Dionysius on the Apocalypse:

Breaking New Ground, or Muddying the Waters?

Paper completed as a Master’s student at the University of Minnesota (2010)

Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (d. ca. 267), has been termed the first “literary critic” of the New Testament,[1] since his investigation into the question of the authorship of Revelation anticipated in many ways the rise of the historical-critical method in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In arguing for why he did not believe Revelation had been written by the same author that composed John’s Gospel, Dionysius drew attention to differences of style and grammar between the works. From this, he suggested that while the Gospel of John (and the Johannine Epistles) was authored by the apostle John, Revelation was composed by another, lesser-known person of the same name. This article will seek to understand Dionysius’ aims within the historical context in which he wrote, and to evaluate his work as a Biblical critic.

Dionysius’s Middle Course

Dionysius’ thoughts on Revelation are preserved in the Church History of Eusebius, the fourth-century church historian, who shared Dionysius’ distrust of Revelation. According to Eusebius, an Egyptian bishop named Nepos, since deceased, had written a work promoting the doctrine of chiliasm in Egypt. Dionysius traveled to Nepos’ diocese and attempted to refute the teaching (Hist. Ecc. 7.24). Eusebius follows up an account of Dionysius’ refutation of chiliasm with a description of Dionysius’ views on Revelation, presumably because supporters of the chiliastic doctrine of a thousand-year reign of Christ and the saints upon the earth appealed to it in support.

If Dionysius had reservations about Revelation because of its apparent chiliasm, we might have expected him to reject it outright. His reluctance to do so was probably engendered by the popularity of the work amongst the people, as evidenced by the popularity of the chiliast doctrine, and by the general acceptance of Revelation. Indeed, by the time of Dionysius, a long line of church leaders and writers had received the book as a work of John, including Papias (Holmes = Fragment 10),[2] Justin Martyr (Dial. 81), Melito of Sardis (Hist. Eccl. 4.26.1–2), Theophilus of Antioch (Hist. Eccl. 4.24.1), Irenaeus (Haer. 5.30.3), Tertullian (Marc. 4.2), Hippolytus of Rome (according to the bar Salibi fragments[3]), the eastern Hippolytus (Antichr. 36), Origen (Comm. John 14); and Methodius of Olympus (d. 311) (Symposium 8.5).

            Against this backdrop, it would have been difficult to directly challenge the reception of Revelation. Dionysius does note that there were those before him who rejected it completely, as being incomprehensible (probably a reference to Gaius of Rome and the Alogoi[4]), but he states that he would not reject the book himself, since many of the brothers esteemed it (Hist. Eccl. 7.25.4).

Dionysius pioneers a middle course. While he accepts that the author was an “inspired man” (7.25.7) who “saw revelations” (7.25.26), he denies that it was written by John the son of Zebedee, whom he identified as the author of the Gospel and letters (7.25.7). Rather than stating that Revelation was incomprehensible, he suggests that its visions were to be understood in a spiritual sense, though it was, he claimed, beyond his ability to comprehend it (7.25.4–5).

Dionysius’ approach has struck some as disingenuous. Stonehouse thus observes, “In all his argument he is at odds with himself. He insists throughout that the writer was holy, inspired, saw a revelation, received knowledge and prophecy, but at the same time his whole aim was to weaken the regard for it as an authority by showing that it was non-apostolic and therefore less worthy of regard.”[5] It certainly must be asked, if Dionysius really did believe that the work was inspired and could be understood in a spiritual sense, why did he feel the need to contradict the overwhelming testimony of early writers to the works apostolic authorship? Perhaps Dionysius had a less favorable view of Revelation than he admitted. If so, then his subtle attempts at undermining the work would, as Constantinou observes, be “testimony to the secure position of Revelation still enjoyed in the Eastern canon at this time.”[6]

In an anticipation of modern biblical criticism, Dionysius attempted to the apostolic authority of Revelation into question by contrasting its grammar and style with the Gospel of John, thus arguing for separate authorship. He was then free to posit another John, other than the Apostle, as the author of Revelation.

Dionysius thus argued that the Gospel and letters “are not only faultlessly written according to the Greek language, but are most literary, with respect to style, reasonings, and arrangements of expression. There is not any barbarous word or solecism or any vulgarism whatsoever found in it” (Hist. Eccl. 7.25.24–25). Revelation, on the other hand, is written in a dialect (διάλεκτον) and tongue (γλῶσσαν) which was not used “accurately” (οὐκ ἀκριβῶς); furthermore, it used “barbarous idioms” (ἰδιώμασίν τε βαρβαρικοῖς) and “solecisms” (σολοικίζοντα) (7.25.26).

