Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Hitchcock/Hanegraaff Debate On The Date Of Revelation

Earlier this week, I wrote about the date of the book of Revelation. I want to recommend a couple of resources for those who are interested in doing more research on the subject.

In 2007, there was a debate on the date of Revelation between Mark Hitchcock and Hank Hanegraaff. You can watch a video of the debate here. Hitchcock argues for a date around 95, and Hanegraaff argues for a date around 65. I think Hitchcock won the debate by a wide margin, and I'll let him speak for himself for the most part. There are some points Hanegraaff raised that Hitchcock didn't interact with much or at all, however, in part because some of the comments in question were made by Hanegraaff after Hitchcock's closing statements. I want to address some of those claims made by Hanegraaff.

He's largely dismissive of the external evidence for the date of Revelation. One of the means by which he tried to undermine the significance of the patristic testimony against his position was by citing the church fathers' erroneous views on baptismal regeneration and the perpetual virginity of Mary. Supposedly, they erred on the date of Revelation in much the same way they erred on other matters, like the two I just mentioned. But we have far better Biblical evidence against baptismal regeneration and the perpetual virginity of Mary than we have against a 95 date for Revelation. We have sources outside the Bible who are opposed to baptismal regeneration and Mary's perpetual virginity as early as the first century (Clement of Rome, Josephus). On baptismal regeneration, see here. On the perpetual virginity of Mary, see here. By contrast, Hitchcock was able to easily answer Hanegraaff's Biblical arguments for a different date for Revelation, and Hitchcock maintains that nobody in our extant records advocated the Neronian date for Revelation until more than four hundred years after the book was written. We have far better evidence against baptismal regeneration and the perpetual virginity of Mary than we have against the 95 date for Revelation.

As far as I recall, the only extrabiblical source from the first five centuries of church history that Hanegraaff cites for his dating of Revelation is Clement of Alexandria. He spends part of his closing remarks discussing Clement, and Hitchcock had no opportunity to respond, since Hanegraaff gave his closing remarks after Hitchcock's. At this point, I want to recommend a second resource, which is Hitchcock's 2005 doctoral dissertation on the date of Revelation. In that dissertation, which Hitchcock said he made available to Hanegraaff well before the debate occurred, he answers Hanegraaff's arguments about Clement and provides evidence that Clement supported the 95 date for Revelation rather than the 65 date.

In the first rebuttal phase of the debate, Hanegraaff makes some weak attempts to provide an alternative interpretation of the testimony of Irenaeus. Hanegraaff tells us that Irenaeus may have been referring to the time when a copy of the book of Revelation was seen, not the time when John received the revelation he recorded. But Irenaeus referred to "the apocalyptic vision" (Against Heresies, 5:30:3). He was discussing the revelation itself, not a copy of the book of Revelation. Hanegraaff also says that when Irenaeus referred to the revelation having been seen during the time of Domitian, he might have been referring to Nero's birth name as "Domitian". But Irenaeus refers to "Domitian's reign". If he had Nero in mind, and was discussing his time as emperor (his "reign"), why would he pass over the name Nero was most commonly known by and cite, instead, a birth name that could be confused with the name of another emperor?

I recommend noting what Irenaeus says about the emperor Trajan in other passages about John. See sections 2:22:5 and 3:3:4 in Against Heresies. In those passages, Irenaeus is addressing the testimony of John and the other apostles: "John conveyed to them that information", they "heard the very same account from them [the other apostles]", the church of Ephesus was "a true witness of the tradition of the apostles". He mentions that John lived until the time of Trajan. If John was unavailable to give testimony during Trajan's reign, because of his declining health or some other reason, why would Irenaeus mention that he was still alive at a time when his testimony was unavailable? What would be the significance? It's doubtful that John would live past Domitian's lifetime, even into the reign of Trajan, and be unable to provide testimony beyond the end of Domitian's reign for some reason, yet Irenaeus would cite John's living until the time of Trajan on multiple occasions when addressing the testimony of John and the apostles. The best explanation for the mentioning of Domitian in the primary passage under consideration here is that Irenaeus was addressing when John received the revelation, not when he was available to provide testimony.

Hanegraaff objects to the alleged ambiguity of Irenaeus' comments, but he ignores the best evidence for Hitchcock's reading of Irenaeus while offering much weaker alternatives. If we interpret Irenaeus the same way we usually interpret other sources, there isn't much ambiguity. Irenaeus dated Revelation to the end of the reign of Domitian, around the year 95.

What about Hanegraaff's attempts to diminish Irenaeus' credibility more generally? According to Hanegraaff, Irenaeus is very difficult to understand, especially when responding to the Gnostics. But whose fault is that? For one thing, we're nearly two thousand years removed from Irenaeus' context. We should expect some degree of difficulty in understanding him. And when the Gnostic beliefs he describes are difficult to understand, it's more the fault of the Gnostics than Irenaeus. As he writes:

"They have now been fully exposed; and simply to exhibit their sentiments, is to obtain a victory over them. Wherefore I have laboured to bring forward, and make clearly manifest, the utterly ill-conditioned carcass of this miserable little fox. For there will not now be need of many words to overturn their system of doctrine, when it has been made manifest to all….Even to give an account of them is a tedious affair, as you see." (Against Heresies, 1:31:3-4)

It's not Irenaeus' fault if the Gnostics' beliefs were so difficult to convey. The portions of his treatise in which he isn't describing Gnostic views tend to be much easier to follow.

Though Hanegraaff is right in noting that Irenaeus was wrong on some issues, see here and here for a defense of his general credibility. We dismiss what Irenaeus said on some issues, like the age of Jesus, because of good evidence against what he said. Not only is there no comparable or better evidence against his view of the date of Revelation, but his view of that subject is even widely corroborated by Revelation's internal evidence and external sources other than Irenaeus. See the discussion of the relevant evidence in Hitchcock's doctoral dissertation.

And notice how Hitchcock had to keep pressing the issue of the internal evidence for Revelation's later date before Hanegraaff addressed some of Hitchcock's points on the subject. Hanegraaff argued that the state of the churches of Smyrna and Laodicea in Revelation 2-3 could be reconciled with an earlier date for Revelation, but he didn't overturn Hitchcock's point that a later date makes more sense of Revelation 2-3. And, as far as I remember, Hanegraaff never answered Hitchcock's argument regarding the church of Ephesus.

Though I don't agree with Hitchcock on every point that came up, he generally made a good case that both the internal and the external evidence favor a date for Revelation around the year 95. His debate with Hanegraaff and his doctoral dissertation provide a lot of valuable information on the subject.

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