The Book of Revelation, also called Revelation to John, Apocalypse of John (Pronunciation [əˈpɒkəlɨps], from the Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου, Apokálypsis Iōánnou), and Revelation of Jesus Christ is the last canonical book of the New Testament in the Christian Bible. It is the only biblical book that is wholly composed of apocalyptic literature.
Other apocalypses popular in the early Christian era did not achieve canonical status, except for 2 Esdras (Apocalypse of Ezra), which is canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches.
Though now known as the Book of Revelation, the title found on some of the earliest manuscripts is "The Apocalypse of John" (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου), and the most common title found on later manuscripts is "The Apocalypse of the theologian" (Ἀποκάλυψις τοῦ Θεολόγου). (In English, apocalypse is often rendered as revelation and the literal meaning of the Greek word is "unveiling".)
The first words of the book are effectively self-titled, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ".
After a short introduction (ch. 1:1–10), the book presents a brief account of the author. The first vision (1:11–3:22), related by "one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle
", speaking with "a great voice, as of a trumpet
", is a statement addressing the seven churches of Asia
. The second vision, which makes up the rest of the book (chs. 4–22), begins with "a door … opened in the sky" and describes what some might call the end of the world
— or more properly, the end of the age, in which Satan
's rule through Man is destroyed by the Messiah
. These events are foreseen: the Great Tribulation, the Campaign of Armageddon
, the Second Coming of the Messiah with the restoration of peace
to the world and His 1,000 year reign, the imprisonment of Satan (portrayed as a dragon
) until he is 'loosed' for the final rebellion, God
's final judgment over Satan, the Great White throne judgment, and the ushering in of the New Heavens and New Earth. Alternatively, according to the Preterist
theory, the events of the latter part of the Apocalypse of John are interpreted as being fulfilled by events in the 1st century.
Revelation is considered by some to be one of the most controversial and difficult books of the Bible, with many diverse interpretations of the meanings of the various names and events in the account. Protestant
founder Martin Luther
at first considered Revelation to be "neither apostolic nor prophetic" and stated that "Christ is neither taught nor known in it", and placed it in his Antilegomena
. John Calvin
believed the book to be canonical, yet it was the only New Testament book on which he did not write a commentary.
In the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus and other bishops argued against including this book in the New Testament canon, chiefly because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the danger for abuse. Christians in Syria also reject it because of the Montanists' heavy reliance on it. In the 9th century, it was included with the Apocalypse of Peter among "disputed" books in the Stichometry of St. Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople. In the end it was included in the accepted canon, although it remains the only book of the New Testament that is not read within the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. See Biblical canon for details.
Artists throughout the centuries have portrayed the visions described by John.
The author of Revelation identifies himself several times as "John" (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8). The author also states that he was in exile on the island of Patmos
when he received his first vision (1:9; 4:1–2). As a result, the author of Revelation is referred to as John of Patmos
. John explicitly addresses Revelation to seven churches of Asia Minor
, and Laodicea
(1:4, 11). All of these sites are located in what is now Turkey
The traditional view holds that John the Apostle—considered to have written the Gospel and epistles by the same name—was exiled on Patmos in the Aegean archipelago during the reign of Emperor Domitian, and wrote the Revelation there. Those in favor of a single common author point to similarities between the Gospel and Revelation. For example, both works are soteriological (e.g., referring to Jesus as a lamb) and possess a high Christology, stressing Jesus' divine side as opposed to the human side stressed by the Synoptic Gospels. In the Gospel of John and in Revelation, Jesus is referred to as "the Word of God" (Ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ). Explanations of the differences between John's work by proponents of the single-author view include factoring in underlying motifs and purposes, authorial target audience, the author's collaboration with or utilization of different scribes and the advanced age of John the Apostle when he wrote Revelation. Like his Old Testament counterpart Daniel, John was kept alive to receive the prophetic vision.
A natural reading of the text would reveal that John is writing literally as he sees the vision (Rev 1:11; 10:4; 14:3; 19:9; 21:5) and that he is warned by an angel not to alter the text through a subsequent edit (Rev 22:18-19), in order to maintain the textual integrity of the book.
