BOOKS: BIBLICAL STUDIES (1500BC-AD70) / EARLY CHRISTIAN PRETERISM (AD50-1000) / FREE ONLINE BOOKS (AD1000-2008)
The Problems of a Pre-70 Date of the Apocalypse
By Otto Nordgreen
The present paper is based on a personal letter to Mr. J. Christian Wilson, whom I would like to thank for a fruitful discussion; for his interesting comments, and informative answers to my many questions.
Early Date of Revelation | The Christ Has Come - Date | Gibbon on Neronic Persecution | The Parousia in the Apocalypse | Order of Revelation | Christ Has Come 11-12-13-14 | The Revelation -- Preterist Interpretation | Revelation 11:1 | Revelation 17:10 | Late Date of Revelation | The Spirit Filled Life Bible | The Book of Revelation: Interpretive Suggestion | Dating the Book of Revelation | Dating the New Testament Books
The date of the Book of Revelation (Rev) has been as disputed as its authorship. The dates proposed for the composition oscillate between, on the one hand, the time before or during the so-called Jewish War (66-77 CE) and, on the other hand, the time of Emperor Trajan,
viz. late 1st century (Aune 1997:lvii). Traditionally, the prevailing view has been that Rev was written sometime during the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE); more specifically (and in harmony with the ancient testimony of Irenaeus ) towards the end of his reign, viz. ca. 94/95 CE. This is also the dominant position of most modern scholars, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.
In recent times, however, a few (but still considerable number) of scholars have presented some very interesting objections to the present common scholarly opinion (cf. Ford 1975; Robinson 1976; Bell 1979; Gentry 1989; Moberly 1992; Wilson 1993). According to these authors, at least the internal evidence at hand (i.e. the text itself) would point towards an early date of the Apocalypse, viz. before the ‘destruction’ of Jerusalem (and its temple) in the year of 70 CE. In my opinion, a detailed analysis of the arguments presented by advocates of an early date does not lead to the same conclusion. In the following, I will examine some of these arguments as presented by Wilson (1993).
In the article “The Problem of the Domitianic Date of Revelation”, J. Christian Wilson (1993) quite recently presented arguments against the traditional and (still) prevailing view, that the Book of Revelation was written sometime during the time of Domitian. At the same time, he tried to make a rather strong case for a pre-70 date of the Apocalypse, arguing that the text must have originated sometime during the reign of Nero or (at least) Galba, viz. between 54-68 or 68/69 CE.
Although I find that Wilson’s objections to the Domitianic date of the Apocalypse on the whole are well founded and surely worth our consideration, I cannot find any real adequate reason for accepting his total rejection of a Domitianic date or his conclusion that the Book of Revelation necessarily
All the questions related to an early or late date of the Apocalypse would demand a whole monographic study (which I hope will be written and published soon). In the present ‘investigation’, I only set myself the task of suggesting some objections that in my opinion could (or, indeed, should) be raised against the arguments presented in Wilson’s article,
viz. against a pre-70 date of the Apocalypse. At the same time I will suggest an alternative reading of the passages mentioned by Wilson.
The Evidence for a Pre-70 Date of the Apocalypse Reconsidered
In the article Wilson (1993:605) gives us a brief summary of his main arguments:
So, the list of his ‘evidence’ could, for our purpose, be outlined thus:
1. The Lack of Evidence for a Domitianic Persecution
These three lines of arguments are supposed to point decisively to a pre-70 date of the Apocalypse. For several reasons, however, this does not seem that convincing to me. Let us take a good look at these lines of evidence, one by one:
(1) The Lack of Evidence for a Domitianic Persecution
The first and most important issue in Wilson’s argumentation seems to be that there does not seem to be any real evidence of any (severe) persecution of Christians during the reign of Domitian. But we should notice that this argument is based on the assumption that the Book of Revelation is a typical ‘apocalypse’ and, therefore, has to have been written “in an historical background of recent persecution”, as Wilson (1993:605) puts it. Now, if we do not accept this, the (rest of the) first argument fails to convince.
From the research presented by Collins (1984), Thompson (1990), and now J. Christian Wilson (1993), there seems to be some question as to whether or not the seven churches of the Apocalypse (or, indeed, the Christians as such) were being subjected to any official and systematic persecution by the Roman government during the reign of Domitian. And in the absence of reliable evidence that the Emperor Domitian himself ordered such persecutions of Christians (as Christians), it has recently been suggested that the various references to persecutions in the Book of Revelation indicate at least sporadic and local hostilities directed to the various Christian communities in Asia Minor (cf. Collins 1984:69-73).
