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.

Who are the 144,000 in the book of Revelation?

“Sealing the 144,000” Ottheinrich Bibel, c. 1430

The identity of the 144,000 who have their “Father’s name written on their foreheads” is one of the great puzzles in the book of Revelation.  Because these people are said to be “from all the tribes of Israel,” they are often understood to be Israelites of some kind.  But there’s a very good reason to believe that they are not exclusively Israelites, but rather a different group that includes some Israelites.

The list of the tribes of Israel in the description of the 144,000 in Revelation is different from any other such list in the Bible in two significant ways:
(1) the names are different and
(2) the order is different.

Elsewhere in the Bible, these names are typically listed in one of two ways.  When they are being presented as the sons of Jacob, they are listed by birthright, according to the seniority of his wives and concubines and the birth order of their sons:

Sons of Leah
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun.
Sons of Rachel
Joseph, Benjamin
Sons of Bilhah
Dan, Naphtali
Sons of Zilpah
Gad, Asher

On the other hand, when the names represent the tribes of Israel, that is, territorial and civic entities, Levi is not listed because his descendants became temple servants and were not assigned any territory.  To get back to a total of twelve, Ephraim and Manasseh are listed in place of their father Joseph.  When the names represent the tribes, they are often listed in geographic order, roughly from south to north.

In Revelation, Levi and Joseph are both on the list, suggesting that the sons of Jacob are in view.  However, Manasseh also appears on the list, even though all of his descendants are already included in Joseph—this is a redundancy.  And Dan, for some reason, is missing.  So we have one tribe too many and one tribe too few.  And the order isn’t even close to being correct either by birthright or geography.

So what’s going on here?  As I’ve argued in this article, I believe that here in Revelation we have a “portrayal of the church as the new Israel in the names and order of the tribes.”  That is, the names are presented in such a way as to show that the community of Jesus’ followers is the continuation of the people of God flowing out of the community of ancient Israel.

Specifically, in the portrayal of the 144,000:
• Judah comes first because Jesus was from that tribe as the Messianic heir to David’s throne.  He is the “lion of the tribe of Judah.”
• Reuben comes next representing believing Israelites, the “firstborn” who belong to God.
• Then come four names representing the tribes descended from Jacob’s concubines, who come last by birth order, but in the community of Jesus’ followers, “the last shall be first.”  These names represent the Gentiles, who at the time of the book’s writing are actually coming to faith ahead of the Israelites.
• However, one of the four names, Manasseh, is a replacement for Dan.   The tribe of Dan was the first to fall into idolatry and the first to be carried off into exile.  This represents the danger of apostasy in general (one of the main concerns of Revelation), and perhaps also how Judas Iscariot fell away and was replaced by Matthias.
•  The remaining sons of Jacob’s full wives make up the last six names on the list, expressing the expectation that ultimately “all Israel will be saved.”

The 144,000, in other words, represent the community of all who believe in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile.  They are a symbolic representation of the reality that is described more literally immediately afterwards, the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

This is another of the places where the book of Revelation is creatively adapting an image from the First Testament to speak to New Testament realities, in this case the continuity between the covenant communities of both testaments; they are one people of God.  This same theme is encountered in other places in Revelation as well, such as when the new Jerusalem is seen to have “the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” on its gates and “the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” on its foundations, or when the human community around the throne of God is represented as 24 elders, depicting the first and new covenant communities, 12 being the covenant number in the book.  But in this case the continuity of the covenants is symbolized by 12 x 12 (144) rather than 12 + 12 (24).  The symbol is intensified by multiplication by 10 x 10 x 10 (1,000), representing the totality of those who belong to the community.

If the “mark of the beast” meant Domitian’s coins, how can there also be a future fulfillment?

Q. In your Daniel-Revelation guide, you say that taking the “mark of the beast” in Revelation could have originally meant using or wearing Roman coins that gave the emperor Domitian the titles “lord and god.”  But you also say that this historical background is “only a starting point for understanding the symbol,” and that it “shouldn’t limit its meaning” (p. 107). Doesn’t this leave the door open for the speculation and foolish debate that often arise over this topic?

I agree that it’s unfortunate when a lot of time, energy, and emotion are spent trying to figure out what one thing the “mark of the beast” must correspond to. We don’t need to do this.

The symbol did mean something specific and definite at the time when the book of Revelation was written. I’ve suggested one likely possibility in the study guide, Domitian’s coins, which “would be held in the right hand for transactions” and which “were sometimes also worn in a band on the forehead.”  This would explain John’s statement that everyone was forced “to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark.”

