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Book of the Revelation
REVELATION, BOOK OF THE (Gr. apokalypsis, an unveiling). Sometimes called The Apocalypse. This is the last book of the Bible and the only book of the NT that is exclusively prophetic in character. It belongs to the class of apocalyptic literature in which the divine message is conveyed by visions and dreams. The title that the book itself assumes (
I. The Author. Unlike many apocalyptic books that are either anonymous or published under a false name, Revelation is ascribed to John, evidently a well-known person among the churches of Asia Minor. He identified himself as a brother of those who were suffering persecution (
The earliest definite historical reference to this Apocalypse appears in the works of a.d. 135), who, in alluding to the twentieth chapter, said that John, one of the apostles of Christ, prophesied that those who believed in Christ would dwell in Jerusalem a thousand years. Irenaeus (180) quoted Revelation five times and named John as the author. (c. 200) received the book as authentic Scripture, and the (c. 170) lists it as a part of the accepted canon by the end of the second century.(c.
Its relation to John, the son of Zebedee, was questioned by Dionysius of Alexandria (a.d. 231-265) on the grounds that the writer unhesitatingly declared his name, whereas the author of the Fourth Gospel did not do so, and that the vocabulary and style were utterly different from John’s Gospel and Letters. He admitted that the Apocalypse was undoubtedly written by a man called John, but not by the beloved disciple. Eusebius, who quotes Dionysius at length, mentions both in the quotation and in a discussion of his own that there were hints of two Johns in Ephesus, and intimates that one wrote the Gospel, and the other wrote Revelation. This view is not generally supported by the church fathers, nor does the internal evidence make it necessary. The second “John” is a shadowy figure and cannot be identified with any of the known disciples of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels. The so-called grammatical mistakes are chiefly unidiomatic translations of Hebrew or Aramaic expressions, which would be impossible to render literally into Greek. The very nature of the visions made smooth writing difficult, for the seer was attempting to describe the indescribable. There are some positive likenesses to the accepted writings of John, such as the application of the term “Word of God” to Christ (
II. Date and Place. There are two prevailing views regarding the date of the Apocalypse. The earlier date in the reign of Nero is favored by some because of the allusion to the temple in
A second view, better substantiated by the early interpreters of the book, places it in the reign of Domitian (a.d. 81-96), almost at the close of the first century. Irenaeus (c. 180), Victorinus (c. 270), Eusebius (c. 328), and Jerome (c. 370) all agree on this date. It allows time for the decline that is presupposed by the letters to the churches, and it fits better with the historical conditions of the depicted in the symbolism.
The place of writing was the island of Patmos, where John had been exiled for his faith. Patmos was the site of a penal colony, where political prisoners were condemned to hard labor in the mines.
III. Destination. Revelation was addressed to seven churches of the Roman province of Asia, which occupied the western third of what is now Turkey. The cities where these churches were located were on the main roads running north and south, so that a messenger carrying these letters could move in a direct circuit from one to the other. There were other churches in Asia at the time when Revelation was written, but these seven seem to have been selected because they were representative of various types of need and of Christian experience. They have been interpreted (1) as representing successive periods in the life of the church or (2) as seven aspects of the total character of the church. Undoubtedly they were actual historical groups known to the author.
IV. Occasion. Revelation was written for the express purpose of declaring “what must soon take place” (
V. Methods of Interpretation. There are four main schools of interpretation. The preterist holds that Revelation is simply a picture of the conditions prevalent in the Roman Empire in the late first century, cast in the form of vision and prophecy to conceal its meaning from hostile pagans. The historical view contends that the book represents in symbolic form the entire course of church history from the time of its writing to the final consummation, and that the mystical figures and actions described in it can be identified with human events in history. The futurist, on the basis of the threefold division given in
Structure and Content. Revelation contains four great visions, each of which is introduced by the phrase “in the Spirit” (
I. Introduction: The Return of Christ (1:1-8)
II. Christ, the Critic of the Churches (1:9-3:22)
III. Christ, the Controller of Destiny (4:1-16:21)
IV. Christ, the Conqueror of Evil (17:1-21:8)
V. Christ, the Consummator of Hope (21:9-22:5)
VI. Epilogue: Appeal and Invitation (22:6-21)
Bibliography: H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, 1906 (on the Greek text); G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (HNTC), 1966; I. T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, 1967 (1919) (on the Greek text); G. E. Ladd, A Commentary on the, 1972; G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation (NCB), 1974; R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (NIC), 1977.——MCT
REVELATION, BOOK OF THE (Gr. ̓Αποκάλυψις, an unveiling or a disclosure), frequently called The Apocalypse of John, is the last book of the NT. The is unique as the sole totally apocalyptic work in the NT. In its literary genre it resembles strongly the OT books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah; and, like them, is the product of a writer belonging to a minority group which was either threatened with persecution or actually suffering under it. Revelation belongs to the latter part of the 1st Christian cent. when the Christian Church had withdrawn from Judaism and was initially recognized as a separate movement by the Rom. state.
