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In religion and theology, revelation is the revealing or disclosing, or making something obvious through active or passive communication with supernatural entities (divine, ...). It is believed that revelation can originate directly from a deity, or through an agent, such as an angel. One who has experienced such contact with or communication from the divine is often called a prophet.

Some religions have religious texts which they view as divinely or supernaturally revealed or inspired. Revelation from a supernatural source is of much lesser importance in some other religious traditions. It is not of great importance in the Asian religions of Taoism and Confucianism, but similarities have been noted between the Abrahamic view of revelation and the Buddhist principle of Enlightenment.


In earlier eras it was taken as a given by many people that God, or the gods, revealed His (or their) will to mankind in some form or another. Since the dawn of classical modern philosophy, and especially since the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this belief has become less well-accepted among a growing segment of the population.

This question is part of the subject of epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions such as: "What is knowledge?", "How is knowledge acquired?", and "How do we know what we know?" In addressing this subject the first issue to note is that the terms "knowledge" and "belief" are often used interchangeably by religious believers, but technically these are very distinct terms.

Often, statements of "belief" mean that the speaker holds a religious belief to be true, although firm proof is lacking. Examples would be the belief that God created the universe, or that God sent a message to the biblical prophet Isaiah. Some religious believers hold that they actually have proof that such beliefs are true, but these proofs are not agreed upon by people within any one religion; they are certainly not agreed upon by people outside of their religion, and they are rejected as proof by both philosophers, logicians and scientists. It is precisely the belief in things which cannot be proved that forced philosophers to ask "What is the difference between belief and knowledge?" This had led philosophers to discover that knowledge differs from belief, in that knowledge is a justified, true belief. (This is an over-simplification, see the article on epistemology and the Gettier problem.).

A fundamental difference between knowledge and religious belief is that knowledge (especially scientific knowledge) tends to converge (becomes more accurate and globally agreed upon with time) whereas religious belief diverges (schism, protestant reformation, sectarianism, heriticism ...) and tends to differ in substance with time and place. Furthermore, most modern scientists and philosophers agree upon that no sense and no mental process has been discovered and described yet as being able to interact with supernatural entities (gods, demons, ...); also the process of interaction of supernatural entities with the natural world has not been observed scientifically yet and no mechanism or theory for it can be described . There are substantial doubts that knowledge can be obtained by revelation at all.

An additional problem arises from comparing different religions: some of the revealed truths and doctrines contradict each other. Because of this, many theological philosophers think that these differing truths and doctrins can not come from genuine revelations.

Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam, take it as a matter of faith that God exists, and in some way can reveal his will to people. However, the question of epistemology still exists among members of those faiths, as members need to be able to distinguish between true prophets and false prophets. There are documents in each of these religions which offer criteria with which to distinguish true from false prophets.

In Judaism, issues of epistemology have been addressed by Jewish philosophers such as Saadiah Gaon (882–942) in his Book of Opinions and Beliefs; Maimonides (1135–1204) in his Guide for the Perplexed; Samuel Hugo Berman, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University; Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903–1993), talmudic scholar and philosopher; Neil Gillman, professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminarymarker, and Elliot N. Dorff, professor of philosophy at the American Jewish Universitymarker.

Types of revelation

Verbal revelation

Some people hold that God can communicate with man in a way that gives direct, propositional content: This is termed verbal revelation. Orthodox Judaism and traditional Christianity hold that the first five books of Moses were dictated by God in such a fashion.

Aristotelian rationalism

The neo-Aristotelian philosophers of the medieval era held that revelation was the discovery of absolute truths about God, man, and man's place in God's universe, as discovered through logical philosophical inquiry. A prophet's connection to God was held to be the only way that a person could reach such a state of pure reason.

Natural revelation

Some believe that God reveals himself through His Creation, and that at least some truths about God can be learned by studying nature, physics, cosmology, etc. Adherents of this view often dismiss the idea of divine texts or "scriptures". Others find support in Biblical verses such as "The heavens declare the glory of God" ( Psalm 19:1-4).

Non-verbal propositional revelation

One school of thought holds that revelation is non-verbal and non-literal, yet it may have propositional content. People were divinely inspired by God with a message, but not in a verbal-like fashion.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has written that "To convey what the prophets experienced, the Bible could either use terms of descriptions or terms of indication. Any description of the act of revelation in empirical categories would have produced a caricature. That is why all the Bible does is to state that revelation happened; How it happened is something they could only convey in words that are evocative and suggestive."

