Dating the Book of Revelation
With the dating of Revelation, you establish the true historical prospective. If you date it early, you have its fulfillment in God’s judgment on Israel. If you date it late, you have every man’s idea. So dating plays a very important part in its interpretation.
There are differences of opinion as to when this book was written. These can be summed up as the “late date” and the “early date” theories. First, we’ll cover the late date theory. Then we’ll examine the facts which support the early date theory.
The Late Date Theory
Those who hold to the “late date,” have Revelation written during the time of Domitian Caesar (AD 95-96). This date is determined by the following statement by Irenaeus (AD 130 to AD 202), as quoted by Eusebius, the church historian, in AD 325: “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 Domitian’s reign.”
There are things about this statement that need to be noted. First, Irenaeus did not witness this. He referred to Polycarp (who supposedly knew the apostle John).
Secondly, the key part — “it is not long since it was seen” — is ambiguous. According to Irenaeus recollection, Polycarp saw “it” sometime in AD 95-96, during the last part Domitian’s reign.
Thirdly, we do not know if the “it” Polycarp was referring to was John, the visions he saw, the name of anti-christ, or the book itself and we do not know if he meant that the book was written at that time or not.
Furthermore, it comes to us through three people separated by three centuries. Simply put, this is hear-say.
This statement, even with all of this uncertainty, is the only evidence used to support the “late date” theory. It has been accepted by generations of people without really questioning it or examining it in light of the book itself.
The late date has been passed on to us in the same way it was passed on to Eusebius, “…it [was] handed down by tradition…” Tradition is not the way to interpret Scripture.
Another statement by Irenaeus seems to indicate the earlier date also. In his fifth book, he speaks as follows concerning the Apocalypse of John and the number of the name of the Antichrist: “As these things are so, and this number is found in all the approved and ancient copies.”
Domitian’s reign was almost in his own day, but now he speaks of the Revelation being written in ancient copies. His statement at least gives some doubt as to the “vision” being seen in 95 AD which was almost in his day, and even suggests a time somewhat removed from his own day for him to consider the copies available to him as ancient.
The Early Date Theory
So, where can we turn to find evidence for the dating of Revelation? Within the book itself! It will be shown, from internal evidence, that Revelation was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
John must prophesy again
The first point to consider in favor of the early date is the fact that John was told that he “must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings” in Revelation 10:11. Now, if Revelation was written in AD 95-96, John would have been over 90 years old and it would have been very difficult for him to travel to the various “nations and…many kings” and preach. However, with Revelation written earlier, John would have been in his mid 60’s and at that age, his traveling would have been more feasible.
The Seven Churches in Asia
Another point is that John wrote Revelation to a specific group of churches in Asia (Revelation 1:4). The importance of this statement cannot be overlooked (even though it has been by many scholars).
There is only one small window of time in which there were only seven churches in Asia. The early AD 60’s. The apostle Paul established nine churches in that area, but only seven were addressed in Revelation. The reason for this is that the cities of Colosse, Hierapolis, and Laodicea, were all destroyed by an earthquake around AD 61.
Laodicea was rebuilt soon afterwards, but the other two cities were not. This left only seven churches in Asia during the five years just prior to the beginning of the Roman/Jewish war.
Of particular importance is the message to the church of Philadelphia (Revelation 3:7-13). In verse’s 10 and 11, Christ told John to inform them that an “hour of temptation” was “about to come upon all the world,” i.e., the Roman Empire.
Christ then told them that He was coming quickly and that they should hold fast. The reason this is important (besides the fact that this was directed to an actual church in the first century) is that the first persecution of Christians took place under Nero Caesar in AD 64. Therefore, Revelation must have been written before that time.
The Temple was still standing
One of the most compelling proofs that Revelation was written before Jerusalem was destroyed is the fact that the Jewish temple was still standing!
Revelation 11:1-2, “And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and the angel stood, saying, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein.
But the court which is without the temple leave out, and measure it not; for it is given unto the Gentiles: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months.”
How do we know that this was the temple of the first century and not some future one? First, there is not one verse in the entire Bible that speaks of a “rebuilt” Jewish Temple. Not one. That alone should be proof enough.
However, this passage is very similar to Luke 21:20-24. Notice that Jesus told the disciples that they would see this event. They had asked Him about their temple (verse 5), and Jesus told them it would be destroyed before their generation passed away (verse 32).
Notice again what Jesus said in verse 24, “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles.” This is the same thing Christ told John in Revelation 11:2. Therefore, since the disciples’ generation has long since passed away, Revelation must have been written before the nations trampled Jerusalem under foot in AD 70.
The Tribes of the Earth
Most writers consider the theme of the book to be Revelation 1:7. This verse is very similar in context to Matthew 24:30.
