Authorship and Date of the Book of Revelation
I dealt with the question of authorship briefly in the earlier note on 1:9—i.e. the identity of the seer Yohanan (John) in the book. However, it is worth discussing the matter a bit more comprehensively, now that we have come to the end of the notes themselves. In most commentaries, this subject is part of an introduction, prior to the exegesis; I opted for the reverse approach, to deal with such matters only after the text has been thoroughly discussed. This allows the reader to consider the text objectively, without presuppositions or pre-judgments regarding authorship. The question of date—when the book was written—is more pertinent to a critical study, and to providing a sound, basic interpretation for a number of the visions; however, even here I felt it best to avoid discussion of theories on the book’s date as much as possible.
Critical commentators today are not as inclined (as past generations) to view the book as pseudonymous, despite the fact that much Apocalyptic literature is pseudepigraphic in nature (cf. my earlier article on these terms, and also note the discussion in Part 2 of my study “The Antichrist Tradition”). The book is generally lacking in the kinds of details and references one might expect if the author were presenting himself as a famous (apostolic) figure. Some Christians chose the third option above, identifying the author with a second-generation Elder/Presbyter named John (cf. Eusebius, Church History III.39.4-6; VII.24.7ff). However, the main lines of Christian tradition identified the author as John the Apostle, an identification which appears to have been reasonably well-established by the end of the 2nd century (cf. Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.11.1, 16.5ff; V.30.3; Clement On the Rich Man §42, etc).
However, there is no evidence in the book itself that this John is an apostle, or even an elder; however, it is clear that he is a prophet (profh/th$, “foreteller”). The book throughout demonstrates a keen interest in the role of genuine prophecy (profhtei/a), characterizing itself as such (cf. 1:3; 10:7, 11; 11:3-18; 16:6; 18:20, 24; 19:10; 22:6-10, 18-19). Moreover, it shows an understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in early Christianity—especially the way that the Spirit of God interacts with the gifted spirit of the prophet. Also noteworthy is the opposition to false prophecy, being inspired as it is by the forces of evil (i.e. an evil/deceptive spirit)—cf. 2:14, 20ff; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10. In early Christianity, “prophecy” (profhtei/a) entailed much more than predicting the future; the term referred primarily to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for God, by which the word and will of God was communicated to others. As such, the role of the Christian prophet was closer to the meaning of the corresponding Hebrew word ayb!n`. Thus the “John” of Revelation can be identified as a Christian minister, a gifted prophet; whether he was also an apostle (and/or John the Apostle) remains quite uncertain.
We know little else about him from the book itself, except that, at the time of receiving his visions, this John was residing on the island of Patmos, about 40 miles off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor (almost directly west of Miletus). He says that he came to be there “through the account of God and the witness of Yeshua” (1:9). This could mean that he was on the island as part of his ministry/missionary activity; however, most commentators understand it as a reference to banishment, i.e. as a punitive action against him, (relegatio ad insulum, “relegation to an island”), possibly even a permanent exile (“deportation”, deportatio ad insulum); for more on this, cf. Koester, pp. 242-3. Patmos was scarcely a desolate locale, contrary to popular portraits of John receiving his visions in Christian art, etc; it had a thriving culture and society, including festivals, athletic events, and so forth. There was also a strong religious life on the island, including major pagan cult centers, though the prevalence of the imperial cult, so strong elsewhere in Asia Minor at the time, is less certain. The tradition regarding John the Apostle’s exile on Patmos is attested by the end of the 2nd century (Tertullian Against Marcion 3.14.3, 24.4; Prescription Against Heretics 36); Irenaeus presumably accepted it (Against Heresies 5.30.3, cf. above), though he does not mention that specific detail.
The Problem of Dating the Book
The book of Revelation has been variously dated by scholars and commentators, sometimes based on established tradition (i.e. regarding John the Apostle, cf. above), though more commonly (in recent years) on the basis of internal (historical-critical) evidence in the book itself. For those interested in establishing a specific date, or time-frame, the two main options, favored by commentators, are: (1) early, in the 60s A.D., or (2) at the end of the first-century A.D., c. 95. A third (3) minority view would set the book in the early second-century A.D. (sometime between c. 115 and 135). The language and vocabulary offer little help in establishing a precise date, and similarly with regard to other literary and rhetorical factors. Scholars thus have tended to turn to details which relate to the historical and cultural background of the book (i.e. historical criticism).
1. Foremost of these details is the description of the heads of the Sea-creature (i.e. ‘beast’ from the Sea), especially the interpretation in 17:7-18 (vv. 9-11). This is one of the only instances where the book itself offers an explanation of the visionary symbolism, so it must be taken most seriously as a guide for interpretation. The seven heads are explained as seven kings, which most commentators—correctly, it would seem—understand as a sequence of first-century Roman emperors. Five of these emperors have already died (“five [have] fallen”) at the time the book was written, while the sixth is the current reigning emperor (“one is“, i.e. is currently alive). This has encouraged commentators to attempt to identify the six heads with a sequence of six emperors, which would more or less establish a date for the book; for example:
- beginning with Julius Caesar, the sixth emperor would be Nero (r. 54-68)
- beginning with Augustus, the sixth emperor would be Galba (r. 68-9)
- or, skipping over the short reigns of the four emperors in 68-9, the sixth would be Vespasian (r. 69-79)
- beginning with Gaius (Caligula), and skipping over the four of 68-9, the sixth would be Domitian (r. 81-96)
- beginning with Nero, the sixth (strictly) would be Titus (r. 79-81); counting more loosely, it might also be Domitian.
