Considerations on the Dating of the Book of the Apocalypse of Saint John the Apostle (link)
November 18, 2023 Published by Marco Tosatti
Establishing the time of the revelation received by Saint John is important and there are many reasons to doubt the dating which claims it was written at the time of the emperor Domitian (who reigned from 81 to 96 AD).
This hypothesis rests almost exclusively on a phrase by Saint Irenaeus in “Adversus haereses” (V,30,3) from around 180 AD.
On the basis of the voluminous information available, a decidedly earlier date is more logical and reliable.
Saint John recounts the revelation received on the island of Patmos not far from Ephesus (about 50 km as the crow flies).
Saint John lived near Ephesus with the Most Holy Mary until the date of the death and assumption of the Mother of God.
While writing Apocalypse, he says he is imprisoned on the island. Who had confined him there? Probably the Romans, who associated the prophets and their prophecies with magical practices contrary to the common good, especially if they had political implications.
The small islands of the Sporades were perfect for isolating potential troublemakers (so Pliny in the Histories, 4.69-70 and Tacitus in the Annals, 4.30). Patmos has a historically attested function as a Roman prison.
In the three years that Saint Paul lived in Ephesus (53, 54 and 55 AD) there is no mention of his direct contacts with John, who at that time may have been confined to Patmos.
Even Saint Paul had experienced more than one legal proceeding against him in those years, appearing for the first time before Seneca‘s brother, Junius Gallius Annaneus (Gallion in Acts 18.12), representing the Roman authority in Achaea from 1/7/51 to 30/6/52 AD (it is a certain fact, extrapolated from inscriptions in Delphi, discovered in 1905, dated with references to the reign of Claudius), a year and a half after arriving in Corinth at the end of a series of stages which had taken at least another 6 months. About five years later he was imprisoned in Caesarea (for two years), before being sent to Rome to support his position as a Roman citizen before Caesar, enduring another couple of years under house arrest.
The anti-Christian persecution, instigated mainly by the synagogues, was therefore underway well before culminating in much heavier hostilities towards the end of Nero’s reign and subsequently during the reign of Domitian.
Initially the Christians — who originated from the Jews both from a territorial point of view and as Old Testament roots of the faith — had their first clashes with the Jews and not with the Romans. The Roman magistrates, to whom the Jews turned in an attempt to get rid of their rivals, were not too interested in theological disputes of which they understood neither the essence nor the subtleties. In this situation, although semi-clandestine, Christians were able to expand throughout the empire.
The first real direct annoyances for the emperor — also in the City, due to issues between Judaizers and Christians, reported in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Letter to the Galatians — in 50 AD led Claudius to a decree of expulsion of the Jews from Rome.
Despite this, things got worse until, after the fire in Rome in 64 AD of which the Christians were accused, a real persecution began which led to the martyrdom of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Tacitus describes the tortures to which Christians were subjected by Nero. However, despite their presumed guilt, Christians aroused pity as “they were punished not for the public good, but for the cruelty of a single person” (Annales). Suetonius confirms that Nero had sent the Christians to execution and defines them as a “new and evil superstition,” without however linking the measure specifically to the fire of Rome.
Later, under the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD), Christians were accused of atheism and “adoption of Jewish customs,” which increasingly also won over important Roman notables.
Saint Irenaeus and his quote
Saint Irenaeus was a disciple of Saint Polycarp, who personally knew Saint John the Apostle.
His phrase which would be so decisive in dating the Apocalypse to around 95 AD is found in his famous work Against Heresies. It is written referring to the Antichrist and says thus: “If we had had to openly proclaim, in the present time, the name of the Antichrist, it would have been said by him [the apostle John], who also saw the Apocalypse. For it was seen not long ago, but almost in our generation, at the end of the power of Domitian” (Adv. Hae. V, 30,3).
Please note: Nero himself was called Lucius Domitius, adding potential ambiguity, considering that St. Irenaeus lived and wrote during a period marked by apostasy, reporting information from others.
This phrase in itself does not determine certainties in establishing a date, especially since its subject is the Antichrist and not the Apocalypse: in the Bible the term “antichrist” is present only in two of the three letters of Saint John, but not in Apocalypse.
Saint Irenaeus simply says that Saint John was still alive when what was described in Rev 13.8 seemed to manifest itself: “all the inhabitants of the earth worshiped him, whose name has not been written since the foundation of the world in the Lamb’s book of life sacrificed.”