Revelation 1:7, “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds [Greek word #5443] of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”
Matthew 24:30, “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes [Greek word #5443] of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
It may not be conclusive standing alone, but you can see that just based on the language, a case can be made that the two verses are speaking of the same event. Matthew 24:30 is a verse that speaks of the fall of Jerusalem. And that is just the case that I am making about the book of Revelation — it speaks of the fall of Jerusalem.
Notice also the language of Revelation 1:7. It speaks of those who “pierced him.” Although we know that the Romans crucified him and pierced him, the apostles accused the Jews of the act.
In Acts 2:23,36, Peter says that they crucified Jesus. He continues to state this in his following sermons (Acts 3:15; 4:10; 5:30). Stephen, in Acts 7:51-52, calls them murderers. And Paul, in 1 Corinthians 2:8, speaks of the Jews killing the Lord. And also in I Thessalonians 2:14-15, he speaks of the Jews that killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets. So perhaps the book concerns itself with the Jews.
This view is further reinforced with the phrase, “kindreds of the earth.” (“kindreds” is from the Greek word phule, which means “tribe”). This is a direct allusion to the Jewish tribal system. Now, we must identify, from Scripture, who those “tribes” were.
To do that, we must keep in mind this simple rule of interpreting the Bible: let Scripture interpret Scripture. We can do that quite easily by looking at Zechariah 12:10-14.
Zechariah 12:10-14, “And I will pour upon the…inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son…In that day shall there be a great mourning in Jerusalem…And the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart; the family of the house of Nathan apart, and their wives apart; The family of the house of Levi apart, and their wives apart; the family of Shimei apart, and their wives apart; All the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart.”
Obviously, this is the foundation for John’s statement that “every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth (or land) shall wail because of him” So, in essence, Zechariah was saying that the “tribes of the land” would mourn for Him whom they had pierced. Who were those tribes? “The inhabitants of Jerusalem.” This also helps us identify the “earth” in Revelation 1:7.
According to Zechariah, the “earth” is the land of Palestine, specifically, Jerusalem. Also, it is those tribes, i.e., the nation of Israel, who would “look upon Me whom they have pierced.” And because of that, “the mourning in Jerusalem” would be great. With all of this information, we can see that the “tribes of the earth” in Revelation 1:7 are the nation of Israel. The “earth” is Palestine. The land that would mourn is Jerusalem.
So, the main purpose of Revelation would be to reveal Jesus to the nation of Israel. The place of this revealing would be Jerusalem. Lastly, this revealing would be to those who pierced Him, i.e., the Jews. This is not a general reference to the Jewish nation, but to Christ’s contemporary generation.
That generation was destroyed in AD 70, by the Roman Legions. Therefore, the book of Revelation must have been written before that event.
The next thing that we need to look at is “the woman” found in chapters 17 and 18. John wrote that he saw a “woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). The “woman” had this name written on her forehead: “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH” (17:5).
The angel said that “the woman” was a poetic symbol of “that great city” (17:18); in whom “was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth.” (18:24).
Then John wrote, “Rejoice over her, thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her… Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all.” (18:20, 21). So who was this “woman?” This “great city?”
John gave us a clue in Revelation 11:8, where he wrote, “And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.” This shows us, as we saw above, that John was referring to the Jerusalem of his day.
To prove this assertion, Let’s look at the term “Sodom.” John wrote that this is a “figurative” name. That means it does not tell us the actual name of the city, but it’s spiritual condition.
Once more, in letting the Bible interpret itself, we find this is a reference to Jerusalem. In Isaiah, chapter 1, after declaring that he had a “vision…concerning Judah and Jerusalem” (verse 1), Isaiah wrote, “Hear the words of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom.”
In Jeremiah 23:14, because of the adulterous prophets, God said that Jerusalem and her inhabitants were “all of them unto me as Sodom.”
But what about “Egypt?” No where in the Bible is Jerusalem called Egypt. However, the first century generation was also in an exodus. While Old Testament Israel’s exodus was from the bondage of Egypt, the New Testament Israel’s exodus was from the bondage of the Old Covenant Law.
The most recognizable passage that depicts this “new exodus” is found in I Corinthians 10:1-11. Paul wrote, “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”
His contextual foundation for this statement was the Old Testament exodus from Egyptian bondage. He wrote that they had passed through the sea (verse 1).
They ate manna and drank from the rock (verse’s 3-4). He then relays how they wandered in the wilderness (verse 5), became idolaters (verse 7), tried the Lord and were destroyed by serpents (verse 9). This shows us that, just like the “type and shadow” of the Old Testament and their deliverance from bondage, the New Testament saints were undergoing the same exodus. The only difference was that Paul’s generation was the reality to which the Old Testament example pointed.
