The Case for Revelation Being Dated in the AD 90s

 

The book of Revelation has served as a backdrop for theological, critical, and eschatological debate for centuries. The Apocalypse is often neglected because of its mysterious content which often seems too convoluted to understand. One of the critical issues debated regarding Revelation is the date it was written. Though this detail is not worth drawing lines of fellowship over, it does aid an exegete in understanding the book as a whole. The discussion over when Revelation ought to be dated has been a matter of disagreement for years. Within what can be decidedly called “conservative scholarship” there are two main schools of thought regarding the date of Revelation. The first is what is often referred to as the “early date” which contends that John wrote the Apocalypse in the AD 60s before the destruction of Jerusalem. (Most often, those who hold to the early date contend that Revelation was written during the reign of Nero.) The second option, for which this paper contends, is that Revelation ought to be dated in the AD 90s. In this hypothesis, John wrote Revelation twenty-plus years after the fall of Jerusalem and during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian.

The internal and external evidence surrounding the text should be our main basis for conclusions regarding the date of the text. Diverse conclusions regarding the date of Revelation are possible and present in Christendom. It is important to note that some false doctrines depend upon a pre-70 date for the writing of Revelation, but the same conclusion can be had without a theological bias. All in all, the discussion over the date of Revelation should be treated with humility as an interesting subject that can help us understand the text, though it is largely theologically inconsequential.

External Evidence in Support of Revelation Being Dated in the AD 90s

In regards to the external evidence for Revelation being written during the reign of Domitian, “the earliest and the weightiest external witnesses attest it” (Guthrie 956). The external evidence in support of Revelation begins most notably with the patristic witness of Irenaeus. Admittedly, not everything Irenaeus wrote was true, however, his testimony concerning the date of Revelation ought to carry weight. Firstly, Irenaeus was an acquaintance of Polycarp who was a personal acquaintance of the apostle John and a bishop of the church at Smyrna (one of the seven mentioned in Revelation). Also, Irenaeus was writing relatively close to the lifetime of John in the second century. Irenaeus’ conclusion that John wrote the apocalypse during the reign of Domitian is the “most decisive and earliest witness” regarding the date of Revelation (Beale 19). Continuing the testimony of patristic witnesses, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian (Harkrider xxxiv, xxxv) along with Origen, Hippolytus, and Hegesippus all agree that John wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (Summers 83).

So astounding is the external evidence in support of the Domitianic date that even the New Testament scholar Hort asserted that “If external evidence alone could decide, there would be a clear preponderance for Domitian” (quoted in Guthrie 956), though he personally held to the earlier date. Guthrie states that given the strong, early tradition in favor of the later date of Revelation, the Domitianic date should stand “unless internal evidence makes it impossible” (Guthrie 957). As this paper will observe, there is some evidence used to support the earlier date (mostly internal), though it is not conclusive enough to override the strong external evidence for the later date, especially when the strengths of the later date are considered.

Internal Evidence in Support of Revelation Being Dated in the AD 90s

Though internal evidence is sometimes viewed as a weak line of argument for the Domitianic date, this paper strives to show otherwise. In the first place, the state of the Asian churches as described in the early chapters of Revelation attests to a date later than the AD 60s. The spiritual state of the church in Ephesus is described negatively as they have “left [their] first love” (Rev. 2:4 NASB). The church is therefore encouraged, “remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5). Likewise, the church at Sardis is rebuked by the Lord for being dead though they have a reputation for being alive (Rev. 3:1). The Christians in Sardis are challenged to repent before Christ’s coming (Rev. 3:3). Similarly, the church at Laodicea is called “lukewarm” and worth spitting out (Rev. 3:16). They are also described as thinking they are rich though they are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

Spiritual apathy is a reality in many churches in Christendom, but if Revelation was written in the AD 60s it seems unlikely that in a relatively short time these Asian churches have digressed to a point of almost losing God’s presence in their assembly. If the Ephesian church was established in the 50s, it would be unusual for them to so suddenly leave their first love, especially since such lethargy goes unmentioned by Paul who likely wrote to the Ephesians in the early 60s (Guthrie 1006). However, if Revelation was written over thirty years after the establishment of the Ephesian church and its encouragement from Paul, their apathy is more understandable, though no less heartbreaking. Likewise, the state of the Laodicean church as described in Revelation becomes more understandable if it is given a longer interval of time between its foundation and the writing of Revelation. Additionally, the pervasive development of a Nicolaitan sect (Rev. 2:6, 15) makes much more sense if the later date of Revelation is assumed. The only inspired mention of the Nicolaitans is found in Revelation, though the heretical sect is mentioned by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, et. al. (Guthrie 955). The Nicolaitans “were a Gnostic sect well known to second century authors… thus suggesting it developed toward the end of the first century A.D.” (Fiensy 347).

Also, Jesus claims that the Laodiceans think they are rich and in need of nothing. In AD 60 a massive earthquake crumbled the city, and their internal wealth enabled them to rebuild without the aid of the Empire, however, the description of their status as rich, not needing help, and seemingly recovered better fits a post- AD 80s date (Osborne 9). Likewise, the imperative in Revelation 6:6 to “not harm the oil and wine” likely refers to Domitian’s edict in AD 92 restricting vine growing in the Asian province, and the “synagogue of Satan” mentioned in Revelation is best explained by conflicts during the reign of Domitian (Osborne 9). Further, Revelation 2:8-11 seems to describe a firmly established church community in Smyrna. However, “Polycarp (ca. 69-115 C.E.), bishop of Smyrna, reports that no church existed in Smyrna when Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians (mid- to late 50s). This would suggest that Revelation was composed later than Nero’s reign” (Holladay 541).

In addition to the state of the Asiatic churches, this paper contends that the predicaments described within the text of the Apocalypse (mainly what appears to be an imperial cult of emperor worship and the persecution that comes with the refusal to participate) make more sense if Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian. In fact, some have gone as far to say that “the persecution of the Christians which is reflected in [Revelation] fits the Domitianic period alone” (Summers 83). First, we must look at how the text of Revelation describes the imperial cult and the persecution of God’s people. There is little debate that the main thrust of Revelation is to comfort God’s people in a time of intense persecution. In the text, God’s people faced the problem of being forced to worship a false God, leading to persecution and martyrdom (Rev. 6:9-11; 7:14; 9:20-21; 13:4-8, 14-17; 14:9-11; 17:1-6; etc.).

Guthrie rightly observes that every time the beast is mentioned in Revelation attention is focused on the beast’s demand for universal worship and that all should bear his mark (948). The natural interpretation of the beast is as the Roman empire, and these references to obligatory worship “can be interpreted only by reference to the imperial cult” (Guthrie 948). While the last two points concerning the interpretation of the beast and his need for worship can scarcely be debated, there is an obvious debate over whether the presence of the imperial cult in Revelation can determine the book’s date. Certainly, aspects of emperor worship and the imperial cult can be found during the reign of Nero and others as well as Domitian, and the persecution attached to it was most likely always localized as opposed to empire-wide. However, the reign of Domitian better fits the circumstances described in Revelation than the reign of Nero or others. Domitian most notably “abused his imperial power by demanding that he be worshiped as a deity and he viciously persecuted the church” (Elwell 1198). Fiensy submits that, due to their ubiquity, the most important consideration for determining the date of Revelation is the references to emperor worship; and that though emperor worship was done as early as the reign of Julius Caesar, Domitian was the first emperor to consistently “seek to enforce his divine status” (347). Mounce suggests that “it was not until the reign of Domitian that failure to honor the emperor as a god became a political offense and punishable” (17).

Similarly, W. G. Kummel notes that it was under Domitian that Christians were persecuted by the state on religious grounds for the first time and that “the picture of the time which the Apocalypse sketches coincides with no epoch of the primitive history so well as with the period of Domitian’s persecution” (quoted in Mounce 17).  The scope of the events in Revelation 13, with the forecast of universally enforced emperor worship, were beginning to form at the end of the first century, from which John made his projection (Mounce 17). Boring observes that by the mid-second century, “worship before the image of the emperor was the litmus test of loyalty to Rome” (643). Although there was most likely no universal, empire-wide religious persecution during the time of Domitian, “[John] sees such cases as the leading edge of a general persecution shortly to come, in which all Christians would face the decision of whether to ‘worship the beast’ or persevere in their confession of Jesus as Lord” (Boring 643).

