Is Revelation a unity or a composite?

One of the most striking things about the text of Revelation is its literary variability—changes in style, vocabulary, narrative shape and characters from section to section. This is evidenced in its first chapter, most notably at the level of genre. Whilst it is generally recognised that Revelation is a mix of three major genres—of epistle, prophecy and apocalyptic[1]—it is also clear that chapter 1 offers a rapid movement between different microgenres.

Rev 1.1‘The revelation of Jesus Christ…’Apocalyptic
Rev 1.3‘Blessed is the one who reads…’Benediction
Rev 1.4‘John, to the seven assemblies…’[2]Epistle
Rev 1.5b‘To him who loves us…be glory and dominion…’Doxology
Rev 1.7‘Look, he is coming with the clouds…’Apocalyptic
Rev 1.8‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord…’Prophecy
Rev 1.9‘I, John, your brother who shares with you…’Epistle

PPR-180-8062The effect of this rapid interchanging of genre is initially disorienting for the reader, since generic markers offer the reader a set of conventions to follow in making sense of any text, and by presenting the reader with so many different (even conflicting) conventions, the text defies easy categorisation. Roland Barthes argues that this makes Revelation a ‘readerly’ text, rather than a ‘writerly’ one; the reader must be actively involved in construing meaning and making decisions as to which features of the text to ‘foreground.’[3]

For the last 150 years or so, the dominant academic approach to the variability of the text has been to suggest that Revelation is a composite document document, put together from pre-existing written material either by the same author, by an editor, or by a variety of people. The best-known exponent of this approach was R H Charles, who wrote the ICC commentary. Recent commentators are increasingly sceptical about this approach, but it was surprisingly revived by David Aune is his Word commentary.

A significant part of Aune’s argument is that the text of Revelation contains 12 units which were originally separate from one another, and have been combined by the original author into a single text. The justification for this view is that the units have ‘discontinuity of dramatise personae’—and that claim has often been repeated.

But it is worth looking more closely to see whether this assertion stands up to scrutiny. This is the list of characters or agents mentioned in Aune’s proposed 12 units. [4]

UnitVersesDramatis personae
17.1–17John, four angels, another angel, the 144,000, a great multitude, ‘nations, tribes, peoples and languages’, the lamb, angels, four living creatures, elders, God
210.1–11John, another mighty angel, seventh angel, God, voice from heaven, ‘they’
311.1–13John, two witnesses/prophets, the Lord of all the earth, beast from the abyss, ‘peoples, tribes, languages and nations’, inhabitants of the earth, God
412.1–18The woman clothed with the sun, the great dragon, the male son, God, Michael, Michael’s angels, the dragon’s angels, John, a loud voice in heaven, God’s Messiah, the brethren, the great eagle, the earth, the rest of the woman’s offspring
513.1–18The dragon, John, the beast from the sea, those who dwell in heaven, the saints, ‘every tribe and people and language and nation’, the inhabitants of the earth, the lamb, the beast from the earth,
614.1–20John, the lamb, the 144,000, a voice from heaven, the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, God, another angel, ‘every nation and tribe and language and people’, another angel, Babylon, another angel, the saints, one like a son of man, another angel (x 3)
717.1–18One of the seven angels, John, the kings of the earth, the woman Babylon, the saints, the witnesses to Jesus, the inhabitants of the earth, the seven kings, the eighth king, the ten kings, the lamb, ‘peoples and multitudes and nations and languages’, God
818.1–24Another angel, Babylon, the kings of the earth, another voice, God, the merchants of the earth, the shipmasters and seafarers, the saints and apostles and prophets, a mighty angel
919.11–16John, the rider on the white horse, the armies of heaven
1020.1–10John, an angel, the great dragon, the nations, the beast, the Messiah, the saints, the false prophet
1120.11–15John, one on the great white throne, earth and heaven, the dead, Death and Hades,
1221.9–22.5One of the seven angels, the bride, the lamb, God, twelve angels, the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles, the nations, the kings of the earth, ‘his servants’, Jesus, the spirit, the saints

