Several years ago I was intrigued with the Revelation, and began a study. Of particular interest to me was the use of symbolism. Within that study the symbolism became understandable in relation to much of the Old Testament History. However the question of why John had resorted to the use of symbolism, plagued me.

The following is quoted from:


and has been edited by me for clarity;

John, the "apostle that Jesus loved," who was given the responsibility of caring
for Mary the mother of Jesus Christ for the rest of her life after the 
Jesus' Crucifixion, and who wrote the Gospel of John, found himself exiled
on Patmos.

The Romans used Patmos, and numerous other legally remote (i.e. where the
prisoners had no legal rights but were held indefinitely without charge or trial,
subject solely to the whim of the Roman emperor) bases like it as a place for 
political or religious prisoners. According to Eusebius, John was sent to Patmos 
in the year 95 by the Roman emperor Domitian, but was released less than
2 years later. Since he, and all of The Twelve Apostles were roughly the same 
age as Jesus, John would by that time have been well over 90 years old - making
him very likely the only apostle to survive to old age. All the rest were martyred 
much earlier.

In the beginning of the Revelation John says that he was on the Isle of Patmos when he wrote the Revelation, I have not been able to learn whether he kept he letter with him until his release, or if it was somehow sent from Patmos. Either way it occurred to me that since Christianity was being so stringently persecuted by Rome at the time; that John may have coded it so that only those familiar with Jewish history would make the connection.

That seems sensible since he would not only want to cover himself, but also the recipients of the letter.

Does anyone know of any further information which might either support or deny that supposition?

  • 1
    As a complement to the perspective offered in the useful answer already provided, see Oliver O'Donovan, "The Political Thought of The Book of Revelation", Tyndale Bulletin 37 (1986); 61-94. Also, a previous "revelation" Q&A on this site has some relevant comment that may be of interest.
    – Dɑvïd
    Apr 29 '14 at 19:32
  • 1
    @David Thank you for the references, they are much appreciated. The Tyndal bulletin I have downloaded and can have it read to me by my Text to Speech program otherwise being blind it is difficult to seek out exactly what you want from all else that is included. Even though I have very limited sight left, sometimes finding where to start and end the reading is quite difficult. I do appreciate your references. Thanks again Cecil
    – BYE
    May 3 '14 at 13:36
  • This is a good question-It had me thinking!
    – Bagpipes
    Jul 13 '14 at 11:32

A bit of history

Of the earlier known prophetic texts of Israel, we find a variety of delivery styles: plain oration, song, poetry, etc. There is a fair amount of figurative speech, but the messages are more or less straightforward: God is coming to judge Judah! He will raise up Nebudchadnezzar against Tyre! He will deliver Moab to the Edomites!

But during and after the exilic period, we see some variation emerge with the prophet Ezekiel: his final chapters (c.585 and 572 BC) bring in some extensive symbols, and his vision of a new Jerusalem requires an angelic guide. In Zechariah 1-8 (c.520-518 BC), the writer has a series of highly symbolic visions, again requiring an angelic guide.

Israelite history is murky in the middle of the Second Temple era, but by the time we get to the beginning of the second century BC, we find that a new genre has emerged. The elements of prophetic delivery that were forming in Ezekiel and Zechariah (and may indeed have been influenced by the Babylonian and Persian cultures during that vague era of history) have been incorporated into a distinct style of literature: the Jewish apocalypse.

The apocalyptic genre

Not all apocalypses exhibit the exact same traits, but they are mostly consistent in their similarities:

  • Dualism: there is demonic evil and there is divine good, and they are in combat. There will be an era of intense divine warfare, manifesting as conflict between God's chosen people and the wicked rulers of the world, but this era will be replaced by a future era of righteousness.
  • Determinism: God is in control of history, so despite all the evil in the world, everything happens according to his will. He is in charge, and he is bringing history toward its goal.
  • Judgment: there will be sudden intervention by God in the history of the world, bringing all evil to an end. All humanity, or at least the people alive at the time this happens, will be held accountable for their actions. The righteous will inherit the coming age, while the wicked will suffer punishment.
  • Visions: the revelation of all this information comes in the shape of visions or dreams, filled with intense symbolism. Consequently, the seer himself often requires the help of an angel to explain the meaning of the symbols. (Hence why scholars have come to call this genre 'apocalypse'; this is a Greek word that describes the 'revealing' of this new information.)
  • Pseudepigraphical: all apocalypses are attributed to an authoritative figure of the past, in order to lend credibility to the revelations described. Examples include: Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Baruch, Ezra, Daniel, etc. Later Christians would attribute their visions to: Peter, Paul, James, John, Thomas, etc.
  • Sealing: because the apocalyptic revelations are always about events in the immediate future, the pseudonymous author needs an explanation for why the book is only just now being published. It was, many apocalypses inform their readers, because the seer received his visions centuries or millennia ahead of time, and he was told to seal up and hide the scroll he wrote on. Only when the time was right would the scroll be rediscovered (i.e. the time when the author wrote the book).

