John of Patmos Revelation Essay - Critical Essays

Revelation, John of Patmos


Revelation John of Patmos

(Also known as Apocalypse) Book of the New Testament.

The only wholly apocalyptic book of the Bible, Revelation tells of the end of time, when Jesus returns to earth to wage war with Satan, defeats him, raises the dead, and judges the living and the dead, with the wicked banished into a lake of everlasting fire, and the righteous joining Jesus in the new world. Perhaps no book of the Bible has engaged readers more than Revelation, with its depictions of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the beast with the number 666, and Jesus as triumphant ruler of the universe, marshaling all the forces of good against the forces of evil in the battle of Armageddon. The author's symbolic language has been analyzed and construed in myriad ways for nearly two thousand years and its timetable of events to come has created great controversy throughout history. Its author, John—an itinerant Christian prophet from Asia Minor who wrote in the last decade of the first century—proclaims the book's message as the revealed word of Jesus Christ. Revelation closes the New Testament.

Plot and Major Characters

Revelation's plot does not unfold in an unbroken line; rather, there are frequent diversions as different images are used to expand on the story of good conquering evil. The book opens with John's declaration of his identity and location (the small island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea), and the assertion that what he is going to describe was revealed to him by Jesus. He states that his apocalyptic letters are intended for seven churches in Asia, and their individual shortcomings are addressed. John next shifts attention to heaven and describes a scene in which the Lamb of God breaks open the seven seals of a scroll. Upon the opening of each of the first four seals a horse and rider appear; these are the four horsemen of the apocalypse who spread evil in the world. John describes a vision of 144,000 individuals from all the tribes of Israel, dressed in white robes, standing before the Lamb, with all their tribulations removed from them. After the seventh seal is broken, seven angels blow seven trumpets, with disasters following the soundings: hail and fire mixed with blood rains upon the earth, a huge mountainous mass is hurled into the sea and a third of its creatures are destroyed. The fifth trumpet blast precedes the breaking open of hell, from which emerge locusts with the tails of scorpions, women's hair, and lions' teeth. The imagery then shifts to a woman who is about to give birth to a male child who will rule all nations with an iron rod. A dragon waits to devour the child the moment he is born, but God intercedes and takes the baby to heaven. A battle ensues in heaven and the dragon is vanquished and hurled to earth. A beast rises from the sea, followed by another from the earth whose number is cited as 666. The 144,000 prepare for battle against the forces of evil at the great city of Armageddon. God unleashes his wrath on the earth in the form of seven plagues, and John explains the symbolism used in depicting the fall of Babylon. Heaven opens and Jesus emerges on a white horse, the armies of heaven following. The evil forces are cast into hell or put to the sword. Christ rules for a thousand years, and then Satan returns. All who are deceived into joining with Satan in his new bid for power are devoured by fire from heaven. The dead are judged according to the Book of Life, and those whose names are not in the book are thrown into the lake of fire. A perfect new Jerusalem is formed, a city of gold and light in which the Lord God will rule forever. Revelation closes as it began, with John on Patmos declaring to his readers that an angel sent by Jesus has told him that these events will happen soon.

Major Themes

Revelation's original audience consisted of persecuted Christians, so its major theme is encouragement derived by keeping destiny in mind: what will happen in the end has already been determined—Jesus will return and defeat evil forever. However, the goal of apocalyptic literature, as scholars point out, is to conceal as much as it is to reveal. The chosen will learn the truth about the end of time, while outsiders find only indecipherable mysteries. Revelation is notorious for its dense symbolism—for example, involving the numbers six and seven, mythological beasts, and ancient signifiers of natural disaster. The themes of justice, punishment, and reward figure prominently in the text, as does a blurring between the literal and symbolic.

