Biblical Research & Education Resources
Blaine Robison, M.A., M.R.E.
Introduction to Revelation
Published 29 April 2011; Revised 16 December 2016
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Most works by early church fathers are available online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Torah (Law), Besekh (New Testament), Torah (Law), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
Before 1800 few questioned that Revelation, as well as the book of John and three epistles, were the work of John (Heb. Yochanan), the brother of Jacob (aka "James") and the apostle whom Yeshua loved. Since 1800 the authorship of the biblical writings attributed to John has been exhaustively researched, with over 1,000 scholarly works having been written on the subject (Smith 55). The rejection by some scholars of the authorship of Revelation by John the apostle has been based largely on esoteric concepts and theories generally accepted in the field of literary criticism. The term "criticism" in this context refers to the analytical study of a subject and does not inherently mean being negative. (See the section on Composition.) While the literary approach to biblical studies is a valuable tool in exegesis, over reliance on this discipline has caused some scholars to conclude that mere fishermen could not have written the advanced theological concepts found in the apostolic writings.
Any casual reader of the Scriptures may observe that the names of the writers of the historical books, such as Judges, Kings and Chronicles are not prefixed, whereas the name is prefixed in the prophetical books, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah (Henry). Similarly, Johnís name is not prefixed to any of his epistles, but his name is declared four times in Revelation (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), although he points to Yeshua as the author. John does not describe himself as an apostle. Indeed there was no need for him to assert his apostleship as Paul, who repeatedly did in his letters, since he was not of the original twelve disciples. Like Jacob, the brother of the Lord, John only feels the need to describe himself as a servant of God (1:1). However, by doing so he placed himself squarely in a select group of leaders, beginning with Moses, who used this self-description to indicate their humble submission to the will of God. Moreover, all of those in Scripture who used this designation possessed authority to speak for God. Johnís choice of title may be deliberate for another reason.
Albert Edersheim suggests that John was of priestly lineage (106). The fact that the family of Zebedee engaged in fishing does not preclude priestly lineage, either through his father or mother. Edersheimís reasoning is based on the following facts and inferences. The name John had a priestly connection being given to the son of the priest Zechariah (Luke 1:13) and occurring in the names of those of high priestly descent in Acts 4:6. Having priestly descent would account for Johnís personal acquaintance with the high priest (John 18:15, 16), which gave him access into the council-chamber itself with Yeshua at his trial, while Peter, for whom he had gained admittance to the palace, remained outside in the porch area. Though residing in Galilee, the house of "his own" to which John took the mother of Yeshua (John 19:27) was probably at Jerusalem, like that of other priests, and where Miriam of Magdala found John and Peter together on the morning of the resurrection (John 20:2).
For Edersheim, it seems improbable that a book so full of detailed allusions to Temple liturgy and ministry as the Book of Revelation could have been written by any other than a priest, or one who had at one time been in actual service in the Temple (106). Moseley agrees that John came from a family of priests, pointing out that in John 20:5 Peter rushed into the tomb while John hesitated outside (24). According to Jewish law, he would have been defiling himself had he entered a room where there was a dead body. The evidence for Johnís connection with the Jerusalem temple is very strong. For more on the background of John see my article Witnesses of the Good News.
John also identifies himself as a brother and companion to his readers (1:9). He shares their tribulation; so much, in fact, that it landed him on Patmos (1:9). He is so highly regarded by Yeshua, the son of David and the Son of God, that he is the only one of the apostles to receive such a sweeping, yet detailed, revelation of the final days of the earth and the establishment of Messiahís kingdom. Yeshua also granted admission to this humble servant to observe the liturgies of the heavenly court, to witness awe-inspiring scenes of grandeur and to tour the city sought after by the ancient fathers, wonders that only Isaiah and Paul had but brief glimpses. Would Yeshua entrust such knowledge to anyone but to someone in his inner circle of apostles (cf. Matt 17:1)? The answer should be self-evident to any unbiased interpreter.
In considering external evidence, the inescapable fact is that the overwhelming majority of the church fathers believed that John the apostle wrote Revelation. For example, Justin Martyr (110Ė165) said, "There was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him" (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 81). Tertullian (145-220) likewise believed that the Apostle John received the Revelation from Yeshua (Against Marcion, 3:25). Hippolytus (170-236), concurred, commenting, "JohnÖwas banished by Domitian the king to the isle of Patmos, in which also he wrote his Gospel and saw the apocalyptic vision." (On the Twelve Apostles 3)
Eusebius (ca. 260-340) commented: "At that time the apostle and evangelist John, the one whom Yeshua loved, was still living in Asia, and governing the churches of that region, having returned after the death of Domitian from his exile on the island. And that he was still alive at that time may be established by the testimony of two witnesses. They should be trustworthy who have maintained the orthodoxy of the Church; and such indeed were Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria." (Ecclesiastical History, III, 23:1)
Jerome (340-420) provided the following two historical summaries: "John is both an Apostle and an Evangelist, and a prophet. An Apostle, because he wrote to the churches as a master; an Evangelist, because he composed a Gospel, a thing which no other of the Apostles, excepting Matthew, did; a prophet, for he saw in the island of Patmos, to which he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian as a martyr for the Lord, an Apocalypse containing the boundless mysteries of the future" (Contra Jovin, 1:26). In addition, he wrote:
"In the fourteenth year then after Nero, Domitian having raised a second persecution, he was banished to the island of Patmos, and wrote the Apocalypse, on which Justin Martyr and Irenaeus afterwards wrote commentaries. But Domitian having been put to death and his acts, on account of his excessive cruelty, having been annulled by the senate, he returned to Ephesus under Pertinax and continuing there until the time of the emperor Trajan, founded and built churches throughout all Asia, and, worn out by old age, died in the sixty-eighth year after our Lord's passion and was buried near the same city." (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men 9)
Sulpitius Severus (ca. 360-420) also said, "Then, after an interval, Domitian, the son of Vespasian, persecuted the Christians. At this date, he banished John the Apostle and Evangelist to the island of Patmos. There the, secret mysteries having been revealed to him, wrote and published his book of the holy Revelation, which indeed is either foolishly or impiously not accepted by many." (The Sacred History, II, 31)
These citations demonstrate that the church fathers had no trouble accepting John the Apostle as the author of this remarkable book. This writer concurs.
Most scholars have dated Revelation either during the reign of Caesar Nero (54-68) or during the reign of Caesar Domitian (81-96), although Revelation has been dated as early as Caesar Claudius (41-54) and as late as Caesar Trajan (98-117) (Mounce 15-16). The early date for Revelation was offered by Epiphanius in the fourth century and the late date was suggested by Dorotheus in the sixth century and Theophylact in the 11th century. These dates were derived by reading first century events into the Revelation narrative. That is also the basic methodology of those who claim a date during Neroís reign. The record of the patristic writers is decidedly in favor of the Domitian date. Some examples follow.
Irenaeus (120-202) gave the most definitive reference to dating: "We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitianís reign." (Against Heresies, V, 30:3)
Scholars have debated what Irenaeus meant by "that was seen" with those favoring an early date contending that the version of Irenaeus in existence is a corruption of the original text that may have read "he was seen" (Gregg 17). However, Eusebius in quoting Irenaeus clearly affirms the Domitian date (Ecclesiastical History, III, 18), so there must not have been any question at that time of the best translation of Irenaeus.
Tertullian (ca. 220) adds this detail: "Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is its church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! where Peter endures a passion like his Lordís! where Paul wins his crown in a death like Johnís, where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!" (The Prescription Against Heretics 36)
The fact that Tertullian mentions the banishment of John in the same sentence with the martyrdoms of Paul and Peter (and Tertullianís comment is repeated verbatim in Eusebius) is viewed by some interpreters as proving that all three events occurred during the time of Emperor Nero. However, Tertullian is not presenting a dating argument, but only describing the significance of Rome as the place where these events took place.
Victorinus (d. ca. 303) in his commentary on Revelation 10:11 says:
"And He says unto me, ĎThou must again prophesy to the peoples, and to the tongues, and to the nations, and to many kings.í He says this, because when John said these things he was on the island of Patmos, condemned to the labour of the mines by Caesar Domitian. There, therefore, he saw the Apocalypse; and when grown old, he thought that he should at length receive his quittance by suffering, Domitian being killed, all his judgments were discharged. And John being dismissed from the mines, thus subsequently delivered the same Apocalypse which he had received from God."