It is the beast that is worshiped, but this does not imply that the vision/revelation dates back to that time. It was rather Eusebius who led to this conclusion, in the 4th century, in a passage (HE III, 18,3) with an ambiguous interpretation of Irenaeus’ phrase, the translation of which led to the hypothesis that being seen at end of Domitian‘s reign was not John (which is true), but his revelation/Apocalypse (which is a stretch). The doubt is strong.
Having established that we have no “certainties” from St. Irenaeus, it becomes interesting to evaluate many other criteria within the text that can contribute to its dating, also in consideration of the fact that some historians disagree on the fact that at the time of Domitian there were anti-Christian persecutions comparable to those of Nero.
The churches of Asia without mention of the catastrophic earthquake that struck them.
Among the seven cities whose churches the message of Revelation is addressed to is also Laodicea.
According to Tacitus (Annales) the disastrous earthquake that razed it to the ground was in the seventh year of Nero‘s reign (60-61 AD).
Paul arrived in Rome in the first months of 59 AD and therefore in time to write some letters before the earthquake. In the epistle to the Colossians there is also an explicit reference to the other two cities which were later destroyed (Laodicea and Hierapolis) at the same time. St. Paul writes a splendid catechesis to the Colossians, but without any mention of the very strong earthquake that struck their city. Even in the letter to the Ephesians, again from the period of imprisonment in Rome, there is a reference to Laodicea, without news of the catastrophe.
This clue also leads to the hypothesis of a composition of the Apocalypse much earlier than that usually considered (therefore before 60), referring to Laodicea without any mention of the earthquake that devastated it.
The sect of the Nicolaitans
Expelled from Ephesus, they were active in the remaining cities of the area and are named in relation to two other of the seven churches of Revelation: Pergamum and Thyatira. They ate food offered to idols, contradicting the minimum required of Christians and were dedicated to fornication and libertinism, resulting in transgression with respect to Acts 15.29 (“abstain from meat offered to idols, from blood, from strangled animals and from unchastity… “).
Reference is made to a cult of Baalam. The problem is that they were Gnostics (self-styled experts of the depths of the mystery) who propagated their teaching (they had their apostles, prophets and prophetesses) in antithesis to the announcement of the Gospel, performing a mystery cult to Satan, equated in divinity to God revealed by Christ. These are the “false doctors” mentioned in other Catholic letters, logically attributable to the same period and the same area.
The burning, almost nagging question in that period
It also appears in the letters of Saint John and is a first wavering of the Christian faith, precisely because Jesus, already eagerly awaited, does not yet return and in the meantime the temple of Jerusalem is reaching unprecedented splendor (the works will be completed in 64 AD, the year of the fire of Rome), in the proliferation of Gnostic sects and clouds of false prophets.
The denunciation of the threat of “false doctors” is almost insistent and ubiquitous: it characterizes almost all the Catholic letters written in a limited number of years, limited between 55 and 61 AD.
The letters to the seven churches of the Apocalypse also deal with the subject of false prophets; so do the others by several authors, including the first two of Saint John, recommending not to be seduced by the antichrists. This emergency also constitutes the most heartfelt concern of the second letter of Peter and the letter of Judas, which are very similar to each other; it also characterizes the second letter to Timothy, written when Paul is still under arrest and only Luke is with him.
The letter of Judas, brother of James the younger, does not mention the death of the so-called “brother of the Lord” and neither do the two letters of Peter mention the martyrdom of his brother Andrew: a clue that when they were written they must have still been alive, even though they felt the ‘a turning point is approaching’ which will soon massacre many of the Apostles.
The first letter of Saint Peter, with strong similarities to the letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians, suggests it is contemporary by virtue of the themes it deals with.
We find no trace of the martyrdom of St. James the Less in the Acts of the Apostles (whose story ends at the end of the year 60 AD) and in the letter to the Hebrews, which — if later — would have dealt with it. St. James the Less was executed in Jerusalem between Easter and Pentecost of 62 AD
The Temple of Jerusalem
In Revelation there is much talk about Jerusalem and the temple, without any reference to its destruction. If the temple in Jerusalem had already been demolished, it would have been a strong argument to make, but instead… nothing!
John is responsible for its measurement, confirming that the temple in Jerusalem was still there (Rev 11,1-2)… “but the outer court of the temple, leave it aside, and do not measure it, for it has been given to the nations, which will trample the holy city for forty-two months.”
