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Dating the Apocalypse to John*
Thomas B. Slater
Previously I have accepted the consensus opinion that the Apocalypse to John was written during the reign of the Emperor Domitian1. Recently, however, in dialogue with colleagues, I have had cause to reconsider my earlier position. The present study will reexamine the major arguments for a Domitianic dating and one in the late 60’s soon after the death of Nero, along with some evaluative comments.
The consensus opinion takes its cue from Irenaeus that the Apocalypse was written "near the end of the reign of Domitian"2. Many modern commentators have generally accepted Irenaeus’ witness3. The major arguments are worth repeating. Some have argued that this date is correct because imperial claims to divine honors occurred more frequently during this period and created a great deal of pressure upon non-adherents to conform. In conjunction with this dating, traditionally some exegetes have argued, following Irenaeus, that Domitian initiated an empire-wide persecution of Christians.
Additionally, exegetes have argued that "Babylon" became a code name for Rome near the end of the first Christian century, as found in 1 Pet 5,13; 4 Es 3,1; Sib 5,143.159 and ApcBar(gr) 10,1-3; 11,1 and 67,7, all dated between 60 and 120 CE. Many commentators note that several of these passages refer to Rome/ Babylon as the second destroyer of Jerusalem and the second temple in 70 CE4.
Still others have argued that the Nero myth in Rev 13,1-4, 18 and 17,9-11, which symbolically represent the first Roman emperors, would indicate that the Domitianic date is most probably correct, that Domitian is the second Nero, the eighth ruler. Rev 17,9-11 reads as follows:
Proponents of the Domitianic date, whether they begin counting with Julius Caesar or with Augustus Caesar, or Caligula, the emperor who first openly demanded divine honors, find a way to end with Domitian, omitting Galba, Otho and Vitellius, who each ruled briefly from 68-69 between Nero and Vespasian, along the way6.
First and foremost, it must be stated that the Domitianic date is based upon Irenaeus, an external witness at least a century later than the writing of the Apocalypse. Irenaeus has not proven to be a credible historical witness. For example, Irenaeus stated that he knew Polycarp and that Polycarp knew John the Apostle, implying that he has received accurate tradition from an apostle through Polycarp. While this is possible, many church historians have doubted the veracity of this statement since Polycarp would have been quite young when John died and Irenaeus would have been very young when Polycarp died. In any event, it is highly doubtful that Polycarp could have received any extensive training of any type from John or that he would have been able to pass it on to a very young Irenaeus. Irenaeus also argued that the Apocalypse to John and the Gospel of John were written by one and the same John the Apostle. A brief examination of the genres (apocalypse versus gospel), the writing style (capable versus solecistic Greek) and theology (eschatological apocalypticism versus realized eschatology) indicate that it is highly unlikely that both were written or authorized by the same person. Additionally, Wilson is critical of Irenaeus for not identifying his source for claiming that the Apostle John wrote both books7. Indeed, the Apocalypse never appeals to apostolic authority or to a disciple of an apostle (cf. John 21, 24), a powerful social tool in the early church as evidenced in Paul’s letters (e.g., Gal 1,11–2,21; 1 Cor 9,1-18; 2 Cor 10,1–11,15). If indeed the tradition that Irenaeus gives us concerning the authorship of the fourth gospel and the Apocalypse are apostolic, its accuracy leaves much to be desired.
As noted earlier, Irenaeus is an external witness writing approximately a century after Domitian’s reign. He is far removed from the actual events and at best must rely upon second-hand witnesses himself. Thompson and others have demonstrated clearly that there was no empire-wide persecution of Christians inaugurated by Domitian8. Moreover, Thompson has shown conclusively that
the writings of the Roman historians who were Irenaeus’ primary sources had themselves intentionally given a poor depiction of Domitian in order to ingratiate themselves to Trajan and his new imperial family. Thus, for these reasons, Irenaeus is not the most reliable source for dating the Apocalypse to John and can only be used as a supporting witness, if then.
