Saturday, June 6, 2020

Adult Ed, June 4th -- Catholic Commentary on the Apocalypse, Session 1, Introduction: St John and the History of the Writing of Revelation (Part 1 of 9)

In this series, through June and July, we are discussing the Book of Revelation.

Outline of Session 1:  Introduction, St John and the history of the writing of Revelation, Revelation as New Testament “prophecy”, why called Revelation or Apocalypse, Revelation as part of the Bible, and debates in the early Church about the book of Revelation.

Listen online [here]!


Catholic Commentary on the Apocalypse
Studying the most perplexing book of the Bible with the great Catholic Scholars
Session 1 – St John and the history of the writing of Revelation

Outline of Session 1:  Introduction, St John and the history of the writing of Revelation, Revelation as New Testament “prophecy”, why called Revelation or Apocalypse, Revelation as part of the Bible, and debates in the early Church about the book of Revelation.

Overview of the Course, 9 sessions
1) Introduction: St John and the history of the writing of Revelation
2) Overview and Structure of Revelation, and Interpretive Hermeneutics
3) Commentary on Chapters 1-3: Opening Address and Letters to the Seven Churches
4) Commentary on Chapters 4-8: First visions, the book with seven seals, the four horsemen
5) Commentary on Chapters 8-11: The seven trumpets, the two witnesses, judgment
6) Commentary on Chapters 12-14: The Woman, the dragon, the beast, 666, the victory of the Lamb
7) Commentary on Chapters 15-18: The seven plagues, the whore of Babylon, destruction of the City
8) Commentary on Chapters 19-22: The Knight, the Thousand Years, God and Magog, New Creation
9) Key Theological Issues and Review: Millennialism, the Rapture, Final Resurrection and Judgment

[Note: Revelation is 22 chapters and just under 10,000 words (in Greek). Fifth longest book of the New Testament. Shorter than the Gospel of Mark, longer than St Paul’s Letter to the Romans.]

I. Authorship and Canonicity of the Book of Revelation

A. The Apocalypse or Revelation is one of the “deuterocanonical” books – meaning that it is part of the Bible but that there was some debate about this in the early Church.  In the first days of Christianity, there were certain heretical sects that gave false interpretation of this book (for example, a heretic Cerinthus interpreted Revelation to say that heaven will be an earthly kingdom after the Day of Judgment). Because of the great difficulty in interpreting many of the fantastic visions, and because many heretics gave false interpretations (they still do today), some early Christians rejected this book.
However, the great majority of the early theologians, bishops and Fathers of the Church maintained that this book is part of Scripture, and the Church has accepted it as part of the Bible.

B. Although it is doubted by many of the heretics of the modern day, and even by some Catholics, there can be no doubt that this book was written by St. John the Beloved, the Apostle who wrote also three letters bearing his name and the fourth Gospel. From the late 100s, we have strong testimony that St John the Apostle wrote this book, and the Church’s traditional liturgy introduces it as “The Apocalypse of St John the Apostle.” 

“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to make known to his servants the things which must shortly come to pass: and signified by his angel to his servant John.”  Revelation 1:1

Though there are many who will claim that Revelation was written by some other John, “John the Seer,” the best early tradition maintains it was the Apostle. St Justin Martyr who was converted to Christianity in Ephesus in AD 135 (only maybe 30 or 40 years after St John died in that very city!) says that the Apostle wrote this book. Also St. Melito of Sardis, St Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian. It seems that the only real reason anyone in the early Church debated whether it was written by the Apostle was due to concerns about how heretical sects would give false interpretations of the book.

We do admit that there are some significant differences in style and subject matter between the Gospel and Revelation – but these differences do not require two different authors. Indeed, it is no surprise that the books would be very different, since the Gospel is a history of Jesus’ life while Revelation is a recounting of awesome visions. Furthermore, it is possible that the books were written at different times (perhaps even many years apart, though I think only a few) and that different scribes could have helped St John to write each of the books in Greek (since his native language was Aramaic).

