Lee Hodges: What is the Date of John’s Revelation? (2003)

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The support for the late day advocates is twofold: the persecutions under Emperor Domitian and the testimonies of early church fathers. Edward A. McDowell uses the persecutions of Domitian for his main attack against the early date possibility. He says that the persecutions under Nero are not nearly as severe as those under Domitian.

What is the Date of John’s Revelation?

By Lee Hodges

This tradition claims to be irrefutable by external or historical evidence. However, when one closely examines the support and facts, he or she will find that all of their evidence is either faulty or highly debatable. The external and internal evidence point towards a date of authorship for Revelation during Emperor Nero’s reign and not that of Emperor Domitian. 

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place…I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:1 & 9 New International Version).

But when did John write this? Since the third century, scholars have been debating on the date of this book. Today the majority of those interested in the book believe that the date is around A.D. 81 to 96 (McDowell 2). This is a tradition that has lasted for several centuries. This tradition claims to be irrefutable by external or historical evidence. However, when one closely examines the support and facts, he or she will find that all of their evidence is either faulty or highly debatable. The external and internal evidence point towards a date of authorship for Revelation during Emperor Nero’s reign and not that of Emperor Domitian.

The support for the late day advocates is twofold: the persecutions under Emperor Domitian and the testimonies of early church fathers. Edward A. McDowell uses the persecutions of Domitian for his main attack against the early date possibility. He says that the persecutions under Nero are not nearly as severe as those under Domitian. He says, “The first of these is that the persecution described in Revelation is more extensive than that which the Christians suffered under Nero” (McDowell 2). He goes as far as to say, “The first persecution of Christians resulting from the policy of an emperor and extending into the provinces came under Domitian and toward the latter part of his reign” (McDowell 3). He claims that persecution never reached outside of Rome under Nero. He uses the murder of Domitian’s cousin and cousin’s wife and the banishment of Domitian’s niece as evidence of the man’s great brutality. Glenn Bourne supports a wide spread persecution in the time of Domitian (Bourne viii). James D. Strauss in defense of the late date contradicts McDowell by saying that the first major persecution came under the reign of Nero. He says that these persecutions “resulted in the destruction of the entire quarter lying between Palestine and Aventine” (Strauss 413). Strauss tells us that after Nero’s persecution, there was a clear distinction between Jews and Christians. He states that Domitian resumed persecution until he “became convinced that Christianity could not seriously harm his reign” (Strauss 414). According to Strauss, Revelation would have been written during this time of persecution early in Domitian’s reign. However, Christopher A. Davis says that John penned this book “at the end of Domitian’s reign” (Davis 57). He continues to tell of large numbers of Christians executed by Nero and how it even sickened the Romans. Then he admits, “Roman historians leave no clear record of Domitian himself ever ordering such a persecution” (Davis 62). He attempts to defend the late date by saying that early church leaders testified to a local persecution in the province of Asia. Although these advocates are unified on a date of around A.D. 95 – 96 for the authorship of Revelation, they are very diverse on their evidence.

The other bit of ammunition the late date advocates attempt to use is the testimonies of early church fathers or historians. Doctor Frank Pack claims support of the late date by statements of Irenaeus and Eusebius (Pack 10 – 11). William Hendriksen says that “the late date has very strong support” from Irenaeus’ statement in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History (Hendriksen 14). Paul T. Butler says that most of the ancient church fathers attribute the date to Domitian’s era (Butler 2). Davis claims the testimonies of Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Papias as evidence for the late date (Davis 54 – 56).

