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Article 52 - When Was Revelation Written?

When Was Revelation Written?

Jon Gary Williams

There are two basic views regarding the time of the writing of Revelation. One says it was penned in about 95 A.D., while the other says it was penned sometime prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

For years I, along with many others, followed the late date. However, after carefully restudying the issue I found that the late date does not align with the content of the book, whereas the earlier date does. Following are some reasons for an early date.

1. John was to do much more extensive preaching. "Thou shalt prophesy again before many people, and nations, and tongues, and kings" (10:11). The implication is that the extended work assigned him to go and preach to "many" nations would probably last many additional years. If John penned Revelation at about 95 A.D., this would put him into his 90s and well beyond, and very likely unable to carry out such an extensive and vigorous program of travel and preaching. It may be argued that God could have extended his years so he could carry out this work. But on the other hand, if John wrote Revelation before 70 A.D., his extended preaching to many nations would seem more likely to be the case.  

2. All other books of the N.T. were written between 51 and 69 A.D.  If the book of Revelation was written at about 95 A.D., this creates an unusually large gap of more than 25 years between it and the other books. It seems only reasonable that all 27 books of the New Testament were known and used long before 95 A.D. 

3.The duration phrases "shortly take place" (1:1; 22:6) and "the time is at hand" (1:3; 22:10) discredit the later date of 95 A.D., for there were no events following shortly after 95 A.D. that satisfy this description. On the other hand, the impending destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. does. 

4. That John was to measure the temple (figuratively) is an indication that it was still standing (11:1 ff). However, if Revelation was written in 95 A.D., any mention of the temple would have had no relevance, since it had been destroyed 25 years earlier.

Also, references to the Jewish temple (tabernacle) and things related to it suggest that it still existed and that people were conscious of it: "temple...tabernacle" (13:6; 15:5); "incense...censer" (8:3-5); "golden vials (bowls)" (5:8); "four horns of the golden altar which is before God" (9:13).

Notice: Nowhere in Revelation is the suggestion of Jerusalem or the temple no longer existing.

Strong Jewish influence still existed and was creating problems for the church (Smyrna, 2:9; Philadelphia, 3:9), but by 95 A.D., 25 years after the fall of Judaism, such an influence would have no longer existed.

When Revelation was penned there were those who falsely claimed to be apostles (2:2) which indicates that some apostles were still alive. The best traditions, however, tell us that all the apostles, with the possible exception of John, died long before 95 A.D. Hence, by 95 A.D. the churches would have been well aware of this, meaning that any claims to apostleship would have been pointless.

There are clear parallels between statements found in Revelation and Jesus' prophecies of Jerusalem's fall in Matthew 24.
  • Matt. 24:34 "this generation shall not pass" - - compare with - - Rev. 1:1; 22:6 "shortly take place"
  • Matt. 24:21 "great tribulation" - - compare with - - Rev. 1:9; 3:10; 7:14 "tribulation" "great tribulation"
  • Matt. 24:2 Jerusalem "thrown down" - - compare with - - Rev. 18:21 "with violence shall the great city be thrown down"
  • Matt. 24:15-21 "let them which be in Judea flee to the mountains" - - compare with - - Rev.12:6 "And the woman fled into the wilderness"
8. The kings mentioned in Revelation 17:10 help in determining the time of the writing of this book. Here, seven kings are mentioned. John wrote: "There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, and the other is not yet come." Most agree this verse refers to the first seven emperors of the Roman Empire, beginning with Augustus. These emperors are, in order:
  • Augustus (30 BC - 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 - 37 AD)
  • Caligula (37 - 41 AD)
  • Claudius (41 - 54 AD)
  • Nero (54 - 68 AD)
  • Vespasian (69 - 79 AD)
  • Titus (79 - 81 AD)
Notice that John writes that "five have fallen," that is, they have died. These five would be Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. He then writes the key words, "one is." Accordingly, the sixth king, Vespasian, was on the throne when John was writing Revelation. (Another view says that the first emperor was Julius Caesar. If this view is accurate, it would make Nero the sixth king.) At any rate, an earlier date near 70 AD seems to best suit the internal evidence of the scriptures.

9. There were early church fathers who favored the early dating of Revelation.
  • Clement of Alexandria said that all Revelation ceased under the reign of Nero.
  • Tertullian placed John's banishment under Nero's reign.
  • Epiphanius twice states Revelation was written under the reign of Claudius [Nero] Caesar.
10. The testimony of early canons and versions. The Muratorian Canon says Revelation was written before the death of Paul. The Syriac version has a heading at Revelation that reads: "The Revelation which was made by God to John the evangelist in the island of Patmos, into which he was thrown by Nero Caesar."

11. Some of the well-known scholars who favored the early dating of Revelation.
Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church)
Charles Wordsworth
James A. McDonald (The Life and Writings of John)
Milton S. Terry, Robert Young (Young's Analytical Concordance)
Conybeare & Howson
G. William Miller
Moses Stuart
B. F. Westcott
B. B. Wardield (Chronology section, 1901 ASV Bible Dictionary)
J. B. Lightfoot
Alfred Edersheim
F. F. Bruce
A. T. Robinson

A Look At The Late Date

The most relied on arguments offered for the late date are only external -- that is, they do not come from the book of Revelation itself. 

For example, it is claimed that a statement by Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) shows that Revelation was written during the reign of Domitian. The statement reads: "If, however, it were necessary to proclaim the name of the would have been declared by him who saw the revelation, for it is not so long since it was seen, but almost in our own generation, at the close of Domitian's reign."

However, this argument involves several problems.
- Irenaeus said this is what he heard from Polycarp (69?-155? A.D.) who it is believed knew the apostle John. So, this was secondhand testimony and only the recollection of Irenaeus.

- That Irenaeus was referring to the book of Revelation is an assumption. In the phrase, "it was seen," the Greek term translated "it" can just as easily be translated "he." (It is the third person singular verb and without a separate noun or pronoun is ambiguous, meaning it could be either "it" or "he.") So Irenaeus could have merely been referring to John himself, not Revelation.

- Even if Irenaeus was referring to the book of Revelation, he merely stated that "since it was seen." He did not say, "since it was written." To claim that Revelation was written during that time is, at best, only speculation.

Another external argument used to put the writing of Revelation at the late date is to show that the horrible persecution of Christians addressed in Revelation took place during the time of Domitian's reign (81 - 95 A.D.). 

However, the fact is, there is no historical documentation of such a Domitian persecution. Commentators who follow the later date, in describing the horrors of Domitian's persecution of Christians, give no documentation to confirm this; they cite only what other commentators have said. Sadly, this is a common practice. 

Well-known historians such as Edward Gibbons, A. T. Robinson and James Moffatt, testify to the lack of documentation of such a widespread persecution by Domitian. Gibbons stated, "But this persecution (if it deserves that epithet) was of no long duration" (The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, p. 278).