Many of the great discussions about the book of Revelation concern the date of writing. Some think that if we could determine the date of writing, we could determine the subject matter of the book and make application accordingly. In some cases efforts to determine the date of writing take precedence over the substance and application of the book.
In this article, I propose to discuss the importance of dating the books of the Bible and how to approach it with some emphasis upon dating the book of Revelation.
Establishing the dates when Biblical books were written contributes to our overall understanding of their message. By knowing the author, the place and time of his writing, we can imagine the setting with all of the attendant surroundings and comprehend more fully the message of each book. We can cast ourselves into the history of the time and feel the very mood of the age. Through our mind's eye we can project ourselves into the spirit of the era and be partaker of the very same learning experience enjoyed by the original recipients.
In searching for the date when a book of the Bible was written, we must consider both internal and external evidences. By internal, we mean, evidence contained within the book. Since all scripture is given by inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16,17), internal evidence must be considered as God breathed. By external, we mean, evidence found outside the book which contributes in some way to our understanding of the matter. External evidence rests upon the testimony of uninspired men and is, therefore, man given. Our greatest effort should concentrate upon internal evidence because it is most reliable. When there is a conflict between internal and external evidences, we must trust internal evidence (Romans 3:4). We should never believe fallible men above Holy Spirit inspired men. External evidence can contribute to our conclusions but it must be considered only as circumstantial and never as conclusive proof. External evidence must not contradict inspiration.
There are two kinds of internal evidence:
1) Evidence found within the book under consideration pinpointing the time of writing, and
2) Evidence from within the book which ties the book and time of writing to some other biblical or secular event. In many cases we can determine within reasonable latitude the time and place of a book's composition by considering the internal evidences.
Some authors are very kind. They dated their works, at least in general terms, so we will place them in their proper place in history. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah all date their prophecies and writings to the reigns of specified kings. Some authors date portions of their books within the specified period.
The visions of Daniel were dated in relationship to the reigning monarch at the time. They occurred throughout the seventy plus years Daniel was in Babylon. The visions of Ezekiel are dated in relationship to the Babylonian captivity and the first destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (cf.Ezek.40:1). Neither Daniel nor Ezekiel record their visions in perfect chronological order.
Other authors, including the New Testament writers, were not as kind as those we named. Occasionally, authors recorded events tied to secular historical settings but they did not reveal specific dates identifying the time of their writing. Other techniques are needed to assist with our search.
The following list of priorities will help in searching for clues which contribute to dating the more difficult books of the Bible. As you study each book, make notes of these things, then, consider them all as making a contribution, however small, to the project.
(1) Seek to establish a relationship between the book, its author and recorded biblical history. The book of Jonah carries no date, yet recorded biblical history (2 Kings 14:23-27) places Jonah's period of prophecy during the reign of Jeroboam II (790-749 B.C.). This method also proves helpful when considering the writings of Paul and other New Testament writers. The book of Acts is a history of the church from Pentecost (30 A.D.) through the second year of Paul's first Roman imprisonment (63 A.D.). The history centers primarily around the apostle Paul following his conversion in Acts 9. This biblical picture of Paul's journeys contributes to dating most of his epistles.
(2) Search for references within each book that tie into the historical setting. These references may be to a political figure or some other recorded historical setting. Luke's mention of Gallio, deputy of Achaia, places Paul in Corinth during the time he was in office (Acts 18:12). Other evidences indicate 1 & 2 Thessalonians were written by Paul while at Corinth. These combinations of facts help establish dates.
(3) Observe references which establish the author's present circumstances at the time of writing. John was on the Isle of Patmos (Revelation 1:9) when he received the Apocalypse. The time of John's writing must correspond to a time in his life that would permit his presence there. Paul was a prisoner when he wrote Ephesians (3:1; 4:1; 6:20), Philippians (1:13-16), Colossians (4:3,10), Philemon (1:1) and 2 Timothy (4:6-18). Any date given for the writing of these books must take into account the imprisonments of Paul. He expected to see Timothy shortly when he wrote 1 Timothy (3:14), and he instructed Titus to come to him in Nicopolis (3:12). These things must be considered when dating these books.
(4) The author's references to his relationship to those addressed in the past and his anticipated relationship for the future must be observed. Paul's mention in Galatians of his past visits with them coupled with his failure to mention any plans to visit them again could be helpful in dating the book. The mention of previous work among the Philippians and expected future freedom to visit again contributes to the dating process.
(5) Search for the author's mention of personal associations both past and present. These are important factors in dating. Careful examination of all references to Paul's companions, for example, will show that at times some of them were not with him. A book cannot be dated at a time when the named associates of Paul are found in other places. All must harmonize.
(6) The availability of an author at the time assigned. Dates assigned to some books do not harmonize with the author's ability to write at the time. The circumstances surrounding the book must harmonize with the circumstances surrounding the author at the time of writing. The dates for Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians and others are prime examples.
(7) The issues addressed in each book must have had time to develop in relationship to history and the author. The dating of James must take this into account. The gospel had not spread far enough before the death of James, the brother of John, to be composed before his death. The epistle of James was penned after the gospel was preached in all of the regions of the world. It was addressed to the Jews of the dispersion (1:1). This necessitated universal preaching before these Jews could be addressed.
(8) The use of language is also a contributing factor. The author's uses of past, present, and future tenses are helpful in dating. This is especially effective in dating the Gospel of John. Personal pronouns can also be helpful in establishing the author's presence at various places as evident in the book of Acts. Comparing one author's statements to other authors who are more specific in identifying the time element is very beneficial in dating, especially the book of Revelation.
(9) The involvement of different authors addressing the same issues is also helpful in dating. Some books deal with the same questions and problems. This indicates a broad need for attention from many authors. James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, and Jude deal with false teachers who seem to have the same characteristics. This would indicate the same time period.
While none of these methods are necessarily conclusive, they become very helpful in reaching valid decisions when dating Bible books. Use them wisely and carefully and I believe you will find them productive.
It is readily apparent to the observant student that John does not place a date upon the book of Revelation. To date the Apocalypse, we must rely upon other factors. Unfortunately, few of the above methods contribute to the task. Only #8 makes a solid contribution. There are a number of texts in the Apocalypse with counterparts elsewhere in scripture which identify the subject matter. These texts are so exclusive they preclude more than one application. Since the Apocalypse must predate the things predicted, the date of writing must precede their fulfillment (cf.1:1). Every person interested in understanding the book of Revelation must take this method into consideration.
Does the Lord give clues to the subject matter and the time of writing the book of Revelation? We believe He does. Stay tuned for more to come.
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Ogden, All Rights Reserved.
This page was last updated on Thursday, May 28, 1998.