The beginning of the defense of the early date, A.D. 64 – 68, starts with the great persecutions of emperors Nero and Domitian. What evidence is there of a great persecution by Emperor Domitian as claimed by the late date advocates? George Eldon Ladd, a late date advocate, says, “the problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that during the last decade of the first century there occurred any open and systematic persecution of the church” (Gentry 287). Reginald H. Fuller when arguing for a Domitianic date advises, “there is otherwise no evidence for the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor” (Gentry 287). Another advocate, David H. van Daalen, admits that we “have no evidence that there was any persecution under Domitian” (Gentry 287). Glenn W. Baker, William L. Lane, and J. Ramsey Michaels believe that Domitian’s violent outbursts were concentrated on “selected individuals whom he suspected of undermining his authority” (Gentry 288). Elmer T. Merrill says:
“In his jealousy for his personal and official prerogative, and his fear of conspiracy aimed at his life, he terrorized the senate, and brought to destruction so many of its leading members, that the latter part of his reign is spoken of by his surviving contemporaries as an orgy of bloodshed.” (Ogden 411 – 412)
There are no literary records to suggest a persecution of any kind by Domitian against Christians. Neither Tacitus or Pliny, who were members of the Roman Senate during Domitian’s reign, nor Suetonius make any record of any kind of campaign towards or against Christians. Both Tacitus and Suetonius left a record of Nero’s persecution of the Christians. If there was such a persecution of the magnitude described by the late date advocates by Domitian, would it not demand a place in the records of these and other writers? The earliest historical record of a Domitian persecution is by Eusebius; he cites Melito and Hegesippus in his Ecclesiastical History. He says of these men seventy-five years after Domitian’s reign, “He was the second that raised a persecution against us” (Ogden 416). Eusebius wrote this 200 years after Domitian’s reign. As he speaks of “martyrdoms” during Domitian’s time, he never cites a single case of a Christian dying as a result of persecution. This is quite significant since Origen, A.D. 185 – 254, tells that only a few, “whose number could be easily enumerated,” had died for the sake of Christ up to his time (Ogden 416). He recorded this at least 50 years before Eusebius wrote his history. If the number of those who had died for Christ’s sake could be so easily enumerated, surely Eusebius could have named just one Christian who died under a persecution of Domitian.

Cassius Dio is a source used by the late date advocates. His Roman History composed between A.D. 210 and 229 says:
“And the same year Domitian slew among many others Flavius Clemens the consul, though he was a cousin and had a wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor. The complaint brought against them both was that of atheism, under which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were killed and the remainder were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria….” (Ogden 417)
Was this atheism that is associated with Judaism also representative of Christians? As noted earlier, late date advocate Strauss claims that there was a clear distinction between Jews and Christians after the time of Nero. Ernest Cary points out that only two-thirds of Dio’s writing is preserved in an eleventh century epitome and a twelfth century summary. He argues that the section dealing with Domitian was produced “very carelessly” (Gentry 289). As Domitian got rid of those people he did not like because of threats in the political realm or paranoia, modern Roman historians surmise that the ancient Roman hatred of Domitian affected Christian beliefs later. The Romans would say that Domitian was like a second Nero because of how he treated his own family and the rest of Rome. This is where the church fathers many years later got the idea that people thought of Domitian as a second Nero. They did, but not as a resurrected one in the sense of persecution of the Christians and Jews (Gentry 288). Ogden claims that the sum of his total findings of a Domitian persecution is two banishments, and inquiry, and one death. With all of the vast volumes of information and history that is available about Roman history, there would surely be more evidence of a Domitian persecution if such a thing actually did exist (Ogden 419).

