The search for the author of Revelation

On a hill about a mile northwest of the city walls of Ephesus stand the reconstructed remains of a great basilica church dedicated to the author of the Book of Revelation, identified in Revelation 1:1 simply as John. As early as the end of the second century C.E., this hill, called Ayasoluk Hill, was considered to be John’s burial place. In the fourth century, a wooden church was built on the site over an earlier memorial. The reconstructed buildings that can now be visited, however, come from the sixth century when the Christian emperor Justinian (527–65 C.E.) underwrote a major expansion of the church (photo at right). Justinian’s church features six domes over the nave and transepts, and a large colonnaded courtyard at the entrance. The nave and transepts intersect over John’s tomb.

In the Byzantine period, the church became a major pilgrimage site. Miraculous cures were attributed to the sacred dust from the tomb. Whether John was actually hurled here, however, has never been established by the standards of modern historical investigation.

A more important question is who was the John who supposedly had the visions recorded in the Book of Revelation. At least three “Johns” have been suggested. The first is Jesus’ disciple John the son of Zebedee. This John has also been traditionally credited with writing the Fourth Gospel (the Gospel of John) and the Johannine letters in the New Testament canon. The language and expression of Revelation is so different from the Gospel of John and the Johannine epistles, however, that they could hardly have been written by the same person. This was noted as early as the mid-third century by Dionysius of Alexandria. Most modern scholars now agree with Dionysius’ conclusion that Revelation and the Gospel of John were not written by the same person—and that Revelation was not written by the disciple John.

A second John, John the presbyter, is known from literary references around 130 C.E.1 John the presbyter was an elder in the churches of Asia who is said to have been taught by the disciples of Jesus.

According to the fourth-century church historian Eusebius there were once two tombs at Ephesus supposedly containing the earthly remains of two Johns, one that of John the Presbyter, who, Eusebius tells us, “saw the revelation which passes under the name of John.”2 Since Revelation does not identify the author as a presbyter, this option too should be rejected.

The seer who wrote Revelation may simply have been a Christian prophet named John. Very little can be gleaned about his life from the content of the book, however.3

The tradition that John was buried at Ephesus may have arisen because Ephesus was not only the most prominent city in the province of Asia during the late first century C.E., but also because it is the first city named in the seven messages to the churches in Revelation 2–3.