The revelation given to John concerns events that were to happen, even shortly (Rev 1:1). In 64, Gessius Florus takes the place of Albinus in Jerusalem. The work on the temple, begun by Herod the Great in 17 BC, also ends. Meanwhile, in the summer of 64, Rome burns.
Flavius Josephus reports that it was an era in which people were disappointed by charlatans and false prophets who claimed to be messengers of God (which is a nod to those who expected or threatened the destruction of the temple and instead found it in front of them more sumptuous than ever?).
Four years before the start of the war, which began in the autumn of 66 AD, while Jerusalem was celebrating the Feast of Booths (early October 62 AD) in a climate of peace and prosperity, a certain Jesus son of Ananias, a simple farmer, standing in the temple, began to shout: “a voice from the four winds, against Jerusalem and against the sanctuary, against the groom and the bride, against all the people.” This man shouted these words through the alleys, day and night.
Disturbed by such insistence, they arrested him and punished him, but he continued undaunted. Among the magistrates there were those who understood that he was acting under a supernatural impulse and had him appear before the Roman governor, but even though he was scourged he did not ask for a pardon and did not shed a tear, repeating with every blow inflicted on him: “Woe to Jerusalem.”
When Albino asked him who he was, where he came from and why he persisted with such words, he received no answer, but only further shouts, so much so that Albino considered him a madman and freed him. In all the time that passed before the start of the war, he continued to repeat like a litany: “Woe to Jerusalem!” without cursing those who hit him and without blessing those who gave him food. And during the holidays he shouted even more. He continued for seven and a half years, tirelessly, until during the siege of the city, which he confirmed the omens, he was killed (in March 70) by a stone thrown by the slingers.
Also impressive are the details described by Josephus (Jewish Warsbook V, chapter V), of the strange signs (seven…) that occurred in 66 AD
1-a star in the shape of a sword (or cross) remained above Jerusalem, together with a comet (Halley’s passed in January 66 AD) for a year. Many were reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 24.30-31: “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory. He will send angels with a great trumpet, and they will gather together all his chosen ones from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” But also in the Apocalypse…
2-at the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (in 66 at the end of March), on the 8th of Nisan, at approximately three in the morning, a brilliant light came from the altar in the temple, so much so that it seemed as if it were broad daylight. This lasted for half an hour.
3-a cow, brought by someone as a sacrifice, gave birth to a lamb in the temple courtyard shortly before being killed.
4-the door located to the east in the internal courtyard of the temple, so massive that it required the intervention of twenty men to close in the evening (bolted by metal bars and stopped by a large block of stone) was observed to open by itself at midnight. The guards ran to inform their commander and together they managed with difficulty to close it again.
5-Not many days after the feast of the 21st liyar (May 66 AD) shortly before sunset this phenomenon was seen by many incredulous witnesses throughout Judea: military chariots flying in the sky and armed battalions falling from the clouds.
6-During the feast of Pentecost (May 66 AD) the 24 priests entering the courtyard of the temple during the night reported having heard a loud noise and then a chorus, like an army saying: “So we are leaving here.”
We are exactly 33 years after the day the Apostles received the Holy Spirit and began preaching the gospel. The Jewish war began in 66 AD and ended tragically in 70 AD with the destruction of the temple.
It is really strange not to mention it in a subsequent writing (Rev 11.8), which does not only concern the Apocalypse, but the entirety of the writings of the New Testament, evidently all prior to 70 AD
Obviously, in the dating and understanding of the Apocalypse, everything changes whether it was written before or after 70 AD
Other peculiarities of the text of Revelation
The apostolic writings that appeared between 47 and 63 AD echo each other in some details, evidently current and significant from a historical, geographical and cultural perspective, such as the double-edged sword (Revelation 1.16 – 2.12 and 19.15 and Hebrews 4.12), also present in Ephesians 6.17 with reminiscence of Isaiah 49.2.
The use of the symbol of the Lamb is frequent, evidently connected to his saving sacrifice. In Revelation the word occurs 36 times, distributed in almost all the chapters; in the remaining New Testament it appears 4 times, 2 of which in the Gospel of John. The Lamb is a host-victim (therefore a Eucharistic reference), it is eatable (it refers to “eating the Passover” of Jesus with the disciples), it is gentle in the immolation and refers to the first preaching (Philip and the eunuch, cit. Isaiah)…
In the Apocalypse we read seven beatitudes linked to the reception of the text (e.g. the guests at the wedding banquet of the Lamb).