The only remaining claim for a Domitian reign is of emperor worship. The late date advocates call for a time of enforced emperor worship; they claim that only Domitian’s reign fits. However, Julius Caesar learned from Cleopatra the advantages politically of claiming to be a deity. He placed his statue in the temple of Quirinus, which defiled Romulus. An inscription at Ephesus spoke of him saying, “god manifest and common saviour of the life of man” (Gentry 265). After his death an altar was erected to him in the forum, an inscription on his statue read “To the invincible God,” 300 prisoners of war were sacrificed on the Ides of March, and for a long time after they continued to sacrifice, make vows, and settle disputes at the foot of a twenty foot high marble column erected to him (Gentry 266). Augustus sanctioned worship and the erection of altars to him. After his death, a temple was erected to him. Isbon T. Beckwith states, “his worship spread rapidly in both the Asian and western provinces, so that Philo could say, that everywhere honors were decreed to him equal those of the Olympian gods” (Gentry 266 – 267). Jesus talked about “what was Caesar’s” concerning taxes to be paid during Tiberius’s reign (Matthew 22:21). After his death, eleven cities of Asia fought for the honor of erecting a temple in his memory; the Senate finally awarded it to Smyrna. Caligula was obsessed with the conviction that he was a deity. He had a temple erected to himself with special priests and sacrifices. He even tried to put his statue in the Temple in Jerusalem but was eventually convinced otherwise. Claudius was voted a god upon his death, but it was removed by Nero and then restored by Vespasian. During his life a temple was erected to him at Colchester. Nero associated himself as the equivalent of Apollo. In A.D. 55 the Senate erected a temple to him. Inscriptions in Ephesus call him “Almighty God” and “Saviour” (Gentry 272). Dio recorded, “Thrasaea was executed because he failed to appear regularly in the senate, … and because he never would listen to the emperor’s singing and lyre-playing, nor sacrifice to Nero’s Divine Voice as did the rest” (Gentry 273). After his death, the emperor Vitellius offered sacrifices to the spirit of the deceased Nero. His disillusions of being a deity possibly led him to the persecution of Christians and the overthrow of Israel in the Jewish War.

The late date advocates have claimed that Nero’s persecutions were not as severe as Domitian’s. Since the idea of a Domitian persecution has already been refuted, the extent of Nero’s actions should be examined. Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived from A.D. 55-117. In his last work, The Annals of Imperial Rome, he wrote:
“First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned – not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest.” (Bray 96)
Nero did his greatest destruction in the Jewish War. It is true that this was not directed at Christians, but Nero was not concerned with the differences; he wanted them all gone. However, it is worth noting that there were no Christians in Jerusalem when the Roman armies lay siege to it (Bray 62). 110,000 perished during the siege. There were many that were slain at other places. 3,600 were slain at Jerusalem. The inhabitants of Caesarea killed 20,000. 13,000 died at Scythopolis, 2,500 at Ascalon, 2,000 at Ptolemais, 50,000 at Alexandria, 8,400 at Joppa, 10,000 at Asamon, 8,000 at an ambuscade near the same place, 15,000 at Japha, 11,600 on Mount Gerizim, 40,000 at Jotapa, 4,200 at Joppa when taken by Vespasian, 6,500 at Tarechea, 1,200 after the city was taken, 4,000 at Gamala and 5,000 threw themselves down a precipice, 6,000 who fled with John of Gischala, 15,000 of the Gadarenes besides the multitudes who drowned, 10,000 in a village of Idumea, 1,000 at Gerasa, 1,700 at Machaerus, 3,000 at Jardes, 960 at Masada, 3,000 in Cyrene besides those many of every age, sex, and condition that were slain and not reckoned. Of those who are reckoned the number reaches upwards toward 1,357,000. I do not believe Domitian killed or even thought of killing this many people during his reign. Nero was certainly a man of torture, death, and great sin (Bray 82 – 83).