However it is contented that the Bible does indeed state exactly how certain prophets received revelation. Such as Isaiah, who writes that he received his message through visions, where he would see YHWH the God of Israel, speaking to angelic beings that surrounded him. Isaiah would then write down the dialogue exchanged between YHWH, and the angels. This form of revelation constitutes the bulk of the text of the Book of Isaiah. The same formula of divine revelation is used by other prophets throughout the Tanakh, such as Micaiah in 1 kings 22:19-22.

Revelation through a people's historical development of their faith

Some believe that given God's non-anthropomorphic nature, the above listed forms of revelation are, by definition, impossible. Instead, God's will is revealed through the interaction of man and God throughout history.

For instance, Rabbi Cheryl Cole proposes that by viewing how the Jewish people have understood God's will throughout history, we see how God has actually influenced the development of Jewish law; it is this process that we should recognize as revelation.


In the 20th century, religious existentialists proposed that revelation held no content in and of itself; rather, they hold that God inspired people with His presence by coming into contact with them. In this view the Bible is a human response that records how we responded to God.

One of the major trends in modern Jewish philosophy was the attempt to develop a theory of Judaism through existentialism. One of the primary players in this field was Franz Rosenzweig. His major work, Star of Redemption, gives a philosophy in which he portrays the relationships between God, humanity and world as they are connected by creation, revelation and redemption.

Conservative Jewish philosophers Elliot N. Dorff and Neil Gillman take the existentialist philosophy as Rosensweig as one of their starting points for understanding Jewish philosophy. (They come to distinct conclusions, however.)

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886–1965) was a theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher. Tillich was, along with contemporary Karl Barth, one of the more influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century. Tillich's approach to Protestant theology was highly systematic. He sought to correlate culture and faith such that "faith need not be unacceptable to contemporary culture and contemporary culture need not be unacceptable to faith". Consequently, Tillich's orientation is apologetic, seeking to make concrete theological answers that are applicable to ordinary daily life. Tillich sought to reconcile revelation and reason by arguing that revelation never runs counter to reason (affirming Thomas Aquinas who said that faith is eminently rational), but both poles of the subjective human experience are complementary.

Tillich's radical departure from traditional Christian theology is his view of Christ. According to Tillich, Christ is the "New Being", who rectifies in himself the alienation between essence and existence. Essence fully shows itself within Christ, but Christ is also a finite man. This indicates, for Tillich, a revolution in the very nature of being. The gap is healed and essence can now be found within existence. Thus for Tillich, Christ is not God per se in himself, but Christ is the revelation of God. Whereas traditional Christianity regards Christ as wholly man and wholly God, Tillich believed that Christ was the emblem of the highest goal of man, what God wants men to become. Thus to be a Christian is to make oneself progressively "Christ-like", a very possible goal in Tillich's eyes.

According to Tillich, Christ is not God in the traditional sense, but reveals the essence inherent in all existence. Thus Christ is not different from mankind except insofar as he fully reveals God within his own finitude, something that can be done by anyone, in principle. In Tillich's book Systematic Theology I, he argued that: "God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him."

Systematic theology

Systematic theology is the attempt to formulate a coherent philosophy which is applicable to the component parts of a given faith's system of belief. While a systematic theology must take into account the sacred texts of its faith, it also looks to history, philosophy, science, and ethics to produce as full a view and as versatile a philosophical approach as possible.

Thomas Aquinas believed in two types of revelation from God, general revelation and special revelation. General revelation occurs through observation of the created order. Such observations can logically lead to important conclusions, such as the existence of God.

Though one may deduce the existence of God and some of God's attributes through general revelation, certain specifics may be known only through special revelation. In Aquinas's view, special revelation is equivalent to the revelation of God in Jesus. The major theological components of Christianity, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, are revealed in the teachings of the Church and the Scriptures and may not otherwise be deduced. Special revelation and natural revelation are complementary rather than contradictory in nature.

Karl Barth tries to recover the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in theology from its putative loss in liberalism. His argument follows from the idea that God is the object of God’s own self-knowledge, and revelation in the Bible means the self-unveiling to humanity of the God who cannot be discovered by humanity simply through its own efforts. Note here that the Bible is not The Revelation, rather, it points to revelation. Barth emphasizes again and again that human concepts can never be considered as identical to God's revelation. In this aspect, scripture is also written human language, expressing human concepts. It cannot be considered as identical to God's revelation. However, God truly reveals Himself through human language and concepts. Thus he claims that Christ is truly presented in Scripture and the preaching of the church.

