In seminary, if we misspelled the name of a book of the Bible in a paper or on a test, our grade was lowered by one letter. Doom befell the person who wrote “Galations” instead of “Galatians” or “Revelations” instead of “Revelation”! Yes, you read that right. “RevelationS” with an S is incorrect. Look at the first two words in Revelation 1:1 and see.
Revelation begins with a series of seven short epistles, written in an apocalyptic style. The main body is in the literary form of an apocalypse, a genre that is not well represented in the Bible. You’ll find apocalyptic passages in Daniel and Zechariah, as well as other secular and religious documents from ancient times. An apocalypse addresses an audience that faces great adversity and reassures them that they will prevail. It exaggerates the ferocity of their adversaries, the difficulty of their struggles, and the importance of their victory.
You can think of an apocalypse as the ancient equivalent of a disaster movie, which depicts a valiant struggle against an earthquake, flood, epidemic, asteroid, or alien invasion, but it takes on global proportions, and the very existence of the human race is at stake. The message of an apocalypse (or a modern disaster movie) is “Yes, it’s going to be very bad, everything is at stake, the world might even end, but no matter what, the hero will save us and we will win.”
Revelation is an apocalypse that fits the conditions that were prevalent during Nero’s empire-wide persecution in about AD 95, which puts it toward the end of the Apostle John’s life. It describes the persecution in exaggerated, metaphorical ways. Ordinary things in a church, such as the Communion service or the book containing the list of the catechumens, take on cosmic importance. The overall theme of the book is “we will go through extreme difficulties, and just as it seems that all is lost, our ultimate victory will come,” or, “Jesus always wins!”
The end of the world, the extinction of the human race, or the end of all that is good and true hangs ominously over every apocalypse and disaster movie, but it’s not supposed to encourage the readers to fight, or to discourage them into resignation, it’s supposed to rally them to endure.
The Polity of the Ancient Church
Bear with me, you have to know this to follow the discussion. The word “polity” means “organizational strutcure.” The ancient church‘s polity had three orders of ministry:
- Deacons (English: servants)
Deacons worked under the supervision of the clergy of a local church. There were female deacons in the ancient church according the early ecumenical councils.
- Presbyters (English: Elders or Priests)
Presbyters performed all the sacramental functions of the clergy under the supervision of the bishop. The church worked like the household of the day; the father set the policies of the business and supervised the sons, while the sons carried out their duty with the power of attorney they had from the father. This is much the way the ancient church worked, with the bishop in the father’s role and the priests in the sons’ role.
- Bishops and Apostles (English: overseers and emissaries)
A bishop was a priest who had been elevated to the office by three bishops, or by one apostle. Bishops had the authority of ordination, so missionaries had to be bishops. Three bishops, working together, could make a priest into a bishop. Bishops ordained priests in each church they founded and rode the circuit to oversee them.
An apostle was a special kind of bishop. For more information about apostles in the ancient church, see How many genuine apostles were there?
The genuine epistles of Ignatius, which he wrote at about the same time as the Revelation, describe this system. All of the churches on his route from Antioch to Rome had this polity.
Today, churches generally have the same polity as the ancient church, but with different terminology. Clergy who function as priests might be called ministers, preachers, elders, or presbyters. Clergy who function as bishops might be called superintendents or regional ministers, and the biblical terms elder and deacon might be used for congregational leaders instead of clergy. There’s not much point in debating polity, because it’s mainly an argument about words.
Okay, now to the point. Who wrote the Revelation?
If you write an academic paper demonstrating that Paul wrote Galatians, you’ll hear crickets in the night. However, if you write an academic paper that Teddy Roosevelt wrote Galatians, the press will gather at your door. Writing an essay to demonstrate that the Apostle John wrote Revelation guarantees me obscurity. Here come the crickets, get ready for a nap:
The key to the authorship of Revelation is in the letters to the seven churches. Letters have senders and recipients, and couriers to take them from one to the other. We know who the recipients were. If we can identify the sender, we can identify the author.
- Ancient Eastern Christians were strongly motivated to question apostolic authorship
Ancient eastern Christians were strongly motivated to point out any evidence that denied apostolic authorship and to downplay any evidence that did, because, mainly in the east, millennialist heretics had used Revelation to cause major disruptions in the eastern church. Three of the seven ecumenical councils later affirmed that millennialism is a heresy. Even today, if you visit an Eastern Orthodox church, you will never hear a Scripture reading from Revelation in the Sunday worship service. Some ancient eastern authorities conceded that John wrote it but still maintained it was not canonical. One test for canonicity is universal use, and Revelation didn’t meet that criterion.