Alternative Explanations

Dionysius’ solution is not the only way of accounting for these differences, however. Even Charles, who argued for the separate authorship of John and Revelation in his monumental commentary on Revelation, conceded that sole authorship was possible if a long interval of time separated the works (a possibility he rejects).[7] Simcox also suggested that the Gospel may have been written a decade or more after the Revelation, during which time John’s Greek improved.[8] Another proposed solution is that Revelation was originally written in Aramaic.[9]

Swete accounts for the differences by suggesting that John wrote Revelation directly while using an amanuensis for the Gospel.[10] Indeed, he quotes an anonymous Greek writer, found in a catena, who stated that John dictated the Gospel to his disciple Papias.[11]

 Sanders similarly opined that John wrote down Revelation directly but dictated his Gospel to a scribe who was responsible for the final form of the work.[12] Richard Longenecker, discussing this hypothesis, notes that “secretarial assistance was more available within the metropolitan Christian community of Ephesus (for the writing of the Gospel and the epistles) and more difficult to come by in exile on Patmos (for the writing of the Apocalypse).[13]

In his commentary, Sanders offers a different view, and suggests that the author effects a Semitic style so that consequently “anyone presumably could have written” it.[14] Burney viewed the differences simply as a variation in style in the same author, informed by his Hebrew education,[15] and he attributed the style of Revelation to a “first-hand imitation of Biblical Hebrew style.”[16] In support of this point, R. A. Edward notes with respect to the apocalypse that “poets do not always observe the rules of syntax.”[17] Caird, though in favor of separate authorship, notes that Aquila in his Greek translation of the Old Testament effected a deliberate Hebraic Greek style which differed from his normal prose.[18]

Furthermore, the author of Revelation demonstrates awareness of the Greek grammar he consciously violates. Beckwith thus noted that the author’s “departures from correct grammatical usage are not due to ignorance; the writer shows a knowledge and command of Greek too accurate to make such a supposition tenable.”[19] Milligan succinctly stated the issue in his commentary:

If there be proof that the author was not only acquainted with ordinary usage but that he commonly employed it; and if, at the same time, it can be shown that, when he departs from it, he does it in such a manner, and on such occasions, as to make it clear that his departure was designed, the difficulty now dealt with is in a great degree removed. These peculiarities of construction are then no longer to be spoken of as barbarisms, or as indications of an imperfect knowledge of Greek. The contrary inference must be drawn.[20]

Thus, the question must be, did the author of Revelation effect a deliberate stylistic Hebraizing, as Aquila did?

Bauckham has noted that “Unusual and difficult phrases in Revelation frequently turn out to be Old Testament allusions.”[21] A thorough investigation of John’s Greek style is of course outside the scope of this paper, but three examples can be provided. The phrase ἀπὸ ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος (Rev 1:4) is often considered to be a barbarism, because, contrary to the rules of Greek grammar, the preposition ἀπο is followed by a word in the nominative case, and not in the genitive, as would be expected. But as Milligan notes, the preposition ἀπο is used thirty-nine times in Revelation, and on every occasion, this one excepted, it is followed by the genitive. Clearly the author knew what every first-year Greek student knows, that ἀπο takes the genitive. Rather than offering this as an example of John’s ignore, the solution of Winer in his Greek Grammar seems more plausible: “In Rev. i. 4, the nominative ὁ ὢν κ. ὁ ἦν κ. ὁ ἐρχόμενοςיְהוׇֺה) , the Unchangeable One!), is designedly treated as an indeclinable noun.”[22] He cites in support Aristotle’s use the nominative ἓν (Politics 5:3).[23] And ὁ ὢν is also given as the name of God in the Greek Septuagint of Exodus 3:14. In Revelation, however, the name has threefold temporal significance; Trudinger points out that “only in the Palestinian Targum on Deut. xxxii. 39 do we have a version of Scripture which explicitly sets forth the threefold description of God found in the Revelation text.”[24]

The second example is found in Rev 1:13, where Jesus is said to be ὅμοιον υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου, where the dative υἱῷ would be expected. Interestingly, in the other nineteen occurrences of the phrase ‘Son of Man’, he is said to be ὅμοιον υἱῷ ἀνθρώπου. C. C. Torrey explains the use of the accusative case in 1:13 as representing a Hebrew idiom called kap veritatis, which would be translated “in every respect like”, which would should that John understood Daniel’s use of kap (Daniel 7:13) to be used as a “particle of emphasis.”[25] Thus again there is reason for thinking that the author demonstrates intention when departing from normal Greek usage.

