There are three different time periods advocated by conservative scholars as the possible date for the writing of the Apocalypse. These are found during the reigns of the Roman Emperiors (1) Nero (54-68 A.D.), (2) Vespasian (70-79 A.D.), and (3) Domitian (81-96 A.D.).
Students of Revelation search the book for clues to the time of writing. Two texts within the book appear to identify a specific time period. They are subject to interpretation, however, and subsequently become circumstantial. In this brief study, we shall consider these texts, the interpretations placed upon them and the contribution they make to the overall study of Revelation.
"There are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come."
This statement describes the seven headed sea beast that first appears in Revelation 13. In chapter 17, the harlot Babylon rides this beast sitting on the heads which are seven mountains and kings (vs.9,10). The passage describes a time in relationship to the beast and the present, i.e., the time of writing. John appears to identify a kingdom ruled over by seven kings which will continue with an eighth (v.11). The beast has only seven heads for the purpose described but will continue with additional heads following the accomplishing of this purpose.
Five of the heads of this kingdom "are fallen," i.e., they are dead. "One is" implies one is still living. "The other is not yet come" means the seventh head had not ascended to the throne at the time of writing. If this is true, John is telling us something about when this book was written.
It is the opinion of this author and most of our readers that the seven headed beast represents the Roman Empire. It signifies the Roman Empire in the same way Uncle Sam and the Big Bear symbolize the United States and Russia respectfully.
If the sea beast symbolizes the Roman Empire, one would think the case closed. Surely, we can determine without difficulty this ruler of Rome! The task is not easy, however. Problems do exist. The first ten Roman Emperors were Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. Many scholars and historians question whether Julius Caesar was the first Emperor of Rome. Even though he was the father of the Roman Empire and ruled it with all of the powers of a king, he did not wear the title and crown. Scholars and historians also question including Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. These never exercised authority over the empire nor were they recognized by the provinces as Emperors. Foy Wallace accepted Julius as the first Emperor of Rome but skipped Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian and Titus in order to count Domitian as the seventh head of the beast (The Book of Revelation, p.372). As you see, difficulties abound.
One must conclude that if Julius Caesar is the first Emperor of Rome, the sixth Emperor was Nero (54-68 A.D.). Weldon Warnock readily admits this possibility but rejects it as the solution (Message from Patmos, p.89). Warnock recognizes that starting the count with Augustus identifies the reign of Vespasian as the time of writing, a period too early for his conclusions. He thinks the evidence for dating the Apocalypse during the reign of Domitian is too strong and convincing to consider any date except 95 A.D.
David Chilton counts Julius Caesar as the first Emperor of Rome, naming Nero as the ruling Emperor at the time John received the Revelation. Galba is the seventh Emperor (The Days of Vengeance, p.436). Chilton's identification of the eighth is obscure and inconsistent.
Jim McGuiggan, Ray Summers and James Moffatt reject Julius as the first Emperor and date the Apocalypse during the reign of Vespasian. Titus, subsequently, becomes the seventh Emperor. Domitian is counted as the eighth because he was "of the seven." This is interpreted to mean that Domitian was the reincarnation of Nero (cf. Studies in the Book of Revelation by Ferrell Jenkins, p.22). None of these explanations place the time of writing the Apocalypse during the reign of Domitian.
Should we count Julius Caesar as the first Emperor of Rome? How can we refuse to count him? He was the father of the Empire. He was dictator for more than four years before his death and none of the Emperors were more imperial than he. His power was so stately that he was offered the title and crown, though he refused it. The people of John's day thought he was the first Emperor. Josephus, the Jewish historian who was contemporary with John, counted Julius as the first. He identified Augustus and Tiberius as the second and third Emperors, and Caligula as the fourth (Ant., 18, 2, 2; 16, 6, 2; 18, 6, 10). Suetonius, a Roman historian of the first and second centuries, begins Lives of the Twelve Caesars with Julius as the first. Dio Cassius also counts him as first in his Roman History, and the Sibylline Oracles (Book 5) calls Julius "the first king." Should not he whose name became the title by which all the Emperors were addressed be recognized as the first? Caesar was Julius' last name and it became the title by which all the Emperors were called. There were no Caesars if Julius was not the first. In fact, every Emperor was the extension of Julius. If Julius had not been mercilessly slain by members of the Roman Senate in 44 B.C., returning the reins of government back to that of a triumvirate, there would be no doubt about who was the first Emperor. The beast wounded to death (cf.Rev.13:3) came to life in Augustus. Therefore, the count must begin with Julius.
It is the conviction of this student that Revelation 17:10 pinpoints the time of writing the Apocalypse during the reign of Nero. In my opinion, this is the only conclusion that perfectly harmonizes with all other internal evidences within the book.
"Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six."
John apparently refers to the ancient practice of figuring the number of one's name by adding up the assigned total for each letter in the name. Many ancient languages used alphabetical characters as numerical figures with specific values attached to the letters. The process is known as gematria. When the sum of all the letters in a person's name were counted, it would reveal the number of his name. In this case, the number of the name is given from which we are to draw the name.
The intention of the author was to identify the number of the beast which he says, "is the number of a man." The identification of the man will establish the specific administration in power at the time Revelation was written.
Concerning the identify of this man, Ferrell Jenkins writes, "The general consensus among scholarly commentators is that the numbers refer to Nero Caesar. 'Some take the Latin word Neron and apply numerical equivalents for each letter in such fashion:
N = 50
E = 6
R = 500
O = 60
N = 50
The final 'N' can be dropped and total would be 616. Others have transliterated the Greek or Latin for Neron Caesar into Hebrew letters and come up with a total of 666. By omitting the final 'n' in Neron the total comes to 616. There is a slight amount of evidence for the 616 reading. The only major manuscript which gives this reading is Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus of the fifth century. However, as early as Irenaeus there was some indication of this reading" (Studies in the Book of Revelation, p.22).
If Nero fits the bill, why look for another? Everyone admits that Nero is one of the seven heads of the sea beast. He also fits the other descriptions in the chapter. He was the first Roman Emperor to "make war with the saints" (13:7) and he did die by the sword (13:10). Nero, then, is the obvious man identified as the beast about which John wrote in Revelation 13.
Jenkins and others admit that Nero is the one identified by John but they will not admit the obvious; that the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Nero. They chose rather to believe the Nero redivivus myth which claims that Nero returned in the person of Domitian. How ridiculous to believe the testimony of a myth above that of an inspired apostle.
The passages discussed herein give some support to the Neronian and/or Vespasian dates. Students of the Apocalypse should not ignore what is so plain and obvious. Those who hold to the Domitian date as the time of writing find no comfort in these two texts. There is nothing in these texts to support the latter date.
This author accepts the above passages as proof the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Nero. However, their strength as arguments can only be seen when viewed in the light of all other evidences within the book. When we have completed our presentations of the evidences for dating the Apocalypse, please return to this article and see if it does not fit perfectly into the overall picture. Stay tuned.
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