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The Language of the Apocalypse

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Tyndale Bulletin 16 (1965) 3-9.

The Language of the Apocalypse*


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 baq '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 šeִhanî, `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 (lemaִhlet) 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 (lešērēb) . . .' 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 'aִha 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.).


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