We’re asking all the wrong questions about who wrote the Book of Revelation

I spent a couple of years working towards a PhD in Ancient History, but ultimately fell apart and wasn’t able to complete it. It’s possible, but not probable, that I’ll get back into it one day…but enough of that.

The project was focused on ways of reading the Book of Revelation as political resistance literature (in the context of 1st century Roman Asia Minor), and a significant part of it was the issue of authorship. Now, I do realise that a lot of people will find all of this terribly boring, but I think it’s actually quite an interesting question, and I’ll try to explain why here.

Essentially, I’m convinced that we are asking all the wrong questions about who wrote the Book of Revelation.

john-patmos

From the very earliest ‘commentaries’ on this amazing/confusing text, there has been one key question asked about the authorship which has railroaded the discussion ever since: Is the author of Revelation the same person who wrote the other so-called ‘Johannine’ material in the New Testament? That is, is the person who wrote the Book of Revelation the same person who wrote the ‘Gospel of John,’ and the ‘Letters of John’ — and is this the Apostle John who spent time with Jesus of Nazareth?

It all gets a bit technical, but this question (and group of subquestions) arises out of very early speculation about two men named ‘John’ who were buried in ancient Ephesus and their possible connection to the Johannine material. Perhaps one of these ‘Johns’ was the Apostle and it was this John who wrote the Fourth Gospel, and the other was ‘The Elder’ somewhat cryptically named in two of the Johannine Letters. Was either of these Johns the person who wrote the Book of Revelation? Perhaps the Apostle wrote all of the Johannine material, or maybe just part of it (or even none of it!); who wrote the bits, if any, that he didn’t? Are neither of the Johns who were buried in Ephesus the Apostle, but rather they are the ‘Elder’ John and the ‘prophet’ John? These sorts of questions have come to dominate all discussion on the matter, to the point that what we now find at the beginning of any commentary on the Book of Revelation is a few pages dedicated to these broad questions (including linguistic surveys sketching out the likelihood of the different documents coming from the same hand) with a general ‘Who knows!’ conclusion and hints in the direction of denominational loyalties (eg. “We don’t know for sure who wrote the text, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been the Apostle John…so let’s just call the author the Apostle. #okthanksbye”).

The truth is that we don’t actually know much at all about the authorship of any of these documents. #truestory (and now I’ll quit it with the hashtags)

Here’s what we do know:

The author of the Fourth Gospel never actually names himself ‘John,’ but does seem to refer to himself as ‘the beloved disciple’ who was, apparently, very close to Jesus (though not necessarily one of the 12 disciples). The letter of ‘1 John’ is completely anonymous, but the author does paint a picture of being an eyewitness of Jesus. The author of  ‘2 John’ and ‘3 John’ refers to himself only as ‘The Elder’.

In fact, the only one of these texts to actually use the name ‘John’ is the Book of Revelation, and never once does he refer to anything like ‘apostleship’ as the source of his/the text’s authority. Rather, he points only to the authority of his prophetic vision itself. Because of the fact that this author doesn’t expand on which John he is, but simply states it as his name, we have no convincing reason to doubt that this is his real name (that is, it’s not pseudonymous, like many ancient apocalyptic texts were), but we really don’t know that much more about him.

Tl;dr, we don’t know who wrote the Book of Revelation, except that his name is most probably John, he seems to think of himself as a prophet, and there’s no hint of any explicit connection between this text and any of the ‘Johannine’ material (none of which explicitly states that it’s written by ‘John’ anyway).

Glad we’ve got that sorted!

I think, though, that there is a much more fruitful line of questioning (speculative though it may be).

What if, instead of starting with the confusing tale of two Johns in Ephesus, we started with this question: who might have had the requisite skillset to write this extraordinary text?

Unless we are to convince ourselves that this text ‘dropped out of heaven,’ we must admit that it was written by an actual human being who thought about what it was they were doing and how they wanted to express themselves — which is not to say that the author didn’t have some sort of visionary experience, but simply that they seem to have carefully crafted the way they brought it all together. (Contra the weird source-critical investigations of the 19th and early-20th centuries, I’m convinced that scholars like Richard Bauckham are on the right track in saying that the Book of Revelation is a text of extraordinary literary skill and unity.)

