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The Book of Revelation as an Apocalypse

I can now give a brief description of how the book of Revelation functions as an apocalypse – that is, how the features of the genre, that I’ve already mentioned, work themselves out in the narrative of the book.  Again, this is taken from my textbook on the New Testament.


In general terms, Revelation corresponds to the basic description of apocalypses that I have given.  It is a first-hand account written by a prophet who has been shown a vision of heaven that explains the realities of earth, a vision that is mediated by angels and that is chock-full of bizarre and mysterious symbolism.  The nature of the book is indicated at the outset, in the magnificent vision of the exalted Christ that the prophet describes in ch. 1.  Here Christ appears as “one like a Son of Man” (cf. Dan 7:13-14, where the phrase describes the cosmic judge of the earth) and is seen walking amidst the seven golden lampstands (i.e., he is present among the seven churches of Asia Minor, 1:20), with seven stars in his hands (i.e., he himself is in control of the guardian angels of these churches and therefore of the churches’ own destinies; 1:20).  His appearance is symbolic: among other things, he is a king (long robe with golden sash, 1:12); he is ancient (white hair, 1:14); he is the cosmic judge (eyes like fire, 1:14); he is full of splendor (feet of burnished bronze, 1:15); he is all-powerful (voice of many waters, 1:15); he speaks the word of God (two-edged sword in his mouth, 1:16); he is totally overpowering (face like the sun, 1:16).  The prophet’s response to this vision is understandable: he falls down as if dead.  But Christ raises him up and commands him to convey both the message of his vision and the truth of what is yet to come.


Features of the Apocalypse

Rather than examining all that happens in this book in detail, it may prove more useful to see how some of its features make sense in light of the apocalypse genre, as I have just described it.

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Finally! How To Understand the Symbols of Revelation
The Book of Revelation in Historical Context



  1. Avatar
    Jim  February 25, 2015

    In John’s accusations leveled against some in the seven Asia Minor churches, he uses derogatory OT gentile names (i.e. Jezebel and Balaam), and he cites problems (food sacrificed to idols, sexual immorality) that seem to be topics related to Paul’s visit to Jerusalem some ~40 years earlier (Acts 15.29/Acts 21.25). Pagels mentions that some commentators have noted that the practices that John of Patmos directs his angry rhetoric against seem to be the practices that Paul tolerated, at least re unclean foods.

    Do you think that this Jewish writer of Revelation is possibly directing his criticisms against certain 2nd generation followers of Paul’s teachings?

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  February 25, 2015

    Is there a commentary or some other such work on Revelation that is considered authoritative or seminal that you can recommend?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      The best commentary is the three volume work by David Aune in the Word Commentary series. A lot of the volumes in that series are hopelessly conservative, but this one is a treasure-trove of scholarship.

  3. Avatar
    MikeyS  February 25, 2015

    Hi Bart,

    Thanks but what a load of old cobblers. (Not your summary but the Book of so called Revelation) There is a very serious side to this message and that is real people were being tortured and killed because they fell for the spin of writers like this by saying “don’t worry, just keep the faith and be torn to pieces by lions and whatever you do, don’t recant or deny your faith because, if you do, you will be punished even more so and for eternity as well. Judgement will come very soon for the wicked and all will be just fine and a reward awaits you. Paul was in the same con trick business. Its all to happen ‘shortly’ and thanks for confirming it was Peter himself who said the time of his (Jesus) second coming was sooner than when they first believed. ie The chief apostle that lived alongside the Commander in Chief of the new found faith and what happened?..

    ZILCH! That’s what? They all died in vain for a lie, imo of course!

    And millions have died in the name of this religion and still do today. Christians in Sytria and Iraq and Africa are still dying for this fairy tale stuff. It really is one thing in uneducated and simple people believing all that stuff 2000 years ago but one would think that people nowdays would realize that is exactly what is was and what it is. And Christian Pastors and Popes still preach ‘It could be tomorrow”

    As usual going off tagent but I’m really glad I ditched all this and started to think for myself.

