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Jeanie C. Crain



From the Oxford Companion to the Bible:


Author and Sources. Irenaeus and most later writers assumed that the author was the John who wrote the Gospel and letters, and that he was the son of Zebedee. But some, like Dionysius of Alexandria (third century), anticipated the majority of modern scholars by questioning this identification because of differences of thought, style, and language. Dionysius relied on hints that there had been two writers named John in Ephesus; and Papias (ca. 140 ce) mentions a John who was an elder, as well as the apostle.

Another possibility is that Revelation is pseudonymous, claiming a great figure of the past as author, like much other apocalyptic literature. There is a later tradition that the apostle John was martyred as his brother James had been (Acts 12.2; cf. Mark 10.39; Matthew 20.23, which may be the source of the tradition); as one of the inner circle, associated as he was with Jesus at the Transfiguration and on the Mount of Olives (Mark 13.3), he would have been a good figurehead for an apocalypse calling Christians to face martyrdom. If it was published ca. 95 ce, its later acceptance as genuine could have given rise to the widely held belief that John lived to a great age in Ephesus.

But the evidence for John’s martyrdom is flimsy, and if "John" is a fiction, it is odd that no capital is made out of it; the author is simply "your brother," and mentions the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21.14) without hint that he is one of them. The only status he claims is, by implication, that of prophet (Revelation 1.3; Revelation 22.9). This tells also against genuinely apostolic authorship, but not decisively; and Dionysius’s comment concerning differences in thought and style may be due to differences in situation and genre; there are also many marks of Johannine theology and expression. John’s language is indeed extraordinary, breaking all sorts of grammatical rules—but not out of incompetence; he can write correct and powerful Greek. He seems to be echoing Hebrew constructions, perhaps to give a biblical feel to the book.

The whole book purports to be what John has seen and heard, but it is clear that his visionary experience has been shaped both by canonical and apocalyptic writings like Enoch and by the Gospels (or the traditions on which they depend)—so much so that some see the book as a scriptural meditation, based perhaps on the Sabbath readings from the Law and the Prophets (See Lectionaries, article on Jewish Tradition), which has been cast in visionary form. Probably it is a mixture of genuine experience and literary elaboration. Biblical metaphors and images—dragon, lamb, harlot, bride—come to new life in his imagination. There are allusions to or echoes of practically every book in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel and Ezekiel are particularly formative; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and the Psalms are pervasive influences; so too are the stories of creation and Exodus, and of the return from Babylon and rebuilding of Jerusalem, which Isaiah depicted as a new Exodus and act of creation. Revelation is a rereading of biblical tradition in the light of the death of Jesus, and though no doubt Jewish, the author is also a citizen of the Greco-Roman world and knows its myths and astrology (see, for example, commentaries on Revelation 12.1–6).


John Sweet



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