|Tyndale Bulletin 16 (1965) 3-9.
The Language of the Apocalypse*
By C. G. OZANNE
IT IS A well-known fact that the language of the Apocalypse is full
of ungrammatical and unlexical usages. These range from the misuse
of certain words to a variety of peculiarities respecting case, gender,
number and tense. Altogether nearly a hundred different kinds have
been detected, and each new edition of the Greek Testament restores
a few more to the printed text.
It was thought by some of the Church Fathers, Dionysius of
Alexandria being one,1 that the Apocalypse was linguistically bar-
baric and consequently unworthy of apostolic authorship. Unfortun-
ately some moderns have vented the same opinion. One critic, for
example, speaks of 'blunders, which are such that they would dis-
grace the exercise of an English fifth-form schoolboy'.2 However, it
is now generally admitted that the abnormalities of grammar and
vocabulary cannot be attributed to ignorance of Greek.3 But to what
cause they should be attributed is still a question which divides
students of the Apocalypse.
C. C. Torrey, in a small book published posthumously, argues at
length that the Apocalypse has been translated from Aramaic.4 Of
this theory G. R. Driver writes, 'The boldness with which the
Aramaic origin of the Apocalypse is proclaimed, indeed, is only
rivalled by the weakness of the arguments used to support it.'5
Driver has shown that nearly all Torrey's supposed Aramaisms can
be explained equally well, and sometimes better, as Hebraisms.
Akin to Torrey's theory is that of R. B. Y. Scott that the Apocalypse
has been translated from Hebrew.6 This idea has more to commend
* Biblical quotations if not otherwise marked are taken from the AV, except in
the case of the Apocalypse where they are rendered directly from the Greek.
1 See Apud Eus. H. E., vii, xxv.
2 E. C. Selwyn, The Christian Prophets and the Prophetic Apocalypse (Macmillan,
2900), p. 258.
3 Cf., e.g., I. T. Beckwith; 'The departures from correct grammatical usage are
not due to ignorance; the writer shows a knowledge and command of Greek too
accurate to make such a supposition tenable' (The Apocalypse of John (The Mac-
millan Co., 1922), p. 355).
4 The Apocalypse of John (Yale U.P., 1958).
5 In his review of Torrey's book, JTS, XI, 1960, p. 384.
6 The Original Language of the Apocalypse (Toronto U.P., 1928).
Tyndale Bulletin 16 (1965)
it than the last, but several considerations argue decisively against it.
Not only does it fail to account for the deliberate character of so
many of the peculiarities, but it does not explain why most of the
grammatical rules violated are faithfully observed elsewhere in the
book, and thus shown to be perfectly familiar to the author.
The most widespread explanation is that popularized by R. H.
Charles in the International Critical Commentary. He states his oft-
quoted opinion that 'while he (the author) writes in Greek, he
thinks in Hebrew, and the thought has naturally affected the
vehicle of expression. . . . But this is not all. He never mastered Greek
idiomatically—even the Greek of his own period.'7 No doubt many
of the linguistic peculiarities of the Apocalypse, taken in isolation,
could be explained on the theory that the author was thinking in
Hebrew and writing in Greek, but the cumulative evidence is
decidedly opposed to this explanation. It breaks down in fact on
the same points as that of translation from Hebrew. It does not
account for the deliberate character of so many of the aberrations
nor for the fact that the author was evidently familiar with the rules
which he violated.
The explanation which the present writer believes to be correct
is that the author deliberately modelled his grammar on the pattern
of the classical Hebrew of the Old Testament. This solution was
advanced many years ago by C. F. Burney who attributed the
Hebraisms of the Apocalypse to 'first-hand imitation of Biblical
Hebrew style'.8 Similarly F. J. A. Hort remarks on the 'fitness' of
this style of writing, which 'helps us to understand that we are
listening to the last of the Hebrew prophets'.9 The author, it seems,
wished to identify himself with the writers of the Old Testament
Scriptures, and to impress on his readers the character of his vision
as the last of the prophetic books.
In order fully to substantiate this theory it would be necessary to
examine the totality of Hebraisms in the Apocalypse, and to show
how all of them can be explained from the classical Hebrew of the
Old Testament. This in fact I have done, but in the present survey it
will be only possible to consider a representative number.
An interesting example of a Greek word used with extended
7 A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John (T. & T. Clark,
1920), I, p. cxliii f.
