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Chapter Summary

Jesus and the earliest Christians, including Paul, claimed that the end of the world was near. Although some groups of Christians eventually rejected such an apocalyptic worldview, other groups remained firmly committed to the idea that God’s kingdom was imminent. Near the end of the first century, a prophet named John wrote a book that gave an account of the end of the world; this book, commonly known as the Apocalypse of John or Revelation, is one of many Jewish and Christian apocalypses of its time.

The Content and Structure of the Book of Revelation

The book narrates the revelation, or apocalypse, given to John by God through Jesus and an angel. The first section of the book (chapter 1) describes John’s vision of Christ. The second section (chapters 2–3) contains seven letters addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor; these letters describe the conditions of the churches and, in most cases, urge a change in behavior. The third section of the book (chapters 4–22) recounts John’s vision of the end of the age, which include series of major catastrophes on earth, the destruction of the “whore of Babylon,” and a final cosmic battle between Christ and the enemies of God.

The Book of Revelation from a Historical Perspective

The historian can help make sense of Revelation by considering it in light of other ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses. Like Revelation, these texts also include symbolic visions of heavenly realities and the end of the age. All of these texts utilize similar literary features and can be studied as a distinct genre.

Apocalyptic Worldviews and the Apocalypse Genre

The term “apocalyptic” refers to a worldview; the term “apocalypse” refers to a genre of literature that embodies apocalyptic views. Although Jewish and Christian apocalypses differ because of doctrinal differences in the religions, both reflect the beliefs of communities that are experiencing some kind of suffering. These books assert that despite present circumstances, God is in charge and will soon intervene and vindicate his people. Apocalypses, then, offer encouragement and assurance to their audiences. In general, writings of this genre share the following features: They are first-person narratives, their highly symbolic visions are interpreted for the prophet by a heavenly being, and the visions involve a triumphal movement from the present suffering of God’s people to future vindication and bliss. The two major types of apocalypses are heavenly journeys and historical sketches. These are not mutually exclusive categories; Revelation includes aspects of each.

Apocalypses also utilize several specific literary features. First, they are typically pseudonymous. Like other pseudonymous works, these texts seek to gain authority by attributing their message to an important figure from the past. Second, these texts contain bizarre symbolic visions that are interpreted for the prophet by the angelic mediator. Third, apocalypses contain violent repetitions. These repetitions, in other words, violate the literal sense of the text: The story cannot be mapped out chronologically. Fourth, these texts all conclude with a triumphalist note, which encourages their audiences to remain faithful despite their suffering.

The Revelation of John in Historical Context

Revelation is unique among apocalypses in that it is not pseudonymous. The author identifies himself as John, though he does not claim to be Jesus’ disciple, the son of Zebedee (nor is this author responsible for the Gospel of John). Most scholars agree that parts of Revelation were written during the 60s CE, at the time of Nero’s persecutions of Christians. Other parts of the book, however, may have been written later, perhaps during the reign of the emperor Domitian (ca. 95 CE). Regardless of the date of the text, we can know something about the community’s experiences. The churches of Asia Minor were apparently experiencing persecution, and many Christians in the churches were losing their faith. Rather than offering a blueprint for the end of the world, as many modern readers assume, Revelation was written to offer solace to a specific community, historically located in first-century Asia Minor. Its vision offers to its audience an explanation of their present circumstances, gives them hope of the imminent end, and urges them to remain faithful. Like most apocalypses, Revelation includes bizarre symbolism (such as the number 666, a likely reference to the emperor Nero), violent repetitions, triumphalist movement, imminence, and a message of encouragement and admonition.

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