PP3: External Evidence for an Early Date (Revelation)


This is now the third segment in our series on “A Partial-Preterist Perspective on the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.” This is the same title as a term paper I recently submitted to Northwestern College. The first segment included the Title Page, Outline, Introduction, and a brief introduction to Partial-Preterism. The second segment consisted of the References page. These segments can be found here:

[1] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/brief-explanation-of-partial-preterism/
[2] https://kloposmasm.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/pp2-references/

We will now move on to a consideration of the date in which the book of Revelation was written. This segment will consider the external evidence for an early date (likely 64-68 AD) as opposed to a late date (95-96 AD). This will be followed by several posts in which we will consider the internal evidence for an early date. Although this post happens to come first, it’s the internal evidence (what Scripture has to say) which is more important.

Adam Maarschalk

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C. The Book of Revelation: Early or Late Authorship?

In the Dispensational Futurist view, the events leading up to Jerusalem’s downfall in 70 AD are foretold mainly in (a sizeable portion of) Luke 21, and are briefly mentioned at the very beginning of Matthew 24 and Mark 13. The book of Revelation doesn’t even enter the discussion regarding 70 AD, in the Dispensationalist view, because it is said to have been written about 25 years later and must therefore be speaking about events beyond the first century. However, there is not as much historical consensus on this idea as one might be led to think. In fact, according to the Preterist view, which preceded the Dispensational view in Church history by many centuries, the book of Revelation speaks in great detail about Jerusalem’s impending destruction in 70 AD.

I. External Evidence for an Early Date

Naturally, in order for this to be true, it must be established that the book of Revelation was written prior to 70 AD. Otherwise this book could not foretell Jerusalem’s destruction. An early date is not possible, Dispensationalists say, because of the testimony of Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, who is said to have been a disciple of the apostle John. The following statement made by Irenaeus (120-202 AD), and quoted later by Eusebius (263-339) and others, is often seen as the foundation for the “late date” theory which holds that the book of Revelation was written in 95-96 AD:

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. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign (Grant Jeffrey, 2001).

At face value, it could appear that Irenaeus said John received his vision during the time of Domitian, who reigned from 81-96 AD and was the last emperor of the Flavius Dynasty. However, a number of objections have been made against this conclusion. Among these are the following, articulated by Richard Joseph Krejcir (2009 [1]), who at first set out to prove through research that Revelation was written around 95 AD but changed his stance as he viewed the evidence: [1] This is a second-hand quote, a paraphrase of a statement originally made by Polycarp. [2] It is not entirely clear what Polycarp meant when he said “that was seen.” (The original manuscript of Irenaeus’ work, in ancient Latin, no longer exists in any legible condition, and those who first translated it complained at the time about the poor condition of the manuscript evidence of his work. Some translators contended that the phrase should have been translated “he was seen,” meaning that Irenaeus was referring to John, rather than his apocalyptic vision, being seen during Domitian’s reign.) [3] The writings of Irenaeus suffer from credibility and textual issues. For example, in the same publication from which this quote comes, Irenaeus stated that Jesus ministered for more than 15 years and was crucified at the age of 50.

Kurt Simmons (2009 [1]) cites the following opinion given by Robert Young, the author of Young’s Analytical Concordance, in his commentary on Revelation written around 1885:

It was written in Patmos about A.D. 68, whither John had been banished by Domitius Nero, as stated in the title of the Syriac version of the book; and with this concurs the express statement of Irenaeus in A.D. 175, who says it happened in the reign of Domitianou – i.e., Domitius (Nero).  Sulpicius, Orosius, etc., stupidly mistaking Dimitianou for Domitianikos, supposed Irenaeus to refer to Domitian, A.D. 95, and most succeeding writers have fallen into the same blunder. The internal testimony is wholly in favor of the early date.

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. (1998) records the following quote from the Muratorian Canon (written around 170 AD): “[T]he blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name…John too, indeed, in the Apocalypse, although he writes to only seven churches, yet addresses all” (pp. 93-94). By calling John the predecessor of Paul, and saying that Paul followed John’s rule, the writer of this canon clearly taught that John wrote to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3) before Paul finished writing all of his epistles. The ‘Monarchian Prologues,’ dating back to 250-350 AD, make the same claim. It’s universally agreed that Paul died in 67 or 68 AD.

Other sources during the first several centuries after Christ also refer to an earlier date for the writing of Revelation, even explicitly. Krejcir (2009 [2]) cites statements from three sources: [1] The ‘Muratorian Fragment,’ dating back to 170-190 A.D., overtly states that the book of Revelation was written during the reign of Nero (who reigned from 54-68 AD). [2] The ancient ‘Syriac version’ of the New Testament, dated in the sixth century or earlier, echoes this statement that “Revelation was written during the reign of Nero.” [3] “The ‘Aramaic Peshitta’ version [which had become the standard Aramaic/Syriac translation by the early 5th century] has a remark that places its date prior to 70 A.D.”

Tertullian, an early church father who lived from 145-220 AD, seems to place John’s banishment to Patmos at the same time as the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, who we know were killed during the reign of Nero prior to his own death in 68 AD. In his writing, “Exclusion of Heretics,” speaking of the history of Rome, he had this to say (Dennis Todd [6], 2009): “…on which the Apostles poured out all their doctrine, with their blood: where Peter had a like Passion with the Lord; where Paul bath for his crown the same death with John; where the Apostle John was plunged into boiling oil, and suffered nothing, and was afterwards banished to an island.”