8 The Aramaic Origin of the Fourth Gospel (Clarendon Press, 1922), p. 15f.
9 The Apocalypse of St. John I-III (Macmillan, 1908), p. xxxviii. Cf. also A. M.
Farrer: 'It is certainly not the dialect of the Asian ghetto, but an elaborate
archaism. The suggestion that St. John wrote like this because he knew no better
may be dismissed out of hand. He was writing a Christian Ezekiel or Zechariah
in the phrase of the old' (A Rebirth of Images (Glasgow U.P., 1949), p. 24).
Ozanne: The Language of the Apocalypse
meaning occurs in Revelation 10:1 where, in course of describing
‘another mighty angel’, it says: 'his legs (οἱ πόδες) were like pillars
of fire.' The normal sense of πούς is `foot', but this meaning is not
appropriate in a text where of οἱ πόδες are compared to pillars.
Evidently our author had in mind the Hebrew word regel, which
in addition to the sense of ‘foot’ had acquired the meaning of ‘leg’. A
clear example is provided by 1 Samuel 17:6: 'And he had greaves
of brass upon his legs (‘al raglāw).'
Another instance of the same principle occurs in Revelation 2:27:
‘And He will shepherd (ποιμανεῖ) them with an iron staff, as when
earthen pots are broken in pieces' (cf. 12:5; 19:15). The proper
meaning of ποιμαίνω is 'tend, pasture, guide', but clearly this sense
is inappropriate in the context of the Apocalypse. The explanation
is that ποιμαίνω here corresponds to the Hebrew verb rā’â. This verb
denotes not only the pastoral activity of the shepherd ( = ποιμαίνω),
but also his destructive activity towards wild beasts and robbers. A
good example of this is Micah 5:5(4)f: ‘then shall we raise against
him (i.e. the Assyrian) seven shepherds . . . And they shall waste (lit.
‘shepherd’, werā'û) the land of Assyria with the sword.’ The rulers
of Israel are figuratively called shepherds, and accordingly their
activity towards the invading Assyrian is one of shepherding, though
in a destructive sense. In Psalm 2:9, whence Revelation 2:27 is
drawn, the Masoretic pointing has terō‘ēm ‘thou shalt break them’,
but there is reason to believe that the Hebrew consonantal text
should be pointed tir‘ēm 'thou shalt shepherd them'. Not only is this
how the Septuagint and Peshitta have taken it, but the ‘rod’ (šēbeִt)
is an obvious reference to the shepherd's staff.
In Revelation 6:8 four different kinds of plague are enumerated:
‘with sword and with famine and with pestilence (θανάτῳ) and by the
wild beasts of the earth’ (cf. 2:23). Θάνατος means ‘death’, but the
rendering ‘pestilence’ is validated by Ezekiel 14:21 to which our
text alludes. There the same four plagues are mentioned, the fourth
being deber ‘pestilence’ (LXX θάνατος). It is often supposed that the
author in this instance quoted from the Septuagint, but septuagintal
influence is practically nonexistent in the book of Revelation. It
is far more probable that he had in mind the Hebrew word māweִt.
This is the regular word for 'death' in the Old Testament, but three
times in Jeremiah (15:2; 18:21; 43:11) it can only mean 'pesti-
lence', as the RSV translator discerned. Three of the four types of
plague enumerated in Jeremiah 15:2 and 18:21, and two of the
three in 43:11, are the same as in Revelation 6:8.
Some of the most interesting Hebraisms in the book of Revelation
come under the heading of prepositions, and to my mind the most
Tyndale Bulletin 16 (1965)
remarkable of all occurs in Revelation 18:5. A literal translation of
the relevant clause is as follows: 'for her (Babylon's) sins have cleaved
up to (ἄχρι) heaven.' But this conveys no meaning. Either her sins
reached up to heaven, or they cleaved to heaven; it cannot mean both
at once. The explanation of this problem, as G. R. Driver has
shown,10 is that our author has transliterated the Hebrew pre-
position 'aִharê, transferring its meaning to the Greek equivalent
(ἄχρι). The Greek preposition corresponds letter for letter with the
Hebrew. The Old Testament contains two verses which exhibit the
required construction: Psalm 63:8(9) 'my soul clings to thee'
(RSV), and Jeremiah 42:16. The latter part of this verse should be
rendered, 'and the famine of which you are afraid will cleave to you
there in Egypt, and there you will die'. Only in these two passages
has 'aִharê, the weakened force of 'to' (normally it means 'after' or
‘behind’), and in both places it is combined with dābaq 'to cleave'.
