Monday, January 5, 2009

3rd W: When

When was the book of Revelation written?

It is always hard to date biblical books precisely. Those darned writers simply never learned to put their name and date on the top corner of their title page when they were in school. So, all we have are educated guesses. Even if the guess is coming from a very well-regarded biblical scholar, it is still a very well-educated guess. So, among the educated guesses out there, two possibilities stand out as to when John wrote the book of Revelation. Because of the numerous references to bloodshed among Christians in the book of Revelation, the basis for these guesses is related to the Roman emperors and their treatment of Christians. The differences between them reflect a choice between the times of the Emperor Nero (54-68) and the Emperor Domitian (81-96). Specifically, commentators try to date Revelation according to the emperors and how they relate to this text from Revelation 17:9-10,

This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while.

There is a lot to these two verses, beginning with the phrase "this calls for a mind that has wisdom." That phrase appears one other time in Revelation and it seems to be John's way of saying to the reader that s/he needs to pay attention to how this part of the vision is playing itself out in their world. So, commentators on Revelation turn to the annals of the emperors and try to figure out which ones were the 5 who had fallen (or died), which one is now living and what it means to point to another one who is to come. That's the kind of study that lies behind the two primary possibilities of dating of the book of Revelation.

Possibility One: 96ish
The 'traditional' dating of the book of Revelation is some time toward the end of the reign of the emperor Domitian, which would be around the mid-90's of the Common Era. Virtually all of the 2nd and 3rd century church fathers who chimed in on Revelation's dating ascribed to this timing. The reason for this dating seems to be that Domitian took action against members of the imperial household for being 'athiest'- which could be a reference to someone ascribing to Judaism or Christianity, since the official religion was Roman polytheism. He had a nephew killed and a niece exiled and early interpreters saw this as an indication of a wider persecution. It is not clear from historical records that Domitian actually carried out a widespread persecution, but it is clear that he tried hard to establish an 'imperial cult,' to declare himself a Lord and God. To be sure, Jews and Christians would have resisted any effort to offer such terms of worship to a human being and that resistance would have brought back memories of Daniel's great heroics in the face of King Nebuchadnezzar's attempt to make Jews worship his image. For Jews and Christians who had been trained in the Daniel stories, whenever an emperor plays the 'worship me' card, it is a call to resistance, often followed by bloodshed.

Possibility Two: 68ish
Some scholars argue for an earlier dating of the book of Revelation, based on their argument that Nero is the great persecutor and looming danger for the early Christians. Nero was a crazy tyrant- that's for sure. And his persecution of Christians after falsly blaming them for the burning of Rome made him a terrible memory for Christians. After Nero died, there was a fear that he had not truly died but had actually faked his suicide and was in hiding among the Parthian kingdoms until he could plan a come back. (This whole legend reminds me of some of the legends regarding Adolph Hitler and the fears that he might have staged his suicide in order to regroup and return.) That is what some scholars think John is referring to by the his 'beast' who is described as one who 'was, and is not, and is to come' (17:8) The fear over Nero is that he 'was', in his (assumed) death he 'is not,' and when he returns he 'is to come.' After Nero's death there were three emperors in quick succession who all came and went within the year 68. Because of that instability among the empire, it would have been conceivable for someone like Nero to return as a stabilizing hero from his self-imposed exile. So, scholars who assume that the persecution of Christians (especially among the churches in Asia Minor) was Nero's persecution date the book of Revelation around 68.

In the end, with apologies to my friend Karen who always says, "Is it too much to ask for a simple black and white answer to a straightforward question?" we have to say- "Yes, it's too much in this case." But these two possbilities are the best guesses out there as attempts to take the book of Revelation seriously insofar as it addresses the current distress of the churches under persecution.

More on Thursday: the 4th W is "where"


  1. Mark, Thanks for writing on Revelation. It's always been one of my favorite books for some reason. Maybe that's because I see it differently than the folks that I grew up with see it. The writer has a flair for describing some amazing things. Too bad he didn't have a camcorder. :-). Maybe a part of the reason I love Revelation so much is that I have secretly longed to have a vision of God so powerful and so real that I could do nothing but share it with others.

  2. Thanks, Rockabilly. I like your secret longing. I wish the book of Rev would inspire more of us to wonder, rather than to grasp.


If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive