The Textual Design of the Book of Revelation

July 11, 2016 — 2 Comments

As I introduce the book of Revelation I want to explain the type of literature and genre it is. In other words, I want to explain and define the textual design for the book of Revelation which is an “apocalypse.”

The Textual Design of the Book of Revelation

Photo Credit: “St. John the Evangelist on Patmos” by Jacopo Vignali

I. IMPORTANT DEFINITIONS

A. Apocalypse

This word occurs in the title of the book of Revelation and means “disclosure” or “revelation.” It is the “uncovering of what is unknown.” The word “apocalypse” is “generally taken to refer to a particular style or genre of writing or to a work which exhibits the distinctive characteristics of that genre” (L. J. Kreitzer, “Apocalyptic, Apocalypticism” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 56).

B. Apocalyptic

The word “apocalyptic” is an adjective that refers to either the literary genre or the religious perspective that underlies the message (Kreitzer, “Apocalyptic, Apocalypticism” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 56).

This is a broad term that encompasses two terms: apocalyptic eschatology and apocalypticism.

1. Apocalyptic Eschatology

Apocalyptic eschatology is an expectation of the end which structures religion’s perspective. This includes a biblical portion with common thematic content (Isa 24-25; 57-65; Joel 2-3; Matt 24: 1 Thess 5).

2. Apocalypticism

Apocalypticism is a “sociological ideology” of the oppressed which includes situations in life that help to determine the meaning of the text (Elliott Johnson, “Apocalyptic Genre in Literal Interpretation” in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, 198-199; Kreitzer, “Apocalyptic, Apocalypticism” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 58).

Within this discussion sometimes people will define “apocalypse” and then define “prophesy.” Yet the Book of Revelation contains both. Therefore, Beasley-Murray suggests that the book be defined as an “apocalyptic prophesy” and/or a “prophetic apocalypse” (Beasley-Murray, “Book of Revelation” Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 1032).

C. Apocalyptic Literature

According to Elliott Johnson, apocalyptic literature “is prophetic revelation that challenges and encourages God’s oppressed people by narrating contemporary historical issues and envisioning their outcome at the end of history in terms of corresponding to what the prophet saw in the vision and heard from the divine interpreter” (Johnson, “Apocalyptic Genre in Literal Interpretation” in Essays in Honor of Pentecost, 200). 

D. Which Bible Books Are Apocalyptic Literature? 

Most people believe that the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation are apocalyptic literature.

II. APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE (Johnson’s View)

A. Literary Function

All apocalyptic literature has both an author and an audience.

1. Authorship

Regarding authorship, the fact that the apocalyptic literature of the Bible has a distinguished author is what makes it different than other extra biblical apocalyptic literature. The Apocalypse of Enoch, Abraham, etc. all are well known “pseudonyms,” meaning someone recorded the revelations and then ascribed a well known Old Testament name to the visions to add credibility.

2. Audience

Regarding the audience, there usually was an audience in a state of oppression who received the visions and revelations. Daniel, Ezekiel, John, and Zechariah all knew about the oppression that Gentile nations were placing on the Israelite or Christian communities (Johnson, “Apocalyptic Genre in Literal Interpretation” in Essays in Honor of Pentecost, 202). 

B. Literary Structure in Composition

Apocalyptic literature includes narrative and visions.

1. Narrative

The narrative element of apocalyptic literature means that there is a clear arrangement of material. As a result, the organized structure makes it easier for readers to understand what is occurring. Furthermore, this narrative framework means that universal applications can be applied to modern believers’ lives because we can always shared experiences in our time and the author’s time.

2. Visions

The vision element of apocalyptic literature means that God directs the attention of both the author and the reader to the end of time. These end of time visions often show God’s resolutions of historical issues and tensions. Visions that show end of time resolutions are important because it is what distinguishes apocalyptic literature from prophetic literature. Prophetic literature does contain visions, but visions that describe the end times are apocalyptic (Johnson, “Apocalyptic Genre in Literal Interpretation” in Essays in Honor of Pentecost, 203-204).

C. Language

Two important points regarding the language of apocalyptic literature need to be noted.

1. Facts, History, Attitudes, and Feelings

First, prophetic revelation includes the use of language that refers to factual information, history, attitudes, and feelings. While much apocalyptic literature includes symbolism, that does not eliminate reference to specific events whether current, near future, or at the end of time. The best example of this is the vision in Daniel 2:38, “you are the head of gold,” or in Daniel 7 when the angelic interpreter tells Daniel who the four beasts represent.

2. Symbols 

Second, a symbol is determined by textual and contextual considerations. The next section explains more about textual and contextual considerations in apocalyptic literature (Johnson, “Apocalyptic Genre in Literal Interpretation” in Essays in Honor of Pentecost, 204-206). 

D. Context in Apocalyptic Literature 

There are three important elements when examining the role of context in apocalyptic literature.

1. Biblical Context

Out of the sixty-six books in the Bible, Revelation was the last book to be written (95 AD). As a result, it contains hundreds of quotes, references, and allusions to the Old Testament. An astute Bible student needs to discern if the book of Revelation purposefully uses the same symbol that has already been used in the Bible (sea, horns, etc.). Or, does the symbol or word just happen to be the same one already used in another book?

