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Bible Commentaries

Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible


- Revelation

by Albert Barnes

Introduction to Revelation

The sum of all that is to be said on this point is, that to the latter half of the third century it was not doubted that the apostle John was the author. Why it was ever doubted after that, and what is the force and value of the doubt, will be considered in another part of this Introduction.

There may be some convenience in dividing the early historical testimony into three periods of half a century each, extending from the death of John, about 98 a.d., to the middle of the third century.

1. From the Death of JOHN, about 98 a.d. to 150 a.d.

This period embraces the last of those men who conversed, or who might have conversed, with the apostles; that is, who were, for a part of their lives, the contemporaries of John. The testimony of the writers who lived then would, of course, be very important. Those embraced in this period are Hermas, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias. The evidence of this period is not indeed very direct, but it is such as it would be on the supposition that John was the author, and there is nothing contradictory to that supposition.

Hermas, about 100 ad - In the “Shepherd” or “Pastor,” ascribed to this writer, there are several allusions which are supposed to refer to this book, and which resemble it so much as to make it probable that the author was acquainted with it. Dr. Lardner thus expresses the result of his examination of this point: “It is probable that Hermas had read the Book of Revelation, and imitated it. He has many things resembling it” (vol. ii. pp. 69-72). There is no “direct” testimony, however, in this writer that is of importance.

Ignatius - He was Bishop of Antioch, and flourished 70-107 a.d. In the latter year he suffered martyrdom, in the time of Trajan. Little, however, can be derived from him in regard to the Apocalypse. He was a contemporary of John, and it is not a little remarkable that he has not more directly alluded to him. In the course of a forced and hurried journey to Rome, the scene of his martyrdom, he wrote several epistles to the Ephesians, Magnesians, Trallians, Romans, Philadelphians, Smyrneans, and to Polycarp. There has been much controversy respecting the authenticity of these epistles, and it is generally admitted that those which we now possess have been greatly corrupted. There is no direct mention of the Apocalypse in these epistles, and Michaelis makes this one of the strong grounds of his disbelief of its genuineness. His argument is, that the silence of Ignatius shows, either that he did not know of the existence of this book, or did not recognize it as a part of the sacred Scriptures. Little, however, can be ever inferred. from the mere silence of an author; for there may have been many reasons why, though the book may have been in existence, and recognized as the writing of John, Ignatius did not refer to it.

The whole matter of the residence of John at Ephesus, of his banishment to Patmos, and of his death, is unnoticed by him. There are, however, two or three “allusions” in the epistles of Ignatius which have been supposed to refer to the Apocalypse, or to prove that he was familiar with that work - though it must be admitted that the language is so general, that it furnishes no certain proof that he designed to quote it. They are these: Epistle to the Romans - “In the patience of Jesus Christ,” compare Revelation 1:9; and the Epistle to the Ephesians - “Stones of the temple of the Father prepared for the building of God,” compare Revelation 21:2-19. To these Mr. John Collyer Knight, of the British Museum, in a recent publication (Two New Arguments in Vindication of the Genuineness and Authenticity of the Revelation of John, London, 1842), has added a third: Epistle to the Philadelphians - “If they do not speak concerning Jesus Christ, they are but sepulchral pillars, and upon them are written only the names of men.” Compare Revelation 3:12, “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God; and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God.” It must be admitted, however, that this coincidence of language does not furnish any certain proof that Ignatius had seen the Apocalypse, though this is such language as he might have used if he had seen it. There was no known necessity, however, for his referring to this book if he was acquainted with it, and nothing can be inferred from his silence.

