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The Author of Revelation

In this post I want to explain why it is almost universally thought that the same author did not write the fourth Gospel and the book of Revelation, and then to show why the latter author was almost certainly not John the son of Zebedee, Jesus’ close disciple.  So far as I know, only fundamentalists today think that John the son of Zebedee did write the book of Revelation.   There are really only three things that speak in favor of this view:

(1) The author was someone named John (hey! If he was John he was John, right?  Well, John was a very common name, and he doesn’t claim to be *that* John)

(2) The book of Revelation, like the Gospel of John, speaks of Christ as a lamb who was slain and thinks of him as the Word of God (that shows that it had similar views, not that it had the same author)

(3) Church tradition for centuries has maintained that John the son of Zebedee was the author.

The evidence on the other side of the equation, however, is overwhelming.  To begin with, there can really be no doubt that whoever wrote the book of Revelation, it was not the author of the Gospel of John.   That’s because the writing styles are massively different.

It is hard to show this without appealing to issues related to the Greek language in which both books were written, so let me just put it like this.  If you were to take any random page from a novel of James Joyce and then any random page from a novel of Stephen King, and ask yourself whether they were written by the same author, you would have zero problem realizing that they were by different authors.

It’s the same with the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation.  Their writing styles are wildly….

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  1. Avatar
    jhague  August 1, 2016

    So Revelation and Hebrews should not have made it into the NT. Revelation for what you are discussing now and Hebrews due to Paul incorrectly being assumed to be the author. The four gospels were incorrectly assumed to be written by apostles. Then there are the forgeries claiming to be by Paul that were included. Also James, Peter, John and Jude’s books at the end who are not written by the authors that were assumed.
    That I think just leaves us with Paul’s seven undisputed letters and he never met Jesus. Does that summarize the books of the NT correctly?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      I don’t take any stand on the quesiton of what “should” have made it into the New Testament. That was a judgment reached by church leaders.

      • Avatar
        jhague  August 2, 2016

        That’s the point I was trying to make. The ancient church leaders made a judgment that they would only include books that were written by apostles who had been with Jesus. We now know that they were wrong for all the books of the NT. We now know that Jesus disciples were for the most part illiterate and Paul never met Jesus (except through his claimed vision of the christ). I was confirming with you that I was stating a true fact.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  August 1, 2016

    I know very little about Revelation; I’ve never been interested in it. So I can’t remember whether the place this “John” came from was called “Padmos” or “Patmos.” But whichever it was, what someone said in a post seemed to indicate it was a bad place – the sort of place to which people might be exiled. Can you explain that?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      I’ve been there. It’s just a relatively small island. We don’t know what living conditions there were like in the first century.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  August 1, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, but was it written on the Isle of Patmos? If so, one must answer the questions
    A) What was a Jewish Christian named John (Yochanan) whose native language wasn’t Greek doing living on a Greek island in the middle of the Aegean?
    B) How did this work, that mentions the seven major Churches of Asia Minor, finds its way off Patmos?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      The tradition is that he had moved to Ephesus and was exiled from there. The seven churches are the ones in the vicinity of Asia Minor where he had re-settled.

  4. Avatar
    prairieian  August 1, 2016

    Just a comment.

    I have always found it odd that so many denizens of heaven, including the 24 you note in the post, devote their time in eternity to the praise of God. Why? Presumably in gratitude for being created in his image. Why would God need or expect such devotion from his creations? What else would one want to do up there?

    Hell, of course, is described much better in terms of the torments that are the just reward of the unrighteous. Interesting that our Western civilisation would devote so much more mental energy on describing punishment and pain, and rather less on the joy of life and the rewards of heaven. Mind you, a reward of constantly singing the praises of the creator would, for this creature, rapidly become rather dull and problematic.

    Religious thought is a puzzle at times on these impossible to ascertain matters. Better to focus on the here and now it seems to me.

    • gmdave449
      gmdave449  August 2, 2016

      What I find intriguiging is that while the extra-Biblical literature on the afterlife devotes much more effort to describing hell than heaven, the Bible talks about heaven in a lot of detail but hardly provides any description of hell. The same is true of the book of Enoch.

      • Avatar
        HistoricalChristianity  August 3, 2016

        It’s much easier to describe a bad place in painful detail than a good place.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  August 5, 2016

          I’ve never found that to be true for myself or the many people I’ve read.

  5. Avatar
    bradrice_77  August 1, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    If someone is trying to reconcile Revelation being written by John, son of Zebedee, I’m curious as to why a fisherman from Galilee has found himself on the island of Patmos? Is there some sort of importance of this island to early Christianity?

    Secondly, I am troubled as to why these important seven churches are located geographically, where they are. Were there no early Christian churches located closer to where Jesus was conducting his ministry?

    Thanks in advance, I’m a big fan of your work.

    • Avatar
      bradrice_77  August 1, 2016

      I’m answering my own questions a bit here, but after some research it seems as if Herod Agrippa’s persecution of Christians had a lot to do with the scattering of the Apostles. Did this also have some influence on the seven early Christian churches being established in Asia Minor, vice areas closer to Jesus’ ministry?

      My apologies, I’m wandering off the original topic a tad.

      • Bart
        Bart  August 2, 2016

        These churches were probably started by Christian missionaries like Paul (who worked in this area)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      The idea is that he had relocated to Ephesus, and was exiled from there. The churches are all in western Asia Minor, were Christianity had taken root by the middle of the first century.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  August 3, 2016

      PS: I’m not Dr. Ehrman 🙂

      The early growth of Christianity was among Gentiles, and in those areas of the Roman Empire distant from Judea. I personally think Christianity originated in those regions, not in Judea. The ideas of Christianity fit far better in the background of Greek religious thought than in Jewish thought.

