It is the vocabulary and style of the Gospel of John, the Johannine epistles, and Revelation that scholars generally point to as decisive evidence against common authorship. Centuries ago, Dionysius encourages a sharp distinction between John’s works by emphasizing the quality of the Greek in the Gospel of John and 1 John and the poor Greek of Revelation. Revelation’s Greek is “not accurate,” but is plagued by “barbarous idioms” and “solecisms” (grammatical problems) (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.25.24-27). Theodor Zahn contends that such a judgment is both too complimentary of the quality of John’s Greek outside of Revelation and too harsh with respect to Revelation itself (Introduction to the NT, 432, 435).
The Effect of the Use of the OT on Revelation’s Style
The differences in style, including vocabulary, are consistent with the significant differences between a Gospel, an epistle, and a work that is both apocalyptic and prophetic. In terms of genre, Revelation has some significant similarities to certain revelatory works of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. These works are often referred to as apocalypses or apocalyptic literature. At the same time, Revelation’s models are really the prophets of the Old Testament. This makes sense, because John sees himself as a prophet (Rev. 1:3). John’s prophetic influences include prophets, like Daniel and Zechariah, whose visionary elements suggest that they are precursors to the Pseudepigrapha’s apocalyptic works and for the Revelation of John. Revelation’s frequent allusions to the Old Testament have a significant effect upon its vocabulary and even its syntax. It is not always possible to decide whether certain oddities of John’s Greek reflect his use or imitation of the language of the Septuagint, of the Hebrew Old Testament, or of Aramaic (written and spoken). In any case, the impact of the language of the Old Testament, including its translation into Greek, is apparent in passage after passage. The language of the Old Testament does influence the language of the other Johannine works, but not to the same extent. Therefore, John’s prophetic models and his frequent use of Old Testament language could account for many of the distinctive elements of Revelation’s style. Caird points to the analogy of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus (Luke 1-2), where Luke’s style differs from his style elsewhere. In this case, “Luke appears to have imitated the style of the Septuagint” (Revelation, 5). Jörg Frey makes an observation that appears to support Caird’s claim. He notes that the style of the seven letters of Revelation 2-3 (as well as Revelation’s introduction and conclusion) is different from the style of other portions of Revelation and closer to the style of the Gospel and Epistles of John (Die johanneische Frage, 358). Note how much genre matters. The seven letters are more similar to John other’s writings in terms of genre.
Stylistic Variations Are Part of John’s Style
In terms of vocabulary and syntax, some scholars point to subtle differences between Revelation and John’s other writings. Some of these variations are probably not significant. Leon Morris has observed that variations in vocabulary, word order, and sentence structure are characteristic of the style of the Gospel of John (Studies in the Fourth Gospel, ch. 5). These variations include the frequent use of synonyms. Therefore, it would not be surprising to notice variations in vocabulary and style between the Gospel, the Epistles of John, and the book of Revelation. John apparently likes variations and is capable of producing them. For instance, in Revelation, hypomonē (“perseverance”) communicates essentially the same thing that one associates with certain uses of menō (“remain” or “abide”) in the other Johannine writings. In these parallel cases, both words relate to the theme of perseverance, especially to perseverance in obedience (John 15:9-10; 1 John 3:24; Rev. 14:12). Similarly, pisteuō (“believe”) is a common verb in the Gospel and Epistles of John, while pistis (“faith”) occurs four times in Revelation, and the verb never does. Even so, faith is prominent in Revelation due to its placement in significant statements, just as believing is important in the other Johannine works (Rev. 13:10; 14:12). In addition, H. B. Swete lists some noteworthy parallels between the Gospel of John and Revelation with respect to “unusual constructions” and “sentence-formation” (Apocalypse, cxxviii-cxxx).
At the end of the day, different scholars provide different assessments of the importance of the stylistic differences. Swete finds sufficient stylistic evidence to suggest “a strong presumption of affinity between the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse” (Apocalypse, cxxx ). Mussies concludes that the stylistic differences prove “beyond any reasonable doubt” that the same author could not be the author of the Johannine works (Morphology of Greek in the Apocalypse, 352). In light of these differing assessments and the evidence above, it does not appear that the stylistic differences among John’s writings provides decisive evidence for or against the authorship of the book of Revelation by the apostle 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. Hengel, Martin. Die Johanneische Frage: Ein Lösungsversuch, mit Einem Beitrag zur Apokalypse von Jörg Frey. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. Tübingen: Mohr (Siebeck), 1993.
3. Morris, Leon. Studies in the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.
4. Mussies, G. The Morphology of Koine Greek as Used in the Apocalypse of St. John: A Study in Bilingualism. Supplements to Novum Testamentum. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971.
5. Swete, Henry Barclay. The Apocalypse of St. John: The Greek Text with Introduction Notes and Indices. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan, 1908.
6. Zahn, Theodor. Introduction to the New Testament. Translated by M. Jacobus et al. Vol. 3. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909.
7. The Church Fathers referenced above can be found online at various websites like ccel.org.
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