .
But I have this against you . . .
Repent . . .
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit
says to the churches.
To him who overcomes, to him will I give. . . .
The principal part of the book begins with a statement of what must take place hereafter — a prophetic vision of perpetual worship at the throne of God (4). Then John sees, in God’s right hand, a book sealed with seven seals; the opening of the seals, and the consequent events, are described in 5:1-8:5 (chapter 7 deals with another sealing, that of 144,000 men out of the twelve tribes of Israel). After the last seal is opened, there is half an hour’s silence, followed by the sounding of seven trumpets by seven angels (8:6 -11:19 chapter 10 is largely concerned with a ‘little book’ which an angel gives John to eat). The seventh trumpet sounds; then comes war in heaven (12-14; chapter 13 is devoted largely to the beast opposed to God). The war leads to the action of seven angels who pour out seven bowls of the wrath of God (15-16) and to the final destruction of ‘Babylon’, presumably Rome (17-18). The destruction of this city immediately precedes the final triumph of God (19:1-22:5), beginning with a thousand years’ reign of Christ and his true followers (20:1-6), continuing with a brief rebellion by Satan (20:7- 10), and concluding with the creation of a new heaven and earth and the descent of the new Jerusalem to be the bride of the Lamb. The book ends with an epilogue (22:6-21).
One of the most important features of the book, apart from the picture of the End which dominates it, is the author’s use of hymn-like materials at various points. These hymn-like materials are presumably either identical with or based upon hymns actually used in the Christian worship of his time. Some of them are antiphonal (7:10, 12; 11:15, 17); others build up to powerful climaxes (4:8, 11; 5:9, 12, 13, 9:1-2, 5, 6 – 8). One is sung by a great voice in heaven (12:10-12). At one point those who have overcome the beast stand by a sea of glass and ‘sing the song of Moses the servant of God (Deut. 32) and the song of the Lamb’ (15:3-4). The content, and to a considerable extent the form, of these materials resembles the later Anaphora or eucharistic prayer of the Church, and the passages explicitly addressed to the Lamb have reminded scholars that Pliny the Younger, in his letter about the Christians, says that they were accustomed to address a hymn (carmen) to Christ. It is no accident that many of these passages were set to music by Handel and Brahms. They inspire such treatment.