REVELATION 1 Only 25 miles (40 km) in circumference, Patmos ("Map 13") is a small island off the coast of Asia Minor,1 approximately 36 miles (58 km) southwest of Miletus. It has a bare, mountainous terrain, with Mount Elias, at 800 feet (243 m), as its highest point. Patmos served as a place of banishment during the Roman period. Tradition holds that the apostle John, by that time an old man, was exiled to Patmos during the fourteenth year of the reign of Emperor Domitian (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:18-20).

Since it was on this isle that John received his revelation (Rev 1:9-10),Patmos has been held in awe by many Christians from the Roman period to the present. In 1088 Saint John's Cloister was constructed by Saint Christodoulos upon the site of John's Grotto.Today a great Byzantine library there holds the work produced by the numerous monasteries and churches that have existed on Patmos over the centuries.The island has changed political hands several times over time; since 1947 it has belonged to Greece.

Apocalyptic Literature outside the Bible

REVELATION 1 Some of the religious literature from early Jewish and Christian sources is referred to as "apocalyptic literature." Such writings are characterized by visions and revelations given by God to great saints; often these visions are filled with strange symbols. Apocalyptic literature originated in Old Testament times and may be seen in parts of Ezekiel and Zechariah, and especially in Daniel. Revelation is the last great apocalyptic book of the Bible, but there are many nonbiblical apocalyptic texts, which are referred to as"pseudo-apocalyptic" because they are imitations of Biblical apocalyptic works such as Daniel and Revelation. Important examples are the books of Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra and the Apocalypse of Abraham:

• First Enoch, which in its present form consists of 108 chapters of various visions involving the patriarch Enoch, was a tremendously popular book in early Jewish and Christian communities. It is particularly noteworthy for its elaboration of Genesis 6,a narrative Enoch interprets as an angelic interbreeding with human women. Enoch's expansion of the Genesis 6 narrative includes a vivid description of the places of judgment (e.g., 1 Enoch 21-22) and of the coming of God's kingdom (1 Enoch 45; 93).

• The Sibylline Oracles, which likewise enjoyed widespread use, consist of oracles of looming judgment written in the style of Greek prophecy but drawn from Biblical texts.

• Fourth Ezra and 2 Baruch deal with (among other things) the theological questions raised by the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.J Both adopt the convention of having been written shortly after the Babylonian captivity, but contextual clues make it clear that they are post-A.o. 70 works. Fourth Ezra is remarkable for its concern over the problem of evil, as Ezra relentlessly pressed God's angel to explain why the wicked nations appeared to triumph over God's chosen people.

• The Apocalypse of Abraham is ostensibly a narrative of a 1 heavenly journey by the forefather of the Jewish people.

The word apocalyptic comes from the Greek word for "unveiling." The key feature of apocalyptic literature, which was common in early Judaism, was the unveiling of secrets by heavenly mediators. Often these secrets concerned the end times, when God would come to judge the world,, but in nonbiblical texts these visions could also include matters such as pseudoscientific descriptions of the paths of the stars or other "mysteries" of the natural world. Sometimes the recipient of the visionary secrets would be caught up into heaven, while on other occasions an angel might descend with the revelation (e.g., 2 Baruch 6:5-6). Although vivid and sometimes bizarre imagery appears in Jewish apocalyptic literature, the book of Revelation is especially noteworthy for its heavy concentration of such symbolism.

John's Revelation is not an isolated work; it is clear that it is in some ways similar to the nonbiblical literature described above. On the other hand, Revelation does not draw upon the nonbiblical apocalyptic material, although it does directly appropriate other Biblical apocalyptic images, especially those from Daniel. The key question, of course, is not whether Revelation is unique in style but whether it reflects authentic revelation. Some books simply mimic a Biblical style by including fantastic images or by repeating some stock phrases from the Bible. Most pseudo-apocalyptic works were also pseudepigraphical, falsely claiming ancient heroes, such as Abraham or Baruch, as their authors.3 But in originality, in breadth of vision, in the subtle way it draws together a massive amount of Old Testament and New Testament theology and in the profound nature of its visions, Revelation has no equal.

