Friday, June 25, 2021

4. The Revelation - When Was It Written?

Two main alternatives have been proposed for the date of Revelation: during either the reign of Nero (c. a.d. 68), or that of Domitian (c. a.d. 96). The earlier date is held primarily by some who adopt the preterist interpretation of Revelation (more on that in a future post). It is based largely on questionable exegesis of several passages in the book and attempts to relegate its prophetic fulfillment entirely to the period before the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. Those who hold to the early date see in Jerusalem’s destruction the prophesied second coming of Jesus Christ in its first phase. External evidence for the earlier (Neronian) date is almost nonexistent.

On the other hand, the view that the apostle John penned Revelation near the end of Domitian’s reign was widely held in the early church. The second-century church father Irenaeus wrote, “We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision [the book of Revelation]. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Against Heresies, 5.30.3). The church fathers Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Victorinus, Eusebius, and Jerome also affirm that Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign. The testimony of the early church that Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign is difficult to explain if it was actually written during Nero’s reign.

Revelation was written during a time when the church was undergoing persecution. John had been exiled to Patmos, at least one believer had already suffered martyrdom (Rev. 2:13), and more persecution loomed on the horizon (Rev. 2:10). The extent of the persecution under Domitian appears to have been more widespread than that under Nero, which was largely confined to the city of Rome. Thus, the persecution of Christians referred to in Revelation fits better with a date during Domitian’s reign.

The condition of the seven churches to whom John addressed Revelation also argues for the later date. As seen in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 and 2 Timothy, those churches were spiritually healthy as of the mid-sixties, when Paul last ministered in that region. But by the time Revelation was written, those churches had suffered serious spiritual decline. Ephesus had left its first love, and most of the rest had been infiltrated by false doctrine and sin. Such a decline would have taken longer than the brief period between the end of Paul’s ministry in Asia Minor and the end of Nero’s reign. In a similar vein, some have argued that the lack of any mention of Paul in the letters to the seven churches implies an interval of at least a generation between his death and the writing of Revelation (Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 954 n. 1).

Paul nowhere mentions the heretical sect known as the Nicolaitans that plagued the churches at Ephesus and Pergamum (2:6, 15). But by the time of Revelation the sect had become so notorious that John could simply name it; the Nicolaitans were evidently so well-known to his readers that no description was necessary. That again implies a long time gap between the time of Paul and the time Revelation was written.

Laodicea, one of the seven churches, was devastated by an earthquake about A.D. 60. For the rest of Nero’s reign, the city was involved in reconstruction, and could hardly be considered “rich … wealthy” and having “need of nothing” (3:17). A date during Domitian’s reign would allow time for Laodicea to regain its wealth.

There is evidence that the church at Smyrna was not founded until after Paul’s death (about A.D. 67 [Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 954]). It could hardly have begun, grown to maturity, and declined in the brief interval between the apostle’s death and the end of Nero’s reign at about the same time.

A final reason for preferring the late (A.D. 95–96) date for Revelation is the timing of John’s arrival in Asia Minor. According to tradition, John did not leave Palestine for Asia Minor until the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome (A.D. 66–70). Placing the writing of Revelation during Nero’s reign would not allow sufficient time for John’s ministry to have reached the point where the Romans would have felt the need to exile him (Thomas, Revelation 1–7, 22). G. R. Beasley-Murray notes that

John’s banishment as a Christian preacher … reflects a policy of active hostility on the part of the state towards the Church. It cannot be shown that such legal measures were taken by the state against Christians prior to the later years of Domitian. The Revelation reflects a situation in which the cult of the emperor was a contemporary force and was bidding to become world-wide. Nero’s persecution had nothing to do with this issue. (The Book of Revelation, The New Century Bible [London: Oliphants, 1974], 38)

The weight of the evidence clearly favors a date for the writing of Revelation in the mid-nineties, near the end of Domitian’s reign. This is critically important, because it eliminates the possibility that the prophecies in Revelation were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This will have a significant impact on how we interpret The Revelation. More on that next time.