Another case of influence from the same Hebrew preposition
occurs in Revelation 13:3, 'and the whole earth wondered after the
beast.' The RSV correctly explains: 'and the whole earth followed
the beast with wonder.' The construction is thoroughly hebraic. It
occurs in 1 Samuel 7:2, 'and all the house of Israel lamented after
the Lord' (i.e. 'went after him mourning'); 1 Samuel 13:7, 'and all
the people followed him (Saul) trembling (lit. 'trembled after him');
1 Kings 21:21, 'and will take away thy posterity' (lit. 'and will burn
after thee', i.e.' will pursue thee with burning').
There is no preposition which exhibits hebraic influence to a
greater extent than ἐκ. One of the most interesting cases occurs in
Revelation 15:2, where τοὺς νικῶντας, 'them that had overcome',
is anomalously followed by ἐκ, instead of the simple accusative as
elsewhere in the Apocalypse. Both Charles and Torrey suspected a
Semitism, but neither was able to suggest a convincing solution.
However, the construction can be exlained satisfactorily from Heb-
rew usage with the verb ִhāzaq, for this verb, when followed by min
(= ἐκ) sometimes means 'to prevail over', this being the precise
meaning required in the Apocalypse. The best example of this
occurs in 1 Samuel 17:50: 'So David prevailed over the Phili-
stine . . .’
The largest group of grammatical anomalies in the Apocalypse
involve the misuse of case or gender. Probably the best known
example is that of Revelation 1:4, where the preposition ἀπό,
normally followed by the genitive, is followed by three words all in
the nominative case: 'from Him who is and who was and who is to
come.' R. C. Trench significantly comments: 'Doubtless the im-
10 Art. cit., p. 386.
Ozanne: The Language of the Apocalypse
mutability of God, "the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever"
(Heb. 13 : 8), is intended to be expressed in this immutability of the
name of God, in this absolute resistance to change or even modifica-
tion which that name here presents.'11 It is instructive to notice that
in Exodus 3:14, to which our text alludes and on which it elaborates,
the Hebrew verb 'ehyeh 'I AM' is construed as an indeclinable
appellative in subject relationship to šelāִhanî, `hath sent me'. Though
not strictly a Hebraism, this scruple in the Apocalypse against
inflecting the divine name is typical of a Jewish writer, to whom the
Tetragrammaton was too sacred to be uttered, let alone inflected.
A similar misuse of case occurs in the very next verse (Rev. 1:5).
Here 'Jesus Christ' is correctly placed in the genitive after ἀπό, but
the three descriptive epithets which immediately follow, and which
by rights ought also to be in the genitive, are once again all in the
nominative. It is in fact our author's habitual practice to allow such
phrases, when they are preceded by the definite article, to remain
in the nominative in apparent disregard of the genitive, dative or
accusative with which they are in apposition. There are eight such
cases in the Apocalypse (1:5; 2:13, 20; 3:12; 8:9; 9:14; 14:12;
20:2). R. H. Charles explains : 'This peculiar idiom is derived from
the Hebrew, according to which the noun or phrase which stands
in apposition to a noun in an oblique case remains unchanged.'12
Another instance of incorrect case after a preposition occurs in the
phrase ὅμοιον υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου (Rev 1:13; 14:14), whereas elsewhere in
the Apocalypse some nineteen times ὁμοιος is correctly followed by
the dative. C. C. Torrey explains this unique example of the
accusative case as an attempt on the part of the author to represent in
Greek the Hebrew idiom known as the kap veritatis.13 The classic
example of this idiom arises in Nehemiah 7:2, where a special duty is
entrusted to Hananiah 'for he was (as) a faithful man'. The force of
the kap, which the AV has failed to translate, is given in Gesenius-
Kautzsch (§ 118 x) as 'in every respect like'. In this construction the
kap loses its prepositional force and becomes simply a particle of
emphasis. It is right therefore, if this is the construction reproduced
in the Apocalypse, that ὅμοιον should exert no influence on the case
of the following noun. It was all very well in the context of Daniel
7:13, whence the phrase is drawn, to speak of 'one like a son of man'
(RSV), but for a Christian apostle to speak so vaguely of the risen
and glorified Christ would have been intolerable. For this reason the
author reinterpreted the preposition kap in Daniel in the light of the
11 Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Macmillan, 1861), p. 4.
12 Op. cit., I, p. cxlix.
13 Op. cit., p. 96.
Tyndale Bulletin 16 (1965)
kap veritatis construction. Accordingly the phrase may be rendered
‘the very Son of Man’ or 'the Son of Man Himself'.