Lastly, separate authorship has been argued on the basis of the two different words for “Jerusalem” found in the Gospel (Ἱεροσόλυμα) and Revelation (Ἱερουσαλήμ). But the form used in Revelation appears to be an elevated, literary form of the word, while the one used in John seems to denote the physical city as it stood (Ἱεροσόλυμα).

Indeed, in his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul departs from his usual practice of employing Ἱερουσαλήμ and uses both forms to create a rhetorical distinction between the physical Jerusalem, then standing in the land of Judea (Ἱεροσόλυμα) and the spiritualized conception of the heavenly city, the “Jerusalem which is above” (Ἱερουσαλήμ).[26] Harnack shows how this distinction generally holds across the New Testament.[27] The conclusion of Beale on the matter is worth repeating:

Differences in writing style (grammar, vocabulary, etc.) from the Johannine Gospel and Epistles cannot be determinative for nonapostolic authorship because such variation would be expected in a writing of a different (apocalyptic-prophetic) genre.[28]

The Characterization of the Seer

Dionysius contrasted the faultless Greek of John’s Gospel and the barbarisms and solecisms contained in the Seer’s work. Possibly he was implying some lack of education on the Seer’s part. But the problem may have been Dionysius’ own lack of familiarity with Hebrew and Jewish tradition. Indeed, the Seer was far from being an uneducated writer. His apocalypse demonstrates familiarity with established motifs employed in Second Temple apocalyptic literature. Thus, for example, the reference to the throne surrounded by the four living creatures is “typical of its Jewish counterpart”, the Merkabah (chariot-throne) mysticism, as it existed before the destruction of the temple.[29] Indeed, this imagery likely informs the motif of “silence in heaven” in Revelation 8:1, since in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice speaks of the stilling of the wings of the cherubim (cf. Ezekiel 1:24, corresponding to the four living creatures of Revelation): “As they unfold their wings, God’s q[uiet] voice is heard again. The Cherubim bless the image of the chariot-throne.”[30] Likewise the Targum to Ezekiel 1:24–25 states that when the living creatures stood still, they silenced their wings.[31] A Hekhalot text has God commanding “every angel, every seraph, every living creature, and every wheel” to be silent until he has heard the praises and psalms of Israel.[32] Revelation draws copiously from the temple liturgy to depict the heavenly worship it was thought to represent.[33] Thus the imagery of the great crowd dressed in white, carrying palm branches, is based on the procession of white-robed priests on the eighth day of the feast of Tabernacles.

Furthermore, his acquaintance with the Jerusalem temple service ritual goes well beyond what he might have gained from a literary familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures.[34] Edersheim notes that the cultic allusions “come in naturally, spontaneously, and so unexpectedly, that the reader is occasionally in danger of overlooking them altogether.”[35] He argues that Revelation was written by a priest[36] who was “probably at one time an actor in” the temple service.[37] This suggestion has been advanced more recently by Elgvin, who notes that Revelation is “permeated by temple symbolism.”[38] After suggesting that the author of Revelation was a priest or Levite, he raises the question of whether he “transforms the traditions that framed him in light of the Christ event.”[39]

The Seer thus seems to have successfully molded an essentially Jewish work into the Greek tongue. While Revelation was clearly not written by a semi-illiterate enthusiast, as Dionysius seems to have thought, these observations also do not sit well with the theory that it was written by John the son of Zebedee, the Galilean fisherman. Rather, Revelation seems to have been written (like John’s Gospel also) by a well-read, educated, upper-class Palestinian Jew, who knew both Hebrew and Greek.

Although Dionysius did break new ground in his textual analysis, he ultimately muddied the waters by creating an unnecessary dichotomy between the Johannine writings and by failing to appreciate the Seer as a learned Palestinian Jew who created one of the greatest works of Jewish apocalyptic literature.

[1] G. E. Ladd, “Revelation, Book of,” ISBE 4:172.

[2] See Eugenia Scarvelis Constantinou, “Andrew of Caesarea and the Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East Part 2: Translation of the Apocalypse Commentary of Andrew of Caesarea”(Ph.D. diss., Université Laval, 2008), 11.

[3] John Gwynn, ‘Hippolytus and his “Heads against Caius,”’ Herm 6 (1888): 397-418.

[4] Dean Furlong, The Identity of John the Evangelist (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020), 75.

[5] Ned B. Stonehouse, The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church (Goes: Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1929), 127-128, cited by Constantinou, “Andrew,” 84.

[6] Constantinou, “Andrew,” 84.

[7] Robert Henry Charles, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Revelation of St. John, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, 1920), xxix.