With all of the above drawn together, we see that the general thrust of the apocalyptic genre is that its subject matter is primarily concerned with a crisis in the author's present time. For Ezekiel and Zechariah, the crisis was the Babylonian exile. For the earlier swath of Jewish apocalypses, it was the Maccabean Revolt. For later apocalypses, it was the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and its aftermath. (The Revelation was written in this latter time period, as were 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch.)

The Revelation hits all of the major points of a Jewish apocalypse, except for two.

First, while all other known Jewish apocalypses are pseudepigraphical, the general consensus of scholars and critics is that the Revelation is an extremely rare exception, perhaps the only exception: the seer is exactly who he claims to be (a Jewish-Christian named John, probably living in the final decade of the first-century AD).

Second, because the Revelation is not pseudepigraphical, the author has no reason to allege that he was told to seal up his visions until some distant future date. Instead, the author admits to living during the very time his visions are concerned with, and in the last chapter his angelic guide forbids him from sealing his scroll 'because the time is near' and the events 'must soon happen'.

The symbolism of the Revelation

The Revelation exhibits exactly the sort of symbolism we would expect from any ancient Jewish apocalypse. So while the Revelation's symbols are intense and cryptic, this was common for the genre as a whole. In that case, we should be asking, 'Why does the apocalyptic genre use so much symbolism at all?'

In apocalyptic literature in general, many of the symbols are drawn from the Hebrew scriptures and broader Jewish and Christian traditions. When we come to the Revelation, this is the case with the absolute majority of the symbols. Revelation 5, for example, portrays the messiah (Jesus, in this case) as 'the lion of the tribe of Judah' who is the 'root of David'. Right around the same time as the Revelation, another Jewish apocalypse, 4 Ezra, was written. The author of this book, who was not a Christian, also symbolizes the Davidic messiah as a lion. In this case, the Revelation and 4 Ezra were both drawing on a by-then traditional combination of Genesis 49.9 and Jeremiah 23.5. The intention wasn't to hide the true meaning behind obscure pictures, but to show the intended recipients of the text something they would understand in an evocative manner.

But other symbols in the apocalypses were drawn from popular cross-cultural traditions and myths. For example, the sequence of four metals in Daniel 2 is found in many cultures even before the sixth century, including Greece and Persia. Or the general picture of a cloud-riding ruler triumphing over sea-monster(s) in Daniel 7 is loosely influenced by the ancient story of Baal slaying the sea-monster Yam. Although it was typical for apocalypses to use heavy symbolism, their (probable) meanings would have been easy to discover for anyone who knew the sources being used. The absolute majority of the symbols in the Revelation came from Jewish and Christian traditions, but what about some of those other symbols? Things like...

Imagine if someone living right now wrote a book with symbolism that said:

I saw an eagle with thirteen feathers, colored red and white and blue. Over time it grew thirty-five more feathers. Then many nations waged war on the eagle. But the eagle threw burning fire on its enemies two times, and the war ended. After this, I saw the eagle grow two more feathers. And then I saw...

One-thousand years, maybe two-thousand years from now people may not understand any of what this is supposed to be describing just by reading it at face value. They'd have to do some serious research to figure it out. But we know about a major country today that has these symbols on its money, on its flag, and in its history books. We have no problem recognizing the symbols and their meaning.

Let's suppose some sort of imperial authority got his hands on a copy of the Revelation; would he have been able to detect the anti-Roman message of the book? Even if the Jewish and Christian symbols fly over his head, he's not going to miss the message when he sees the book calling Roma, the personification of the city on seven hills, a 'whore'.

Concluding summary

To the point:

Was the Revelation written in code to hide it from the Romans?

No. The Revelation is a Jewish apocalypse, a genre known for its heavy use of symbolism. Most of the symbols came from common Jewish and Christian sources, but the symbols that are most aggressively anti-Roman are the symbols that would be most obvious to the Romans themselves.

