The Sources of the Revelation

In previous discussions I’ve phrased my wording on the Revelation as if it is a single text written by a single author. This is, of course, how the book conveys itself (1.1,4,9; 22.8). Generally, it’s safer to try understanding a book under the assumption that this is the case, until you find reason to doubt a book’s unity.

I think there is reason to doubt the unity of the Revelation.

Textual Disunity in the Bible

Biblical academia takes for granted now that many books in the Bible have been formed from earlier sources. These aren’t wild speculations on the fringes of scholarship, but centuries-old theories that are commonplace in university classrooms around the world.

Any college-level course on the Hebrew Bible will discuss the Documentary Hypothesis, the prevailing theory that the Torah was constructed from at least four primary sources, written over several centuries. Likewise, any New Testament class will wade into the Two-Source Hypothesis, that Matthew and Luke each used Mark and a now-lost source labeled Q. First Samuel’s story about Goliath in the Hebrew version is double its original length. The Book of Isaiah is at least three separate works appended together.1 Elihu’s speech in the Book of Job is later than the other chapters.2 Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church is actually two (or more) of his letters stitched together.3

Textual disunity is so common in biblical texts, it should almost be taken for granted that an individual book has probably undergone redaction, revision, or interpolation to some degree.

Hints of Disunity in the Revelation

In the earlier years of my studying the Revelation, I came to the end of chapter 11, where the last of the seven trumpets is sounded, and God’s victory over the evil powers of the world is announced.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’

Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing, ‘We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.’

This bothered me. Revelation 11 gives us this scene: God anoints two prophets to denounce his enemies. They terrify the world with plagues for a few years, but then ‘the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit’ kills them in ‘the great city where their Lord was crucified’. The two prophets are resurrected a few days later, a part of the city is destroyed, and the final trumpet sounds. It is now, the elders in heaven say, ‘the time for judging the dead’. Yet, the beast continues to wreak havoc across the book, and the judgment of the dead doesn’t occur until nine chapters later.

This always read to me as a serious discontinuity, one I usually ignored while trying to fit the book into some futurist or preterist system of interpretation. In a way, I was relieved to discover I was not the only one who noticed this. Beale mentions that some of the Revelation’s interpreters insert the thousand years (Rev 20.1-6) between when the seventh trumpet sounds (11.15-17) and the proclamation that judgment of the dead has come (11.18-19).4

Beale’s own solution was to instead argue the thousand years spans from Jesus’ resurrection on to his second coming, claiming Rev 6-19 takes place after the thousand years, inserting it into 20.7-10.5

I find neither explanation satisfying.

Several years ago I briefly ran into the claim that the Revelation was originally not about Jesus at all; the Christian elements were thrown on top (e.g. ‘the Lamb’ was a lazy rewrite of ‘the Lion’). However, the only times I came across ideas like this were in passing, and never from reliable sources. It was nothing I felt worth following at the time. Now, as I have noticed more discontinuities, I finally wondered, ‘Could the Revelation also be a composite text?’

Previous Efforts

As one scholar wrote:

At first sight the topic seems to merit little attention due to an overwhelming consensus for unity.6

On the conservative side of scholarship, the book’s overall unity is vigorously defended. Schüssler Fiorenza argued the Revelation is harmonious throughout, and this internal unity ‘does not result from a final redactor’s arbitrary compilation, but from the author’s theological conception and literary composition’.7 The book is so thematically cohesive, whatever the author’s use of earlier sources — and he certainly borrowed extensively from the Hebrew Bible and early Christian traditions — he nevertheless wrote the entire book as we have it; the Revelation came from one author, not many authors combined by a redactor.

The rapid shifts in scenery with various intercalations (i.e. insertions or interpolations), recapitulations, and asides have prompted some interpreters to conclude that the book consists of a patchwork of visions composed in various settings over extended periods of time. But these source and compositional critics have failed to recognize that in its present form Revelation represents a literary unity.8

I think this response overstates the unity of the ‘intercalations’ within the Revelation. Some of them are brief and irrelevant (e.g. Rev 14.13 has no bearing on the surrounding context), while others are large interruptions of deliberate patterns (Rev 10.1-11.13 breaks up the seven trumpets, and separates the ‘second woe’ statement in 11.14 from the sixth trumpet it refers to, back in 9.13-21). It’s hard to see how these interruptions are indicative of textual unity when explanations have to stress that unity.9 Why would the author set up a pattern if he’s going to interrupt it, and if he’s going to interrupt it why must it be stressed that it’s not an interruption?

