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DATING OF THE APOCALYPSE
This question involves some real difficulty, especially on its historic aide. Yet it has very considerable importance in its bearings upon the interpretation of the book, and therefore calls for a careful and candid examination.—On this question of date, critical opinions fall into two classes, one assigning it to the reign of Nero (about A. D. 64-68), and the other to the reign of Domitian (A. D. 95-96). It is well known that violent persecution raged at both these periods, and it is possible that John was banished to Patmos twice—i. e., by both Nero and Domitian, and that this fact occasioned the confused and discordant notices that appear in the early fathers in regard to the time of his banishment and the date of this book.
In respect to date, I will speak,
1. Of the internal evidence—that which appears in the book itself; and
2. Of the external, as found in fragmentary notices by the Christian fathers.
1. Internal. Under this head I adduce
(1.) The fact that the culpable practices which appear in the seven churches (chaps. 2, 3) are those of the early and mid-apostolic ages—precisely those against which the churches of Asia were specially warned by the circular "epistle" of the first Christian council (Ac. 15), and which appear in Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth. Thus in Pergamos the practices indicated as "the doctrine of Balaam" were these two: eating things offered to idols and fornication (Rev. 2: 14). The doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, appearing in both Pergamos and Ephesus, was very similar (2: 15); Precisely the, same practices appear in Thyatira, inculcated by one called "Jezebel" (2: 20). By a remarkable coincidence, the evils against which the first council at Jerusalem specially warned the churches were prominently these two (Acts 15: 20, 29). In Corinth the eating of things offered to idols was one of the live questions then pressing sharply upon the churches (1 Cor. 8). I need not say that fornication was a second special subject for rebuke and warning in that church.—Thus it appears that the great moral questions and immoral practices which pressed sorely upon the churches at the date of the Jerusalem council (A D. 50 or 52) and at the date of Paul's letters to Corinth (A. D. 57-58) were the very things condemned in the seven churches of Asia.—But it will be asked, Were not these evils rife in the age of Domitian? Possibly they were; but the latest N. T. books, viz., the gospel and the epistles of John, give no hint of it. Other historical records of that age are scanty; but so far as I know are silent on these points. It is intrinsically improbable that the questions in regard to eating meats offered to idols would have continued practically unsettled forty years (from A. D. 50 to A D. 90).—This argument amounts in my view only to a strong probability—not to a demonstration.
(2.) The churches of Asia were suffering severely from pernicious teachers claiming to be Jews. In Ephesus were some who said they were apostles but were not (2: 2); in Smyrna the troublers said they were Jews, but were more "the synagogue of Satan" (2: 9); in Philadelphia were the same class precisely (3: 9); while the personage called Jezebel (2: 20), claiming to be a prophetess, was probably a Jewess also.—Thus the troublers of the seven churches at the date of this book were remarkably well defined—either actually being Jews, or at least claiming to be.—Now let it be also considered that the first council was called (A D. 50 or 51) to counteract the mischiefs of Judaizing teachers. The letters of Paul to the Galatians (A. D. 56) and to the Colossians (A. D. 62) disclose the presence and mischiefs of the same set of men. These were churches of Asia, adjacent to the seven to whom John wrote. Paul's first letter to Timothy (1: 3, 4, 7), written A. D. 65, alludes to men causing trouble in Ephesus and puts upon them two Jewish marks—"given to endless genealogies;" and "desiring to be teachers of the law." Indeed the early apostolic age was constantly annoyed by this class of men.—Thus we see the most entire coincidence between the case of: the seven churches as it appears in these letters, and the case of other churches of Asia in the years A. D. 50-66.
