John Gayford takes a peep into its Mystery


It may be a Biblical hyperbole when St. Jerome said of the Book of Revelation that it has as many secrets as words. Even so to claim we know the full meaning of this last book in the New Testament would be unwise. Apocalyptic Literature is about the end of world history, when the powers of evil launch their terminal struggle against God only to be defeated. Apocalypse comes from the Greek apakalypsis which means “disclosure”, “unveiling” or “revelation”; making known what was previously hidden or unknown and usually comes in the form of a vision of future events. It should give hope to its Christian audience that God will eventually triumph, righteousness will eventually prevail under God’s protection. 

Through history the Book of Revelation has been interpreted in many ways. It is a mixture of genres. The book opens with the call of John and his letters to the seven churches in which they are admonished and encouraged. At the beginning of chapter four the door of heaven is opened and John is summoned and starts his visionary experiences. The very early church interpreted it as a vision of how the world was to end within a generation. When this did not happen the time frame was extended to a thousand years. By the time of St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) it was thought to relate to downfall of regimes and increasing ecclesiastical dissention. This view continued for the next 500 years well into the middle ages. By then the reformation brought the danger of the antichrist into focus. Efforts were made to unlock the allegory of the events described in the text. In more modern times the script has been used as a lens through which contemporary society can be judged. 

The book of Revelation can be compared with traditional Greek drama made up of seven acts and seven scenes. Numbers and colours are given mystic meaning, imagery is imported from the Old Testament together with angels and monsters. Examples of apocalyptic literature in the Old Testament are seen in Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zephaniah but also in works outside the canon, none of which were accepted by the Sadducees. In the New Testament there are verses that have even gained the title of “little apocalypse”. There are a number of Christian apocalyptic works written in the first three centuries which do not qualify for the canon. 

In the very early Church an apocalypse was meant to be read aloud. This was no mean task as the text was difficult to read, with no sentences, punctuation or paragraphs and not even gaps between the words. There were specialist apocalyptic readers (more deliverers) who were brought in occasionally as a special treat to excite the congregation in the context of the liturgy. They were to the ancient world what an exciting audio-visual presentation with all its wiz-bangs is to a modern audience. Thus there is no better introduction to the Book of Revelation than to hear the whole book read aloud in one sitting by an extremely good reader (usually an actor with some understanding and sympathy for the book).

The Churches use Revelation in their liturgies in disparate ways. In terms of the modern Roman Divine Office we see selected verses of Revelation used as a canticle at Vespers after the second psalm. The famous sequence Dies irae has a long Requiem history with an apocalyptic theme taking its origin from Zephaniah (1: 15-16) but also from Revelation (20: 11-15). In modern Benedictine use, this is split into three sections and is used as the Office Hymns of the last week of the year in ordinary time. The compilers of the Eucharistic Lectionary feed us with small doses of Revelation in the three yearly cycle. It fits well as a second readings for the feasts of Christ the King and of All Saints. The text of the Mass such as the Sanctus and Agnus Dei have apocalyptic connections.

Each Christian denomination seems to have its own way of interpreting this book, and fundamentalists may get into a tangle with too literal interpretation. Regretfully some unfortunate interpretations have led to Revelation being wrongfully attributed to tragic loss of life as in Waco in 1993. It may come as a surprise that the Book of Revelation was more readily accepted in the Western Church than it was in the Eastern Churches, where it was omitted from the Canon listing the Books of the New Testament; initially the Syrian and Armenian Churches did not accept the Book of Revelation into their Bible but later relented. Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) in his Festal Epistle of 365 admits that John’s Apocalypse was accepted by some but not by others. The Orthodox Churches takes the view that some books are to be read in church, others may be read privately while some should not be read at all. The Book of Revelation is not usually read in the liturgy of the Orthodox churches publically nor is it part of the Divine Office, the exception to this being on the Island of Patmos. Nevertheless it is not a banned book but readers are encouraged to understand the circumstances in which the book was written and its purpose, they are also warned about the dangers of some interpretations. In the Western Church the Book of Revelation had an easier time. Even so its canonicity depended on the supposition that it was written by St John the Apostle.  Acceptance by Athanasius of Alexandria in his Festal Epistle of 365 was enough. At the reformation, Martin Luther was an opponent of Revelation but John Calvin accepted it as canonical but declined to write a commentary on it. Most see it as a fitting end to the New Testament. Apocalyptic speeches are not dead in our own age and range from “I have a dream” to “we will fight them on the beaches… in the valleys and… in the streets”. Their task was to rouse their audience, in the same way as a principle speaker at a revivalist meeting, after those present have been prepared by warm up acts. It is a psychological art that has not been lost to political leaders.