The Revelation has been a subject of source criticism for over a century. These attempts to discern underlying sources were not reserved for the fringes, but were posited by reputable scholars, and their positions are plentiful enough they have long been organized into three categories. Compilation theories say the Revelation is a combination of preexisting books, any disunity comes from the friction of these sources. Revision theories posit that the Revelation as we have it is from one author, but smaller redactions and revisions brought in disunity. Fragmentary theories suggest the Revelation is made from many unrelated chunks from an unknown number of sources, which an editor tried to organize into what he thought was a sensible order.

On the critical side of scholarship, attempts to reconstruct the Revelation’s sources are rare, and primarily from the academia of yesteryear. Many of them saw the placement of Rev 11’s ending as evidence of multiple sources, but it would be tedious to describe all of their ideas. I’ll try to summarize them, based on Schüssler Fiorenza’s and Aune’s descriptions.10

Erbes saw three main Christian texts within the Revelation, from AD 40, 62, and 80, respectively. Charles thought parts of the book predated AD 70, and suggested the final editor was ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’, and ‘celibate’. Ford believed Rev 4-11 came from John the Baptizer; 12-22 came from a later student of John’s theology, who was probably a follower of Jesus; Rev 1-3 and 22 were written by a Christian redactor.

Kraft said the Revelation was from one author, who revised it multiple times over the years, and was not concerned with conveying a linear chronology. Rousseau saw five layers of redaction: the core being five plagues (an early form of Rev 16), with two subsequent Judean redactors and then two Christian redactors. Sabatier believed the Revelation was originally a Christian text, and that Judean oracles were inserted throughout it, with some final additions afterward.

Vischer argued the Revelation was originally a Judean apocalypse that was then Christianized. Völter saw the Revelation as beginning with a core ‘Apocalypse of John’ from about AD 65, which was redacted and rearranged four times over the following three decades. Weiss decided the Revelation combined two different apocalypses, a Christian’s from AD 66-70 and a Judean’s from AD 70, which were combined by a Christian around AD 95. Weizsäcker believed there was just one author, his book comprised of three series of seven (the seals, bowls, and trumpets); these were then interrupted when the author brought in other sources to expand his work. Weyland thought the Revelation was made of two Judean apocalypses that were combined and Christianized.

Especially noteworthy is Stierlin, an example of source criticism going way too far. Stierlin suggested five layers of redaction, four separate apocalypses written at different times that were combined by a final editor. Except...

Stierlin shredded the Revelation in his efforts to ‘reconstruct’ his five proposed sources. Very little is left in its traditional order, and numerous parts of sentences were attributed to different sources. Aune was so unimpressed with Stierlin’s reconstruction, he called it ‘virtually worthless for scholarship’ because Stierlin ‘essentially atomized the text’.

the incredibly complex way in which Stierlin proposes the final document was compiled is difficult to justify. When ancients compiled sources into new compositions, they simply did not work in the way that Stierlin’s reconstruction requires.11

Aune’s own reconstruction of the Revelation’s sources posited three layers across several decades, but all from one author updating his own text. The primary stage contained twelve ‘apocalyptic tracts’,12 a series of related, but distinct units. These are still in their original order, spread across Rev 7-22, and were written through the AD 50s and 60s, some of them possibly written before the author became a follower of Jesus. The official ‘first edition’ of the book was written in the wake of Rome’s conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70; here the author took his twelve tracts and wrote some insertions to bridge them together; if the author had not previously been a follower of Jesus, this is when he Christianized his earlier work. The final ‘second edition’ came more than a decade after the first, with the first few and last chapters added, along with smaller changes made to stress Jesus’ unity with God.

Summary

The problem with any hypothesis like this is that the more stipulations are made to justify certain choices in the reconstruction, the more speculative it becomes and the harder it becomes to actually test.

A reconstruction could make perfect sense, but unless tangible external evidence is found, the reconstruction is an educated guess at best. It can be too easy to throw problematic elements of a reconstruction to ‘the redactor did it’. This same problem hangs over the Documentary Hypothesis for the Torah, or the Two-Source Hypothesis for the Gospels; these hypotheses may be almost universally accepted, but this is because they are the best guesses known on a large scale. There might be better hypotheses that just haven’t gained traction yet, or a better hypothesis might emerge at a later time. There might be external evidence discovered that substantially weakens the hypothesis.


A New Hypothesis

After reading about these various scholars’ efforts, I put my notebook away. With a pen and paper, I opened up the Revelation and read straight through it. Whenever I came across a point where I suspected disunity, whether chronological, theological, or literary, I wrote it down. As I did this, I began to notice certain patterns between different parts of the book. When I finished, I took the Revelation’s text and split it apart according to what I had written down, and grouped these smaller blocks according to related themes. In the initial stages of this process I left the blocks in their traditional order. Later into the process, I tried moving some blocks around to test solutions for the more glaring discontinuities (e.g. the beast’s introduction in Rev 13 occurring after his first appearance in Rev 11). I didn’t want to just throw things out of arrangement for the sake of it, but to make sense of the more obvious textual discrepancies.