Religious views of revelation

In Judaism

Rabbinic Judaism, and contemporary Orthodox Judaism, hold that the Torah (Pentateuch) extant today is essentially the same one that the whole of the Jewish people received on Mount Sinaimarker, from God, upon their Exodus from Egypt. Beliefs that God gave a "Torah of truth" to Moses (and the rest of the people), that Moses was the greatest of the prophets, and that the Law given to Moses will never be changed, are three of the Thirteen Principles of Faith of Orthodox Judaism according to Maimonides. Maimonides explains: "We do not know exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses. But when it was transmitted, Moses merely wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation....(Thus) every verse in the Torah is equally holy, as they all originate from God, and are all part of God's Torah, which is perfect, holy and true."

Orthodox Judaism believes that in addition to the written Torah, God also revealed to Moses a set of oral teachings, called the Oral Torah. In addition to this revealed law, Jewish law contains decrees and enactments made by prophets, rabbis, and sages over the course of Jewish history. Haredi Judaism tends to regard even rabbinic decrees as being of divine origin or divinely inspired, while Modern Orthodox Judaism tends to regard them as being more potentially subject to human error, although due to the Biblical verse "Do not stray from their words" ("Deuteronomy 17:11) it is still accepted as binding law.

Conservative Judaism tends to regard both the Torah and the Oral law as not verbally revealed. The Conservative approach tends to regard the Torah as compiled by redactors in a manner similar to the Documentary Hypothesis. However, Conservative Jews also regard the authors of the Torah as divinely inspired, and many regard at least portions of it as originating with Moses. Positions can vary from the position of Joel Roth, following David Weiss HaLivni, that while the Torah originally given to Moses on Mount Sinai became corrupted or lost and had to be recompiled later by redactors, the recompiled Torah is nonetheless regarded as fully Divine and legally authoritative, to the position of Gordon Tucker that the Torah, while Divinely inspired, is a largely human document containing significant elements of human error, and should be regarded as the beginning of an ongoing process which is continuing today. Conservative Judaism regards the Oral Law as divinely inspired, but nonetheless subject to human error.

Reform and Reconstructionist Jews also accept the Documentary Hypothesis for the origin of the Torah, and tend to view all of the Oral law as an entirely human creation. Accordingly, Progressive Judaism, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, believe that the Torah is not entirely a direct revelation from God, but is a document written by human ancestors, carrying human understanding and experience, and seeking to answer the question: 'What does God require of us?'. They believe that, though it contains many 'core-truths' about God and humanity, it is also time bound, sexist, primitive, and, sometimes, simply wrong. They believe that God's will is revealed through the interaction of humanity and God throughout history, and so, in that sense, Torah is an important part, but only a part, of an ongoing revelation.

The Prophets

The Nevi'im, the books of the Prophets, are considered divine and true. This does not imply that the books of the prophets are always read literally. Jewish tradition has always held that prophets used metaphors and analogies. There exists a wide range of commentaries explaining and elucidating those verses consisting of metaphor. Rabbinic Judaism regards Moses as the greatest of the prophets, and this view is one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith of traditional Judaism. Consistent with the view that revelation to Moses was generally clearer than revelation to other prophets, Orthodox views of revelation to prophets other than Moses have included a range of perspectives as to directness. For example, Maimonides in The Guide for the Perplexed said that accounts of revelation in the Nevi'im were not always as literal as in the Torah and that some prophetic accounts reflect allegories rather than literal commands or predictions.

Conservative Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), author of a number of works on prophecy, said that, "Prophetic inspiration must be understood as an event, not as a process." In his work God in Search of Man, he discussed the experience of being a prophet. In his book Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets: Maimonides and Others, Heschel references to continued prophetic inspiration in Jewish Rabbinic Literature following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalemmarker and into medieval and even Modern times. He wrote that

"To convey what the prophets experienced, the Bible could either use terms of descriptions or terms of indication. Any description of the act of revelation in empirical categories would have produced a caricature. That is why all the Bible does is to state that revelation happened. How it happened is something they could only convey in words that are evocative and suggestive."

In Christianity

Christianity regards varied collections of books known as the Bible as authoritative and written by human authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Some Christians believe that the Bible is inerrant (in its original form, totally without error, and free from all contradiction, including the historical and scientific parts) or infallible (inerrant on issues of faith and practice but not history or science).

In a number of passages the Bible claims divine inspiration for itself. Besides the direct accounts of written revelation, such as Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, the Prophets of the Old Testament frequently claimed that their message was divine by the formula "the word of YHWH came to me...". In the New Testament, Jesus treats the Old Testament as authoritative and says it "cannot be broken" (John 10:34–36). 2 Timothy 3:16 says: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness", and the Second Epistle of Peter claims that "no prophecy of Scripture ... was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet 1:20–21). That epistle also claims divine authority for the Apostles (3:2) and includes Paul's letters as being counted with the Scriptures (3:16).

