Did you know that the 14th Coptic Pope did not believe it was written by St. John the Evangelist? The Eastern Orthodox Church doesn’t include it anywhere in its lectionaries. A 9th century Patriarch of Constantinople rejected the book altogether. Martin Luther called it “neither apostolic nor prophetic,” and it was the only New Testament book on which John Calvin did not write a commentary. So why is it part of the Bible and accepted by pretty much all Christians today? Before someone shakes your faith in trusting the Bible canon we have at present, here is what you should know.
(This post is derived from a new Sunday School series we just started on this mysterious book. If you want the Introduction to Revelation lesson related to this post, you can download it here.)
What’s it called?
Apocalypse is its original name, or “John’s Apocalypse.” It is derived from the very first verse of the book, written in Greek, which starts, “Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ …” [Apokalypsis Iēsou Christou], which is translated in English: “[The] Revelation of Jesus Christ.” The word Apocalypse in Greek means “uncovering” or “unveiling,” which is how we get to “revealing” and “revelation.” It’s not as dramatic a word as when we hear it in modern times.
Even without Revelation, the New Testament still leaves us with a lot
Without the Book of Revelation, we have a lot of the same themes and ideas pronounced throughout the New Testament. In Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 17:22–37, and Luke 21, you will find this:
- False messiahs
- Prophets will perform miracles
- Sun will dim
- Moon will not shine
- Heavens will convulse
- Christ will return with His angels to collect the faithful
- Heaven and earth will disappear
In the epistles of St. Paul you’ll find:
- Christ’s return to place all His enemies under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:20–28)
- Destruction of the world at the end of times (2 Corinthians 5:1–3)
- Christ will return and believers will be caught up to meet Him (1 Thess. 4:15–18)
- There will be a Second Coming of the Lord, on the “day” of the Lord, and preceding that there will be “the coming of the lawless one” who comes “according to the working of Satan” to deceive people (2 Thess. 2:1–12).
Who wrote Revelation?
The book itself says that a person named “John” wrote the book, and the early church seems to have always associated this John with the disciple. As time went on and certain people questioned its authorship and/or canonical status, people offered different views on the matter. One of the most historically prominent suggestions comes from the 14th Pope of Alexandria, Dionysius, who says he considered the book to be written by someone named John, but not the disciple. In contrast, virtually every notable Church Father who accepted this book accepted its authorship as being the apostle John.
Pope Dionysius thought it strange, however, that while John’s other writings are devoid of his name being mentioned, considered to be due to his humility, yet in this book he mentions his name several times. Interestingly, Fr. Tadros Malaty, a priest in the Coptic Church, responds to the former Coptic pope by saying:
The apostle did not hide his name, but mentioned it frankly four times in this book. This is because he is talking about prophecies. In order to trust in them we need to know the writer whom God had inspired with. Yet he did not mention his name in his Gospel nor in the three epistles, out of humbleness.
Did the early Church accept this book?
Yes, early on it was widely accepted, but it later found opposition, so that by the fourth century Eusebius (who himself rejected the book) tells us in his “Church History”: “Some reject it, others accept it.”
How do books make it into the New Testament in the first place?
When it comes to being included in the biblical canon, typically you’ll find all of the New Testament books fall into two main categories:
- Accepted very early on and remained accepted.
- Was doubted early on but slowly gained acceptance.
Revelation was unique in that it was accepted early on, then was later deemed suspect by some although accepted by many, and eventually it was fully accepted, being the last book to be included in the canon.
Unlike what many think, there was no single defining event or moment that solidified the New Testament canon definitively for all of Christendom (no, Constantine did not define it, and no, an Ecumenical council did not definitively set it out clearly), but it was rather a fluid process whereby a canon was, in a sense, created by consensus among Church leaders, with the consensus about Revelation being the most volatile for the longest period of time.
Well, who among the Church accepted the book?
