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The Book of Revelation in Historical Context

I resume here my thread on the book of Revelation, trying to situate it in its historical context.   This will not be a long thread, in no small measure because I am not an expert on this very complicated book and have not written extensively about it.  I’ve thought that maybe it would be a good trade book at some point, in which case I would spend a year or so reading everything.   And then I would have lots of other posts!  But if that happens, it will be some years down the line.  Assuming the world hasn’t been destroyed by that time.

Here I talk about putting Revelation into its historical context.  Again, this is taken from my textbook on the New          Testament.


The Revelation of John in Historical Context

I have already pointed out that the book of Revelation is virtually unique among apocalypses in that it does not appear to be pseudonymous.  I say that it does not “appear” to be pseudonymous because the author simply calls himself John without claiming to be a famous person from the past.

Some Christians of the second and third centuries claimed that this John was none other than the son of Zebedee, Jesus’ own disciple.  Others rejected this notion and as a result refused to admit the book into the Christian canon of Scripture.  I should point out that….

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The Book of Revelation as an Apocalypse
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  1. Avatar
    Stephen  February 24, 2015

    Given the complicated provenance of the work what would you regard as the earliest part of Revelation and the latest? Care to speculate?

  2. Avatar
    toejam  February 24, 2015

    Elaine Pagels’ tradebook “Revelations” is great (and yes, the plural was deliberate… or show she says haha). Craig Koester’s “Revelation and the End of All Things” (including the accompanying Great Courses lecture series) is also great. You’d be hard pressed to outdo them on a trade book IMO.

    I’ve got into a few debates with “King James Only” fundamentalists who insist that Revelation 13:16 is a prophecy about a micro-chip “in” the hand. I’ve tried to point out to them that the greek word used, ἐπὶ, means “on” and is probably implying some sort of branding or tattoo. Am I being grammatically correct? Could ἐπὶ mean “in”? Clearly the authors feared some sort of physical branding by the Romans. Was their anything more to their fear? Anything tangible about it? Was there actually any talk about potentially branding non-Roman citizens?

    • Avatar
      toejam  February 24, 2015

      i.e. in the King James version, ἐπὶ is translated as “in”… (also, it should read “so she says”)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2015

      You’re right, the word almost always means “upon.” If the author wanted to say “in” he would have used εν or εις.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 24, 2015

    I found your discussion of the different literary styles of Revelation and the Gospel of John to be quite helpful meaning that the books had different authors. Thanks.

    Although I advised you (who am I to advise anyone?) to let go of the Kyle Butt debate, I find that I remain annoyed by it. The principles outlined on Butt’s “Apologetics Press” website also include the ideas that the earth is only several thousand (maybe about ten thousand) years old (apparently all carbon-14 dating of fossil material is flawed and humans coexisted with giant dinosaurs) and that Noah’s flood shaped most of our current geological findings. How can anyone take anything else these people say about anything seriously? Moreover, I don’t know how you had the stamina for 3 hours of this Kyle Butt debate. I will now try to let it go….

  4. Avatar
    qaelith2112  February 24, 2015

    I would certainly love to see a full-length book on Revelation written by you, but absent some unforeseen new instantaneous cloning technology, I realize your backlog of other equally interesting projects would place this some years away, as you’ve said. In the meantime, do any particular books by other esteemed critical scholars stand out as being worth reading? I’ve read lots of limited scope commentary on this or that aspect of the book but never a full treatment which I have found satisfactory.

  5. Avatar
    stokerslodge  February 24, 2015

    I’m wondering what the writer of The Book of Revelation was intending to convey when he wrote of writing to the Angels of the seven churches in Asia Minor. Do we know in what sense those early Christians would have understood those words? Would they have interpreted the word Angels in a literal or figurative sense?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2015

      I think they are understood normally to be the guardian spirits over the church, and therefore are representative of teh congregations within the churches.

  6. Avatar
    Jrgebert  February 24, 2015

    You said the number 666 was using Hebrew counting. Since the Revelation of John was written in Greek how would early readers know it referred to Nero? Did Aramaic have a counting scheme?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 25, 2015

      They did. But the point is that it is to be highly mysterious. And 666 is perfect for that, since 6 is one less than 7.

      • Avatar
        nichael  February 26, 2015

        Let me ask a question here about something I’ve been wondering about recently.

        I’m certainly familiar with this point (i.e. “666” is used as the number of the beast in part because “6 is one less than 7”, tripled).