The Seven Churches o f Asia Minor

REVELATION 3 The seven churches mentioned in Revelation 1-3 were all located within the Roman province of Asia (in western Turkey), opposite the island of Patmos where John received his revelation., Although there were almost certainly other churches in the area at this time, it appears that John chose these seven because they formed a natural route for a circuit rider, starting in Ephesus, and moving on in a counterclockwise direction through Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (all on "Map 13"). At the same time, given John's interest in numbers, it is hardly a coincidence that he chose seven churches.The number seven is often symbolic in Scripture of totality or completeness (as in the seven days of the creation week), and the implication here is that John's message was not intended simply for these seven individual churches but was relevant to the church universal.

Efforts have been made to tie items in the seven messages to the precise historical setting of each city. For the most part John's language is too general (and too laden with Old Testament imagery) to allow for such exact identification. But archaeology and history can shed light on some matters:

  • The reference to the "synagogue of Sat-an" (2:9, 3:9) was not a general attack on Judaism but a reference to Jews who had denounced Christians to the Roman government as not being "true Jews." Since the Jews enjoyed legal exemption from participation in the imperial cult (worship of the emperor as a god), this left the Christians open to prosecution for their nonparticipation.3 John affirmed that although they were disowned by the "official" synagogue, God would acknowledge the faithful Christians as his people.

  • The"throne"of Satan in Pergamum (2:13) likely referred to the city's status as center of the imperial cult (some suggest that the imperial temple looked like a throne).

  • Philadelphia had suffered a massive earthquake in A.D.17, the effects of which had been so severe that people lived in the countryside outside the city for years afterward. The promise to the Philadelphians, "I will make [him] a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it" (3:12), would have had obvious significance in the light of this historical background.

  • In verse 3:16 the Laodicean church was denounced as "lukewarm," neither hot nor cold. There were well-known hot springs in Hieropolis, just 6 miles (9.7 km) from Laodicea, and a good supply of cold running water in nearby Colosse.4 Laodicea itself, however, appears to have had a tepid and barely potable water supply.This would have been a potent symbol for this congregation of its church's ineffectiveness.

Scroll, Seals and Codices

REVELATION 5 What is the "book" mentioned in Revelation 5? Codices (singular codex) are similar to modern books, having spines and leaves. They existed at the time John was writing and were particularly popular within the Christian community. Sheets of either papyrus or parchment were folded over and stitched together to produce the codex.

But in John's time a book still generally referred to a scroll, made either of papyrus or parchment, and this is almost certainly what John was referring to in Revelation 5. Sheets of papyrus (usually 20 or so) were glued together to form a roll approximately 30 feet (9 m) long. From the expression "with writing on both sides" (v.1; cf. Eze 2:10,to which John was alluding), we may gather that this was an opisthograph (a scroll with writing on both the front and the back).

To prevent tampering and unwanted reading, scrolls were often sealed with clay impressed with the owner's mark. John may have had in mind Roman wills, which were sometimes witnessed (and sealed) by seven witnesses and put into effect only upon the death of the testator. It is also possible, however, that the number seven ("seven seals"; Rev 5:1) in this context may simply have allowed for a dramatic unfolding of events.

Palm Branches in Israel

REVELATION 7 The branches of the date palm appear in the symbolism of Greek, Ro-man and Jewish cultures:

  • Palms were a longstanding sign of victory in the Greek world, and the Roman authors Livy, Virgil and Cicero made use of them based upon this significance as well.

  • Palm branches were associated with the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (Lev 23:40).

  • Together with the myrtle, willow and citron, they formed the lulab, an object the rabbis tell us was shaken at the recitation of Psalm 118:25: "0 LORD, save us!" (Hebrew,Hosanna!). In John 12:13 the crowds waved their palm branches while shouting this same verse.

  • The Maccabees used palm branches as part of the rededication ceremony for the temple (2Mc 10:7)2 and minted coins picturing palm trees along with the inscription"For the redemption of Zion."

