The Book of Revelation Is Not Apocalyptic Literature

It may seem odd to suggest that the book entitled Apocalupsis does not belong to the genre of literature commonly referred to as apocalyptic. Nonetheless that is my suggestion here. The term employed in the title of the book denotes a revelation or disclosure.1 While this particular revealing or disclosing describes a broad swathe of eschatological events, it is not its own literary genre.

Apocalyptic as a genre is described as “characteristically pseudonymous; it takes narrative form, employs esoteric language, expresses a pessimistic view of the present, and treats the final events as imminent.”2 Henry Barclay Swete (Cambridge), even while arguing that Revelation is apocalyptic literature, admits that the book differs from that genre, in that the book of Revelation (1) is not pseudepigraphic, (2) engages a specific audience (seven churches), (3) has a significant church focus, rather than a purely Israel nation-centered focus, and (4) includes notes of insight and foresight that are more indicative of inspiration than is found in earlier extra-biblical apocalyptic literature.3

Despite these differences between Revelation and extra-biblical apocalyptic literature, Swete considered the gift of revelation to be not entirely the same as the gift of prophecy, and thus revelation stands distinct as a particular manifestation of the spirit,4 “in which the spirit of the prophet seemed to be carried up into a higher sphere, endowed for the time with new powers of vision, and enabled to hear words which could not be reproduced in the terms of human thought, or could be reproduced only through the medium of symbolic imagery.”5

The irony of Swete’s commentary here is that in footnote he appeals to 1 Corinthians 12:4, a passage in which Paul describes words heard in the third heaven which man is not permitted to speak. However, in Revelation, John is given a direct commission to record all of what he sees. Further, in 1:3 and 22:18 there are blessings and warnings for those who hear the words written in the prophecy, and we read seven times in chapters 2-3 and once again in 13:7 the repeated refrain, “he who has an ear, let him hear.” In the first seven instances, the content is expressly, “what the Spirit says to the churches.”

As for the gift of revelation as a unique manifestation of the Spirit, no such gift is evident in Revelation (or anywhere else in the NT, for that matter). Swete appeals to Ephesians 1:17 as in instance of the “gift of spiritual vision,”6and while the passage indeed uses the noun (ἀποκαλύψεως), it is in the context of a request made on behalf of all believers (or at least all believers in Ephesus at the time). In short, Paul is not requesting that believers be granted a mystical gift (in the sense Swete employs the term — as an ability), but that believers be granted a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ. This deeper, more mature understanding of Christ seems Paul’s common expectation for all believers, not some mystical enlightenment for only an elite few.

While the unsurprising dissimilarities between Revelation and extra-biblical apocalyptic literature are convincing enough to me that Revelation should not be considered a part of the apocalyptic genre, the internal genre-identification is dispositive. Revelation 1:3 and 22:7, 10, 18, and 19 all refer to the writing as prophecy. The final reference in 22:19 is to “the book of this the prophecy” (τοῦ βιβλίου τῆς προφητείας ταύτης). It is evident that the use of the term revelation or unveiling (Ἀποκάλυψις — Apocalupsis) in 1:1 is not a genre-technical term, but is rather an explanation of the content of the prophecy: the revealing of Jesus Christ.

The genre placement of the book has significant hermeneutical implications — in fact, the interpretation of the book is pre-determined by the genre classification. If the book fits in the apocalyptic genre, then we shouldn’t expecta it to be understood literally at all. An apocalyptic genre placement would support the preterist interpretation (a non-literal view that the events were fulfilled during the first century), the historicist or continuist interpretation (a non-literal approach that views the book as describing events in the church between the apostolic age and the second coming of Christ), the idealist interpretation (a non-literal view that the book doesn’t predict actual events at all, but rather symbolizes the epic struggle between good and evil), and the eclectic interpretation (a hybrid approach, popularized by George Ladd; this view combines the preterist and futurist interpretation).

On the other hand, only the futurist model (a literal interpretation in which the events described in the book, beyond chapters 2-3, are yet in the future) is supported by the simple genre classification of the book as prophecy. The futuristic interpretive model is the only one of the five models that stems from the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and is initially derived from the simple past-present-future commission of John in Revelation 1:19: “Therefore, write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after these things.”

It should come as no surprise that those who prefer a non-literal interpretation of the book would also gravitate toward the apocalyptic classification, but it is surprising how many futurist interpreters likewise follow their non-literal colleagues in the apocalyptic classification. Instead of blindly accepting terminology that undermines the literal hermeneutic, perhaps we should take our cue from the pages of Scripture and call the book what it is: prophecy — a prophecy regarding the unveiling of Christ, and which is largely about “the things which will take place after these things.”

Notes

1 BDAG, 2nd Edition, 114.

2 Robert Lerner, “apocalyptic language” at Brittanica.com, viewed 5/21/2014.

3 Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of John, Third Edition (London: MacMillan and Co., 1911), xxviii-xxx.

4 Ibid., xxiii.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., xxii.

Christopher Cone 2016


Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.

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