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Who Wrote the Book of Revelation?

I’ve been asked about who wrote the book of Revelation.  Here are some musings on it, the first part taken from my textbook on the New Testament.

Even though the book of Revelation was finally included in the New Testament canon because Christian leaders came to think it had been written by Jesus’ disciple, John the son of Zebedee, there were outspoken dissenters against its inclusion. Perhaps the most famous was Dionysius, a bishop of the city of Alexandria (Egypt) in the mid-third century, whose remarks about the book have a surprisingly modern feel to them. Dionysius used the author’s self-presentation and his Greek writing style to show that he was not the writer of the Fourth Gospel (whom Dionysius assumed was the disciple John). His conclusion? There must have been two different early Christian leaders named John, both of whom were active in Asia Minor, whence both the Gospel and Revelation derived. The following quotations are drawn from Dionysius’s writings, as quoted by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 7.25).

The one who wrote these things [i.e., the book of Revelation] calls himself John, and we should believe him. But it is not clear which John he was. For he doesn’t call himself the disciple whom the Lord loved—as happens often in the Gospel—nor does he say that he was the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast or that he was the brother of James, who both saw and heard the Lord. But surely he would have described himself in one of these ways if he had wanted to make himself clearly known. . . . I think [therefore] that there must have been another John living among the Christians in Asia Minor, just as they say that there are two different tombs in Ephesus, both of them allegedly John’s.

The phrasing itself also helps to differentiate between the Gospel and Epistle [of John] on the one hand and the book of Revelation on the other. The first two are written not only without errors in the Greek, but also with real skill with respect to vocabulary, logic, and coherence of meaning. You won’t find any barbaric expression, grammatical flaw, or vulgar expression in them. . . . I don’t deny that this other author had revelations . . . but I notice that in neither language nor style does he write accurate Greek. He makes use of barbaric expressions and is sometimes guilty even of grammatical error. . . . I don’t say this in order to accuse him (far from it!), but simply to demonstrate that the two books are not at all similar.

 

Today, *part* of Dionysius’s views are widely held.  Whoever wrote Revelation did not also write the Gospel of John.  The writings styles really are massively different; whoever wrote Revelation (unlike the author of the Gospel) did not have Greek as his first language.

And there is another reason, something that Dionysius does *not* emphasize: the eschatological views are radically different.  John is against the apocalyptic views of Jesus found in Matthew and Mark, for example; whereas Revelation promotes such apocalyptic ideas – even more than the earlier Gospels.   The apocalypse is entirely what the book is about.

So two different authors.  Was one of them John the son of Zebedee? Almost certainly not.  Virtually the one thing the traditions agree on about John is that he was a fisherman in rural Galilee.  That means he was almost certainly a lower-class day laborer (working in a rural part of a remote area of the empire).  Such people did not receive an education.  Learning to read and write – i.e. to *compose* — took many years of education.  Day laborers couldn’t afford the time and money.  Only the urban elites educated their young.  John was not among that class.  Very few people were – fewer than 95% of the entire population (and again, only ones living in cities).

Conclusion: John did not write the book of Revelation.  But, well, a different John did!

 

 


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The Lake of Fire in Revelation

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Comments

  1. Eric  October 4, 2018

    I think you mean “fewer than 5% of the population”

  2. rivercrowman  October 4, 2018

    Bart, an afterlife question. … Did Jesus, as an apocalyptic prophet, believe that baptism with water was an essential prerequisite for admission into the soon-to-come New Kingdom which featured everlasting life on a new earth? If so, what a monumental task for his followers to accomplish before the arrival of the Son of Man in the clouds. Thanks very much!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2018

      I”m afraid we don’t know! But when he *does* talk about entering the kingdom (during hte words recorded during his ministry), he never says anything about baptism.

