The Early Reception of Revelation

Was the canonical status of Revelation disputed in the early church?

It is often thought that the canonicity of Revelation was widely disputed in the early church, along with such books as 2 Peter, Jude, James, and Hebrews. In fact, Revelation was very well received in the first few centuries, and it first seems to have been rejected by Gaius of Rome at the turn of the third century, who appears to have rejected all of the Johannine books (including John’s Gospel).

The Acceptance of the Apocalypse

The reception of Revelation as scripture is attested by a wide range of early Christian writers, including Papias (c. 110), Justin Martyr (c. 160), Theophilus of Antioch (c.175), Melito of Sardis (c. 175), Irenaeus (c. 185), Apollonius of Ephesus (c. 200), Tertullian (c. 200), Clement of Alexandria (c. 210), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215), Origen (c. 235), and Methodius of Olympus (c. 300).

Moreover, it appears to have been known to the authors of the Odes of Solomon (c. 70 or later) (see Ode 22) and the Shepherd of Hermas (c. 90 or later).

It may have been alluded to in 1 Clement (composed in either c. 70 or c. 95):

for he telleth us beforehand, Behold the Lord cometh, and his reward is before his face, to give to every one according to his work. 1 Clement 34.3

This may be compared with Revelation 22:12, though it is also possible that Clement was quoting from Isaiah 40:10; 62:11.

Doubts

According to the excerpts preserved by East Syriac bishop Dionysius bar Salibi, a dispute arose in the church of Rome during the days of Hippolytus (c. 200) when a certain Gaius declared that the Gospel and Revelation of John were not to be received, arguing that they were composed, not by John, but by the heretic Cerinthus.

Gaius’s views came to influence Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (c. 260). While he did not reject the book altogether (since, he relates, many held it in high esteem), he nevertheless undermined the work by claiming that it was written by another, unknown John (see my discussion here). Dionysius’s discussion was in turn repeated by Eusebius of Caesarea in his highly influential Church History (c. 320).

The Displacement of the Apocalypse

It was likely through the far-reaching influence of Eusebius’s work that Revelation came to lose its secure canonical status among eastern writers, as Eugenia Constantinou has argued in her doctoral dissertation.

Thus, it is missing from the list of New Testament books given by the Council of Laodicea (363), though it was included in Athanasius‘ list drawn up in 367. It is missing again from the list given in the Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380) and the Canon of Gregory Of Nazianzus (c. 380). Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386) failed to include Revelation among the New Testament books in his Catechetical Lectures.

In the Canon Of Amphilochius Of Iconium (c. 380) it is remarked that some accept the Revelation, while most consider it spurious.

Conclusion

It is not that Revelation was at first questioned and only later came to be accepted as a canonical work; rather, the evidence suggests that it was first widely accepted, and that it was only later called into question.


Further Study

Eugenia Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea and the apocalypse in the ancient church of the East: Studies and Translation. PhD thesis, Quebec: Université Laval (2008). Downloadable here.

For the early reception of Revelation (including a discussion of the evidence for Gaius of Rome’s rejection of it), see my Identity of John the Evangelist (Lanham: Fortress Academic, 2020)* (available here), or, for a free but less complete version, see my dissertation.

* Note I do not discuss the Odes, Shepherd or 1 Clement in this book, though I do discuss the Odes‘ apparent familiarity with Revelation in my The Mark also Called John: Reception and Transformation in Christian Tradition (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020) and in my dissertation.

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