I’ll begin with a pastoral note: there’s a reason God left the remote past and future vague in Scripture; I believe it’s because He wants us focused on the present, on the stewardship of our resource and daily lives.
Christians ought to reject teaching that claims differently, as such claims are customarily attended by extra-biblical agendas. To be clear, I’m not asserting one cannot be a young-earther, an old-earther, or an in-between earther, that one cannot be pre-mil, a-mil, or post-mil, just that we ought to delimit our ruminating with the past and the eschaton. Here are my two suggestions:
1. These doctrinal areas cannot serve as tests of orthodoxy, except as they relate to independent tests of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy (in my view) requires belief in the second coming of Christ and that God created the universe. But orthodoxy does not require an adherence to the times these occurred or will occur, nor does it require belief in certain circumstances surrounding the events.
2. These doctrinal areas ought not be elevated above clearer teachings of Scripture. The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things. I have great and abiding interest in when the world was created and how the end will play out. Any Christian should, as rightly dividing the Word is a matter of Christian obedience; however, sins are not equal. To lie is gravely worse than to misinterpret what is meant by the 144,000 in Revelation. The nature of the gospel is far more important than Ussher’s chronology.
So, we ought to bring a measure of humility with us in the study of Revelation, and this is true when we turn attention toward the dating of the book. I mention this specifically, because I don’t think anyone really knows precisely when it was written*.
Nevertheless, and in keeping with the idea that the complexity of Christian thought mirrors the complexity of God’s creation, how one dates the book will in almost all cases directly affect her treatment of the book, which, in cases where the book is dated wrongly, will lead to an infraction concerning John’s warning in Rev 22:18-19**.
Dating the book
Dating books of the Bible is typically based on internal and external evidence. External evidence consists of extra-biblical source material, such as writings of the church fathers, Archeology, and so on. Internal evidence considers what the book in question says about itself***.
The majority report, and it is a significant majority, is that the book of Revelation is to be dated around AD 95, and as far as I know, is based solely on external evidence (this is not a weakness, just how I understand the facts). But for such a significant majority, the evidence is not all that ubiquitous. Here’s the primary passage the AD 95 is founded on:
Irenaeus, in the fifth book of his work Against Heresies, where he discusses the number of the name of Antichrist which is given in the so-called Apocalypse of John, speaks as follows concerning him: “If it were necessary for his name to be proclaimed openly at the present time, it would have been declared by him who saw the revelation. For it was seen not long ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.”
This is church father Eusebius quoting church father Irenaeus, who knew Polycarp, who knew John.
There are other mentions out there; they’re easy to find with Google. Have at it. Decide for yourself.
On the other hand, I find the case for an early date of Revelation far more palatable, primarily because of the internal evidence from the book itself. This is not to say there is no external evidence for an early date. There is; it’s easy to find. Have at it. Decide for yourself.
Internally, though, consider the following.
- The temple is described in the present tense in Rev 11:1. There is futurist scaffolding one could add to overcome this, but with scaffolding comes Ockham, and epicycles, and all the rest. More on the temple below.
- The kings of 7:9-11. These are difficult to square with a late date.
- To be discussed in later posts, the gametria of 666 renders it highly likely to be Nero.
- The time references of the book itself.
There’s a long list of these. Again, they’re easy to find. Have at it. Decide for yourself. However, of all things, it’s an argument from silence**** I find most troubling about the late date. Think for a long while on this: how can it be that nowhere in the New Testament is the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the Jewish nation recorded?
This disturbs my dogmatic slumber, as it should for all Christians who hold to anything resembling an orthodox doctrine of inspiration for Scripture. How can it be that that the temple is mentioned all through the NT, but never its actual destruction (it was, of course, predicted by Jesus in Matt 24)? How can it be that thoroughly Jewish writers–I’ll get to Luke in a moment–never mentioned the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple?
It’s inconceivable that the most monumental event in Jewish history of the first century was not recorded by the writers of the New Testament, unless they wrote before it happened. Are we to think that the focus and locus of all Jewish life, as it had been for centuries, was destroyed, yet not even a nod in its general direction is given?
This would be equivalent to supposing the Old Testament writers following the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests never mentioned it. This would be worse than a New York City historian writing a history of 21st century NYC in 2026 (AD 95 – AD 70, IOW) never mentioning 9/11.
To make good on my promise to mention Luke, this is a primary reason the Acts are dated where they typically are, because Luke does not mention Paul’s death, etc.