However, I would like to argue that there are good reasons not to assume that John the Seer wrote his book at a time of grave peril for the Church or that the Book of Revelation really reflects any contemporary crises caused by large scale persecutions from the Roman Empire under Nero (or Domitian).
As I have stated elsewhere (Nordgreen 1995:4), there is probably no such thing as an exact dividing line between prophecy and apocalyptic literature (Newman 1963). In fact, speaking of differences between these genres tends to be an anachronism. True, this distinction seems meaningful for us today, but it is hardly plausible that John was aware of such a distinction: he identifies himself both as a man of great apocalyptic visions and as a prophet – cf. Bauckham (1993:f.). Furthermore, a close look at the testimony of John himself reveals that most of the persecutions mentioned is related to the past or the future, rather than to the (indicated) present time (cf. Rev 6:9-11; 7:14; 11:7; 12:13ff; 13:7,15; 15:2-4; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4). This is also pointed out by Ulrichsen (1988) and Collins (1990). Contra Robinson (1976:230f.).
So, in my opinion there is nothing in the Book of Revelation that should force us to assume that it necessarily reflects contemporary (large scale) persecutions against Christians. If this is correct, the lack of any evidence for a Domitianic persecution against Christians just cannot be accepted as an argument against a Domitianic date of the Apocalypse. It could, in fact, be used against the view that the Apocalypse originated at a time of great distress, i.e. under Nero.
This does, however, not mean that the persecutions under Nero are lacking; they are e.g. reflected in Rev 13 – but it does mean that
The present writer prefers to withhold final judgement on the questions whether or not there were Roman large scale persecutions of the Christians under Domitian, for all the facts may not yet be available (cf. Rissi 1995:65ff.). It is sufficient for me to state that the original setting of the John’s text does not necessarily imply, or demand, contemporary persecutions (on a large scale). Personally, I believe that Irenaeus’ silence on this matter should be taken seriously, and that the persecutions under Domitian (if any) were not worse than the persecutions directed under other emperors before or after Domitian.
(2) The Seven (Eight) Emperors of the Apocalypse
Wilson (1993:599) argues that the “most important internal evidence for dating Revelation is the passage chapter 17.9-11”. Here John states:
Wilson is absolutely quite right that this passage is important for any fixing of the dating of the Apocalypse. The questions to be answered, however, are which list of Roman emperors John uses and by whom John starts and ends his list.
Commentators on the Book of Revelation have been puzzled by the enigma of the seven (or eight) emperors and the question related to any identification of them. Wilson, however, seems to indicate that these questions could rather easily be answered. He writes:
Thus, according to Wilson, John had to use an official list of Roman emperors. Furthermore, he had (only) two possibilities: He could have begun either with Julius or Augustus as the first emperor. It is not quite clear to me from the article which list Wilson prefers; I guess he prefers a list starting with Julius, but still thinks a list starting with Augustus would be possible. (Either way, these lists would seem to indicate an early date of the text in question!)
However, it does not seem that clear – even if modern historians may begin their list of the Roman emperors with Augustus (which ‘technically’ might very well be the only right thing to do) – that Augustus really was considered to be the first emperor according to such an ‘official’ list. In fact, many writers of antiquity begin their list of the ‘caesars’ with Julius (thus Suetonius, in his Lives of the Twelve Ceasars). More important is the fact that Julius is viewed as the first ‘king’ in Jewish (-Christian) texts like Sib Or 5:12-51 and 4 Ezra 11-12 (cf. Collins 1984:62). Wilson’s reference to Tacitus is also dubious because, as pointed out by Collins (1984:60f.), even he called both Julius and Augustus ‘caesars’ – cf. Ann. 4:34!
So, if – as Wilson (1993) argues – John had to follow an ‘official’ list of emperors, he most likely had to start such a list with Julius Caesar (cf. Gentry 1989 who at least in this respect is consistent).
Now, if we start with Julius Caesar, the list of the first six kings would be as follows:
According to this – more or less – ‘official’ list, Nero would be the 6th emperor. Alternatively, starting with Augustus, the 6th emperor would be Galba. No wonder, then, that many have thought that the work was written under the reign of Nero – or shortly thereafter (viz. under Galba, 68 - 69 CE). This is also the main point in this part of Wilson’s article.