In a like manner, it seems that the text of Revelation is pointing toward a time of building tension and persecution. John is writing from exile on Patmos “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1:9), Antipas the faithful brother was put to death for his faith (2:13), the church at Smyrna was warned of impending persecution (2:10), there is an hour of trial coming (3:10), there either is or will be a multitude of martyrs (6:9), and Revelation 17 makes it clear that Rome will be drunk with the blood of martyrs (Mounce 18). Therefore, Mounce rightly suggests that the question that ought to be asked is, “which period of time during the first century supplies the most probable setting for this persecution” (Mounce 18). Admittedly, there was a severe persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero, but there is scarcely any evidence of this persecution reaching outside of the capital, and it was mostly due to the great fire of Rome instead of conflict over the imperial cult (Mounce 17).

There is some debate over how aggressive Domitian was with his persecution. However, Lea and Black point out that though “we cannot prove that [Domitian] persecuted Christians on a wide scale, his attempt to encourage emperor worship warned of persecutions to come. Revelation prepared Christians to offer resistance to this coming threat” (581). Lastly, John’s use of “Babylon” reflects a post-70 date. While those who contend that Revelation was written pre-AD 70 understand John’s use of “Babylon” as a reference to unfaithful Jerusalem, Beale contends that “John’s use of the name may be the strongest internal evidence for a post-70 date” (18). The concept that God would inspire John to label, even an apostate Jerusalem, as Babylon is foreign to the language of the Bible. Babylon clearly symbolizes a nation consistently godless and oppressive. Thus, both Jews and Christians referenced Rome as “Babylon,” but no evidence exists of literature contemporary with the Apocalypse where Jerusalem is given that title (cf. 1 Pet. 5:13). With all things considered, it seems appropriate to conclude that the state of the Asiatic churches, persecution, the imperial cult, the imminent tribulation, and the state of “Babylon” described in Revelation best coincides with the years of Domitian’s reign.

The Case (and Rebuttal to the Case) for the Earlier Date of Revelation

Admittedly, not every scholar agrees with the above observations. Aune suggests instead that “there is no reason to suggest that a particularly strong opposition to Christianity was manifested during the reign of Domitian” and that there is, therefore, no reason to insist that the Apocalypse was written during Domitian’s reign (lxx). For Aune, the weakness in the argument of the state of the seven churches, the overstated evil of Domitian, the ambiguity of the vine edict possibility in Revelation 6:6, and the fact that emperor worship was widespread before and after Domitian combine for his conclusion that there is no reason to insist upon a 90s date for Revelation. Similarly, others such as Gentry have tried to weaken the external evidence of Irenaeus by making the Greek translation of his work to be ambiguous (49-51). In addition to the perceived weakness of the AD 90s arguments above, there are several points of evidence referenced by those who hold the AD 60s date for Revelation.

First, parts of Revelation (specifically chapter 11) seem to reflect that John was writing about a pre-siege Jerusalem, thus he must have written pre-AD 70.  

This detail serves as internal evidence for many who conclude a pre-AD 70 date for Revelation. The most provocative evidence for pre-siege conditions in Jerusalem at the time of John’s writing of the Apocalypse is found in chapter 11:

1 Then there was given me a measuring rod like a staff; and someone said, “Get up and measure the temple of God and the altar, and those who worship in it. 2 “Leave out the court which is outside the temple and do not measure it, for it has been given to the nations; and they will tread under foot the holy city for forty-two months. 3 “And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth” … 19 And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm (1-4, 19).

Those who suggest a pre-70 date for Revelation necessitate that the above description of the temple would not be as it is in the text if the temple was no longer standing. Obviously, if John is writing Revelation in the 90s, it’s curious that he would refer to the Jerusalem temple as if it were still standing since it was destroyed in AD 70. However, such a view necessitates that the language in Revelation 11 should be taken literally. Apocalyptic language is by definition heavy in symbolism, and there is no need to take chapter 11 literally as a description of the Herodian temple (Guthrie 961). Given the context of apocalyptic literature in Revelation it is more fitting to interpret Revelation 11:1-2 symbolically (Osborne 8).

