“Revelation” is from the Latin translation of the Greek word apocalypsis, which can designate any unveiling or revealing, fantastic or ordinary. Scholars also refer to the document as the Apocalypse of John. And that same Greek word provides the label for all sorts of ancient literature that scholars call “apocalyptic.” The biblical text purports to relate a real vision experienced by an otherwise unknown Jew named John — not the Apostle John, nor the same person as the anonymous author of what we call the Gospel of John. But we have no reason to doubt that his name was really John. It wasn’t an unusual name for a Jew.
John wrote his vision, prefaced with messages to seven churches in Asia Minor (modern western Turkey), from the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. We may imagine John as an old Jew who had lived through the Jewish war with Rome, during which Jerusalem was decimated and the Temple destroyed in the year 70. He may have seen the thousands of Jews killed and thousands of others carried to Rome as slaves. Bitter about the dominating imperial power, he may have wandered through Syria and Asia Minor, along the way meeting other followers of the crucified prophet Jesus, other “cells” of worshipers of the Jewish Messiah who was killed and mysteriously raised from the dead.
But when he gets to western Asia Minor, he comes across many gentile Christians, quite possibly in churches founded by the now dead Apostle Paul. Unlike John, they seem to be relatively well off. They usually get along fine with their non-Christian neighbors. They may be prospering from the Pax Romana, the “peace” sustained by Roman domination. They are marrying and having children, running their small businesses, ignoring the statues, temples and worship of other gods that surround them.
For John, this Christian toleration of Rome and its idols is offensive. This is not a benign governmental power. It is the Whore of Babylon, arrogantly destroying the earth. John writes (in this theory) to warn the churches, and he relates his vision to provoke alarm at the Evil Empire. That vision predicts the destruction of Rome by angelic armies, followed by the salvation of faithful disciples of the bloody, horned warrior-lamb Jesus. Those who resist will, in the end, be rewarded.
Revelation and other apocalyptic writings stoked Jewish fear and hatred of gentile ruling powers, if not so often armed revolt. Revelation was originally anti-Roman propaganda. Two centuries earlier, around 164 B.C., a Jew wrote down another series of visions in order to incite resistance against Hellenizing Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and their patron king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid empire. That book, published in the Old Testament under the pseudonym Daniel, is one of the earliest ancient apocalypses, and it influenced Jewish and Christian literature thereafter. Around A.D. 100, another Jew, not a Christian, recorded his own visions, nowadays known as 4 Ezra, also stoking the fires of anti-Roman hatred and prophesying Rome’s destruction.