The Book of Revelation
This year the season of Advent, ‘the Coming’, begins on Sunday 28 November. We tend to think of it chiefly as a period of preparation for the Feast of the Nativity, which celebrates the historical ‘coming’ of Jesus But Advent is, and always has been, a time when the church also meditates upon and penitentially renews its preparation for the Second Coming. And it is this strand in the observance of Advent that prompts me to write about the Book of Revelation, since it is this book, the last in the New Testament, that provides us with much of the imagery associated with the end-times.
Revelation is the only New Testament book which is an ‘apocalypse’, that is to say, a prophecy, which ‘uncovers’ the future. Apocalypsis, from a Greek work meaning ‘uncovering’, is in fact the title of this book in Jerome’s Latin version, the Vulgate, widely used in the western church in the Middle Ages. ‘Revelation’ is simply a translation of the term, originating with the publication of the bible in English at the Reformation. Our modern use of ‘apocalypse’ and ‘apocalyptic’ to mean extraordinarily grand and violent events has come about through association: the book known as the Apocalypsis is full of destructive scenes on a cosmic scale, and by degrees the title of the book came to be associated with the violence that the book describes, with the nature and scale of the violence inhabiting and so changing the meaning of the word.
The opening of the book identifies the author as John the Divine. A few verses farther on, he claims that the visions he has had, which he will go on to record, came to him on the island of Patmos. This in the Aegean, now part of Greece. But none of this tells us anything very useful about how or when the book came into being. Traditionally ‘John the Divine’ has been equated with the author of John’s Gospel. This would have given it authority, since it was believed that John’s Gospel was indeed by John the Apostle. However, as I’ve explained before, this gospel is now regarded as having been written c. 90-110, which is too late for genuine apostolic authorship. And indeed it is highly unlikely that the gospel and the prophecy were written by the same person. For one thing the two texts are radically different in outlook; and for another there is a huge difference in the quality and style of their Greek. Of course there is no problem about the author of Revelation being known as John the Divine; it’s simply that we cannot make the equation with the apostle John, nor indeed with the author of John’s gospel, whoever that was. The link between the author of Revelation and John the Apostle was made as early as the second century, but even then this was not universally accepted, nor was the book itself readily recognised as part of the authorised collection of writings which gradually came together to form the New Testament. Between the second and fourth centuries it floated on the edge of the evolving collection (unlike the gospels and the Pauline epistles, which were a stable part of the collection from the second century onwards). But it is included in a number of fourth century lists of biblical books, by which time it was evidently pretty generally accepted as part of the bible – rather a late-comer, in fact, in achieving a permanent place in the canon.