The milieu of Revelation seems to be largely the cities of the Ionian coast belonging to the Rom. province of Asia. There numerous cults flourished, all of which would have been hostile to the ethics and theology of the Christian Church. Its denunciation of their idolatry and its insistence on monotheism, together with the strict moral code which it advocated, would have created antagonism instantly. Its rapid growth jeopardized their economic prosperity, since it emptied the temples of their worshipers and so deprived the image-makers and vendors of sacrificial animals of their living. During this period also the emperors, particularly Nero (a.d. 54-68) and Domition (a.d. 81-96), had demanded a degree of popular adulation that was little short of worship. The Christians refused to accord that sort of homage to the emperors, and thus exposed themselves to the charge of being unpatriotic, if not actually subversive.
The pressures which these religious, social and political differences exerted on the Christian Church produced a definite reaction. In order to maintain their identity they were compelled to take a stand. The author of Revelation himself was apparently exiled for his faith, and it is no surprise that his writing reveals the hostility to the prevailing corruption of the Rom. state. Its character is stigmatized as a prostitute clothed in scarlet and purple, “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (
The severance of the church from Judaism prob. was completed after the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. By that time the church and synagogue had developed in two different directions. The doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law had driven a wedge between the advocates of orthodox Judaism and the community of Christian believers. The destruction of the Temple had broken whatever slight connection might have remained between the church and the center of the Jewish faith in which it had been cradled. The antagonism of the Judaizers to the church finally brought the accusation that they were “the synagogue of Satan” (
Within the church itself there were signs of declension which are reflected in the letters to the seven churches of Asia. Initial fervor had cooled, immoralities and heresies had infiltrated the ranks of teachers and communicants alike and an increasing laxity prevailed. Revelation represents an attempt to revive zeal by portraying the tensions of the time and by summoning its readers to a preparation for the return of Christ in judgment.
R. H. Charles, whose voluminous commentary deals with the composition of the Apocalypse in detail, proposed that this author “died when he had completed
The structure of the Apocalypse indicates the work of one mind rather than of several, and such apparent incongruities as Charles cites for evidence of “sources” (I, 1xxxixff.) may be explained at least partially by the circumstances of its production. The character of the visions and the exile of the author would account for minor digressions, repetitions, and lack of polish in the language. Furthermore, every writer uses “sources” to some degree in composing an extensive work, whether those “sources” are drawn from memory, from personal contacts or from documents. The unity consists in his original integration and interpretation of the material that he uses. If he weaves it into a new fabric of ideas, it can have a real unity; any connection with its former usage becomes a secondary consideration.
If the consecutive heptads of Revelation indicate anything, they imply a central organization emanating from one mind. The parentheses and apparent irregularities of construction can be attributed to the author’s exile, and to the character of the visions which he recorded.
