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WHEN WAS REVELATION WRITTEN?

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by Greg L. Bahnsen

Research into the historical context of the book of Revelation is necessary in order to understand the message of this book properly. The reader ought to appreciate the concrete setting of the book and the historical perspective which its author would have had. It is true that in the case of any Biblical book we should ask at the outset of study under what circumstances it was written, but in the case of the book of Revelation the answer to such a question will more significantly affect one’s interpretation of the text of the book than it would for virtually any other portion of Scripture. One’s understanding of the historical setting for Revelation will be absolutely crucial in the determination of one’s understanding of the message of the book.

We can see this if we but consider the reference in Revelation to the city of Jerusalem, its temple, and the Roman Empire – all of which, in their own order, are prophesied to be destroyed. Now in 70 A.D. the Romans leveled Jerusalem and the temple, as we know from history. What one thinks of the prophecies in Revelation will naturally be affected, then, by the choice of a date for the writing of the book either prior to, or subsequent to, this event in 70 A.D. Milton Terry observed:

The great importance of ascertaining the historical standpoint of an author is notably illustrated by the controversy over the date of the Apocalypse of John. If that prophetical book was written before the destruction of Jerusalem, a number of its particular allusions must most naturally be understood as referring to that city and its fall. If, however, it was written at the end of the reign of Domitian (about A.D. 96), as many have believed, another system of interpretation is necessary to explain the historical allusions. [1]

An interpreter who is committed to the unerring authority of God’s word and to the reality of predictive prophecy must ask whether John was speaking in Revelation of the ancient city of Jerusalem, the Herodian temple, and the Roman Empire of the Caesars, or rather of a “restored” Jerusalem, a rebuilt” temple, and a “revived” Roman Empire sometime in the distant future to John (and yet future to us today). If John wrote before 70 A.D., then he would obviously have been speaking of the Jerusalem, temple, and Empire of his day – the first two of which, as prophesied, were destroyed just a few years following the temple in 70 A.D., then the interpreter would be inclined to infer from Revelation’s prophecy of their destruction that they must first be rebuilt. (It is important to realize that Revelation’s text does not explicitly teach the rebuilding of the temple, for instance, but some interpreters infer such a rebuilding from their understanding of the text in conjunction with their understanding of the book’s date.) The alternative would be to deny that Revelation had any historical reference to an empirical city or temple whatsoever (i.e., to thoroughly “spiritualize” the references to Jerusalem and the temple there), or to follow many liberal critics in contending that John wrote after the fact but pretended to prophesy what happened.

So then, if one reads “the holy city shall they tread under foot” (Rev. 11:2) in a natural sense and as genuine prophecy he will need to decide whether John was speaking of the Jerusalem that is now past to us or rather contemporaneous (perhaps future) to us. There is no question about the superabundance of eager prophecy popularizers in our day who jump at the “obvious” opportunity to make Revelation relevant today by choosing the second option. But the question is one of historical warrant and fact, not popular imagination. If responsible scholarship should support a date for Revelation prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., there would be no need to imply the rebuilding of the city and temple so that they could be destroyed again – an implication taken by some to manifest exegetical “double vision.”

To postulate a “revived” Roman empire and a “restored” Jewish temple and community, when the contemporary facts fit every requirement perfectly, seems to be a work of supererogation. . . . The disease of exegetical diplopia alone can account for such needless duplication in the face of such simple, clear-cut internal evidence given by the writer to help date and identify the prophecy and its subjects. [2]

It is quite evident from this example that one’s understanding of the historical setting of Revelation – in particular, the date of its composition – will affect in one way or another the interpretation of the book (in contrast to liberal critics) have differed greatly. In order to understand the various proposals, the reader would do well to remember the history of the Roman/rulers, as here listed for the relevant periods:

First Triumvirate 60-46 B.C.
Julius Caesar 46-44 B.C.
Second Triumvirate 43-32 B.C.
Augustus Caesar 31 B.C.-14 A.D.
Tiberius 14-37 A.D.
Caligula (Gaius) 37-41 A.D.
Claudius 41-54
Nero 54-68
Galba 68-69 (7 months)
Otho 69 (3 months)
Vitellius 69 (8 months)
Vespasian 69-79
Titus 79-81
Domitian 81-96
Nerva 96-98
Trajan 98-117

Early and late extremes for the date of Revelation have been proposed occasionally. If we accept his words at face value, (Epiphanius (d. 403) placed the book in the time of Claudius (Haereses 51.12) – Edinburgh, 19872), which dated Revelation between 50 and 54 A.D., on the assumption that John’s exile to Patmos was occasioned by the banishment of Jews from Rome by Claudius in 51 [49] A.D. (cf. Acts 18:2). Such a view might explain why Paul was forbidden to go into Asia (Acts 16:6) – since John was already laboring there – and why Revelation 1-3 mentions only seven churches in Asia (as yet). These two “advantages” work against each other, however, when we remember that one of those seven Asian churches (at Ephesus) was clearly founded by Paul! Moreover, Epiphanius seems to have spoken carelessly, many scholars believe; he probably was referring to Nero (whose full name was Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus) as “Claudius.” [3] At the other extreme for dating Revelation, Trajan’s reign was advanced by the 6th century ascetic, Dorotheus (Synopsis de vita et morte prophetarum), and in the commentary at Matthew 20:22 by Theophylact, an 11th century exegete. Such opinions are far too late and unargued to warrant serious attention. The correct date for the writing of Revelation lies somewhere between the extremes of Claudius and Trajan.

Throughout the history of the church only two general views regarding the date of Revelation have been credible and consistently forwarded. These, the dominant positions, call for study and careful scrutiny. Harrison says:

Two periods for the origin of the Revelation have won considerable scholarly support, and only these two need be considered. One is the reign of Domitian, preferable the latter part, around the year 96. . . . an earlier dating fixes the end of Nero’s reign or shortly thereafter. [4]

In what follows “the late date” for Revelation will denote the end of Domitian’s reign as emperor (viz., the mid to late 60’s of the first century).

The early date is elastic enough to encompass the first year of Vespasian’s reign, which has been suggested by some of the scholars who disagree with the Domitian dating of the book (e.g., Hort/Dusterdieck, F. F. Bruce). [5] The thought here would be that, counting from Augustus and omitting the three brief rulers during the anarchy of 68-69, Vespasian is the sixth king (“the one is,” Rev. 17:10) who brought recovery to the empire from the threat of civil war (“the death-stroke” of the beast “was healed,” Rev. 13:2) and was followed by the two year reign of Titus (“the other,” seventh king who will “continue a short while,” Rev. 17:10). The counting on this view commences with Augustus since he was the first official emperor, and the three rules of the anarchy are skipped because Seutonius wrote of their period as a mere interval and the provinces never recognized them as emperors. The difficulty with this view, even if one is not struck with the artificiality of the counting technique, is that martyrdoms can be definitely placed with the reign of Vespasian,  [6] and the relative calm of his reign (which is out of line with the tumultuous picture in Revelation) was not marked by his pressing of claims to deity or by his persecuting of the church [7] – both of which characterize the beast in Revelation 13. Some scholars (e.g., F.W. Farrar, Weigall and C.C. Torrey) [8] who cannot persuade themselves to ignore the three, brief claimants to the throne, but who do commence counting the kings of Revelation 17:10 with Augustus, have suggested that Galba was the emperor when John wrote Revelation (i.e., the king who “is”). But this hardly differentiates the sixth and seventh kings in terms of the shortness of the latter’s reign (Rev. 17:10, “a little while”) since both Galba and his successor, Otho, reigned for only 2 matter of months.