A number of Church Fathers
weighed in on the authorship of Revelation. Justin Martyr
avows his belief in its apostolic origin. Irenaeus
(178) assumes it as a conceded point. At the end of the 2nd century, we find it accepted at Antioch
, by Theophilus, and in Africa by Tertullian
. At the beginning of the 3rd century, it is adopted by Clement of Alexandria
and by Origen of Alexandria
, later by Methodius
, Cyprian, and Lactantius. Dionysius of Alexandria
(247) rejected it, upon doctrinal rather than critical grounds. Eusebius
(315) suspended his judgment, hesitating between the external and internal evidence; see also Antilegomena
. Some canons
, especially in the Eastern Church, rejected the book, while most others included it.
Many modern scholars believe that John the Apostle
, John the Evangelist
, and John of Patmos
refer to three separate individuals. This can be determined via new means of inquiry such as textual criticism
. Certain lines of evidence suggest that John of Patmos wrote only Revelation, not the Gospel of John nor the Epistles of John. For one, the author of Revelation identifies himself as "John" several times, but the author of the Gospel of John never identifies himself directly. While both works liken Jesus to a lamb, they consistently use different words for lamb when referring to him—the Gospel uses amnos
, Revelation uses arnion
. Lastly, the Gospel is written in nearly flawless Greek
, but Revelation contains grammatical errors and stylistic abnormalities which indicate its author may not have been as familiar with the Greek language as the Gospel's author.
In the Anchor Bible volume on Revelation, J. Massynberde Ford contends that the core verses of the book, in general chapters 4 through 22, are surviving records of the prophecies of John the Baptist. For example, she notes that the images of the Lamb of God are only found in Gospel sections associated with John the Baptist, and ties other hallmarks of Revelation to what is known of the Baptist.
According to early tradition, the writing of this book took place near the very end of Domitian's reign, around 95 or 96. Others contend for an earlier date, 68 or 69, in the reign of Nero
or shortly thereafter. The majority of modern scholars also use these dates. Those who are in favor of the later date appeal to the external testimony of the Christian father Irenaeus
(d. 185), who stated that he had received information relative to this book from those who had seen John face to face. He says that "it was not seen very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian's reign" (A.H. 5.30.3), who according to Eusebius
had started the persecution
referred to in the book; however, recent scholars dispute that the book is situated in a time of ongoing persecution and have also doubted the reality of a large-scale Domitian persecution.
According to Epiphanius of Salamis, the Revelation of John was written in the time of Claudius (PG, XLI 909-910).
Some exegetes (Paul Touilleux, Albert Gelin, André Feuillet) distinguish two dates: publication (under Domitian) and date of the visions (under Vespasian). Various editors would have a hand in the formation of the document, according to these theories. The dating of the work is still widely debated in the scholarly community.
Some Protestant theologians argue that the Gospel of John
contains a realized eschatology
. This contradicts the futurist eschatology
described at the end of the Book (e.g., chap. 21–22). In contrast to this view, there is a third interpretation which says that even the "realized eschatology view" is not a fully
"realized eschatology," i.e. God's kingdom has been initiated but has not been entirely implemented. This view is generally called the "already but not yet" state of God's kingdom.
A differing view is held by Catholics and the Orthodox church. Both ascribe to the idea that the Church is the visible Kingdom and Government spoken of in Isaiah, which God set up entirely until the end of time. Their joint view of the historicity of the entire prophecy of both books (John and Revelation); and also of the prophecy contained in Matthew 23, is based upon Matthew 23:36 and Revelation 11:19-12:18. Catholics believe these verses contain information passed from Christ to John about the spiritual meaning of Mary's escape from Jerusalem and eventual Coronation in Heaven, which John originally took part in but did not understand. The narrative is considered a metaphor for the Church and its followers, showing that God will protect them.
