The Literary Structure of the Apocalypse

Several biblical scholars have emphasized the need to confront the problem of the literary structure of the Apocalypse in order to be able to reach a sound understanding of the book as a whole. One of these scholars writes: "When this is undervalued or ignored, one inevitably remains on the surface and, in spite of many acute observations, one's view of the whole quickly vanishes" (Rev. Prof. Ugo Vanni, S.J.). We approach the problem of the literary structure of the Apocalypse by dividing the book in the following way:

1,1-8 Prologue:
the introduction to the book - the title, the type of book, its origin, purpose, and mode of transmission, the author (1,1-2); its beneficial effect (1,3); the greeting (l,4-5a); the 'now' (l,5b-6) and the 'not yet' (1,7) of Christian life; the divine approval (1,8).

1,9 - 22,5 The main body of the book:
this can be divided into three parts, according to the Lord's instruction to St. John in Rev 1,19:

1,9-20 "So write what you saw...":
the introductory vision of the Presence of the Lord amongst the local churches.

2,1 - 3,22 "what is now...":
the letters to the seven churches - spiritual direction from the Lord to the seven local churches which represent the whole Church.

4,1 - 22,5 "and what must take place after these things":
prophetic visions from the Ascension of Christ up until the fulfilment of the Mystery of God at the end of time, analysed in three subdivisions:
(i) the 'baseline prophetic narrative'
(ii) the fulfilment of the Mystery of God
(iii) the interruptions in the 'baseline prophetic narrative'.
22,6-21 Epilogue:
echoes many statements from the prologue (1,1-8) and contains the last warnings, blessings and promises.

(i) The 'baseline prophetic narrative'

For the following reasons the account of the visions in this part of the text (4,1 - 22,5) should be understood as a narrative of events which follow one another:
a) the visions are structured in consecutive series; the breaking of the 7 Seals leads to the blowing of the 7 Trumpets which ends in the outpouring of the 7 Bowls of libation;

b) the text is written in a style which reflects the narrative style of the ancient hebrew language and is characterized by the continuous repetition of the conjunction 'and';

c) the expression 'after these things' is frequently used to link larger sections of text (7,1.9; 15,5; 18,1; 19,1).
By the use of other expressions of time - "what must take place soon" (1,1; 22,6); "what must take place after these things" (1,19; 4,1); "the time is near" (1,3; 22,10); "I am coming soon" (22,7.12.20; cf. 1,7; 16,15) - the narrative is aimed directly towards a conclusion in the future, at the end of time. In the third part of the text, therefore, it is possible to define a 'baseline prophetic narrative' which describes, with increasing detail, the events which lead to the fulfilment of the Mystery of God at the end of time:

4,1-11Initial vision of the Throne of God in heaven
5,1-14Preparations for the breaking of the 7 Seals of the scroll
6,1-2Breaking of the 1st Seal
6,3-4Breaking of the 2nd Seal
6,5-6Breaking of the 3rd Seal
6,7-8Breaking of the 4th Seal
6,9-11Breaking of the 5th Seal
6,12 - 7,1Breaking of the 6th Seal
8,1 Breaking of the 7th Seal
8,2-6 Preparations for the Blowing of the 7 Trumpets
8,7 Blowing of the 1st Trumpet
8,8-9Blowing of the 2nd Trumpet
8,10-11Blowing of the 3rd Trumpet
8,12-13Blowing of the 4th Trumpet
9,1-12Blowing of the 5th Trumpet
9,13-21Blowing of the 6th Trumpet
10,1 - 11,14 INTERRUPTION
11,15-19Blowing of the 7th Trumpet
12,1 - 15,5 INTERRUPTION
15,6-8Preparations for the Outpouring of the 7th Bowl
16,1-2Outpouring of the 1st Bowl
16,3Outpouring of the 2nd Bowl
16,4-7Outpouring of the 3rd Bowl
16,8-9Outpouring of the 4th Bowl
16,10-11Outpouring of the 5th Bowl
16,12-16Outpouring of the 6th Bowl
16,17-21Outpouring of the 7th Bowl
19,6 - 22,5The fulfilment of the Mystery of God (see below for details).

(ii) The fulfilment of the Mystery of God (19,6 - 22,5)

- the conclusion of the 'baseline prophetic narrative' as defined above.

19,6-10The announcement of the wedding of the Lamb
19,11-16The manifestation of the 'Lord of lords and King of kings'
19,17-21The Battle of the Great Day (at Harmagedon, cf. 16,16)
20,1-10The story* and condemnation of Satan
20,11-15The final Judgement
21,1-8The new Creation
21,9-22,5The new Jerusalem - the Wife of the Lamb.

