18 observations about the structure of Revelation

The structure of the book of Revelation is hotly debated among scholars. Some have joked that there as many different outlines of the book as there are commentators. The outlines on this blog do not attempt to resolve the issue. They just note the internal structure of the basic sections of the book. Nor will I attempt to list the many different outlines I have seen. My goal in the list below is simply to introduce the reader to many of the features which scholars have used as markers to divide the book.

  1. Distinguishing the basic sections of Revelation is easy. What is difficult is figuring out the relationships between these sections.
  2. Pretty much everyone is agreed that Revelation 1.1-8 and 22.6-21 are a prologue and epilogue, respectively. Some scholars extend the prologue to Rev. 1.10 or 1.20, however.
  3. Chapters two and three are clearly a distinct unit composed of seven letters to seven churches.
  4. Chapters 2-3 link to chapter one because the descriptions of Jesus in chapter one are repeated in the promises to the churches in chapters 2-3. Jesus appears and is described in chapter 1, and proceeds to dictate to John the letters in chapters 2-3.
  5. Chapters 4-5 form a distinct section based on their setting and the characters involved. Worship in heaven revolves around God as Creator (ch. 4) and Jesus as Redeemer (ch. 5)
  6. The Lamb’s acquisition of the scroll in chapter 5 is connected to the seals being opened in chapter 6. In chapter 6, the Lamb is opening the seals found around the scroll that he received in chapter 5.
  7. There are three series of seven judgments of God upon the world: seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. Scholars debate whether these series are in chronological order (or sequential), parallel (repeating or recapitulating the same material or time period in three different ways), or telescopic (where the second series expands on the last member of the first series, and the third series expands on the last member of the second series). William Hendriksen sees much recapitulation in Revelation, and developed an elaborate outline of what he calls ‘progressive parallelism’ throughout the book.
  8. The relationship of chapters 19 and 20 is particularly sensitive, because if they are sequential, this would support a premillennial view (Jesus’ return in chapter 19 comes before the thousand years of chapter 20), but if they are parallel, this would support an amillennial view (chapter 19 ends one section with the return of Christ, and chapter 20 begins a new section with the thousand years, which precede the return of Christ, mentioned again later in chapter 20).
  9. Some authors, seeing that there are four clear series of sevens (letters, seals, trumpets and bowls), have looked for three more, in order to arrive at seven series of seven. Hendriksen interprets Rev. 12.1-15.4 as seven mystic figures, chapters 17-18 as telling of the defeat of seven great enemies, and chapters 20-22 as seven unnumbered visions. This finds support in books like 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, which are also arranged in seven sections. Felise Tavo objects: “If he had wanted his hearing audience to recognize seven visions in 12-14 and again in Rev. 19:11-20:15, he probably would have told them so as he has done elsewhere.”
  10. Some authors say that the book’s structure is based on the structure of another book. Some point to Ezekiel and Daniel as books that Revelation’s outline is patterned after.
  11. Some authors say that Revelation is structured after a greek drama or pageant.
  12. A few authors, most notably Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, use elaborate chiasms (ABCBA patterns) to outline Revelation.
  13. Some feel that Revelation 1.19 indicates that the following material will be divided between “what is now” (chapters 2-3) and “what will take place later.” (chapters 4-22).  But this doesn’t help answer many questions about the structure of Revelation, since all the interpretive difficulties occur from chapter 6 onward.
  14. Others interpret the four references to John being ‘in the Spirit’ (Rev. 1.10-11, 4.1-2, 17.1-3 and 21.9-10) as indicators of major section breaks in the book. Each of these sayings occur in different locations: Patmos, heaven, a wilderness, and a high mountain.
  15. Some view the phrase “after these things” (Rev. 4:1; 7:1, 9; 15:5; 18:1; 19:1) as section breaks.
  16. Some, including Mark Seaborn Hall, see chapter 10 as central to the outline of Revelation. In that chapter John sees what appears to be another scroll, is commissioned, and is told to ‘prophesy again.’ This would divide the material into prophecies, one in chapters 4-9 and another in chapters 11-22.
  17. David Aune claims that the two incidents where John attempts to worship an angel (Rev. 19.9-10 and 22.8-9) act as bookends around that section, signaling that it is a separate section. Christopher R. Smith, writing about these two passages, says, “Unlike the surrounding sections, they have no plot motion but are rather “tableaus,” symbol-rich emblems whose meaning is expounded and meditated upon. Moreover, they are a distinct pair in that they describe two complementary cities, Babylon and Jerusalem, one ”falling’* and the other “descending,” compared respectively to two women, a harlot and a virgin bride….”
  18. Felise Tavo reminds us that we should look for a fairly simple structure, since the book was written to be read out loud in a public setting, and hearers would need to be able to discern the structure by listening, not by viewing or studying the written version.

Sources: David E. Aune, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 52: Revelation 1-5. (Waco, TX: Word, 1997); José Adriano Filho and Leslie Milton, The Apocalypse of John as an account of a visionary experience: notes on the book’s structure. (Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25 no 2 D 2002, 213-234); Mark Seaborn Hall, The hook interlocking structure of Revelation: the most important verses in the book and how they may unify its structure. (Novum testamentum 44 no 3 2002, 278-296); Christopher R. Smith, The Structure of the Book of Revelation in Light of Apocalyptic Literary Conventions. (Novum testamentum 36 no 4 O 1994, 373-393); Felise Tavo, The structure of the Apocalypse: re-examining a perennial problem. (Novum testamentum 47 no 1 2005, 47-68); Mark Wilson, Charts on the Book of Revelation. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007);

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