It is, however, highly questionable whether the symbolism of the heads can be interpreted (reliably) with such historical precision. After all, the motif of seven heads derives from ancient tradition, and relates to the seven-vision cycles throughout the book, as does the 5 + 2 motif. It seems likely that it was meant to apply only generally to the historical circumstances of the Empire. If any of the above schema are accurate, I would say that the second and fourth are most plausible—i.e. (a) from Augustus to Galba, or (b) from Gaius (Caligula) to Domitian. Caligula was the first emperor to begin his reign after the death/resurrection of Jesus, and would have been the first to fit clearly into the eschatological “wicked tyrant” pattern (cf. my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition”).
2. Along these same lines, many commentators find a number of references or allusions to the Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) in the book; this could be cited as evidence for the setting of the book itself (i.e. during Nero’s reign), or as an indication that Nero was one of the (five) emperors who had died previously. The latter seems much more likely, especially if the common interpretation regarding the head with the death-blow (“strike of death”) in 13:3 (cf. the earlier note) is correct—that it is, in part at least, an allusion to Nero (and the Nero legend). The wording in 17:11 may represent a similar allusion. One plausible line of interpretation would be that: (a) Nero was one of the emperors who had died, but (b) he would ‘return’ in the form of the last (eighth) emperor, a demonic ‘Antichrist’ figure patterned after him. For Christians in the second half of the first century A.D., Nero would have been the persecuting emperor, and the more intense persecution to come during the time of distress could legitimately be regarded as a revival of Nero’s actions.
It has also been popular to interpret the famous ‘mark of the beast’ in 13:18 as a veiled reference to Nero. I will not discuss that cryptic verse any further here (consult my earlier note). Even if correct, it could be understood either as a reference to Nero as the current emperor, or to the previously-mentioned idea that the wicked ruler of the end would be patterned after Nero.
3. Two other historical points are important for a dating of the book—(1) the extent of the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor, and (2) the influence of the imperial cult in the region. The persecution of believers during Nero’s reign, while notorious enough, was relatively brief, and more or less limited to the city of Rome. Evidence for persecution during the reigns of the subsequent emperors (such as Vespasian or Domitian) is uncertain or sketchy at best, and has been very much exaggerated, it would seem, by Christian writers in the case of Domitian (cf. Koester, pp. 76-8). We have a little more evidence for the arrest/interrogation of believers, in the provinces (e.g., Asia Minor), during the early-second century (cf. especially Pliny the Younger Epistles 10.97.2, cited in the note on 13:15); however, there were no widespread state-sponsored attacks on Christians until later in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
This generally accords with the portrait we have of the situation in Asia Minor at the time the book of Revelation was written. Persecution was sporadic, with believers being held for interrogation a much more common occurrence than their being put to death. Executions were apparently infrequent enough that special mention could be made of Antipas’ death in Pergamum (2:13). While the visions of Revelation foresee a time (very soon) when persecution would be much more intense and widespread, this had not yet been fulfilled. A setting in the late first or early second century would seem to fit this evidence.
Much the same is true of the prevalence of the imperial cult, which would become the focus of the 2nd-century persecutions. The unwillingness of believers to participate in the various aspects of the imperial cult—including worship/veneration of the emperor and his images—would put them at odds with the surrounding society, and, increasingly, with the provincial and imperial authorities. There can be little doubt that the Roman imperial cult informs much of the depiction of the Sea-creature’s wicked regime in chapters 13ff (esp. the detail in 13:11-18); however, again, the book envisions a dramatic increase (and intensification) of the current situation. The imperial iconography and religious associations, while well-established in Asia Minor by the end of the first century, would only become more pronounced in the second, during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian.
Consider the example of Pergamum, an important center of Roman administration in the province. Already in the late 1st century B.C., a provincial temple to Augustus and Roma (goddess of the city Rome) had been constructed, including dedicatory altars (remains of which have survived). First century coins depict many images and scenes of the rich religious culture (festivals, games, etc) associated with the cult. Later, during the reign of Trajan, a new temple (to Zeus and the emperor) was founded in 114 A.D., further dedicated in 129, in the time of Hadrian, who was similarly identified with Zeus Olympus at the temple in Athens (dedicated 132).
4. One argument for an early date (i.e. pre-70 A.D.) is the lack of any clear reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple; indeed, the symbolism of the Temple precincts in 11:1-2 has been taken as an indication that the Temple was still standing. If correct, it would seem to require the book be dated to the reign of Nero (54-68) or Galba (68-9). However, attempts to date the New Testament Writings based on references to the Temple are questionable at best. Long before the Temple had been destroyed, early Christians had spiritualized its significance, treating it as a symbol and figure of the person of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the union of believers, and so forth. Moreover, lack of reference to the Temple’s destruction could just as easily indicate a significant time after 70 A.D., when the reality and physical existence of the Temple building had long ceased to be important. With the exception of Paul’s mention of the Temple in 2 Thess 2:4, references elsewhere in the New Testament tend to be ambiguous, in terms of the question of date, and whether or not the Temple building still stood at the time of writing. Consider, for example, the complex way the matter is handled in the letter to the Hebrews; there is no indication of the Temple’s destruction, and yet, the writing tends to be dated to latter part of the first century by most commentators, based on numerous other factors.
Overall, the evidence points to a general time frame of the last quarter of the first century A.D. (c. 75-100) for the composition of Revelation. Traditionally, a date for the book has been set at the end of Domitian’s reign (c. 95 A.D.), a tradition attested at least as early as Irenaeus in his Against Heresies (5.30.3), and followed by Eusebius (Church History 3.18.3, 20.8-9; 5.8.6) and Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 9), as well as others (cf. Koester, p. 74). A majority of commentators today would tend to concur with this, and a date for composition c. 90-95 A.D. is probably not far from the mark.
References marked “Koester” are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).