The other side of the external evidence is the testimonies of early church fathers and other historians. The most potent weapon the late date advocates believe they have is the statement by Irenaeus as recorded by Eusebius. Irenaeus knew Polycarp who in return knew John the Apostle. He made this statement around A.D. 180 – 190:
“If it were necessary to have his name distinctly announced at the present time it would doubtless have been announced by him who saw the Apocalypse; for it was not a great while ago that (it or he) was seen, but almost in our generation, toward the end of Domitian’s reign.” (Ogden 9)
J. J. Wetstein in 1751 was the first scholar to begin questioning the translation of this statement. Other scholars who have looked into this and questioned the translation are M. J. Bovan, S. H. Chase, E. Bohmer, James M. Macdonald, Henry Hammond, F. J. A. Hort, Edward C. Selwyn, George Edmundson, Arthur S. Barnes, and J. J. Stott. No one seems to be able to come to a solid conclusion of what the actual translation should be. However, according to these scholars, the subject of what was seen near the end of Domitian’s reign should be the author, John, and not the literature, the Apocalypse. It might even be possible that Irenaeus might be referring to the time when Domitian temporarily reigned as emperor for Vespasian in A.D. 70 (Gentry 66). Irenaeus also said in A.D. 175 that the Apocalypse happened in the reign of Domitianou, which is the same as Domitius (Nero). Sulpicius, Orosius, and others mistook Domitianou for Domitianikos, which is Domitian (Ogden 12). However, the credibility of Irenaeus should be questioned. In his Against Heresies, he says in 5:33:4 that Jesus lived in excess of forty years and had a ministry of fifteen or more years. He also says that the Apostles lived up to the time of Emperor Trajan who reigned from A.D. 98 – 117 (Gentry 63 – 64). It appears that the late date advocates’ main supporting statement is not all that valid.
Eusebius is one who is looked to for support. However, Eusebius doubted that the Apostle John was the author; he suggested a presbyter named John. If Irenaeus’ statements were not strong enough to convince Eusebius that the Apostle John was the author, then what makes one think that it is strong enough to convince one that the Apostle John saw it during the reign of Domitian? (Ogden 12). Titus Flavius Clemens, Clement of Alexandria, lived from A.D. 150 – 215. He said in section 42 of his Quis Salvus Dives, translated Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved?, “When after the death of the tyrant he removed from the island of Patmos to Ephesus, he used to journey by request to the neighboring districts of the Gentiles, in some places to appoint bishops…” (Gentry 68). Neither Clement nor Origen give a specific name, so no speculation can be absolute. However, as seen by the evidence listed earlier, none of the Roman emperors would fit the title of tyrant better than Nero. Origenes Adamantius of Alexandria, Origen, lived from A.D. 185 – 254. He said in his commentary of Matthew, “The King of the Romans, as tradition teaches, condemned John who bore testimony on account of the word of truth, to the isle of Patmos” (Gentry 97 – 98). J. L. Ratton commented:
“Throughout the East the Julian Caesars were looked upon as a royal line and hailed as Kings … Nero was the last of them. After him came the successful generals raised to the purple by their legions. They took the title of Caesar, but prefixed it to their leadership of the Army. The official title of Domitian illustrates both these points – ‘Imperator Caesar Domitian Augustus.'” (Gentry 99)
In Clement’s Miscellanies, Book 7:7 reads:
“Mystagogues of the souls of the impious. They do not make a right but a perverse use of the divine words. For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero.” (Gentry 84)
Clement believed that the Apostle John wrote the book of Revelation. He also believed that all of the divine revelations to the apostles ended in the reign of Nero. Clement apparently believed that John wrote the Apocalypse in the time of Nero.

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian, A.D. 160 – 220, was the first theologian to write in Latin; he began in A.D. 196. In his Exclusion of Heretics, it is strongly suggested that John’s banishment occurred at the same time as Peter and Paul’s deaths (Gentry 95). Jerome in Against Jovinianum understood Tertullian to state that John was banished by Nero (Gentry 97). He joins the three apostles together when talking about Nero. But when he discusses Domitian, he never mentions John. Even Eusebius on occasion grouped together Peter’s crucifixion, Paul’s beheading, and John’s dipped in oil and banishment. The dipping in oil is consistent with the tortures of Nero. He would usually do that to the ones he would set fire to in order to illuminate his gardens. Roman historians Tacitus and Jerome both confirm this (Gentry 97). Another thing to consider is John’s extreme age in the A.D. 90s. It would not make sense for a criminal of such age and probably weakness to be sentenced to the labor mines of Patmos as claimed by Victorinus, bishop of Pettau in A.D. 304 (Gentry 99). What possible good could a decrepit old man do in a labor mine?