Critical Reception

The question of authorship has been an issue of continued debate among Revelation scholars. Although John the apostle of Jesus Christ was widely considered by the most ancient authorities the author of Revelation, by the fourth century his authorship was questioned, and the book's acceptance into the canon of sacred writings was contentious. The prevailing assumption among modern scholars holds that the author was a different man named John—the evidence against the author being the same John who wrote the fourth gospel is largely based on stylistic and content differences. However, these differences can be accounted for by the demands of the genre and therefore the argument is not definitive. To make the matter of authorship more difficult, it is quite possible, as scholars point out, that particular words or passages were added by another author or authors at a later date, and that John's gospel was transcribed by one of his pupils. Scholars refer to the author variously as St. John the Divine, John the Revealer, and John of Patmos. Tradition holds that the apostle John was banished to the island of Patmos by the Roman emperor Domitian, and thus referring to the author as John of Patmos, as many scholars do, does not specifically distinguish the author from the apostle.

Scholars have commented that study of Revelation has been more of an obsession than an academic exercise for some critics, with many devoting decades to its interpretation. St. Jerome, Sir Isaac Newton, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, George Bernard Shaw, and D. H. Lawrence (see Further Reading) are among some of the writers who have written and theorized extensively about Revelation. Over the centuries, commentators have taken various approaches to the text, ranging from the historical to the millenarian, to the purely literary. In recent times, the social and political background of Revelation has particularly intrigued scholars, as has its similarity to and divergence from other apocalyptic literature. Leonard L. Thompson has examined the genre, its historical background, and some ways in which Revelation varies from the norm. James L. Blevins believes that the author based the book's structure on Greek drama and that many of Revelation's mysteries become clearer if it is visualized as a play. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza offers a rhetorical study of Revelation and Anne-Marit Enroth (see Further Reading) examines its structure, particularly in regard to a hearing formula utilized throughout. Many scholars also caution that although the book is saturated with symbols, interpreters should not focus solely on the symbols as obscure codes to be deciphered. Others, however, contend that ascertaining the true meaning of the symbolic language, and determining what is meant to be taken literally, constitutes the proper course of study. Eugene Boring provides an overview of some of the more customary interpretations, while David A. deSilva explores the reading, of Revelation as an immediate call to arms against the existing Roman government. The original language of Revelation has sparked controversy, too, with most scholars favoring Greek, while others have argued for Aramaic or Hebrew. Revelation's pervasive symbolism, prophetic tone, and apocalyptic subject matter have inspired readers' interest for nearly two thousand years.

Principal Works

The Bible, American Standard Version 1901

The Bible, Revised Standard Version 1952

Revelation, Anchor Bible, Vol. 38 (translated by J. Massyngberde Ford) 1975

Revelation 12-22, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (edited by John MacArthur) 2000


J. P. M. Sweet (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Sweet, J. P. M. Introduction to Revelation, pp. 1-54. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Sweet examines the imagery of Revelation, discusses its probable date of origin, and supplies some social background for its text.]



If the whole book was read aloud at one sitting (which would take about an hour and a half), it would have made its impact on its first hearers as a whole, like a poetic drama or an opera; indeed one should perhaps regard it as more like music than rational discourse. In that case the repetitions, delays and...

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James L. Blevins (essay date summer 1980)

SOURCE: Blevins, James L. “The Genre of Revelation.” Review and Expositor 77 (summer 1980): 393-408.

[In the following essay, Blevins contends that the structure of Revelation was based on that of Greek tragedy, including its chorus and staging.]

Scholars find it difficult to pinpoint the peculiar literary genre of the book of Revelation. Recent studies have shown the relationship of Hellenistic biographies to the genre of our New Testament Gospels.1 Less recent work has demonstrated the affinities between Greek letter writing style and that of Paul.2 However, the genre of Revelation remains elusive. Charles...

(The entire section is 6965 words.)

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. “Visionary Rhetoric and Social-Political Situation.” In The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, pp. 181-203. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Fiorenza concentrates on the first five verses of chapter 14, particularly in assessing the meaning of “the 144,000 followers of the Lamb on Mount Zion.”]

Our visions, stories and utopias
are not only aesthetic:
they engage us.

Amos Wilder

In his summary of the overall outline and analysis of the Apocalypse, W. Bousset stresses that Rev. 14:1-5 was not taken over from a source but that it is formulated...