410GMQIeZmLThere are several things worth noting about this list immediately. The first is that, whilst these episodes introduce a myriad of different players, and there are certainly named characters who do not reappear with the same designation (the two witnesses, the woman clothed with the sun, the male son and Michael are the most obvious examples), there is in fact a high level of continuity in dramatis personae between the episodes. The most obvious is that of John himself, mostly referred to by the first person singular pronoun as the one who has seen or heard things or the one to whom something is given or shown. This might sound like a trivial observation were it not for the fact that there is one section (12.1–9) where John is not obviously present, and the change of introduction of this section (from the more usual ‘and I saw’ to ‘and a great sign appeared’) is taken by the majority of commentators to mark a major division in the text. Besides John himself, many characters appear in multiple units, here listed in order of frequency:

  • God (with various adjectival descriptors) in units 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 12;
  • The saints in units 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12;
  • The four-fold designation of ‘nations, tribes, peoples and languages’ in units 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7;
  • The inhabitants of the earth in units 3, 5 and 7;
  • The kings of the earth in units 7, 8 and 12;
  • One of the seven angels in 2, 7 and 12;
  • The dragon in units 4, 5 and 10;
  • Babylon in units 6, 7 and 8;
  • The 144,000 in units 1 and 6;
  • The (twenty-four) elders and the living creatures in units 1 and 6;
  • The Messiah in units 4 and 10.

One striking thing about these occurrences is that they are not correlated—that, is, there are not characters whose patterns of appearance in some units and absence from other units match one another. All the units appear to be linked to each of the others in some way or another.

Aune’s solution to this (given in the body of the commentary) is that where characters do appear to offer continuity, then they must have been added by some editorial process in order to present an appearance of continuity where was previously none. But this argument is entirely (and viciously) circular—it was the absence of such continuity in the first place which led to the theory of discrete units. The problem arises because this kind of source-critical approach was first developed in relation to the gospels, where we have multiple texts and can explore the relationship between them. Such methods fail when we have a single, complete text, since the process of moving from a single text, to multiple source, and back again is inevitably circular in the absence of any other external evidence.

This simple analysis of agents and characters in these different sections offers a key part of the case for the unity of the text. Perhaps it is time to dispense with compositional theories about Revelation once and for all.

[1] Craig R. Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Yale University Press, 2014) pp 104–111. Note that the genre ‘apocalyptic’ is contested to a degree by two of the essays in this volume.

[2] I am here following the convention of Koester, op cit, in translating the term ekklesia as ‘assembly’, since the semantic range of the English ‘church’ has anachronistic institutional overtones.

[3] Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990) pp 4–5. See the discussion of this in relation to Revelation in Gregory Linton, “Reading the Apocalypse as Apocalypse,” Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 30 (Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Pr, 1991), 161–86 reprinted in David L. Barr, ed., The Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of Revelation (Atlanta, Ga: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006) 9–41.

[4] For ease of comparison, I have cited these ‘persons’ in English translation, based on the NRSV, but adapted where continuity is not clear. For example, like many ETs, NRSV translates Christos as ‘Christ’ in 1.1, 2 and 5, and 20.4 and 6, but as ‘Messiah’ in 11.15 and 12.10, masking the connections between these verses.

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11 thoughts on “Is Revelation a unity or a composite?”

  1. Thanks Ian, this is interesting. I haven’t done much study in Revelation and didn’t realise that there was a composite theory to its construction!

    I think any ‘composite’ theory is somewhat doomed – even for the gospels. As you say, unless there are other sources which show something different, any theory you come up with is entirely speculative. It’s like the documentary hypothesis for the Old Testament – still going even though it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    I do get annoyed reading commentaries when commentators spend more time hypothesizing about how a text came to be than actually dealing with the text in front of us!

    • Thanks Phill. Three things to observe:

      1. Composition theories really have dominated much academic discussion. You just need to look at R H Charles in ICC or Aune in Word to see this. Aune has a helpful catalogue of the different theories—and Koester in his new commentary then notes that the fact none of them agree with each other is a good reason not to go with any!