Ancient controversy about Revelation was driven by other issues than authorship.
- All bishops and apostles are presbyters
There was a controversy dating back to ancient times about whether Revelation was written by John the Apostle or by some other person who was known as John the Elder (presbyter). In fact, the writer calls himself a presbyter in the text. However, this really doesn’t make a difference.
The Apostle John could accurately and modestly call himself John the Presbyter, because technically he was one. For reasons of modesty, first-century authors wrote anonymously and, if necessary, referred to themselves indirectly if they were involved in the events they were writing about, but in epistles and in Revelation it was necessary to reassure the recipients of the authority of the text. “John the Presbyter” could have been a modest way of saying “the Apostle John.”
- John might have just been identifying himself by his nickname
- The churches are in a circuit, but presbyters don’t ride circuits.
Ignatius of Antioch was the bishop of Antioch, so he had high visibility to the authorities. He was arrested for being a Christian in Antioch and escorted by soldiers to Rome where he was eaten by a lion, necessarily going the same route as Paul on his missionary journeys. At each stop along the way, the churches sent people to greet him. He sent them each a letter to thank them, and managed to squeeze a little preaching in as well. In these letters, Ignatius told every church to obey their bishop.
If a presbyter tried to function as a missionary, he could only start one church, because he could not ordain people to lead the other churches. A presbyter would have a “circuit” of only one church. The cities in Revelation were not frontier outposts, they were vibrant urban centers with libraries, schools, live theater, and synagogues with ordained rabbis. A casual, improvised group with a lay leader wouldn’t work with gentile believers who were used to the structure, liturgy, and formality of a synagogue and who had the living standards and urban conditions of the Roman Empire—which was about the same as New England in the 19th century. The fact that Paul had to defend his credentials shows that they were too discerning to accept some wandering lay person as a spiritual leader. The only fakes who got through were those with forged credentials. The author of Revelation could not have been a wandering presbyter or a lay person riding a bishop’s circuit. He was claiming too much authority for them not to check his credentials, no one would have paid much attention to him, let alone preserve his document, and we wouldn’t have it.
Missionaries had to be apostles or bishops so they could ordain presbyters to serve the churches. This is why St. Patrick waited until he was a bishop before he went to Ireland as a missionary. Only an apostle or a bishop could found several churches, then ride the circuit to tend to them. (Patrick was not a Roman Catholic. At the time, the churches of Britain and Ireland were not affiliated with Rome, but they had the same polity.)
Because the churches were in a circuit and the author was an authority figure for all of them, the author must have been the bishop or apostle who rode that circuit, and the courier was retracing it to deliver the message.
Some people say that riding a circuit is a bishop’s job and an apostle wouldn’t be humble enough to lower himself to the role of a bishop… really? Do I actually have to address that?
- Only an apostle could write a message of this scope.
This is a message of universal scope and cosmic importance. It can’t get any more important than that. If a lay person, a presbyter from another congregation, or even their own bishop had claimed to have received a message like that, people would be very skeptical. They might even show them the door. The modern equivalent would be conspiracy theorists on television announcing that they had signed a treaty with a foreign power. Why would a foreign leader sign a treaty with someone who is not a government official? If this were real, we’d hear it from the President, right? Would a fake have the courage to face capital punishment from the Romans to pose as an apostle? That’s a little unlikely.
Phony messages come from false prophets, or impostors posing as apostles. That’s glaringly obvious. That sort of thing did happen now and then (2 Corinthians 11:13, Galatians 2:4, 1 John 4:1, 2 Peter 2:1), so they’d be skeptical. There’s something about perilous times that bring out the frauds, and everyone knows that. Where the carcass is, the vultures gather. Since they took this message as genuine, they must have determined that it came from a someone with sufficient authority to send it.
This sort of message had to come from an apostle, because God is certainly not going to set up leadership for the church and then subvert it. Claiming that “God asked me to write it because John was busy” isn’t credible, because God could free up John from his workload.
- A courier does not need to have authority.
One day I came home from work to find a summons nailed to my front door. I was summoned to appear as a witness in traffic court. I don’t know who nailed it there, but that didn’t matter. The summons had the same authority, whether the sheriff, a deputy, an office worker, or even the pizza delivery guy had put it there. The courier didn’t matter. What mattered is that the sender was a judge. That is why ancient churches accepted apostolic messages that were delivered by couriers. It didn’t matter who the courier was, it mattered who wrote the message. At least four New Testament documents were delivered by couriers who were not the author: Romans was delivered by a deacon (Phoebe), Colossians and Philemon were delivered by a slave (Onesimus), and the Revelation was delivered by some poor schmuck who traveled that route and dodged the danger without getting credit for it.