II. Who was St John the Apostle?

He is the brother of James the Greater. He is also the son Zebedee and Salome, making him the nephew of St. James the Less and Jude Thaddeus, and the grandson of St. Cleophas (Alphaeus). This makes him to be a distant relative of Jesus, since he is the son of the Lord’s cousin Salome.   All this is the general consensus of the Fathers and great saints.

St. John suffered an interior martyrdom greater than all the other Apostles:
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide writes of the “martyrdom” of St. John – (cf. Mark 10:35-40, especially verses 38-39, “And Jesus said to them: You know not what you ask. Can you drink of the chalice that I drink of: or be baptized with the baptism wherewith I am baptized? But they said to him: We can. And Jesus saith to them: You shall indeed drink of the chalice that I drink of: and with the baptism wherewith I am baptized, you shall be baptized.”)
“S. John also drank of this cup when he was plunged by Domitian, at Rome, before the Latin Gate, into a cauldron of boiling oil, and came forth renewed in strength; so that by a new miracle he was a martyr by living rather by dying.
“Again, not only Prochorus, S. John’s disciple, in his Life of S. John (the truth of which is rightly suspected by Baronius), but also S. Isidore declares that S. John really drank the cup of poison, but that he also drank it without harm; whence also he is generally represented in pictures holding a cup. And, lastly, we may say that the whole life of S. John was a continual martyrdom, for he lived a very long time after all the Apostles, to the year of our Lord 101; and this long absence from Christ, his beloved—after Whom he was continually longing—was a lengthened martyrdom to him, as it was also to the Blessed Virgin, to whom he had been given as a son by Christ on the Cross.
“Again, S. John underwent a special martyrdom while he stood with the Blessed Virgin by the Cross on Mount Calvary, and beheld Christ—his Life, Whom he loved more than his own life—suffering the bitter pains of the Cross for three hours.”

Again, Fr. Cornelius a Lapide writes of the virtues of St. John:
“S. John alone was counted worthy to win the laurels of all saints. For he is in very deed a theologian, or rather the prince of theologians. The same is an apostle, a prophet and an evangelist. The same is a priest, a bishop, a high priest, a virgin, and a martyr. That S. John always remained a virgin is asserted by all the ancient writers, expressly by Tertullian (Lib. de monogam.) and S. Jerome (Lib. 1 contra. Jovin.). To him therefore as a virgin Christ from His cross commended His Virgin Mother. For “blessed are the clean in heart, for they shall see God,” as the Truth Itself declares.

“The Only Begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, made known to this His most chaste and beloved friend, who reclined upon His breast, the hidden things and sacraments of the Divinity, which had been kept-secret from the foundation of the world. John hath declared the same to us, as a son of thunder, thundering and lightening the whole world with the Deity of the Word. As with a flaming thunderbolt “he hath given shine to the world;” and with the fire of love he hath inflamed it. Let that speech of Christ, His longest and His last, bear witness, which He made after supper (S. John xiii. &c.), which breathes of nothing but the ardour of Divine love.”

III. The History of the Visions on Patmos and the Writing of Revelation

A. After the attempted murder of St John at the Latin Gate in Rome, which took place (according to St Jerome quoting Tertullian) in AD 92, the Apostle was banished to Patmos for a time. It was there that he received the visions which would be the basis for the last book of the Bible.

“I, John, your brother and your partner in tribulation and in the kingdom and patience in Christ Jesus, was in the island which is called Patmos, for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, saying: What thou seest, write in a book and send to the seven churches which are in Asia…”  Revelation 1:9-11

B. This would place the date of composition to around AD 97, with the visions having been given only shortly before. There are some modern scholars who contend that the visions may have been given much earlier (even in the 60s) because there are portions of the book which refer to the Jewish Temple as though it were still standing (which was destroyed in AD 70), however it would be difficult to square this earlier dating with St John’s testimony that the visions were given on Patmos after he had been exiled there.
St John is shortly thereafter permitted to return to Ephesus, where he then writes his Gospel (the last book of the Bible written), and dies at the age of 93 in the year AD 101.