Furthermore, in Luke 13:33-34, Jesus said, “[T]oday and tomorrow, and on the following [day], I must travel on, because it is not possible [for] a prophet to perish outside Jerusalem. Jerusalem! Jerusalem! The [one] killing the prophets, and stoning those having been sent to her.”
Then, in Matthew 23:29-37, Jesus blasted the Jews of His day for killing the prophets and the apostles. He declared that they are the children of their fathers who also killed the prophets.
Then in verse 32, Jesus said that they would complete the sin that their fathers started. But the most crucial evidence is found in verse 35, where Jesus said, “upon you (i.e., the Jews of His day) may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on the earth.” Then He said, “I tell you the truth, all of these things will happen to you people who are living now. Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone to death those who are sent to you” (verse’s 36-37).
In both passages, Jesus told the Jews of His day that they were guilty of “all the righteous blood shed upon the earth” (see also Acts 7:51-52).
Therefore, since both of these passages deal with the same crime and the same judgment, the “great city” of Revelation must be the Jerusalem of Christ’s generation. Which further proves that Revelation was been written before Jerusalem fell in AD 70.
The Sixth King
So far we have seen that Revelation deals with the revealing of Jesus to first century Israel. As noted above, “the woman” John saw was first century Jerusalem.
The “kings,” therefore, were the rulers of the known world of John’s day, i.e., the Roman Empire. The “kings” were not ruling at the same time, for the text stated “five fell,” meaning that five of those kings had come and gone.
Then “one is,” meaning the “king” who was ruling at the time Revelation was written. Here in this verse, we have one of the clearest proofs for dating this book. If we simply examine the list of Roman Emperors, we will be able to determine who the sixth king was, and the time Revelation was written.
Here are the Roman Emperors: Julius Caesar; Augustus; Tiberius; Gaius (Caligula); Claudius; and the sixth emperor was…Nero. Nero reigned from 54AD to June of 68AD, with Galba to follow who reigns but six months.
Here we find the terrible persecutors of the Christians (at whose hand Peter and Paul were martyred), whom God used to destroy the Jews. Nero was in power and he gave the command to Vespasian to destroy Jerusalem. This was the sixth king, proving beyond any doubt that Revelation was written before the Roman/Jewish war.
Historically, Nero is the one that persecuted Christians beyond all comparison. St. John’s banishment to Patmos was itself a result of the great persecution of Nero. The apostle Paul was tortured and then beheaded by the evil Emperor Nero at Rome in A.D. 67. The apostle Peter, who was crucified upside down, was another victim of Nero.
The Song of Moses
To anyone familiar with the Law of Moses and Jewish tradition, Revelation 15:2,3 will have meaning. It says that those martyrs “who had come off victorious from the Beast” were singing “the Song of Moses.”
Question: if these martyrs are Christians living 2,000 years after Christ, why would these Christians be singing the Song of Moses? Does any Christian alive today know how to sing this song? Deuteronomy 32:1-43 is the song that John has reference to.
The Jews were to sing this song to remind themselves of what would befall them “in the latter days” (Deuteronomy 31:29). the song talks about “their end” – the Jews (verse 20), and details their destruction by a consuming “fire” (verse 22), “famine” (verse 24), “plague” (verse 24) and “bitter destruction” (verse 24).
God calls them a “perverse generation” (verses 5 and 20), and says He will “render vengeance” upon them and “vindicate His people” (verse 41 and 36 respectively).
Why would Christian martyrs of the 21st century be singing this song about the Romans, when the song had reference to the Jews living in the 1st century? It wouldn’t make much sense.
Aren’t these the same martyrs who cried out earlier, “How long, O Lord, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood” (Revelation 6:10)? Who was it who had all the “blood of the righteous” martyrs imputed against them?
Clearly, it was Christians who had kept their faith in Jesus, in spite of the intense persecution, and “had come off victorious from the Beast.” (See Matthew 23:35 and Luke 13:33)! This passage (Revelation 15:2,3) points very clearly to followers of Christ living in the first century.
In Revelation 16:10,11, it says that the people in the Beast’s kingdom “gnawed their tongues because of pain.”
They had great sores on their bodies along with other plagues that had been poured out on them. We know from Josephus when the Jews literally gnawed their tongues for lack of food during the siege of AD 70! And, it is interesting that Josephus even calls the Jewish Zealot forces a “wild beast” in several places (Wars V.1.1; IV.7.4; IV.9.8; V.2.5)!
This point is emphasized even more by the fact that the whole context of the Song of Moses is full of references to “beasts,” “serpents,” and “dragons” (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28-32; Deuteronomy 32:24,33).
The Time Element
Next consider the expectations of the author, Jesus Christ. He tells John to expect the fulfillment of the prophecy soon (Revelation 1:1,3; 2:16; 3:11; 22:6,7,10,12,20).
