The Book of Revelation – Historical Perspective

How It Got Its Title

The original title of this book was “The Apocalypse” – a title that in fact better describes its meaning than because it reflects the nature of the ancient philosophy from which its ideas were formed.  Indeed, the apocalyptic message of Revelation is not really a new revelation at all but merely a colorfully detailed restatement of the apocalyptic prophecies found in the Hebrew Testament (the Book of Daniel) and other non-canonical scripture (Book of Enoch, Book of the Secrets of Enoch, The Apocalypse of Abraham, The Apocalypse of Peter, The Apocalypse of Paul, and The Apocalypse of the Holy Mother of God).

The Author

The common attribution for this work is given to the Apostle John.  There are three problems with this however.  First, none of the Gospels is signed by its author so we don’t actually know who  wrote any of them.  Second,  none of the earliest Gospel manuscripts is ascribed to anyone let alone to the Apostle whose name it bears today.  The traditional ascriptions used today were commonplace only in later copies of the Gospels.  Third, the Gospel traditionally attributed to the Apostle John was written by one who appears to have been a highly educated man with a demonstrated a mastery of the Greek language.  The Book of Revelation, by comparison, appears to have been written by one whose Greek prose was so poor that some scholars have labeled it “atrocious.”  Consequently, scholars believe that the Gospel of John and Revelation were not written by the same individual.  Consequently, the author of the Book of Revelation is generally attributed to a man called “John of Patmos” who was named after the island to which he had been exiled and where, it is believed, he wrote the manuscript.

Historical Perspective and Current Relevance 

Apocalypticism is a ancient worldview based on the idea that important matters are esoteric in nature (“hidden”) and they will soon be revealed in a major confrontation of earth-shaking magnitude that will change the course of history.  Many Christians today believe that Revelation is a prophetic document that describes in great detail the final apocalyptic event yet to come (the very same event, by the way,  that Jesus had prophesied would happen in his time, the Parousia.  The Parousia did not come in the time predicted by Jesus (the failed prophecy) and hence many contemporary Christians simply assume that John was writing to a generation that would experience the Parousia at some unknown future time.  But while the apocalyptic prophecy is very much alive in Christian doctrine today, the Book of Revelation was not written to future generations but instead to a particular group of Christians living in the 1st Century –  those Christians who had suffered persecution by the Roman Emperor Nero (54 – 68 C.E.) and who were then suffering greatly under the Emperor Domitian (81 – 96 C.E.).  It was intended to give them hope in their hour of need and thus bolster their resolve to bear up under the Roman persecution.  John of Patmos wanted to reiterate the promise made by Jesus that, “The struggle will eventually reach a climax, at which time God will intervene destroy the forces of evil, and set up a new order in which the righteous will live for all time to come”1  and that the Parousia would occur in their lifetime.

Revelation was an inspirational message that promised  the apocalyptic prophecy would soon commence and would bring an end to their suffering.  Its real relevance, therefore is a historical one.  The central style of this work can be characterized as a metaphorical use of colorful imagery.  John of Patmos borrows his style of imagery from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament.  For instance, the symbol of a great and terrible beast that has seven heads and ten horns was used metaphorically by the author of the Book of Daniel long before Revelation was written.  When reading the Book of David or the Book of Revelation, one should be reminded that prophetic writing is about the future and apocalyptic writing is about the present.

Contextual Analysis

As a historical document then, what was message behind the colorful imagery we find in John’s Revelation?  Religious scholars generally agree that First Century Christians saw Revelation as relevant to their own life and times and made liberal use of literary imagery and metaphor to describe current events, people and places.

The narrator in Revelation is John of Patmos who was directed by Jesus Christ to write what he saw and address it to the seven major apostolic churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Thyatira, Pergamum, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.  Jesus  commends those churches whose members had endured persecution and in some instances, even death because of their refusal to include the gods of the Roman Empire in their worship as demanded by Roman authorities.

This message to the congregations of the seven churches is then followed by John’s vision of seven sealed scrolls which describe how the eschatological order of events will actually unfold.

a.  The persecutions will last only a short time.  Here again, John believes as did Jesus that the apocalyptic prophecy will take place in his own generation’s time.

b. Jesus, the “Lamb of God” is the only one worthy enough to open the seals.  In other words, consistent with Christian doctrine,  the apocalypse will not begin until Jesus make his return i.e. the Parousia.

c. The first four sealed scrolls reveal the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (white, red, black and pale horses) which symbolize the beginning of the final destruction of the Roman Empire.  The final battle will occur at Har Megeddon i.e. Armageddon.

d. The fifth scroll reveals that those presently being persecuted may have yet to endure even greater torment in the ensuing days and that only those who remain faithful will be written into the Book of Life and ultimately redeemed.  Here again, John implores his fellow Christians to endure by inspiring them with the hope that those who do will be rewarded with ultimate salvation.

e. The sixth and seventh scrolls

The serpent has several identities in the Bible:

  • It is the symbol of healing (today’s medical staff includes the serpent) – Moses changes the serpent into a stick to heal the sick).
  • Personifies worldly knowledge or wisdom – the serpent tempts Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge; and Jesus has said, “he is as wise as the serpent.
  • Symbolizes rebirth/resurrection by shedding its skin.