While some have argued that there was great pressure upon Christians to conform to regional religio-political pressures during Domitian’s reign9, in actuality those pressures were present from the early days of the Empire in the Roman province of Asia. Price provides solid evidence of heavy competition among the cities of the province to be designated neokoros, an official site of the imperial cult10. More importantly, members of the imperial family received divine honors during Augustus’ reign. Dio Cassius writes that during Augustus’ reign Roman citizens in Asia were required to worship the divine Julius Caesar; the provincials, Augustus. Pausanias writes that there was a temple to Octavia, Augustus’ sister, in the first century BCE. By 14 BCE, Aphrodisias had a temple dedicated to Augustus. Later, Claudius’ living grandmother was given divine honors11. Thus, while there is no proof whatever of an empire-wide persecution of Christians under Domitian, by the time he becomes emperor the region has seen divine honors given to members of the imperial family for over a century. By this time, a substantial tradition and a large degree of expectation for adherence would have developed in the region. One purpose for the bestowing of divine honors was to establish a meaningful personal link with the imperial family that would result in positive political and economic benefits for the local community. Therefore, pressure to conform to religio-political traditions could have occurred in the region at any time in the latter decades of the first century BCE and the first century CE, not only during the rule of Domitian, when local residents felt that Christians (or anyone else for that matter) were not observant of those traditions. Similarly, Rowland argues those who resisted conformity to regional traditions and pressures might have produced protest literature at any time during this same era. Thus, a Domitianic date is not the only option for dating the Apocalypse12.
"Babylon" is indeed used as a code name for Rome in the latter decades of the first century CE and the early decades of the second century CE in 1 Peter, Sibylline Oracle 5, 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. As such it is an important internal witness in dating the Apocalypse. However, it should be noted that Daniel, written in the second century BCE, and Sibylline Oracle 3.300-309, usually dated in the first century BCE, also employ "Babylon" as a code name for an evil empire which opposes the people of God. In Daniel, Babylon is a code name for the Syrian empire and the Syrians did not destroy the temple. Babylon here is merely the name for the enemy of God and God’s elect.
Sibylline Oracle 3, which Collins dates between 163-45 BCE, mentions the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians13. In this case, the Babylonians are probably the Syrians as Sibylline Oracle 3 is probably written in Ptolemaic Egypt. It is worth noting that the reference to the destruction of the temple is not elaborated upon but used as a standard reference to an enemy. Again, the Syrians did not destroy the Jerusalem temple. Therefore, for Sibylline Oracle 3 the connection between the Babylonians and the Syrians is based upon the perception that both are evil empires and not the destruction of the temple per se. Indeed, Thompson correctly notes that Kittim, Edom, and Egypt are symbols for the enemies of God and there is no reason to believe that Babylon could not function in this more general way as in Daniel.
Again, it is noteworthy that the Apocalypse does not refer to Babylon/Rome as the destroyer of the temple. Indeed, the temple is still standing in the Apocalypse to John (11,1-2)14. Rather than commenting upon the destruction of the second temple, the Apocalypse could be using the code name Babylon to represent the political presence of Satan in the world and its eventual downfall. This is precisely what one finds in Rev 12,1–13,18 and 17,1–9,4: Babylon is the enemy of God that must be punished in the end-times. Using Babylon in this way is consistent with the use of such names to symbolically refer to an enemy of the elect community, in some instances using Kittim, in others, Egypt. Furthermore, it is consistent with the use of Babylon in both Daniel and Sibylline Oracle 3 to refer to an evil empire as mentioned earlier. It is just as conceivable that Revelation is reading Daniel and re-applying the meaning of Babylon for a pre-70 date prior to the destruction of the temple. Indeed, Farrer showed long ago that John re-applied traditional images and it is clear that he often re-interpreted them to fit his situation15. Jewish apocalypses regularly adapted and transformed traditional materials for their own times. The Apocalypse to John clearly follows suit. For example, Davidic messianic expectations (Rev 5,4-12; cf. 4 Es 11,36-46), the one like a son of man (cf. Dan 7,13 and Rev 1,7-16) and the Leviathan-Behemoth myth (Rev 13,1-18; cf. 4 Es 6,49) are all recast in John’s Apocalypse.