Here too (as before) the question must be met: Did not this annoyance from Jewish and Judaizing teachers continue down to the age of Domitian?—I answer, All existing historical evidence is strongly against it. The later books of the New Testament give not the least allusion to such teachers. While the earliest heresies that annoyed the Christian churches came from Judaism; the next in order—the second generation of them—sprang from contact with Pagan philosophies and science, "falsely so called"—to which it is generally conceded some of the latest writers of the New Testament allude.—What history thus testifies, the nature of the case strongly sustains. The fall of Jerusalem and the utter destruction of the temple naturally struck Judaism down. More than one million of Jews perished in that fearful fall; the rest were scattered far abroad. The hope of bringing the Gentile converts into Jewish ritualism was forever blasted; the power and prestige of this Judaizing element fell, never to rise. Hence the inference seems irresistible that the seducers in the seven churches when John wrote must have been of the age of Nero and not of the age of Domitian. Of course the book was written in the former age and not in the latter.—It may not be amiss to suggest that we have here another special element in the retributions upon the Jews of which chapters 4-11 speak, since, they are before us not only as the first and most malign persecutors of the infant Christian church, but also as its first, most persistent, most annoying and dangerous seducers.
(3.) The seventh chapter of the Apocalypse presents a scene in which four mighty angels are holding in suspense the fearful elements of retributive vengeance until another angel might place the seal of God upon the foreheads of his faithful servants. The central idea and also in the main its costume seem to be taken from Ezek. 8 and 9: "Go through the midst of the city and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all its abominations:" this done, let the others go through the city and smite, only come not near any man who bears the mark! Here in the scenes of this apocalyptic vision, John first hears the number of the sealed—"one hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel;" and indeed definitely twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes. That these represent the Christian converts gathered from the lineal Jews is made doubly certain by the counterpart of this first sealing, viz., the view of "a great multitude which no man could number of all nations and kindreds and people and tongues;" that is, Gentile converts of every land and tribe, seen before the throne already clothed in white, ascribing their salvation to God and the Lamb. So much the gospel had then achieved already. The scathing judgments that were about to smite the Jewish world and in due time the Gentile, would find so many garnered in safety, housed in their eternal home before the storm should burst.—Now the definite point of my argument is that this sealing of Jewish converts, considered as a prophecy, appears to be precisely coincident with that of Jesus Christ in his prediction of the fall of Jerusalem and of the previous gathering of his elect, as given in Mat 24: 31 and Mark 13: 27. The personal preaching of Jesus and the earliest mission labors of his disciples turned first to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mat. 10: 5, 6, 13). Forty years God waited and wrought patiently to gather in those lost ones. Jesus prophetically represents this gathering as to be done within the life-time of that generation (Mat. 24: 34 and Mark 13: 30), i. e., to be finished before Jerusalem should fall. The sealing and rescuing of the elect Jews in Rev. 7 bears every trace of being the same great fact. Hence its location in time shortly preceded the fall of that city, and if the fulfillment precedes that fall, so and much more must the prophecy itself.
(4.) In the same general line of thought and of argument we have a remarkable coincidence between our Lord's prediction (Luke 21: 24), "Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles;" and of the temple (Mat 24: 2), "There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down;" and the prediction through the Revelator John (Rev. 11: 2), "The court that is outside the temple leave out, for it is given unto the Gentiles, and the holy city shall they tread underfoot forty-two months." Both these predictions concur: (a) that Jerusalem was a doomed city; (b) that it should be trodden down by unhallowed Gentile feet [the Roman armies]; and (c) that even the presence of the holy temple within it should not shield it from this desolation. My argument as to the date of the Apocalypse turns on the strong presumption that this passage (Rev. 11: 2) synchronizes with Christ's prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, and therefore proves that at the date of its writing, the city had not yet fallen.—Very strong to the same point is the statement in the same context (v. 13): "And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell"—which certainly assumes that the whole city had not previously fallen, but was standing. The date of its actual fall is well known, viz., A. D. 70. This prophecy was written, therefore, shortly before this fall.