An example of the dative where the nominative casus pendens
would be expected occurs in Revelation 21:8: ‘But as for the
cowardly . . . (τοῖς δὲ δειλοῖς),' This construction, which is other-
wise unknown to Greek, corresponds to the Hebrew lāmed (normally
‘to’) when used to introduce a new subject. This usage occurs several
times in the books of Chronicles, an example being 1 Chronicles
26:1: 'As for the divisions (lemaִhleqôt) of the gatekeepers' (RSV).
Another characteristic use of the Hebrew lāmed is reproduced in
Revelation 8:3, 4. Literally translated these verses say: 'And another
angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there
was given to him much incense that he should offer (it) to the prayers
(ταῖς προσευχαῖς) of all the saints upon the golden altar before the
throne ; and there went up the smoke of the incense to the prayers
(ταῖς προσευχαῖς) of the saints from the hand of the angel before
God.' The translation 'to the prayers' is clearly impossible, though
according to Dean Alford this 'seems to be the only legitimate
rendering of the dative'.14 The grammarians have variously ex-
plained the problem,15 but C. C. Torrey is undoubtedly right in
identifying the dative with the lāmed of definition.16 This construc-
tion which occurs a number of times in Ezra, Nehemiah and Chron-
icles may be illustrated by Ezra 8:24: 'Then I separated twelve of
the chief of the priests, (namely) Sherebiah (lešērēbyâ) . . .' The
lāmed has not been translated in the EVV, but its meaning is 'namely,
even'. If this is the idiom intended in the Apocalypse, ταῖς προσευχαῖς
should be rendered 'namely the prayers', and this is confirmed by
Revelation 5:8, where the incense has already been identified with
the prayers of the saints.
These few examples constitute some of the more significant
Hebraisms in the book of Revelation. Many of them could equally
well be explained as Aramaisms or Septuagintisms, but at the same
time many of them could not. The only source from which every
one can be paralleled is the classical Hebrew of the Old Testament.
Also evident from the above examples is their deliberate character.
Notably the failure to inflect the divine titles in Revelation 1:4,
the kap veritatis construction in 1:13; 14:14, and the transliteration
of 'aִharê in 18:5 point irresistibly to this conclusion. This considera-
14 The Greek Testament, IV (Rivingtons, 1880), p. 633.
15 A. T. Roberston, following J. H. Moulton, explains it as an associative in-
strumental, viz. 'with (at the time of)'; but Blass-Debrunner prefers, with R. H.
Charles, the dativus commodi.
16 Op. cit., pp. 113 ff.
Ozanne: The Language of the Apocalypse
tion rules out the theory of slavish translation from a Semitic
original, as that of all-too-frequent solecisms by an author who was
writing in Greek but thinking in Hebrew. Accordingly we are
forced to the position that all the grammatical abnormalities of the
Apocalypse were deliberately devised by an author who wished to
signify the solidarity of his writings with those of the Old Testament.
Nor need there be any reluctance about this; quite the reverse, for
this position is in perfect harmony with the general character of the
In conclusion: how do these facts bear on the question of author-
ship? We are in the custom of being told that the differences in style
between the Apocalypse and John's Gospel are such as to make
identity of authorship impossible. But if the hebraic style of the
Apocalypse is a deliberate device assumed for a particular purpose,
there clearly can be no objection to the same author writing other
works in a more natural mode of expression.17 Obviously the
question of authorship cannot be decided on stylistic criteria. No one
denies of course the many differences both in spirit and subject
matter between the Apocalypse on the one hand and the Gospel
and Epistles on the other, but not always so fully appreciated are
their many similarities. These consist not only in the recurrence of
certain themes such as the Lamb, the Logos, the Shepherd, living
water, spiritual manna, life and light, but also in their sharing the
same vocabulary. The following are some of the words and phrases
which the Apocalypse has in common with the other Johannine
writings, and which are more or less restricted to this literary group:
νικᾷν, τηρεῖν τὸν λόγον, τηρεῖν τὰς ἑντολάς, ὁδηγεῖν (of spiritual
guidance), σκηνοῦν, ποιεῖν σημεῖον, μαρτυρία, ἀληθινός, Ἑβραϊστί. So
marked are these parallels that even those who deny community
of authorship have been obliged to assume some connection between
the respective writers. However, now that the stylistic problem can
be disposed of, there no longer seems to be adequate reason for
denying that the Apostle John was the sole author of Gospel,
Epistles and Apocalypse.
17 Cf. A. M. Farrer: ‘But since the style of the Apocalypse is completely artificial
and antiquarian, to refuse to allow St. John ever to write in more ordinary speech
is like refusing to recognise the authenticity of my everyday writings, because I
once composed a collect in what I supposed to be the style of Archbishop Cranmer'
(op. cit., p. 22 f.).