* Here is described the reign of Christ with his saints, which lasts a thousand years and is called the 'first resurrection' (20,4-6) or 'Millennium'. For the following reasons, however, we should not expect an interval of a thousand years between the Battle of the Great Day at the second coming of Christ (19,17-21) and the final Judgement (20,11-15):

a) according to the sense of 11,15-19, there is no interval of this length between the announcement of the completion of the Kingdom of God at the second coming (11,15) and the time to judge the dead at the final Judgement (11,18);

b) such an interval has never been proposed by the Christian tradition; in the 'Creed' we say: "and he (Christ) will come again in Glory to judge the living and the dead". According to this tradition, Christ reigns now with his saints in the Church (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 664-682);

c) in the light of the fourth Gospel, St. Augustine confirms that the 'first resurrection' takes place between the Resurrection of Christ and his second coming (City of God, XX chs. 6-9);

d) according to Psalm 90,4: "In your sight (Lord), a thousand years are like a day that has just passed". Therefore, the thousand-year reign of Christ, or 'Millennium', will not be established after the second coming, but will be revealed then 'as a day that has just passed' to those who have not already accepted it (eg: the millenarians).

(iii) The interruptions in the 'baseline prophetic narrative'

The largest of these interruptions (Rev 12,1 - 15,4) breaks the continuity of the 'baseline prophetic narrative' at the mid-point of the text of the Apocalypse, and divides it into two more-or-less equal parts:

1,1Part I1,19

 12,1Part II22,1

By means of verbal-thematic links between the two parts, we discover that the end of Part I overlaps the beginning of Part II, creating in this way what we call 'the overlapping section':

1,1Part I11,1 11,19

  12,1 15,5Part II22,1
1,260 Days
42 months
  "And the Sanctuary in
heaven was opened..."

The overlapping section (11,1 - 15,5) is joined to the 'baseline prophetic narrative' in 11,15-19, and includes those passages which interrupt it at 11,1-14 and at 12,1 - 15,5. By means of other verbal-thematic links, we can confirm that all the other interruptions in the 'baseline prophetic narrative' are related to the overlapping section:
a) 7,2-17 the numbered group of 144,000 men (7,2-8) is identical to the assembly of 144,000 men seen on Mt. Zion (14,1-5) and the innumerable crowd of martyrs who pass through the great tribulation (7,9-17) can be identified with the conquerors of the beast (14,2-3; 15,2-4).

b) 10,1-11 the encounter between St. John and the mighty angel forms the background and introduction for the overlapping section (11,1 - 15,5).

c) 17,1 - 19,5 the detailed description of the condemnation and destruction of Babylon refers to the event announced beforehand in the overlapping section (14,8; cf.18,2).
All these interruptions are related to the overlapping section, and together they form a prophecy which stands on its own, within the 'baseline prophetic narrative' of the Apocalypse.

The prophecy of the overlapping section (11,1 - 15,5)

a) The overlapping section refers to events which immediately precede the sound of the 7th trumpet (the last) at the end of time.

b) It occupies the central part of the text (11,1 - 15,5); in ancient documents this part was reserved for the most important information (eg: in the central part of the Pentateuch, Lev ch.16, the most significant event in the ancient hebrew calendar is described - the Day of Atonement).

c) The overlapping of the two parts of this section allow the transmission of a greater amount of information than in one part only, even though in a less obvious way.
In summary, the overlapping section contains an eschatological prophecy which is presented as the central message of the Apocalypse.


1. Immediately after St. John was told to "prophesy again" (Rev 10,11), he was given a measuring rod and was told to measure "the Sanctuary of God, the altar and those who are worshipping there" (11,1-2). To "prophesy again" therefore implies the doing of the measuring in the construction of the new Temple of God, and the prophecy which follows in the overlapping section represents the measure, or rule, given to St. John to do this. The part of the prophecy with this function terminates with the completion of the new Temple, indicated in the text, as in the Old Testament (Exod 40,34-35; 1 Kgs 8,10-13), by the filling of the Sanctuary with the smoke of the Power and Glory of God (Rev 15,8). This event coincides with the opening of the heavenly Sanctuary described at the conclusion of the overlapping section.

Since, in the New Testament, the new Temple is identified with the Church (cf. Eph 2,19-22; 1Pet 2,4-10; Heb 12,22-24; Rev 3,12), we note that the prophecy of the overlapping section (11,1 - 15,5) proposes itself in a unique way as a measure, or 'rule of faith', for the edification and perfectioning of the Church.

2. The first activity mentioned in the prophecy of the overlapping section concerns the prophetic ministery of the two witnesses or prophets. The start of this ministry 'actualizes' the prophecy and implies that the two witnesses are its authentic interpreters and announcers.

3. The beast comes up out of the abyss at the end of the period of 1,260 days in which the two witnesses prophesy (11,7), in order to begin its reign of 42 months (13,5). The two periods of time are therefore consecutive (first the period of 1,260 days followed by that of 42 months) and represent a total interval of 7 years (1,260 days plus 42 months). The last half of this interval of 7 years terminates with the completion of the Kingdom of God at the sound of the 7th trumpet (11,15-19). It follows that the two periods of time which structure the information in the overlapping section (the 1,260 days and the 42 months) refer to the last 7 years of history - a final 'week of years' (cf. Dan 9,24-27).


The overlapping section (11,1 - 15,5) contains a prophecy for the perfectioning of the Church (1), which will be fulfilled in the last 7 years of history (3) and will be prophesied in the first half of this interval by the two witnesses of the Lord (2).