Should they be reclassified?

In the first chapter of Revelation, John addresses “the seven churches that are in [the Roman province of] Asia.” In Revelation 2–3 we have the text of seven different messages, commonly called letters, to each of these churches in western Asia Minor. But are they really letters?

Clearly not. Normal Greek letters begin with the name of the author in the nominative case (the superscription), followed by the name of the recipient in the dative (the adscription) and the word chairein (“greetings”). Sometimes this is followed by an optional note of thanks or a blessing.

Acts 15:23 preserves an example of this basic style, although it is somewhat more complicated because it is a letter from one group to another group. It begins:

“The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting.”

Paul’s letters also follow this format, although with certain exceptional features. His normal opening consists of the author(s), the recipient(s), the greeting (“Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ”) and finally a prayer of thanksgiving (a proem). This style for opening a letter can be relatively simple as in Philemon 1–6, or more elaborate as in 1 Corinthians 1:1–9 and Romans 1:1–10.

The letter opening in Revelation 1:4–6 to the seven churches as a group also follows this pattern (although with a distinctive content). But the messages to the individual churches in Revelation 2–3 have nothing in common with Greek epistolary style.

Each message begins with a command that John is to write to the angel of a given church. The actual message then begins, “Thus says the one who,” followed by a description of the divine speaker. Next comes a statement that starts with “I know [something about the congregation],” followed by various praises, criticisms, exhortations, promises, etc. The message closes with “Let the one who has an ear hear what the spirit says to the churches!” and a promise to the one who is victorious. (The order of the two closing elements is reversed in the last four messages.)

The genre, or literary form, of a text affects its meaning. So scholars have tried to identify the genre of these messages to the seven churches. Some have suggested they are modeled on the prophetic oracles of the Hebrew Bible. Others have described them as early Christian prophetic oracles. Still others claim that these messages are patterned after ancient Near Eastern covenant formulas. None of these suggestions has proven convincing.

David Aune has suggested that the messages are really a mixed genre: The basic framework was supplied by royal and imperial edicts in the eastern Mediterranean. Their content and mode, however, derive from the heritage of Israelite prophecy.a Although this leaves several questions unanswered, it is probably the best explanation yet offered.