The "whore of Babylon" and "666" are therefore often considered to be a type of apostolic code, pre-Christian Rome and Emperor Nero respectively, each referring to events that have already come to pass.
is divided into seven cycles of events. The number seven
appears frequently as a symbol within the text. The chapters of Revelation
present a series of events, full of imagery, and metaphor; which detail the chronology of God's judgment on the world.
Exact interpretations of the chronology of Revelation vary extensively. The work may be interpreted literally, as a chronological list of events that will occur as the time of Revelation grows near. At the same time, the imagery can be seen to contain symbolic commentaries on the world during the historical period in which Revelation was written, or "pre-commentaries" on our world today.
Schools of thought
There are several schools of thought concerning interpretations of the Book of Revelation:
- In the Biblical prophecy school of thought, the contents of Revelation constitute a prophecy of the end times; especially when interpreted in conjunction with the Book of Daniel and other eschatological sections of the Bible. This school can be further subdivided into the preterist view, which interprets the book in light of 1st-century events; the futurist view, which interprets most of the events in the book (chapter 6 onwards) as prophecy concerning the end times; and the historicist view, which regards the events in the book as occurrences spanning history from the first century through the second coming.
- The historical-critical approach, which has become dominant among scholars of religion since the end of the 18th century, attempts to understand Revelation in its first century historical context within the genre of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. This approach considers the text as an address to seven historical communities in Asia Minor. Under this view, assertions that "the time is near" are to be taken literally by those communities. Consequently the work is viewed as a warning not to conform to contemporary Greco-Roman society which John "unveils" as beastly, demonic and subject to divine judgment. There is further information on these topics in the entries on higher criticism and apocalyptic literature.
- The view of the esoteric schools is that Revelation bears multiple levels of meaning, the lowest being the literal or "dead-letter." Those who are instructed in esoteric knowledge enter gradually into more subtle levels of understanding of the text. The Gnostic Kabbalist believes that Revelation (like Genesis) is a very profound book of Kabbalistic symbolism. This view is held by schools related to teachers such as H.P. Blavatsky, Eliphas Levi, Rudolf Steiner and Samael Aun Weor. Edgar Cayce held the view that the Book of Revelation is symbolic of the body and that each emblem, emotion and condition relate to self. For example, the 24 elders of Revelation 4:4 relate to the 12 pairs (24) of cranial nerves; and the seven churches of Asia in Revelation Ch. 1 are symbolic of the 7 chakras or spiritual centers.
- Recently, aesthetic and literary modes of interpretation have developed, which focus on Revelation as a work of art and imagination, viewing the imagery as symbolic depictions of timeless truths and the victory of good over evil.
- The "Patristic Interpretation", or the view held by St. Augustine , Jerome, and other early Church Fathers, views Revelation as an attempt to describe a spiritual reality and heavenly worship and therefore compares it to the liturgy of the Christian Church. Although all but forgotten today, this interpretation is alluded to in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and has been avidly promoted by modern theologians such as Scott Hahn .
These schools of thought are not mutually exclusive and many Christians adopt a combination of these approaches. The Biblical Prophecy school of thought is popular among Protestant fundamentalists and other evangelicals, as well as Rastafarians. Members of more mainline and liberal churches tend to prefer the historical-critical and aesthetic approaches. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have also established their own specific positions on Revelation.
Schools of interpretation
There are four major schools of interpretation.
holds that the contents of Revelation constitute a prophecy of events that were fulfilled in the 1st century. Preterist interpretations generally identify either Jerusalem or Pagan Rome as the persecutor of the Church, "Babylon", the "Mother of Harlots", etc. They see Armageddon as God's judgment on the Jews, carried out by the Roman army
, which is identified as "the beast". Some preterists see the second half of Revelation as changing focus to Rome, its persecution of Christians, and the fall of the Roman Empire
. It sees the Revelation being fulfilled in 70, thereby bringing the full presence of God to dwell with all humanity. It also holds, especially in the Catholic belief, that the Emperor Nero
, who blamed the Rome fire on the Christians in Rome, sparking a wave of persecution, was possibly the number of the beast mentioned in the book as his name equals 666 in Hebrew. If using the Greek spelling of Nero's name (Neron Caesar), but using the Hebrew symbols with their assigned numeric values (an ancient method known as gematria
), the total of the numeric values equals 666. However, a few ancient manuscripts of the Revelation say the number is 616, fifty less than the more well known numeral. A possible method to this problem lies in early translation. In the assumption that the Revelation was meant to be distributed among the early Christians, it could very well be assumed that occasionally someone may have used the Latin spelling of Nero's name (Nero Caesar), so the total value of the gematria would be 616.