Perhaps John of Patmos viewed the serpent in Revelation in the same way as the serpent in Eden was viewed  i.e. as a metaphor for worldly knowledge and thus by it destruction it in the Lake of Fire, he argues, the saved are returned to the innocent state Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall i.e. before they became worldly.

Rev 20:10 derives from several passages:  Jude 6 alludes to 1st Enoch 6 -19 and Jude 14  recites from 1st Enoch 1:9

“… and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever”

Following these visions, John describes four angels who hold back the four winds of heaven so that those who are deemed to be the servants of God can be marked by the placement of a seal on their foreheads.  The number who will be saved however is just 144,000:

Rev 7:4-8: And I heard the number of the sealed, a hundred and forty-four thousand sealed, out of every tribe of the sons of Israel,  twelve thousand sealed out of the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand of the tribe of Reuben, twelve thousand of the tribe of Gad,  twelve thousand of the tribe of Asher, twelve thousand of the tribe of Naph’tali, twelve thousand of the tribe of Manas’seh,  twelve thousand of the tribe of Simeon, twelve thousand of the tribe of Levi, twelve thousand of the tribe of Is’sachar,  twelve thousand of the tribe of Zeb’ulun, twelve thousand of the tribe of Joseph, twelve thousand sealed out of the tribe of Benjamin.

Apparently, John does not believe that salvation will come to all Christians but only those unknown few who make up the 144,000 chosen ones.  Calvinist doctrine reiterates that salvation comes only to those that have already been chosen in secret and therefore being a good Christian does not guarantee salvation as the majority of Christians believe..  That most Christians do not take this vision literally adds weight to the argument that Revelation is a metaphorical work not intended to be taken literally.

John identifies the Emperor of Roman as that of an evil being who has consistently opposed the forces of righteousness.  The  symbol “666” is regarded by most Christians today as the code name for Satan or the Anti-Christ.  But 1st Century Christians, understood the symbol to mean the Roman Emperor Nero who they saw as evil personified..

“When Nero Caesar’s name is transliterated into Hebrew, as a first-century Jew would probably have done, he would have gotten Neron Kesar or simply nrwn qsr, since Hebrew has no letters to represent vowels. “It has been documented by archaeological finds that a first century Hebrew spelling of Nero’s name provides us with precisely the value of 666 [my noteusing Hebrew numerology called “Gematria”]. Jastrow’s lexicon of the Talmud contains this very spelling.”(a) When we take the letters of Nero’s name and spell them in Hebrew, we get the following numeric values: n=50, r=200, w=6, n=50, q=100, s=60, r=200 = 666. “Every Jewish reader, of course, saw that the Beast was a symbol of Nero. And both Jews and Christians regarded Nero as also having close affinities with the serpent or dragon. . . . The Apostle writing as a Hebrew, was evidently thinking as a Hebrew. . . . Accordingly, the Jewish Christian would have tried the name as he thought of the name—that is in Hebrew letters. And the moment that he did this the secret stood revealed. No Jew ever thought of Nero except as ‘Neron Kesar.’(b)3

Further confirmation that the beast of is Nero comes in Rev 13:12-14  where John writes,

“….its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed.  It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived.”

This passage is a retelling of a fearful legend, circulating among Christians, that Nero, who actually committed suicide in 68 C.E., did not die and would return at some future time to persecute them.

Finally, the “beast” is accompanied by a “whore” who is dressed in purple and sits on a beast with seven heads.  The the royal color of the Roman Empire was purple and the city of Rome sits on seven hills.  The “whore” John speaks of is clearly the Roman Empire. Revelation ends with hope that Jesus’ return is imminently expected

Rev 17:7 – 12 Seven headed beast defined
Rev 18:14 – 18 merchants lament the loss of Rome which was their biggest market
Rev 20:2 identifies Satan as the devil or the evil one (who is really Nero) but the naming Satan as the evil one is a modification to scripture that occurred very late.  He was not so named in the earliest manuscripts.   The Old Testament never has Satan as a fallen angel – instead he is God’s obstructer” and God’s “District Attorney” and he never acts in contradiction to God’s authority.
Rev 20: 10 the devil (actually Nero)  and his own are thrown in the lake of fire and tormented forever.
Rev 20:11 – 15 and 21:6 – 8 show that humans are judged by their actions and those whose name is not written in the Book will be thrown in the lake of fire but this passage does not say that they too will be subjected to eternal suffering.  As Jesus said, “the wages of sin is death”  not eternal damnation and suffering.
Rev 21:1 – 4 New kingdom of God on earth.