[8] William Henry Simcox, The Revelation of S. John the Divine (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1893), xl: “If we suppose … that the Revelation was written by St John the Apostle between A.D. 68-70, and the Gospel and Epistles A.D. 80-100, we get a credible view of the history of the Apostle’s mind, or at least of his style.”

[9] Charles C. Torrey, The Apocalypse of John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958).

[10] Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John (New York: Macmillan, 1907), clxxix.

[11] Swete, Apocalypse of St. John, clxxx.

[12] J. N. Sanders, “St John on Patmos,” NTS 9 (1962-3): 84.

[13] Richard N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 175.

[14] J. N. Sanders, A Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John, ed. and completed by B. A. Mastin. (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 28.

[15] Charles Fox Burney, The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1922), 133.

[16] Burney, Aramaic Origin of, 16.

[17] R. A. Edwards, The Gospel According to St. John (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954), 26f.

[18] G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (Black, 1966), 5.

[19] Isbon Thaddeus Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 355.

[20] William Milligan, The Revelation of John (London: Macmillan, 1886), 255.

[21] Richard Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 286.

[22] G. B. Winer, trans. W. F. Moulton, A Treatise of the Grammar of New Testament Greek (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1870), 227. Cf. Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (New York: Scribner, 1872), 17, who states that “doubtless the immutability of God” is “intended to be expressed.”

[23] Winer, Treatise, 79-80.

[24] L. Paul Trudinger, “Some Observations Concerning the Text of the Old Testament in the Book of Revelation,” JTS 17 (1966): 82-88, here 87.

[25] Charles Cutler Torrey, The Apocalypse of John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), 96, cited by Cited by C. G. Ozanne, “The Language of the Apocalypse,” TynBul 16 (1965): 7.

[26] See Milligan, Revelation of John, 259.

[27] Adolf von Harnack, The Acts of the Apostles, trans. J. R. Wilkinson, New Testament Studies 3 (London: Williams & Norgate, 1909), 76-81: Two apparent exceptions in Paul’s epistles (Rom. 15:19; 1 Cor. 16:3) are explained as 1) a literary device to express “his feeling of reverent marvel at the grandeur of the work” of preaching the Gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum (77),  and 2) Paul “thinking of the saints in Jerusalem”, so that he chooses “the more sacred name” (76-76). The case with the Acts of the Apostles is more complex, but Harnack reveals certain considerations which throw some light on his use. Perhaps Luke used the literary form to speak of the Jerusalem society, and the other to speak of the physical city. James Calvin De Young, Jerusalem in the New Testament: The Significance of the City in the History of Redemption and in Eschatology, argues that Paul uses the LXX spelling in ecclesiastical and local settings, and the other when speaking of Jerusalem as a city within the Roman Empire. Also see J. Keith Elliot, “Jerusalem in Acts and the Gospels”, NTS 23 (1977): 462-9.

[28] G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 34-35 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).

[29] Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism, AGAJU 14. Leiden: Brill, 1980, 62.

[30] 4Q405 frgs. 20–22 2.8., in Michael O. Wise, Martin G. Abegg, Jr. and Edward M. Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 473; cf. Bauckham, Climax, 73.

[31] Cited by Bauckham, Climax, 73.

[32] Cited by Bauckham, Climax, 74.

[33] See e.g. J.  A. Draper, “The Heavenly Feast of Tabernacles: Revelation 7:l–17”, JSNT  19

(1983): 133–147; M. D. Goulder, “The Apocalypse as an Annual Cycle of Prophecies”, NTS  27 (1981): 342–367; Jon Paulien, “The Role of the Hebrew Cultus, Sanctuary and Temple in the plot and Structure of the Book of Revelation,” AUSS 33 (1995): 245–262; Edwin Reynolds, “The Feast of Tabernacles and the Book of Revelation”, AUSS 38 (2000): 245–268.

[34] Jon Paulien, “The Role of the Hebrew Cultus, Sanctuary and Temple in the plot and Structure of the Book of Revelation,” AUSS 33 (1995): 158-164; Gregory Stevenson, Power and Place: Temple and Identity in the Book of Revelation (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001), 2: Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1874), 113.

[35] Edersheim, The Temple, 113.

[36] Edersheim, The Temple, 113, n.1.

[37] Edersheim, The Temple, 113.

[38] Torleif Elgvin, “Lines from the Bible and Qumran to Hebrews and Revelation,” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in the Early Communities of Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 32.

[39] Elgvin, “Lines from the Bible,” 35–36; cf. Torleif Elgvin, “Priests on Earth as in Heaven: Jewish Light on the Book of Revelation,” in Echoes from the Caves: Qumran and the New Testament, ed. F. Garcia Martinez; STDJ 60 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 277.

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