But it gets worse, for me, anyway. There are somewhere around eighty known gnostic gospels and extra-canonical writings. As far as I know, and I haven’t read all of them, none of them as well mentions the destruction of Jerusalem or its temple. They do mention things like Jesus being three-hundred feet tall, though, and this makes sense, because they are written at very late dates (2nd century AD) by writers not overly concerned with orthodox Christianity, Jerusalem, the temple, or the like.
Here’s the rub: skeptics often date the canonical NT writings from the same time period, written not by the Apostles, as the books internally claim, but by a process of redaction over time by churchmen interested in promoting the Christian religion. The theory fits rather well with no mention of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, doesn’t it?
In fact, based on this, I think the choice is rather stark: either the NT canon, or at least a great majority of it, was written prior to AD 70, or the late dating of the skeptics is correct. It seems to me that no less than this is at stake here.
Thus, I conclude that the NT canon, including the book of Revelation, was written prior to AD 70. After all, are we to believe that John warned seven historical churches of a great persecution that was about to befall them without any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem: “Since you [Philadelphia] have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” Rev 3:10
All these mentions of current events–Nicolatians, synagogues of Satan who claim to be Jews (the reference to Jews is pertinent here), tolerating the woman Jezebel in Thyatira, et al, but no mention of Jerusalem? I guess it could be, and I say that in the most highly theoretical and philosophical sense I can muster, but I can’t see it.
So I conclude by admitting where I started: no one knows for certain when Revelation was written. But I believe I am safe to assert two conclusions here:
- I have as much warrant to assert an early date as those who assert a late date, and I’m within my epistemic bounds (keeping in mind there’s evidence I didn’t mention) to do so.
- The NT, and the book of Revelation, make better sense when assumed to be written prior to AD 70.
As we go through the book of Revelation, the second point should prove itself out. Keep this in mind as we go through the verses; it’s a primary discriminator of whose got the right interpretation, in my view.
* Here again, limits are important. We can safely conclude it was not written in either 150 or 40 AD.
**If you insist on black and white with no grey, Christianity is not for you. The basic Christian message is simple enough for very young children to understand, but it does not teach that the thoughts of God on the nature of reality are a simple matter. It’s no accident that humility is a Christian virtue.
***This is not an instance of the fallacy of petitio principi, or begging the question. I leave as homework the answer as to why it’s not….
****Noted, because we all should know how careful we have to be in using an argument from silence.
When this study began, I asked readers to leave aside the fantastical language of Revelation for the time. And here I asked readers to imagine they had no elements of systematic theology or eschatology (or futurist novels and movies) to impose upon the text. I’d like to re-encourage that now; there’s no need yet to suppose how the passages we’ve looked at thus far dovetail with millennialism, pre/mid/post tribs, and all the rest. In fact, I’d argue that all these are impediments at this juncture.
So, here’s a recap of what we’ve covered:
- Revelation is an epistle with lengthy passages of apocalyptic literature tucked into it. A common mistake with Revelation is to make the literal symbolic and the symbolic literal.
- Revelation is only at the end of the Bible because of convention, not content. It’s not at the end because it’s about then end.
- Revelation has several near time frame references, all of which are written in plain language. To suggest that these near time frame references are actually about a time in the distant future requires us to spiritualize plain language, more or less the mistake noted in the first bullet point above.
- The rest of the New Testament is full of near time frame references in plain language, including specific prophecies of Christ.
- Matthew 24 is not about the end times. Because of the pronouns involved, and Jesus’s direct answer of the disciples’ questions, Matt 24 must refer to events that happened before that generation passed away.
It is the last bullet point we’ll look at today. Matthew 24 has parallel passages in its companion synoptic gospels in Luke 21 and Mark 13. Matthew’s account is the fullest, but Luke includes a verse not found in Matthew, verse 20:
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near.”
The desolation mentioned by Luke is the abomination that causes desolation mentioned by Matthew in Matt 24:13. Note the usage of the pronoun you, used by Luke in a unbroken string in response to the disciples question. As we looked at here, these pronouns can only refer to Jesus’s disciples.
Here’s the question: did any of the disciples that Jesus answered ever see Jerusalem surrounded by armies? We know the answer from history; it’s an unequivocal yes. The Roman army under Titus surrounded Jerusalem, eventually destroying it in AD 70.
Because we know the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, here’s something to think about: perhaps Jesus, when answering his disciples’ question, meant exactly what he said: I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away before all these things come to pass.
