Reading Revelation – Does Genre Matter?

Reading Revelation

Revelation is a “prophetic account in letter form of the ultimate end of this age in apocalyptic terms that are culturally foreign to most of us.” Walt Russell, Playing with Fire: How the Bible Ignites Change in Your Soul (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2000), 254.

The book of Revelation claims to be prophetic (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19; 22:18-19). If it is prophecy, it is a specific form known as apocalyptic. Yet the book has a number of features which imply it is also a letter, including seven letters in the chapters 2-3. This blending of genres is somewhat unique in the New Testament, although 2 Thess 2 has some apocalyptic elements, and the Olivet Discourse has prophetic and apocalyptic elements

In his commentary on Revelation, dispensationalist Robert Thomas rejects the possibility of blending two or more genres. He argues strongly for Revelation as prophecy in the tradition of the Old Testament. For Thomas, the book claims to be “prophecy” and no other genre. His motivation for this rejection is likely some of the baggage that normally comes with the genre “apocalyptic.” Frequently apocalyptic literature is described as history re-written as prophecy – not really prophecy. Since he is committed to futurism and literal interpretation o the symbols of the book, he is resistant to allow the genre of apocalyptic to whittle away at his futurist interpretation.

Thomas seems to protest too much the idea of blending genres. This is a common phenomenon in the epistles (Paul makes use of hymn material in Phil 2, for example.) One might argue that Isaiah “blends” the prophetic and apocalyptic genres in 24-27, Ezekiel in 37-39, etc. As Grant Osborne says, “it is impossible to distinguish between prophecy and apocalyptic….” (Revelation, 13).

Similar to Osborne, Gordon Fee uses this blending of genre to distance Revelation from some of the conventions of apocalyptic literature (Revelation, xii). Since John is writing prophecy as well as apocalyptic, he does not select a name from antiquity and create his apocalypse in his name. John has experienced the new age of the Spirit and is creating a book which applies to the present experience of the readers. Fee points out that most apocalyptic literature is “sealed up” for a future time when the Spirit of God will make the symbolism clear, But in Rev 22:10 John is specifically told not to seal up the prophecy!

Does the literary genre of Revelation matter? How do we take all three genre into account? How would the book be interpreted differently if it is only prophecy, as opposed to apocalyptic? How does the appearance of a letter effect the way we might read the book?


11 thoughts on “Reading Revelation – Does Genre Matter?

  1. Hello, thanks for the post. I think recognising the genres within the books of the bible is an important task, as it completely affects how we understand and interpret what we read. For example, if the letter aspect of Revelation isn’t realised, than the understanding that it was written to a certain audience, addressing certain issues, will be missed. This then would result in the impossible task of understanding and applying the text today.

    On a side note – what commentaries on Revelation would you recommend? I really need to wrestle with this overwhelming book a little bit more! Thanks.


    • Balancing apocalyptic and prophecy is very difficult, but making it applicable is even more difficult! I use the analogy of political cartoons when I teach Revelation in class, the book of Revelation is like a 2000 year old political cartoon from another culture. A great deal of history and literature lurks in the background that has to be taken into consideration.

      As for commentaries, I posted my “top five” a while back. I think Osborne is a good one since it is readable and detailed, but there are others. here’s the link:


      • That’s a helpful analogy, thanks. Thanks for the recommendations also!


  2. Yes, genre matters. I now see Revelation in a totally new light. The parable of the prodigal son was constructed in a special way using a 5 section format. This same format, the parable blueprint, was used to form of text of Revelation and other biblical texts. (I’ve laid out the revealed parables of the Book of Revelation, which give a whole new energy to what the texts are about.)

    In the case of Revelation, trying to find deeper meanings of the texts almost become unimportant, in view of the total picture of what the writer was wanting to get across. It seems the parables of Revelation were simply written to gain the audience’s attention and scare them into being better believer. (The text as seen in the light of parables now feels like a collection of narrative stories…meant to entertain and send chills up the listeners spine.) But for those who want to know all the details of the texts could probably find out faster, with this new discovery which has recently unfolded.


