A revealing look at Revelation’s journey to the New Testament

Stefan Lochner’s 15th century work depicts Christ seated on his throne at the Last Judgment. Because the book of Revelation contains several difficult-to-understand prophecies regarding the last days, it was the subject of much misinterpretation in the early Church, as it is today.

Stefan Lochner’s 15th century work depicts Christ seated on his throne at the Last Judgment. Because the book of Revelation contains several difficult-to-understand prophecies regarding the last days, it was the subject of much misinterpretation in the early Church, as it is today. CNS Photo

There is probably no other book in the Bible that is more disputed, controversial, and just plain difficult to understand than the book of Revelation. It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that its place within the New Testament is also quite unusual.

Many of the books of the New Testament were immediately accepted as sacred Scripture by the early Christians. For example, there was never any doubt about the four Gospels’ rightful place within the New Testament, although some later tried to add additional books that claimed to come from the Apostles. The same can be true for several of Paul’s letters.

Other books had a more difficult time winning universal acceptance. Second Peter and the Second and Third Letter of John, for example, were first contested, but later these initial doubts faded and they remain in our Bibles. The acceptance of the book of Revelation was quite different.

Initially, the Book of Revelation’s sacredness was accepted without difficulty. In fact, two prominent figures in the early Church, Irenaeus of Lyons (c. AD 180) and Tertullian (d. AD 220), affirmed its inspiration and used it as well. It would seem that by the end of the second Christian century, Revelation had a firm spot within the New Testament, but such was not the case.

The earliest doubts about the Book of Revelation started in the second century with a Roman priest named Caius. Caius believed Revelation to be a forgery of a heretic named Cerinthus, the main reason for which seems to be that Cerinthus taught that there would be an earthly kingdom after the Resurrection. Because the Book of Revelation could be read (or misread) to support such a view, Caius erroneously believed Cerinthus to be the author of the book.

However, this was just the first of several theories that associated Revelation with the early heresy. If you scan through religious programs on the radio or television, chances are you’ll run across at least a few individuals who are propounding some pretty bizarre and far-fetched interpretations of Revelation. The same situation occurred in the early Church. Heretics sometimes anchored their bizarre and heretical end-time beliefs in passages from Revelation.

This didn’t help Revelation’s reputation. In fact, it led a few early Church Fathers, preferring to err on the side of safety, to omit the Book of Revelation from their New Testament canons.

Because heresies tended to affect only certain localities, doubts about Revelation were largely confined to the east. The rest of the Church, for the most part, didn’t have a problem with the book or its place in the New Testament.

By the end of the fourth century, whatever doubts still lingered about the canonicity of Revelation were extinguished by two important local African councils, Hippo and Carthage. These councils re-affirmed the ancient Christian canon, and their decrees were affirmed by the pope. Thus, it became part of the law of the Church, and from that point, Revelation’s place in the New Testament was established. But the story wasn’t over quite yet.

In the early 1500s, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther once again contested Revelation, but on different grounds. By rejecting the authority of Church councils, Luther once again opened the question of the canon. In addition to rejecting the seven deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, Luther also cast doubts on the Deuterocanon of the New Testament (i.e., James, Hebrews, 2nd and 3rd John, Jude and Revelation).

In his 1522 preface to Revelation, Luther wrote, “…let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it … Therefore I stick to the books which present Christ to me clearly and purely.” However, Luther’s theological reservations about the New Testament Deuterocanon were soon abandoned and the Book of Revelation remained in Protestant Bibles.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.