Monday, May 30, 2011

When Was The Book Of Revelation Written?

Deciding when the book of Revelation was written is a major first step in understanding the events that John wrote about.  It is important to decide when the book was composed, because John wrote repeatedly that the prophecy was about things that would happen very soon:

 Rev. 1.1 "what must soon take place,"
1.3 "because the time is near,"
22.10 "because the time is near,"
22.12 "behold, I am coming soon,"
22.20 "yes, I am coming soon."

Some say that this is "soon" in God's time, so it could be thousands of years from now, but God wanted this book to be understood by his people.  So, if he says five times that the time is near I believe him.

There are two dates that most people favor as the dates that Revelation was written:  69 AD, during the reign of Nero, or 96 AD, during the reign of Domitian.  There are two ways to approach the dating of Revelation: the internal evidence of the book, which favors the early date of 69 or the external evidence which favors the later date of 96.  Let's look at the external evidence first.

Ireanaeus is the most important witness for when the book of Revelation was written, and he is a very good witness.  Ireanaeus was the bishop of Lyon and a native of Asia Minor, around 180AD he recorded this, while writing about the Mark of the Beast in Rev. 13.18, "If it had been necessary that his name should be publicly proclaimed at the present season, it would have been uttered by him who saw the Apocalypse.  For it was seen no such long time ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian" (Adv Haer. 5.30.3).

I was taught that Ireanaeus must have had known what he wrote about because he was a student of Polycarp who was taught by the apostle John himself, but based on his other writings it is a little more complicated than that.  Ireanaeus wrote that he met Polycarp, but he doesn't say that he was a student of him: "But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my youth..."(Adv. Haer. 3.3.4)  In another place he wrote to a friend "For, while I was yet a boy, I saw thee there in Lower Asia with Polycarp...for I have a more vivid recollection of what occurred at that time than of recent events...These things, through God's mercy which is upon me, I then listened attentively and treasured them up not on paper but in my heart" (Fragment II).  When he was young Ireanaeus heard Polycarp teach.  Is this where he got his information about when John saw his revelation?  We don't know; Ireanaeus didn't say where he got that information from.  In spite of all this, Ireanaeus is our earliest and best witness for when the Revelation was seen.

The internal evidence are the passages in the book of Revelation that hint at when the book was written.  Alone each one may not prove much, but together they form an important piece of evidence, and they favor the early date of 69 AD.  Rev. 1.7 "Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced  him...."  This verse indicates that some of the people who were involved in the crucification of Jesus were still alive.  Rev. 2.2 "you have tested those who claimed to be apostles but are not and found them to be false."  This passage shows that the book was written at a time there were still apostles around.  Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, but the next three verses speak of Jerusalem as still standing Rev. 11.1 "temple of God and the alter," 11.2 "holy city," 11.8 "where the Lord was crucified."  Rev. 17.10  "They are also seven king.  Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come...."  This verse says that the vision was seen during the reign of the sixth king.

A common interpretation of Rev. 17.10 is that the seven kings are the first seven rulers of the Roman Empire.  Suetonius was a Roman biographer who was born around 70 AD and died after 130 AD, he wrote the Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  His list is Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian.  If you like a more modern work, you can look at the Twelve Caesars, by Micheal Grant (1975), but list is the same.  Looking at our list the "five" who have fallen would be Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius.  The "one is" would be Nero.  This places the vision as being seen before 69 AD, during the reign of Nero.  If you want to have the list work out for Domitian than you have to leave out Julius Caesar (he wasn't really an emperor like the others), leave out Galba, Otho, and Vitellius (they didn't rule long enough to count) and combine Vespasina, Titus and Domition as one (father and his two sons, so they really count as one).

Rev. 17.10 is the closest thing we have in Revelation to a date and the most obvious way of understanding it shows that the Revelation was seen during the reign of Nero.  Getting the list to workout to Domition is not just strained it looks desperate. One more piece of internal evidence I want to look at is the mark of the beast in Rev. 13.18.  His number is 666, but there is a variant of this text that is 616.  Irenaeus wrote against this variant, but the "616 variation is commonly associated the Latin translation of the Greek text, since 616 is the Latin numerical equivalent of Nero's name" (Constantinou, p74 and Charles, p 367). This indicates that as early Irenaeus there was an understanding that the book was about Nero's persecution of the Church.  The internal evidence is strongly in favor of the early date for the vision being seen, but there is one more aspect that we should look at, and that is which one of the emperor persecuted Christians.  The book of Revelation was written to prepare the Church for a time of trial, so determining which emperor attacked the church will help us determine when it was written.