The symbolic references to the emperors found in Revelation 13 and 17 are also important internal witnesses. However, too many exegetes have omitted Galba, Otho and Vitellius from their listing of first century CE Roman emperors without proving that John would have also omitted them. Rather, they worked backward from Domitian in order to make their presupposed dating fit the data instead of the reverse. After Nero’s death in 68 CE, Galba, Otho and Vitellius all ruled briefly as emperor until Vespasian eventually took control in 69 CE. Bell, Rowland and Wilson have all shown that ancient writings, including Sibylline Oracle 5 and writers such as Suetonius, Tacitus and Eutropius, included these three men in their respective lists of emperors. If John included Galba, Otho and Vitellius, and there is no
reason to think that John’s list would differ significantly from others, Revelation 13 and 17 would indicate, based upon the rules of exegeting ex eventu prophecy, that the book was written between 68-70 CE. Ex eventu prophecy is prophecy-after-the-fact that is often found in apocalyptic literature. It is often very helpful in dating books. Such "prophecies" are true to a certain point and then usually the point at which they are inaccurate is the date when the book was written. That would make either Otho or Vitellius the eighth emperor in the Apocalypse16. More will be said on this topic later.
Thus, for all the aforementioned reasons, a Domitianic dating is rather problematic. Are there examples of internal evidence, along with those already mentioned, which might help to date the book? Bell, Rowland and Wilson, in my opinion, have offered the best arguments for an earlier dating of John’s Apocalypse between 68 and 70 CE. We turn now to discussions of their work.
Bell’s work is often referred to but rarely taken seriously. This is unfortunate. Bell correctly avoids attempting to discern whether or not one should begin counting the Roman emperors with either Julius Caesar or Augustus Caesar. Instead, he begins with the fifth emperor who is clearly Nero (see Rev 13,3 and 17,9-11). As stated previously, ancient writers included Galba, Otho, and Vitellius in their lists. He notes such inclusions in Suetonius, Plutarch, and Eutropius. Additionally, he correctly argues that for 4 Es 12,16 (dated ca. 100 CE) to speak of 12 emperors it had to have included Galba, Otho, and Vitellius in the 12. He demonstrated that according to Roman custom anyone duly inducted into an office would have been included in any official list of office-holders. He dates the Apocalypse between June 68 and January 69 during Galba’s reign17. "Armies in Spain, Germany and Judaea are supporting rival candidates for the principate. Where there had been order and peace, for as long as any man living could recall, there is suddenly anarchy and civil war"18. Finally, he notes that while Suetonius mentions Nero’s persecution, he does not mention one initiated by Domitian19.
Concurring with Bell, Rowland also includes Galba, Otho and Vitellius when reading Revelation 13 and 17. He agrees with Bell that Nero is clearly the fifth emperor and that the book was written during the reign of Galba. "No other explanation of these verses matches the simplicity of this interpretation, which, one may assume, would also have been the most obvious to the original readers of the document"20. He adds, again concurring with Bell, that the political turmoil which ensued after Nero’s death throughout the Roman Empire during 68 CE, coupled with the apocalyptic imagery found in the book, clearly points to 68 CE as the time of the writing of the Apocalypse to John.
Wilson also emphasizes internal evidence. The most important internal evidence is 17,9-11. He also includes Galba, Otho and Vitellius in reckoning the list of emperors. He concurs with Bell and Rowland that it is most important that Nero is clearly the fifth emperor. Wilson identifies 666 as a gematria for NERON KAISAR. "When the name is put into Hebrew and the numerical equivalents of the Hebrew letters are added together, the sum is 666." Moreover, "The 616 (variant) would take the final nun off the name Neron in order to render it Nero, the acceptable way of saying the name in Greek"21. Since Nero is the fifth emperor, Galba is the sixth, the one who is and Otho is yet to come. For Wilson, as with Bell and Rowland, the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Galba.