The most notable of Church Fathers and early Christians accepted this book, even though it came under criticism by some. Look at this list of those who accepted the book as Scripture and see how confident you feel after you’ve read all the names below:
- Justin Martyr
- Clement of Alexandria
- Melito of Sardis
4th and 5th Centuries
- Didymus the Blind
- Gregory the Theologian
- Gregory of Nyssa
- Basil the Great
- Cyril of Alexandria
Revelation is very relevant in the Coptic Church today
While it isn’t part of the Eastern Orthodox Church lectionaries, even though the book is fully accepted by the Eastern Orthodox, it is much more prominent in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The ENTIRE book is read after Great Friday during a vigil that begins at midnight that day and continues through the early hours of Saturday morning. That service in Arabic is referred to as “Aboghalamsees” (أبوغلمسيس), which seems to be an attempt to transliterate “Apocalypse” in Greek. It is also known as “Bright Saturday.”
Additionally, every single Coptic Church today has an icon whose imagery is derived from Revelation situated behind the altar. In the icon you will usually find it depicting the 24 elders, Christ carrying a book with seven seals on it, the four incorporeal beasts, and other such imagery. When this became the norm, I am uncertain, but the earliest Coptic icon depicting this behind the altar that I could find in my cursory search of the matter comes from the 6th Century apse of the monastery of Apollo at Bawit, Egypt. I also found one at the St. Anthony Monastery, dating to the 13th Century.
This is in stark contrast with the Eastern Orthodox Church, where you will usually find instead an icon of the Theotokos, referred as the “Theotokos of the Sign,” which you can read about here. They do often have a “Pantocrator” icon in the dome of their churches, but it lacks the Revelation imagery as you find in the Coptic Church.
Commentary on Revelation
Probably the most notable contemporary commentary on Revelation by a Coptic author is that by Fr. Tadros Malaty, which you can download from here. For a more ancient (6th Century) Greek commentary source, see this one by Andrew of Caesarea.
Summary of Revelation
Fr. Tadros Malaty does a wonderful job of summarizing this entire book in the brief outline below:
In this book the Holy Spirit accompanies the human soul on the eternal road, revealing to its inner senses how to see, hear, touch and grow stronger until it reaches the eternal wedding.
(1) It begins by showing an “open door in heaven” to ascend to it through our Lord Jesus, the Lamb standing as if slain, … and what do we see?
(2) We see first “the state of the Seven Churches,” that reveals the extent of the human weakness and how powerful the work of grace in the Church. Here our Lord Jesus comes to announce that He is the only cure to our weaknesses.
(3) Then He carries the human soul up as if with a dove’s wings, towards eternity, on the road of the cross, the road of pain; to see the Lamb opening “the Seven Seals,” proclaiming a state of permanent war between God who cares for His children and Satan who never ceases fighting against the children of God.
(4) And we hear “the Seven Trumpets,” proclaiming God’s warnings to mankind in order not to accept Satan’s deception, but to be attached to God. They also proclaim the power of the woman clothed with the Sun, against her enemy the sea monster and whoever he arouses, “the sea beast and the land beast.”
(5) And you see the “Seven Strokes” to discipline the wrongdoers, that they might repent; revealing the destruction befalling the adulteress and her lovers. Every time the soul discovers a bitterness that prevails mankind or a difficulty that encompasses the faithful, we find that the Person of our Lord Jesus immediately appears in one way or another to encourage, sympathize and strengthen His children in order to accomplish their struggle in peace.
(6) At last, the Spirit accompanies the soul into the “Heavenly Jerusalem” to see and get dazzled by what must be for her sake and what God has planned for mankind; as she watches with her eyes, Satan, the enemy of humanity, thrown down into the lake burning with fire.
Reading Revelation . . . As a Graphic Novel!
If you’re interested in reading this book and experiencing it in a whole new way, I highly recommend you check out this graphic novel by a now Orthodox Priest, Matt Dorff. It provides an intense “comic-book” style visual to accompany every single verse of the Book of Revelation.
- Church History by Eusebius (I highly recommend this version of the book – a MUST read)
- Apocolypse and Andrew of Caesarea – Presvytera Jeannie Constantinou’s Ph.D. Dissertation (cited as JC-PhD)
- Fr. Tadros Malaty’s Commentary on Revelation
- Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity by IVP
- A new way to see Revelation, blog post by Joel Miller