Tuesday, May 27, 2014

When Was Revelation Written?

The issue of the date of the book of Revelation came up in a recent thread. I think Revelation was written near the end of the first century, probably in the 90s.

Steve and one of the commenters in that other thread have discussed some of the internal evidence. I would argue that the internal evidence supports a late date. The condition of the churches in chapters 2-3, for example, makes more sense if Revelation was written late in the first century rather than in the middle of the century. Contrast what John wrote to the Ephesians to what Paul wrote to them and about them. The differences are better explained if a larger amount of time had passed between the Johannine and Pauline documents. The criticisms of the Ephesians in 1 Timothy 1:3 and 2 Timothy 1:15 don't seem to be widespread enough or of a similar enough nature to what John writes about to justify placing Revelation 2 in a context that's close to the pastoral epistles. The wealth and complacency of the Laodicean church in Revelation 3 make more sense later than earlier, since an earthquake significantly damaged the city in the early 60s. Polycarp, when writing to the Philippians about how Paul had commended the Philippians to churches that knew the Lord at the time, comments that "we had not yet known him" (Letter To The Philippians, 11). Most likely, since Polycarp is discussing churches, the "we" he has in mind is his church, the church of Smyrna. The implication, then, is that the church of Smyrna hadn't been established yet at the time when Paul was commending the Philippians to the churches, a timeframe that seems to extend into the 60s. Yet, Revelation 2:9 suggests that the church of Smyrna had faithfully endured suffering to a significant enough extent to be publicly commended for it by Jesus. While it would be possible for the Smyrnaean church to have been formed in the 60s, after which it rapidly gained the status Jesus describes in Revelation 2:9 before the end of the 60s, the passage makes more sense if Revelation was written later. For these and other reasons, I think the balance of the internal evidence favors a later date for Revelation.

So does the external evidence. John seems to have lived to an unusually old age. See here and here. There's early and widespread testimony to the effect that John's gospel was written later than the other gospels, and his references to himself as "the elder" (2 John 1, 3 John 1) are best explained as reflections of his old age. While two or three decades or more may have passed between the writing of Revelation and John's other documents, a later date for Revelation has the advantage of lining up with a timeframe when John seems to have been doing a lot of writing. Irenaeus suggests that Revelation was written during the time of the emperor Domitian, in the late first century (Against Heresies, 5:30:3). (Ireaneus isn't dating John's death to the reign of Domitian. Elsewhere, Irenaeus says that John lived until the time of Trajan. See Against Heresies 3:3:4. His comments in 5:30:3 make the most sense as a reference to when John received his revelation at Patmos.) Clement of Alexandria gives an account of events that occurred late in John's life, and the events seem to have happened shortly after John was released from Patmos (Who Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, 42). Given the overlap between Clement's account and what other early sources say about John (e.g., his residence in Ephesus), it's likely that Clement is agreeing with the timeframe referred to by those other early sources. The implication is that Revelation was written during John's old age, probably close to the end of the first century. Victorinus refers to John's authorship of Revelation at the time of Domitian (Commentary On The Apocalypse Of The Blessed John, 10:11). Eusebius also dates John's time at Patmos to the reign of Domitian, attributing the report to "early Christian tradition" (Church History, 3:20). Jerome also dates Revelation to Domitian's time (Lives Of Illustrious Men, 9). No other dating of Revelation is supported by such early, widespread, credible testimony. Every alternative dating has much weaker external evidence.


  1. Hi Jason,
    Yeah, all of your points are strong arguments against the views of Kenneth Gentry, Gary DeMar, and R. C. Sproul (who pretty much relies on Gentry) that they argue for a 68 or 69 AD writing.

    Both views have a lot going for them. Especially if Irenaeus meant that Jesus was seen alive at the time of Domition and Trajan, not that the Revelation vision was seen at that time (around 96 AD).

    The other writers just seem to be repeating what Irenaeus wrote. (Clement of Alexandria, Victorinus, Eusebius, Jerome, etc.)

    But, your points are very good; and another reason to not be dogmatic about many things about the book of Revelation.

    I don't buy everything that Gentry and DeMar have written on this stuff.

    I find it hard to take Rev. 1:7 as only about a cloud judgment in 70 AD (like Isaiah 19:1). (Gentry, DeMar, Sproul see it that way) Seems to include Jesus' ascension, session, reigning, judging, AND coming again. (with Daniel 7:13-14 and Mark 14:60-64)

    The book of Revelation seems to be some kind of combination of partial preterism-futurism-Idealism - the struggle of God's people / the church against the worldly forces, political powers, persecutors and exhortation to persevere and live holy in midst of persecution from time of NT to the second coming.

    1. Hi Ken,

      The passage in Irenaeus refers to the information John received in Revelation regarding the identity of the Antichrist. The next sentence is usually translated so as to refer to how "it" was seen during the time of Domitian, apparently meaning that the revelation John received was seen at that time. If, instead, we render "it" as "he", the "he" in question would be John, not Jesus. But the "it" translation makes more sense, as I explained above, and is the rendering translators usually give. To sum up, it's probable that Irenaeus is saying that John received his revelation at the time of Domitian.

      And I'm not aware of any reason to conclude that other sources "just seem to be repeating what Irenaeus wrote" in the sense that they were relying on Irenaeus' testimony alone. We shouldn't assume that any source after Irenaeus who agrees with Irenaeus' conclusion must have gotten his information from Irenaeus. That wouldn't make sense. Why think that Clement of Alexandria was dependent on Irenaeus? Clement is relaying a tradition about John, "a narrative, handed down and committed to the custody of memory", an account that doesn't appear anywhere in Irenaeus' extant writings. Or when Eusebius attributes his report about the timing of the writing of Revelation to "early Christian tradition", why should we think he was referring to Irenaeus alone or that all of his other sources had derived their information only from Irenaeus?

      The earliest sources who comment on the date of Revelation don't refer to any controversy over the matter, even though they often mention controversies concerning other subjects. The Domitianic dating not only is reported earlier and more widely than alternatives, but also seems to have not been disputed much early on.