Authorship of Revelation

Unlike most apocalypses, Revelation does not pretend to be written by some famous religious figure from the distant past. The person responsible for this book identifies himself as a Christian named John who was on the island of Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). The latter reference probably indicates that he had been banished from the mainland for witnessing to his faith and sent into exile on this island. But who was this man? Even in the early church there was no agreement as to which John wrote the book of Revelation.

The Tradition of Apostolic Authorship

Several early authorities (Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Polycrates) volunteer that the John who received this vision on Patmos may have been John the apostle, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples. This seemed sensible for a couple of reasons. First, similarities can be traced between Revelation and the Gospel of John, which was commonly thought to be the work of the apostle. Second, various traditions connected the apostle John with the city of Ephesus, which is not very far from Patmos and is the location of one of the churches addressed by the book.

In time this tradition of apostolic authorship for Revelation became firmly established in Christian piety, and it has been widely reflected in popular expressions of the Christian faith (hymns, artwork, etc.).

The Challenge to Apostolic Authorship

Even in the early church, however, there were voices that challenged this identification. In particular, Dionysius of Alexandria (third century) thought that the literary styles of Revelation and the other Johannine writings were so distinct that the same person could not have written both. Over time, the tradition came to be discounted by scholars for many reasons.

Minority View: Supporters of Apostolic Authorship

Apostolic authorship of this book is not impossible, and a few prominent interpreters hold to it:

The most significant defense of apostolic authorship is found in a work cited by many of the above authors and yet to be translated: Gerhard Maier, Die Johannesoffenbarung und die Kirche, WUNT 25 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1981).

These supporters of apostolic authorship think that the differences (literary and theological) between Revelation and John’s Gospel can be attributed to the diverse circumstances under which the books were composed. John’s Gospel was produced under controlled and ideal conditions; the apostle may have used a secretary (as Paul did for his letters), or he may have written only an early draft that later was expanded and edited. Revelation, by contrast, perhaps preserves the apostle’s unedited work, possibly produced while he was in an ecstatic state.

Despite such explanations, however, most scholars think that attributing Revelation to the apostle John is a stretch. As an alternative, some scholars suggest that the book could have come from John the elder, another first-century Christian who may have written the Johannine Letters and served as a final editor for John’s Gospel. The dominant trend in recent scholarship, however, has been to view the author of Revelation as simply a Christian prophet named John who is otherwise unknown to us.

What We Can Gather from the Book Itself

The preference of most scholars is not to make claims for the book of Revelation that it does not make for itself. The book does not claim to be written by the apostle John, and so we should not make that claim for it (or imply that its authority somehow rests on the establishment of such a claim).

Scholars do seek to surmise what they can about the author from the book itself. These facts may be noted:


The author of Revelation was a Jewish Christian named John who addressed fellow Christians living in Asia Minor during the last third of the first century. He was regarded as a prophet by these Christians, and he may have served them in an itinerant capacity similar to that described for the prophet Agabus in Acts 21:10–11. Eventually he ended up on the island of Patmos, probably banished from the mainland by political authorities. There he had a vision that he put into writing and sent to the churches.