Historians note that the doctrine of the Bible's infallibility was actually adopted hundreds of years after those books were written; this view was not formally adopted until the council of Nicaea in 325. These books were not compiled into one work until the council of Nicaea did so with the reason being to identify authoritative works from non-authoritative challenges to the Christian faith. Accordingly, none of those works ever claimed that the "Bible" a non-existent work at the time was the complete or infallible word of God.

The most common versions of the Bible that Protestant Christians have today consist of 66 books determined mainly by the council of Nicaea to be those "authoritative works". This "package" consisting of the entirety of the 66 books is what most Protestant Christians today consider to be "the Bible". Roman Catholic Christians, however, recognize 73 books as canonical (46 books of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and 27 books of the New Testament). While none of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible refer specifically to the set of exactly 66 books as a whole, they do make references such as the term "all scripture" as used in 2 Timothy 3:16 "All scripture is given by inspiration of God". In this case, the term "all scripture" is used to mean all "authoritative works" of the Bible. At the time 2 Timothy was written, there were more "authoritative works" to come, such as the book of Revelation and the epistles of John. However, the term "all scripture" was used in 2 Timothy in a general way implying "all divinely given, authoritative works of scripture". The term does not preclude books written subsequent to 2 Timothy from being included in the definition. Hence, it can be said that the Bible does refer to itself as a whole in references such as in 2 Timothy. In addition, since this reference in 2 Timothy refers to "all scripture" as being "given by inspiration of God", it carries the implication of the whole set of "authoritative works" as being given by inspiration of God, even though the identification of exactly what those "authoritative works" were would be a source of future controversy in the minds of men. Therefore it can be said that in this sense the Bible does refer to itself as a whole, and it moreover declares itself to be both authoritative and divinely inspired.

In addition, for the Protestant Christian it may be inferred that the Bible cannot both refer to itself as being divinely inspired and also be errant or fallible. For if the Bible were divinely inspired, then the source of inspiration being divine, would not be subject to fallibility or error in that which is produced. If the Bible is errant or fallible, it cannot be inspired for the God who is presented in it being infallible and inerrant cannot produce that which is faulty or in error. To do so would require him to change the essential nature that inspired Bible attributes to him. Therefore the doctrines of the infallibility, the inerrancy, and the divine inspiration of the Bible, although having their particular individual meanings, are inseparably tied together for the Christian who accepts the inspiration of the Bible. Christians hold that as God possesses all three of these attributes, the inspired Bible possesses them also.

Therefore, although these doctrines may not have yet been formally stated in the councils and creeds of the church fathers prior to the council of Nicaea in 325, they were from the beginning present in the scriptures of the church that formed the basis of those ecclesial councils and creeds. Hence the revelation of God to man, as held by Christians to be given in the Bible, is acknowledged to be inspired, inerrant, and infallible.

In the Latter Day Saint Movement

This denomination claims that the president of the church receives revelation directly from God for the direction of the Church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some other Latter Day Saint denominations claim to be led by revelation from God to a living prophet, who receives God’s word, just as Abraham, Moses, other ancient prophets and apostles did.

Latter-day Saints believe in an open scriptural canon, and in addition to the Bible and the Book of Mormon, have books of scripture containing the revelations of modern-day prophets such as the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. LDS Church leaders (from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) have taught during the Church's General Conference that conference talks which are "...[spoken as] moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture...". In addition, many Mormons believe that ancient prophets in other regions of the world received revelations that resulted in additional scriptures that have been lost and may, one day, be forthcoming. Hence, the belief in continuing revelation.

Each member of the Latter-day Saints is also confirmed a member of the church following baptism and given the "gift of the Holy Ghost" by which each member is encouraged to develop a personal relationship with that divine being and receive personal revelation for their own direction and that of their family. The Latter Day Saint concept of revelation includes the belief that revelation from God is available to all those who earnestly seek it with the intent of doing good. It also teaches that everyone is entitled to personal revelation with respect to his or her stewardship (leadership responsibility). Thus, parents may receive inspiration from God in raising their families, individuals can receive divine inspiration to help them meet personal challenges, church officers may receive revelation for those whom they serve, and so forth.

