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—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…’||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|
The 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.’
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. 
|1||7.1–17||John, four angels, another angel, the 144,000, a great multitude, ‘nations, tribes, peoples and languages’, the lamb, angels, four living creatures, elders, God|
|2||10.1–11||John, another mighty angel, seventh angel, God, voice from heaven, ‘they’|
|3||11.1–13||John, two witnesses/prophets, the Lord of all the earth, beast from the abyss, ‘peoples, tribes, languages and nations’, inhabitants of the earth, God|
|4||12.1–18||The 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|
|5||13.1–18||The 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,|
|6||14.1–20||John, 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)|
|7||17.1–18||One 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|
|8||18.1–24||Another 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|
|9||19.11–16||John, the rider on the white horse, the armies of heaven|
|10||20.1–10||John, an angel, the great dragon, the nations, the beast, the Messiah, the saints, the false prophet|
|11||20.11–15||John, one on the great white throne, earth and heaven, the dead, Death and Hades,|
|12||21.9–22.5||One 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|
There 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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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