Saturday, May 16, 2020

Eusebius, EH.7.25: Dionysius on Revelation

Image: St. John Monastery on the Island of Patmos, Greece

This is an occasional series of readings from and brief notes and commentary upon Eusebius of Caesarea’s The Ecclesiastical HistoryHere is Book 7, chapter 25. Listen here. Or watch here:

Notes and Commentary:

This chapter conveys the observations of Dionysius of Alexandria on the book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of John.

He notes that some in the past had rejected the book as “unintelligible and illogical.” They also said that it appeared under a false title, since it is neither an Apocalypse, which clearly reveals anything, nor is it by John the Apostle. He notes that some claimed it was written by the heretical teacher Cerinthus, since it taught the kingdom would be on earth (a literal millennium).

Dionysius, however, says the book is not to be rejected, but it cannot be understood on a literal sense. He confesses he has reached the conclusion that the book’s thoughts are “too high for his comprehension” but “I do not reject what I have not understood, but I rather wonder that I did not indeed see them.”

He also questions whether the John of the title is John the Apostle, since in the Gospel of John and the Johannine epistles, the apostle John never explicitly identifies himself as does the author of Revelation (see Rev 1:1, et al). Furthermore, the John of Revelation is never explicitly identified as John the Apostle (using terms like “the beloved disciple” or the “brother of James”). He points out that there were other early Christians named John like John Mark in Acts and that there were two tombs in Ephesus which were said to hold someone named John. He adds that the vocabulary and style of the Gospel and epistles of John are similar, and they have common themes (like “light,” “truth,” the command to “love one another”, etc.) which are not stressed in Revelation. Revelation is also written, according to Dionysius, in a less polished Greek style. He makes sure that he offers these observations not to denigrate the book, which he respects, but to point out its dissimilarity with the Gospel and epistles of John and to understand Revelation better.


This chapter indicates how the book of Revelation continued to be one of the most debated and discussed books of the NT canon and how controversy surrounding it led to a slower process of its recognition and acceptance among early Christians. It is also interesting to see how Dionysius approached Revelation as a pre-critical interpreter, arguing that it not be interpreted literally but according to “a deeper meaning” which “underlies the words.” He also freely questions the authorship of the book, suggesting that it was not from the apostle John, and the quality of its literary style, but these considerations did not disqualify its acceptance and usefulness.


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