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.