Polycarp - He was Bishop of Smyrna, and suffered martyrdom, though at what time is not certain. The “Chronicon Paschale” names 163 a.d.; Eusebius, 167; Usher, 169; and Pearson, 148. He died at the age of eighty-six, and consequently was contemporary with John, who died about 98 a.d. There is but one relic of his writings extant - his Epistle to the Philippians. There is in Eusebius (iv. 15), an epistle from the church in Smyrna to the churches in Pontus, giving an account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. It is admitted that in neither of these is there any express mention, or any certain allusion, to the Book of Revelation. But from this circumstance nothing can be inferred respecting the Apocalypse, either for or against it, since there may have been no occasion for Polycarp or his friends, in the writings now extant, to speak of this book; and from their silence nothing more should be inferred against this book than against the epistles of Paul, or the Gospel by John. There is, however, what may, without impropriety, be regarded as an important testimony of Polycarp in regard to this book. Polycarp was, as there is every reason to suppose, the personal friend of John, and Irenaeus was the personal friend of Polycarp (Lardner, ii. 94-96). Now Irenaeus, as we shall see, on all occasions, and in the most positive manner, gives his clear testimony that the Apocalypse was written by the apostle John. It is impossible to suppose that he would do this if Polycarp had not believed it to be true; and certainly he would not have been likely to hold this opinion if one who was his own friend, and the friend of John, had doubted or denied it. This is not indeed absolute proof, but it furnishes strong presumptive evidence in favor of the opinion that the Book of Revelation was written by the apostle John. The whole history of Polycarp, and his testimony to the books of the New Testament, may be seen in Lardner, ii. 94-114.

Papias - He was Bishop of Hierapolis, near Colosse, and flourished, according to Cave, about 110 a.d.; according to others, about the year 115 a.d. or 116 a.d. How long he lived is uncertain. Irenaeus asserts that he was the intimate friend - ἑτᾶίρος hetairos - of Polycarp, and this is also admitted by Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. iii. 39). He was the contemporary of John, and was probably acquainted with him. Eusebius expressly says that he was “a hearer of John” (Lardner, ii. 117). Of his writings there remain only a few fragments preserved by Eusebius, by Jerome, and in the Commentary of Andrew, Bishop of Caesarea, in Cappadocia. He was a warm defender of the Millennarian doctrines. In his writings preserved to us (see Lardner, ii. 120-125), there is no express mention of the Apocalypse, or direct reference to it; but the commentator Andrew of Caesarea reckons him among the explicit witnesses in its favor. In the Preface to his Commentary on the Apocalypse, Andrew says, “In regard now to the inspiration of the book, we think it superfluous to extend our discourse, inasmuch as the blessed Gregory, and Cyril, and moreover the ancient (writers) “Papias, Irenaeus, Methodius, and Hippolytus” bear testimony to its credibility.” See the passage in Hug, Introduction, p. 652; and Prof. Stuart, i. 305. And in nearly the same words does Arethas, the successor of Andrew, bear the like testimony. The evidence, therefore, in this case is the same as in the case of Polycarp, and it cannot be supposed that Papias would have been thus referred to unless it was uniformly understood that he regarded the book as the production of the apostle John.

These are all the testimonies that properly belong to the first half century after the death of John, and though not absolutely “positive and conclusive” in themselves, yet the following points may be regarded as established:

  1. The book was known;

(b)So far as the testimony goes, it is in favor of its having been composed by John;

(c)The fact that he was the author is not called in question or doubted;

(d)It was generally ascribed to him;

(e)It was “probably” the foundation of the Millennarian views entertained by Papias - that is, it is easier to account for his holding these views by supposing that the book was known, and that he founded them on this book, than in any other way. See Prof. Stuart, i. 304.

2. The Second Half Century after the Death of John, from 150 to 200 a.d.

This will include the names of Justin Martyr, the Narrator of the Martyrs of Lyons, Irenaeus, Melito, Theophilus, Apollonius, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian.