This sort of text fits into the style of writing that we call ‘apocalypses’ and, despite many people’s (unfounded) belief that the Book of Revelation is different from any other text ever written, we have quite a few ancient apocalypses to compare it with (there are certainly unique aspects to this remarkable text, but there other other texts that are similar enough to provide a good comparison). Though it’s still somewhat contested, it seems likely that ‘apocalyptic’ literature rose, mainly, out of the legacy of Jewish ‘prophetic’ literature (but in a time when the Jewish people were in a very different context). It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the Jewish ‘prophetic’ literature was prominent at the time the Jewish people were in their own land (often facing external challenges from nearby empires and the threat of exile, but nevertheless mostly in charge of their own affairs with a Jewish king on the throne), while the ‘apocalyptic’ literature grew out of the experience of the Jewish people in exile (and, once back in the land, still under the yoke of ‘pagan’ empires). The point of the apocalypses was to ‘reveal’ God’s perspective on the current situation (‘drawing back the heavenly curtain,’ so to speak), showing that, despite current circumstances, God was still in control and there would be vindication in the end.

And this is where it gets interesting.

The Jewish apocalyptic texts were, most likely, written by the scribal communities who had been entrusted with the responsibility of preserving and passing on the sacred Jewish scriptures.

It was the job of the scribes to make sure the texts were passed on to new generations, but it seems that, in the post-exilic world, the scribal communities expanded their job description to include not just copying the texts, but writing new ones! They did this in some very interesting and creative ways, including writing in the name of ancient, revered figures (like Enoch or Daniel or even Baruch, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah). They were often set deep in the past, and the fact that they were only just ‘discovered’ now was explained through various techniques like having been ‘sealed’ until the fullness of time (cf. Daniel 12:4;9).

These scribes were highly trained, and the ones who became the authors of the apocalyptic material learnt complex techniques and apocalyptic ‘stock imagery’ that was used in nuanced ways in each new apocalypse.

The point is this: even though the average Jewish person might have been somewhat familiar with the apocalypses, there is no way that they would have possessed the skills to write an apocalypse themselves.

This is even more evident when it comes to the Book of Revelation.

The extraordinary literary skill demonstrated in this text suggests that the author was someone who was a master of apocalyptic imagery and techniques — someone who had devoted many years to learning the requisite skills (including profound knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures), and then wrote a genuine literary masterpiece that became the standard for all other ‘apocalypses.’ To put it bluntly, the level of skill needed to write the text was well beyond everyone but a very select few.

When this is added to the fact that the author of Revelation seems to write in his own name (rather than using a pseudonym), and obviously sees the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the climax of God’s plans in the world, it seems reasonable — at least to my mind — to suggest that the author of Revelation was, quite likely, a Jewish scribe who had become a Christian and who was seeking, in this text, to show how this revelation of God’s plans in Jesus drew together all other prophetic/apocalyptic insight (nb. the Book of Revelation doesn’t stand alongside Zechariah or Daniel or the Enoch literature, but rather draws all of it together and shows how it finds fulfilment in the Jesus story).

My suggestion (and what I was hoping to demonstrate conclusively in my now-abandoned PhD) is that it is this line of questioning, rather than the ‘two Johns of Ephesus’ approach, that will result in the best kind of fruit for studying the text. There are only two scholars that, I think, get anywhere near the mark on these issues: Richard Bauckham and David Aune. Bauckham demonstrates convincingly, to my mind, that the author of Revelation is a literary genius, but doesn’t ask the question about what kind of person might have had the skillset required to do this (and leaves it all frustratingly open-ended). Aune speculates about the author being a Jewish scribe who became a Christian prophet, but it all gets rather confused in his source-critical approach that is far too confident in demarcating between the ‘older, Jewish’ sections of the text (written around the time of the fall of Jerusalem) and the ‘newer, Christian’ portions (written much later in the 1st century), with a conversion experience separating them.

As such, there’s a gap in the scholarship. If someone reads this and becomes inspired to write a PhD including this line of thought, I’d appreciate a hat tip in the acknowledgements section! : )

Either way, I remain convinced that it’s these sorts of questions that will deliver a much more helpful framework for interpreting this exquisite text. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

2 thoughts on “We’re asking all the wrong questions about who wrote the Book of Revelation”

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