That Nero persecuted the church is well attested in history.  Suetonius, born after Nero died, records it as one of Nero's accomplishments: "The Christians, a kind of men given to a new and wicked superstition, were put to death with grievous torments" (Nero 16.2).  Tacitus, a Roman historian who was born 56/57 (Grant, 1970), recorded this about Nero "A vast multitude of Christians were not only put to death, but put to death with insult.  They were either clothed in skins of wild beasts and then exposed in the arena to the attacks of half-famished dogs or else dipped in tar and put on crosses to set on fire, and, when the daylight failed, to be burned as lights by night (Annals XV, 44).  Also, he wrote "Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved they were pitied.  For it seemed that they were being sacrificed to one man's brutality rather than to the national interest (Annals, XV 44.8).  Clement, an elder in Rome wrote around 96 AD "To these men who spent their lives in the practice of holiness, there is to be added a great multitude of the elect, who having through envy endured many indignities and tortures, furnished us with a most excellent example" (1Clem. 6.1).

The church historian Eusebius (born around 260 AD) wrote this about Nero "When Nero's power was now firmly established he gave himself up to unholy practices and took up arms against the God of the universe.  To describe the monster of depravity that he became lies outside the scope of the present work...All this left one crime still to be added to his account - he was the first of the emperors to be declared enemy of the the worship of Almighty God" (Eusebius, 25.1).  He also records that during Nero's reign Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified (Eusebius, 25.1).

Suetonius doe not record that Domitian persecuted the Church, and the portions of Tacitus' history that deal with Domitian's reign  are missing, but Eusebius wrote this: " Many were the victims of Domitian's appalling cruelty.  At Rome great numbers of men distinguished by birth and attainments were executed without a fair trial, and countless other eminent men for no reason at all banished from the country and their property confiscated.  Finally, he showed himself the successor of Nero in enmity and hostility to God" (Eusebius, 18.4).  In this quote you need to notice that Eusebius is writing about two groups of people: the "men distinguished by birth and attainment" whom he executed, and Christian's, to whom he showed "enmity and hostility."   Tertullian, a Christian who lived  around 160-220 AD, wrote "Domitian also with a share of Nero's cruelty had tried on one occasion to do the same as Nero.  But being, as I imagine, possessed of some intelligence, he very soon ceased, and even recalled those whom he had banished (Tertullian, Apol.5).

After viewing the evidence for the persecution of the Church by Domitian J.A.T. Robinson (p.233) commented "When this limited and selective pruge, in which no Christian was for certain put to death, is compared with the massacre of Christians under Nero in what two early and entirely independent witnesses speak of as 'immense multitudes', it is astonishing that commentators should have been lead by Irenaeus, who himself does not even mention a persecution, to prefer a Domitian contest for the book of Revelation." Leon comments that "For a persecution of the Christians by Domitian, despite the much repeated modern view, there seems to be no evidence at all" (p. 35).

Irenaeus is an excellent witness, but the internal evidence favors the early date of 69 AD, and the persecution of the Church by Nero was far more intense than anything that Domitian inflicted on the Church; this also favors the early date of 69 AD.  So, as much as we would like to accept Irenaeus' comments the book of Revelation seems to have been written during the reign of the emperor Nero, before 69 AD.

Charles, RH (1920).  Revelation of St. John, Scribner.
Constantinou, ES (2008).  Andrew of Caesarea and the Apocalypse, University of Laval Quebec.
Eusebius, translated by GA Williamson (1965).  Penguin Classics.
Grant, Michael  (1970).  The Ancient Historians, Michael Grant Publications.
Grant, Michael  (1975). The Twelve Caesars. Simon and Schuster.
Leon, HJ (1960). The Jews of Ancient Rome, Henderson.
Robinson, John AT (1976). Redating The New Testament, Westminster Press.
Suetonus (1965). The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Heritage Press.

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