Did the apostle John write the book of Revelation?

Q. Thank you very much for your recent post about whether the apostle John was the author of the gospel of John. This has been a question at the back of my mind for some time and it’s great to hear your reasons for believing John to be the author. I was also wondering about the authorship of the book of Revelation. In your study guide to Revelation you state that its author was unlikely to be the apostle John since in the Gospel of John and his letters he never refers to himself as John, but goes by “the elder” or “the one whom Jesus loved.”  Along with that textual evidence, I was wondering what other evidence supports this view. Has the church traditionally seen the apostle John as the author, or is that a more recent phenomenon?

“St. John Receiving His Revelation” from the Apocalypse of St. Sever (11th century). Church art customarily follows the traditional view in ascribing the book to the apostle John.

We need to recognize that there was a tendency within the early church to accept that the books they read in worship and considered reliable had been written by the apostles or else by their close companions (such as Luke).  This was in keeping with the growing belief within the community that these books were authoritative.  And so we find early figures such as Ireneus, Tertullian, Origen, etc. ascribing the book of Revelation to the apostle John.

Even so—and by contrast with most other New Testament books—there were some who questioned Revelation’s apostolic authorship.  In his late third-century Ecclesiastical History, for example, Eusebius quotes Dionysius of Alexandria (who lived a generation earlier) as saying the following about Revelation:

“That this book is the work of one John, I do not deny. And I agree also that it is the work of a holy and inspired man. But I cannot readily admit that he was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, by whom the Gospel of John and the Catholic Epistle were written.  For I judge from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the entire execution of the book, that it is not his . . .  I do not deny that the other writer saw a revelation and received knowledge and prophecy. I perceive, however, that his dialect and language are not accurate Greek, but that he uses barbarous idioms, and, in some places, solecisms.” (VII.25)

So in the case of every New Testament book, when asking about authorship, we have to reckon with the tendency of the early church to ascribe accepted books to apostolic sources.  And we need to be prepared to critique this tendency in light of evidence that is internal to the book (as Dionysius did in the case of the book of Revelation less than two hundred years after it was written).

When it comes to the authorship of Revelation, in addition to the evidence you cited (the author’s own self-description), we can note, as I also say in the study guide (you’ll hear echoes of Dionysius here), that “the language, themes, and perspectives of the apostle’s writings are very different from those in Revelation.”

This is not a simple matter of style or genre; great authors can write in a variety of styles.  (If we didn’t know better, we’d never imagine that James Joyce wrote The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a more conventional style, and then changed styles so drastically to write Ulysses, and then did so yet again for Finnegan’s Wake.)

Rather, the perspectives are different.  The gospel of John is said to have a “vertical eschatology.”  That is, eschatological realities are understood to be present now, breaking in from the heavenly realm.  For example, when Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” and she replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” Jesus counters, “I am the resurrection and the life” (now).

Revelation, by contrast, has a “horizontal eschatology.”  Eschatological realities are coming in the future and believers must await them faithfully and hopefully, enduring in order to “overcome.”

For reasons like these I consider someone other than the apostle John, but a person who was nevertheless named John, to have been the author of Revelation.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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