Revelation 1:1 and 22:8 identifies the author as John. It is probably by identifying the John, the author of Revelation, with John the disciple of Jesus that Revelation gained entry to the Canon of the New Testament. This was the view of most early church writers. The suggestion that it was John of Patmos who was a prophet came gradually. Some of the terminology is the same as in St. John’s Gospel; and John of Patmos could be a member of the Johannine community. Even so his Greek is very different from that of the Gospel. The theory is that he was exiled to Patmos for his witness to the Gospel; possibly before the destruction of the Temple (which is not mentioned). The Island of Patmos is where John is reported to have had his visionary experiences. Patmos is a volcanic island 40 miles off the coast from Miletus of modern Turkey. We hear more about real sea in Revelation than in most of the New Testament. It is a hilly island about ten miles long by six miles wide. Tradition supported by art has it as a desolate remote place of exile. Was John identifying with Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; all prophets who were all exiled. On the other hand John may have gone to Patmos voluntarily so that he could be in retreat with a Christian community with liturgy; perhaps even with John experiencing his visions in the context of the Sunday Eucharist. 

The hypothesis from the source critics is that the Book of Revelation was written over a period of time using both oral and written Old Testament Apocalypse. Further speculation suggests that part was written in or following the persecution of Nero (54-68) and other parts associate it with Domitian (81-96). The Letters to the Churches were separate. All of these were superficially edited into one work at the end of the first century. Scholars tell us that there are more allusions towards the Old Testament than there are in any other book in the New Testament. It is even difficult to say if John was working from Hebrew or Greek with the text before him, or whether he wrote using memory of the text.

As might be expected there is a grotto marking the place allegedly where John wrote.  John of Patmos is often depicted as a ragged figure gazing out into the sea but legend and art may give him more gravitas and also give him a scribe named Prokhor. Apocalypse stimulates art. On the mosaic of the Triumphant Arch from the eighth century Basilica of St. Praxedes in Rome, the outer arch depicts the arrival of the blessed at the gates of heaven where Christ is flanked by the twelve Apostles. On the inner arch we see the twenty-four elders bringing their golden crowns. These types of murals became popular in medieval and baroque times. Durer (1471-1528) produced a number of woodcuts, some of which have been coloured, depicting scenes and images from the Book of Revelation. These continue to stimulate other artists, a good example is the four horsemen of Apocalypse. Other art forms may include tapestry and stained glass windows. There are now even a few Greek Orthodox icons.

Revelation was written in an age when apocalyptic writing was popular both in Jewish and Christian writings but John’s was the only one to be accepted into the New Testament. John of Patmos was not only a visionary but he was also a good theologian (a divine) with an extensive knowledge of scripture, including books with apocalyptic elements that did not make it into the canon of the Old Testament. These he skilfully incorporated into his writing. Not only do we have heavenly visions with angels and trumpets but he is not above borrowing monsters from mythology to make his point and warn his listeners. It has to be remembered that John of Patmos was speaking of mysteries and like his Old Testament predecessors was struggling for words to make impact of his message. What is more it seems as if John thought in Hebrew concepts but was writing in Greek. Through history there have been many interpretations of John’s apocalypse. At the end of the day there has to be an admission that we do not have all the answers. It is safer to see it as a liturgical aid, allowing heaven and earth to be united in the worship of God. It reminds earthly worshippers of the seriousness of their task and brings to a sharp focus only the essentials. To this end John wrote with force and passion. The message of Revelation stripped of all its imagery is that through the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ the powers of evil are defeated and we see a glimpse of salvation. To give Christians inspiration we need a vision. John does in words what music, art and liturgy try to do for the individual believer. All things are made new; in chapters 21:1 – 22:5 John gives a vision of a new covenant, a new temple, a New Jerusalem and a new creation against the background of an all embracing triune Godhead in heaven; the climax of his work. 


Further Reading

Boxall, I. Revelation: Vision and Insight. SPCK London 2002.

Collins, A.Y. The Apocalypse (Revelation) in the New Jerome Commentary. Geoffrey Chapman. London. 1992.

Harrington, W.J. Revelation in the Sacra Pagina Series A Michael Glazier Book The Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota 1993.

McGinn, B. Revelation, in the Literary Guide to the Bible edited by Adler, R. and Kermode, F. Collins London 1987.

Rowland, C. The Book of Revelation in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought edited by Hastings, A. et al. Oxford University Press 2000.