  • These symbols were also employed by the Jews of the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion when they attempted to overthrow the Romans and set up a Messianic kingdom.

Palm branches thus vividly depicted God's victory and the deliverance of his people. Revelation 7:9 portrays Christians who have overcome the persecutions of this world as waving palm branches and wearing white robes. The symbolism of the palm branches would have been meaningful to any ancient reader, but especially to one familiar with the place of palm branches in Jewish tradition and worship.

Trumpets in the Ancient World

REVELATION 8 Both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures made use of trumpets,which played a variety of roles in the ancient world. In addition to their musical function, trumpets could be used to signal various public gatherings, from theatrical performances to coronations to worship services.

The Old Testament, more than Greco-Roman culture, provides the background for the New Testament's use of the "trumpet." Prior to the birth of Jesus, Israel used two basic kinds of trumpets: long, metallic instruments and the ram's horn (shofar)) The New Testament uses one word to translate both kinds. Common uses for the trumpet in the Old Testament were as follows:

  • They were blown to ready troops for battle (Nu 10:9; Jdg 3:27). Paul employed this image in 1 Corinthians 14:8.

  • Priests sounded trumpets at the time of the destruction of Jericho (Jos 6:16).

  • Particularly important is the Old Testament's association of trumpets with theophany (a manifest appearing of God). For example, when Moses led the people of Israel to meet with God at Sinai, a trumpet blast was heard (Ex 19:16).

  • A special ritual of trumpet blasts on the first day of the seventh calendar month inaugurated a sacred month that included the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (Nu 29:1-6).3

The trumpet in the New Testament is connected in Matthew 24:31,1 Corinthians 15:52 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16 with God's appear-ing to the world at the end of history (already anticipated in Isa 27:13 and Zec 9:14). In a similar way the seven trumpets in Revelation 8-11 serve as warnings to people on Earth and signal the advent of God's kingdom.The parallels with the seven trumpets at the fall of Jericho are striking in light of the"collapse" of the great city in Revelation 11:13.

Who wrote Revelation?

REVELATION 10 Unlike nonbiblical apocalyptic works, Revelation is not attributed to a hero of the distant past., The author identified himself as John (1:1) and informed his readership that he was writing from the island of Patmos, where he had apparently been exiled because of his testimony to Christ.2 The author was clearly Jewish, based upon the numerous Old Testament quotations and allusions in the book and on his evident familiarity with the symbolic world of Second Temple Judaism.3 The traditional view, held from the early second century forward, is that this was the same John (John the apostle) who wrote the Gospel of John, as well as 1, 2 and 3 John.

The common view that John the apostle wrote Revelation was challenged, however, in the third century by Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, because he was disturbed at the millenarianism (a belief in a 1,000 year reign of Christ on Earth;20:2) that had arisen in his church as a result of reading the book in a literal fashion. Seeking, perhaps, to diminish the authority of Revelation, he claimed that the apostle could not possibly have written it, noting that the author of Revelation did not claim to be the beloved disciple, that the style of the book is markedly dissimilar to that of John's Gospel and that there was in fact another early Christian leader named John. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 3.39.1-7), in a citation of the church father Papias, affirmed that there had been two church leaders by this name, the second of whom was known simply as "John the Elder."John was indeed a common name in Jewish circles,and it would not have been surprising to find two significant figures in the early church bearing this name (some have even ascribed Revelation to John Mark, author of the Gospel of Mark). As a result of these criticisms, the authority of the book of Revelation in the eastern churches was greatly diminished, to the point that some came to deny that it was canonical.

Another reason for denying that John the apostle wrote Revelation is 21:14, which states that the foundations of the New Jerusalem have inscribed upon them the names of the 12 apostles. This wording may suggest that the author was not himself an apostle and that the age of apostles was indeed past. Nonetheless, there are strong reasons for holding to the traditional view:

  • Papias's implied assertion that there was a "John the Elder" is controversial.

We have only the citation of Papias (c. A.D. 130), found in Eusebius (c. A.D. 263 —339), to work with. It is true that Papias's statement as we have it appears to imply the presence of a second John, but the evidence would be more compelling if it were not found only in a secondary citation.