      • fishician  October 5, 2018

        And yet the Synoptics have Jesus himself being baptized, and the 4th gospel portrays Jesus as baptizing more people than John. I’d like to hear more on the topic of baptism sometime, including its history, as it is a matter of contention in many churches.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 6, 2018

          I think the idea is that he started out as a follower of John. The big question is whether he continued John’s practice (the fourth Gospel says yes, the others are mute on the question) and if so, whether he thought it was *necessary*. On that, all our sources are silent. But it is worth noting that he talks repeatedly about entering the kingdom in the Synoptics and says nothing about needing to be baptized to do so.

        • godspell  October 8, 2018

          The fourth gospel is the least historical, and the most determined to not only say Jesus was greater than John, but to effectively make John Jesus’s disciple. Because to the author of that gospel, Jesus is not a man, not Messiah, not the Son of God born of a virgin, perhaps not even an angel, but the incarnate word of God who existed before the dawn of time. John the Baptist can’t compete.

          I think Jesus felt John’s baptism was a fine thing for people living in this world, but would become irrelevant in the Kingdom. You can’t baptize every good person in the world, and only the good will be in the world that is coming–whether they are baptized or not. The Son of Man will baptize them with fire when he inaugurates the Kingdom. It will all be done at once, not just one dunking at a time.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 5, 2018

      The impression I get is that baptism wasn’t so much a pre-requisite as much as it was a VIP ticket into the Kingdom of God.

  3. JohnKesler  October 4, 2018

    Since you’ve indicated in other posts that the Gospel of John incorporates various sources, does your statement that “the author of the Gospel [of John had Greek as his first language]” mean that *all* the sources are written in good Greek? Is all of Revelation written in bad Greek, or are there differences suggesting that more than one author contributed to it too?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2018

      Yes, the Greek is fairly consistent throughout the Gospel, except, say, for hte Prologue, where it is of a higher quality.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  October 4, 2018

    The name John was EXTREMELY common. In fact, other non-Jewish Semites had their own cultural equivalents of “John”. That is, the English name John comes from the Hebrew Yahochanan, which means something like “YHWH’s grace”. But, also, Hannibal — as in the Canaanite general who marched elephants over the Alps to fight Rome — means something like “Baal’s grace”. The Semitic root for “grace” (chet-nun) is found in both names. This should give you an idea of how common such a name was.

  5. jmmarine1  October 4, 2018

    The point is often made that there is a definite and growing strain of anti-Semitism within the gospel tradition (extending into the Apocryphal Gospels), but the target of divine wrath in Revelation sure seems to be Rome. Does Revelation shows signs of the type anti-Semitism that is in evidence within the gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2018

      Yes, there are traces of anti-Judaism in the Apocalypse (it speaks of the “synagogue of Satan”; see Rev. 3:9).

  6. fishician  October 4, 2018

    A little off this specific topic but I’m trying to catch up on this thread: Many Christians believe they will have a life of eternal bliss while the unbelievers will experience eternal torment. So, how can one be eternally happy knowing that many people including family and friends are suffering in torment? Either they have to come to believe that’s a good thing, and it makes them happy, which seems perverse, or God would have to erase their knowledge of this, which seems deceptive, and I would argue that you are not the same person if a significant part of your memory (that of your unsaved loved ones) is erased in order to preserve your bliss. Do you address this in your book? Surely early Christian writers must have addressed this dilemma.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2018

      Yes, when I was an evangelical we were told that it was because “God will wipe away every tear.” That seems less satisfactory to me now!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  October 5, 2018

      Notice that Jesus spends a lot of his time during his ministry telling people to not be too attached to those loved ones who will not be saved. “Better to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with only one eye”…et cetera.

  7. Leovigild  October 4, 2018

    I think you meant to say “fewer than 5%” of the population was literate and educated.

  8. brenmcg  October 4, 2018

    Rev 1:2 might mean servant John who has previously testified to “everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ”?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2018

      Sorry — I don’t understand the question.