The futurist view assigns all or most of the prophecy to the future, shortly before the second coming
. Futurist interpretations generally predict a resurrection of the dead and a Rapture
of the living, wherein all true Christians and those who have not reached an age of accountability are gathered to Christ at the time God's kingdom comes on earth. They also believe a Great Tribulation
will occur - a seven year period of time when believers will experience worldwide persecution and martyrdom, and be purified and strengthened by it. Futurists differ on when believers will be raptured ("caught up"), but there are three primary views: 1) before the Tribulation; 2) near or at the midpoint of the Tribulation; or 3) at the end of the Tribulation. There is also a fourth view of multiple raptures throughout the Tribulation, but this view does not have a mainstream following.
Pretribulationists believe that all Christians then alive will be taken up to meet Christ before the Tribulation begins. In doing so, Christians are "kept" from the Tribulation, much as Noah was removed before God judged the antediluvian world. Midtribulationists believe that the rapture of the faithful will occur approximately halfway through the Tribulation, after it begins but before the worst part of it occurs. Some midtribulationists, particularly those holding to a "pre-wrath rapture" of the church, believe that God's wrath is poured out during a "Great Tribulation" that is limited to the last 3-1/2 years of the Tribulation, after believers have been caught up to Christ. Post-tribulationists believe that Christians will not be taken up into Heaven, but will be received into the Kingdom at the end of the Tribulation. (Pretribulationist Tim LaHaye admits a post-tribulation rapture is the closest of the three views to that held by the early church.) All three views hold that Christians will return with Christ at the time of the Tribulation. Proponents of all three views also generally portray Israel as unwittingly signing a seven year peace treaty with the Antichrist, which initiates the seven year Tribulation. Many also tend to view the Antichrist as head of a revived Roman Empire, but the geographic location of this empire is unknown. Hal Lindsey suggests that this revived Roman Empire will be centered in western Europe, with Rome as its capital. Tim LaHaye promotes the belief that Babylon will be the capital of a worldwide empire. Joel Richardson and Walid Shoebat have both recently written books proposing a revived eastern Roman Empire, which will fall with the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. (Istanbul also has seven hills, was a capital of the Roman Empire and is known as the Golden Horn - notable given the eschatological references to the "Little Horn".) There is also a variant Futuristic view that the Tribulation can occur in any generation, meaning Satan always has an antichrist in the wings and there is always a nation-state that can become the revived Roman Empire. This variant view is developed by Angela Hunt in her fictional work, The Immortal.
The futurist view was first proposed by two Catholic writers, Manuel Lacunza and Ribera. Lacunza wrote under the pen name "Ben Ezra", and his work was banned by the Catholic Church. It has grown in popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries, so that today it is probably most readily recognized. Books about the "rapture" by authors like Hal Lindsey, and the more recent Left Behind novels (by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye) and movies, have done much to popularize this school of thought.
The Rastafarians hold a futurist view of the book of Revelation, relating it both to 20th-century events such as the crowning of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and also to future events such as the second coming of Selassie on the day of judgment.
The various views on tribulation are actually a subset of theological interpretations on the Millennium, mentioned in Revelation 20. There are three main interpretations: Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism.
Premillennialism believes that Christ will return to the earth, bind Satan, and reign for a literal thousand years on earth with Jerusalem as his capital. Thus Christ returns before ("pre-") the thousand years mentioned in chapter 20. There are generally two subclasses of Premillennialism: Dispensational and Historic. Some form of premillennialism is thought to be the oldest millennial view in church history. Papias, believed to be a disciple of the Apostle John, was a premillenialist, according to Eusebius.