Jerome (340-420 AD) and others confirmed in their writings that it was Nero who had John plunged into boiling oil. So based on their testimony, and taken together with this quote from Tertullian, it was also Nero who had John banished to Patmos (Of course, the possibility exists that John was banished twice to the island of Patmos, i.e. during Nero’s reign and again during the reign of Domitian). Eusebius (263-339 AD), whose own writings echoed Irenaeus’ controversial statement, wrote that both Nero and Domitian were known for banishing individuals to various islands, but that Domitian showed more mercy and restraint. Quoting from Tertullian, Eusebius said, “Domitian also, who possessed a share of Nero’s cruelty, attempted once to do the same thing that the latter [Nero] did. But because he had, I suppose, some intelligence, he very soon ceased, and even recalled those whom he had banished” (Dennis Todd [4], 2009). L.L. Thompson (1990) writes that any campaign of terror during Domitian’s reign was rather selective and (unlike in Nero’s time) was generally aimed at influential members and even members of his family suspected of political conspiracy, rather than toward Christians (p. 95). As far as these testimonies are reliable, then, John found himself on Patmos during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD).

A number of late-date proponents (i.e. those who believe Revelation was written around 96 AD) admit that it’s very difficult to find evidence that Christians were undergoing any significant persecution from Rome in that decade. Therefore, it’s not easy to imagine why John would have been banished to Patmos at that time, something that only Rome could do. George Eldon Ladd (1987), a prominent New Testament scholar who teaches that Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign, nevertheless had this to say (p. 37): “The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence that during the last decade of the first century there occurred any open and systematic persecution of the church.” Kenneth Gentry (2002, p. 63) records similar statements from the following late-date authors: Michael Grant (1973), Leon Morris (1969), Reginald Fuller (1971), Donald B. Guthrie (1990), D.A. Carson (1992), Douglas Moo (1992), G.K. Beale (1992).

Andreas, writing in the year 500 AD, said regarding Revelation 6:12-13, “There are not wanting [i.e. it is not hard to find] those who apply this passage to the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.” A few centuries later, Arethas of Caesarea (850-944 AD), a Byzantine scholar and deacon in Constantinople, said the following in his commentary on Revelation 7:1 and 7:4: “Here, then, were manifestly shown to the Evangelist what things were to befall the Jews in their war against the Romans, in the way of avenging the sufferings inflicted upon Christ; When the Evangelist received these oracles, the destruction in which the Jews were involved was not yet inflicted by the Romans” (Dennis Todd [5], 2009). So Arethas, being only one example of this viewpoint in his time, clearly believed that John wrote Revelation before 70 AD and that what it contained was a prophecy of those events.

Clement of Alexandria, an early church father who lived from 150-220 AD, wrote of John’s release from Patmos, from where he went to Ephesus to appoint bishops and other leaders. Clement places John on the island of Patmos during the reign of one known as “the tyrant,” but it continues to be debated to whom Clement gave this title:

And to give you confidence, when you have thus truly repented, that there remains for you a trustworthy hope of salvation, hear a story that is no mere story, but a true account of John the apostle that has been handed down and preserved in memory. When after the death of the tyrant he removed from the island of Patmos to Ephesus, he used to journey by request to the neighboring districts of the Gentiles, in some places to appoint bishops, in others to regulate whole churches, in others to set among the clergy some one man, it may be, of those indicated by the Spirit (Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved?).

Grant Jeffrey (2001), a Dispensationalist author, seizes upon this quote as proof that Revelation was written in 96 AD. He notes that the tyrant in view here could either be Nero or Domitian, but assumes that it must be Domitian because Clement elsewhere described John as “old and infirm” at some point beyond his days on Patmos, and therefore he must have been more than 90 years old and a contemporary of Domitian. If “the tyrant” was instead Nero, says Jeffrey, then John could hardly have been described as old, because he would have been only about 60 years old. However, this is nothing more than Jeffrey’s own opinion regarding what it means to be “old,” especially when also noting that the apostle Paul once referred to himself as “Paul, an old man” (Philemon 1:9). Paul was likely around 60 years old when he made this statement, and he was in a much better position than Jeffrey to say what it meant to be “old” in the first century AD. Based on multiple testimonies, John did indeed live until nearly the age of 100, but there is nothing to say that John couldn’t have lived and ministered for more than 30 years after his release from Patmos rather than just 2-3 years, unless clearly proven otherwise.

Clement also wrote that after John’s release from Patmos, he once mounted a horse and chased down a backslidden believer, apprehending him and leading him back to the faith. Jeffrey might do well to ask whether John was more likely able to do this at the age of 60 or at the age of 90. Jerome (342-420), a contemporary of Augustine, said that John was seen in 96 AD “and was so aged and weak and infirm that he was with difficulty carried to the church, and could speak only a few words to the people” (Simmons, 2009). It’s not clear what source Jerome was citing, but if this testimony is true it’s hard to imagine John writing the book of Revelation in that same year, let alone appointing multiple bishops throughout Ephesus and overtaking someone on horseback.

Regarding the title “the tyrant,” it is true that this term was applied on more than one occasion to Domitian. However, the same is true for Nero, who certainly fit the title with his reputation as a ruthless, self-centered dictator whose brutality seemed to know no bounds. Apollonius of Tyana (15-98 AD), a Greek philosopher who outlived both Nero and Domitian, clearly found Nero to be much more of a tyrant than Domitian was (Robinson, 1976):

In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many, many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs. …And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mothers, but Nero has gorged himself on this diet.

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The discussion of the internal evidence for an early date begins here.

The Bible study group I belong to has posted fairly comprehensive chapter-by-chapter studies on the book of Revelation. They can all be found here.

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