      • brenmcg  October 5, 2018

        What I mean is the prologue

        “He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ”

        might not be referring to what John saw in the revelation but to what John had previously seen and testified about – ie he’s the disciple of John 21:24

        “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true”

        • Bart
          Bart  October 6, 2018

          It appears that the author is referring to the visions of heaven and the future that he had prior to writing them all down, not to anything outside of the book itself.

  9. forthfading  October 4, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do any scholars actually believe that the fourth Gospel and Revelation were written by the disciple John, besides fundamentalist? Any critical scholars?

    Thanks, Jay

  10. godspell  October 5, 2018

    Wasn’t this a song by The Monotones? 😉

    Dionysius’s analysis is extremely impressive–within an amazingly short time, Christianity developed a sophisticated intelligentsia, even though most Christians (and most people) were still illiterate.

    My favorite dissent to including Revelation–in the new Protestant canon–would be Martin Luther. He famously said Revelation was ‘not revealing,’ (which is true) and found that its imagery-laden symbolistic prophetic style was quite different from that of Jesus and the Apostles (also true). It does stick out quite a bit from everything else in the New Testament.

    And it really has no bearing at all on Jesus’ teaching and ideas, except to the extent that it tells a story based very loosely on Jesus’ idea of the final judgment (that was supposed to have happened already!) Luther felt there was nothing of Jesus in it, even though he appears as a victorious warrior king (which is kind of missing the point of Jesus, and conflating him with the Son of Man, though Luther wouldn’t have had a problem with that).

    The irony is that Revelation is today far more central to the millenarian message of many evangelical Protestant churches than it ever was in the Roman Catholic church Luther rebelled against.

    Nothing ever succeeds as planned.

  11. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  October 5, 2018

    Two questions. With the believed dates of when Revelation was written and the suspected age the Apostle John may have been, doesn’t that also contribute to the likelihood that the Apostle John wasn’t the author of Revelation because he would have been too old?

    The Battle of Armageddon is mentioned in Revelation as the final battle between Good and Evil and this concept is taken literally in many churches and even popular culture, so if the Battle of Armageddon is symbolic do you have any idea what the symbolism stands for?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2018

      I was going to argue that but realized someone would probalby object that hey, really really old people might be able to write!! On Armageddon, it probably simply means that all hell’s gonna break out.

      • GeorgieC7  October 5, 2018

        Hi Bart, I’ve been following your theme that our concept of heaven and hell was developed after Jesus actually taught, but could you explain Luke 16:19-26 in the light of your thesis? It seems to have all the elements of a torment and suffering after death. As well as a reward in the afterlife for the good.
        Thanks

  12. RonaldTaska  October 5, 2018

    A very interesting and convincing analysis. At some point, I would like to hear more about the Gospel of John not having an apocalyptic view of Jesus.

  13. brenmcg  October 5, 2018

    Hi – you say

    “That means he was almost certainly a lower-class day laborer (working in a rural part of a remote area of the empire). Such people did not receive an education.”

    I think this argument only works if he remained a fisherman in rural Galilee all his life. But he supposedly became one of the pillars of a new religious movement with at least some wealthy converts. He probably no longer needed to work for a living and could receive an education from some of these wealthy converts.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 6, 2018

      We don’t have any evidence of “adult education” in antiquity where a regular ole person goes to school as an adult to acquire the skills of reading and writing (let alone literary composition in a foreign language). It’s just hard sometimes to realize how different the ancient world was to ours!

  14. galah  October 5, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, you say “John is against the apocalyptic views of Jesus found in Matthew and Mark, for example; whereas Revelation promotes such apocalyptic ideas – even more than the earlier Gospels.” Would you expand on this a little?

  15. Sixtus  October 6, 2018

    Would it be possible to show Revelation’s bad Greek by taking a couple of representative verses and directly translating them into equally inept English. The usual Bible translations all seem to iron down the Greek into passably smooth English.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 7, 2018

      Interesting idea. Not sure I can do that in English translation, but maybe I’ll give it a shot down the line. I’ll add this to the mailbag!

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