In our last presentation, we considered the evidence within the book of Revelation that appears to pinpoint a time of writing (13:18; 17:10). Many consider the force of these texts conclusive, setting the time of writing during the reign of Emperor Nero. I cautioned, however, that there is enough ambiguity within these verses to consider them only as circumstantial. Their force as arguments for the early dating of the Apocalypse (64-68 A.D.) becomes apparent when compared to all other evidence for the early dating of the book.
In this treatise, we shall continue our search for evidence which will contribute to a reasonable conclusion in the study of this great issue. We will now look at the evidence within the book thought to tie the book and time of writing to some other biblical or secular event. This is a valid approach, and one used by nearly every student of the Apocalypse in dating the book.
While the most convincing case for the late date is external evidence, there are some texts thought to lend weight to the late date. Homer Hailey contends the internal evidence is of equal strength with the external for the late dating.(1) We beg to differ and feel that the course of this study will demonstrate this point.
The strongest case for the late date from internal evidence may be summed up under three headings: (1) Empire-wide Roman persecution, (2) Empire and Emperor worship, and (3) the age of the seven churches of Asia. As we consider these arguments for the late date, let us also look at the flaws within them.
Throughout the book of Revelation saints suffer from persecution. "The souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held" are under the altar (6:9). Later John saw "the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God" living and reigning with Christ (20:4). These were all martyred for their allegiance to the Lord. In the Apocalypse, the saints suffer at the hands of their persecutors but in the end God has His day in court. Judgment is passed and the persecutors punished.
Who is responsible for this persecution and how widespread is it? It is apparent that some of the persecution is the result of a failure on the part of saints to "worship the beast and his image" (20:4). The beast worshipped is the sea beast of chapter 13 (vs.1-8) and symbolizes the Roman Empire. The earth beast serves the sea beast causing all, except those whose names are in the book of life, to worship the beast and his image (13:8,11-18). The sea beast had power to make war with the saints (13:7) which means the Roman Empire persecuted the saints. This was a present reality at the time Revelation was written. In describing the ten horns on the sea beast, John says, "These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful" (17:14). While the sea beast already made war with the saints, it would evolve into a larger conflict in which the Lamb and His followers prevail. The conflict develops and the sea beast (Roman Empire) and the false prophet (the religions that served the empire) are destroyed (19:11-21). Without a doubt, an extensive Roman persecution of Christians is portrayed in the Apocalypse.
Babylon the Great also is a great persecutor of saints (17:6; 18:20,24) and God "avenged the blood of His servants at her hand" (19:2). Most contemporary commentators view Babylon as Rome and the persecution as an extension of that inflicted by the sea beast. By taking this position, all the persecutions against the saints are viewed as Roman.
It is evident from the first three chapters of the Apocalypse that persecution against the saints was in progress. Jews persecuted the saints at Smyrna and Philadelphia (2:9; 3:9). The saints at Pergamos suffered the loss of Antipas who was martyred for his faith in the Lord (2:13). The source of this persecution is unidentified. John (and others) suffered tribulation while writing the Apocalypse indicating an ongoing persecution (1:9). Additional persecution from an unnamed source was in the making and expected soon (2:10; 3:10). This future persecution was not identified in chapters 1-3, yet we are able to recognize it as Roman from the clues given in the rest of the Apocalypse.
Upon the basis of this reasoning, many conclude the Apocalypse pictures a Roman persecution of saints extensive enough to affect the entire Roman world. Since no Roman persecution of this magnitude took place before the end of the first century, they deduct that the Apocalypse was not written prior to the end of Domitian's reign (95-96 A.D.). Many also contend, though uninformed, that Domitian instigated a persecution against the saints so severe that he filled the empire with their blood.(2) Careful students of the Apocalypse are learning better, however.(3) Many who hold to the late date understand that evidence for a Domitian persecution is missing. While still holding to a Domitian date, they project the persecutions foretold to the reign of Trajan (98-117 A.D.) and beyond.(4) There is unquestionable evidence of empire-wide persecution during Trajan's reign and extending for about 200 years thereafter. Since the events unveiled were to "shortly come to pass", John wrote near the time when these things occurred, therefore, the late date.
Is this argument valid? Does it prove that the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Domitian about 95-96 A.D.? The argument is valid only if all the premises are true. If the Roman persecution is the only persecution symbolized in the Apocalypse, then, the argument is valid. However, there is another persecutor identified in Revelation. There can be no doubts about their identify because Jesus calls them by name. He said, they "say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan" (2:9). Of this persecutor, Jesus promised His saints at Philadelphia, "I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee" (3:9). Since the Jews are still a prime persecutor of saints when John wrote, this promise of punishment upon the Jews was yet future. If so, then we must consider the possibility that God's punishment of the Jews is also a part of the Apocalypse.
We cannot doubt that a Roman persecution of the saints is portrayed in Revelation. It is there, and must be recognized in its proper place, but we must also consider that another persecutor existed. If this is true, and it is, we must view God's dealing with the Roman persecutors as secondary to His dealing with the Jewish persecutors whom He punished first. It is this student's conviction that the Apocalypse portrays God's wrath being poured upon both the Jewish and Roman persecutors of His people. To identify one of the persecutors as Rome and apply all promise of vengeance against Rome does a great disservice to the book of Revelation and our understanding its message. The Roman persecutors are rewarded but so are the Jewish.