Furthermore, the internal structure of Revelation argues for unity. The introduction of each of the letters to the seven churches contains an allusion to the initial portrait of Christ; the final promises to the overcomers anticipate the coming of the City of God. Throughout the narrative beginning with the fourth ch. the centrality of the throne of God is marked, so that it becomes the focus of all the visions. A definite progress appears in the development of the successive judgments, so that they may be regarded as a continuous sequence from the opening of the seals in
According to the statements of the author, his name was John. He professed to be a “servant (slave)” of
External tradition identifies him with John, the son of Zebedee to whom the gospel and epistles were likewise ascribed. a.d. 150) stated that the Apocalypse was written by “a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ” (Dialogue with Trypho, 81). Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, indicated by numerous copies of the Apocalypse that were already extant, but also upon the testimony of men who had seen John face to face (Against Heresies IV. xiv. 2; xvii. 6; xxi. 3; V. xvi. 1; xxviii. 2; xxx. 3; xxxiv. 6; xxxv. 2). Tertullian (c. a.d. 200) ascribed the Revelation to John (Against Praxeas XVII; On the Soul LV. viii. 1; Answer to the Jews IX; Against Marcion II. v; III. xiv, xxv; Against Heretics XXIII; Scorpiace XIII), and specifically identified John as the apostle. Origen (c. a.d. 225) also attributed the Apocalypse to John (see De Principiis I. iii. 10; Against Celsus VI. vi; xxxii; VIII. xvii). From the middle of the 2nd cent. to the middle of the 3rd cent. the Johannine origin of Revelation seems to have been generally accepted by the churches of the W, including Alexandria.(c.
Definite objections to the Johannine authorship were first raised by Dionysius of Alexandria, who contested the traditional opinion on the following grounds: (1) the Apocalypse claimed John as its author, whereas the Johannine gospel and epistles were written anonymously; (2) the vocabulary of the Apocalypse differed radically from the acknowledged Johannine writings; (3) the grammar of those writings was generally good Gr. whereas the Apocalypse abounded in solecisms.
Dionysius’ arguments were reproduced by Eusebius, who followed his lead in questioning the authority of the book (HE VII. xxiv, xxv). In essence they are identical with those advanced against the Johannine authorship of Revelation, nor are they necessarily conclusive. The statement that the gospel and epistles are anonymous while the Apocalypse names its author is not strictly correct. It is true that the gospel and the epistles do not name their author, but he was evidently well known to the readers, and was presumably one of the Twelve. He certainly claimed to be an eyewitness of Christ. The writer of the Apocalypse calls himself John, and claims that he bore “witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ” (
The so-called grammatical anomalies can be explained on the basis of the apocalyptic quality of the writing, or upon the attempt of the writer to render into Gr. Sem. idioms foreign to its structure. The well-known example, “from him who is, and who was, and who is to come,” involving the substantival use of a finite verb and the use of a preposition with a nominative case (
While the evidence for the Johannine authorship of Revelation may not be absolutely complete the evidence to the contrary is by no means conclusive. The weight of early testimony favors the view that the Apocalypse was written by John, the son of Zebedee, and there is no absolute proof that he could not have done so. Obviously the writer was highly respected by the churches of Asia, and was regarded as an authority whose writings deserved the status of Scripture.
Three possible dates have been suggested for the Apocalypse.
Epiphanius, writing in the 3rd cent., stated that John wrote the Apocalypse upon his return from Patmos, which took place in the reign of Claudius (a.d. 41-54) (Haer li. 12, 32). The date is too early, for the churches of Asia had not been founded at that time, and the tension between Christians and the Rom. state had not developed to the point reflected in this book. It is possible that Epiphanius was referring to Nero, who also was named Claudius.
An argument for a date during the administration of Nero (a.d. 54-68) has been constructed from the statement in Revelation that the number of the beast is 666. By adding together the numerical values of the letters in NERON KESAR written in Heb., the sum of 666 is realized. Two major objections can be raised against this view. There are several other combinations of letters that will yield the same result, and furthermore it is very unlikely that Hellenic provincials of Asia would have reckoned ciphers in Heb. equivalents.
The declaration concerning the “mountains” that support the woman of
The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to perdition (
If this be interpreted to mean the successive rulers of the Rom. state, the first five could be Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. On this reckoning, if the first five had “already fallen,” the sixth, Nero, “now is,” thus placing the writing of Revelation in his reign.
This interpretation is too uncertain to warrant any final conclusion. One cannot be sure that the five “heads” begin with Julius Caesar. If they refer to the emperors, they prob. commence with Augustus. Nero would then be the fifth; Vespasian would be the sixth, since the three emperors following Nero did not reign long enough to be important to the provinces. Titus would be the seventh, and Domitian the eighth. Since the eighth is said to be “of the seven” the allusion may pertain to Domitian, for he seemed to reincarnate the tyranny and brutality of Nero. Furthermore, the Asian churches had not reached their full development in Nero’s time.