2. Historical, Cultural, and Mythological Context

Sometimes apocalyptic literature draws on the historical, cultural, or mythological images popular at the time of its writing in order to employ meaning. For example, Zechariah saw the agents of God’s will as horses and riders sent on patrol (Zech 1:7-17) which was common in the Persian military (historical). References to Leviathan and Rahab (Job 26:7-13; Isa 51:9-10; 27:1) draw on some contemporary belief of that time (mythological).

3. Vision Context

Meaning, Bible students should approach apocalyptic visions with the assumption that the author recorded the vision in words that correspond to what he saw. Some Bible students believe visions were interpreted according to the worldview of that time. However, if that were true the meaning would have been lost in that contemporary and historical situation. For example, grasshoppers in John’s time become helicopters in our time (Rev 9:1-6) (Johnson, “Apocalyptic Genre in Literal Interpretation” in Essays in Honor of Pentecost, 206-209).

III. APOCALYPTIC ESCHATOLOGY (Krietzer’s View)

A. The Essence of Heavenly Communication: The Hidden Is Revealed 

This is based on the word, Ἀποκάλυψις, meaning “Revelation.” Most commentators can agree that the main element of the book of Revelation is “revealing” what was previously not known. The interpretation of that “revelation” is where disagreement begins. Yet the book of Revelation is not the only place that “the hidden is revealed” through heavenly communication. Other examples are Acts 7:55-56; Rom 2:5; 8:19; 1 Cor 1:7; 2 Thess 1:7; 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 4:13, 

B. The Medium of Communication: Angelic Messengers and Heavenly Ascents

In Acts angels release the apostles from jail (Acts 5:19-20), Peter is delivered from prison (Acts 12:6-11), and angels communicate God’s will as seen by Cornelius’ instruction (Acts 10:22-33). Evidence of a heavenly messenger in the book of Revelation is seen first of all in Rev 1:1 where Jesus sends an angel to reveal a message to John. After the letters to the seven churches John is taken “in the Spirit” to heaven where he begins to see visions (Rev 4:1). Angelic guidance is also seen in Rev 17:7. Within the book of Revelation angels reveal the vision to John (1:1; ; 14:13; 19:9; 21:6, 16; 22:1) and they announce God’s judgement (6:1, 3, 5, 7; 14:6-8, 14:9-11).

C. The Temporal Axis: The Present Versus the Future

The foundation for the difference between the present and future is Dan 9:24-27. In that passage a period of “seventy sets of seven” is described and predicted. Jesus came in the sixty-ninth week and believers are still awaiting the seventieth week to arrive.

D. The Spatial Axis: The Earthly Versus the Heavenly

The new heaven and new earth are a common distinction between general prophecy and apocalypticism. Mainly, that difference is the cosmic transformation described in 2 Peter 3:10-14; Heb 12:18-24; 13:14. These passages each speak of a future heavenly city of Jerusalem that is brought to earth in Rev 21-22.

E. The Anthropological Axis: The Wicked Versus the Righteous

Apocalypticism often places the author near the end of history and therefore encourages a positive response from readers. In this way, a contrast between current wickedness and future righteousness exists in apocalyptic literature (J. L. Kreitzer, “Apocalyptic, Apocalypticism” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, 55-66).

IV. EXTRA BIBLICAL APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE

A. The Apocalypse of Zephaniah

There are several other known “apocalypses.” The apocalypse of Zephaniah is known as a pseudepigraphon written sometime between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100. It expresses the views of a Hellenistic Jewish writer. In it the writer is caught up into the fifth heaven, sees angels, learns about human beings being judged by God on two occasions, references the “book of the living” (similar to the Book of Life in Revelation), and describes a lake of fire (S. E. Robinson, “Apocalypse of Zephaniah” in The Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, 39-40). 

B. The Apocalypse of Abraham

Another apocalypse is the Apocalypse of Abraham. It is also a pseudepigraphon that contains a narrative section and then an apocalyptic vision. It likely was written after A.D. 70 (but also before the end of the second century) because the author was aware of the destruction of Jerusalem. In the apocalyptic vision section God sends an angel to comfort Abraham. Then Abraham ascends to heaven where he sees the entire universe. This vision includes the creation of the universe, Eden, Adam and Eve. The author sees the Fall, the history of the nations, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, and the end of the world (S. E. Robinson, “Apocalypse of Abraham” in The Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, 37-39)

C. Other Apocalypses

In addition to these, there are also Jewish apocalypses of Adam, Enoch, Moses, Daniel, Ezra, and Baruch. However, none of these were written be the people whose names they are called. All are what is called “pseudonymous,” which means someone else wrote the material and then ascribed a historical figure’s name to the work in order to give it authority and weight. The only two early apocalyptic literatures that are not pseudonyms are the Revelation of John and the Shepherd of Hermas (J. J. Collins, “Apocalypticism” in Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds, 46).

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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  • Thank Christopher for sharing this great detail. Keeping it for reference.

    • I’m glad you find it helpful. I will be focusing on the book of Revelation for the next several months. Next week’s post will be about the methods of interpretation of Revelation and then a post about the date of the book. Thanks for reading.