Late Date of the Apocalypse

ALERT … PRESUPPOSITION: As we embark on our study of the Book of Revelation, I will be presupposing a late date for the writing of the Apocalypse. The consensus among twentieth-century scholars is that the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Domitian around 95 A.D. An earlier date (pre-70 A.D.) could be correct, however the cumulative weight of evidence points to a late date.

While I have read extensively on the dating of the Book of Revelation, G.K. Beale in The New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC): The Book of Revelation, summarizes the arguments so nicely I will simply refer to his writings to make the case. Clearly, I have only quoted parts of his writings. To get the full context of these sections, and the original sources … buy G.K. Beale’s book!

Arguments for a Late Date

Emperor Worship

Revelation presupposes that Christians were being required to participate to some degree in the imperial cult (e.g., 13:4-8, 15-16; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). Roman emperors began to require worship of their person as divine prior to Domitian’s time. It is possible that Christians in Rome were required to recognized Nero’s deity, but that is not the occasion for his persecution of them. He persecuted them because he blamed the great fire of Rome on them. In contrast, in the Apocalypse persecution arises because of refusal to worship the ungodly king.

“Hard” evidence for persecuting Christians for refusing to acquiesce to legal requirements for emperor worship comes in 113 A.D. during the reign of Trajan in a letter written by Pliny to Trajan and in Trajan’s response. Trajan’s approach was that Christians were not to be sought out but were to be executed if accused and convicted; the only way out was to deny being a Christian and to confirm this by emperor worship.

… It is possible but improbable that even this ad hoc practice happened overnight. If the same situation did not exist during Domitian’s reign seventeen years earlier, then there were probably increasing tendencies in that direction. Indeed, Pliny’s letter to Trajan refers to people who had apostatized “many years” earlier and “a few as much as twenty-five years ago,” that is, during Domitian’s reign.

… Furthermore, we are informed that Domitian insisted on greater divine titles than earlier emperors in order to increase his tyrannical hold on the reins of government. Those refusing to acknowledge these new titles were persecuted.

… Therefore … the later setting under Domitian is more probable in the light of the evidence in the book for an expected escalation of emperor worship in the near future and especially the widespread, programmatic legal persecution portrayed as imminent or already occurring in Revelation 13, though the letters reveal only spasmodic persecution. The likelihood is that outright oppression was occasional and that John expects a heightening of the persecution imminently.

Persecution of Christians

The issue of persecution is closely connected to the debate about emperor worship, since Revelation depicts the latter as the basis for the former. The internal evidence of the book points toward a situation of relative peace and selective persecution, with an imminent expectation of intensifying persecution on a widening and progammatic scale.

There is no evidence that Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome extended also to Asia Minor, where the churches addressed in the Apocalypse are located. But John may have seen the outbreak of persecution in Rome as the first step of expanding persecutions elsewhere in the Empire.

Persecution under Domitian is possible but supported by documentary evidence only in writers subsequent to his reign. Even if there was no such consistent persecution, John might have seen the storm clouds forming and on that basis might have expressed an expectation of imminent persecution. This is especially plausible in view of Pliny’s evidence: widespread persecution was increasing, but Pliny was not aware of any formal imperial policy providing guidelines for persecuting Christians. His question to the emperor on how to proceed and other like request would presumably have slowly but surely lead to a more programmatic approach.

… In light of the conclusion reached above concerning emperor worship, it is more probable that the persecution pictured in the book occurred later than earlier. Though John’s exile to Patmos (1:9) could have taken place under Nero, it fits better the conditions of Domitian’s reign, when forms of persecution for refusal to participate in emperor worship were likely increasing and becoming more systematic. The letters in Revelation suggest that Jewish Christians were tempted to escape persecution by seeking some form of identification with Jewish synagogues, which were exempted from emperor worship, and that Gentile Christians were tempted to compromise with trade guild cults and even the emperor cult in order to escape persecution. Such a situation is more likely to have been present toward the end of the first century rather than earlier.

… Therefore, later Christian sources referring to persecution should not be wholly discounted, though some may overemphasize the programmatic nature and the severity of the persecution.