The traditional view ascribes the Revelation to the reign of Domitian on the testimony of Irenaeus (Against Heresies V. xxx. 3; see also Euseb. Hist. III. 18; IV. 8).agreed (Quis Dives § 42), and Victorinus, in his Commentary on the Apocalypse confirmed the statement (XVII. 10).
The traditional date is prob. the best of the options. It allows for the growth and incipient decline of the churches of Asia. The demand of Domitian to be worshiped as Dominus et Deus accords with the description of the “beast” that wielded political power and exacted universal worship (
Place of origin
The island of Patmos was the place where the visions were received. They may have been recorded there, or later, possibly at Ephesus. Patmos was a small rocky island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor, on which a penal colony was located. Political prisoners were sent there for exile or for forced labor in the mines. John states that he was in Patmos for “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (
The churches to whose leaders the Book of Revelation was addressed were situated on a roadway that ran N along the coast from Ephesus to Pergamum via Smyrna. From Pergamum another road ran southward farther inland, touching Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, and thence back to Ephesus. A messenger carrying this document could make a complete circuit, passing through all of these cities. Ephesus was the seat of the magnificent temple of Artemis; Smyrna was the chief seaport of Asia; at Pergamum were located the colossal altar of Zeus, the temple of Aesculapius, and the seat of provincial government. Thyatira was a center of agriculture and of a textile industry. Sardis, a city of declining fortunes, was one of the most ancient settlements and had been the capital of Lydia. Philadelphia was the gateway to the fertile plains of the inner plateau. Laodicea was a prosperous center of banking, wool growing, and the manufacture of medication for eyes. Paul wrote to Ephesus and Laodicea; Ignatius was familiar with several of these cities. They included most of the leading centers of the Asian province, and prob. represented the strongest churches with which the writer was acquainted.
Domitian’s reign had begun in troubled times. The destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum by the eruption of Vesuvius in a.d. 79 was followed by a disastrous fire that devastated Rome and by a plague of disease that ravaged the city until a.d. 81, the year of Domitian’s accession.
Domitian was an egomaniac who demanded abject worship from the Rom. people. He claimed the title of Dominus et Deus (Lord and God), and was the first of the emperors to assume the status of deity, though others had received worship unwillingly during their lifetime and had been deified by the Senate after death. When his small son died in a.d. 83, Domitian had him proclaimed to be a god and his mother Domitia a goddess. A coin issued in memory of the child represented him as sitting on the orb of the world, with the moon and planets around him. The apotheosis of the mother and child, the deification of the emperor and, in his person, of the state, the acclamation which ascribed to him extravagant titles and impossible powers, are mirrored in the imagery of Revelation. The arrogant and blasphemous claims of Domitian are countered by the apocalyptic honors given to Christ as Sovereign and Saviour of men.
Roman historians do not chronicle a widespread persecution of the church under Domitian. He executed his cousin, Titus Flavius Clemens, and banished his wife, Domatilla, on grounds of “atheism,” adoption of Jewish customs and treason. Possibly these charges reflect Christian faith, since Clemens, if he were a Christian, would worship no visible god, would accept Jewish scriptures, and would refuse to worship the emperor. Eusebius (HE III. xvii) says that Domitian “established himself as the successor of Nero, in his hatred and hostility to God. He was the second that raised a persecution against us....” Eusebius quoted also Hegesippus’ testimony that John returned to Ephesus upon being released from exile after the accession of Nerva in a.d. 96 (HE III. xx).
Revelation, then, was written for churches that were under the shadow of imperial persecution, whether or not it was a general policy. The imminent danger of official repression was a continued threat to their existence. Because of the prevailing uncertainty they needed both encouragement and warning: encouragement to keep them from despair and consequent abandonment of faith, and warning to make them alert to the dangers of external attack and of internal apostasy. Both of these elements, together with a general reflection of prevalent conditions in the Empire, appear in the Apocalypse.