With that said, here is my hypothesis.

The Revelation as we have it is the product of two earlier sources, a Christian apocalypse and a Judean one, and one redactor, another Christian. One source was probably a decade or more later than the other, and the person who combined the sources happened to do so not long after the later source had been written. This formation is not entirely new (you’ll notice similarities with a few of the theories I outlined above), but the specific reasoning is my own.

Source 1: The Temple-Throne

This source’s presentation is extremely straight-forward. The prophet introduces himself (John), explains his situation (on Patmos), and how he received his revelation (a vision in the spirit). He sees God’s throne attended by divine creatures and elders. A slain Lamb comes to take a scroll from God’s hand. The creatures, the elders, the angels, the redeemed, and all creation worships God and the Lamb. The Lamb opens the seven seals on the scroll, each revealing a judgment upon the world. Seven angels are then given seven bowls, which are used to pour out more judgments. Finally, seven angels are given seven trumpets, and each one heralds a judgment more severe than the one before it. The final trumpet announces the victory of God’s kingdom. The dead are judged, and a new creation is made.

Temple-based images occur throughout: the throne, the four creatures (seraphim or cherubim), the elders (priests?), the altar, the incense, the ark, the tabernacle, and the sacrificial lamb. It features extensive doxology focused on God and the Lamb (Jesus).

The source is characterized by its organization of divine judgments into three series of seven: seven seals, seven bowls, and seven trumpets. No particular enemy beyond the world and its elite are identified as the object of these judgments. Each series sweeps from the small to the large, the local to the cosmic. The seven seals begin with the earth suffering more and more from each horseman, with the sixth expanding to the collapse of the heavenly bodies. The bowls begin on the earth, then the seas, then rivers and springs, then the sun, followed by total darkness. The first trumpets follow a similar pattern, starting with with the earth, then the seas, then the rivers and springs, then the whole universe darkened.

Allusions to the exodus abound. The most obvious place this occurs is Rev 15’s song of Moses, followed by the exodus-style plagues of the seven bowls. The theophanic storm motif (4.5; 8.5; 11.19; 16.18) also points back to the revelation at Mount Sinai (Exo 19.16-20; 20.18-21).

Rev 4 has the twenty-four elders standing before a ‘sea of glass’, and 5.8 describes them having ‘harps’ and ‘golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints’. Rev 8.3-5 returns to this offering of incense/prayers (here the container is a ‘golden censer’), which now also dispenses judgment. Rev 15 speaks of ‘golden bowls’ once more, where they also dispense divine judgment, but their introduction is garbled. The prophet sees the seven angels with the seven final plagues of God’s wrath (15.1), but he introduces the angels with their plagues a second time (15.5-6), yet he then sees the seven angels receive seven bowls containing God’s wrath (15.7).

The muddled introduction to the seven bowls reads to me as the redactor botching his reversal of the bowls and trumpets. Placing Rev 15-16 before 8-11 is the most significant part of my reconstruction of this source, and this undermines the increasing severity of the judgments seen in their traditional order, as they move from the seals (one-fourth) to the trumpets (one-third) to the bowls (full). However, the text for the trumpets is nearly double the combined length of the seals and bowls. The description for the fifth trumpet alone is about half the length of all seven seals. The seventh trumpet also concludes with the clear and unequivocal declaration of God’s victory over the world and that the time for the final judgment has now arrived. The trumpets exhibit themselves as the grand finale to the prophecy, not its midpoint.

This source cannot be firmly dated, though we might deduce that its author was a Judean Christian who highly valued the temple, and was familiar with ideas that Jerusalem’s temple was patterned after one in heaven.