Furthermore, Wilson argues that the Apocalypse has no ex eventu prophecies and that the book is clearly not a pseudepigraphon (see Rev 22,10). This is important to him in dating the book. Thus, for Wilson, the Apocalypse should be dated at the point when it speaks of present events. That would be the reign of Galba. The lack of ex eventu prophecy also relates to Wilson’s next point: the temple in Jerusalem is still standing when the book was written (see Rev 11,1-2). He notes that the prophecies concerning the Temple were not fulfilled by history: (1) the entire Temple was taken over, not merely the outer court; (2) the Romans took only a few days to destroy Jerusalem, not 42 months. The fact that the temple is still standing, as I noted earlier, is a key element in dating the book. Frequently, scholars date books in this period by whether or not the books refer in any way to the destruction of the temple.
While I agree that the book is not a pseudepigraphon, I would add two minor correctives to Wilson. First, I would argue that the Apocalypse to John is not an apocryphon as well as not being a pseudepigraphon. Many ancient works could be pseudepigraphal but not apocryphal. A pseudepigraphon is a work written falsely and intentionally in the name of an ancient worthy in order to make it more credible to its readers. The Psalms of Solomon is an example of a pseudepigraphical writing that is not apocryphal. An apocryphon is a book that is supposedly hidden until the time when its final prophecies would come true. The Apocalypse is not an apocryphon because John believed that the prophecies would come true soon: "And he said to me, ‘Do not seal the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near’" (22,10; cf. 1,1-3). And this brings me to my second corrective: while the Apocalypse is not an apocryphon, it is clearly a book of prophecy for John. In both instances when John says that the events will occur soon, he refers to his book as one of prophecy. John sincerely believes that his work provides a vision of coming events. For this reason, there is no extended ex eventu prophecy, but there is some and it is found in Rev 17,9-11. The reference to Nero as the fifth emperor is ex eventu prophecy in that it speaks of Nero’s death after the fact and
predicts that he will return, an appropriation of the Nero redivivus myth. It is a stretch to argue that the Nero redivivus myth preceded Nero’s death. Thus, the Apocalypse does indeed contain ex eventu prophecy. It is quite possible that John wrote during the reign of Galba, but it is also possible that he wrote during the reign of Otho who "must only rule briefly" (17,10). To this point, John’s prophecies are historically accurate. They are inaccurate with the next ruler, Vitellius, who in no way reminded people of Nero. According to the rules of ex eventu prophecies, the book should be dated at the point where the prophecies are not fulfilled. It is possible that John was writing in 69 late in Otho’s reign or early in Vitellius’ reign.
I am, therefore, in general agreement with a date between 68-70 CE and would add one more additional bit of internal evidence. There are two examples, found in Rev 2,9 and 3,9, which have been overlooked. In both passages, "Jew" is an honorific term, the religious ideal. This means that John sees himself first and foremost as a faithful Jew and that he sees the Christian community as the true Israel. His opponents are not criticized because they are Jews but because they are not faithful, righteous Jews. Such a self-identification by a Christian is more understandable in the 60’s than in the 90’s when Christians and Jews were beginning to see themselves more as separate groups. I am aware that the separation of Christianity from Judaism was a gradual, regional event that occurred at different times and different places throughout the Roman Empire; however, it is more likely that one in the Christian movement would see himself as a Jew during Nero’s reign than during Domitian’s.
An earlier date would also help to explain why the book is so Jewish and also why some exegetes have postulated that chapters 1, 2, 21 and 22 constitute a Jewish apocalypse; chapters 3–20, a Christian one22 It is both Christian and Jewish at a point in time when this fact would have been a given for the original readers. Such a self-designation and self-understanding is much more intelligible in the 60’s, when Christianity was still very much within the Jewish religious community, than the 90’s, when Christianity saw itself more and more as separate and distinct from Judaism.