Further, Revelation 11 is not the first time God has used imagery of a temple to symbolically express similar themes in a context of judgment and restoration. For this point, a comparison of Ezekiel 41:1ff to Revelation 11 would be helpful:

1 In the twenty-fifth year of our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month, in the fourteenth year after the city was struck down, on that very day, the hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me to the city. 2 In visions of God he brought me to the land of Israel, and set me down on a very high mountain, on which was a structure like a city to the south. 3 When he brought me there, behold, there was a man whose appearance was like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand. And he was standing in the gateway. 4 And the man said to me, “Son of man, look with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and set your heart upon all that I shall show you, for you were brought here in order that I might show it to you. Declare all that you see to the house of Israel.”  (Ezk. 40:1-4 ESV).

Similarly, Guthrie points out that Clement of Rome used the present tense to refer to the Jerusalem temple though he clearly wrote after its fall (961). Still, those who contend for a pre-siege date might protest an AD-90s date on the grounds that Jewish literature post-AD 70 certainly would allude to the fact that the temple has been destroyed, as the apocryphal writings 1 Esdras, 1 and 2 Baruch, and Barnabas do (Guthrie 961). However, to interpret Revelation as solely Jewish literature is a grave mistake. It is, by all means, Christian literature addressed to Christians, concerning the Christian struggle, and future hope. To necessitate that Revelation must mention that the temple is destroyed if it is written after AD-70 is to lay an unnecessary burden on the text. Moreover, the rest of Johannine literature, including the Gospel account bearing his name, was more than likely written post-siege and have no mention of the temple as being destroyed present to the writing.

Second, the list of the seven kings mentioned in Revelation 17:9-14 is used to calculate that John wrote the Apocalypse most likely during the reign of Nero/Galba in the late 60s AD.

Beginning in Revelation 17:9, John records the following:

9 “Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, 10 and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while. 11 “The beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth and is one of the seven, and he goes to destruction. 12 “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they receive authority as kings with the beast for one hour. 13 “These have one purpose, and they give their power and authority to the beast. 14 “These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 7:9-14).

Those who maintain a pre-70 date often use the list of these seven kings to conclude that John wrote Revelation during the reign of Nero; the one who “is” (v. 10). The natural interpretation of the text seems to be that John is speaking of five Roman emperors who have died, the sixth who is reigning, and the seventh who is yet to come into power.

The glaring problem with this arithmetic, however, is the subjectivity of the starting point. If one starts with the first king being Julius Caesar, then Nero is the sixth king who “is” at the time of John’s writing. However, if one commences the counting with Augustus (who was first proclaimed to be emperor of Rome), Nero is the fifth Emperor, and Revelation was written after his death (Guthrie 958). The problem then arises over whether Galba or Vespasian was the emperor at the time of John writing. However, to claim either Galba or Vespasian haphazardly ignores the year of the three claimants Galba, Otho, and Vitellius (Guthrie 958). Van Kooten does well to avoid this problem by claiming that Revelation 17:10 refers to Otho’s brief, three-month rule (243). In van Kooten’s reconstruction, Revelation was “most plausibly” written in the four emperor period of AD 69 (243). This understanding of Revelation 17 better avoids the problems of maintaining that John wrote Revelation during the reign of Nero. However, the whole counting process seems far too subjective and frivolous to maintain a concrete date for the composition of the Apocalypse.

Third, the implementation of a gematria is used to conclude that the 666 (or 616) mentioned in Revelation 13:18 is representative of Nero.

In John’s concluding remarks concerning the first and second beast and their activity, he writes, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six” (Rev. 13:18). It seems John is calling on his readers to calculate what the number 666 refers to. It seemingly refers to “a man” who is the beast. This has led many to believe that this reference is some sort of gematria, “the rabbinic Hebrew term for cryptogrammic riddles in which the numerical value of letters in a proper name are added up to arrive as a numerical value for the name” (Hitchcock 342). Early-date proponents proclaim that when the Greek Νέρων Καίσαρ (Neron Caesar) is translated into Hebrew equivalent, the gematria value equals 666, signaling that John wrote Revelation in the time of Nero (Hitchcock 343). However, the problems with this method as evidence for an early date for Revelation are numerous.