  3. The literary genre of Revelation completely matters, it could especially impact the literal meaning of Revelation. I don’t see how some people can claim that Revelation can be prophetic but not apocalyptic, apocalyptic is just another form of prophecy. The only reason that I could imagine is that I can’t think of another book in the New Testament that uses apocalyptic prophecy. Even if there are its not as powerful as it is in Revelation since the entire theme of Revelation is the end times. So to leave out the apocalyptic genre and still claim that its prophetic, who’s to say that Gods plan stops after Revelation? Since I consider it to be both prophetic and apocalyptic it makes sense to me that it would be used as a letter also, this is the end times John is talking about and that’s something that people must know. John may have been extremely urgent to get out this message of the second coming, the rapture and the anti Christ.


  4. I think that the genre of Revelation matters in that it helps us determine how to view the writings. For example, if it is prophetic, which it is, that tells us that Revelation is generally meant to be taken literally, because the prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled literally. I think that calling Revelation apocalyptic is important, mainly because it explains that the prophecies are on future events. The fact that the book appears to be a letter
    is significant because it shows us that some of the writings are meant to be applied to our lives currently, instead of waiting until the prophecies are fulfilled.


  5. The genre of Revelation might be important… if you do not use that definition to restrict the book. Obviously there are multiple implications, which i believe to be good, in labeling the different genres used. But in the case of a man like Robert Thomas, it seems like we are trying to view Revelation through a lens to prove our own theological assumptions. Yes, we all have bias and put more emphasis on certain portions of a book, but we must also try to remain objective to some extent in reading the scriptures. When we label Revelation as apocalyptic, and refuse any other label to prove a point, we are in trouble. With that being said, identifying the different genres used in Revelation can be instrumental in “correct” interpretation. Without seeing Revelation as containing elements from a letter, apocalyptic literature, and prophetic writings we can easily dig ourselves our own theological graves. Even in saying that Revelation is all of those genres in one, you can create a skewed view of the book. What would the original audience think of this book? Would they be caught up on the differing genres in the book, or simply read it as truth written from John? These genres do help us to get into the mindset of the first century Jews, but the genre cannot be the end game, or restricting lens in which we read the book, but the empowering tool explaining some of the complexities of Revelation. I hope that as we explore Revelation we do not get caught on the genre, but on the implications and truth that John was proclaiming to the early church Christians and to us.


  6. I agree with the majority of readers that would automatically say yes, the genre matters. It changes the way we can interpret and view the various sayings in Revelation. A prophetic genre would be entirely for the future, so the sayings and figures in Revelation would be almost entirely figurative. But if it was apocalyptic, those figures would give meaning in the present age as well as for the future (already not yet?). It is interesting that although the apocalyptic genre seems to be most attractive here, Revelation does not fit perfectly inside this genre. For example, Revelation is said to be written by John, but most apocalyptic writing is pseudonymous. Also, apocalyptic writing is usually very pessimistic about the world, but Revelation is more optimistic considering the future when Jesus comes back.
    I think that genre certainly matters in this discussion. But it is not as easy as picking one and running with it. This writing, that was carried along by the Holy Spirit, is complex and hard to understand as we are far from being acquainted with the culture of that day. Could it be possible that Revelation is in a category of its own?


  7. The fact that John addresses specific churches shows that the book was written to real people with real problems in a very real culture. Thus, it was possibly intended not to be taken wholly as one genre. It also shows that we must use care when trying to organize the Book of Revelation into different genres, since it is obviously not completely one.

    I like how arenberg93 put it; many commentators have approached Revelation in search of evidence to back up their theological presuppositions. However, if we are already convicted of a certain theological stance, then interpreting the genre(s) of Revelation, among other aspects, is not a problem. Robert Thomas does not seem to have difficulty interpreting Revelation because he comes to it already convinced of a certain position on prophecy and apocalypticism.

    Other than 2 Thessalonians, are there any other epistles that also contain traces of apocalyptic prophecy?


  8. I think that the genre of Revelations does matter. I think that there are parts of Revelations that has to be taken in parts. as in one part is apocalyptical and one is prophecy, and another part, a letter. I think if it was only prophecy, we wouldn’t be looking at Revelations as the end of the world like we do, just events that will happen, yet the earth will still continue as we know it. Apocalyptic we look at it as this world is going to end, and this is how it is going to happen, and with a letter I think its hard, at least for me, to look at the whole book of Revelation as a letter rather than just the first two chapters. It was written as a letter to the seven churches in Asia, but after Chapter 3, its starts to warn them of the coming events, whether they be prophetic or apocalyptical.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.