The document wouldn’t have accomplished its purpose if the churches in the circuit didn’t perceive the writer as having the authority to write it, regardless of who delivered it.
- Revelation was written on the island of Patmos.
The author says he’s on the island of Patmos, and there is strong evidence that he’s not making that up: Revelation describes heaven as the opposite of the actual conditions on Patmos. On Patmos, the main water supply was rain, so he was thirsty all the time. On Patmos, there wasn’t much plant life, so he didn’t have much to eat. On Patmos, there was little shade, so the sun beat down on him all the time. On Patmos, he was alone. In heaven, there is plenty to drink, plenty to eat, the sun does not beat down, and there are millions of Christians. Heaven is the opposite of Patmos (Revelation 7:16).
- Patmos was a maximum-security prison for political prisoners.
Christians refused to participate in the cult of the Emperor. The Roman government saw them as subversives, so it is likely that a prominent Christian leader would be held as a political prisoner. It makes sense for the Romans to put an apostle in a maximum-security prison for political prisoners, but it doesn’t make as much sense to imprison some obscure, hapless presbyter or lay person. If you take a political prisoner, you take someone who is conspicuous: Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela Nelson, Ghandi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or the Apostle John. If people hear the name of your political prisoner and they say, “Who?” you haven’t taken the right one.
The author is a political prisoner, therefore he must have been important—you know, like an Apostle.
- At the time of writing, John was the only apostle who was both living and available.
- Only bishops and apostles are responsible for more than one church.
- The author had ridden the circuit and was therefore a bishop or an apostle.
- The courier was riding the author’s circuit.
- All the churches in the circuit recognized the author as an authority.
- The scope of the message required apostolic authority.
- The author was on Patmos.
- The author was in a maximum-security prison for political prisoners.
- Patmos was a maximum-security prison for political prisoners.
- The prisoner was an important Christian authority figure.
- The prisoner, and thus the author, was an apostle.
- John was the only living and available Apostle.
- The Apostle John was the prisoner.
- The Apostle John was the author.
John’s self-designation as a presbyter by no means proves he was not the apostle. We know that John was very old at the time and that his nickname was “Old Man John.” He might have meant πρεσβυτερος in its literal meaning of “old man” to identify himself. He might be saying, “Hey guys, it’s me, Old Man John.”
Paul was dead. The Seventy, if they were still alive, were scattered in faraway places. Of the Twelve apostles, only John was still alive and in Asia Minor. If Revelation was written by an apostle, it can only have been written by John.
So here it is:
For those of you who took Latin, Quod erat demonstrandum. If you didn’t, you get to practice looking things up in Google!
The Apostle John wrote the Revelation
Taking the Roman road system into account, if you visit the cities in the same order as the letters appear in Revelation, you would travel in a loop starting from Patmos.
The Apostle John could receive visitors while he was in prison, but since he could not leave, he sent a courier to take the revelation to his churches. Because he was writing by hand, it took conscious effort to put the letters to the churches in geographical order, probably to help the courier remember his route. Each letter begins with a metaphorical description of the city as seen by an arriving traveler. For example, when travelers arrived in Pergamum’s harbor, they saw a steep mountain with terraces. At the top, there was a pagan temple dedicated to Imperial cult on a rocky ledge that looked like a throne—and was even called a throne by the locals. Using “Satan” as a code word for Caesar, Pergamum really was located at Satan’s throne. Laodicea had lukewarm sulfur springs. The water was too cool to use as a spa and tasted too bad to drink; the only thing you could do with that water was spit it out of your mouth. The descriptions served a dual purpose. They not only helped the courier recognize the city, they were part of the message.
The recurring theme in Revelation is Jesus slain, yet alive; defeated, yet conquering. Since the Apostle John wrote it, the whole book could be taken, not just as an apocalypse conveying a message of comfort and exhortation in extreme times, but as an expression of vindicated grief. For John, alone and desolate on Patmos, the Last Supper could have been the last “normal” moment in his life. He was the last living member of the Twelve, the others were gone. There was a hideous persecution, and the churches were falling into heresy. He had a vision of Jesus vindicated and victorious, of an end to persecution, and of an infinite number of Christians. Who, but the Aspotle John, would write that?
To me, at least, the evidence is overwhelming that John the Apostle was the author of Revelation. Of course, that’s just my opinion, mind you. After all that work, I hope it’s yours, too.