2022-02-20

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

Bamberg Apocalypse, an 11th-century illuminated manuscript. (Wikimedia)

As noted in the earlier post The Book of Revelation: an Early Date a strong case for dating Revelation prior to the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 is that Revelation 11 describes the temple as still standing.

11:1 I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, with its worshipers. 2 But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months.

3 And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4 They are “the two olive trees” and the two lampstands, and “they stand before the Lord of the earth.” 5 If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. 6 They have power to shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.

7 Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. 8 Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. 9 For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. 10 The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

11 But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. 12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.

13 At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.

Collins:

The first question is whether vs. 1-2 and 3-13 are a unity; that is, whether they were originally composed as a continuous passage. The alternative is that the passage was composed by joining two sources or two separate traditions. The latter alternative is the more probable. The connection between the two is loose and external. The only obvious link is that the scene is Jerusalem in both. The time periods mentioned in each section are equivalent, but the repetition is a seam, as it were, joining the two sources. The first section focuses on the temple, but the second does not mention the temple at all.

(p. 65)

and then,

The next question that must be raised . . . is whether the two sections were rather freely formulated by the author of Revelation on the basis of tradition, or whether he adapted oral or written sources whose wording was relatively fixed. In both cases, it is likely that the author was using a source. The references in v. 2 to the outer courtyard and to the Gentiles trampling the courtyard and city make it probable that the first section originally referred to the historical temple in Jerusalem. It is conceivable that v. 1 was originally composed with an allegorical or spiritual meaning. The temple of God, the altar, and the worshipers in it (presumably the temple) could easily have several layers of meaning. It would not be surprising if a figurative meaning were primary. Verse 2, on the other hand, has much too concrete and historical a surface meaning to have been composed with any other sort of primary reference.

(pp. 65f)

So what does Revelation describe here? Collins acknowledges the likelihood of a reference to the year 70.

The outer courtyard is not measured and it is given over to the Gentiles; they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. So the courtyard is at least to be controlled by the Gentiles. Perhaps it is to be profaned or even destroyed as well. Since the outer courtyard is not measured and the temple, altar, and worshipers are measured, the destiny of the latter must be the opposite. So the temple, altar, and worshipers are to escape the control of the Gentiles (and possibly profanation and destruction as well).

The language implies a situation of military conflict. It fits well the situation described by Josephus in the sixth book of The Jewish War, when Titus and his legions had broken through the walls of the outer temple by firing the gates. After establishing access to the outer temple, Titus ordered the fire put out and held a council of war with his generals to decide  whether or not to destroy the sanctuary itself. The insurgents had made the temple their citadel and had been resisting the Romans from there. Titus decided not to destroy the temple, but his soldiers were carried away by passion and set fire to it against his orders. When the sanctuary was in flames, the soldiers decided they might as well set fire to what remained of the outbuildings. Josephus records the following incident which occurred in the process:

Next they came to the last surviving colonnade of the Outer Temple. On this women and children and a mixed crowd of citizens had found a refuge — 6,000 in all. Before Caesar could reach a decision about them or instruct his officers, the soldiers, carried away by their fury, fired the colonnade from below; as a result some flung themselves out of the flames to their death, others perished in the blaze: of that vast number there escaped not one. Their destruction was due to a false prophet who that very day had declared to the people in the City that God commanded them to go up into the temple to receive the signs of their deliverance. A number of hireling prophets had been put up in recent days by the party chiefs to deceive the people by exhorting them to await help from God, and so reduce the number of deserters and buoy up with hope those who were above fear and anxiety.

Josephus’ negative interpretation of the motives of the prophets he mentions may be due, at least in part, to his negative judgment on the Jewish resistance. It is likely that some of those prophets spoke and acted in good faith. This general context provides a plausible background for the prophecy of Rev. 11:1-2. When the prophecy was not fulfilled on the literal level, it seems to have been handed on with one or more new interpretations.

(pp. 66f)

Since the author of Revelation evinces no interest in “the historical, earthly temple” of Jerusalem elsewhere, Collins concludes that 11:1-2 was not composed by the author but was incorporated into the finished work with an understanding that the events carried a different meaning or hope from when they were first written. After all, our author earlier wrote (Rev 3:12) that a Christian who “overcame” would become a pillar in the temple of God, and later (Rev 21:22) that no temple stood in the new Jerusalem:

Such a conception is most understandable after the historical temple had been destroyed . . . . The lack of a temple probably reflects the destruction of the historical temple, as well as the attitude that no restoration of the temple is necessary . . .