About Armageddon

This is the mythical battle that apocalyptics believed would precede the establishment of a Kingdom of God on Earth.  The word Armageddon derives from the Hebrew Har Megeddo which means “mountain of Megeddo.”  When John wrote Revelation, Har Megeddo was occupied by his mortal enemy the Romans who had  one of the largest Roman legions in the Holy Land stationed there.  Consequently, it made perfect sense to establish Har Megeddo as the venue for the apocalyptic battle that was to herald the coming of the new age.  It also lends credence to the argument that John was referring metaphorically to the Roman Empire when he described the seven-headed beast in Revelation.

John believes that when the imminent apocalyptic battle occurs, the forces of good, led by Jesus, will conquer the forces of evil, “And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years,  and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended” – Rev 20:2  …… “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” – Rev 20:14-15.  Here all evil including the torments of Christian Hell will be done away with and in their place only good will remain.

And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.” – Rev 22:6.  Of course, the Parousia (second coming) did not occur in John’s time and, after two millenniums, it still has not come.  Yet some Christians today dismiss any notion of a failed prophecy by arguing, in direct contradiction to scripture,  that John was not writing about an event he expected to occur in his lifetime but one that will surely occur in the future even if that date is unknown to man.  John L. Allen, Jr. a Journalist for the National Catholic Reporter explained why thusly, “The fevered imaginations of passionate religious people set loose on this text can produce a lot of chaos [and] ….religious institutions, over the years, have been made exceedingly nervous about the Book of Revelation because it is the kind of thing that quickly slips out of control.”

To wit, late in the 20th Century,  a Japanese cult, obsessed by the Book of Revelation, thought they could hasten the onset of the apocalypse thru mass murder and accordingly they set about to unleash a poison gas attach in the subway system of Tokyo.  Another sect, The Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, believed that a three month old boy was the Anti-Christ and they murdered him.  In Waco, Texas, the Branch Davidians who considered themselves to be part of the 144,000 redeemed souls mentioned in Rev, believed the Apocalypse was near and that they were under attack by the forces of Satan.  And what about Evangelicals who are believers in the Rapture?  The Rapture is nowhere described in the Book of Revelation nor is it a part of the 2,000 year Christian tradition.

[About theRapture:  In 1830, a young Scottish woman, Margaret McDonald, has a vision that Jesus would return to Earth not once, but twice.  She saw Jesus taking true believers to Heaven and returning again for the last judgment.  A British preacher named John Darby, incorporated McDonald’s vision into a precise end-time senario based on passages (pericopes) found throughout the Bible.  The centerpiece of this work was the thesis that Jesus would rescue the faithful before the onset of the horrors described in the Book of Revelation.  Darby’s prophecy was spread throughout Great Britain and the United States and became known as the Rapture.  In the earth 20th Century, the Rev C.I. Scofield, an embezzler,  adulterer and self-proclaimed Biblical scholar, annotated a Bible based upon Darby’s prophecies.  It was a clever thing to do because readers often cannot recall the justification for belief in the Rapture was from Scofield’s notes or scripture itself.]

Canonization as Part of the New Testament

Revelation was not a popular book among 4th Century Church leaders but it nevertheless made it into the circle of canonized scripture primarily because Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, wanted it included and because he held sufficient political sway within the Church to get his way.  The original title of this work, The Apocalypse, does perhaps offer some insight to why it was reluctantly included.  The work  reiterates supportively the apocalyptic prophecy taught by Jesus but it also underscores the fact that the promised apocalypse prophesied by Jesus, and reiterated later by John of Patmos, had still not occurred,  i.e. it draws attention to a failed prophecy without resolving the problem.

It is also possible that the author’s use of extreme imagery may have made many of the Church fathers at that time bit uncomfortable.  Certainly, Jesus never spoke of the apocalypse in this highly colorful manner but it was typical of apocalyptic writings in the OT.  Most scholars belief the extreme imagery in Revelation was done as a way of making it easily understood by Christians yet incomprehensible to non-Christians.  In  general, non-Christians would not be well acquainted with the prophecies taught by Jesus so they would very likely not understand the apocalyptic message of Revelation.  Consequently this colorful but cryptic imagery was a way of safely circulating ideas among Christians that were considered seditious in nature  by the Roman establishment .

1. The Bible – Cliffs Notes pg 208

2. American Vision a Biblical World View Ministry http://www.americanvision.org/articlearchive/05-10-05.asp#_ftn6 ) citing:

(a) Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Beast of Revelation, rev. ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2001), chap. 3. Also see Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, 1:367.

(b) Frederic W. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1882), 471.