The author of Revelation never called himself "the elder," a surprising fact if he were indeed this second John, known in the churches by this designation.

John the apostle, widely regarded to be the author of 2 and 3 John, referred to himself as the elder"in both of these epistles. Thus it may be that John the Elder and the apostle John were in reality the same individual.

It would be surprising, if this profound book were written by this later "John the Elder," for this individual to have been widely known and revered in the churches of Asia and yet almost entirely forgotten until his name was recovered by the scholarly diligence of Eusebius.

Neither Papias nor Eusebius claimed that the second John wrote Revelation.The Papias quote says nothing about Revelation, and Eusebius stated only that if one were unwilling to a-scribe Revelation to John the apostle, he or she could alternatively opt to ascribe it to the second John.

  • Justin Martyr (mid-second century A.D.) and other church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, all believed that John the apostle wrote Revelation.

  • Despite their very different literary styles, there are thematic similarities between the Gospel of John and Revelation: Christ is the "Word" in both John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13, and in both works he is also both the"Lamb" (in 1:29; Rev 5:6) and the"shepherd" (in 10:11; Rev 7:17).

  • Both Revelation and John strongly contrast truth and falsehood, light and darkness, etc.

  • Scholars cannot demonstrate that John the apostle did not write Revelation on the basis of a simple observation that the style of Revelation is unlike that of the Gospel.The Gospel was probably based upon sermons John had been delivering throughout his career and thus had a polished, oratorical style.The Apocalypse, a report of visions, is on the other hand in a genre unlike that of any other New Testament book. It is unreasonable to expect that Revelation would read like either a Gospel or an epistle.

  • Against the view that 21:14 requires a post-apostolic author, it is clear from Paul that the apostles were well aware of the high significance of their office (1Co 9:1-2; 12:28; Eph 2:20; 1Th 2:6).

  • The author of Revelation implicitly presented himself as one of great authority. ln Revelation 10:10 he symbolically ate a scroll (as did Ezekiel in Eze 3:1), and in Revelation 22:18-19 he conferred upon his own book an authority similar to that of the law in Deuteronomy 4:2. It would have been strange indeed for an obscure Jewish Christian to have made such claims of authority for his own book.

The Early Persecution of the Church

REVELATION 17 Persecution was a fact of life for the early Christians. The book of Acts documents the martyrdoms of Stephen (Ac 7) and James,the brother of John (Ac 12:2), and describes Saul/Paul as breathing "murderous threats" against the church prior to his conversion (Ac 9:1).' Outside the Holy Land the frequent opposition of the synagogue Jews to Christianity was matched by growing concern among non-Jews. The staunch monotheism of the early Christians would have offended many pagans, who were accustomed to accommodating different gods from all over the world.2 When the livelihood of pagan religious practitioners was challenged by the testimony of the gospel, persecution was the consequence (Ac 19). Early Christians were persecuted by Jews for claiming that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and by some Christian Jews for accepting Gentile converts without requiring them to become Jewish proselytes,3 and they were criticized by Gentiles for their monotheism (Gentiles had accepted Judaism as a legitimate, if peculiar, religion and thus did not officially engage in persecution of Jews),

The central Christian confession "Jesus is Lord" was a particular problem in the Roman Empire, because the affirmation of the sovereignty of Jesus was a direct challenge to the absolute rule of the Roman emperor, When the emperor or his representatives called for people to honor the emperor as a deity, Christians could not comply in good conscience.4 It was inevitable that the Christian's' allegiance to Jesus would trouble the Roman authorities, and the situation finally erupted under the emperor Nero in A.D.64.Searching for a scapegoat for the fires that had plagued the city, Nero seized upon the Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, 15.44) reported that large numbers of Christians were arrested and killed; some were dressed in animal skins and torn apart by dogs, others crucified and set on fire to serve as outdoor lamps.The abuse was so severe that even those hostile to Christianity criticized Nero's actions.