According to available patristic testimony Revelation was not at first universally accepted as authoritative by the church. There are possible allusions to the Apocalypse in the a.d. 140), but no extended quotations. According to Jerome, Melito of Sardis (c. a.d. 160-190) wrote a commentary on it. Justin Martyr (c. a.d. 135) stated categorically that it was written by John, one of the apostles of Christ (Dial, Trypho LXXXI), and Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons was equally emphatic concerning its apostolic origin and genuineness (Against Heresies IV. xx. 11). The early testimony of Asia Minor as given above was supported by the opinion of the Gallic churches, prob. because of the influence of Irenaeus, who had come to Gaul from Ephesus. Phrases in the Epistle of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons indicate that their author(s) must have known and used Revelation. See Canon of the New Testament.(c.
The Western Church.
The Alexandrian church was also acquainted with the Apocalypse. Clement regarded it as Scripture (Paidagogus 11. 119), and his pupil Origen accepted it (In Joannem V. 33; Euseb. Hist. VI. xxv. 9). Though Dionysius of Alexandria rejected it as non-Johannine, he was aware that it had been received by the church.
The canon of the Roman church, represented by the a.d. 170) included it, and Hippolytus (fl. a.d. 190-235) quoted it frequently. The church of Carthage, which owed its origin to Rome, also accepted it, for Tertullian (fl. a.d. 190-220) quoted from eighteen of its twenty-two chapters.(c.
The Western Church of the 2nd cent. almost unanimously accepted Revelation. The only two dissident voices were those of Marcion, who was biased against any writing that he thought was Jewish, and the Alogi, mentioned by Epiphanius (Haer. LI) and by Irenaeus (Against Heresies III. xi. 9), who repudiated any work that gave support to the idea of the perpetuation of the gift of prophecy. By the 3rd cent. its place in the Western canon was fully established.
The Eastern Church.
The Eastern churches were almost unanimously committed to the rejection of the Apocalypse. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, had repudiated its canonicity, and Eusebius (a.d. 260-340) followed his lead. In his classification of the canonical books he was uncertain whether to list it with the disputed works (ἀντικεγόμενα) or with those termed spurious (νόθα; cf. HE III. 25. 1ff.). Possibly he was influenced by his reaction from Papias’s interpretation of the millennium. Eusebius’s influence was powerful. (a.d. 315-386) later forbade churchmen to read it in public from the pulpit, and even depreciated it for private devotions.
The later churches of Asia Minor did not utilize it, for it is not mentioned in the Canon of the Synod of Laodicea (c. a.d. 360) nor in the , nor in the list of Gregory Nazianzus (d. 389).
a.d. 340-428) rejected the Apocalypse in company with the . His lead was followed by the Nestorian Church, as well as by the Antiochian school of the 4th cent. By the 6th cent. however, the Apocalypse was accepted into the Eastern Church. Andrew of Caesarea in Cappadocia wrote a commentary on it, and Leontius, a scholar in Jerusalem, said that it was the last canonical book in the NT.(c.
Full acceptance in the canon was recognized in the Festal Letter of Athanasius, written from Alexandria in 367. The Damasine Council of 382 and the Council of Carthage (397), which certified the officially recognized list of NT Scriptures for the W, both included it. In the Western Church its position was firmly established from the 2nd cent.; in the Eastern Church its authority was acknowledged much later.
The Apocalypse is contained wholly or in part in the uncial MSS א (Sinaiticus. IV C.), A (Alexandrinus, V.C.), C (Ephraemi Rescriptus, V C.), P (Wolfenbüttel. IX C.), 046 (X C.), 051 (X C.), 052 (X C.), 0207 (IV C.), 0229 (VIII C.). Two papyrus MSS, P18 (Oxyrhynchus 1079, III/IV C.) and P47 (Chester Beatty, III C.) also contain sizable fragments. Among the cursive MSS 1 (XII C.), 88 (XII C.), 104 (a.d. 1087), 1006 (VI C.), 1611 (XII C.), 1828 (XII C.), 1854 (XI C.), 1859 (XIV C.), 2042 (XIV C.), 2053 (XIII C.), 2065 (XV C.), 2073 (XIV C.), 2081 (XI C.), 2138 (A.D. 1072), 2344 (XI C.), 2432 (XIV C.) and 2495 (XIV-XV C.) are mentioned by Aland in the 1966 edition of the Gr. NT as containing particularly significant readings that vary from the TR. Since none of these is earlier than the 11th cent., the chief weight of textual evidence lies with the uncial and papyrus MSS, though the cursives at times offer valuable testimony on isolated readings. As might be expected, the bulk of the cursives, including some four dozen listed by Aland, contain the Byzantine text. The papyrus MSS, P18 and P47 agree strongly with א, A. C. P, and 0207, while 046 together with 1 and some other cursives constitute a third group.