  4. Avatar
    daviskent  February 25, 2015

    I am currently reading Dr. Ehrman’s historical introduction to the New Testament and watching the Teaching Company course ‘Beginnings of Judaism’ taught by Dr. Isaiah M. Gafni. I must say that it is quite a fascinating educational experience…the lecture I watched today dealt with apocalyptic visions specifically Ezekiel, Daniel, and Enoch. The current thread on Revelation has been terrific. Thanks and greatly appreciated.

  5. Avatar
    walid  February 26, 2015

    Professor Ehrman
    If Jesus is talking to the Ephesians in Rev:2, is there any explanation why he didn’t mention his (supposed) prophet Paul?
    Or is it enough that Ephesians itself is not considered to be authentic for us not to worry too much about mentioning Paul in Rev.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      The author would have thought the letter to the Ephesians is authentic; but he may simply not wanted to name his opponents by name in his attacks, but to allowed his audience to make the inference themselves.

  6. Avatar
    nichael  February 26, 2015

    In the commentary on “Revelation” in the Anchor Bible series (by J. Massyngberde Ford) the suggestion is made that the core portion of Revelation was orginally a Jewish apocalypse which was then redacted to give it a more Christian “slant”. Finally several chapters were then added to the beginning and end of the book, giving the book its final form.

    Furthemore, Massyngberde Ford asserts that (quote) “Revelation is a composite work from the ‘Baptist School’ who represented a primitive form of Christianity and represented the Baptist’s prophetic, apocalyptic and ‘firey’ (boanergic) tendencies.” (pg. 56)

    (On the basis of the book displaying such a species of primitive Chistology it is also suggested that the earliest form of Revelation might be very early, possibly as early as the earliest gospels.)

    (Needless to say, I’m somewhat simplifying the argument here; but I think, overall, I’ve represented the basic points it accurately.)

    So, in short, is this (or any of this) a commonly held opinion?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      This is a highly idiosyncratic read of the book of Revelation. So far as I know she never convinced anyone of this view.

      • Avatar
        Kevin Nelson  March 1, 2015

        More generally, what is your opinion on the Anchor series as a whole? My own non-expert impression is that it’s pretty uneven, with more than one contributor advancing some pretty idiosyncratic interpretations. Even worse, it’s not always clear when the contributor is presenting his/her own ideas as opposed to presenting the scholarly consensus. (From reading Ford’s own commentary, you might think her view was quite mainstream.)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 1, 2015

          Uneven at first (the editors were embarrassed by the Revelation volume; and the original Mark was not so good either). But the volume over the past 20 years have mostly been superb.

          • SBrudney091941
            SBrudney091941  March 1, 2015

            Isn’t Speiser’s volume on Genesis still very highly regarded?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 3, 2015

            I don’t know! It’s certainly on *my* shelf.

  7. Avatar
    nichael  February 26, 2015

    Concerning the prefix to Revelation (i.e. the letters to the churches).

    I realize that there are several Apocalypses that are embedded within other, longer works (e.g. The Book of Daniel). But how common was it to include a “prefix” (or other such appendixes) with an Apocalypse? How strange should we consider this?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      Some of the Apocalypses are combinations of various texts (e.g., 1 Enoch). Off hand, though, I’m not familiar with epistles being included in them. It would be one of the several features that makes this apocalypse unique. Then again, each book is unique in one way or another.

  8. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 27, 2015

    The Book of Revelation is a bizarre bit of literature that stands as evidence that hallucinogens are not unique to our time.

  9. Avatar
    Gary  February 28, 2015

    Off topic question, Dr. Ehrman:

    Have you done a post on the doctrine of Hell, especially how it developed in Jewish teaching and subsequently in early Christian teaching? Do you believe that the concept of Hell and an afterlife was only introduced into Judaism during the Greek occupation of Palestine, as some liberal scholars assert?

    I am a former fundamentalist Christian. Of all the teachings that were ground into my head as a child growing up in this belief system, the fear of Hell is still something that I have not been able to completely shake.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      I keep meaning to do this. Maybe I will soon. Before hell freezes over!

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  March 1, 2015

      I would be very interested in this too, the origins of hell, but also when the devil first appeared.

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  February 28, 2015

    So there are two apocalypses in the New Testament.
    #1 – By Jesus: Destruction of the Temple, etc. from which you call Jesus an Apocalyptic prophet.