Eusebius also provides the account of John being released by Caesar Nerva, "But after Domitian had reigned fifteen years, and Nerva had succeeded to the empire, the Roman Senate Ö voted that Domitianís honors should be cancelled, and that those who had been unjustly banished should return to their homes and have their property restored to them. It was at this time that the apostle John returned from his banishment in the island and took up his abode at Ephesus." (Ecclesiastical History, III, 20:10.)
Since the historical record of John in the apostolic writings ends with the Council of Jerusalem and the only concrete historical fact mentioned in Revelation about John is his exile on the island of Patmos, the debate among scholars after the Protestant Reformation has centered on how much of the book reflects the political, religious and social conditions or issues of his time. Those who favor the Nero date include: Adam Clarke, John A.T. Robinson, Philip Schaff and many others. (In contrast to Adam Clarke, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, favored the later date during Domitianís reign.) Most scholars in the 19th century advocated the early date (Gregg 15). While Gregg does not clearly state a preference his analysis leans toward the early date.
Arguments by those who have favored a date before 70 emphasize the mention of persecution of the saints in the first three chapters, the many Hebraisms that exceed John's Gospel, the many allusions to the services and ministry of the Jerusalem temple, the measuring of the temple in 11:1, the beast resurrection in 13:3 as representing the belief that Nero would return from the dead, the symbol of 666 in 13:18 as representing Neroís name and the chronology of the fallen kings in 17:10. Perhaps the strongest point supporting an early date is that the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70 so it is a simple deduction as to when the measuring could have taken place, as well as the writing of Revelation.
John A.T. Robinson proposed the thesis that the entire apostolic canon was written prior to the year 70 because of the lack of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem. While Robinson eloquently argues his case for all the apostolic books, his interpretation of Revelation owes more to his assumption of John writing about contemporary events. Robinson fails to recognize the unique supernatural experience reported by John.
A distinctive approach in arguing for an early date has been to find a suitable compromise between the tradition that Domitian exiled John and the supposed internal evidence of an early date. Considerable research has been done in other documents of the first century to try to find support. Some assert that such evidence may be found in the secular history The Twelve Caesars written by the Roman scholar Suetonius (ca. 60-140). Suetonius states that after the suicide of Nero and the three brief intervening emperors, Vespasian was acclaimed emperor in December 69. However, Vespasian was in Alexandria, Egypt, at the time for several months and his son Domitian happened to be in Rome. Domitian was hailed as "Caesar" and given an appointment as City praetor with consular powers (Suetonius 12:1).
Based on the statement of Suetonius and other Roman historians of the period, Charles Edmundson conjectured that John, who also was in Rome, perhaps spoke out against the repressive measures that Domitian used to restore law and order after several months of anarchy. In early 70 Domitian then sentenced John to exile on Patmos, because John belonged to the jurisdiction of the province of Asia before coming to the capitol. Domitian left Rome in June 70 and Vespasian shortly arrived and began to moderate anti-Christian policies. The following year Vespasian appointed M. Cocceius Nerva, a lawyer and future emperor, to a consular post and it was Nerva who quashed Domitianís exile order against John.
Edmundson thus concludes that John was banished by Domitian and restored by Nerva, as the tradition says - but in 70-71, not the last decade of the century (170-172). John A.T. Robinson relies on Edmundsonís arguments to support his thesis of an early date. However, Edmundson, while basing his theory on the historical record of Suetonius, not only discounts the testimony of the early church fathers, but also ignores a significant statement in the portion he quoted from Suetonius. According to Suetonius, Domitian took advantage of his fatherís absence by engaging in a number of adulterous affairs and making many political appointments, but "he left all judicial decisions to a junior colleague" (12:1).