It is also unlikely that the author of Revelation, composing freely, would have referred to the earthly, historical Jerusalem as “the holy city” (11:2). . . The earthly Jerusalem is referred to later in ch. 11 as Sodom and Egypt, the place where the Lord was crucified (v. 8). 

(p. 67)

As for the two witnesses, Collins believes that the author has again adapted traditional material about an end-time conflict between two prophets and the final enemy of God.

Against those who have interpreted Rev 11 as evidence of a pre-70 situation when the temple was still standing, Collins counters

This assumption is questionable. Much of Jerusalem was indeed leveled by Titus and his troops in 70. But a legion was stationed there, probably with an ancillary civilian population. It is likely that a considerable number of Jews and Christians returned to the city after the war, and that some rebuilding took place. In fact, a setting in Jerusalem after 70 makes sense of the description of the witnesses’ foes as (some) from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations (v. 9) and as those who dwell upon the earth (v. 10). Such descriptions fit Jerusalem better after 70 than before. There is no compelling reason to date either the source or Rev. 11:3-13 in its present form to a time prior to 70 C.E.

Even if the author of Revelation was using sources in 11:1-13, he must have interpreted them in a way that made sense for his own situation. It is likely that the opposition between the church as the true Jews and those Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Christ played some role in the author’s understanding of the prophecy of 11:1-2. The references to Jews as a synagogue of Satan in 2:9 and 3:9 attest to the vehemence of his feelings on this subject. . . . It seems . . . that the author reinterpreted the inner/outer distinction of the text with his own heavenly/earthly polarity. The outer courtyard would then represent the earthly Jerusalem and temple which have been given over to the Gentiles. The temple itself, with the altar and the worshipers, would represent the heavenly temple which the Gentiles cannot control, profane, or destroy. In the background loom the tragic events of 70 C.E. But the symbolic measuring is still a source of hope; not any longer for rescue from the military power of the Romans, but for heavenly vindication.

(pp. 68f)

You may or may not be persuaded by Collins’ argument but I am attempting to present it here as faithfully as I can.

Domitian (Wikimedia)

Domitian – persecutor?

There is little evidence for Roman persecution of Christians at the time of Domitian, certainly none for any organized targeting of them. The Book of Revelation itself is also slight in its indications that its first readers were experiencing persecution.

Only a few passages in Revelation clearly look back on persecution in the past. . . . It seems safest to conclude that most of the rest of the book expresses the author’s expectation of persecution. . . . There is, therefore, no compelling reason to understand Revelation as a reaction to any new or significant initiative of Roman authorities against Christians. 

(pp. 70f)

Domitian – a self-proclaimed god?

I had once read that Domitian demanded to be addressed as “lord and god” but it appears I was misled. Writers after Domitian’s death muddied his memory largely in order to please his successor, Trajan. The phrase “lord and god” was used by flatterers who were attempting to gain access to the imperial inner circle. (See Some Observations on Ruler-Cult Especially in Rome” for a summary of the ruler-cult from Augustus to Domitian.) Nonetheless, eastern provinces did like to worship their rulers, even their Roman ones. Accordingly….

It is doubtful that the emperor cult was forced upon Christians at any time during the first and early second centuries, including the reigns of Domitian and Trajan. The book of Revelation cannot be understood as a response to a new initiative against the Christians taken by Roman authorities. A more plausible view of its function is that it was written to awaken and intensify Christian exclusiveness, particularly vis-a-vis the imperial cult. The remark in Rev. 13:15, that the beast from the land caused to be slain those who would not worship the image of the beast from the sea, is probably a purposely selective view of the standard cultic test described by Pliny. It is well known that the cities of Asia Minor supported the imperial cult enthusiastically. After persistently seeking the honor, Ephesus was allowed to establish a temple and cult of Domitian as a god (Theos) during his lifetime. The tendency to flatter Domitian by giving him divine honors and worshipping his person was probably the occasion for the author of Revelation to view the Roman emperor as the adversary of God on the model of Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 7-12).

