The question of who wrote the book of Revelation has been a topic of hot debate not only in the past 200 years, but from the earliest times.
In the first chapter of the book the author refers to himself three times as John and a fourth time at the end of the book. But exactly who this John is is not explicitly stated. John was a common name in the first century. Many scholars would suggest that it is not possible to definitively know who actually wrote the book, despite the fact that some lines of early tradition say that it was John the Apostle.
The fact that the Book of Revelation was so disputed even in the earliest times shows that not everyone in the early church necessarily accepted that it was written by John the Apostle, for if it had been widely believed to have come from the pen of the Apostle John, it would almost have certainly been accepted much more widely much earlier on.
Some of those modern scholars who dispute John the Apostle as the writer believe that it was written after John had died, and don’t believe that someone who had known Jesus in the flesh would have described him in the way that he did. But that is ultimately an opinion and not a definitive argument.
I have more recently come across a book by Marshall Davis that puts forward a fairly strong argument that it was John the Apostle who wrote it. Marshall Davis suggests the following things can be deduced from the book itself:
First, the author’s name as we have seen from four verses was John, a common name in the first century as it is today.
Secondly, the author was a Christian who was known by the churches in Asia Minor and had some level of undisputed authority over them evidenced by the fact that he simply refers to himself as John and assumes that the churches know who he is and will listen to his words.
Thirdly, he wrote in very poor Greek. In fact, the book of Revelation is written in the worst Greek in the whole of the New Testament. And from his misuse of the Greek language, we can tell that he knew Hebrew, because he uses Hebrew idioms and translates them into Greek. And although he writes in Greek, he uses Hebrew grammar. And so he is apparently thinking in Hebrew but writing in the unfamiliar language of Greek.
Fourthly, John wrote in a peculiar literary style called apocalyptic which we will explore more deeply next week. Marshall Davis writes that most apocalyptic writing was written in Palestine and usually in Galilee. In addition, he was clearly familiar with these Galilean apocalypses because they are a kind of a source material for him. He draws on them and makes use of specific images and ideas than can be found in them. Which is interesting, because it shows that Revelation is not a completely unique book. There are other similar books written in the same style. It also shows that the book is not simply dictated from heaven as it were because John is borrowing ideas and images from other books.
Fifthly, the writer starts by writing firstly to the Church in Ephesus as though it is the primary church among the seven he is writing to. Marshall Davis writes that there is strong external evidence that John the Apostle lived in Ephesus in the latter years of his life and thus would have held authority in the churches of the Asian province.
Marshall Davis believes this evidence points to a strong possibility that it could indeed have been John the Apostle who wrote the book.
To this argument, I might humbly add a 6th point, namely that the Apostle John was nick-named with his brother James, the sons of thunder. This was a description of their personalities. There was something thunderous about them which certainly resonates with the thunderous nature of the book of Revelation. In fact in the book there is even a reference to “the voices of the seven thunders” in Revelation 10:1–7.
A reference in Luke’s Gospel gives an indication of the thunderous personality of the brothers James and John. In chapter 9, when a Samaritan village rejects Jesus because he is on his way to Jerusalem, James and John asked Jesus, “Should we call down fire from heaven to consume them, just as Elijah had done to his enemies”. This kind of thunderous retribution is echoed across the pages of Revelation.
But Luke’s Gospel suggests that this was not the way of Jesus, instead, he turned and rebuked them and simply went on to another village.
If it was indeed John the Apostle who wrote the Book of Revelation it is clear that his thunderous personality had perhaps not yet been fully redeemed as it finds itself reflected in the pages of Revelation. And in a way this makes sense. Despite years of following Jesus, many of us, perhaps most of us, still carry around with us many of the flaws of our own personality even if Christ’s love may have begun to soften us a little.
And so although it is not an absolutely decisive argument, and some scholars would definitely dispute it, there is fairly strong evidence to suggest that it might indeed have been the Apostle John who wrote the Book of Revelation.
To whom was it written
The Book itself indicates the recipients to whom it was intended as the seven churches of Asia Minor, namely, Ephesus, Smyrna, Perganum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philedelphia and Laodicea. In addition, John, the writer makes reference to their struggles and sufferings; in chapter 2:9 “I have seen your afflictions,” and chapter 7:14 it speaks of those who have come through the great tribulation.
Most scholars are in agreement that the Churches in these seven cities were experiencing persecution of some kind from the Roman Empire. Some suggest that this was direct persecution for not being willing to declare that Caesar is Lord and to burn incense at the Temples across the Empire where the Emperor was worshipped as a god. Other’s suggest that they were struggling with persecution in a more general sense as a minority religion that was not legally recognised in the context of a brutal and exploitative Roman Empire whose values were so very different from the values of Christ.
Some were finding this too difficult and were beginning to find it easier to compromise with the way of Rome rather than the way of Christ.
In the context of suffering and persecution, the book was written to give them courage to endure, persevere and stand firm in the hope of the final victory of God over their enemies.
When was it written?
This again has been a source of much dispute not just in modern times, but also in ancient times. Some, both ancient and modern suggest that it was written late in the first century in about 95 AD, during the reign of the emperor Domitian.
Marshall Davis, expressing the opinion of a number of scholars believes however that it was written during the tumultuous period of the Roman-Jewish War in the years just before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. He says that the Number of the Beast 666, referred to in Revelation 13:18 is the key. Using both the numerology systems of Hebrew and Latin, the number 666 works out as the numerical equivalence of the name Caesar Nero.
Nero was the fifth Emperor of Rome and in Revelation 17:10-11 we read of seven kings and that five have fallen. And so based on this Marshall Davis suggests that the date of 69 AD is highly plausible. This was a year of great turmoil, with Rome in the midst of the Jewish War in Judea with the homeland of Jews and early Christians under attack. It was also the year preceding the most momentous catastrophe in Jewish history – the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
In addition to these tumultuous (one could even say apocalyptic) events happening in Jerusalem, the years leading up to AD 70 was the beginning of the Roman persecution of Christians with Nero having been the chief instigator. When looking for a scapegoat for the great fire of Rome in AD 64, he blamed the Christians. He executed two of the greatest Christian leaders, the apostle Peter and Paul and began an open season for persecution of Christians in other parts of the Empire, which is one explanation why John the writer of Revelation was exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote the book of Revelation in response to to all that was happening.
I close with the words that come from John’s vision of Christ in Chapter 1:17-18, written to Christians living in a time of turmoil, persecution and danger: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Next week, we will look a little at the style of writing we find in Revelation and an overview of it’s content.