John deals extensively with empire and emperor worship in the Revelation (13:12-15; 14:9-11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4), and many contend that this practice did not become widespread until the days of Domitian (81-96 A.D.). Though proof is missing, many commentators insist that it was under Domitian that the death penalty was issued to those who refused to bow in worship of the emperor. Believing that Christians died at the hand of Domitian for their refusal to acknowledge his deity, many maintain the Apocalypse was penned during his reign just prior to this onslaught.
This argument ignores historical fact and assumes other things as true which cannot be proven. Rome was worshipped as an entity called Dea Roma as early as 195 B.C. and temples were erected to worship the deified emperors beginning with Julius. Throughout Asia temples were erected to Augustus and Tiberius before the ministry of Jesus began. All temples within the borders of the empire admitted Caesar's image among the temple gods for public worship. The only temple failing to welcome an image of Caesar was the temple in Jerusalem. In 40 A.D. Caligula, the fourth emperor, sent an army to Palestine for the purpose of placing his image in the temple at Jerusalem.(5) He was murdered before the task was accomplished and the attempt abandoned. So, emperor worship existed long before the reign of Domitian.
Furthermore, the claim that Domitian instigated the death penalty as state policy upon Christians for refusing to bow to his deity is totally without foundation. This practice was clearly in operation by the middle of the second century A.D. but there is no evidence it was a state law as early as Domitian's reign. On this point, Elmer T. Merrill said, "It should be further observed that neither in Suetonius, nor in Dio, nor in any other of the pagan writers who touch upon the subject, is there the slightest intimation that Domitian's bloody jealousy was directed against any but the leading aristocrats whom he supposed he had reason to fear, or that it ravaged at all outside the narrow circle of the Court and the Parliament."(6) The argument based upon empire and emperor worship is weak to say the least.
Many commentators place confidence in their contention that the seven churches of Asia needed time to develop as described in chapter 2 & 3 and, therefore, assert that the late date is essential. Hailey makes this his main argument from internal evidence for the late dating of the Apocalypse.(7)
It is argued that Ephesus was not old enough to have "lost her first love," to have a conflict over false apostles and the Nicolaitans for an early writing of Revelation. Smyrna supposedly started in 64 A.D., and was therefore too young to have reached its perfection at an early date. (This conclusion rests on a statement by Polycarp [69-156 A.D.]. He was a bishop in the church at Smyrna in later years). In short, we are told that these churches needed decades to reach their present states of perfection or imperfection as portrayed.
Were decades necessary for the conditions described in chapters 2 & 3 to develop? The answer is "NO." Why would it take decades for one congregation to reach imperfection and the same amount of time for another congregation to reach perfection? Which comes first, perfection or imperfection? Common sense teaches that congregations as individuals may be in a state of perfection at one time and in a state of imperfection a short time later. In fact, in a very short time a congregation may make a complete turn around. It happens all of the time and it doesn't take decades to do it. The church at Ephesus was in deep trouble when Paul wrote Timothy in 64 A.D. (cf.1 Timothy 1:3-6, 19-20; 2 Timothy 2:17-18). Paul left Timothy in Ephesus to correct the wrongs. Smyrna may have started in 64 A.D., no one really knows, but was she too young to have reached perfection? Think about it! Was Ephesus perfect before she left her first or original love? If so, Ephesus grew imperfect with age and that would argue for a young church at Smyrna that had not left her original love and was still perfect. Both common sense and experience teach that the conditions of churches are not determined by their age but by their loyalty and commitment to the Lord. The argument based upon the age of the churches is useless and meaningless.(8)
Other arguments for the late dating of the Apocalypse based upon internal evidence exist, but these appear to be the strongest. It should be readily apparent that none of these arguments have a tie with scripture. They are rather the association of internal texts with external historical happenings. The argument on the age of the churches rests entirely upon supposition. This student of Revelation is not aware of any serious argument for the late date that depends upon a tie of internal evidence to other biblical texts. In our next offering, we will examine the internal evidence used to support the early date.
Revelation, An Introduction and Commentary, page 27,
Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1979
2. Summers, Ray, Worthy is the Lamb, page 83, Broadman Press, Nashville, 1951
3. See the exchange between Ferrell Jenkins and Arthur M. Ogden on this subject carried in the June and July, 1989 issues of Searching the Scriptures (Volume XXX, Numbers 6 and 7). You may purchase a copy of this exchange for $ 1.95 from Ferrell Jenkins, 9211 Hollyridge Place, Tampa, FL 33637.
4. Collins, Adela Yarbro, Crisis & Catharsis, page 56, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1984
5. Josephus, Antiquities, 18, 8, 1-9; 19, 1 & 2
6. Elmer T. Merrell, Essays In Early Christian History, page 150
7. Hailey, pages 32-34
8. For further discussion of the arguments for the late date based upon internal evidences, see The Avenging of the Apostles and Prophets by the author.
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