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Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler. “Revelation.” In The New Testament and its Modern Interpreters, edited by Eldon Jay Epp and George W. MacRae, pp. 407-27. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Fiorenza presents an overview of Revelation scholarship from the 1960s and 1970s.]

Ernst Lohmeyer summed up the scholarly efforts during the research period 1920 to 1934 with the observation that very few early Christian writings have been so greatly courted by scholars but have so thoroughly eluded their methods of interpretation. The elusive meaning of Revelation might be one of the reasons why serious critical scholarship has largely...

(The entire section is 8242 words.)

M. Eugene Boring (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Boring, M. Eugene. Introduction to Revelation: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, pp. 1-62. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Boring presents an overview of some textual, language, and interpretative issues concerning Revelation.]


Unlike other writers of apocalyptic books, John gives his own name and writes in his own person, rather than under the assumed name of some figure of the past (cf. discussion of apocalyptic literature below). Such an assumption of another name was not necessary, for John and his churches no longer believed that the prophetic gift of the...

(The entire section is 11397 words.)

Leonard L. Thompson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Thompson, Leonard L. “Historical Setting and Genre,” “The Social Setting of Apocalypses,” and “The Seer's Vision of an Unbroken World.” In The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire, pp. 11-34; 74-93. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

[In the following essays, Thompson provides background on the apocalypse genre and its social setting and discusses the seer's vision of the world and its boundaries.]


[Now] I shall discuss in detail aspects of the local situation in and to which John writes the Book of Revelation. Here we need only some basic orientation to the origins of the book...

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David A. deSilva (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: deSilva, David A. “The Revelation to John: A Case Study in Apocalyptic Propaganda and the Maintenance of Sectarian Identity.” Sociological Analysis 53, no. 4 (winter 1992): 375-95.

[In the following essay, deSilva interprets Revelation as having been a call for Christian revolution against Rome and its ideology.]

The phenomenon of the apocalyptic movement continues to picque the interest and challenge the understanding of the sociologist of religion, both in its contemporary and historical occurrences. Careful study may be impeded, however, by certain presuppositions about the rise of apocalpyticism and its function in a given situation. These...

(The entire section is 11549 words.)

Jan Lambrecht (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Lambrecht, Jan. “Final Judgments and Ultimate Blessings: The Climatic Visions of Revelations 20,11-21,8.” Biblica 81, no. 3 (2000): 362-85.

[In the following essay, Lambrecht focuses on two sections of Revelation, initially dealing with the final judgment and second death and then with the visions of the new creation and the new Jerusalem.]

Rev 20,11-21,8 can hardly be called a self-contained pericope, nor even a text unit. Within the major section 16,17-22,5 (seventh bowl and completion) the passage 20,11-15 concludes the text unit of the final judgment which deals with the destruction of the beast, the false prophet and the dragon,...

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François Bovon (essay date October 2000)

SOURCE: Bovon, François. “John's Self-Presentation in Revelation 1:9-10.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62, no. 4 (October 2000): 693-700.

[In the following essay, Bovon explains that John's self-definition in Revelation is purposeful in terms of narrative success.]

This paper will not be a historical inquiry into John's personality; nor will it be a philological analysis of the author's style.1 In line with the tradition of French literary criticism,2 I would like to observe what Philippe Lejeune calls the “autobiographical pact,” namely, the implicit agreement which an author or narrator makes with his or her readers...

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Further Reading


Aune, David E. “The Apocalypse of John and the Problem of Genre.” Semeia, no. 36 (1986): 65-96.

Summarizes recent advances of scholars in understanding the apocalyptic genre.

Barker, Margaret. “The Servant in the Book of Revelation.” Heythrop Journal 36, no. 4 (October 1995): 493-511.

Argues that the Servant in Revelation refers to the Lamb.

Beale, G. K. “The Old Testament Background of Rev 3.14.” New Testament Studies 42, no. 1 (January 1996): 133-52.

Proposes that the Isaiah text is the primary source for the phrase “the Amen, the...

(The entire section is 481 words.)