Most scholars since 1900 have believed that John wrote Revelation sometime between 81-100. The list of modern scholars accepting the later date include Barclay, Deissman, Enslin, Fuller, Guthrie, Harrison, Hunter, Kummel, Ladd, McNeil, Moffatt, Morris, Mounce, Tenney and Thiessen. Some of these scholars, as Barclay and Mounce, base the later Domitian date largely on reading Revelation as a reflection of contemporary events. These scholars assert that while persecution from unbelieving Jews was certainly a problem from the time of Peter, state-sponsored persecution by the Roman government on religious grounds did not begin until Domitian. Second, the spiritual decline in Ephesus, Sardis and Laodicea would likely have required an extended period of time beyond Paulís ministry in Asia Minor and his martyrdom by Nero. Third, there is no mention of the heretical sect of the Nicolaitans in any other apostolic writing. Of course, the difference in dating arguments invariably turn on how much of Revelation the commentator assumes is literal and how much is symbolic.
However, the claim of widespread persecution during Domitianís reign is not supported by written evidence (Mounce 19). State-sponsored opposition and persecution of those labeled as Christianus did not really begin until Trajan (98-117), who issued an edict declaring the devotion to Yeshua to be an illegal religion (Schaff, II.2, ß13). Yet, even Trajan moderated his edict as reported by Severus (c. 360-420), "But he, when after torture and racking he found nothing in the Christians worthy of death or punishment, forbade any further cruelty to be put forth against them" (The Sacred History, II, 31). There was no persecution that took in all parts of the empire until the reign of Decius (249-251) (NPNF, I, 147).
Domitianís cruelty and ferocity were certainly extreme, and many persons of the highest rank fell under his condemnation and suffered banishment and even death, not especially on account of Christians being among them, but on account of his jealousy, and for political reasons of various sorts. Tertullian (145-220) offers this interesting summary of the two emperor-instigated persecutions in the first century:
"Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect. Ö Domitian, too, a man of Neroís type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished" (Apologia V).
Domitian did exercise restraint in his punishment of the disciples of Yeshua as demonstrated by exiling John instead of executing him and granting clemency to the grandsons of Jude, the brother of Yeshua (Hegesippus, Concerning the Relatives of Our Savior). For this writer the belief in Johnís authorship near the end of the first century does not rest on an assumption of a particular level of political persecution and reading Revelation as a newspaper of first century events, but results simply from accepting the word of the church fathers who lived closest to the event.
Barclay: William Barclay, The Revelation of John. 2 Vols. The Westminster Press, 1976.
Clarke: Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible. (1826). Ed. Ralph Earle. Baker Book House, 1967. Online.
Deissmann: Adolph Deissmann, The New Testament in the Light of Modern Research. Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1929.
Edersheim: Alfred Edersheim, The Temple-Its Ministry and Services, Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1994. Online.
Edmundson: Charles Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century. Longmans, Green and Co., 1913
Enslin: Morion Scott Enslin. Christian Beginnings. Harper & Brothers Pub., 1938.
Fuller: Reginald H. Fuller, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament. Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1966.
Gill: John Gill (1697-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible. Online. [Baptist Bible scholar]
Guthrie: Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction. InterVarsity Press, 1961, 1962, 1965.
Frankfurter: David Frankfurter, Annotations on "The Book of Revelation," Jewish Annotated New Testament, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Gregg: Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.
Harrison: Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub, Co., 1964.
Hunter: A.M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament. Westminster, 1957.
Henry: Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (1710). Unabridged Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, 1991. Online.
Kummel: Georg Werner Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament. Abingdon, 1975.
Ladd: George E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972.
McNeile: A.H. McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament. 2d ed. Oxford University Press, 1953.
Moffatt: James Moffatt, The Historical New Testament. T. & T. Clark, 1901.
Morris: Henry M. Morris, The Revelation Record. Tyndale House Publishers, 1987.
Moseley: Ron Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Yeshua and the Original Church. Lederer Books, 1996.
Mounce: Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation. rev. ed. New International Commentary on the New Testament. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
NPNF: The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. eds. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff, and Henry Wace. T. & T. Clark, 1885. Online.
Robinson: John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament. Westminster Press, 1976.
Schaff: Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church. 8 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910. Online.
Smith: Asbury Smith, The Twelve Christ Chose. Harper and Brothers, 1958.
Suetonius: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69-122 A.D.), The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves. Penguin Books, 1957. Online.
Tenney: Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985.
Thiessen: H.C. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1943.
Wesley: John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament: Revelation. 2 Vols. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1981. Online.
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