        This certainly makes sense if one represents the number “666” as we do, that is as “three sixes” (i.e. [six][six][six]).

        But, as we’ve noted many times recently this is *not* how the number was represent in Greek. Rather it was represented as [six-hundred][sixty][six] –or even written out in full.

        Specifically “one more” than each of the digits would not be “[seven][seven][seven]”, rather it would be something like “[seven-hundred][seventy][seven]” (or even [six-hundred-one][sixty-one][seven]”).

        One might argue that “after all [70] is ten-fold-seven (or [700] is a hundred-fold-seven)”. But while we know that “7 is the number of fulfillment”, do we have any notion of the symbolic/gematric meaning of “70” or of “700”

        For that matter, to represent “higher powers of fulfillment” wouldn’t they have likely used, say, 49 (= 7*7) or 343 (= 7*7*7).

        [Sorry, but sometimes the geek in me leaks out ;-.) ]

  7. Avatar
    alienvoodoo  February 25, 2015

    Dr, Bart,
    considering how many “christians” today take the book of Revelation literally to be predicting our “soon to be fulfilled” future, without understanding the genre, I’m wondering/asking if you would at some point talk about how the early christians who were mostly illiterate used OT writings to validate/prove who they believed Jesus to be. I find it amazing that so many in our supposedly literate society accept what they have been taught without reading for themselves the texts in question. To my way of thinking, basing a belief on something by taking a text out of context or simply making it up is a pretty shaky foundation for faith. Anyway, if you have time and care to comment it would be extremely helpful.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      AOK, I’ll add it to my long list of things to talk about!

  8. Avatar
    Lasha Bezhanishvili  February 25, 2015

    There is one episode in Revelation which can easily prove the author could not be John.

    In Revelation 3:14, the writes uses word ἀρχὴ(beginning) when talking about Christ as being the beginning of God’s creation. This is an Arian concept which is completely alien to the writer of Gospel of John.

    There are fundamentalists who translate it as “ruler of God’s creation” which can’t stand a criticism. Writer of Gospel of John uses the word ἀρχὴ in Gospel only in sense of “beginning”. Whenever he wants to mean a “ruler” with the same word, he always uses the word ἄρχων like in John 12:31.

    Thus even this episode alone proves the writer could not have been John.

    What is your attitude towards this argument? Is it possible that Rev 3:14 is not an Arian concept at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015


      I don’t think that this can be an “Arian” idea, though, since Arius was born about 150 years later!

  9. Avatar
    walid  February 26, 2015

    Professir Ehrman: you make such a hard task look so easy.
    I never imagined what you write to be written in such a way.

    I normally have no critical eye when an article has your name on it, better be blind than embarrased really, because you will prove me wrong somehow, but here’s one which is nagging me.

    In Rev. 11, the author is talking about the measurement of the temple, as if it’s still in existence, I guess that answers our honourable friend ‘Stephen’, I am also quite sure your denial of knowledge is more based on your scholarly opinion rather than you just ‘don’t know’ …

    The point that keeps breating down my neck is that this author, whoever he is, is extremely Jewish, 12x12k = 144000 are all that will go to heaven, (or Wembley in our English tradition) and talking of the temple as if it’s the centre of the universe, I believe this could be another reason why this person can’t be the author of the fourth gospel, because the other one talks of the Jews as if they’re aliens, the Jews did so, the Jews did that, as if Jesus himself wasn’t one of them.

    I know he is prolly a Helenistic brand, perhaps a diaspora Jew, and hence the Greek language but as you enlightened us, the man’s literally style tells of an Aramaic background which supports my theory that he was a Jew.

    The question becomes then: can this book be a skeleton taken from a book a la Daniel and then modified to suit the purpose by the later church?

    apologies for the long comment, and thanks in advance, much appreciate it.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      Yes, it is often thought that Daniel served as a model for the author.

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  August 31, 2015

    I am a newcomer to your blog, so I am catching up on some old threads that interest me. You comment that Revelation seems to have been written in two stages, beginning during the reign of Nero and completed under Domitian. Do you believe the same author wrote the entire book, or did a second “John” complete what an earlier prophet left behind?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 31, 2015

      It’s usually assumed that there was a single author, but I’m not sure I have much evidence for that apart from a basic unity of literary style.

  11. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  January 20, 2016

    I found a thread on Revelation and thought, “Yes! I can finally understand this book!” Then I read you haven’t written much on it. Dang it!

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