When Was the Book of Revelation Written?
Traditionally, the book of Revelation has been dated near the end of the first century, around A.D. 96. Some writers, however, have advanced the preterist (from a Latin word meaning “that which is past”) view, contending that the Apocalypse was penned around A.D. 68 or 69, and thus the thrust of the book is supposed to relate to the impending destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70).
A few prominent names have been associated with this position (e.g., Stuart, Schaff, Lightfoot, Foy E. Wallace Jr.), and for a brief time it was popular with certain scholars. James Orr has observed, however, that recent criticism has reverted to the traditional date of near A.D. 96 (1939, 2584). In fact, the evidence for the later date is extremely strong.
In view of some of the bizarre theories that have surfaced in recent times (e.g., the notion that all end-time prophecies were fulfilled with the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70), which are dependent upon the preterist interpretation, we offer the following.
The external evidence for the late dating of Revelation is of the highest quality.
Irenaeus (A.D. 180), a student of Polycarp (who was a disciple of the apostle John), wrote that the apocalyptic vision “was seen not very long ago, almost in our own generation, at the close of the reign of Domitian” (Against Heresies 30). The testimony of Irenaeus, not far removed from the apostolic age, is first rate. He places the book near the end of Domitian’s reign, and that ruler died in A.D. 96. Irenaeus seems to be unaware of any other view for the date of the book of Revelation.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 155-215) says that John returned from the isle of Patmos “after the tyrant was dead” (Who Is the Rich Man? 42), and Eusebius, known as the “Father of Church History,” identifies the “tyrant” as Domitian (Ecclesiastical History III.23).
Even Moses Stuart, America’s most prominent preterist, admitted that the “tyrant here meant is probably Domitian.” Within this narrative, Clement further speaks of John as an “old man.” If Revelation was written prior to A.D. 70, it would scarcely seem appropriate to refer to John as an old man, since he would only have been in his early sixties at this time.
Victorinus (late third century), author of the earliest commentary on the book of Revelation, wrote:
When John said these things, he was in the island of Patmos, condemned to the mines by Caesar Domitian. There he saw the Apocalypse; and when at length grown old, he thought that he should receive his release by suffering; but Domitian being killed, he was liberated (Commentary on Revelation 10:11).
Jerome (A.D. 340-420) said,
In the fourteenth then after Nero, Domitian having raised up a second persecution, he [John] was banished to the island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse (Lives of Illustrious Men 9).
To all of this may be added the comment of Eusebius, who contends that the historical tradition of his time (A.D. 324) placed the writing of the Apocalypse at the close of Domitian’s reign (III.18). McClintock and Strong, in contending for the later date, declare that “there is no mention in any writer of the first three centuries of any other time or place” (1969, 1064). Upon the basis of external evidence, therefore, there is little contest between the earlier and later dates.
The contents of the book of Revelation also suggest a late date, as the following observations indicate.
The spiritual conditions of the churches described in Revelation chapters two and three more readily harmonize with the late date.
The church in Ephesus, for instance, was not founded by Paul until the latter part of Claudius’s reign: and when he wrote to them from Rome, A.D. 61, instead of reproving them for any want of love, he commends their love and faith (Eph. 1:15) (Horne 1841, 382).
Yet, when Revelation was written, in spite of the fact that the Ephesians had been patient (2:2), they had also left their first love (v. 4), and this would seem to require a greater length of time than seven or eight years, as suggested by the early date.
Another internal evidence of a late date is that this book was penned while John was banished to Patmos (1:9). It is well known that Domitian had a fondness for this type of persecution. If, however, this persecution is dated in the time of Nero, how does one account for the fact that Peter and Paul are murdered, yet John is only exiled to an island? (Eusebius III.18; II.25).
Then consider this fact. The church at Laodicea is represented as existing under conditions of great wealth. She was rich and had need of nothing (3:17). In A.D. 60, though, Laodicea had been almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake. Surely it would have required more than eight or nine years for that city to have risen again to the state of affluence described in Revelation.
The doctrinal departures described in Revelation would appear to better fit the later dating. For example, the Nicolaitans (2:6, 15) were a full-fledged sect at the time of John’s writing, whereas they had only been hinted at in general terms in 2 Peter and Jude, which were written possibly around A.D. 65-66.
Persecution for professing the Christian faith is evidenced in those early letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. For instance, Antipas had been killed in Pergamum (2:13). It is generally agreed among scholars, however, that Nero’s persecution was mostly confined to Rome; further, it was not for religious reasons (Harrison 1964, 446).
Arguments for the Early Date Answered
In the absence of external evidence in support of an early date for Revelation, preterists generally rely on what they perceive as internal support for their view.
