Writers of commentaries and New Testament introductions uniformly report that the authorship of Revelation is a controversial issue. Although the authorship of John the apostle is still defended in conservative circles, scholars outside of these circles commonly reject it and reject the idea that one author is responsible for the Gospel of John, the three Johannine Epistles, and Revelation. These scholars sometimes see Revelation as a product of a Johannine school or as the work of John the elder. A survey of the external evidence from the Church Fathers reveals strong support for the authorship of John the well-known apostle of Jesus, who is so prominent in the Gospels.
Evidence from Justin Martyr and Ireneaus
The external evidence from Church Fathers is significant. Justin Martyr’s famous debate with Trypho occurred in Ephesus around A.D. 135. In his work Dialogue with Trypho (81.4), he writes, “There was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem.” Justin is undoubtedly referring here to the book of Revelation and associating it with John the apostle. Irenaeus introduces a series of quotations from Revelation with an introductory formula. In this formula, he claims that “John, the Lord’s disciple” wrote the following words in “the Apocalypse” ( Against Heresies 4.20.11). Irenaeus spent time as a young man in Smyrna with Polycarp, whom he claims knew John the apostle (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.20.6; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.4). The agreement between Justin Martyr and Irenaeus on the authorship of Revelation is significant. It finds additional support from the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen (Maier, Offenbarung 1-11, 25; Beckwith, Apocalypse, 338-9). Beckwith concludes, “So much external testimony to the personality of the author, traceable back to almost contemporaneous sources, is found in the case of almost no other book of the New Testament” (Apocalypse, 351).
Opposition to John the Apostle’s Authorship by Dionysius and Eusebius
The most significant early opposition to John the apostle’s authorship comes from Dionysius of Alexandria in the middle of the third century. Dionysius’s words are handed down by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (7.25.16). He denies that John the apostle wrote Revelation. He attributes it to another John from Asia and cites the evidence of two tombs in Ephesus with the name of John. Dionysius’s assessment of Revelation appears to be theologically motivated. His opposition to the apostle John’s authorship occurs in the midst of a theological debate. He writes to oppose the teaching of Nepos, who was apparently appealing to Revelation 20 as evidence for a millennial reign of the saints upon the earth (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.24.1-2). It is in the context of that debate that he rejects John the apostle’s authorship of Revelation and proposes another John instead. In the fourth century, his assessment is picked up and transmitted by the well-known church historian Eusebius. Eusebius, like Dionysius, wants to deny John the apostle’s authorship in order to deny that an apostle was responsible for Revelation’s teaching about the millennium (Beckwith, Apocalypse, 341). The views of Dionysius and Eusebius wind up exercising considerable influence upon the Greek-speaking churches of the East for quite some time (Swete, Apocalypse, cxvi-cxvii).
John the Elder in Eusebius
Eusebius tries to support his view of Revelation’s authorship by providing historical evidence for another John at Ephesus, John the elder, who could have written Revelation. He finds it in a famous quotation from Papias. Like Polycarp, Papias was also from Asia Minor and knew John the apostle while he was alive (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.33.4.). According to Eusebius’s reading of the quotation, Papias refers to two respected teachers of Asia Minor with the name John, namely, John the apostle and John the elder. Eusebius points to John the elder as the likely author of Revelation for those who cannot accept that John the apostle wrote it (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.39.6). It is important to notice that Eusebius is not able to produce a claim from Papias, or anyone else, that John the elder wrote Revelation. All he can suggest from Papias is that another significant John was a teacher in Asia Minor around the same time as John the apostle. As a result, the existence of John the elder is based on the slimmest of evidence, namely, Eusebius’s interpretation of Papias’s words. As Maier notes, Irenaeus and other Church Fathers of Asia Minor never speak about a second John in Ephesus or Asia Minor. They are also unanimous in attributing Revelation to John the apostle (Offenbarung 1-11, 24-25). As a result, Eusebius’s interpretation of Papias’s words would appear to be mistaken, as well as his claim that John the elder, not John the apostle, wrote Revelation.
Here is Eusebius’s quotation of Papias: “If, then, anyone came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders, —what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter [or elder] John, the disciple of the Lord, say” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.4; translation from NPNF2, vol. 1, 171). Notice the two John’s in the words of Papias. Eusebius claims that the second John is John the elder and not John, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus (see 3.39.5-6). These words of Papias have been examined extensively by those who think that Eusebius is right and that John the elder could be the author of one or more of the New Testament books attributed to John.
1. These paragraphs are adapted from my book:
Paul Hoskins, The Book of Revelation: A Theological and Exegetical Commentary, pp. 14-16 (those pages provide further sources and footnotes that I have omitted above).
2. Beckwith, Isbon Thaddeus. The Apocalypse of John: Studies in Introduction with a Critical and Exegetical Commentary. New York: MacMillan, 1919.
3. Maier, Gerhard. Die Offenbarung des Johannes Kapitel 1-11. Historish-Theologische Auslegung. Witten: SCM, R. Brockhaus, 2009.
4. Swete, Henry Barclay. The Apocalypse of St. John: The Greek Text with Introduction Notes and Indices. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1908.
5. The Church Fathers referenced above can be found online at various websites like ccel.org.
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