Recommended Reading

John J. Collins. The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature.

Craig C. Hill. In God's Time: The Bible and the Future. (My list of apocalyptic traits was adapted from Hill's, found in chapter four.)

  • Thank you for the references, they are much appreciated. When it is in book form I can have it read to me by my Text to Speech program, or download it to my computer. Otherwise being blind it is difficult to seek out exactly what you want from all else that is included. Even though I have very limited sight left, sometimes finding where to start and end the reading is quite difficult. I do appreciate your references. Thanks again Cecil
    – BYE
    May 3 '14 at 13:38

No, it was written in symbolism to those who would understand, and confound those who don't.

There are 4 Main Theological views to the Book of Revelations- there are certainly subsets of these views, but these views consist of:

1) Idealist

2) Preterist/Covenant Theology

3) Historicist

4) Futurist/Dispensational

An explanation of these views and their pros and cons can be found here

As to the matter of John at Patmos:

Rick Renner has authored a book series called "A Light in Darkness"(published by Teach All Nations, Tulsa,OK) and in volume 1 he begins with an explanation of the life of the Apostle John, how he got to Patmos, what Patmos was like at the time of the Apostle John as well as historical records and anecdotes. It is large print, with numerous color photos and maps. He is a master Greek scholar, who also pastors a church in Moscow, Russia and he describes John's exile to Patmos as a result of Domitian's attempt to boil him in oil after he refused to worship Domitian; taken from the accounts of Tertullian, an early church father.

Patmos, a 6x10 mile island off of the west coast of Turkey was an isle where both common and political prisoners were held. The common prisoners were kept under guard, but the 'political' prisoners were allowed to roam, albeit without resources, which meant that food, water, and shelter must be aquired by the prisoner at their own expense, as Patmos was a "treeless, waterless, rocky crag" that jutted out into the Aegean Sea, surrounded by some of the most treacherous currents on earth. You get the picture of what it must of looked like from the photos in the book.

It is the author's contention that John was visited from time to time by those of his church in Ephesus, as it would have been impossible to survive there without them. Even with that, John, an old man by then, was forced to take cover in the caves along the coast; and it was reputed in one of these he received the Book of Revelations. The cave is venerated today, with pictures showing where the Apostle hid himself from the elements and slept. Domitian was murdered by one of his guards who was part of a conspiracy, in 96AD, and it was after this time, 2 years on Patmos, when John was released and sent home, as the practice of releasing political prisoners upon the death of the one who put them there was followed.

So in answer to your question "Was Revelation written in code to hide it from the Romans?", the answer is no, there was no need to, and most probably the manuscripts were kept by his followers and brought back to Ephesus even before his release. Numerous early church fathers witness to their authenticity, as Polycarp was a disciple of John, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hypollytus, Tertullian, and others testify to their veracity.

The other answers delved into the various understandings of the symbology, if you follow my link it will help you classify them into the various understandings I mentioned. Since your question merely asked "if" and not "what", I felt it was beyond the scope of the question to offer a differing view than what was previously expressed.

  • I understand the connections, especially Futurist and Dispensational, but listing them and Preterist/Covenant together is unnecessary. Just saying Futurist and Preterist is enough. I only object because it just reinforces common misconceptions about these connections. For example, people often think to agree with a Futurist view you must be Dispensational, but that's not true. I've seen this confuse a few questions on this site.
    – Joshua
    May 7 '15 at 1:37
  • @JoshuaBigbee Those are the 4 commonly accepted hermeneutics for evaluating the Book of Revelations: they are taught at most Bible courses and they give a framework for understanding, as well as gauge for reconciling the various interpretations. Futurism and Dispensationalism both hold to a 'literal' hermeneutic, the difference being one's eschatology concerning Israel. The others take a widely divergent viewpoint and would be remiss not to mention them.
    – Tau
    May 7 '15 at 7:19
  • 1
    Dispensationalism and Covenant theology are larger systems of theology that deal with more than eschatology and Revelation. Futurist interpretation is a core part of Dispensationalism but not the only part. And it's not exclusive to Dispensationalism, other systems can hold to a Futurist interpretation, including Covenant. It's unnecessary and misleading to list them together as if they are the same exact thing. They are not. You may understand the subtle differences and how they can vary but many have shown they do not.
    – Joshua
    May 7 '15 at 15:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.