    #2 – Apocalypse in Revelation as justice for the saints defeated in the Jewish Revolt, the apocalyptic lamentation over the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jerusalem to Gentiles. Yes, they were saints. Vespasian said Jupiter defeated the God of Israel thereby putting Jupiter before the God of Israel which is a violation of the first of 10 Commandments in the Torah. As Christians hold up the Ten Commandments, we can call them saints.

    We needed the second apocalypse of Revelation to honor those who suffered and died during the First Jewish Roman War. Those saints cry out: how long before we are justified?

    Dr. Ehrman, earlier you said Revelation should not be applied to 2,000 years later and you said apocalypses are written for conditions of distress. Why wouldn’t Revelation communicate to the saints of rebellion upholding the First Commandment that “even though you loss the First Jewish Roman War, you were right to fight it. This book will give you hope that in your defeat you had righteousness which will be vindicated.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2015

      Mainly because it is a Christian work.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  March 1, 2015

        In other places of the New Testament, the literature goes to great lengths not to be confrontational with Rome. It is not the case here–not so Jesus-like/Christian. Pre-Jewish Revolt, especially in the late 20s and early 30s during the time of the biblical Jesus much care was taken to be discreet about confronting Rome. The Jewish Revolt happened, the Jews lost, and Revelation was written. Even though “like a Son of Man” factors into Christianity’s failed Son of Man movement and Son of Man appears in Revelation, it originates from the Jewish religion which gives a Jewish claim on Revelation also.

        The Book of Revelation was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian. You say the symbolism of Revelation is revealed at last. At Rev. 1: 16, his face was like the Sun (a star); 17) I fell at his feet, 18) I am the Living One. We know that unlike the dead deities of posthumously deified Caesars, Domitian was a Living One.

        While Rev. 21: 1 speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, Domitian’s poet Statius speaks of “new stars in another heaven.” So, for this and more significant reasons, Revelation has Jewish, Christian, Jewish Revolt, and Roman references.

        Who dare call it a sad sepulchre? Seeing the husband’s just devotion,
        One might readily exclaim: ‘Yes, I see that this is a minister of one
        Who lately created a shrine for his eternal race, and set new stars
        In another heaven.’ – The Silvae of Statius, v, I, “Consolation on the Death of Priscilla”

        At Rev. 21: 1-2, Revelation speaks not of the Earth we live on and the Heaven (Space) we see from Earth because they have passed away. In the poem above, Priscilla has passed away (her husband devoted to her), never to see Earth and Sky/Heaven/Space again. Compare with Rev. 21: 1-2: a new heaven and a new earth … Jerusalem prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  March 7, 2015

        Dear Dr. Ehrman, I would like to modify my position to include more Christianity in the foundation of my answer, if you were to agree to it. You spoke of Nero’s persecution of Christians but I think that is too early, coming after the Jewish Revolt and since Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian. What would you say to the Second Persecution of Christians under Emperor Domitian http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/foxs-book-of-martyrs/the-second-persecution-under-domitian-a-d-81.html ?

        The problem here is that his persecution extended years after with the killing of Clemens:

        In Rome however, things were different. In AD 90 Cornelia, the head of the Vestal Virgins was walled up alive in an underground cell, after being convicted of ‘immoral behaviour’, while her alleged lovers were beaten to death.
        And in Judaea Domitian stepped up the policy introduced by his father to track down and execute Jews claiming descent from their ancient king David. But if this policy under Vespasian had been introduced to eliminate any potential leaders of rebellions, then with Domitian it was pure religious oppression. Even among leading Romans in Rome itself this religious tyranny found victims. The consul Flavius Clemens was killed and his wife Flavia Domitilla banished, for being convicted of ‘godlessness’. Most likely they were sympathisers with Jews.

        Finally, with all the research you’ve done, was Clemens a Christian, a martyr, if not a pope (Clement)?

        Thank you, sir.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 9, 2015

          My view is that we know almost nothing about the historical Clement, other than that he was a foreign correspondent for the church of Rome at some point.

  11. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 31, 2015

    Do you see a connection between what you call triumphalist movement in John’s Apocalypse and the Christian triumphalism in present day right-wing politics?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2015

      Yes, it’s not an accident that this is a book they have latched on.

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