After Nero the persecution of the church appears to have been more sporadic. While the emperor Domitian is sometimes blamed for broad attacks upon the church, the evidence for such a wide-scale persecution during his reign is insubstantial. (Such systematic persecutions, however, did occur during the ensuing centuries up to the time of Constantine.)

Nonetheless, at least one martyrdom is reported in the book of Revelation (that of Antipas in Rev 2:13), with a strong implication that more deaths were coming. A few decades after Revelation was written, the Roman governor Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan for instructions on the parameters for punishing confessed Christians. Although Trajan's reply focused on procedural matters and did not specify the extent of punishment, it is clear that Christianity was perceived as a serious threat to the social order of the early-second-century Roman Empire.

The early Christians no doubt experienced trouble for confessing their faith in their daily lives as well. In the province of Asia, for example, trade guilds would often adopt a pagan god as their patron. Meetings of the guild would thus have involved the worship of this deity, and Christians who refused to participate in that worship might have compromised their livelihood. Many scholars believe that this is the background to Revelation 13:17, in which those who did not have the mark of the beast could neither buy not sell. Ridicule from neighbors, family tensions and concern over government harassment no doubt contributed to the fear of mistreatment and worse for the early Christians.

Trade and Mercantilism in the Roman Empire

REVELATION 18 Economic gain was the driving force of Rome's imperial expansion. Egypt, for instance, supplied much of the grain for Rome, while Judea provided items such as processed fish and balsam. Colonial governance, military peacekeeping efforts and the extensive system of Roman roads were all designed for Rome's material benefit. Local people who joined forces with Rome also profited from the imperial enterprise. Thus Revelation 18;1.1 notes that the merchants would weep and mourn over Babylon (Rome) because no one would purchase their cargo any longer.

In Revelation John was especially concerned about Roman economic exploitation through the trade in luxury goods. John list of goods in verses 18:12-13 was modeled upon the listing of cargoes mentioned in the lament for the city of Tyre in Ezekiel 27, but he adapted it to the realities of the Roman Empire. Items like gold, silver, cinnamon and citron wood were luxuries, not necessities, for the Roman elite. Taken in this light Revelation was not only a prediction o(loom tv. the wicked kingdom of "babylon" bit a challenge to any nation that tows oil wealth and luxury while rejecting the rule of God.

The Tree of Life in Jewish Imagery

REVELATION 22 The tree of life in Revelation 22 depicts the healing of humanity from the effects of the fall, the most terrible effect being death itself. This image is found elsewhere in the Bible and is widely appropriated in early Jewish religious language and art.The tree of life in Genesis 2-3 represent-ed the eternal life that humanity lost in the fall. In Ezekiel 47 trees with healing fruit grew alongside the river that flowed from the temple in the kingdom of God.' The menorah, the lampstand placed in the temple, may have been an abstract representation of the tree of life. In Biblical Wisdom texts such as Psalm 1, the righteous are compared to a tree planted by rivers of water. And in Proverbs 3:18 wisdom is described as a tree of life to those who take hold of her.

Outside of the Bible Jewish sources abound with references to the tree of life:

    • Trees appear regularly in Jewish artwork. They are especially common in funerary settings, in this context almost certainly representing the tree of life as a symbol of immortality.

    • The tree of life was common in early Jewish religious literature.

A text called the Targum Neofiti says,"The Law is a [or the] Tree of Life to all who study in it, and those who guard its commandments will live and rise up like a Tree of Life ( in the world to come."

In 4 Ezra 51-52 Ezra is told that God will open paradise for the righteous: It is for them that the tree of life was planted.,

In 1 Enoch 24-25 Enoch saw the tree of life on a journey to the ends of the earth; it was planted on God's mountain throne and was marvelously beautiful and fragrant.3 Rabbinic tradition suggested that the tree of life was so tall that it required a 500-year journey to scale it and reach the top.

There are many other such texts from Judaism. Collectively they tell us that the symbol of the tree of life powerfully evoked yearning for life and spiritual healing among ancient Jews, providing a Biblical symbol that they readily embraced. John was in effect saying that the only way to the true tree of life is through Jesus Christ.