The important consequence of this is that each person may receive confirmation that particular doctrines taught by a prophet are true, as well as gain divine insight in using those truths for their own benefit and eternal progress. In the church, personal revelation is expected and encouraged, and many converts believe that personal revelation from God was instrumental in their conversion. Joseph F. Smith, the sixth president of the LDS Church, summarized this church's belief concerning revelation by saying, "We believe... in the principle of direct revelation from God to man." (Smith, 362)

In Islam

Divine revelation plays a very important role in the Islamic faith. While religious books of most faiths acknowledge their human author's contribution to the divine text, the Qur'an claims to have been revealed word by word and letter by letter. Muslims believe that God revealed his final message to humanity through Muhammad ibn Abdullah (c. 570 - July 6, 632) via the angel Gabriel. Muhammad is considered to have been God's final prophet. Muhammad's revelations form the holy book of Islam, the Qur'an. The Qur'an is believed by Muslims to be the flawless final revelation of God to humanity, valid until the day of the Resurrection (Qiyamah).

Muslims hold that the message of Islam is the same as the message preached by all the messengers sent by God to humanity since Adam. From an Islamic point of view, Islam is the oldest of the monotheistic religions because it represents both the original and the final revelation of God to Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad. Members of all sects of Islam believe that the Qur'an codifies the direct words of God.

According to Islamic traditions, Muhammad began receiving revelations from God (Arabic: ألله Allah) from the age of 40, delivered through the angel Gabriel over the last 23 years of his life. The content of these revelations, known as the Qur'an, was memorized and recorded by his followers and compiled from dozens of hafiz as well as other various parchments or hides into a single volume shortly after his death. The Qur'an, along with the details of Muhammad’s life as recounted by his biographers and his contemporaries, forms the basis of Islamic theology. Within Islam, he is considered the last and most important prophet of God.

Muslims do not regard him as the founder of a new religion but as the restorer of the original monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham and other prophets whose messages had become misinterpreted or corrupted over time (only misinterpreted according to some). Islam knows different forms and degrees of divine revelation. See for example.

In the Bahá'í faith

'Revelation writing': The first draft of a tablet of Baha'u'llah
The Báb, Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá received thousands of written enquiries, and wrote thousands of responses, hundreds of which amount to whole and proper books, while many are the shorter texts, as letters. In addition, the Bahá'í faith has large works which were divinely revealed in a very short time, as in a night, or a few days. Additionally, because many of the works were first recorded by an amanuensis, most were submitted for approval and correction and the final text was personally approved by the revelator.

Bahá'u'lláh would occasionally write the words of revelation down himself, but normally the revelation was dictated to his amanuensis, who sometimes recorded it in what has been called revelation writing, a shorthand script written with extreme speed owing to the rapidity of the utterance of the words. Afterwards, Bahá'u'lláh revised and approved these drafts. These revelation drafts and many other transcriptions of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh's, circa 17,000 items, some of which are in his own handwriting, are kept in the International Bahá'í Archives in Haifamarker, Israelmarker.

In Hinduism


The concept of supernatural revelation has been criticized by atheists, agnostics and deists. In his 18th-centurybook The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine summarized these criticisms and advocated reason in the place of revelation, leading him to reject miracles. Paine wrote that a revelation can only be considered valid for the original recipient. When it is then communicated by the recipient to a second person, it becomes hearsay, a secondhand accounting, and consequently the second person is not obliged to believe it:

"[. . .] it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief on such evidence."

See also


  1. God in Search of Man
  3. Systematic Theology I, by Paul Tillich, University of Chicago Press, 205. 0-226803-37-6.
  4. Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith and Rabbi Moshe Zeldman: "Did God Speak at Sinai", Aish HaTorah
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture (§105-108); Second Helvetic Confession, Of the Holy Scripture Being the True Word of God; Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Online text
  6. Doctrine and Covenants 68:4
  7. Watton (1993), "Introduction"
  8. Esposito (2002b), pp.4-5
  9. The term Qur'an was first used in the Qur'an itself. There are two different theories about this term and its formation that are discussed in Quran#Etymology
  10. "If...they [Christians] mean that the Qur’an confirms the textual veracity of the scriptural books which they now possess—that is, the Torah and the Gospels—this is something which some Muslims will grant them and which many Muslims will dispute. However, most Muslims will grant them most of that." (quote from Ibn Taymiyya), see Accad (2003)
  11. Accad (2003)
  12. Esposito (1998), p.12; (1999) p.25; (2002) pp.4-5
  13. "Muhammad", Encyclopedia of Islam Online
  14. Peters (2003), p.9
  15. "Qur'an and Polemics", Encyclopedia of the Qur'an (2005)
  16. For extended comments on the divine revelation of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, and `Abdu'l-Bahá see Number of tablets revealed by Bahá'u'lláh by Robert Stockman and Juan Cole, Numbers and Classifications of Sacred Writings texts by the Universal House of Justice, and Horace Holley's preface of The Bahá'í Revelation, including Selections from the Bahá'í Holy Writings and Talks by `Abdu'l-Bahá.

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