Firstly, the very number of the beast is a textual variant, with some early Greek texts reading 616 instead of 666 (Guthrie 960). For which number of the beast are we to implement the gematria? Also, both an abbreviated name for Domitian and a mythic name for Vespasian can equal the sum of 666 with the gematria (Hitchcock 344). Also, it seems absurd that John’s Greek-speaking readers are burdened with the task of taking Nero’s Latin name (and civil title), translating it into Greek, and translating the Greek into Hebrew (while leaving out the yod and effectively misspelling Caesar) in order to come up with the sum 666 (Hitchcock 345). Likewise, most scholars agree that the first proposal for the name “Neron Caesar” equaling the number 666 was not mentioned until the 1830s by four German scholars (Hitchcock 352). There is some speculation that a fifth-century African document equates the 616 number of the beast with Nero (Gumerlock 350), but it begs the question of why the gematria revealing Nero is unmentioned by the earliest patristic witnesses. Further, the entire “chose a name and plug it in” theory can yield a seemingly infinite amount of results equaling 666 or 616, making it far too easy to “[adapt] the facts to fit a predetermined solution” (Hitchcock 344).

Fourth, the description of the beast and its activities in chapter 13 and beyond best describe conditions under Nero’s rule.

 The identification of the beast and second beast in Revelation 13 is one of the interpretive keys to the book as a whole. Those who believe the beasts and their activity better fit a description of Nero and his reign will date Revelation in the 60s, and those who take the description in Revelation 13 to describe Domitian and his reign will submit that Revelation was written in the 90s. We know that Nero did persecute Christians, with tradition telling us that he is responsible for the deaths of both Peter and Paul. We also know that Nero was involved in the imperial cult. So certainly, some would argue, that the references to emperor worship and Christian persecution can apply to Nero just as well as to Domitian.

Some scholars go as far as to argue that Domitian didn’t seek the worship of himself, but rather that he was a “staunch champion of orthodoxy” and instead desired the empire to worship Augustus as a god, though he was even laissez-faire about that (Merrill 1). Conversely, other scholars go so far as to proclaim that Revelation 13 is, in its entirety, “our only extant description of the inner workings of an imperial mystery cult in the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the reign of Domitian” (Scherrer 406). Then, there are scholars like Osborne who state that “while the emphasis on persecution can fit either Nero or Domitian and while there are problems with both views, the Domitianic date provides a slightly better fit for the data” (9). It is for somewhere between the second and third stance that this paper contends. Though the data for Neronian persecution can seem to fit in some aspects of Revelation, what we know about Domitian’s reign fits better. Further, “the Neronian persecution was limited to Rome as far as the data can tell us, and there is no evidence for it extending to the province at Asia at that time” (Osborne 8).

Conclusion

At the conclusion of the study, it is easy to see how the date of Revelation has divided scholars for centuries. However, there are three things this paper has discussed which must be given serious consideration: 1) the strength and earliness of the external evidence for the late date is considered, 2) the plethora of internal evidence for the later date, and 3) the glaring weaknesses in the evidence cited for the early date. Having studied and researched the three considerations above, I believe that the internal and external evidence is in favor of Revelation being composed by the apostle John during the reign of Domitian in the 90s AD.


Works Cited

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Hinds, John T. A Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Gospel Advocate Company, 1955.

Hitchcock, Mark L. A Critique of the Preterist View of Revelation 13 and Nero. Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 164, no. 655, 2007, pp. 341-56.

Holladay, Carl R. A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and   Meaning of Jesus Christ. Abingdon Press, 2005.

Kooten, Geurt Hendrik van. The Year of the Four Emperors and the Revelation of John: the ‘Pro-Neronian’ Emperors Otho and Vitellius, and the Images and Colossus of Nero in Rome. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007, pp. 205-248.

Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament Its Background and Message. Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.

Merrill, Elmer Truesdell. The Alleged Persecution of Christians by Domitian. Anglican Theological Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 1919, pp. 1-26.

Mounce, Robert H. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of  Revelation. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

Osborne, Grant R. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Revelation. Baker  Academic, 2002.

Roper, David L. Truth for Today Commentary Revelation 1-11. Resource Publications, 2002.

Scherrer, Steven J. Revelation 13 as an Historical Source for the Imperial Cult Under Domitian. Harvard Theological Review, vol. 74, no. 4, 1981, p. 406.

Summers, Ray. Worthy is the Lamb. Broadman Press, 1951.

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