The Date of the Book of Revelation

July 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

Two dates for the book of Revelation have been suggested. The strongest evidence supports the AD 95 date under the reign of Domitian (this is often held by the “futurist” view). However, the last one hundred years have seen a surge of support for the AD 65 date under the reign of Nero (this is the “preterist” or “partial preterist” view).

The Date of the Book of Revelation

I. 95 AD DURING THE REIGN OF DOMITIAN

A. Internal Evidence

There are five widely accepted late-date arguments that support John writing the book of Revelation in AD 95 while exiled to the island of Patmos by Emperor Domitian. Here are five arguments and a brief explanation of each.

1. Banishment of John to Patmos

Revelation 1:9 tells readers that John was banished to the island of Patmos because of the word of God and testimony of Jesus. While it is true that both Nero and Domitian banished people, there are several points that favor Domitian’s reign as the time when John was banished to the island of Patmos. First, church history records Peter and Paul being executed in Rome near the end of Nero’s reign. Why would Nero execute Peter and Paul for being Christians only to banish John to an island? Second, Nero did not exile people nearly as often as Domitian. Domitian was known for banishing Christians while Nero was known for killing them. Third, nowhere in history is there a record that says Nero banished Christians. The only punishment known by Nero for Christians was death. Fourth, several secular historians and early church writers specifically mention that John was exiled under the reign of Domitian. Among these are Tacitus, Tertullian, Eusebius, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 190-197).

2. Condition of the Churches in Revelation 2-3

Much of the information scholars have about the churches described in Rev 2-3 matches a date of AD 95.

  • Ephesus. Paul stayed at Ephesus from AD 53-56. Timothy received Paul’s’ first letter in AD 64-65 and his second letter around AD 67-68. John’s letter to the church in Ephesus implies a length of time has passed since the church’s beginning when John writes to them. Additionally, John’s letter does not mention Paul nor Timothy. If John were exiled to the island of Patmos in AD 65, he would have been in Asia (the geographical region of Ephesus) and more than likely would have been a coworker of Paul in that area.
  • Smyrna. Regarding the church of Smyrna, this church did not even exist during the ministry of Paul (who likely died in AD 65-68). Furthermore, Paul’s second letter to Timothy mentions at least seventeen current and past coworkers by name, yet John is not in that list (2 Tim 4:9-21). In the book of Acts, John is with Peter (Acts 3:1, 11), and they were imprisoned and appeared before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1–21). Later, John was sent to Samaria with Peter in order to transmit the Holy Spirit to the new converts (Acts 8:14 f.). In Galatians it says he was present at the Apostles’ council in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9) (F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005], 885). Yet, Rev 2:8-11 says that the church in Smyrna had been persevering for a while.
  • Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis. Regarding the churches of Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis, it is clear that the state of these churches is very different when John writes to them in AD 95 than when Luke describes them in the 50s and 60s.
  • Laodicea. Regarding the church of Laodicea, it was a terrible church with nothing to applaud in AD 95. Yet, when Paul writes to the church in Colossae (AD 61-62), he mentions the Laodicean church in Col 2:2, 4:3, 16 and describes it as an active group. Additionally, Rev 3:17 describes the church as rich and flourishing economically, yet a catastrophic earthquake shook the Lycus Valley in AD 60 or 61. In a primitive time when construction was long and tedious, it is unlikely that the people in Laodicea would have been experiencing a strong economy only five years after a massive earthquake. (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 177-190).

3. “Oil” and “Wine” in Revelation 6:6

This description of an “oil” and “wine” deficiency matches up with Domitian’s edict in AD 92 to destroy vineyards in Asia. Domitian’s edict, the lack of wine afterward, and the riots that followed would have been a familiar event in the mind of John’s readers (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 222-223).

4. The New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:9-22:5

In Rev 21:9-22:5 John describes his vision of seeing the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven and from God. This New Jerusalem points out that the Old Jerusalem might have already been destroyed (Rev 11:1-14). The temple and much of Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70. Fourth Ezra 9:28-10:28 provides a similar vision from AD 100 (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 221-222).

5. Oppression of Christians in Asia under Domitian

While Nero definitely persecuted Christians in Rome, it does not appear that his persecution extended beyond that city. On the flip side, while the persecution under Domitian does not appear to be as strong as Nero, there is evidence from Pliny, Dio Cassius, Clement of Rome, Melito of Sardis, Hegesippus, Eusebius, and Tertullian that he persecuted Christians throughout the entire Roman Empire (instead of just the city of Rome as Nero did). Interestingly, Flavia Domitilla was banished by Domitian in AD 95. Dio and Eusebius record this event which serves as an independent corroboration to John’s banishment by Domitian (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 197-221).

B. External Evidence 

The external evidence for the AD 95 date of Revelation is extremely strong. A brief explanation of Hegsippius, Irenaeus, and a summary of other witnesses to the late date follows.

1. Hegesippus (AD 120-190)

The first person to describe the date Revelation was written in AD 95 is a man named Hegesippus who lived AD 120-190. While there is a limited number of writings that exist today from Hegesippus, Eusebius Pamphili of Caesaria (who lived AD 300-340) heavily relied on Hegesippus’ material when writing his Ecclesiastical History (Andrew James Carriker, The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea, Supplements to Viligiae christianae, ed. J. Van Oort, J. Den Boeft, W. L. Petersen, et al., vol. 67 [Leiden: Brill: 2003], 1-36). In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History he mentions a written source that he uses to state that John the apostle was banished to the island of Patmos under the reign of Domitian. The written source that Eusebius uses is most likely Hegesippus’ work written sometime in the second century (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 11-16).