(p. 73)

Conclusion

Of the above points, the witness of Irenaeus and the meaning of Babylon point directly to a time of Domitian, according to Collins. Other points are at least arguably compatible with that date.


Collins, Adela Yarbro. “When Was Revelation Written?” In Crisis and Catharsis : The Power of the Apocalypse, 54–83. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1984. http://archive.org/details/crisiscatharsisp0000coll.


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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Dating Revelation to the Time of Domitian (90s ce)”

  1. “Verse 2, on the other hand, has much too concrete and historical a surface meaning to have been composed with any other sort of primary reference.”

    Maybe it is just my excessive caution, but I really wish that she had explained her reasoning. Too often, I read about people just assuming that because a matter can very plausibly be explained by an explanation, it is the only explanation that should be considered. This is a trope in many reconstructions of Jesus.

    1. You are quite right to be cautious. Often one reads rationalizations that tell us nothing more than that some piece of evidence is not necessarily inconsistent with a particular hypothesis. You can see the full chapter from which I took Collins’ argument at https://archive.org/details/crisiscatharsisp0000coll You may find more detail there to satisfy you, or not.

      That’s not the source Witulski uses, but it is the only one of the relevant pieces by Collins that is readily accessible to me.

  2. Just a random thought…
    “The references to Jews as a synagogue of Satan in 2:9 and 3:9 attest to the vehemence of his feelings on this subject. . . . ”
    Wonder what the destruction of the rebels at Masada in ~74AD or the apparent destruction of the Essenes and Qumran community, who expected the final destruction of Kittim – how it relates to the author of Revelation? Was he a pissed-off Essenes or Qumran survivor? Just making conjecture. Either way, Revelation is post 70AD.

    1. I don’t think writing apocalypses come to the minds of survivors of such things. I will be addressing some of the proposed reasons for Revelation in the future. In the meantime, take a look at the link in the comment I left for ABuddhist above. Collins has a pretty good section on the motives behind such literature.

      1. Motivation for apocalypse: trauma, even many years later, as Collins implies. Not saying there is any definitive proof that the author is a disgruntled Essene writing many years later, but worth a conjecture or two. His entire community at Qumran wiped out, so he sees the War Scroll as bogus, no military coming to save their community. So an alternative, jump on the bandwagon of Christ, in a future figurative battle for revenge. Could have been written 50 years or more later. I can see some Essenes converting to Christianity after both Qumran, Masada, and the Temple were destroyed. Many aspects of the Essenes seem to parallel Christian modes, (purity, ritual baths/baptism, communal living, sharing assets).

        Collins, Page 99, Experiences of Trauma
        “Another factor in the composition of Revelation is the experience of trauma, both individual and collective, personal and communal.”

        Breaking the Code, Bruce Metzger,
        “Christ’s promise to the faithful few is that henceforth “they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy”, Rev 3:4. Members of the Jewish sect of the Essenes at Qumran wore white garments as a symbol of their inner purity. White was the color used by the Roman emperor in a triumphal procession. In the Old Testament white garments signify heaven (Dan 7:9) and festivity (Eccles 9:8). All these symbols are included here with the emphasis on victory: “If you comquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes (Rev 3:5).”

        “Now the final, great conflict between good and evil takes place. “The beast and the kings of the earth with their armies” (Rev 19:19) come face to face with Christ and his followers. This immensely critical moment has been in John’s view from the beginning, and we might have expected to read details of how the battle went, with it’s different phases and critical moments. But the man of Patmos makes no statement about the battle, which is evidence that he intends to describe not an earthly military campaign but a spiritual struggle. He portrays only the result- the overwhelming defeat of the enemies of Christ. The beast is captured along with his chief lieutenant, the false prophet, who has been identified as the Roman religious cult (Rev 13:11-18). In the figurative language of the apocalyptic, both are “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur (Rev 19:20).”

        “It is noteworthy that the victory won by Christ’s word alone without any military help from the faithful. This picture contrasts sharply with other apocalypses of the period and, in particular, with the War Scroll of the Qumran sect. According to these documents the military help of the faithful is necessary; in fact, the Qumran Scroll gives precise directives for the disposition and weapons of the front formations and for the disposition and movements of the cavalry (War Scroll, columns 5-6).

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