Readers of the Apocalypse frequently claim that the syntax (word order) and grammar of Revelation 1:4 (among other places in the work) overtly violates standard rules of Koine Greek. Dionysius of Alexandria reportedly verbalized his criticisms of the Greek found in Revelation--his appraisal is taken from Eusebius of Caesarea's Church History (7.25.24-27):
Moreover, it can also be shown that the diction of the Gospel and Epistle differs from that of the Apocalypse. For they were written not only without error as regards the Greek language, but also with elegance in their expression, in their reasonings, and in their entire structure. They are far indeed from betraying any barbarism or solecism, or any vulgarism whatever. For the writer had, as it seems, both the requisites of discourse—that is, the gift of knowledge and the gift of expression—as the Lord had bestowed them both upon him. I do not deny that the other writer saw a revelation and received knowledge and prophecy. I perceive, however, that his dialect and language are not accurate Greek, but that he uses barbarous idioms, and, in some places, solecisms. It is unnecessary to point these out here, for I would not have any one think that I have said these things in a spirit of ridicule, for I have said what I have only with the purpose of showing clearly the difference between the writings.
One could translate Revelation 1:4: "from the one who is, the one who was, and the one who is coming." I will now examine whether the grammatical evidence indicates that this expression is an instance of nonstandard Greek forms in the Apocalypse.
Descriptivist and Prescriptivist Views of Language
Grammarians dutifully inspect extant literature, then take note of consistent patterns in order to formulate various rules regarding syntax or morphology (word formation). But it is possible to differentiate between a prescriptivist view of language and a descriptivist approach. By "prescriptivist" I am referring to a normative view of language in which grammatical rules are prescribed or outlined.
Descriptivism is the approach to language that just notes how people use abstract signifiers. With this distinction in mind, we can see how imperative it becomes to recall Ferdinand De Saussure's distinction between speech (la parole) and language (la langue). This differentiation of concepts posits a measure of disparity between the formal rules of a language and the way that people actually speak at home and work, or while shopping.
Saussure's observations indirectly shed light on the importance of Greek papyri: these documents provide evidence of how Koine Greek was used in daily ancient affairs. The papyri from Egypt were not intended to be literary or metaphysical documents per se; all such factors must be considered before we talk about anyone breaking grammatical rules. Rather than discuss grammatical rule-breaking in general, however, I will focus on Revelation 1:4.
Concerning Revelation 1:4
Daniel B. Wallace thinks that the syntax of Revelation 1:4 is intentionally violated. He argues that it's unlikely any audience would view this passage's grammar as a standard way of expressing Greek utterances. However, Richard A. Young takes a descriptivist approach to this issue. He realizes that cultures may communicate ideas in variously accepted ways:
"Charles (1920:10) calls John's use of the nominative in Revelation 1:4 a deliberate violation of the rules of grammar. Yet it can only be a violation if grammar is viewed prescriptively. With a descriptive view of grammar, it merely illustrates the range of expression that koine Greek tolerates. Thus John's use of the nominative is not a mistake in grammar" (Richard A Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek, 13).
While a number of ancient manuscripts did apparently try to correct John's grammar, scholar David Aune makes a persuasive case that Revelation 1:4 possibly regards the threefold attribution to God as "an indeclinable divine name" (Revelation 52A:24).
Aune suggests that John's usage is influenced by the Septuagint Version (LXX) of the Bible and its handling of the divine name. My conclusion: There is no need for us to believe that John's apocalyptic lingual patterns are not grammatical. David A. Black also proffers that "there is nothing wrong" with the phrase in Revelation 1:4 (Black, 13). Of course, more work needs to be done in order to develop a satisfactory account that explains the Greek of Revelation.
David Aune. Revelation: 1-5. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1997.
David Black. Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek: A Survey of Basic Concepts and Applications. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.