2. Irenaeus (AD 120-202)

Perhaps the best known source for the book of Revelation being written in AD 95 is Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (AD 120-202). It is important to note that Irenaeus was not a random guy with an interest in the Bible. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, and Polycarp was a disciple of the apostle John! This means Irenaeus was one generation removed from the apostle John. Therefore, his comments and their weight are extremely important regarding the date of the book of Revelation. In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History he quotes Irenaeus who wrote, “But if it had been necessary to announce his name plainly at the present time, it would have been spoke by him who saw the apocalypse. For it was not seen long ago, but almost in our own time, at the end of the reign of Domitian.” This statement by Irenaeus is the clearest statement and earliest witness to the AD 95 date of the book of Revelation (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 19).

3. Summary of Other Strong Witnesses to the AD 95 Date

Each of these witnesses say the book of Revelation was written in AD 95.

  • Victorinus (ca. 180)
  • Jerome (ca. 400)
  • Sulpicius Severus (ca. 400)
  • Primasius (ca. 540)
  • Isidore of Seville (ca. 600)
  • The Acts of John (ca. 650)
  • Orosius (ca. 600)
  • Andreas (ca. 600)
  • Venerable Bede (ca. 700) (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 73).

Mark Hitchcock’s summary for the late date of the book of Revelation is powerful: “The late date, on the other hand, has a solid line of support from some of the greatest, most reliable names in church history beginning in A.D. 180: Irenaeus, Victorinus, Eusebius, Jerome, Sulpicius Severus, Orosius, Primasius, Venerable Bede, Isidore of Seville, Andreas, and Prochorus (The Acts of John). These witnesses came from different and widespread geographical regions of the church. They are heresiologists, apologists, historians, and commentators” (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation, 74).

In my opinion, the early church had a clear understanding of the AD 95 date of Revelation.

II. 65 AD DURING THE REIGN OF NERO

A. Internal Evidence

I have examined some of the preterist arguments for the 65 AD date and there appears to be four main arguments for the early date based on internal evidence in Revelation.

1. Thematic Focus of Rev 1:7

According to preterists, the first piece of support for the 65 AD date of Revelation comes from Rev 1:7, “Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven. And everyone will see him— even those who pierced him. And all the nations of the world will mourn for him. Yes! Amen!” (NLT). Preterists interpret this verse to mean that Jesus comes to judge the first-century Israel.

2. No Mention of Destruction of Jerusalem

Preterists often say that the destruction of Jerusalem was such as catastrophic event that John would have mentioned it. In their view, there is no way John would have written such a long book without mentioning the destruction of Jerusalem. Therefore, according to the preterist view, the book must have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

3. The Temple Stands in Rev 11:1-2

One of the first things preterists point out in support of their view is that according to Rev 11:1-2 the temple still stands in Jerusalem. Therefore, the book had to be written before 70 AD. Revelation 11:1-2 says, “Then I was given a measuring stick, and I was told, ‘Go and measure the Temple of God and the altar, and count the number of worshipers. But do not measure the outer courtyard, for it has been turned over to the nations. They will trample the holy city for 42 months’” (NLT). In a later post I will examine the views of this temple and show that the most likely conclusion is that this is a future end time temple.

4. Nero and the Beast of Rev 13:16

An additional point that preterists will try to use to show that their 65 AD date is correct is the number of the beast of the earth in Rev 13:18, “Wisdom is needed here. Let the one with understanding solve the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666” (NLT). Preterists believe this is the number of Nero who ruled over Rome in from 54 to 68 AD. Again, in a later post I will show how this number does not equal the number of Nero. 

5. Sixth King of Rev 17:9-11

Lastly, the preterist will try to show that the sixth king of Rev 17:9-11 is Nero who ruled from 54 to 68 AD. The list of kings in Rev 17:9-11 is difficult to interpret (for both the late and early views), but most preterists point to the sixth king in the list being Nero.

B. External Evidence

1. Jakob Wettstein

The first person to suggest a reinterpretation of Irenaeus’ comments about the date of Revelation was Johann Jakob Wettstein (an early preterist) in 1752 (Johann Jakob Wettstein, Novum Testamentum Graecum, vol. 2 [Amsterdam: Dommeriana, 1752; reprint, Graz, Austria, Akademische Druck-U. Verlaganstalt, 1962], 746). He believed the book was not written in 95, but 65.

2. Syriac Witnesses (6th and 7th centuries).

A superscription in two Syriac translations of the book of Revelation (one in 508 and another in 616) of Revelation state that John was exiled by Nero. One version is dated to 508 and another is dated to 616.

3. Two Other Late Date Witnesses

  • Arethas (ca 900)
  • Theophylact (d. 1107) (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 73).

III. SUMMARY OF THE DATE OF REVELATION

If the AD 65 date was correct, it would have had a thirty-year head start on the late date of AD 95. Within the early church the late date was the exclusive date until an inscription in a Syriac copy of Revelation in AD 508. Hitchcock’s summary of external evidence is below (Hitchcock, “Domitianic Date of Revelation,” 73).

A. Domitianic Date (AD 95)

  • Irenaeus (ca. 180)
  • Victorinus (ca. 300)
  • Eusebius (ca. 300)
  • Jerome (ca. 400)
  • Sulpicius (ca. 400)
  • Primasius (ca. 540)
  • Isidore of Seville (ca. 600)
  • Orosius (ca. 600)
  • Andreas (ca. 600)
  • The Acts of John (ca. 650)
  • Venerable Bede (ca. 700)

B. Neronic Date (AD 65)

  • Syriac inscription (ca. 508)
  • Syriac inscription (ca. 616)
  • Arethas (ca. 900)
  • Theophlact (d. 1107)

C. My View

In my opinion, the book of Revelation was written in AD 95. John wrote the book of Revelation in AD 95 while exiled to the island of Patmos by Domitian.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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