Why the Dating of Revelation Really Matters

The date of origin of the Bible’s last book has a significant bearing on its interpretation. If it partly prophesies the fall of Jerusalem, known to have occurred in A.D. 70, then it must have been written prior to that date. Support exists for A.D. 95-96, though, given a late second century Irenaeus comment about a 90s emperor: “For it was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Against Heresies V.30.3).  But is this valid? Plenty of evidence points to the book being written in the mid-60s during the reign of Nero, making it potentially less futuristic than some would have us believe.

Of course, interpretations still to be fulfilled make for easier speculation. It is surely more startling to read now-historical events backwards into these prophecies of John. If this is warranted, and clarity is difficult in apocalyptic literature, then three categories of evidence need to stand up to scrutiny.

1. Unpacking the Irenaeus statement.

What was ‘seen’ at the end of Domitian’s reign in the mid-90s depends upon an ambiguous text allowing it or he (in a manuscript that was in poor condition). For John himself to have been ‘seen’ fits with Irenaeus also suggesting that John lived “until the times of Trajan” (Against Heresies II.22.5). Irenaeus speaks of ancient copies of Revelation which would only make sense if it was originally written decades earlier. Perhaps the text of Revelation at the time was an updated version, as one prominent commentator believes. Irenaeus may have simply been in error, too, given his problematic handling of other dates such as those concerning Jesus who was said to have lived to fifty (Against Heresies II.22.4-6).

2. Other External Evidence

The Muratorian Fragment from late in the second century suggests that Paul copied John’s example in writing to seven churches, but Paul was of course martyred by Nero in A.D. 68. References to the persecution of Christians better fit the 60s, anyway, since persecution in the later period is not acknowledged by contemporary writers as being especially severe or particularly focused on Christians.

A Syriac version of Revelation, and writings by Clement of Alexandria, both strongly imply an exile to Patmos from where John wrote his book (1:9) but under the direction of Nero, not Domitian. Was it perhaps in both decades? Does a multi-layered approach reconcile confusion between the two? Of course, the reference to a revived beast in Revelation 13 does not need to be interpreted through the appearance of Domitian as a later ‘Nero’ which some suggest. Rumours of Nero’s reappearance in the late 60s could also explain this, as could the possibility that neither do.

For Smyrna to receive a letter in 2:8-10, a church had to exist there and some believe it was not present in Paul’s lifetime. Suggestions from its later bishop, Polycarp, that it had not existed when Paul wrote to the Philippians in the early 60s can easily be resolved if the church was commenced very soon after this date.

3. Internal Evidence

The Revelation 17:9-11 list of kings probably represents the Roman emperors, although various understandings exist as to which ones, since the list may not be chronological. The five who had “fallen” could well be the first five emperors, inclusive of Julius, meaning that the one present at the time of writing could have been Nero, with the seventh but brief reign being that of Vespasian by the time of Jerusalem’s fall if reasonably removing the transitional emperors in between. It is significant that the focus of this book was on “things which must shortly take place” (1:1) possibly rendering the A.D. 70 overthrow of Jerusalem a significant marker in explaining passages such as this one.

The idea of a revived Nero is implied here, too, with the eighth emperor operating in the spirit of the previous seven. Though possibly equating with the later Domitian as a figurehead of Roman rule beyond the end of the Jerusalem temple, it perhaps also finds more immediate fulfilment in Titus representing the Roman overpowering of Jerusalem, first as general and then as emperor. An alternative representation of the kings in this passage as world empires could likewise allow a future ‘king’ to be representative of all anti-Christian government, but this approach conveniently identifies eight kingdoms at the expense of others.

The identification of the beast’s number as 666 in Revelation 13, fits neatly with the Hebrew rendition of Nero, since its letters have this collective numerical value. Even though Revelation is written in Greek, the use of the Hebrew here would have been more secretive for the purpose of avoiding retaliation but nevertheless still familiar to the intended audience.

The thought that a later date for the book is favoured by the need for time to pass due to the decline of the churches stated in chapter 3 is countered by the evidence of a quick downturn in churches in Galatians 1:6 and 1 Timothy 1:9. Also, an earthquake in Laodicea in the early 60s could have seen a speedy rebuilding in order to appear in chapter 3, due to the city’s great wealth (3:17).

The temple referred to in 11:1-2, along with its forty-two month desecration via Nero’s persecution (late A.D. 64 until his death in mid-68), seems to correspond to the literal temple of Herod the Great which was still standing in the 60s, even though some believe it to refer to be a mere vision. Nevertheless, it would seem unimaginable that the A.D. 70 destruction would not have somehow been mentioned if the book was written after this event.

Finally, despite the claims of some that ‘Babylon’ was not used to describe Rome until after A.D. 70, 1 Peter 5:13 refers to it and his epistle was likely written in the early 60s, given that Peter was himself killed by Nero.

Of course, none of this prevents the book of Revelation having a large degree of end-time significance. It is not uncommon for biblical prophecy to have layers of fulfilment and application. The ‘Day of the Lord’ is a common Old Testament phrase that can refer to imminent judgment and either the first or the second comings of Christ.

It is reasonable to suppose that the destruction of the temple predicted by Jesus to occur within the lifetime of his hearers provided a context for the audience of Revelation. For the book to have an immediate application to people in the 60s, though, would not have precluded other layers of interpretation. Perhaps it still speaks to a largely future fulfilment, but its timeless application to many generations of Christians simply does not require this to be its exclusive priority.

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