Thursday, June 24, 2021

3. The Author of The Revelation: John the Son of Zebedee


Four times in Revelation the author identifies himself as John (Rev. 1:1; Rev. 1:4; Rev. 1:9; Rev. 22:8). Until the third century, the early church unanimously affirmed this John as the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles and author of the Gospel According to John and the epistles of John.

Writing early in the second century (ca. A.D. 135), Justin Martyr declared, “There was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.”1 Since Justin lived in Ephesus, one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, his testimony is especially significant.

Dating from about the same time as Justin (ca. A.D. 100–150) is the gnostic writing known as the Apocryphon of John. It cites Revelation 1:19, attributing it to John the brother of James and son of Zebedee.

Another second-century affirmation that the apostle John penned Revelation comes from Irenaeus. He introduced a string of quotations from Revelation with the statement, “John also, the Lord’s disciple, when beholding the sacerdotal and glorious advent of His kingdom, says in the Apocalypse.” Irenaeus’s words are valuable because he was a native of Smyrna, another of the seven churches John addressed in Revelation. Interestingly, as a boy Irenaeus had been a disciple of Polycarp, who in turn had been a disciple of the apostle John.

Also writing in the second century, Clement of Alexandria noted that it was John the apostle who had been in exile on Patmos. Obviously, it was the John who had been exiled to Patmos who penned Revelation (1:9).

Other early testimony to the apostle John’s authorship of Revelation comes from Tertullian (Against Marcion, 3.24), Origen (De Principiis, 1.2.10; 1.2.7), Hippolytus (Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 36), and Victorinus, author of a third-century commentary on Revelation (in his comments on Revelation 10:3).

Such strong, early, and consistent testimony to the apostle John’s authorship affirms the book’s internal claims and clearly confirms his hand in its writing.

The differences in style between Revelation and John’s other inspired writings noted by critics still form the main line of argument for those who deny that the apostle wrote Revelation. While those differences do exist, because the nature of the material is so different, they are not significant enough to prove that the apostle John could not have written Revelation. Some of those differences can also be explained by the different literary style of Revelation. And it is also possible that John used an amanuensis (secretary) when he wrote the gospel and the epistles (as Paul did; Rom. 16:22)—something he could not have done while writing Revelation in exile on Patmos.

Despite the differences, there are striking parallels between Revelation and the apostle John’s other writings. Only the gospel of John and Revelation refer to Christ as the Word (John 1:1; Rev. 19:13). Revelation frequently describes Christ as the Lamb—a title elsewhere given to Him only in John’s gospel. Both the gospel of John and Revelation refer to Jesus as a witness (John 5:31–32; Rev. 1:5). Revelation 1:7 and John 19:37 quote Zechariah 12:10 differently from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) but in agreement with each other. Commenting on the similarities between Revelation and John’s other writings, Donald Guthrie writes, “It should be noted, incidentally, that in spite of linguistic and grammatical differences the Apocalypse has a closer affinity to the Greek of the other Johannine books than to any other New Testament books” (New Testament Introduction, 940).

The arguments of some ancient and modern critics notwithstanding, the traditional view that the apostle John was the John identified as the inspired author of Revelation best fits the evidence. The strong testimony of the church almost from the time Revelation was written, the similarities between Revelation and John’s other writings, the absence of any credible alternative author, and the improbability that two prominent men named John lived at the same time in Ephesus argue convincingly for apostolic authorship.