Theophlyact, Metropolitan of Bulgarian and Byzantine exegete, wrote his Preface to Commentary of the Gospel of John in A.D. 1107. He says that John was banished thirty-two years after Christ’s ascension. This would be exactly during the time of Nero’s era (Gentry 108).

The Shepherd of Hermas has lately become a supporting work used by the early date advocates. Scholars like Lightfoot, Catelier, Cave, Lardner, Gallandi, Lumper, Lachmann, Sprinzel, Lawson, and Goodspeed believe that it was written in the A.D. 90s. Oxford and Cambridge scholar Arthur S. Barnes argues for an A.D. 80 – 90 date, about A.D. 85. The use of the work by Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius, and Jerome seem to support this. Irenaeus even considered it as Scripture in his Against Heresies 4:20:2. Origen in his commentary on Romans 16:14 believed the Hermas greeted by Paul to be the author; Tertullian agreed. The work is even included in the Codex Sinaiticus (Gentry 86 – 88). Moses Stuart, R. H. Charles, Bishop Westcott, Hug, Swete, and Edgar J. Goodspeed believed that the author had read the book of Revelation. The reason is because of all the similarities between what this author writes and what John writes. He mentions the church represented as a woman (Rev. 12:1), the enemy as a beast (Rev. 13), out of the beast’s mouth comes fiery locusts (Rev. 9:3), the foundations of the Heavenly Jerusalem bear the names of the Twelve Apostles (Rev. 21:14), those who overcome are made spiritual pillars in the spiritual temple (Rev. 3:12), and the faithful are clothed in white and given crowns to wear (Rev. 6:11). If this book was written in the A.D. 80s or even the 90s, it would not have been likely that John’s book would have been circulated enough for this author to have obtained all of this knowledge if John wrote in A.D. 95 or 96 (Gentry 90 – 91).

In 1740, L. A. Muratori discovered a manuscript fragment of Scripture. This manuscript claims to be written by a contemporary of Pius, bishop of Rome, sometime between A.D. 127 – 157. R. Laird Harris claims about A.D. 170; Schaff concurs. Lightfoot and Harmer say about A.D. 180. The witness of this manuscript claims an early date for Revelation. The document states, “the blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name” (Gentry 94). Later it says, “John too, indeed, in the Apocalypse, although he writes to only seven churches, yet addresses all” (Gentry 94). This writer clearly says that John preceded Paul in writing letters to seven churches. It is pretty much unanimous that Paul died in A.D. 67 or 68 (Gentry 94).

The last bit of external evidence that will be covered is the Syriac witnesses. The Syriac History of John, the Son of Zebedee says:
“After these things, when the Gospel was increasing by the hands of the Apostles, Nero, the unclean and impure and wicked king, heard all that had happened at Ephesus. And he sent [and] took all that the procurator had, and imprisoned him; and laid hold of S. John and drove him into exile; and passed sentence on the city that it should be laid waste.” (Gentry 105 – 106)
This statement is pretty precise in what it says. The versions of the Syrian New Testament by Thomas of Harkel in A.D. 616 and by Polycarpus, bishop of Mabbus, in A.D. 508 say in their titles, “written in Patmos, whither John was sent by Nero Caesar” (Gentry 106). The external evidence tends to point towards an early date for the writing of Revelation.

