By Ferrell Jenkins
The Late Date
Before the end of the second century Irenaeus spoke of the vision of the Apocalypse and said that it “was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitians’ reign.” (Against Heresies V: xxx: 3.) Domitian reigned from 81 A.D. to the latter part of 96 A.D., when he was killed. William Barclay combines some interesting historical information that helps to pinpoint the time of John’s exile on Patmos.
Tertullian says: “The apostle John was banished to the island” (On The Prescription of Heretics, 36). Origen says: “The Roman Emperor, as tradition tells us, condemned John to the island of Patmos for witnessing to the word of truth” (Homilies on Matthew) Clement of Alexandria tells us: “On the death of the tyrant John returned to Ephesus from the island of Patmos” (The Rich Man’s Salvation, 42). Jerome says that John was banished in the fourteenth year after Nero and liberated on the death of Domitian (Concerning Illustrious Men, 9). This would mean that John was banished to Patmos about A.D. 94 and that he was liberated about A.D. 96. . . 39
Besides the consistent tradition which favors dating the Apocalypse in the days of Domitian there are several other evidences. Before proceeding to an examination of these, a word about Domitian is in order.
Domitian was the son of Vespasian and a brother to Titus. He was a proud and power hungry man who had much in common with Tiberius. If, as has been suggested, Tiberius was led into false positions through hesitation and uncertainty, Domitian knew exactly what he wanted from the start. Tacitus and Pliny were filled with horror, not by occasional acts of vengeance but by a calculated and deliberate cruelty carried out in order that a definite aim might be achieved. Domitian sought control of the Roman Senate, the people and the army. By Biblical standards he was an immoral man. Having divorced his wife he lived with his niece as his mistress; after a short time his wife returned and both women lived with him in his palace.
With a good source of information, Domitian was able to eliminate any foe that in any sense seemed dangerous to his purposes. Philosophers and astrologers were banished from Rome in 89 A.D. Domitian was in no position to trust even his influential generals or governors. His policy of terrorism was aimed primarily on senatorial and upper class persons.
Domitian styled himself “Master and God” and liked for men to so address him. In the second half of his reign he accepted a form of address which implied his divinity and lordship. In public documents men swore by the genius of the living Emperor. Some wishing to flatter him began to offer sacrifices to his genius. It seems that he seized upon this and turned it into a test of loyalty. Out of all of this arose the concept of the eternity of the Roman Empire. There were two groups who could not acknowledge the divinity of the Emperor: Jews and Christians. They were charged with atheotes, which is equivalent to ungodliness or atheism; the faithful Christians of the Domitianic period were atheists by Empire standards. 40
We shall summarize the arguments for the late date of writing under five headings. (1) The General Condition of the Churches. It is argued that the general situation of the churches mentioned in Revelation presupposes the late date. The low moral conditions, particularly of Ephesus, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea, are indicative of a time later than the period of Nero. Scott suggests that the heresies, “apparently of a Gnostic character, which were working mischief” in some of the churches did not become a danger until near the end of the first century.41 However, the Colossian epistle was written some thirty years previously, and one could hardly doubt that it dealt with Gnosticism as a present threat to the church.
(2) The Persecution. There were several periods in which the Christians were persecuted. Some religious persecution was carried on by Caligmla (c. 41 A.D.); Christians were driven from Rome by Claudius (c. 52 A.D.); Nero (c. 64-68 A.D.) carried on intense persecution in Rome; Vespasian (c. 69-79 A.D.) did very little to persecute the disciples of the Lord. But Domitian “is the emperor who has gone down in history as the one who bathed the empire in the blood of the Christians.” 42 It is debatable, but the persecution by Nero seems to have been confined primarily to the city of Rome. Gibbon says, “It is evident that the effect, as well as the cause, of Nero’s persecution, were confined to the walls of Rome. ” 43
(3) Emperor Worship. In our discussion of Domitian we have shown the beginning of Emperor worship. This spread throughout Asia Minor. Some of the cities in which churches were addressed in the Revelation had vied for the right to erect a temple for the worship of the emperor; Pergamurn was the first to do So. 44 Thus, the cultus in Asia became as much a threat to the Christians as if they had lived in Rome itself; Caesar worship covered the whole empire. The attitude that prompted such worship also produced a change of attitude on the part of the Christians toward the empire. We will discuss this as a separate point.
(4) Change in Attitude toward the Empire. William Barclay presents a refreshing study showing the difference in the attitude shown in the book of Acts toward Rome and the Empire and that shown in the Revelation. In the early days of Christianity the safest refuge of the Christian from a mob of angry Jews was the tribunal of the Roman magistrate. Paul seemed quite proud of his Roman citizenship. He used it to good effect in Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, and Jerusalem. He was protected by the empire on the way to Caesarea, and exercised a citizens right in appealing directly to Caesar.45 Paul urged the Romans to be subject to the powers that be because they were ordained of God and was a terror only to the evil. (Romans 13: 1-7), Peter gave similar instructions to Christians. (1 Peter 2: 12-17).
“But in the Revelation there is nothing but blazing hatred for Rome. Rome is a Babylon, the mother of harlots, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs (Revelation 17: 5,6). John looks and hopes for nothing but the total destruction of Rome.” . 46
(5) Nero Redivivus Myth. Nero had made such a strong impression on the Roman world
that after his death there were many who at least claimed to believe that lie continued to live. Some of them claimed that lie would return shortly. In fact. there were several pretenders who claimed to be the returned Nero. Others told that Nero was in Parthia and would come back some day as the leader of a Parthian army. Swete suggests that
“Nero is doubly the Antichrist, the historical Nero persecuted the Church, the Nero of popular myth caricatured the faith. When the Apocalypse was written. Nero had in truth returned in the person of Doinitian (17: 11). ” 47
39. Barclay, 1, 5 L.
40. Cambridge Ancient History, ed. S.A. Cook. F.E. Adcock, and M. P. Charlesworth. Vol. XI: The Imperial Peace, A. D. 70-192 (Cambridge: University Press, 1954). For the history of Domitian, from which this has been summarized see pp. 22-45.
41. E. E. Scott, The Book of Revelation (London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1939, p. 29.
42. Summers, 83.
43. Robert Maynard Hutchens (ed.) Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 40: Gibbon: I (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1952), p. 214.
44. Thomas Cosmades, “Ruins of the Seven Churches,” Christianity Today, IX (December 4, 1964), 17.
45. Acts 16:36-40; 18:1-17. 19: 13-41; 22:22-30; 23:12-31; 25:10,11
46. Barclay, I, 18.
47. Swete, lxxxiv.
TRUTH MAGAZINE XVII: 26, pp. 6-7
May 3, 1973