The present study re-examines the major arguments for dating the Apocalypse to John. It argues that internal evidence should be preferred over external witnesses and that the internal evidence suggests, based upon the ex eventu prophecy in Rev 17,9-11, that the book was written in 69, either late in Otho’s reign or early in Vitellius’ reign.
* For Harold W. Attridge who first presented the idea to me.
1 T.B. Slater, Christ and Community (JSNTSS 178; Sheffield 1999) 22-26.
2 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.3.
3 For example, M. Kiddle, The Revelation of St. John (London 1940) xxxvi-xliii; L. Morris, Revelation (TNTC; Leicester 1987) 35-41; J.P.M. Sweet, Revelation (Philadelphia 1979) 21-26; R.H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI 1998) 15-21.
4 On dates for these books, see Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (ed. J.H. Charlesworth) (Garden City, NY 1983) I, 390, 520, 615-617; D. Balch, Let Wives Be Submissive (SBLDS 26; Chico, CA 1981) 137-38; J.H. Elliott, A Home for the Homeless (Philadelphia 1981) 78-84. See also G.A. Krodel, Revelation (Minneapolis 1989) 63; M.E. Boring, Revelation (Interpretation; Louisville 1989) 10-12.
5 L.L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation. Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford 1990) 14.
6 See R.H. Charles, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (ICC; Edinburgh 1920) II, 68-70; J.H. Ulrichsen, "Die sieben Haupter und die zehn Horner. Zur Datierung der Offenbarung des Johannes", ST 39 (1985) 1-20; Krodel, Revelation, 297.
7 J.C. Wilson, "The Problem of the Domitianic Date of Revelation", NTS 39 (1993) 597-598.
8 See, for example, Thompson, Revelation, 95-115.
9 For example, Boring, Revelation, 8-25.
10 S. Price, Rituals and Power. The Roman imperial cult in Asia Minor (Cambridge 1984) 24-25, 249-274.
11 See Dio Cassius, Roman Histories 51.20.6-7; SEG 23.206; IGRR 4.1608c; J. M. Reynolds, "The Origins and Beginnings of the Imperial Cult at Aphrodisias", Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 206 (1980) 70-84; N. Kokkinos, Antonia Augusta. Portrait of a Great Lady (London 1992) 158-162.
12 C. Rowland, The Open Heaven. A Study of Apocalyptic in Judaism and Early Christianity (New York 1982) 412.
13 Cf. J.J. Collins, "The Sibylline Oracles", OTP, I, 354-357.
14 R.J. Bauckham’s interpretation of Rev 8,1 supports my point that the temple is still standing when John writes. Bauckham convincingly argues that the 30-minute silence in heaven parallels the burning of incense each morning in the temple after the lamb had been sacrificed. This lasted approximately 30 minutes (The Climax of Prophecy [Edinburgh 1993] 70-83); see also Wilson, "Domitianic Date", 599-605.
15 A.M. Farrer, A Rebirth of Images (Boston 1949).
16 A.A. Bell, Jr., "The Date of John’s Apocalypse: The Evidence of Some Roman Historians Reconsidered", NTS 25 (1978-79) 99-100; Rowland, Open Heaven, 403-407; Wilson, "Domitianic Date", 599-605.
17 Bell, "The Date", 97-102.
18 Bell, "The Date", 102.
19 Bell, "The Date", 96.
20 Rowland, Open Heaven, 405.
21 Wilson, "Domitianic Date", 598. This is an important contribution by Wilson for at once he explains the variant and what the original reading would have been. Furthermore, he clearly demonstrates how more than one group would have understood the gematria to refer to Nero, even those who wanted to change the spelling.
22 For example, S.A. Edwards, "Christological Perspective in the Book of Revelation", Christological Perspectives. Essays in Honor of Harvey A. McArthur (eds. R.F. Berkey – S.A. Edwards) (New York 1982).
What do YOU think ?
Date: 11 Dec 2007
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