When studying the date for Revelation, one should also examine the internal evidence. There is a sever lack of internal evidence for a late date. In Revelation, John only addresses seven churches (Rev. 1). This could suggest a time before the greater expansion of Christianity in that region (Gentry 115). If it was a later date, then the activity of the Judaizers would be less conspicuous after a broader circulation of Paul’s letters (Rev. 2,3). There is a prominence of Jewish persecution of Christians (Rev. 6,11). This suggests that the Jews are still firmly established in their homeland; this would be before the destruction of Jerusalem (Gentry 115). The sixth emperor is reigning in Revelation 16 and the seventh will only reign for a short time in Revelation 7:10 (NIV). The first emperor of Rome was Julius Caesar from 49 to 44 B.C. The next emperor was Augustus from 30 B.C. to A.D. 14. Then came Tiberius from A.D. 14 to 37, Caligula from A.D. 37 to 41, Claudius from A.D. 41 to 54, and then Nero from A.D. 54 to 68. The seventh emperor was Galba who only reigned seven months. That is definitely a short while compared to the previous six emperors (Ogden 13). Jerusalem and the Temple are still in existence and fully intact in Revelation 11 (Gentry 115). The existence of all twelve tribes is still intact (Rev. 7:4-8). The book speaks and sets a tone of wild commotion equivalent to that of the Jewish War (Gentry 115). The nearness of events had no fulfillment beyond the dramatic events of A.D. 70 (Gentry 115). There is a textual difference between ancient translations of the number of the beast. The numerical value of 666 converted to letters equals Nero Caesar in Hebrew characters. The numerical value 616, found in Irenaeus and the Donatist Tyconius, converted to letters equals Nero Caesar in Latin (Gentry 203). Expanding to John’s other books and other books of the New Testament, one finds that the antichrist is already present in I John 4:3. The secret power of the lawlessness was already at work in II Thessalonians 2:7. The destruction of the temple, Jesus coming, and the end of the age are considered as one in Matthew 24:3 paralleled by Mark 13:3-4 and Luke 21:7. The generation that Jesus was talking to would not pass away until all of those prophecies were fulfilled according to Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, and Luke 21:32. The abomination of desolation is the armies outside Jerusalem when Matthew 24:25, Mark 13:14, and Luke 21:20 are paralleled. Everyone was to flee from Judea according to Matthew 24:16, Mark 13:14, and Luke 21:21 (NIV); as stated earlier, it is believed that there were no Christians in Jerusalem when it was destroyed in A.D. 70. The Gospel of John is the only Gospel that does not record these prophecies of Jesus. In fact there are none in the entire book; there is no mention of the Temple being destroyed. This would lead to a conclusion that the book was written before the destruction. Jesus mentioned in John 21:22-23 (NIV) that John may live till the coming of Jesus. All of these points tend to point towards a pre A.D. 70 writing of Revelation and the entire New Testament.

It should be noted that those who promote the later date are not being attributed as those who are promoting a lie or false teaching. All that is being shown is an attempt to provide light on the date of Revelation when the evidence is dug into and closely examined. Logic would seem to prevail for the early date according to the external and internal evidence. This may or may not have an affect on one’s belief of the message of Revelation. That is not the point. The goal is to clarify what the supporting evidences truly point towards when determining the date of the great Revelation that was revealed to John by Christ Jesus.

Works Cited

Bourne, Glenn H. Tower of Truth. Cassville, MO: Litho Printers, 1982.

Bray, John L. Matthew 24 Fulfilled. Lakeland, FL: John L. Bray Ministry, Inc., 1996.

Butler, Paul T. Twenty-Six Lessons on Revelation. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1982.

Davis, Christopher A. The College Press NIV Commentary: Revelation. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing, 2000.

Gentry Jr., Kenneth L. Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation. Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1998.

Hendriksen, William. More than Conquerors. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967.

McDowell, Edward A. The Meaning and Message of the Book of Revelation. Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1951.

Ogden, Arthur M. The Avenging of the Apostles and Prophets. Somerset, KY: Ogden Publications, 1985.

Pack, Frank. The Living Word: Revelation. Austin, TX: R. B. Sweet Co., Inc., 1965.

Strauss, James D. The Seer, The Saviour, and The Saved: The Lord of the Future. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1972.

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