Writing Style Differences
It is contended that the Gospel of John has a much smoother style of Greek than does the Apocalypse. Thus, the latter must have been written many years prior to the fourth Gospel—when the apostle was not so experienced in the literary employment of Greek.
In answer to this argument, we cite R. H. Gundry:
Archaeological discoveries and literary studies have recently demonstrated that along with Aramaic and Hebrew, Greek was commonly spoken among first century Palestinians. Thus John must have known and used Greek since his youth (1970, 365).
B. B. Warfield contends that:
the Apocalypse betrays no lack of knowledge of, or command over, Greek syntax or vocabulary; the difference lies, rather, in the manner in which a language well in hand is used, in style, properly so called; and the solution of it must turn on psychological, not chronological, considerations (Schaff and Herzog 1891, 2036).
R. H. Charles, author of the commentary on Revelation in the International Critical Commentary series, and perhaps the greatest expert on apocalyptic literature, regarded the so-called bad grammar as deliberate, for purposes of emphasis, and consistent with the citation of numerous Old Testament passages (Gundry, 365). It might be noted that in the 404 verses of Revelation, Westcott and Hort’s Greek New Testament gives over five hundred references and allusions to the Old Testament.
Finally, as McClintock and Strong point out:
It may be admitted that the Revelation has many surprising grammatical peculiarities. But much of this is accounted for by the fact that it was probably written down, as it was seen, “in the Spirit,” while the ideas, in all their novelty and vastness, filled the apostle’s mind, and rendered him less capable of attending to forms of speech. His Gospel and Epistles, on the other hand, were composed equally under divine influence, but an influence of a gentler, more ordinary kind, with much care, after long deliberation, after frequent recollection and recital of the facts, and deep pondering of the doctrinal truths which they involve (1064).
No Mention of Jerusalem’s Destruction
It is claimed that Revelation must have been penned before A.D. 70 since it has no allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem; rather, it is alleged, it represents both the city and the temple as still standing.
In response we note the following points.
First, if John wrote this work near A.D. 96, there would be little need to focus upon the destruction of Jerusalem since the lessons of that catastrophe would have been well learned in the preceding quarter of a century.
However, it must be noted that some scholars see a veiled reference to Jerusalem’s destruction in 11:8, where “the great city,” in which the Savior was crucified (Jerusalem), is called Sodom—not merely because of wickedness, but due to the fact that it was a destroyed city of evil (Zahn 1973, 306).
Second, the contention that the literal city and temple were still standing, based upon chapter eleven, ignores the express symbolic nature of the narrative. Salmon says that it is:
difficult to understand how anyone could have imagined that the vision represents the temple as still standing. For the whole scene is laid in heaven, and the temple that is measured is the heavenly temple (11:19; 15:5). We have only to compare this vision with the parallel vision of a measuring-reed seen by Ezekiel (ch. 40), in which the prophet is commanded to measure—surely not the city which it is stated had been demolished fourteen years previously, but the city of the future seen by the prophet in vision (1904, 238).
Nero Associated with 666
Some argue for an early date of the Apocalypse by asserting that the enigmatic 666 (13:18) is a reference to Nero. This is possible only by pursuing the most irresponsible form of exegesis.
To come up with such an interpretation one must:
- add the title “Caesar” to Nero’s name;
- compute the letter-number arrangement on the basis of Hebrew, whereas the book was written in Greek; and
- alter the spelling of “Caesar” by dropping the yodh in the Hebrew.
All of this reveals a truly desperate attempt to find a reference to Nero in the text.
Additionally, Leon Morris has pointed out that Irenaeus discussed a number of possibilities for deciphering the 666, but he did not even include Nero in his list, let alone regard this as a likely conjecture (1980, 38). Noted critic Theodor Zahn observed that Nero was not even suggested as a possibility until the year 1831 (447).
In view of the foregoing evidence, a very strong case can be made for dating Revelation at about A.D. 96. Accordingly, the theory of realized eschatology, which is grounded upon the necessity of the Apocalypse having been written prior to A.D. 70, is shown to be without the necessary foundation for its successful defense, to say nothing of the scores of other scriptural difficulties that plague it.
- Gundry, R. H. 1970. Survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Harrison, Everett. 1964. Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Horne, Thomas H. 1841. Critical Introduction to the Holy Scriptures. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: J. Whetham & Son.
- McClintock, John and James Strong. 1969. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Morris, Leon. 1980. The Revelation of St. John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Orr, James, ed. 1939. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Salmon, George. 1904. Introduction to the New Testament. London, England: John Murray.
- Schaff, Philip and Johann Herzog. 1891. Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge. Vol. 3. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls.
- Zahn, Theodor. 1973. Introduction to the New Testament. Vol. 3. Minneapolis, MN: Klock and Klock.