Amillennialism, the traditional view for Roman Catholicism, believes that the thousand years mentioned are not ("a-") a literal thousand years, but is figurative for what is now the church age, usually, the time between Christ's first ascension and second coming. This view is often associated with Augustine of Hippo. Amillennialists differ on the time frame of the millennium as some say it started with Pentecost, others say it started with the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy regarding the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (70), and other starting points have also been proposed. Whether this eschatology is the result of caesaropapism, which may have also been the reason that premillennialism was condemned, is sharply disputed.
Postmillennialism believes that Christ will return after ("post-") a literal/figurative thousand years, in which the world will have essentially become a Christendom. This view was held by Jonathan Edwards. This view gained momentum through the nineteenth century, but World Wars I and II dealt a setback to this approach.
The historicist view regards the prophecy as spanning the time from the end of the first century through the second coming of Christ.
Politically, historicist interpretations apply the symbols of Revelation to the gradual division and collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of a divided Europe in the West and a Muslim empire in the East, and the collapse of the Eastern Empire while Europe attempts to reunite and recreate the Roman Empire.
Ecclesiastically, historicist interpretations see Revelation as teaching that the Church would expand, despite persecution, until it "conquered" the whole world—but in the process, would gradually evolve into an apostate system within which true Christians would be a persecuted minority. The apostate Church is associated with the symbols of the "Mother of Harlots" and with "Babylon". It is seen as an "Antichrist system" which exists for much of history rather than expecting a single "Antichrist" in the last days, as futurist interpretations do.
The exact constitution of this confederacy differs between interpretations: in some it is mainly composed of Eastern European countries, notably Russia; in others, Western European; some include Britain, while others suggest that Britain and former Commonwealth nations will oppose the confederacy. In all historicist interpretations, Christ defeats this confederacy, rescues Israel from certain destruction, judges apostate Christianity and vindicates the true believers, and sets up a kingdom on earth.
The earliest Christian writers adopted a historicist viewpoint, though at such an early date, the distinction between historicist and futurist views was less pronounced. Historicist interpretations tend to be millenarian, emphasizing the literal reign of Christ on earth, and as that doctrine receded in importance, so too did the historicist focus in interpretation. Today, historicist interpretations are favored in the most ardently millenarian sects.
Some Protestant writers today use this school of interpretation as the foundation for an anti-Catholic polemic, but it should be noted that such is not an inherent property of historical interpretations. Many Catholic writers in the fourth and fifth centuries applied the notion of future apostasy to their own church, in various ways. Some argued that an apostasy would arise within the church. Others argued that this had already happened, and cited one or another sect which arose over some theological dispute. What differs between interpretations is the identity of the apostasy.
Spiritual or idealist view
The Spiritual view (also called Idealist by some writers) does not see the book of Revelation as predicting specific events in history. Rather it sees the visions as expressing eternal spiritual truths that find expression throughout history. Only in the last few chapters are specifically predictive eschatological issues taken up. An example of this view can be found in Revelation: The Road to Overcoming
by Charles A. Neal
, which in turn is based on the work of Charles Fillmore
Eastern Orthodox view
Eastern Orthodoxy has an interpretation that does not fit well into any of the above classifications. It treats the text as simultaneously describing contemporaneous events and as prophecy of events to come, for which the contemporaneous events were a form of foreshadow. It rejects attempts to determine, before the fact, if the events of Revelation are occurring by mapping them onto present-day events, taking to heart the Scriptural warning against those who proclaim "He is here!" prematurely. Instead, the book is seen as a warning to be spiritually and morally ready for the end times, whenever they may come ("as a thief in the night"), but they will come at the time of God's choosing, not something that can be precipitated nor trivially deduced by mortals.
The Book of Revelation is the only book of the New Testament that is not read during services by the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the Coptic Orthodox Church (which is not in communion with the Eastern Orthodox church but is liturgically similar), the whole book of revelation is read during apocalypse night or bright Saturday (the eve of the resurrection).