      2. I would agree with you on Pentateuchal criticism—there is an inevitable circularity for certain kinds of argument. However, I am persuaded by recent computer analysis which separates out a Priestly source from non-Priestly material. All these theories depend on an assumption of incompetent editing—but this might be the case if two texts, already thought to be sacred and therefore unchangeable, are brought together.

      3. I would disagree with you on gospel criticism. Matthew, Luke and John clearly already had a written source, in the form of Mark. Matthew and Luke treat and make use of this source in a quite different way from John. But I am with Mark Goodacre in his scepticism about the existence of Q, and second, lost, written source, for similar reasons of circularity.

      • Hi Ian,

        Thanks for replying to me!

        I hadn’t heard about the computer analysis looking at the priestly / non-priestly sources, I will look into it when I get the chance. I suppose as a pastor rather than a scholar, I am more concerned with the text and how it has a bearing on us – as much as thinking about the compositional history of the Pentateuch may be interesting, it doesn’t let it speak to us on its own terms. So much of modern criticism seems to be about erasing God from the equation – thinking about the text purely on human terms rather than as the word of God.

        This is also what I was getting at with the gospels – I’ve read commentaries on John which spend more time talking about the Johannine community and speculating about what might have been going on with the Jews / temple / etc than it does dealing with the actual text.

        I just get frustrated sometimes with speculation about who depended on whom (“Let’s not argue about who depended on whom”, as Monty Python might have put it).

        • Yes, I would agree with you. But of course treating the text as a human artefact rather than anything religious is the explicit agenda of much ‘secular’ critical study. Interestingly, a more post-modern agenda is allowing the religious significance of these texts to be taken seriously again.

          On the ‘Johannine community’ are you aware of Richard Bauckham’s essay in his edited volume ‘The Gospel for all Christians’?

          • Hi Ian,

            I haven’t read the Bauckham essay but it looks like an excellent book, I shall have to add it to my reading list! Thanks for the recommendation.

    • I should add that I am always surprised when people accept a theory like this—without actually doing the work themselves. It was not hard to identity the ‘dramatis personae’—and I was immediately struck not by the discontinuity, but by the continuity!

  2. Hi Ian,
    thanks for this. I’m working on trying to understand the overall structure of Revelation at the moment, and have been impressed by the sheer variety of ‘structures’ in commentaries. Some of them have descriptions for sections that are so broad they are useless at describing the contents. Many seem to work with two main sections in the body of the work, with subdivisions.

    The description that I’ve found most attractive, in part because of the use of the idea of ‘closure’ at certain points, is the that of David Barr in his ‘Tales of the End.’ A ‘Three Scroll’ (Scroll being used metaphorically I think) structure: Letter Scroll ( to 3:22) Worship Scroll (to 11:18) and War Scroll (to the end). I suspect that because there are so many ‘sevens’ in the book that the temptation is to look for (& find/manufacture) a seven-fold structure that does not adequately describe the contents of the various sections.

    Will post a link to your Blog if I may to let my FB friends know about it.


    • Yes do, thanks!

      I think Barr has a reasonable case…but in fact I think all such linear understanding of structure is mistaken. Why should there be ‘one’ structure? When you look at different sections of Revelation, they often have different kinds of links to other sections. This is even true in the gospels, where there is often ‘intercalation’ or ‘dovetail’ linking between sections. John 1 is a good example of this; one ‘section’ does not ‘end’ until some way after the next ‘section’ has begun.

      • Have shared the link.

        Entirely agree with your comments about single structure (though I still find Barr’s idea a helpful way of thinking). Had a definitive structure been identifiable it would have been identified by now. What I think his way of looking at Revelation does well is emphasise the narrative flow, and he does this in a way that tries to make sense of the book with the presumption of it as a unity: if it makes sense as a unity, why posit otherwise?

        Look forward to reading your final article sometime.

        In relation to preaching the series, I’m inclined in the middle section to look at it thematically to make it easier for the congregation to grasp the ideas, then use them in their literary context when re-reading but will check out your Grove material before deciding.


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