      • Bart
        Bart  August 4, 2016

        PPS: And you can be glad about *that*!

        • Avatar
          llamensdor  August 5, 2016

          Are you kidding? Christianity owes its roots to Greek religious thought and not to Judaism–and we should be glad of that? Without Judaism there is no Christianity. Right?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 7, 2016

            That’s right.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  August 7, 2016

            When someone says it fits the Greek background better than the Jewish, he is not saying that it’s a completely Greek phenomenon, not Jewish. One can wonder whether “those” people from whom Paul got the Gospel–if indeed he did not invent it–were nearly as or as Hellenized as he was. It could well have been people outside the Jerusalem Council. It is no wonder that almost all Jews rejected the Gospel Paul tried to spread and that it took hold outside of Judea among pagans. I think that that’s all “HistoricalChristianity” meant.

            As for Bart’s remark, “You can be glad about that,” I think that was a response to HistoricalChristianity’s statement that he was not Bart.

  6. Avatar
    Saemund  August 1, 2016

    Is there any book or commentary that discusses Revelation from the historical perspective? I’ve always been interested in what the author meant when he penned his words (while on some good drugs, I might add…). However, I’m not sure how to find a book that would discuss Revelation historically. Everyone who is interested in Revelation seems to be Christian, so they discuss how its prophecies are being fulfilled today (what the heck?). This is not something that I’m interested in.

    Thank you in advance for any response.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      You might try Bruce Metzger’s book Breaking the Code.

      • Avatar
        Saemund  August 2, 2016

        Thanks for the reply. I’ll try this book.

  7. gmdave449
    gmdave449  August 2, 2016

    Do you think the clumsiness of the Greek style in Revelation is due to the fact that it deliberately parallels the book of Daniel so closely and also draws heavily from other OT books such as Isaiah and Ezekiel? Could it be that the author’s first language appears to be Semitic because in fact he was influenced by or even trying to emulate the Hebraic style of the books he builds from?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      No, the grammatical problems do not occur in passages quoted from earlier writings, but in the author’s own composition

  8. Avatar
    dragonfly  August 3, 2016

    I think I read somewhere that revelation was partly written in the 60s and partly written in the 90s. When do you date it?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      Yes, it’s much debated. But without huge amounts of specialist knowledge, I go with the consensus and put it in the 90s. (Some date it to the 60s because of the clear references to Nero; but we do know of other sources that spoke about Nero re-appearing, as Revelation too seems to presuppose. It didn’t have to be written in the 60s to have this view)

  9. Avatar
    steppencat  August 3, 2016

    I find the factoid about Dionysius fascinating. My understanding was that philology was “invented” by Lorenzo Valla in the 15th century when he was in the employ of the king of Naples to disprove the authenticity of the Donation of Constantine (not just for fun…disproving it gave claim to the King of Naples over a large part of Italy). This is a great example of I guess…proto-philology?…taking place over 1000 years before Valla.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2016

      Ah yes, there were indeed ancient philologists! Some of them quite famous. Their principles were very similar to the ones developed (“rediscovered”) by Valla and others like him.

  10. TWood
    TWood  August 4, 2016

    When you say “the clear references to Nero” I assume you at least mean: A) The number(s) of the beast. and B) The allusion to the Redivivus legend (if I assume wrong on these two please let me know).

    1. Do you think the five have fallen clearly refers to Nero’s predecessors (even though it was technically only four?) Suetonius seems to include Julius as first but Tacitus doesn’t (if I’m understanding that right).

    2. Do you think the 42 months is an estimate of the official Christian persecution after Rome’s burning to shortly before Nero’s death?

    3. Are there other clear Neronic references you see?

    P.s. Have you read the latest Islamic State magazine (issue 15)? It’s the worst of the worst monotheistic fundamentalism. The featured article is called “Break the Cross” (I bring it up because it’s eerie how “Neronic” it sounds). http://www.clarionproject.org/factsheets-files/islamic-state-magazine-dabiq-fifteen-breaking-the-cross.pdf

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2016

      1. I don’t think any of the numbers-issues are clear! 2. I don’t know 3. Those are the main ones, I think.

      • TWood
        TWood  August 4, 2016

        Sorry, I’m confused on your view now… don’t wanna annoy but I wanna make sure I’m understanding you:

        You mentioned “clear references (plural) to Nero” in a comment in this post.

        In a previous post/comment you said 666/616 is most likely (maybe not clearly?) referring to Nero.

        But now you just said none of the numbers-issues are clear (unless you meant none are clear except for 666/616).

        If 666/616 is not clear, does that mean you see only the single Redivivus legend as a clear reference to Nero?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 5, 2016

          666 is clear. The “fifth” horn or 1260 days, etc — those are not so clear.

  11. Avatar
    Marko071291  May 23, 2018

    Hi Bart. Could you point to the source where Dionysius is claiming that Revelation can’t be included in NT because it wasn’t written by apostle John? I found only one reference in Eusebius where Dionysius argues only about the autorship of Revalation, but not the question Is it oke for Revelation to be in NT.

    Maybe I missed something? Thanks for help!

    Kind regards

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2018

      I don’t have any books with me, but I believe that is the reason he was discussing the issue in the first place. The driving question about Revelation was whether to include it or not — a debate that continued on into the fifth century. The only reason to discuss authorship was to see whether this could be accepted as an authoritative and apostolic text.

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