The Book of Revelation: How Difficult Was Its Journey into the Canon?


The story of the New Testament canon is a fascinating one, with many twists and turns.  There are books that were accepted very quickly, almost from the start (e.g., the four gospels), and there are other books that struggled to find a home (e.g., 2 Peter).

And then there is the book of Revelation. 

Few today would contest the claim that the book of Revelation stands as one of the most controversial, complicated, and esoteric books in the New Testament canon.  Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that its reception by the early church was equally complicated and controversial.

But, the story of the book of Revelation is not what one might expect. Other debated books tended to have a lukewarm reception at the earliest stages, only to gain more and more acceptance over time. Revelation, on the other hand, had nearly the opposite experience; it had a very early and positive reception in many parts of the church, only to run into serious challenges at a later point.

Lately, I have been doing a good bit of research on Revelation’s canonical history in preparation for writing an academic piece on the subject.  Here are a few highlights about Revelation’s journey:

1. Revelation’s early reception was Outstanding.  Perhaps as much as any other NT book, we have evidence for an early, widespread, and consistent reception of Revelation.  Our evidence goes back as early as Papias (c.125) and also includes Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, the Muratorian Fragment, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.  That is an impressive list.

In addition, it is worth noting that almost every one of these church fathers accepted the book of Revelation on the same grounds, namely the belief that the apostle John, the son of Zebedee was the author.

B.W. Bacon was so impressed with Revelation’s initial reception that he was able to say, “There is no book in the entire New Testament whose external attestation can compare with that of Revelation, in nearness, clearness, definiteness, and positiveness of statement” (The Making of the New Testament, 190).

2. Objections to Revelation were later and limited.  Our first evidence of any real objection to the book of Revelation comes from the person of Gaius in the early third century who rejects the book on the grounds that it was a forgery of the heretic Cerinthus.  Curiously, this is really the only specific objection were hear about from someone who rejected the book (most scholars agree that the so-called “Alogoi” mentioned later by Epiphanius is not a real group).

Dionysius of Alexandria, in the late third century, makes the argument that Revelation was written by another John besides the apostle. Eusebius appears to agree with him. But, it is worth noting that Dionysius does not reject the book on these grounds (despite the impression many give that he did), but still regards it as holy and inspired.

3. Objections to Revelation were Not Driven by Historical Matters.  As we noted above, the main (and to some extent, the only) person who offered specific objections to Revelation in the early church was Gaius who believed it was a forgery of Cerinthus. But, what led him to this conclusion?  It was not the historical merits of the book, but rather Gaius’ objection to chiliasm (the belief in a literal millennial reign of Christ).

Gaius opposed the chilastic teachings in the church, particularly the chiliasm he attributed to Cerinthus.  There is little doubt that the reference to a millennium in Revelation 20 led Gaius to erroneously presume that Revelation was a product of Cerinthus’ pen.

4. Objections to Revelation Were Eventually Resolved.  Even though Gaius is pretty much alone in his specific objections to Revelation, apparently it did have a negative affect in some quarters of the church.  Particularly in the East, there was a resurgence of doubt about the book in the fourth century and later.

However, there were also many who supported the book. It was affirmed by the synods of Hippo (c.393) and Carthage (c.397).  It was also received by Philastrius of Brescia (c.385), Rufinus of Aquileia (c.404), Jerome (c.414), and Augustine (c.426).  And the reason why these groups accepted the book was simple: it was an ancient book quoted by the early church fathers as authoritative. And for this reason, eventually their view prevailed.

In the end, the problematic canonical journey of Revelation reminds us that the development of the NT canon was not always a smooth, pristine affair.  However, it also remains that in the case of Revelation, the problems had little do with the historical merits of the book itself, but rather with the particular theological peccadillos of some in the early church.  When the actual history of the book is understood, its canonical status stands in little doubt.


The Book of Revelation: How Difficult Was Its Journey into the Canon? — 3 Comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head. It goes back to how “Covenant Theology” came into being. Gaius did not like the theology framework of his time and pushed against it. Augustine was key in forming the new theology which carried over into the Reformation and today. The book is not “too complicated” to understand as many pastors/teachers today claim – it just doesn’t fit their theology, like Gaius.

    • It would surely appear that a teaching that Jesus Christ will return to the earth and destroy ALL the kingdoms of the earth is diametrically opposed to the Roman church and the Emperor. Surely a pastor of a state church cannot preach such things!

      I have to say I have been greatly influenced by CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. I always think of Satan and his activities in a warfare perspective. I consider his works to be much greater than just against one man, or one family on even one generation. Now I am admittedly going into an area that I have not studied, however it seems to me that Satan is more than willing to plant seeds and start movements that he is wiling to wait for decades and even centuries for the full effects to be manifested. He is a patient long term planner trying to win a war that lasts much longer than a few generations. Again, another subject that I have not studied so I am speculating, but my understanding is that the hermeneutic used by Origin and Augustin of allegorizing or spiritualizing “inspired” texts was prevalent in Alexandria in the last few BC centuries and was really popularized by Philo. Biblically, nothing good came from Egypt and I think this hermeneutic fits that description. Since there were so many religious texts that were supposedly inspired in Alexandria that a hermeneutic that looked for truth beyond the literal interpretation had to be developed in order to accommodate everyones beliefs. This was eventually adopted by some of the church fathers, and by the time you get to the 4th century, you have some guys who despised the OT, a bunch of guys who jumped on the band wagon of trying to spiritualize or allegorize the OT so as to make it relevant to the NT Church, and you combine that with some passages that just cannot be taught from a pulpit in a state church, and Viola! you have amillennialism.

      I always found Acts 1:8 to be an interesting passage. Of course the Jews at Jesus’ time were looking for their conquering king Messiah. And Acts 1:3 says “He (Jesus) presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” So for forty days Jesus was teaching the disciples about the Kingdom. And then after those 40 days, the disciples ask Jesus in 1:7 “So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” So after 40 days of teaching them about the Kingdom, they were still expecting a literal earthly kingdom. And keeping Luke 24:45 stating that Jesus “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” I find it hard to believe that Jesus opened the mind of other disciples about the scriptures, yet after 40 days of teaching the Apostles, they still had the wrong idea about a literal millennial reign…

  2. Professor, can you off the top of your head recommend any resources on the historical development of the interpretation of the Book of Revelation?