A large number of small but relatively unimportant variants occur, most of which are prob. alterations for the purpose of interpreting seemingly awkward expressions or of clarifying grammatical difficulties. There are no major omissions or gaps in the text.
Although the Revelation seems to be a medley of weird imagery, it does evince an orderly structure. It can be divided into six main sections by the repeated phrase, “I was in the spirit.” Each recurrence of this phrase introduces a section of the book which deals with some particular aspect of the apocalyptic manifestation of Christ. The key to Revelation lies in its Christology rather than in its chronology, though there is a progressive development of action that pervades it from beginning to end. It may be outlined as follows:
The interpretation of Revelation is difficult and uncertain, no two interpreters agree exactly on all details. The symbolic character of the language and the obscurity of many of its allusions render dogmatic finality on all points impossible to attain. In general there are four main types of interpretation that appear in the historic attempts to explain this book.
The first of these is the preterist interpretation, which regards the Apocalypse as descriptive of the historic conditions of the Asian churches at the end of the 1st cent. All of the symbolism is therefore to be understood in terms of the conditions contemporaneous with the writing of the book, and in no way predictive of the future. Babylon and the beasts refer to the Rom. state; the woman of
The second type of interpretation is the historicist position which assumes that the Book of Revelation depicts the entire course of Christian history from the time of the writer until the consummation of the ages. The various seals, trumpets, and bowls are regarded as chronologically successive, marking significant stages in the development of the Christian Church, particularly in the W. Since the Revelation begins with the status of the churches of Asia, which were obviously contemporaneous with the date of writing, and ends with the final conflict with evil and the establishment of the City of God in the indefinite future, it seemed only reasonable to conclude that the material between these two termini should deal with the intervening historical process. The chief difficulty with this view is that the intervening period is of undefined length, and that the identification of any one of the symbols with a particular historical event must necessarily be uncertain. It might be possible to establish a connection between each symbol and certain known events only to have subsequent years prove that the identification was erroneous.
Furthermore, the historicist view which attempts to interpret the Apocalypse by the development of the church in the last nineteen centuries, seldom if ever takes cognizance of the church outside of Europe. It is concerned mainly with the period of the a.d. 1500. If the Revelation really purports to provide a symbolic picture of the development of the Church between the end of the 1st cent. and the Parousia of Christ, one would expect a full representation of that period.and the Reformation and has relatively little to say of developments after
A third interpretation, called the futurist, assigns all of the Revelation following the third chapter to the end of the Church age. The letters to the churches of Asia thus become representative either of seven distinct types of churches persistent throughout the period preceding Christ’s coming or else seven successive periods of church history during that same interval. According to this scheme none of the action depicted in
The fourth interpretation is the idealist, which assumes that the visions of the Apocalypse are in no sense literal. They represent only the general conflict of good and evil under the apocalyptic figures that were familiar to Jews and Christians in the 1st cent. For this reason the Apocalypse is equally applicable to all ages of the Church, since it belongs exclusively to none.
Each of these views, divergent as they are, contains some element of truth. The preterist view asserts rightly that Revelation must have some bearing on events contemporary with its production else its imagery would be foreign to its readers and its teachings would seem irrelevant. Undoubtedly they could see the persecuting Rom. state and the seductive prevailing paganism portrayed in the figures of the beasts and of the harlot of chaps. 13 and 17. On the other hand, the City of God was not established in the world, nor was paganism abolished in the 1st cent.
