Is the Book of Revelation a vision—or an audition?

One of the things I have noticed in studying Revelation in the last couple of years is the amount and importance of the material that John reports that he hears in comparison with what he sees. There have been several studies of the hymnic material in Revelation, and these sections are important in themselves, partly because of their theological importance, partly because of their eschatological focus, and partly because (in chapter 4 and 5) they reflect elements of the imperial cult and so offer a sense of ‘polemical displacement’ where John (as it were) rips ideas away from the imperial cult and asserts that all obeisance belongs to God alone. (The classic study of this is David Aune ‘The influence of Roman imperial court ceremonial on the Apocalypse of John’, BR 18 (1983) included in Apocalypticism, Prophecy, and Magic in Early Christianity Baker, 2008.) But I am not aware of any studies of the auditory material as a whole, of which the hymnic material is a part.

Attached below is the text of Revelation which I have divided into the vision report material and the audition report material, and immediately we see something remarkable: the vision report material comprises 55% of the text, whilst things John hears comprises 43% (the remainder is the short introduction and conclusion). (I should add that this is not an exact split, and you might want to quibble with my allocation at the margins. In fact, looking at this again, I think I have mistakenly included some introductions to auditory material in the vision section, so I think the split is really more like 52%/46%. If any reader would like to take this text, edit it appropriately and send it back, I would be very happy!)

So although most artwork of John on Patmos depicts him as looking up and seeing something, we might just as well depict him listening up and hearing carefully! And there several things it is worth noting about this auditory material.

First, it comes in three main forms. The most obvious (to the ordinary reader) is the hymnic material, which is prominent in chapters 4 and 5, 7, 11, 14, 16 and 19. This does important theological work in the early chapters, in particular articulating the convergence of divine identity between the One on the Throne and the lamb.

Thus I observe (in my IVP commentary, p 138):

The language of worship here does a remarkable thing in identifying the lamb as equal with the one on the throne in deserving of worship and adulation – in a text which implicitly refutes the claims of the human figures to be deserving of such obeisance. Because of this, it is reasonable to claim that it offers us the highest possible Christological understanding in the whole New Testament: what we can say of God in worship, we can say of Jesus.  The two figures of the one seated on the throne and the lamb are thus characterised as God the creator and God the redeemer. These figures are never quite merged, and remain distinct within the narrative of Revelation and, unlike the association of the Word with the work of creation in John’s gospel, their roles also remain distinct. But in the final hymn of praise, the worship is given to the two as if they were one.

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Is Revelation a vision—or an audition?

One of the things I have noticed in studying Revelation in the last couple of years is the amount and importance of the material that John reports that he hears in comparison with what he sees. There have been several studies of the hymnic material in Revelation, and these sections are important in themselves, partly because of … Continue Reading

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