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2.9.2 - Alternatives to the Apostle John

The author of the book of Revelation claims to be simply, “John” (Rev. 1:1+, 4+, 9+; 21:2+; 22:8+). While most throughout church history have understood the author to be the Apostle John, others have suggested it to be the work of other men named John or even those not named John. Osborne has identified seven main alternatives suggested as author of the book:1

There have been several suggestions: (1) John the apostle; (2) the elder John; (3) John Mark; (4) John the Baptist; (5) another John; (6) Cerinthus; and (7) someone using the name of John the apostle as a pseudonym.2

To this list, we could add a recent eighth suggestion that the book is a composite work of several authors. Swete observes the weaknesses of this eighth suggestion:

It is taken for granted by some recent authorities that the Apocalypse is a composite work. But does this conviction rest on more than the reiterated assertion of writers who have found in the analysis of the book a fascinating field for intellectual exercise? When the enquirer investigates the grounds on which the hypotheses of compilation rests, . . . The phenomena which suggest diversity of authorship admit for the most part of another explanation; they may well be due to the method of the author or the necessities of his plan.3

As we mentioned above, such theories are based upon an overt emphasis on subjective internal evidence.4 Even then, there is significant internal evidence of the unity of the book for those with eyes to see.5

The proposal which has received the greatest attention is that the book of Revelation is the work of a “John the Presbyter,” a second John besides the Apostle who resided at Ephesus. This idea hinges entirely upon a fragment from Papias which is only preserved for us by Eusebius. The idea of a different John was called attention to by Eusebius, yet church history prior to that time is silent as to this possibility:

Except in an obscure fragment of Papias, preserved in Eusebius H. E. III. 39, no mention of the Presbyter John is found before the fourth century. Eusebius is the first to point out the existence of such a person as evidenced by the fragment which he preserves from the introduction to Papias’ book . . . It must be said that the sole explicit historical evidence for the existence of John the Presbyter, as distinguished from the Apostle, is this passage of Papias. And while we are compelled to interpret the passage as witnessing to his existence, yet there remains the extraordinary fact . . . that no other trace of such a person appears till about the beginning of the fourth century, when Eusebius called attention to the significance of Papias’ language, though Papias’ book had been well known through the centuries.6

This suggestion of Eusebius is still popular among some today, although Swete notes that we know almost nothing about this figure, which is odd if indeed he were the author of such an important work. “Perhaps no conjecture hazarded by an ancient writer has been so widely adopted in modern times. A conjecture it still remains, for no fresh light has been thrown on the enigmatic figure of John the Elder. But this circumstance has not prevented scholars from confidently attributing to him one or more of the Johannine group of writings.”7

Along with “John the Elder,” some, such as Calvin, have suggested John Mark (the author of the book of Mark).8 But this seems unlikely because there is no evidence in the New Testament or the early church of John Mark being associated with the Asian church9 nor are there any significant linguistic similarities between Mark’s gospel and the book of Revelation.10

Notes

1 It should be noted that several of these options are directly at odds with a belief in the inspiration of Revelation and its inclusion in the Canon. For example, if the book was written by Cerinthus or using a pseudonym, then we have what would amount to divine inerrancy set forth within the framework of a lie.

2 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 2.

3 Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998, 1906), xlviii.

4 The facts of the internal textual elements themselves are not subjective, but deciding which are important and what they mean is highly subjective.

5 “Swete points to twenty-seven phrases in the early chapters that are matched up by nearly the same wording in the final chapters. ‘Such coincidences leave no doubt that the same writers has been at work.’ ”—Mal Couch, “The Literary Structure of Revelation,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 70.

6 Isbon T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 362,366.

7 Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, clxxii.

8 “As for the authorship of the Apocalypse, Calvin suggested John Mark as a good candidate.”—Larry V. Crutchfield, “Revelation in the New Testament,” in Mal Couch, ed., A Bible Handbook to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2001), 34.

9 “There is nothing in the New Testament or early tradition associating [John] Mark in this way with the Asian church.”—Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, 347.

10 “There exist no significant linguistic similarities between Mark’s gospel and the Apocalypse, nor does the Evangelist display characteristics of a visionary possessed of a strong prophetic consciousness.”—Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 25.


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