There are however some problems with this line of thinking not taken into consideration – or even mentioned – in Wilson’s treatment:
First, let us consider the beast (from the sea) imagery of Rev 13:1. In my opinion it has a dual focus; its meaning shifts between two things: (a) the Roman Empire (with seven heads and ten horns) as such and (b) one single emperor (viz. one of the heads). The number of the beast which is said to be 666 (or 616) is most likely a gematria on NERON KAISAR. Thus, from Rev 13 the readers can know the identity of the beast (from the sea) and probably one of its heads (viz. kings). This is also pointed out in Wilson’s article (1993:598).
But afterwards, in Rev 17:8a, the reader is given a very important additional piece of information (not mentioned in Wilson’s article!):
In my opinion, this has to mean that Nero – the beast that John had seen (Rev 13) – was dead when John wrote (cf. Robinson 1976:243). Thus, at a closer look it would seem that Nero, in fact, cannot be the ‘one [who] is’, viz. the ‘king’ presently reigning (Rev 17: 9). Consequently, the eight ‘king’ – who is also said to be one of its seven predecessors – could be understood as some kind of Nero redivivus.
Wilson, however, argues that there is no Nero redivivus myth in the Book of Revelation at all. Instead, he quite interestingly argues that Rev 13:3 is referring to the assassination of Julius Caesar, and not to the death of Nero. Furthermore, he suggests that we should translate “the first of the heads” instead of “one of the heads” (1993:597-604).
Nevertheless, since he is willing to accept a list of emperors starting with Augustus, thus excluding Julius, I guess he would be willing to see a possible allusion to the Nero redivivus myth in Rev 13:3 and 17:8-11 after all – especially since he does understands the beast as both the Roman empire and one of its emperors, namely Nero (cf. Rev 13:18).
At least to me, it seems more likely that John wants Nero to be the 5th of his seven (or, indeed, eight) emperors – as also suggested by well-known pre-70 advocates like Robinson (1976) and Bell (1979:98);
contra Gentry (1989). But this would again indicate that John starts his list with
Augustus, and not Julius. Based on this, the idea that John was using an ‘official’ list seems to lack real support. In fact, one might question the very existence of any ‘official’ list at that time.
Now, if John did not use an official list, either due to the lack of any such ‘official’ list or because he choose otherwise, he would have had to indicate this for his (first) readers. He also had to indicate which list he was using. This seems to be supported by Rev 17:9a, where John indicates that he wants his readers to figure out which rulers he is thinking about: “This calls for shrewdness” (NJB), John writes. Of course, if John indeed was using an official list, his readers would not need any ‘shrewdness’ at all! And, needless to say, his first readers would very well know who the ruling emperor was (cf. Bauckham 1993:606).
A closer look at the text in question reveals that John seems to have provided enough information for us to imagine, or figure out, whom he was thinking about: First, it is indicated that Nero is one of the five emperors that already are dead (cf. Rev 13:18; 17:8a and 7a). Second, as the main focus in the Book of Revelation is on Jesus, whom John consider to be his lord, one might adduce from Rev 12:1ff, that John could have wanted to start his list of emperors with Augustus: the first emperor of the Christian Era. So, in my opinion, the list can very well begin with Augustus, and continue with Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero as the 5th emperor.
Thus, I do not only think that John was not referring to any ‘standard’ scheme of numbering the emperors, viz. beginning with Julius. In fact, in my opinion, Julius is not on John’s list at all! Rather, I think John started with Augustus – not because he was on any ‘official’ list, but because he was the first emperor of the Christian Era (cf. Luke 2). I would also like to argue that it would have been possible for his (first) readers to figure this out.
All of this could lead us to the thought that the 6th emperor was (or rather ‘is’) Galba (cf. Robinson 1976). However, an even closer look at John’s text does reveal some very important information that we also have to take into consideration:
The beast of Rev 13:1 and 17 (viz. the Roman Empire) is not only said to have seven (or eight) heads, but also ten horns. Following the thesis presented by J. H. Ulrichsen (1988; cf. Klauck 1992), I would suggest that we consider the 10 horns of Rev 13:1f to be kings (cf. 17:12ff); although not identical with those mentioned in Rev 17:12ff. They are related to the beast as emperor, whereas the horns of Rev 13:1 are related to the beast as empire. And as kings related to the Roman Empire they are ten Roman ‘kings’ (or emperors); cf. Ulrichsen (1985) and the literature mentioned there.
