John of Patmos Revelation Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.