The Apocalypse

Summary of the Tradition

    Justin Martyr (A.D. ca. 114-165): John the apostle prophesied the revelation (Dialog with Trypho 81).

    Muratorian Fragment: The fragment includes the Apocalypse as having been written by John.

    Irenaeus: The apocalypse was seen towards the end of Domitian's reign, by John (Against Heresies, 5.30). He is not labeled as the apostle in this passage, but Irenaeus frequently refers to John the apostle elsewhere, and no other Johns. Domitian was put to death in A.D. 96.

    Clement: John went to Ephesus after Patmos (Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved 42).

    Tertullian: John the apostle (Against Marcion 4.2) is the author (Against Marcion 4.5).

    Origen: Origen identifies the author of the Apocalypse as John the apostle (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.4).

    Dionysius of Alexandria (A.D. ca. 190-265): Based on style and the differences in writing ability, the authors of the Gospel and the Apocalypse cannot be the same person (Eusebius's Church History 7.25.7).

    Victorinus (died A.D. ca. 303): John saw the Apocalypse while at Patmos, and delivered it after Domitian's death and John's release (Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John 10.11).

    Eusebius: quotes Justin as confirming that John the apostle was the author (Church History 4.18.8), and quotes Irenaeus as indicating that the apostle John wrote the Apocalypse during the end of Domitian's reign, from the island of Patmos. States that others do not accept it (Church History 3.25.1-7), including Dionysius (Church History 7.25.7). Eusebius himself does not commit to a conclusion regarding authorship (Church History 3.25.2, 3.39.6).

    Cyril of Jerusalem (A.D. ca. 315 - ca. 386): Does not list the Apocalypse in his canon (Catechetical Lectures 4.36).

    Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. ca. 329 - ca. 389): Does not list the Apocalypse in his canon (Carmina Dogmatica 1.1).


In the fourteenth year then after Nero, Domitian, having raised a second persecution, he (John the apostle) was banished to the island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenaeus afterwards wrote commentaries. But Domitian having been put to death and his acts, on account of his excessive cruelty, having been annulled by the senate, he returned to Ephesus under Pertinax and continuing there until the tithe of the emperor Trajan, founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and, worn out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's passion and was buried near the same city (Lives of Illustrious Men 9).

John is both an Apostle and an Evangelist, and a prophet. An Apostle, because he wrote to the Churches as a master; an Evangelist, because he composed a Gospel, a thing which no other of the Apostles, excepting Matthew, did; a prophet, for he saw in the island of Patmos, to which he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian as a martyr for the Lord, an Apocalypse containing the boundless mysteries of the future (Against Jovinianus 1).

    Augustine: Augustine includes the Apocalypse in his canon (On Christian Doctrine 2.8.13).


    In the Apocalypse, the author self identifies as John, who was exiled to Patmos, a prison colony, because of his witness to the faith (Rev 1:9). He does not identify himself as the apostle, but he does not say that he is not the apostle, either. With respect to the tradition, there are two schools of thought among the church fathers. The western fathers, of which Irenaeus is the most important witness, assert that John the apostle is the author, and that he wrote the Apocalypse while at the prison colony of Patmos. Irenaeus is identified as the source of the written tradition because he is very early, and because he can claim authority as being a student of Polycarp, who was a student of John (Eusebius's Church History 5.20). The eastern fathers, however, of which Dionysius is the most important witness, reject the authenticity of the Apocalypse. Dionysius rejected it because the Greek of the Apocalypse is very poor when compared to the other documents attributed to John. This argument still holds weight today, but note that Dionysius apparently had no access to the Johannine community, but only the texts. In many ways he was the first practitioner of biblical textual criticism. He is also one of the most successful, as his understanding that the Apocalypse and the Gospel were written by different people is still agreed with today. In addition, the eastern fathers may have rejected the Apocalypse because a literal reading can lead to some problematic teachings, especially on the topic of Millenialism (Rev 20:1-7). Current Catholic understanding, which goes back at least to Eusebius (Church History 3.39.12), is that the Apocalypse should be read symbolically.

    On one hand, we have Irenaeus, who was close enough to the people involved to have the correct understanding of authorship and affirmed John as the author, while on the other hand, we have the clear textual evidence that the documents were not written by the same person. To resolve this contradiction, we must remember our understanding that the Gospel was not actually written by John, but by one (or more) of his assistants; and in the ancient world, the author was the one who stood behind the document, not the one who held the pen. In this way, we have five documents: the Gospel, the three letters, and the Apocalypse, of which are all were written by John in spirit, but written by others in mechanics. Of these, the Apocalypse is the most likely to have actually been written by John because he wrote it from prison, and would be less likely to have assistance. If he did have an assistant, that assistant should be fired, as the Greek of the Apocalypse is poor. Note that John, as a Jewish fisherman, would be expected to have poor ability in written Greek.


    There is no good reason to deny the tradition that it was written around A.D. 90-95, at the end of the Domitian persecution. The attestation is old and consistent. Attempts to place it earlier, during Nero's time, rely on specific interpretations of the Apocalypse. Gathering historical information from the symbolic language of the Apocalypse is dubious at best.

This page was last changed on 2011/08/28