As I’ve been preparing to preach a series through Revelation at Kosmosdale Baptist Church, I’ve noticed that in discussions of the book’s date of composition, certain issues appear again and again. The following list is an attempt to distill what scholars sort through when they project a date for the book.
- The references to nearness. In Revelation 1:3, “the time is near” (cf. 22:20). Should references to nearness be taken straightforwardly as something the first readers would’ve seen fulfilled? Or do the references still point to the future even from our vantage point two thousand years after the book? Or are there degrees of fulfillment, as in some Old Testament prophecies, so that the readers should expect fulfillments both soon in their lifetimes and far into the future?
- The situations of the seven churches. In Revelation 2-3, seven Asian churches are addressed in seven letters. Discerning the issues in each letter, do the respective circumstances best fit a date in the late 60s or the mid-90s (the only plausible dates, in my opinion)?
- The testimony of Irenaeus. In Adversus Haereses 5.30.3, Irenaeus dates the visions of John’s Apocalypse near the end of Domitian’s reign (AD 81-96). The question is: how much weight should the testimony of Irenaeus be given? Some say this external evidence should be decisive, while others say it should be a factor though not decisive. And since Irenaeus didn’t write in English, have his words been accurately preserved and translated? Some people argue that it was John himself (rather than the Apocalypse) who was seen near the end of Domitian’s reign, which could mean an earlier date for the writing of Revelation. Other scholars hold firmly to the traditional translation of Irenaeus’ words.
- The endurance of persecution. The book of Revelation called its readers to prepare for suffering. But when in the first century was such suffering experienced? Does the book have in view what happened under Nero? Or perhaps immediately after Nero? Or later under Domitian? Scholars debate the degree of persecution under Nero and Domitian. Did persecution extend beyond Rome? Is there evidence that an emperor specifically targeted Christians? To what degree were Christians persecuted? Were there scattered pockets of persecution, or was there governmentally sanctioned persecution?
- The emperor cult. Does Revelation possess an awareness of the emperor cult? When did the worship of emperors begin? Did certain emperors command worship? What was the status of the emperor cult under Nero and under Domitian?
- The number of the beast. In Revelation 13, we find the (in)famous 666. John says, “This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666” (13:18). But what man has the identity 666? Was it one of the emperors Nero or Vespasian or Domitian? According to some scholars, calculating the number of the beast is important because the man may be the formerly- or presently-reigning emperor when the Apocalypse was written. Or is the number about a future ruler? If John told the readers of Revelation to calculate the number, was the beast’s identity clearly known to them? If so, is the beast’s identity discernible to us or is the ability to calculate that identity now lost? And what kind of calculation is involved anyway? If John means the practice of gematria, should the calculation be with Greek letters or Hebrew letters? And are we looking for a last name, first name, or nickname? Or is the number purely symbolic, thus making mathematical calculations irrelevant? Is any proposal of an actual name simply wrongheaded?
- The seven kings. In Revelation 17:9-11 John says, “This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.” According to some scholars, the numbers here are symbolic and do not have historical referents. Other scholars, though, believe John is evoking an order of emperors and thus gives indication of who may be reigning when he says “five of whom have fallen” but “one is.” If the “five” can be identified, then “one” who “is” would be the emperor reigning when the Apocalypse was written. The problem, though, is identifying the first emperor in the order. Do you start with Julius Caesar or with Augustus? And do Galba, Otho, and Vitellius belong in the order, or are they omitted? Some scholars say that identifying emperors for the “seven kings” is a chasing after the wind and, instead, readers should take the numbers symbolically. If a specific order of emperors is unnecessary, Revelation 17 may not help us date the book at all.
- The myth of Nero’s return. Does the book of Revelation have an awareness of the Nero Redivivus, the legend that the dreaded Nero would return one day? If Revelation is aware of this myth, then a post-Neronic dating for the book is most likely. Post-Neronic, though, could mean the reign of Vespasian (pre-70 AD) or even later (post-70 AD) during the reign of Domitian. Or, if Revelation does not show semblances of the Nero Redivivus, then this issue may leave the door open for a Neronic dating, or it may mean the Nero Redivivus myth isn’t helpful to dating the book at all.
- The use of “Babylon.” Since many scholars agree that “Babylon” in Revelation refers to the Roman Empire, this use may indicate a post-70 AD dating. Post-70 AD Jewish literature uses “Babylon” for Rome.
- The mention of the temple. In Revelation 11, John was given a measuring rod and told to measure the temple. The question is whether this means the second temple was still standing and thus implying the book of Revelation was written pre-70 AD, or whether the temple language is purely symbolic (perhaps of God’s people) and thus Revelation 11 offers no help in dating the book.
There may be other issues to be considered in dating the book of Revelation as well, of course, but these ten are major players in the dating game.