(5.) The account given of the murder of the "two witnesses," naming the very place where their dead bodies lay exposed and insulted (Rev. 11: 8)—"in the street of the great city which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our [their] Lord was crucified," puts the finger of prophecy precisely upon Jerusalem, and obviously conceives of it as standing at the time of this vision, and indeed at the time when the murder of the two witnesses took place. This, taken in connection with the points made from chap. 7 and from chap. 11: 2, would certainly seem to fix the date of these events and of course the date of the book which predicts them, before the destruction of Jerusalem.
(6.) Rev. 17 is professedly an explanation of the more prominent symbols in the seven chapters (13-19), inasmuch as the angel said (v. 7), "I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, who hath the seven heads and ten horns." In this explanation the woman is shown to be "that great city" (Rome) "which reigneth over the kings of the earth" (v. 18), and which "sat on seven hills" [mountains]. Specially to our purpose it is said, "There are seven kings (v. 10) of whom five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come." Here the one that is, placed in a series with certain preceding ones fallen, and another following, "not yet come," must beyond all reasonable question be the king then on the throne of Rome when this book was written. It is safe to affirm that John could not have given the date of his writing more precisely and conclusively than he has done here unless he had given the very name of Nero. But there were obvious reasons why it was not prudent to give his actual name. He meant however to describe him so that his readers need be in no doubt.—Now since the question of date is narrowed down to a choice between the reigns of Nero and of Domitian, it only remains to say that this dynasty of Roman kings [emperors] began unquestionably with Julius Caesar, after whom we count Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, making the five who had fallen, and reach Nero, the sixth, of whom the, angel then said, "One is." Galba followed "to continue but a short space" (v. 10)—according to history, but seven months. The symbol and the angel's count had no occasion to carry the list of kings further. If carried on however and all counted in, Domitian would have been the twelfth. Of course the present tense of the book—the date of the vision—was not under Domitian, but was under Nero. But beyond all question in proof that Nero was the one head of the beast then in power when John wrote is the fact that he is absolutely identified by "the number of his name" (13: 18). See my notes on the passage.
(7.) There are at least two books in the New Testament (the Epistle to the Hebrews and 2 Peter) which are thought to contain allusions to the Apocalypse. If this shall appear, it will follow that the Apocalypse was in existence when these books were written. Let us then examine a single passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (12: 22, 23).—On the point of motives to a holy life, the writer is contrasting the case of the Hebrews. before Mt. Sinai with the case of the Hebrew Christians of his own day before the corresponding Mt. Zion. He says (v. 18), "Ye are not come unto that merely material, tangible mount [Sinai]...... but ye are come unto [a spiritual] Mt Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem"—[in Rev. 21: 2, "The holy city, New, Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven"]:—"And to an innumerable company of angels," [the reader may see them in Rev. 5: 11, 12, and 7: 11, 12]; "to the general assembly and church of the first-born which are written in heaven" [see the writing of their names in the book of life, Rev. 21: 27, and 13: 8, and 20: 12] "and to God the Judge of all" [Rev. 20: 11, 12] "and to the spirits of just men made perfect" [who stand before us remarkably throughout: this book of Revelation, e. g., 5: 8-10, and 6: 9-11, and 7: 13-17, and 15: 2-4, and 21 and 22]. It seems to me highly probable, not to say, almost certain, that the writer to the Hebrews had in his eye these salient points of the book of Revelation. These points are in his book for precisely the purpose which the writer to the Hebrews had before him, viz.: as constituting that magnificent and most impressive array of motives which under the gospel were brought to bear upon the Christian life, as compared with the corresponding motives arrayed before the ancient Hebrew people even in those most impressive scenes at Mt. Sinai.—In his 2d Epistle (3: 10, 13) Peter makes two points which the reader will notice: (1) that "the heavens shall pass away" and "the earth be burnt up;" (2) that "we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness." John has it (Rev. 20: 11) "The earth and the heavens fled away;" and (21: 1) "I saw a new heaven and a new earth, and the first heaven and the first earth were passed, away." The righteous only dwelt there (21: 27; and 22 14). Here then we have both the fact of the passing away of this present earth and heavens, and the promise of the new. With a high degree of probability Peter; had the Revelation of John before him and adopted its descriptive terms. But Peter fell a martyr under Nero's persecution, and therefore wrote this epistle before Nero's death. The date of the Epistle to the Hebrews is not known precisely, but no critics within my knowledge have placed it so late as the reign of Domitian.
