Biblical Research & Education Resources
Blaine Robison, M.A., M.R.E.
The Composition of Revelation
Published 28 October 2008; Revised 15 June 2021
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Torah (Law), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
The field of literary criticism has had a strong influence on how many modern Bible scholars interpret Revelation. Literary criticism is concerned with how a biblical work was written and uses much the same methods and asks the same questions as the study of other ancient works. Did the author claimed for the work compose the book? Was the book written by someone using a pseudonym or was it written anonymously? Did the author quote from or use other published material to develop his content?
Is the style of the work consistent with other books written by the author? What literary category (prose, poetry, etc.) does the book belong to or incorporate within its content? Literary criticism relies on inductive reasoning, i.e., making general conclusions about a book by examining specific elements in the work according to predetermined criteria. For example, the literary critic may give more weight to rational criteria for determining authorship, such as the author's supposed style, rather than merely accepting the declaration of the writer.
Scholars who classify biblical books according to categories of literary style place Revelation in a group known as apocalyptic. Various early Jewish writings that appeared after the close of the Old Covenant Scriptures have been classified as apocalyptic because they include vivid imagery and symbolism to communicate that there is no hope in this present age, but at some point in the future history will end in a cosmic catastrophe, the wicked will be punished and the persecuted righteous rewarded.
Unfortunately, some scholars treat Revelation as being no different than The Assumption of Moses, 1 Enoch, 4th Ezra and The Apocalypse of Baruch, but as David Stern points out, there are significant differences between Revelation and these apocalyptic works:
"First, most of the Jewish apocalypses were written under pseudonyms, in the names of heroes long dead. Revelation was written, as the church fathers attest, during or after John's imprisonment on Patmos.
"Second, Jewish apocalypses are pseudo-predictive – that is, the author writes from a viewpoint in the past and "predicts" history that has already taken place. Revelation prophesies about history that had not yet occurred (and still hasn't).
"Third, the Jewish apocalypses are entirely pessimistic about the past and present. Revelation is optimistic in the extreme, depicting the Lord's victory over all enemies and the establishment of His eternal kingdom." (785)
Literary criticism can be a useful tool for studying ancient books, but this system of study can result in ignoring the principle that "the world through its wisdom did not come to know God" (1Cor 1:21 NASB). Over reliance on assumptions based strictly on reason can lead the literary critic to treating divine inspiration as functioning no differently than Martha Grimes getting an idea for writing a mystery novel from reading the English poets. In the case of Revelation many commentators imagine that some circumstantial or environmental situation caused the author to undertake the composition on his own initiative. Kaiser appropriately reminds scholars:
this book shares many of the features of apocalyptic material, and while
he actually calls this book the 'Revelation [apokalypsis] of
Jesus Christ' (1:1), John himself labeled his book as a prophecy several
times (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19)." (383)
The theory is that someone calling himself John, perhaps the apostle, but most likely not, wanted to write a letter of encouragement to believers experiencing the fires of persecution from the Roman state. Therefore, he used coded language that would only be understood by the faithful (in case it was intercepted by Roman authorities), borrowing heavily from the Hebrew prophets, particularly Ezekiel and Daniel, as well as other Jewish writers. However, the fact that Revelation bears some similarity to that of Ezekiel and Daniel is a testimony to the consistency of God's revelation about the future. Revelation thus stands on the testimony of "two or three witnesses" (cf. Deut 19:15; Matt 18:15).
While no one can know with certainty whether John had access to other so-called apocalyptic works or even the Scriptures on Patmos, or the extent of his knowledge of any of these materials, the text of John's words asserts the originality of his composition. Twelve times John reports that the Lord commanded him to "write" (1:11, 19; 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14; 14:13; 19:9; and 21:5).
Yeshua told him to write individual letters to seven ministers and their congregations in the Roman province of Asia giving encouragement, instruction, warning and rebuke, as well as to transmit God's prophecy about the end of the age. Yeshua told John what to write in some portions of the book and gave John latitude to draw on his own vocabulary and experience to describe what he saw while he was "in the Spirit."
Yeshua also told John, "write in a book what you see" (1:11), and forty-one times John says, "I saw" (1:12, 13, 17; 4:4; 5:1, 2, 6; 6:1, 9; 7:1, 2; 8:2; 9:1, 17; 10:1, 5; 13:1, 2, 3, 11; 14:6; 15:1, 2; 16:13; 17:3, 6; 18:1; 19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11, 12; 21:1, 2, 22; 22:8), emphasizing his direct and personal visual experience. Seven times the Lord reaffirms John's report by referring to what "you saw" (1:19, 20; 17:8, 12, 15, 16, 18).
John most certainly did not mean that he had been reading Ezekiel and had an "aha" experience of higher critical insight. It is one thing to say that portions of other biblical books are quoted or alluded to in Revelation and another to say that John essentially "plagiarized" other works. On this principle, how can we know that the source book was not also plagiarized? The concept of textual dependency is highly speculative and lacking in convincing evidence.
Revelation has the ring of truth and does not fit the arbitrary classifications of literary criticism, but in every way bears the marks of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as the other prophetic works in Scripture (2Pet 1:20f). John Wesley's comment on the divine inspiration of Scripture certainly fits Revelation:
"It could not have been the invention of good men or angels; for they neither would nor could make a book, and tell lies by saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,' when it was their own invention. It could not be the invention of bad men or devils; for they would not make a book which commands all duty, forbids all sin and condemns their souls to hell to all eternity. Therefore, I draw this conclusion, that the Bible must be given by divine inspiration." (XI, 484)
The view of this writer is that while on Patmos the apostle John penned Revelation at the command of Yeshua. The content was revealed to John, not manufactured by John. He didn't need to borrow source material from anyone or consult any other book or even rely on his own memory of Scripture. By means of angels and the Holy Spirit, God communicated the truth directly to John. "God is not a man that He should lie" (Num 23:19 NASB; cf. Rom 3:4).
John actually saw what he says he saw and heard the things he said he heard. John obeyed Yeshua's instruction, recording his experience for the posterity of all believers, and that is the sum and substance of how he wrote. Revelation is written in the narrative style of an autobiography and has the personal touch of a chronicle or a diary. While John's report is clearly more incredible than anything a science fiction writer might invent the reader will derive the greatest benefit by accepting John's eyewitness account as authentic.
Kaiser: Walter C. Kaiser, The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Zondervan, 2008.
Stern: David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. 5th ed. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., 1996.
Wesley: John Wesley, "A Clear and Concise Demonstration of the Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures," The Works of John Wesley. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1958.
Copyright © 2006-2021 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.