In Revelation 1:1,3, right off the bat, John informed his readers, the seven churches of Asia (verse 4), that the contents of this volume “must shortly come to pass.” Please note, that John did not write that some of the events, or even most of the events must shortly take place.
He wrote that all of the events contained in Revelation “must shortly come to pass.” Why? Why must those things “shortly come to pass?” Because “the time (was) at hand.”
At hand for whom? The seven churches of Asia, specifically, and to the church of the first century in general. The time for what was at hand? “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Remember, as we saw above, this is the main episode of Revelation.
In Revelation 22:6, John wrote that the Lord sent an angel to John “to shew unto his servants the things which must shortly be done.” Here, at the end of the book of Revelation, John recorded the exact same message that he did in chapter 1.
This again emphasizes that all of the events contained in Revelation were about to take place in the first century — not stretched throughout time, and certainly not for any future generation.
In Revelation 22:10, the angel of the Lord said to John, “Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.” Once more, we have proof that the events of Revelation were about to take place in the first century.
However, another element was added to this warning. The angel told John not to seal the Scroll. Why is this important? To answer that, let’s look at the book of Daniel.
After Daniel had received visions concerning his people (the nation of Israel), he was told, “thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book” (12:1).
Daniel is then told how they would be rescued — by resurrection, some would be rewarded with “everlasting life” and others with “everlasting contempt” (verse 2). But then, Daniel is told something very peculiar. In verse 4, Daniel was told, “shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end.” Please note that this verse says the “time of the end”, and not “the end of time”.
There is a huge difference between the end of time and the time of the end. Now, we must ask “Whose time of the end?” Verse 1 told us that Daniel’s visions concerned the nation of Israel, not mankind in general.
Next, Daniel saw two angels talking about the fulfillment of all that he had seen (verse 6). One asked the other, “How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?” The answer was, “when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished.” (verse 7).
But Daniel could not understand what they meant, so he asked again, “When?” The angel answered “Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.” Now that we have looked at this passage, how does it relate to Revelation 21?
Did you know that there is only one other place in the Bible where a sealed book is referred to? Revelation, chapter 5. How Daniel relates to Revelation is that Revelation is the opening of Daniel’s sealed book!!
Remember, Daniel’s visions were concerning the “time of the end” of Israel, and Revelation is about God’s judgment on Israel. They are one and the same. The reason this has direct bearing on Revelation 21, is that Daniel was told to seal his book concerning the end “for it pertains to many days in the future” (Dan.8:26), but John was told not to seal his book “because the time is at hand” (Revelation 22:10).
The end of Old Covenant Israel was at hand. All things written had to be fulfilled by the time Jerusalem fell in AD 70 (see Luke 21:20-22). Therefore, since Revelation is the opening of Daniel, then it must have been fulfilled by the summer of AD 70.
Our next time statement is found in Revelation 21:12. There, Jesus told John, “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” Notice that Jesus did not say that “when I come, I will come quickly,” He emphatically said that He was coming “quickly.” But He also said something else.
He said that His reward was with Him to give every man according to his works. Now some state that this has not happened yet. However, we must let Scripture interpret Scripture, and turn to Matthew 16:27-28 and Mark 8:38-9:1 and Luke 9:26-27.
Jesus said the exact same thing in these three verses that He did in Revelation 21. In Revelation 21, He said He was coming and “he shall reward every man according to his works.”
These are the exact same “comings” with the exact same “rewards.” But, Jesus also said in these three verses, “There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” Notice that Jesus tied His coming to the lives of His disciples. He said that some of his listeners would not die until He came. But to whom is He coming? And what will be their reward? Jesus said that the “coming” would be to the first century generation of Israel (Matthew 24:34, Mark 13:30, Luke 21:32).
Daniel told us that the “rewards” would be that some would be resurrected to “everlasting life” and others to “everlasting contempt”. Now, let’s put these two passages together. Jesus said He was coming and He was going to reward each according to his works, and that some of the disciples wouldn’t die until they saw this take place.
Therefore, since all of the disciples are dead, Jesus must have returned and rewarded each according to his works. Furthermore, in Revelation, He said the same thing, therefore it must be fulfilled!
If a person doesn’t believe the first three verses of Revelation (i.e., the near expectation of the events), neither will he believe the rest of the book. For if a person is unwilling to accept the time constraints of the text, the rest of the document can mean anything that the reader desires.
If the Apostle John was banished to Patmos under the reign of Nero, as the internal evidence indicates, he wrote the book of Revelation about AD 68 or 69, which was after the death of that emperor; but the gospels and epistles some years later.
One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period — the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 — is never once mentioned as a passed fact.
The inscription to the book of Revelation, in the Syrian version, first published by Deuteronomy Dieu, in 1627, and, afterwards in the London Polyglot, is the following, “The Revelation which God made to John the evangelist, in the Island of Patmos, to which he was banished by Nero Caesar.”