Can A Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation Be Recovered?

The thesis of this post is a simple one. Behind the New Testament book of Revelation, formally called “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” (Rev 1:1), is an older Jewish apocalyptic document that had nothing to do with Jesus or the early Christian movement. The question is, can such a older text be recovered, given the overtly Christian editing?

In my post titled “The Destruction of Pompeii and the New Testament Book of Revelation,” on the destruction of Pompeii by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE I suggested that one of the authors/editors of the New Testament book of Revelation was reacting to this specific disaster and giving it an apocalyptic interpretation in the materials we now find in chapter 18–the “Fall of Babylon the Great.”

One of the areas of study I have specialized in over the past three decades is the phenomenon of ancient and modern apocalypticism–namely those systems of thinking about the future in which an imminent “end of the age” is contemplated. I have published widely on this subject, from the Dead Sea Scrolls, to Jesus as an apocalyptic messiah, to David Koresh and Waco.1

One of my graduate courses deals with  “Embedded Texts” within our New Testament corpus, including the book of Revelation. Here is the course description.

This semester’s topic is Embedded Texts and Ur-Texts within Early Christian Literature. How does one identify and date “embedded texts” in early Christianity? What are the methods and assumptions involved in positing strata of textual traditions within a finished work? Texts examined will be the so-called Q and L sources in the Gospel of Luke, Ur-sources in Acts, the ‘signs’ source in John, and a possible pre-Christian Jewish apocalypse in the book of Revelation. The focus of this course is on method – therefore it is targeted to a wider audience beyond those interested in specializing in early Christianity since the phenomenon of layered texts is ubiquitous in many religious traditions.

In considering the possibility of a “pre-Christian” Apocalypse embedded in our current book of Revelation we  began with the very informal and preliminary work I had done years ago inspired by my former colleague at the University of Notre Dame, Josephine Masssyngberde Ford in her  volume on Revelation in the Anchor Bible Commentary series (now Anchor Yale Bible Commentary, edited by J. J. Collins).2 Although colleagues have been fairly critical of Ford’s work in this volume, and particularly her claim that the book of Revelation can be traced back to pre-Christian John the Baptizer circles, with links to Qumran and the DSS, I have found her basic insights quite compelling and I highly recommend my readers get a copy of this volume. It is truly a wealth of research and information.3

One thing I had noticed in my own work on the book of Revelation over the years was that the explicit references to either “Jesus” “Christ,” or “Jesus Christ” outside the letters to the churches of chapters 2 & 3, are mostly clustered in chapters 1 and 22, with few in the middle chapters.

But what is even more astounding, to me at least, was the observation that nearly all of these references can be easily removed without detracting in any way from the structure or flow of the passages in which they occur. In other words, one could get the distinct impression that references to Jesus Christ lay quite lightly on the text and could even be seen as secondary interpolations.

In the references below I have put these interpolative elements bold italicized brackets. This exercise strongly suggests that these are later additions to an original Jewish text inserted to “Christianize” a book that in its origins had nothing to do with Jesus. This is a rather astounding phenomenon and once one sees it it seems clear that the underlying original text remains intact and makes complete sense without these references:

Rev 1:1 The revelation [of Jesus Christ,] which God gave [him] to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,
2 who testified to the word of God [and to the testimony of Jesus Christ,] even to all that he saw.
3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near.
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,
[5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,
6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
]

Rev 1:9 I, John, your brother who share with you [in Jesus] the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God [and the testimony of Jesus.]

NRS Rev 11:8 and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, [where also their Lord was crucified.]

Rev 12:17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God [and hold the testimony of Jesus.]

Rev 14:12 Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God [and hold fast to the faith of Jesus.]

Rev 17:6 And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints [and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.] When I saw her, I was greatly amazed.

Rev 19:10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades [who hold the testimony of Jesus.]Worship God! [For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.“]

Rev 20:4 Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded [for their testimony to Jesus and] for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned [with Christ] a thousand years.

Rev 22:16 [“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”]

Rev 22:20 The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. [Come, Lord Jesus]

Rev 22:21 [The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.]

