Dating Revelation to the Time of Domitian (90s ce)

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by Neil Godfrey

A few weeks ago I set out the reasons for dating the Revelation of John to the “year of the four emperors”, 69 CE. This time we set out the reasons others date the work to late in the reign of the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE). In future posts we will look at a case for dating it as late as the mid-second century. Following the lead of Thomas Witulski (Die Johanneoffenbarung und Kaiser Hadrian) I refer mostly to the arguments of Adela Yarbro Collins.

Witness of Irenaeus

The testimony of Irenaeus (writing 180 and 185 CE) is the main pillar of the Domitian date:

The earliest witness is Irenaeus, who says that the Apocalypse was seen at the end of the reign of Domitian.1

1 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.3.

(Crisis and Catharsis, p. 55)

Since Irenaeus believed that the John of Revelation was also the apostle John, one of the original Twelve, a date in the 90s would make him very old indeed. Perhaps counterintuitively Collins turns that little difficulty as a point in favour the Domitian date:

The fact that Irenaeus dated the book as he did, in spite of the difficulty about the apostle’s age, suggests that he had independent and strong evidence for the date. (p. 56)

Such an argument only works if indeed it was the apostle John who wrote the book and people were talking about it, so it actually begs the question.

Babylon = Rome

Rome being named Babylon is another reason given for a Domitian date. If a Christian wanted to refer to Rome by a code name there were other options available: Egypt, Kittim, Edom are all found in Jewish writings as labels for Rome. Where Jewish writings do use Babylon for Rome (as they do in 2 Esdras, the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch and the fifth book of the Sibylline Oracles) the reason is clear:

Rome is called Babylon because her forces, like those of Babylon at an earlier time, destroyed the temple and Jerusalem. It is probable that John leamed this symbolic name from his fellow Jews and that it quickly became traditional.

The majority of interpreters have overlooked the importance of this symbolic name for the date. They have seen it only as a symbol of great power, wealth, or decadence and have missed its allusion to the events of 70 C.E. The use of the name is a weighty internal indication of the date. It is highly unlikely that the name would have been used before the destruction of the temple by Titus. This internal evidence thus points decisively to a date after 70 C.E.

(p. 58)

Seven Kings

Part of Apocalypse Tapestry by Jean Bondol and Nicolas Bataille

It is easy to suspect that the belief in Nero redivivus lies behind chapters 13 and 17. (See Nero – Followup #2 for the details.)

John adapted the legend, so that Nero is depicted as an Antichrist. He fits that role exactly, although the name is not used. In Revelation, Nero is an opposing parody of the Lamb, a dying and rising destroyer, rather than savior.

In Rev. 13:3 it is said that one of the heads of the beast had a mortal wound. This is a reference to Nero and his violent death. It is clear, therefore, that one of the seven heads which are Kings in ch. 17 is the historical Nero. The beast who will return as the “eighth” is Nero returned from death to life, the Antichrist. It follows that Revelation must have been written after the death of Nero, after 68, because the parallel between him and Jesus requires such a conclusion.

(p. 59)

What do we make of the other “heads” or kings, then? Collins groups the various attempts at counting the kings into four types:

  1. the 7 kings are all 7 Roman emperors up to the time of the author, who thus wrote under the sixth emperor and expected the seventh to come soon (some omit those emperors who ruled only a short time after Nero’s death, Galba, Otho and Vitellius);
  2. as for #1 except that the author was actually writing later than the sixth emperor;
  3. the 7 kings do not represent a sequence of successive emperors but a selection of seven names;
  4. the 7 kings are not historical persons but are entirely symbolic.

Collins finds problems with all attempts to count successive emperors (with and without the three who ruled for a short time in “the year of the four emperors”) and concludes:

It is likely that a theory like those grouped above as the third basic position explains how John reinterpreted his source. Caligula would have been a natural starting point, given the close affinities between Revelation and contemporary Jewish anti-Roman literature and the probable Jewish origin of John. It is impossible to say with certainty what John had in mind. The most likely hypothesis is that he began counting with Caligula and included the following emperors in sequence, omitting Galba, Otho, and Vitellius as reigning too short a time to cause trouble for the saints. The analogy of the eagle vision in 4 Ezra makes it plausible that a selection could have been made of emperors who were especially feared and hated. The five would then be Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and Titus. Domitian would be the “one [who] is.” A seventh was expected, to fill out the traditional number seven. The prediction that the last emperor would have a short reign probably arose from the intense expectation of the end of the age in the near future. This logic is rather too cumbersome to explain the passage as John’s original composition. It does, however, explain how he would have reinterpreted a source.

The motif of the seven kings does not by any means point decisively to a date earlier than the reign of Domitian for the Apocalypse as a whole. The motif is probably traditional, but the context shows that it was meaningful for the author. This passage [=Rev 17:9-12] does not establish a Domitianic date, but is compatible with such a date.
(p. 62)

Why start with Caligula? One reason Collins offers is that Caligula was the first emperor to present himself in Rome as a god. He had temples and sacrifices dedicated to “divine self” and insisted on being approached in the Persian way of prostration.

The Temple in Jerusalem

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