Separating this source from the full book, its arrangement would look approximately like this:

Source 2: The Monsters & the Messiah

The source begins with a vision of a pregnant woman (Israel) threatened by a dragon. The woman gives birth to a son, who is hidden away in heaven. The woman is protected for a time, and the dragon seeks to destroy her other children. God sends an angel to put a seal of protection upon the elect, 144,000 Israelites. The dragon summons a many-headed beast from the sea; one of the beast’s heads is seemingly killed, but it revives and sets out to persecute the saints. A second beast, from the earth, enforces idolatry of the first beast as its prophet. The author is instructed to measure Jerusalem’s temple in preparation for the city’s conquest by the nations, and God sends two prophets. The beast kills the two prophets. The beast and his followers are condemned, and the people of the great city are crushed in a winepress symbolizing God’s wrath. The dragon, beast, and false prophet prepare for battle at Har-Megiddo. The author is taken by an angel to see the great city in a new light, as a prostitute named ‘Babylon’, who rides upon the beast’s many heads, which symbolize seven hills. The beast, which ‘was and is not and will come’, destroys Babylon. The messiah is revealed, emerging from heaven with his army; he punishes the beast with the eternal fire, has the dragon imprisoned, and founds a thousand-year kingdom. The dragon is released and sets out to destroy ‘the beloved city’ once and for all, but he is also punished with the eternal fire, as are all those who follow the beast. An elaborate and beautiful new Jerusalem is revealed from heaven, and God’s throne is in its center.

This text has highly mythological elements, and its closest literary parallels are with Second Temple apocalypses like Daniel, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch, while also drawing from apocalyptic elements found in the biblical prophets. The scene in Rev 12, of a dragon antagonizing a pregnant woman, has long been recognized as adapted from the Apollo vs Python myth. The beast from the sea is drawn straight from Dan 7: it has the features of Daniel’s four beasts (7.1-7 / 13.1-2), its ‘war’ is phrased identically (7.21 / 11.7; 13.7), which also lasts for three and a half years (7.25 / 11.2-3; 13.5), and in the end it is also punished in the fire (7.11 / 19.20). The depiction of Rome as a prostitute seated on seven hills is a slur based on the popular depiction of the city as a goddess sitting on its seven hills.

I was vaguely aware that the Revelation had a few similarities to 4 Ezra, and that 4 Ezra in turn was often paired with 2 Baruch. During this reconstruction process, I discovered the similarities run deep, and found this is well recognized.13

This source provides enough information that we can estimate its time period. The presence of the Nero Redivivus legend, and the author’s knowledge of Titus’ brief rule, point to the apocalypse’s origin during the rule of Domitian. (See more here.) The author was a Judean concerned with the downfall of the Roman Empire in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

This source would look like this:

The Redactor

The two sources were combined by a Christian redactor, probably later in Domitian’s time. In the course of bringing these two earlier books together, he made several changes: he rearranged some sections to better suit his overall narrative, and he harmonized the two sources with brief interpolations and revisions.

After he had more or less finished this combination, he wrote an epistolary framework. This consisted of parts of chapter 1, all of chapters 2-3, and parts of chapter 22. The seven churches from chapters 2-3 are not mentioned again, except for a passing comment in 22.16. The redactor’s main contribution to chapter 1 was the vision of the son of man. There, he attempted to imitate the symbolic style of the later chapters, but the symbols he associated with the seven churches (the seven lampstands, the seven stars) likewise never appear after chapter 3. Chapter 10 may have been written as a bridge to connect his two sources.

Conclusion

I think my hypothesis has merit, but it may be that I’ve overlooked something that causes it to substantially fall apart. Nevertheless, I hope it contributes to discussion on the Revelation’s composition.

I give a full treatment of the two sources and the redactor in this Google Doc.

6.21.2019 edit: I've come back to this hypothesis and developed it a bit more, and written a more extensive treatment on the text of Revelation and the proposed sources, available in this PDF.


1 T.C. Vriezen, A.S. van der Woude, Ancient Israelite And Early Jewish Literature, 313.

2 Dariusz Ivanski, The Dynamics of Job’s Intercession, 26ff.

3 Charlas Puskas, The Letters of Paul: An Introduction, 65ff.

4 Gregory Beale, The Book of Revelation, 614-615.

5 Ibid., 984ff.

6 Frederick Mazzaferri, The Genre of the Book of Revelation from a Source-critical Perspective, 8.

7 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation, 159; cf. Schüssler Fiorenza, ‘Composition and Structure of the Book of Revelation’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39.3, 344-366.

8 Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles, The Lion and the Lamb, 384.

9 E.g., regarding Rev 11.14: Beale, Revelation, 609, relegates all of Rev 10.1-11.13 to a ‘literary and theological parenthesis’, and acknowledges that 11.14 refers back to 9.21, while Brian Blount, Revelation, 218, passes over 11.14 quickly, merely calling it ‘a transitional verse’ that summarizes all of 9.13-11.13.

10 Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation, 160ff; Mazzaferri, Genre, 9ff; David Aune, Revelation 1-5, cxff.

11 Aune, cxiv.

12 Grant Osborne, Revelation, 28.

13 Benjamin Reynolds, Loren Stuckenbruck, The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of the New Testament Thought (ed. Reynolds, Stuckenbruck), 3.