Without a pre-existing futurist doctrinal template to sift Jesus’s words through, there’s no real reason to not simply accept his words as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Generally speaking–and forgive me for trying to treat Matt 24 in two blog posts–I think the controversy is this: Futurists do not take Jesus’s words literally because they don’t believe all these things came to pass.
In this, I see the first principle we started with: A common mistake is to make the literal symbolic and the symbolic literal. Futurists will interpret as symbol the literal this generation will certainly not pass away before all these things have happened on the basis of highly symbolic (apocalyptic, actually) passages from Matt 24, which they interpret literally. Consider the following:
- Matt 24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world as a testimony to the nations, and then the end will come. The futurist typically argues here that the gospel had not been preached to the whole world, thus Jesus didn’t really mean this generation. But it had, in the symbolic sense that Christ used the word world. Here is the Apostle Paul on the matter. “All over the world, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing…” Col 1:6 & “This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven…” Col 1:23
- Matt 24:13 So when you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation, spoken through the prophet Daniel…” We have good historical grounds to believe this happened*.
- Matt 24:21 “For then there will be great distress, unequalled from the beginning of the world until now–and never to be equaled again.” This is apocalyptic language that the futurist interprets literally, along with verses 22 and 29. Rather, this language has been employed previously in the Bible and should be understood apocalyptically. Reference Isaiah 13 and its prophecy against Babylon. Both these passages should be interpreted as oracles of woe, and not in a literal, wooden fashion, as it is common for the undoing of nature to be likened as a coming of judgment. Because Matt 24:29 is a direct quote from Isaiah 13:10, this should be obvious.
- Matt 24:30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky…They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” Hear again, I believe the futurist just assumes this did not occur. But how could they know such a thing, not having been there?
This last bullet point deserves further treatment. It is just assumed by many that this is a reference to the second coming of Christ. But is this interpretation required by the text? I think, actually, that interpreting this verse as the second coming is incorrect. Coming on the clouds is an Old Testament metaphor for judgment, as in Isaiah 19:1: See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. In the Lord’s judgment of the Assyrians, he used earthly armies, but His way is in the whirlwind and the storm and clouds are the dust of his feet. Nahum 1:3.
The symbolism is directly applied from Daniel 7:13: In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. Daniel 7:13 is not a reference to the second coming, but rather occurs at the time of the terrifying and frightening beast from Daniel’s dream, which is none other than Rome, the terrifying and frightening beast that destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, as an agent of the Lord’s wrath.
This is why Christ was able to say to Caiaphas, In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven. Thus, Matt 24 does not refer to the second coming of Christ, but instead is a prophecy of the Lord coming in judgment.
As an interesting aside, futurists indeed were not present at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and cannot say what signs did or did not occur. However, we are not without an eyewitness account of the event, and some of the events recorded are fantastic enough that we might be tempted to deny they occurred. Here’s a snippet from Josephus’s War of the Jews:
Thus were the miserable people persuaded by these deceivers, and such as belied God himself; while they did not attend nor give credit to the signs that were so evident, and did so plainly foretell their future desolation, but, like men infatuated, without either eyes to see or minds to consider, did not regard the denunciations that God made to them. Thus there was a star resembling a sword, which stood over the city, and a comet, that continued a whole year. Thus also before the Jews’ rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread, on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus, and at the ninth hour of the night, so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright day time; which lasted for half an hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes, as to portend those events that followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was led by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple. Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night. Now those that kept watch in the temple came hereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty was able to shut the gate again. This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared that the signal foreshowed the desolation that was coming upon them. Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.”
I’m not certain precisely what can be concluded from this passage, except for this: those who were not eyewitnesses of the event, i.e. 21st century futurists, have no ground to claim there were no “signs of the times” surrounding the events of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
In conclusion, then, it seems right to me to conclude that we should accept the clear words of Christ, the context of Matthew 24, and the historical events surrounding AD 70 at their face value. That, rather than trying save face for Jesus by projecting these events into the future (to save him from being wrong), we do better to accept that that generation certainly did not pass before all those things came to pass.
This transforms a passage that futurists are bound to arbitrarily project into the future into what it actually is: one of the most amazingly fulfilled prophecies in the Bible. Jesus claimed that within forty years he would come in judgment, the end of the Jewish age would occur, and that not one stone of the temple would be left upon another.
Lots more to be said, but here’s a question for next week: what might this mean for the dating of the New Testament and in particular the book of Revelation?
*Josephus. I highly suggest reading War of the Jews. It doesn’t take that long, and parts of it read like an action novel.