At any rate, even though I do not favor the preceding two specific interpretations of the internal evidence in Revelation, the suggestions of Galba’s or Vespasian’s reigns for the date of Revelation would fall within that general period which we will call “the early date” for the Book’s composition. Revelation 17:10 is the interpretation of a symbol (and thus not itself symbolic), indicating among other things that John was writing during the reign of a sixth ruler of Rome. However one calculates the identity of this emperor, those holding to an early dating for Revelation would together recognize that by no stretch of the imagination could Domitian be reckoned the sixth emperor of Rome, without resorting to artificial and arbitrary starting points and methods of counting (dictated by a preconceived end point). The essence of the “early date” for the writing of Revelation is the belief that John composed the book sometime prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Philip Schaff, once an advocate of the later (post-70 A.D., Domitian) dating of Revelation who subsequently publicized how strong internal evidence from Revelation had persuaded him to amend his outlook and advocate the early date, [9] summarized the view in this way:

The early date is best suited for the nature and object of the Apocalypse, and facilitates its historical understanding. Christ pointed in his eschatological discourses to the destruction of Jerusalem and the preceding tribulation as the great crisis in the history of the theocracy and the type of the judgment of the world, and there never was a more alarming state of society. . . . The tribulation of the six years preceding the destruction of Jerusalem extended over the whole Roman empire and embraced wars and rebellions, frequent and unusual conflagrations, earthquakes and famines and plagues, and all sorts of public calamities and mysteries untold. It seemed, indeed, that the world, shaken to its very centre, was coming to a close, and every Christian must have felt that the prophecies of Christ were being fulfilled before his eyes.

It was at this unique juncture in the history of mankind that St. John, with the consuming fire in Rome and the infernal spectacle of the Neronian persecution behind him, the terrors of the Jewish war and the Roman interregnum around him, and the catastrophe of Jerusalem and the Jewish theocracy before him, received those wonderful visions of the impending conflicts and final triumphs of the Christian church. His was truly a book of the times and for the times. . . . [10]

The “early” date for Revelation (often considered the “Neronian date”) [11] would roughly span the years 64-70 A.D., placing John’s writing at the end of Nero’s rule or briefly following it – but at any rate prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple, even if Galba or Vespasian should be identified as the emperor under whom John suffered and wrote.



Notes

1. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, rep. 1974), 237.

2. Jay E. Adams, The Time is at Hand (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R.,  1996. 1970), 54.

3. F. J. A. Hort, The Apocalypse of St. John I-III (London: Macmillan, 1908), xviii.

4. Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 446, 447.

5. Friedrich Duesterdieck, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Revelation of John, 3rd ed., tran. Henry E. Jacobs, Meyer’s Comm. on the N.T. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1887). F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971, 411, and The Spreading Flame (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,  1958. 1970), 166. Others who promoted this view include B. Weiss (1869), J. V. Bartlet (1907), C. A. Scott (1902).

6. Kenneth Scott Latourette, The First Five Centuries: A History of the Expansion of Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan  1937. 1970), 1:140; and James Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (3d. ed.: Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1918), 503-504. Both Latourette and Moffatt cite Linsenmayer’s BeKamp Fung des Christent Church den roinishen Stact.

7. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downer’s Grove, Ill: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970), 961.

8. Fredric W. Farrar, Texts Explained (NY: Dodd, Mead, 1899), 365; Arthur Weigall, Nero (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1930), 395; cf. The Meaning of the Books (New York: Drotto); The Early Days of Christianity (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883), 413.; Charles C. Torrey, The Apocalypse of John (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958), 58ff. Others: Ewald (1838), Lucke (1832), DeWect (1848), Crednor Volkman 1862).

9. Ray Summers, Worthy Is the Lamb (Nashville: Broadman, 1951) 82. Martin Rist arrives at Domitian by counting only those emperors deified by the Roman Senate: The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1957), 12:495.

10. Perhaps John was using an earlier oracle: R. H. Charles, The Revelation of St. John (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1920), 2:69. Summers, 82; Martin Kiddle, The Revelation of St. John, 348-351 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1940). Mounce, 36, 315, 316, Caird, 218-219, Beckwith, 704-8.

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