2. It remains to speak of the external evidence—that of the early Christian fathers. This is far from being uniform, clear and direct. Unfortunately the earliest fathers (Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Papias, Polycarp and Justin Martyr)—the very men whose testimony would have been most valuable—fail us altogether. They either omitted all allusion to this point as being well enough understood without their testimony, or what they wrote has perished. The earliest of the fathers whose testimony has been relied on is Irenaeus, who wrote his book "Against Heresies," A. D. 175-180. His youth was spent in Asia Minor, but all his manhood and Christian work lay in Ancient Gaul [France]. From the dim light that reaches us it would seem that his statements as they were understood shaped the opinions of Eusebius and Jerome on this question, and that they naturally controlled the views of subsequent authors. Hence it becomes important to examine carefully what Irenaeus said—the more so because it is at least supposable (I think even probable) that his testimony as to the date of the Apocalypse has been misunderstood.—The only passage appealed to as giving his testimony occurs in some remarks upon "the number of the, beast" (Rev. 13: 18), which stand in our received text 666. The original Greek is this.*
* "HmeiV oun ouk apokinouneuomen peri ton onomaioV tou Anticrios apofainomenoi bebaiwtiwV, ei gar edei anafanon tw nun kaiow khouitesqai to onama, di ekeinou an erreqh tou kai thn Apokalujn ewpakotoV. Oude gar pro pollou cronou ewpaqh, alla scedon epi ths hmeteraV geneas, proV tw telei ths Dometianou apchV."
It may be translated thus:—"Therefore we do not imperil [the churches] by announcing the name of the Antichrist plainly, for if it were safe and wise at the present time to proclaim his name, it would have been done by him who saw the visions of the Apocalypse, for it is not a very long time since he was still to be seen, but almost in our own age, near the close of the reign of Domitian." This passage has been generally understood to say that the vision of the Apocalypse was seen in the age of Domitian, and it seems to have been the standard authority for that opinion with the Christian authors of the third and fourth centuries and onward. His testimony turns on the single point whether in the last clause it is he (John) who was still seen among the churches in the age of Domitian, or it (the vision) which was then first seen. The logic of the passage, the course of thought, should be mainly relied on to decide this question.—I understand the logic of Irenaeus thus:—Obviously it was not prudent to give Nero's name during his life. But John lived down to the time of Domitian when Nero was thirty years dead. So far forth therefore the circumstances had materially changed. Now, says Irenaeus, if the necessity for divulging the real name of Nero is so great and the danger from doing it so small that we ought to have the name brought out now, then the same was true in the time of Domitian, and John would have disclosed the name himself. He did not do it, for though Nero was dead, yet Rome still lived, a persecuting power. The danger from Nero's personal vengeance was long since passed away, but other Neros might arise on the same Roman throne; therefore John remained silent: so let us. Hence the logic of the passage requires that the thing seen in the last clause of this passage should be John yet living in his extreme old age, and not the vision itself. The supposition that it was the vision nullifies the argument of the passage.—Or thus: The argument assumes that it would have been dangerous and therefore unwise to give Nero's name openly during his life; also, that John lived a long time after Nero's death, so that if it were proper to give Nero's name when Irenaeus wrote, it was equally so in the last years of John, and he would have given the name to the churches then himself.—Origen seems to take the same view of the case, and perhaps the same view of this passage from Irenaeus when he says, "The king of the Romans as tradition teaches condemned John to the Isle of Patmos for his testimony to the word of truth; and John taught many things about his testimony, yet did not say who condemned him in all that he has written in his Apocalypse."*
* See Stuart's Apocalypse, vol. l, p. 271.