In line with the preceding analysis, S.R.F. Price has concluded that “the establishment of the provincial cult of Domitian at Ephesus, with its colossal statue, is what lies behind” the depiction in Revelation 13 of believers being put to death for not worshipping “the image of the beast.” Indeed, “no other interpretations [of Revelation 13] which fits the known geographical and temporal contexts” is as suitable, especially since this event at Ephesus “involved the participation of the whole province, as attested by the series of dedications by numerous cities. Price deduces that such large-scale involvement by the entire province led to unusually strong pressure being placed on Christians to conform. Such a major event may also explain why John himself alludes in chapter 13 to the narrative of Daniel 3 of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s refusal to bow dow to a huge statue of Nebuchadnezzar (esp. according to LXX of Dan. 3:12, 18). Perhaps this event in Ephesus and the persecution it cause led the early church to see a Daniel’s three friends as protomartyrs and as models for persecuted Christians — Nebuchadnezzar’s image as prototypical of the Roman emperor’s image. This kind of local evidence in Asia Minor of imperial cult pressure is not available for the pre-70 A.D. dating of the book.

The Conditions of the Churches in Asia Minor

The situation of the churches described in Revelation 2-3, when considered together, could point to a later rather than an earlier date. First, the spiritual lethargy of Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea is so widespread and severe that each church as a whole is on the verge of losing its very identity as a church of Christ. It is plausible that such spiritual deterioration took a significant period of time to develop. For example, that Ephesus had left its “first love” could mean that the church had done so within only a few years of its establishment, but the language may fit better a longer development, perhaps so that the church was in its second generation of existence. The Laodicean church is called “wealthy,” but the city experienced a devastating earthquake in 60-61 A.D. Therefore, the natural assumption is that the city took longer than merely three or four years to recover economically. And, as suggested by many commentators, the very existence of the church at Smyrna suggests a later date, since it is possible that the church was not even established until 60-64 A.D.

The Myth of Nero’s Reappearance

Some commentators argue that some passages in Revelation reflect a “revival of Nero” myth, especially in 13:3-4 and 17:8, 11, which speak of the demise of the beast and subsequent revival. In particular, 13:3-4 refers to the beast recovering from a fatal wound. The Nero myth held that Nero would return from the dead and lead a Parthian army against the Roman Empire. If these texts reflect the myth, then Revelation is better dated later than earlier, since presumably it took time for the myth to arise, develop, and circulate after Nero’s death in 68 A.D.

“Babylon”

Those preferring a pre-70 A.D. date for Revelation regard “Babylon” as a symbolic name for apostate Jerusalem, but John’s use of the name may be the strongest internal evidence for a post-70 A.D. date. “Babylon” refers to Rome in Jewish literature after 70 A.D. and roughly contemporary with the Apocalypse. Jewish commentators called Rome “Babylon” because the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 A.D., just as Babylon had done in the sixth century B.C. This use of the name probably influenced John, as did other Jewish traditions. Jewish writings might have referred to Rome as Babylon before 70 A.D. merely out of a belief that Jews were still in exile, even though they were living in the Promised Land, because they were oppressed by a foreign power, because the new temple of Ezekiel 40-48 had not yet been built, and because the new creation had not yet occurred, all of which was expected to occur when Israel’s exile was completely ended. But Jews do not appear to have labeled Rome “Babylon” until after 70 A.D. In fact, the only early metaphorical uses of “Babylon” occur, besides in Revelation, in 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the Sibylline Oracles, which are clearly post-70.

The Earliest Traditions

The testimony of the earliest patristic authors supports a date during the time of Domitian. The most important of these witnesses are Irenaeus, Victorimus of Pettau, Eusebius, and possibly Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

The most decisive and earliest witness is Irenaeus, who, in discussing the identity of the Antichrist in Revelation, writes, “We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of the 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 Apocalypse. For it was seen not very long ago, but almost in our day, toward the end of Domitian’s reign.”

… In the same context Irenaeus discusses various possible identifications for the number of the “beast” (666). But he does not entertain the possibility that the beast is to be identified with Nero, and he even rejects the possibility that the beast is to be identified with any Roman emperor at all (see Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5:30.3). Such lack of consideration is striking since Nero’s infamous reputation as a persecuting tyrant would still have been well known.

Again, this has simply been an ALERT  to my PRESUPPOSITION. I will be presupposing a late date for the writing of the Apocalypse. The consensus among twentieth-century scholars, and the cumulative weight of evidence points to a late date for the writing of the Book of Revelation.

In addition: here are some phonetic pronunciations that may be helpful for you.

1. Domitian (said: “Doe – mish – en”)

2. Pliny (said: “Ply – nee”)

3. Trajan (said: “Tray – jen”)

4. Irenaeus (said: “I – ren – ae – us”)

5. Victorimus (said: Vic – tore – im – us)

6. Eusebius (said: U – see – bee – us)

7. Origen (said: Or – i – jen)

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