This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the second of twenty-six short reflections.
Who wrote The Book of Revelation? The answer is “John”, as is clear from the first two verses:
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Revelation 1.1-2
In the original Greek the name is Ἰωάννης Iōánnēs or Ἰωάνης Iōánēs, and somehow over two thousand years via Latin, French, and Old English that became our English “John” – although I am fuzzy on how “I” became “J”. The Greek is derived from Yohanan “Graced by Yah”, or Yehohanan, “Yahweh is Gracious”.
But who was John? Revelation 1.9 states that
I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
So John is a Christian who was exile on Patmos. Patmos is an island in the Agean Sea belonging to the modern nation of Greece, very near to Anatolia, or what is now Turkey. In ancient times and right up until 1923 much of Anatolia was populated by Greek speaking peoples who had settled there over three thousand years ago. John is writing some time after Jesus’s death and resurrection, probably several decades after, because he mentions churches in a variety of places in western Anatolia – Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It would have taken some time for these churches to be planted and grow, so we can assume that this is written later than Paul’s letters.
There are several texts in the New Testament that are similar in many ways to Revelation – three letters and the Fourth Gospel. Although these letters and the gospel are all pseudonymous – the author or authors do not identify themselves in the text – the earliest of traditions identified them all with John the Apostle, the brother of James, and one of the fishermen called by Jesus. It may be that the similarity of style of Revelation with the letters and gospel assisted in the argument that they were all written by John, and so we know them as the Gospel according to John, and the First, Second, and Third Letters of John.
However, ancient tradition is not unanimous about this. John is a not uncommon name in the New Testament. There is John the Baptist, as well as John Mark. The letters and the gospel are pseudonymous; was the author of Revelation a different John from that of John the Apostle? As the Wikipedia article on it says, summarising the ancient reports,
Other early Christian writers . . . such as Dionysius of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea, not[ed] the differences in language and theological outlook between this work and the Gospel.
The eminent Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown suggested the following relationships.
First, there was a community assembled around an individual identified as “The Beloved Disciple.” This person appears to have had direct contact with Jesus and was his disciple. He himself started a community or church, which Brown calls “The Community of the Beloved Disciple.” This Community may have begun in Judea or Galilee, but in time it made its way to Anatolia and either founded or took over a Greek language church, perhaps in Ephesus. While this person might be identified with John the Apostle, the Gospel according of John does not make this explicit.
Second, during the Beloved Disciple’s life a book was written down consisting of the things he preached. Brown discerns two editions of this text. The two edition theory explains why so often a topic in the gospel seems to have reached a natural conclusion, and then is picked up again for many verses or a whole chapter. These second edition probably came out soon after the first, and before the gospel was widely circulated outside of the community of the Beloved Disciple. The second edition itself probably had some light editing done to it, so one may speak of a “redacted second edition.” This is the gospel we have now, which tradition later ascribed to John. It is likely that the person who wrote the gospel and edited it was not the Beloved Disciple himself, but one of his followers.
Third, we have the three Johannine Letters. These letters, particularly the first, describe a church in schism. They are written in the style of the gospel, but not necessarily by the same person, and not by the Beloved Disciple, who had probably already died.
Finally, we have the Revelation of John. Brown is of the opinion that while there are many similarities in theme between the gospel and the letters, there are still too many differences in style and content to ascribe them to the same literary tradition. The author of Revelation was probably influenced by the Community of the Beloved Disciple, perhaps by reading the Fourth Gospel, perhaps by knowing leaders from the Community, or both. However, he had his own unique style and concerns, which were not the same as the Beloved Disciple’s.
John of Patmos, author of Revelation is often referred to in the Western tradition as “John the Divine”; “Divine” here is a noun meaning “theologian”, and it is not the adjective suggesting that he is somehow Godlike. There is a great, unfinished Episcopalian cathedral in New York City called “St John the Divine”, as well as many other places with that dedication. In Eastern Orthodoxy the author is known as “John the Theologian”, although most Orthodox would identify him with John the Apostle.
There is anger and judgement in Revelation, and this undoubtedly expresses the character of John. We will get into that later. But the author also has hope and faith, and a concern for the oppressed. Let us not forget that, eh?