Revelation and the Destruction of Jerusalem
The siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Painting by David Roberts.
The book of Revelation in the Bible is an apocalyptic vision by the Apostle John, which in today’s western culture most often gets interpreted to events still in the future. Best-selling books and novels have been written sensationalizing how these events might occur within the next decades. In spite of all of this fanfare, there are many who believe many of the prophecies in Revelation have already come to pass; they hold what is called a preterist view. Roman Catholics frequently adhere to such a position. For example, a number of the scenes in Revelation fit the events in the years leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. But why are the prophecies of Revelation not usually applied to the late first century? The biggest reason is the date assigned to the writing of Revelation. If the vision of the future was seen and written after 70 CE, the events of the preceding years were not what John was seeing. The majority opinion within the Protestant church has always held that Revelation was written by the Apostle John in about 96 CE. If true he must have been an old man at the time (in his eighties), given he was a disciple of Jesus 65 years earlier. What historical evidence exists for this date, or for a possible earlier date?
The 96-CE date for the writing of Revelation lies mainly on one key piece of evidence. That evidence is a letter from Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, who lived in southern France in the 2nd century CE. Irenaeus knew Polycarp, who in turn knew the Apostle John himself, the writer of Revelation. Author Ken Gentry goes into great depth on the dating of Revelation in his book Before Jerusalem Fell. I refer the reader there for more details. Iraneous wrote, concerning the Antichrist and Revelation:
“We will not, however, incur the risk of prenouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen not so very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign. “
The key phrase in this writing is the last sentence. There a single Greek word is translated as “that was seen”. Traditionally that sentence has been interpreted to mean the vision of Revelation was “seen” during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. Also key then is the years the Domitian reigned--that being 81 to 96 CE. The “end’ of Domitian’s reign was therefore 96 CE, and “towards the end” could also have been say 94 or 95 CE.
This early written statement from someone who was only two persons removed from the author seems almost to be a smoking gun. But, of course, it may not be so simple. For the phrase “that was seen” could alternatively be referring to the Apostle John still “being seen” alive near the end of Domitian’s reign. In which case John died in say 95 CE but actually had the vision and wrote it down potentially many years earlier. The Greek word is equivocal here—it does not tell us specifically who or what “that was seen” is referring to. Gentry in his bool convincingly argues that latter is a real possibility. For example, the context of the writing was emphasizing the close connection in time between Irenaeus and the apostles.
This viable alternative reading allows for the vision in Revelation having been seen at some earlier point in time when John. For example, John may have been exiled on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:1) under an earlier emperor who was persecuting Christians. A viable candidate for that emperor would be Nero. Not only was he a severe persecutor of Christians, but writings from other early church fathers report John being exiled under Nero. This decade (the 60s) was the period when both Peter and Paul were executed. Reportedly, at this time John was plunged into boiling oil for his punishment, but miraculously survived unharmed. Thus, banishment for John at that time makes sense, as the Romans in failing to kill him might have been spooked by the ordeal. Not wanting to try again, they resorted to exiling him.
Much more evidence can be accumulated for the case of the writing of Revelation during the 60s CE, and again I will refer the reader to Gentry’s book, or other similar writings for these details. Such evidence is both external and internal to the book itself. Importantly though, the vision of the apocalypse at this earlier date opens a whole realm of plausible interpretations, not otherwise possible. If seen and written during the 60s, Jerusalem and its Temple had not yet been destroyed, and that was the most apocalyptic thing that happened in the Judeo-Christian world for the next several centuries. Revelation itself also repeatedly emphasizes that the things in the vision would happen very soon. So much so it is almost distracting to read Revelation and not think why 2,000 years have passed without fulfillment (not my definition of very soon).
There are a number of scenes in Revelation that appear very similar to what happened in the years leading up to 70 CE. There are too many of these to discuss in one blog so my plan is to write a series of blogs pointing out some of the scenes of Revelation that fit thedr years. Examples are: the four horsemen of the Apocalpyse, the Mark of the Beast, and the two witnesses at the Temple; and outside of Revelation the seven years of tribulation and the Olivet apocalyptic. Is it possible that all of today’s dramatic sensational predictions of Revelation made to fit 20th and 21st century events are misguided, trying to reinterpret events that mostly happened almost 2,000 years ago? Missing the context of ancient writings is one of the most frequent errors we make. Stay tuned.