[C. A fun note about books and scrolls]

D. To whom was this book first written? “The seven churches of Asia.” Notice that the book of Revelation often uses numbers in a symbolic way (four, seven, twelve, and variations of these like 144,000), hence it seems that the book is truly written for the universal Church though perhaps particularly for these early communities. We will consider some of the particulars of each of the seven churches named in the first chapter, but for know we emphasize that the Christians of this time were suffering from intense persecutions while the faith was beginning to spread throughout the world.

IV. The Historical Time Period of Revelation

The Church at this time was enduring terrible persecutions while the faith as spreading.  The evangelization of Asia Minor began from the first days of the Church, even from Pentecost itself. As the Church began to grow in these early communities, also various false interpretations of the faith and various heresies began to spring up. St John wrote to encourage these early Christians and also to warn them from falling into the false teachings of heretical sects.

During this time also, is the break of Christianity from the Jewish Synagogue. What is very present in the fourth Gospel, is seen also here – Christianity must move beyond the Old Testament worship and the Jewish Temple. Further, the Jews of Asia Minor persecuted the Jewish Christians greatly, leading to much suffering – and we always remember that St John was one of these Jewish Christians.

Finally, this is an age of intense persecution from the Romans. Not only had Nero persecuted the early Church and put Sts Peter and Paul to death (about the year AD 67), but the emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) had greatly increased the persecution by turning it from being focused primarily on the bishops to also including many of the lay faithful.

While the early Christians were encouraged by the spread of the Gospel, there was danger that they would be crushed by the confusion of heresy, the hatred of certain Jews, and especially the persecution of the Romans. St John writes to a suffering Church, and he seeks to console the early Christians and to encourage them to keep the faith.  This must always be remembered when reading Revelation, especially some of the most imaginative and violent portions – the book was not meant so much as a threat of punishment, as a promise of redemption!

V. The Place of Revelation in Sacred Scripture

Revelation is the last book of the Bible, and understands itself as such (even though it was written by St John before his Gospel). This book is something of a capstone or finishing of Scripture, even as it speaks of the end of all time and history.

“For I testify to every one that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues written in this book. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away this part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from these things that are written in this book.  Rev 22:18-19

Notice that, although the book is called in Greek “Apocalypse,” St John states that he is writing a book of prophecy. Indeed, this book is in many ways as much prophetic as it is apocalyptic. A classic way of seeing the place of Revelation in relation to the rest of the Bible is to see it as “New Testament Prophecy.”  The comparison between Old and New Testament would be: Law-Gospels, Historical Books-Acts of the Apostles, Wisdom Books-Paul and Catholic Epistles, Prophetic Books-Revelation.

The prophetic books were both meant to console the Chosen people in times of persecution and to call them to conversion. So it is with the book of Revelation. The Old Testament book of Daniel is “apocalyptic” while being prophetic, and in many ways prepares for Revelation. Additionally, the prophets of the Old Testament give testimony to future events, but primarily for the purpose of interpreting the will of God in the present and calling people to conversion – so with Revelation.

VI. Why is the book called Revelation or Apocalypse?
The title comes from the first words of the book, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to make known to his servants the things which must shortly come to pass: and signified, sending by his angel to his servant John.” (Revelation 1:1)

The Greek word for “revelation” is “apocalypse” – which means “unveiling” and refers especially to the revealing of future events but also to the “uncovering” of the significance of present realities.
Note the common error: Many people mistakenly say “Revelations” in the plural, rather than the proper title “Revelation.” This is significant because, although there are many visions given in this book, all is taken together as a single authentic Revelation of Jesus Christ. There are many private “revelations” which have been given in the history of the Church, and these are good – but the book of Revelation is part of the public divine Revelation which is set forward for the whole Church.

This book opens with the phrase “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” which both means that is a revelation about Jesus, and that it was given by Jesus. But also that it was given to Jesus as man.


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