The remaining references to the “Lord” or to the “Messiah,” such as those in 11:15, 12:10, and 20:6, are generic and fit easily into the thought world of generic late 2nd Temple Jewish apocalypticism, with nothing implicitly “Christian,” while the reference to “the Lamb” that is slain fits well into the generic image of the suffering “Son of Man,” returning triumphantly in the clouds of heaven, taken from Daniel 7:13-14, where it is understood to  be the corporate people of the “saints of the Most High,”  as well as the corporate nature of the “Suffering Servant” in the four “Servant Songs” of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12

In contrast to these references to Jesus, that so clearly exhibit a heavy hand of Christian interpolation, one finds multiple references to the LORD (Yahweh/Yehovah) God Almighty, as well as “his Messiah,” that echoes closely the language of the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible. None of these contain explicit references to Jesus and clearly exhibit a textual integrity that reflects the language and thought world of pre-Christian thoroughly Jewish apocalypticism:

Rev 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the LORD God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Rev 4:8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, LORD God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”

Rev 4:11 “You are worthy, our LORD and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Rev 6:10 they cried out with a loud voice, “LORD LORD, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?”

Rev 11:4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the LORD of the earth.

Rev 11:17 singing, “We give you thanks, LORD God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.

Rev 15:3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and amazing are your deeds, LORD God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!

Rev 15:4 LORD, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.”

Rev 16:7 And I heard the altar respond, “Yes, O LORD God, the Almighty, your judgments are true and just!”

Rev 18:8 therefore her plagues will come in a single day — pestilence and mourning and famine — and she will be burned with fire; for mighty is the LORD God who judges her.”

Rev 19:6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunder peals, crying out, “Hallelujah! For LORD our God the Almighty reigns.

Rev 21:22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is LORD God the Almighty [and the Lamb.]

Rev 22:5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the LORD God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Rev 22:6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, for LORD, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his Messenger to show his servants what must soon take place.”

The implications of this simple textual examination are quite profound. First, it appears that one can fairly easily recover a pre-Christian version of this text, more or less, with very little change to the underlying text itself. What this would then allow is a re-reading of the book as a whole, with its references to the “Beast,” the “False Prophet,” and “Babylon” in a pre-70 CE setting. Scholars have most often applied the basic setting of the book to the reigns of the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, with several stages of redaction in the period from 68 to 100 CE. However, since Rev 11:15 appears to be a clear reference to the city of Jerusalem, not Rome, as “Sodom and Egypt,” an entirely different line of interpretation opens up. The perspective of the authors of this primitive Ur-text of the Apocalypse is a radical disenfranchisement from the authority structures of pre-70 CE Roman destruction Jerusalem, whom they consider agents of the “Beast.” Further, the martyrs in this Ur-text are the “two witnesses,” whose slain bodies are left in the streets of Jerusalem, not Jesus the crucified messiah.

I am convinced that in the same way the basic apocalyptic texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls have as their historical reference points the parties and politics of the mid-1st century BCE, the Ur-text of revelation is most likely composed against the backdrop of local events in Judea in the 40s and 50s CE–and has little to do with Rome and its emperors.

The text, of course, has an ongoing history, first in the reign of Nero (54-66 CE) but certainly through the reign of Domitian and the destruction of Pompeii by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the summer of 79 CE, as noted in the introduction to this post.


  1. Some of these materials are now on-line, most recently see my article “Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Millennialism,” In Oxford Handbook of Millennialism, ed., Cathy Wessinger. At the turn of the millennium–remember the Y2K panic?–I published Why 2K?: The Biblical Roots of Millennialism in Bible Review, which offers an overview of Christian apocalypticism through the ages. There is also “Apocalyptic Schemes and Dreams: How An Ancient Jewish Vision of the Future Came to Dominate the Modern World,” in The End of Days?: Millennialism from the Hebrew Bible to the Present, edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon and Ronald A. Simkins (Omaha: Creighton University Press, 2003), pp. 49-61. On the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus as an apocalyptic figure of the late 2nd Temple Jewish period, see: “Standing in the Shadow of Schweitzer: What Can We Say about an Apocalyptic Jesus?The Review of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion 2:1 (2007): 8-10; my paper “One, Two, or Three Messiahs: Dynastic and Priestly Pedigrees from the Maccabees to Masada,” the overview “What the Bible Really Says About the Future,” in What the Bible Really Says, edited by Morton Smith and Joseph Hoffmann, and of course my book, The Jesus Dynasty. I wrote an entire book on Waco with Eugene Gallagher, you can read the first chapter on-line here, and I urge readers to get the book as well, especially those interested in interpretations of the Book of Revelation. Remember, it was David Koresh whose claim to fame was the ability to open the “Seven Seals.” 

  2. I began my teaching career at Notre Dame in 1979. 

  3. I might also recommend here G. R. Beasley-Murray, “How Christian is the Book of Revelation? which is on-line 

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