The Anglican/Episcopal view is that this book should be seen as a book of hope and also a book of warning. It gives hope to those Christians who are being persecuted, assuring them that their suffering is not in vain. It also warns those non-Christians of the coming events and what will happen to them. Revelation is an example of typical Jewish Apocalyptic literature. It uses symbolic imagery to communicate hope to those in the midst of persecution.
Paschal Liturgical view
This view, which has found expression among both Catholic and Protestant theologians, considers the liturgical worship, particularly the Easter rites, of early Christianity as background and context for understanding the Book of Revelation's structure and significance. This perspective is explained in The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse
(new edition, 2004) by Massey H. Shepherd, an Episcopal scholar, and in Scott Hahn
's The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth
, in which he states that Revelation in form, is structured after creation, fall, judgment and redemption. Those who hold this view say that the Temple’s destruction (A.D. 70) had a profound effect on the Jewish people, not only in Jerusalem but among the Greek-speaking Jews of the Mediterranean. They believe The Book of Revelation provides insight into the early Eucharist, saying that it is the new Temple worship in the New Heaven and Earth. The idea of the Eucharist as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet is also explored by British Methodist Geoffrey Wainwright in his book Eucharist and Eschatology
(Oxford University Press, 1980).
views the Book as delivering both a series of warnings for humanity and a detailed account of internal, spiritual processes of the individual soul. The seven seals
are the seven chakras
and the consequence of opening them is the unleashing of the physiological forces that reside there. The Second Coming is thus a personal event, the integration of your spiritual self with your animal self, resulting in a fully conscious human.
Some scholars have noted the rider on a white horse as being similar to the Buddhist and Hindu myths of Kalki who is considered the last avatar in the cycle of ages and is also associated with the end of time.
The esoteric view also presents the Book as the Christian yoga (union) practices text on death and rebirth in Christ. The four horsemen are described as the four elemental forces (fire, water, air, earth) and are used in the spiritual purification of the body and mind. The characters of Revelation are considered anthropomorphized aspects of human consciousness.
The radical discipleship view asserts that the Book of Revelation is best understood as a handbook for radical discipleship; i.e. how to remain faithful to the spirit and teachings of Jesus and avoid simply assimilating to surrounding society. In this view, the primary agenda of the book is to expose the worldly powers as impostors which seek to oppose the ways of God. The chief temptation for Christians in the 1st Century, and today, is to fail to hold fast to the teachings of Jesus and instead be lured into unquestioning adoption of national or cultural values, imperialism being the most dangerous and insidious. This perspective (closely related to Liberation theology) draws on the approach of radical Bible scholars such as Ched Myers, William Stringfellow, and Daniel Berrigan.
The historical-critical method
The historical-critical method treats Revelation as a text which is located in a specific historical context.
The acceptance of Revelation into the canon is itself the result of a historical process, essentially no different from the career of other texts. The eventual exclusion of other contemporary apocalyptic literature from the canon may throw light on the unfolding historical processes of what was officially considered orthodox, what was heterodox, what was even heretical. Interpretation of meanings and imagery are anchored in what the historical author intended and what his contemporary audience inferred; a message to Christians not to assimilate into the Roman Imperial Culture was John's central message. Thus, his letter (written in the apocalyptic genre) is pastoral in nature, and the symbolism of Revelation is to be understood entirely within its historical, literary and social context. Critics study the conventions of apocalyptic literature and events of the 1st century to make sense of what the author may have intended.
During a discussion about Revelation on 23 August 2006, Pope Benedict XVI remarked: "The seer of Patmos, identified with the apostle, is granted a series of visions meant to reassure the Christians of Asia amid the persecutions and trials of the end of the first century.
Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll
branded Revelation "the insanest of all books". Thomas Jefferson
omitted it entirely from the Bible he edited, and wrote that he "considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams". "Martin Luther
found it an offensive piece of work" and "John Calvin
had grave doubts about its value.
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