The historicist can argue with some plausibility that if the first chapter of Revelation begins with the lifetime of the writer, “the things which are” (
The futurist position has the advantage of consistency in connecting the major events of the Revelation with the coming of Christ. Since His Second Advent has not yet occurred, there can be little controversy over fulfillment, for none of the book has taken place except for the existence of the seven churches. Undoubtedly a large segment of Revelation was intended to describe the future, for the voice from heaven speaking to the Seer said, “Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this” (
The idealist interpretation emphasizes the spiritual conflict which underlies the Apocalypse and renders the book immediately relevant to all periods of the Christian Church. Unquestionably, Revelation is not simply a map of history written in advance; it is rather a philosophy of history written from the standpoint of heaven. Nevertheless, if the idealist position be carried to its extreme conclusion, one might argue that the Revelation is only a collection of myths which embody spiritual teaching, but which have no relation to any actual happenings in heaven or on earth. The book thus becomes a flexible symbolism which can be adjusted to the circumstances and whims of the latest reader.
Perhaps the fairest solution to the problem would be to say that all elements may be incorporated in a final exegesis of Revelation. Undoubtedly its thought is often couched in symbolic terms which originated in the OT Scriptures and in the current imagery of the late 1st cent. The intent of the book was to cultivate spiritual life and to lay down principles for conduct rather than to predict particular historical occurrences. It does, however, mark the trends of history as God’s redemptive purpose moves on to its future climax and consummation. The predictive aspect of Revelation cannot be denied without destroying the real thrust of its message.
History of interpretation
Although Melito of Sardis (c. 170), Irenaeus (c. 180) and Hippolytus (c. 220) are credited with writing on the Revelation, the earliest extant commentary was composed by Victorinus (d. 303). It is homiletical rather than technical, and somewhat fanciful in its interpretations. Victorinus’s exposition was not systematic, but it indicated that the Revelation must have been used extensively in the Western Church during the 3rd cent. It is possible that the work attributed to Victorinus was heavily corrected by some disciple of Augustine, who edited it in accordance with his master’s views. In that case the Commentary is not a reliable witness of the actual teaching of Victorinus. The text as tr. in the Ante-Nicene Fathers follows a symbolical and amillennial pattern similar to that of Augustine, but Jerome (De Viribus Illustris 19) classed Victorinus as a chiliast, along with Tertullian and Lactantius.
Tyconius, a leader of the African church (c. 390), wrote a commentary on the Apocalypse which followed the “spiritualizing” tradition. His work is no longer available except as quoted by others, but the wide range of authors who cited him, Augustine of Africa, Primasius of Spain, and Bede of England, shows that it was influential. The methodology of Tyconius was followed by numerous subsequent expositors, chief among whom was Augustine. His treatise, De Civitate Dei, identified the kingdom of God and the City of God with the Church visible and invisible, and fostered an allegorical interpretation of the Apocalypse. In the Western Church Augustine’s teaching strengthened the growth of the papacy, which assumed political sovereignty on the ground that the kingdom of God should rule the world.
Primasius (c. 550) adopted the allegorical method of Tyconius. He was followed by Autpertus (c. 775), a Benedictine monk of southern France, who made a digest of Victorinus, Tyconius, and Primasius. Alcuin (a.d. 735-800), the great teacher of Charlemagne’s court, an Englishman by birth perpetuated the allegorical method of his predecessors.
a.d. 775-836), the pupil of Alcuin, and his disciple, (a.d. 807-849), maintained the same tradition. Walafrid introduced a Glossa Ordinaria, a set of marginal or interlinear notes, which were frequently incorporated in Bibles of the Middle Ages.(
No great change from the method or content of Tyconius and his successors took place during the Middle Ages. In the writings of Anselm of Havelberg (a.d. 1129-1155) the broad allegorical interpretation was changed to a more concrete historicism. (fl. 1111-1129) attempted to interpret Revelation on the basis of Biblical history. Although much of his explanation seems strained, he tried to establish a connection between prophecy and secular history so that some sort of continuity might be preserved. His procedure was later used significantly by Joachim of Floris.
Joachim of Floris (a.d. 1130-1201) introduced a new concept into the interpretation of the Apocalypse. In place of the predominantly mystical and allegorical approach, he emphasized a chronological division of the book. He drew a parallel between the seven seals and seven divisions of the Christian era, ending with a consummation that should follow immediately his own times. He broke from the system of Tyconius, and became the protagonist of a new trend in interpretation. He proposed that history should be divided into three ages: the age of the Father, extending from the creation to Christ; the age of the Son, from Christ to His own day; and the age of the Spirit of indefinite length terminating with the day of judgment. He thus introduced a type of dispensationalism which indicated that the age of the Son in which the medieval church flourished was not final. This concept contributed to the rise of the Reformation.