This would indicate that we in the Book of Revelation do not only have one list of emperors, but, in fact, two lists. From a first look at Rev 13:1, we see that the ‘first’ list has seven emperors and that the ‘second’ has ten. But from Rev 17:8-11, we get to know that there are, in fact eight emperors, although the 8th is also said to be one of the seven. Important for us is the origin of John’s symbolism:
It is normally held that John gets the number of these lists (the numbers ‘seven’ and ‘ten’) from the Book of Daniel, i.e. Dan 7 (cf. Beale 1984:229ff.). Based on this Danielic background, Ulrichsen (1985; 1988) has produced the following thesis: He has argued that the reason for John’s list having not only seven but eight ‘kings’ is the fact that in relation to the fourth ‘beast’ (in Dan 7), there are spoken of not only ten, but eleven horns (viz. ‘kings’). Now, in analogy to the fact that there are seven (or eight emperors) on the first list, one might think that there has to be ten (or eleven) emperors on the second. The first list (of seven heads) contains the ‘kings’’, whom John depicts ‘heads’ (viz. most important); the second is a complete lists of all the emperors indicated in John’ prophecy. If the ten horns really are ten kings (viz. emperors), Rev 13:1 seems to support a composition after the year 70 CE (cf. Ulrichsen 1985).
I would very much like to follow this line of thinking, but contra Ulrichsen (1985; 1988), who wants to start the list of ‘kings’ with Caligula (Gaius), I – following
e.g. Giblin (1991:133) and M. Rissi (1995:63) – want to start the list with Augustus (cf. Rev 12; and also Luk 2):
Omitting the three emperors of 68/69 CE (Galba, Otho, and Vitellius) from the list of the ‘heads’ would indicate that the emperor who is said to be reigning (Rev 17:10) is Vespasian. Of course, any omission of the three so-called ‘rebellious princes’ (Suetonius: Vespasian 1) from a list of emperors has do be accounted for. As pointed out by Beale (1999:873), the many “past proposals offering reasons for the exclusion of the three brief reigns have not been persuasive”. As my task is not the defence of the Domitianic date as such, I will not deal with this problem in depth. I would, however, like to indicate a possible solution to the problem.
First, we have to consider the textual background of Rev 17:8ff. In Dan 7 we are told that the fourth beast has 10 (actually 11) horns, of which 3 are ‘uprooted’ (vv. 8, 20, 24). Thus, if John wanted to exclude three emperors from a complete list, at least he would have had the discursive framework to do so. Second, in 4 Ezra 11-12 we (also) find two lists of Roman emperors: (1) the twelve wings symbolising all emperors from Julius to Domitian, and (2) the three heads that might be identified with Vespasian and his two sons (Titus and Domitian). There might have been (historic) reasons for John viewing Galba, Otho, and Vitellius as minor (or less important) emperors (cf. Beale 1999:873). But proving this is admittedly hard.
That John here writes of Vespasian as the ruling emperor is hardly problematic; either Vespasian really was the present emperor (which I think could be possible) or John could have used an artificial antedating for a rhetorical purpose. This would have been understood by John’s first audience that obviously did know which emperor that actually was ruling anyway, and therefore did not need any explanation in this respect.
Anyway, it seems quite possible that John could have used the popular acceptance of Domitian as a ‘Nero redivivus’ (a kind of second Nero) on the level of discourse, and used it as a framework for his sequence of Roman rulers. Nevertheless, as I have stated elsewhere,
But, in the light of the evidence presented above, I can safely conclude that Rev 13:1f and 17: 9-10 hardly provide enough information in support of an early date,
viz. before the year 70 CE. The same goes for the next line of evidence:
(3) Rev 11:1f.
In Rev 11: 1-2, John the Seer writes:
To this Wilson (1993:604) writes:
All of this needs some comments, I feel:
First, Rev 11:1-2 is, as pointed out by Wilson (1993), most certainly not a vaticinium ex eventu – it is a genuine prophecy. It is however, in my opinion, not that obvious that the temple mentioned in v. 1 would have to be the Jerusalem Temple (that is, in a situation before 70 CE, when it was still standing). Cf. Bachmann (1994), who – following Giblin (1991) – argues that the temple of Rev 11:1 is the heavenly temple. Another possibility is that the temple symbolises the true Christian Church. Given the interest and approach of our author, both interpretations seem to be possible.