The Jews were already sensitive enough to the blasphemous and idolatrous depictions of emperors on Roman coins that these coins were not allowed in the Jerusalem temple.  That’s why there were money-changers there.  (Unfortunately they cheated the people who needed to convert their Roman currency; that’s why Jesus overturned their tables, for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves.”)  And so it’s quite reasonable that John in Revelation would express a similar sensitivity to the way emperor worship was being advanced insidiously through the necessities of economic life. This is a respected interpretation among New Testament scholars.

But I also say in the guide that in the books of Daniel and Revelation, events in the near future and the far distant future may be simultaneously envisioned, “as a definitive crisis in the life of God’s people evokes the ultimate crisis at the end of this age” (p. 122).  So there may well be something in the final conflict between good and evil at the end of history that closely approximates the “mark of the beast” as it was experienced in John’s time—some form of coercion to participate in a godless system, upon threat of being excluded from buying and selling.

But the best way to be prepared for such a challenge, if we ever have to face it, is to recognize even now that fallen cultures will always try to get their people’s allegiance at the expense of their allegiance to God.  Followers of Jesus need to be perpetually aware of this danger and resist it.

Ultimately, what represents a present-day manifestation of the “mark of the beast” (coercion to join a godless system) will vary in different places and times. And so rather than engaging in speculation and debate about a unique meaning for the symbol, believers need to be spiritually alert and uncompromising in every situation.

Are the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, etc. intentionally symbolic in the book of Revelation?

Q. In your Revelation study guide you say that there’s a symbolic meaning for the numbers in the book.  3 means God, 4 means creation, 7 means perfection, 10 means completeness, and so forth.  Did John really write with all of this in mind?

I believe he definitely did. Throughout the book of Revelation, John is drawing on a stock of recognizable symbols from the First Testament.  This stock includes some commonly-used numerical symbols that would have been meaningful to John’s readers.

For example, in the First Testament, 10 represents completeness in the human dimension, since people usually have ten figures and ten toes.  That’s why God gave an epitome of the law in the Ten Commandments.  The number is also used in this sense when Job says to his friends, “Ten times now you have reproached me.”  This is not a literal count, because the friends have only spoken five times to that point in the book.  But the number means “You’ve reproached me as many times as a human can bear.”   Ten meaning what is complete or ultimate in human experience is also seen in Daniel’s vision of the four beasts.  The last one, representing a supreme empire, has ten horns.  The image and the number with its significance are echoed in John’s description of the dragon in Revelation.

To give another example, since there were twelve tribes of Israel, the number 12 represents the covenant community in the First Testament.  In the New Testament, Jesus himself appealed to this symbol when he chose 12 apostles.  Through this number he was declaring that a new kind of covenant community was coming into existence through his life and ministry.  In Revelation the number 12 is used throughout the book to represent the community.  See how many times it’s used in the depiction of the New Jerusalem, for example. (See the Daniel-Revelation study guide, p. 131.)

Twelve can also be used in multiples and in combination with other numbers. There are 24 elders in the heavenly throne vision to depict the continuity of the first and new covenant communities.  The number 144,000, for its part, comes from 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10, representing the fullness of the community of believers throughout time and space from the first and new covenants.

Examples like these show us what an intentional part numbers play in the book of Revelation’s symbolism, echoing the First Testament background.  As for some of the other numbers in the book, as I write in my Daniel-Revelation study guide:

•  3 represents God, who’s often described in three-part phrases (“who was, and is, and is to come”) and ascribed triple attributes (“holy, holy, holy”; “glory and honor and power.”)

•  4 is the number of creation.  It’s represented in the heavenly throne vision by four living creatures, and it’s also described as having four parts: heaven, earth, under-earth, and sea.  The song of every creature ascribes four attributes to the Lamb: praise, honor, glory and power.  There are other uses of the number 4 to symbolize creation later in the book, for example, in the following vision, “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth holding back the four winds”.

•  The number 7 (4+3) represents perfection and completeness.  The Lamb has seven horns and seven eyes; these symbolize his absolute power and knowledge.  The scroll has seven seals because it contains the definitive judgments of God.  The seven churches at the beginning of the book are symbolized by seven lamp stands and seven stars.  While these are actual churches, they’re also representative of the church as a whole; what’s written to them is also addressed to the wider community of Jesus’ followers.  The throne vision depicts the “seven spirits of God.” As a translation note in the NIV explains, this is the “seven-fold” Spirit of God–the perfect (divine) Holy Spirit.  The angels, in their song, ascribe seven attributes to the Lamb, acknowledging his divine perfections.

We see in all of these ways, as I write in my study guide, that “in addition to visual symbols drawn from earlier Scriptures, the book of Revelation also uses numerical symbols.  Certain numbers in the book are like ‘logos’ that point to key characters and themes.”

For the symbolic meaning of the number 666, see this post.