Justin Martyr - He was a Christian philosopher, born at Flavia Neapolis, anciently called Sichem, a city of Samaria, it is supposed about a.d. 103; was converted to Christianity about 133 a.d., and suffered martyrdom about 165 a.d. (Lardner, ii. 125-140). He was partly contemporary with Polycarp and Papias. He traveled in Egypt, Italy, and Asia Minor, and resided some time at Ephesus. He was endowed with a bold and inquiring mind, and was a man eminent for integrity and virtue. Tatian calls him an “admirable man.” Methodius says, that he was a man “not far removed from the apostles in time or in virtue.” Photius says, that he was “well acquainted with the Christian philosophy, and especially with the heathen; rich in the knowledge of history, and all other parts of learning” (Lardner). He was, therefore, well qualified to ascertain the truth about the origin of the Book of Revelation, and his testimony must be of great value.

He was an advocate of the doctrine of “Chiliasm” - or, the doctrine that Christ would reign a thousand years on the earth - and in defense of this he uses the following language: “And a man from among us, by name John, one of the Apostles of Christ, in a Revelation made to him - ἐν Ἀποκάλυψει γενομένη αὐτῷ en Apokalupsei genomenē autō - has prophesied that the believers in one Christ shall live a thousand years in Jerusalem; and after that shall be the general, and, in a word, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men together.” There can be no doubt whatever that there is an allusion here to the Book of “Revelation” - for the very name Revelation - Ἀποκάλυψις Apokalupsis - is used; that Justin believed that it was written by the apostle John; and that there is express reference to what is now John 20:0. The book was, therefore, in existence in the time of Justin - that is, in about 50 years after the death of John; was believed to be the work of the apostle John; was quoted as such, and by one who had lived in the very region where John lived, and by a man whose character is unimpeached, and who, in a point like this, could not have been mistaken. The testimony of Justin Martyr, therefore, is very important. It is positive; it is given where there was every opportunity for knowing the truth, and where there was no motive for a false testimony; and it is the testimony of one whose character for truthfulness is unimpeached.

The Narrative of the Martyrs of Vienne and Lyons - Lardner, ii. 160-165. In the reign of Marcus Antoninus, Christians suffered much from persecution. This persecution was particularly violent at Lyons, and the country round about. The churches of Lyons and Vienne sent an account of their sufferings, in an epistle, to the churches of Asia and Phrygia. This, according to Lardner, was about 177 a.d. The epistle has been preserved by Eusebius. In this epistle, among other undoubted allusions to the New Testament, the following occurs. Speaking of Vettius Epigathus, they say - “For he was indeed a genuine disciple of Christ, following the Lamb whithersoever he goes.” Compare Revelation 14:2; “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.” There can be no doubt that this passage in Revelation was referred to; and it proves that the book was then known, and that the writers were accustomed to regard it as on a level with the other sacred writings.

Irenaeus - The testimony of this father has already been referred to when speaking of Polycarp. He was Bishop of Lyons, in Gaul. His country is not certainly known, but Lardner supposes that he was a Greek, and, from his early acquaintance with Polycarp, that he was from Asia. When a youth, he was a hearer of Polycarp, and also a disciple of Papias. He was born about the beginning of the second century, and it is commonly supposed that he suffered martyrdom in extreme old age. He became Bishop of Lyons after he was 70 years of age, and wrote his principal work, “Contra Haereses,” after this. His testimony is particularly valuable, as he was in early life acquainted with Polycarp, who was a contemporary and friend of the apostle John (Lardner, ii. 165-192). Of his reference to the Book of Revelation, Lardner says: “The Apocalypse, or Revelation, is often quoted by him as the Revelation of John, the disciple of the Lord.” In one place he says: “It was seen no long time ago, but almost in our age, at the end of the reign of Domitian.” And again, he spoke of the exact and ancient copies of the book, as if it was important to ascertain the true reading, and as if it were then possible to do this.

Thus, Eusebius (Lardner, ii. 167) says of him: “In his fifth book he thus discourses of the Revelation of John, and the computation of the name of antichrist: ‘These things being thus, and this number being in all the exact and ancient copies, and they who saw John attesting to the same things, and reason teaching us that the number of the name of the beast, according to the acceptation of the Greeks, is expressed by the letters contained in it.’ “Here is an undoubted reference to Revelation Rev