Second, I just cannot imagine that John would say that parts of the Jerusalem Temple would not be destroyed (not ‘given over’) when his Lord, in fact, had said that the whole Temple would be totally destroyed! The reading of Rev 11:1f. suggested by Wilson (and others) makes the testimony of John in conflict with the so-called ‘Q-apocalypse’ (Matt 24; Mark 13; and Luk 21). I cannot say that I find that very likely.
All of this changes if we read Rev 11:1f. in a post-70 CE perspective. I would suggest – following Giet (1957) and others – that e.g. Rev 11:1f. reflects the Jewish War (66-70 CE): From a point in time after the fall of Jerusalem, John looks back and uses material (viz. impressions) from the time before Jerusalem fell as a kind of discourse or discursive framework for a new prophecy. And since this is a genuine prophecy – not a vaticinium ex eventu – I find no difficulties with the symbolic number of ‘forty-two months’.
And finally, as demonstrated by Bauckham (1993:266-283), there is absolutely no need to assume that Rev 11:1-2 was written by someone else than John or, indeed, before the year 70 CE!
I conclude, therefore, that Rev 11:1f by no means can be used as a proof for any pre-70 date of the Apocalypse. On the contrary, a natural symbolic interpretation seems to imply a post-70 date, because a more literal understanding, as advocated by Wilson (among others), would seem to contradict the ‘Q-apocalypse’ – at least in a temporal situation before the year 70 CE (cf. Bachmann 1994).
The above investigation has, mainly, been concerned with the ‘evidence’ in favour of a pre-70 CE date of the Apocalypse as presented in Wilson’s NTS article. Although I find his objections to a Domitianic date of the Apocalypse very interesting, I cannot see that he has presented enough evidence that should lead one to reject the now traditional date of the Apocalypse altogether. Furthermore, the suggestion that the Book of Revelation was written either under Nero or Galba has in my opinion not the strongest support in the text itself.
To me, there seem to be at least four (if not more) possible dates of the Apocalypse. As strongly advocated by Wilson (1993), it could very well have been written (1) during the Jewish War (viz. under the reign of Nero or Galba). But it could also (2) have been written under Vespasian (that is, shortly after the Jewish War), as suggested by Giet (1957) and, partially, Rissi (1995). Court (1979:125ff.; 1994:100ff.) has given the interesting suggestion (3) that the king “(who) is” could be identified with Titus, the brother of Domitian. In my opinion, the most probable solution still is (4) that the Revelation was conceived during the reign of Domitian, as witnessed by Irenaeus, and still held by most scholars today.
But even if most scholars today think that the Book of Revelation was written ca. 94/95 CE (or even later), it seems to me that only few have been able to produce sound arguments for this view. Most of the regular arguments presented are rather weak. And as demonstrated by Wilson (1993), many of the common arguments in favour of a Domitianic date of the Apocalypse doe not stand a critical re-examination. Especially this goes for the idea of Domitian as a terrible persecutor. So far, the question to when the Book of Revelation was written still remains open. This does, however, not necessarily indicate that the Domitianic date as such should be rejected (as sugested by Wilson 1993 and others).
I would like to conclude with Swete (1907:cvi) in saying that I “am unable to see that the historical situation presupposed by the Apocalypse contradicts the testimony of Irenaeus” (cf. Beale 1999:27). The Domitianic date of the Apocalypse still makes very good sense – at least to me. On the other hand, I am willing to look for new solutions to the problem, and I therefore more than welcome the objections and suggestions raised in Wilson’s NTS article (and by others) – cf. Bell (1979), and more recently Moberly (1992).
Aune, D. (1997): Revelation 1-5. (=
Word Biblical Commentary 52a) Dallas, Texas: Word Books
What do YOU think ?
Date: 28 Mar 2005
Date: 26 Mar 2005
Date: 29 Mar 2005
Date: 05 Apr 2005
Date: 04 Apr 2005
Date: 29 Jan 2006
Email PreteristArchive.com's Sole Developer and Curator, Todd Dennis
(todd @ preteristarchive.com)
Opened in 1996