I have been writing about changing concepts of the Biblical canon, my point being that this has developed and altered substantially over time. Some core facts have been constant for a very long time, above all the church’s selection of four gospels – the four we know, and no other. Western Christians, though, might be surprised by just how flexible the canon has been in some ways, and in the New Testament as well as the Old.
Most of the debate focused on the Catholic Epistles, but Revelation was also very contentious. Today, if we talk about the Biblical Book of Revelation, we obviously mean the text credited to John. For some centuries, though, the question would have been “Which Revelation?” followed perhaps by a disapproving “Why are you reading that?”
*In the late second century, the Muratori Canon cited the Revelations of both John and Peter as approved texts, although noting that some contemporaries already wanted to purge Rev. Peter.
*In the 250s, Alexandrian Bishop Dionysius wrote a brilliant critical analysis of John’s Revelation that showed just how thoroughly many Christians of his time rejected the work: “Some before us have set aside and rejected the book altogether, criticizing it chapter by chapter, and pronouncing it without sense or argument, and maintaining that the title is fraudulent. For they say that it is not the work of John, nor is it a Revelation, because it is covered thickly and densely by a veil of obscurity.” Indeed, those critics blamed the work on the arch-heretic Cerinthus. Dionysius rejected such charges. Admitting the work’s obscurity, he was prepared to believe that it contained exalted mysteries that lay beyond his comprehension. He did however show that it certainly was not the work of the author who wrote the Gospel and Epistles attributed to John.
Even so, both texts remained in debate for centuries, especially if we look at the wider Christian world that spoke Greek and Syriac instead of Latin. If we look at canon lists over the following centuries, we find a mixed bag of opinions:
*Clement of Alexandria (c.200) certainly used Rev. Peter, and treated it as canonical. He begins a quote, “Peter, in the Apocalypse, says…”
*In the early fourth century, Eusebius listed both Revelations of John and Peter among the spurious texts, alongside the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. Confusingly though, he did add that while some rejected the Revelation of John, others included it in the approved canon. On balance he seems to think the book canonical, but he is far from certain.
*In the fourth century, Codex Claromontanus (Western) includes both Revelations of John and Peter.
*Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus (4th century), Council of Carthage (397), and the Decretum Gelasianum (Western, 6th century) – all include Rev. John, but not Rev. Peter.
By the fifth century, the church had apparently decided in favor of Rev. John but not Rev. Peter, but the story was more complex than this might suggest. Peter did not disappear totally, while John won only grudging acceptance.
Opposition to John also remained. As late as 633, the Spanish Council of Toledo remarked how many people still opposed the use of John’s Revelation, and commanded that it must be read in church liturgies, under heavy penalty.
Non-Western communities remained dubious about John. In the ninth century, the Eastern Stichometry of Nicephorus rejected both Rev. John and Rev. Peter as apocryphal, placing them alongside the Gospel of the Hebrews and the Epistle of Barnabas. Greek-speaking churches long favored a standard canonical list of “the Sixty,” namely 34 books in the Old Testament and 26 in the New, excluding both Revelations. Rev. John was eventually included, but with some reluctance. Still today, it is not read in the liturgy of the Orthodox Church.
In the Syriac world, the decisive event was the translation of the Bible into the Peshitta (simple or common version) probably in the fourth or fifth century. This chose a canon of 22 books, omitting both Revelations (as well as ii and iii John, ii Peter, and Jude). The Revelation of John was not canonical for the churches that expanded so powerfully across Asia during the Middle Ages. Modern Syriac Bibles include it, but as in the Orthodox Church, it is not approved for liturgical use.
Profoundly aware of these ancient debates, Martin Luther wanted to include Revelation in the New Testament, but segregated with the other controversial books in a “disputed” section, of antilegomena.
This story might be familiar to scholars, but I often encounter comments that suggest that the Bible has existed in exactly its present form since very early times. In other words, already in the second or third centuries, Christians knew exactly what was scripture and what could therefore be relied on as authoritative, and what was excluded. That is just not so, especially if we look at the church’s very diverse regions.
What we find in today’s Western Bibles is the result of a long process of debate and negotiation.