A real head-scratcher on many levels
The book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, may be the most confusing book ever written. It’s a book full of bewildering and terrifying visions. Christians obsess over determining its hidden meanings because their eternal life may depend on getting it right. Does it really give a glimpse into the future, or is it only someone’s worst nightmare? I’ll focus on the book’s history and the opinions of experts because there’s no way for me to describe the book’s meaning.
The author wrote Revelation in the late first century AD, approximately sixty years after the crucifixion of Jesus. He stated that his name was John and that he lived on the Greek island of Patmos. Legend has it that he wrote the book in a cave. References to caves in those times were common. Hermits lived in caves because it was practical. The occupants were protected from the weather and they didn’t have to construct a their shelter. Caves also represented diverse symbolism in ancient writings.
John may have been the only New Testament author to mention his name in his writing, if that was his real name. Based on extensive forensic analysis of historical events, linguistics, writing styles, composition of ink and paper, etc. scholars can’t say for certain who wrote any of the New Testament books. There is just not enough evidence to be found outside the Bible to confirm such authorship.
Even today, if someone visits historical Christian sites, guides tell them that the John of Revelation is the same man as John, the disciple of Jesus. But that’s only an assumption. There’s no proof of that. However, that assumption is very significant because the belief that one of Jesus’s most trusted disciples wrote the book of Revelation may be the only reason it was included in the Bible.
The title’s origin
The title, Revelation, comes from the Greek word apokalypsis, which means uncovering or revealing. It was one of many apocalyptic books written in the first few centuries of Christianity by pre-orthodox Christians. The apocalypses of Paul, Peter, Stephen and Thomas are other examples. Gnostic Christians also wrote apocalypses, such as the First Apocalypse of James. It was a popular prophetic genre that had been presented in Jewish writings such as the book of Daniel. With all the Revelations to choose from, John’s book of Revelation was the only one thought to be holy scripture.
Why it was written: Scenario 1
Scholars debate why the book was written. Most present-day Christians seem to believe that the book was written for them. The author’s goal was to prepare them for the end of this age of human existence. At the end of the age, God will intervene, administer justice, and set things right. It’s a time when God will choose who he wants to save and who he wants to either obliterate or send to a fiery hell for eternity.
Why it was written: Scenario 2
To counter that interpretation of Revelation, many New Testament scholars believe that the book was written specifically for people who lived at John’s time in the first century. Like the first scenario, the author wrote it to give those Christians hope in some future cosmic reckoning between good and evil. In this case, the references to Babylon and the whore of Babylon concerned the Roman Empire and the city of Rome.
Emperor Nero personified evil to late, first-century Christians. In AD 64, he had blamed Christians for starting a conflagration that burned much of Rome. He was the first emperor to persecute and execute Christians, and although he carried out his persecution in the vicinity of Rome, word spread to Christian communities throughout the empire.
Many people even believed that Nero would return from the dead and renew his persecution. Since Roman emperors were considered gods at that time, it didn’t seem out of the question that he could return if he chose to. In fact, after his death in AD 68, imposters did claim to be Nero.
Many scholars believe that the allusions in Revelation to the beast and the number 666 referred to Nero. The number is considered some sort of code for him. Revelation was full of symbology, much of which would have been understandable to first-century Christians, but not to present-day believers. In this second scenario, the reason for the book was to comfort Christians who were threatened with Roman persecution.
Inclusion in the Christian Bible
Archbishops and bishops had to make some critical determinations in order to include a book in the New Testament. Almost three centuries after Revelation was written, the Christian hierarchy finally chose which of the hundreds of available Christian writings were God-inspired and holy, and which were not. One requirement was that the writing had to be traceable back to an apostle of Jesus. In addition, it had to be in harmony with the evolving, pre-orthodox theology. The third criterion was that the writing had to be in widespread use. The bishops were believed to be guided in their decisions by divine inspiration. How God inspired them is a subject for further study.
As an aside, it’s relevant to note that by the fourth century, the orthodox form of Christianity—the one that had been brought to Rome and adopted by Roman emperors—had already tried to destroy the writings of every other Christian sect. If the orthodox Christians didn’t burn them or throw them in a river, they did their best to keep them from being reproduced. Since that was the case, only the writings favored by the prevailing orthodox sect would be in widespread use at that time. And it’s no surprise that those same books were the most likely to be considered God-inspired because they had survived and others hadn’t. The orthodox saw God’s hand in the entire process.
Revelation was one of the last books accepted into the Christian Bible. Even back in the fourth century, there was much debate, even among the orthodox, over the authorship and theology of the book. In the arguments over which books were holy scripture, the side that convinced enough bishops that John of Patmos was the same man as Jesus’s disciple won the day. The Eastern Orthodox Church resisted acknowledging the book of Revelation until the fifteenth century. Additionally, some of the most influential leaders in the Protestant Reformation ignored the book because they thought it wasn’t valid scripture.
Those who finalized the New Testament and the Christian Bible place Revelation at the end for a reason. It’s future-oriented and seems an appropriate place to end the mainly, historically focused Bible.
Contrary to prevailing beliefs, there is no mention of the term Antichrist in Revelation. The epistles of John presented that term, and to confuse things more, that author was probably neither of the Johns discussed above. There is also no mention of a Rapture in the book of Revelation or anywhere else in the Bible. Christians in the British Isles formulated that concept in the 1830s by cobbling together diverse Bible verses that they took out of context or reinterpreted.
The idea of a rapture caught on in the US in the early twentieth century and became part of fundamentalist Christian doctrine. They refined it over the years, resulting in the popular Left Behind book and movie series.
So, that’s a brief summary of the book of Revelation, the book that some people can’t stop talking about. The book’s shock value is certainly effective, even to those who it may not have been written for.