Renewed interest in the Apocalypse was stimulated by the controversial atmosphere of the Reformation. The concepts of the antichrist beast (
The Rom. church responded by counter-interpretation. Francisco Ribera (1537-1591), a Jesuit scholar of Salamanca, published a 500-page commentary on the Apocalypse in 1591 which was later reproduced in several revised edd. He argued that the Antichrist was not the Rom. papacy but an individual ruler whose appearance lay still in the future.
Bellarmin, the most learned apologist for Catholicism in the Reformation (1542-1621), held essentially the same position, as did numerous other apologists. Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613), a Spanish Jesuit of Seville, advocated the preterist position, and asserted that the Apocalypse applied chiefly to the events preceding the fall of Rome in a.d. 476.
The controversies of the Reformation crystallized these three chief systems of interpretation. In subsequent Protestant theology the futuristic system was widely developed by the Fifth Monarchy men in the 17th cent. Their excesses brought it into disrepute, but it was renewed in the 19th cent. by the early teachings of theand by the Bible Conference movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Rom. church in general followed Augustine in identifying the Church with the kingdom of God, and by asserting that the millennium is the interval between the ascension of Christ and His future advent.
Commentaries on Revelation, written within the Protestant church in the 19th and 20th centuries have been divided between a few preterists like Moses Stuart of the 19th cent. and James Snowden of the 20th, the historicists, represented by E. B. Elliott and by A. J. Gordon and the futurists such as J. A. Seiss, whose Lectures on the Apocalypse was one of the first popular presentations of this view and one of the most influential.
For a fuller list of more recent authors, see the subjoined bibliography, which represents differing periods and schools of thought in the modern era.
Although the Apocalypse is not intended to be a treatise on theology, it contains a very definite scheme of doctrine often expressed more by its assumptions than by its declarations. Its obvious emphasis is eschatology. Confronted by a hostile world and by threats of repression if not extermination, the seer deals with the future of the Church in the divine plan for the ages.
The triunity of God is hinted in
Revelation is strongly Christological. The historical character of Jesus is asserted unequivocally. He is a member of the Jewish people (
The work of the
The theological aspect of personal spiritual experience is stressed mainly in the first three chs. which deal with the seven churches of Asia. Personal love for Christ, loyalty under suffering, tenacity of faith, are the major qualities stressed by this book.
The demonic world of evil under the dominnation of Satan is clearly recognized (
Obviously the emphasis of Revelation is eschatological. All other aspects of doctrine are related to the divine program of history. The letters to the seven churches focus on the future; the final promise to each of the churches begins with “I will” and alludes to some reward or retribution yet to come (
The main section of the book professes to deal with “the things which must come to pass hereafter.” The character of God is disclosed in the light of His plan for the future and for the new creation; the work of Christ is related to judgment more than to His present soteriological function. His ultimate triumph over the forces of evil and the establishment of the City of God, the eternal state of God’s redeemed people (
M. Stuart, Commentary on the Apocalypse (1845); E. B. Elliott, Horae Apocalypticae, 3rd ed. (1847); R. C. Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to thein Asia, Rev. II and III (1862); W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia (1905); J. A. Seiss, Lectures on the Apocalypse, 10th ed. (1909); H. B. Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (1911); R. H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Revelation of St. John (1920); R. H. Charles, Studies in the Apocalypse, 2nd ed. (1922); T. Zahn, Die Offenbarung des Johannes (1926); N. B. Stonehouse, The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church (1929); H. C. Hoskier, Concerning the Text of the Apocalypse (1929); A. Kuyper, The Revelation of St. John (1935); G. H. Lang, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (1945); L. E. Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers (1950); E. Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (1955); J. W. Bowman, The Drama of the Book of Revelation (1955); M. C. Tenney, Interpreting Revelation (1957); C. C. Torrey, The Apocalypse of John (1958); A. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine in Black’s Commentaries (1966); J. F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (1966).