—Several fathers of the third century and the fourth speak of John's writing this book in connection with his banishment to Patmos, which they locate in Domitian's reign. Yet some of them are not explicit as between Nero and Domitian. Clement of Alexandria says John was banished by "the tyrant"—a name appropriate enough to either, yet in usage applied less to Domitian and more to Nero.
A very ancient Latin fragment [quoted in Stuart's Apocalypse, 1: 266] comes down to us, probably of the second century, saying, "Paul, following the order of his own predecessor John, wrote in the same way to only seven churches by name." This assumes that John wrote the Apocalypse before Paul wrote the last of his seven letters to as many churches by name. The latest date of Paul's seven was about A. D. 64. He died under Nero's persecution.—Eusebius [bishop of Cesarea, A. D. 314-340] in his history (book 3; chap. 18, and bk. 5: 8) speaks of John as being banished to Patmos and of seeing his visions there in the reign of DOMITIAN, but quotes Irenaeus (the very passage above cited) as his specific authority. Did he not misunderstand Irenaeus?—He also refers to a current tradition to the same effect, which however may have grown out of mistaking the sense of Irenaeus.—Jerome [born A. D. 331; died A. D. 420] held the same opinion, apparently on the authority of Irenaeus as above and of Eusebius.—Victorinus of Petavio [died A. D. 303] in a Latin commentary on the Apocalypse, says that "John saw this vision while in Patmos, condemned to the mines by Domitian Caesar."—Many others of a later age might be cited to the same purport, witnessing however only to a current tradition which so far as appears may have come from the language of Irenaeus, under a misunderstanding of his meaning.
On the other hand the Syriac translation of the Apocalypse has this superscription: "The Revelation which was made by God to John the Evangelist in the Island of Patmos to which he was banished by Nero the Emperor.'' Most of the Syriac New Testament (known as the "Peshito"), i. e., all the unquestioned books, are supposed to have been translated late in the first century or very early in the second; but the Syriac version of the Apocalypse is not so old. Yet Ephraim the Syrian of Nisibis [died A. D. 378] wrote commentaries on nearly the whole Bible; often appeals to the Apocalypse; but wrote only in Syriac and probably was unacquainted with Greek and therefore must have had this book in the Syrian tongue. This superscription seems to testify, to a current tradition in Syria at least as far back as his day, assuming the date of the book to the age of Nero.—Of later witnesses, Andreas of Cappadocia [flourished about A. D. 500], in a commentary on this book, favors the Neronian date. Arethas also, his successor [about A. D. 540], yet more decisively. He assumes the book to have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem, for he explains chapters 6 and 7 as predictions of that event.—Plainly then the traditions of the early ages and the testimony of the fathers were not all in favor of the Domitian date.—Some incidental circumstances strongly favor the earlier date; e. g., the account given in much detail by Eusebius [Ec. His. 3: 23], who quotes Clement to the effect that John after his return from this banishment in Patmos, mounted his horse and pushed away into the fastnesses of the mountains to reach a robber chief who had apostatized from the Christian faith. But Jerome represents John in the last years of his life (i. e., at the time of Domitian's persecution) as being so weak and infirm that he was carried by other hands with difficulty to his church-meetings to say in tremulous tones: "My little children, love one another."—These traditions of the aged apostle, compared with each other and with the probabilities of the case, seem to forbid us to assign the date of the Apocalypse to the reign of Domitian.
The conclusion to which I am brought after much investigation is that the historic testimony for the Domitian date is largely founded on a misconception of the passage from Irenaeus, and as a whole is by no means so harmonious, so ancient, and so decisive, as to overrule and set aside the strong internal evidence for the earlier date. I am compelled to accept the age of Nero as the true date of this writing.
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