Common to contemporary apostolic writings is a lot of talk about angels: in Hebrews, 1 Peter (3,22 and 4,7), Ephesians (chapters 1,2,3 and 6) and Colossians. In the Apocalypse there is a grandiose presence of angels: the word (like angel/angels) is found around seventy times, which is a lot if you consider that there are around 320 in the whole Bible.
Furthermore, referring to Jesus as the alpha and the omega (typical of the Apocalypse), the beginning (typically Johannine, prologue of the fourth gospel) and the end, the first and the last, the one who was, who is and who is to come, the Living One (a frequent expression also in the letter to the Hebrews). Also noteworthy are the images of the sickle, the lake of fire and brimstone, the dragon, the crown of life, the morning star (second letter of Saint Peter) and the tree of life, with a powerful reference to Genesis, for a strongly Marian icon entrusted to the defense of the Cherubim after the expulsion from Eden and promised as the womb for the Word made flesh.
The years of writing the New Testament
It is customary to say that Revelation is the last book of the New Testament, but it is possible that this is not the case since it is possible to find some echoes of it in other New Testament writings. Before delving into this hypothesis, it is useful to take a brief look at the timing of the writing of the Gospels on the basis of the clues present in the Pauline letters.
Saint Paul wrote from Ephesus to the Corinthians in 55 AD, inviting them to guard against schisms and heresies: although only 20 years had passed since the Easter of the resurrection, the problem was already there, and a big one. The Church had already had to convene the first council (49 AD) to resolve some very divisive issues.
Saint Luke was Paul’s traveling companion from about 50 to 60 AD. From chapter 16 of the Acts (in 50 AD, given that Paul was in Corinth in 51, a certain date for the reference to the proconsul Gallio), St. Luke writes about himself in the text in the first person: no longer as a historian, but as a chronicler. Until 49 AD he instead described the facts in the third person. In any case, it is certain that Luke’s Evangelion was already circulating in the 1950s: the good news was written and we find traces of it already in the second letter to the Corinthians (8.16-18): “with him we have also sent the brother who has praise in all churches because of the gospel.” The second letter to the Corinthians is written shortly after the riots in Ephesus.
If Luke is already famous as the author of the gospel in 55 AD, it is presumable that his writing had been circulating for some years. Since Luke also attests that he was not the first to write a gospel. Her book is full of information that could only have been known to Mary and we know that Mary lived for a long time with Saint John until her assumption into heaven (dated to 47 AD taking advantage of the visions of Sister Catherine Emmerick).
The gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark are earlier, while as regards the fourth gospel it is interesting that the very famous prologue is aimed at counteracting the Gnostic tendencies, that is, those of schools of thought such as the Nicolaitans and the Ebionites, seven already also active in Jerusalem, in a period that saw a swarm of visionaries and self-styled messiahs who also involved Paul upon his arrival in the city for Pentecost in 56 AD
In the letter to the Colossians (59 AD) there is a hymn that recalls the prologue of the gospel of John (Col 1,13-20 and 2,9-11).
It seems that Paul knew him when he sent the letter written from prison to Rome. Furthermore, in the Johannine Gospel the pool at the Sheep Gate is spoken of in the present tense (Jerusalem has not yet been destroyed). These details attest to the writing of the Gospel of John at the latest around 60 AD. The Synoptic Gospels already existed.
By synoptically observing the gospels of Saint Luke and Saint John, as proposed in the following table, we can see an indisputable complementarity between the two texts.
[The original article in Italian has a chart here, link.]
From the point of view of Rome, again in 58, Nero, tired of the chaos and inability of Felix who had dissatisfied everyone, decides to replace him with Porcius Festus and it is he, as soon as he arrives, who sends Paul to Rome, as requested, having immediately interested in your case. There are coins minted by Festus dating back to the fifth year of Nero (58-59): generally the Roman procurators took office at the end of spring, when the climate was more favorable to sea travel.
The echo of Revelation in other New Testament writings
All the data collected indicates that Apocalypse is a very current text in the period between 50 and 60 AD and we can reread everything without starting from the assumption that it is a writing that dates back to approximately 90 AD
The announced persecutions were partly ongoing and partly imminent.
After leaving Ephesus, Paul enters Macedonia where he remains for 3 months. He wintered in Greece then in the year 56 AD (Acts 20.3) he returned via Macedonia. In the spring he sets sail from Philippi (Acts 20.6) to be in Jerusalem in time for Pentecost in the year 56, passing through Miletus where he holds the famous speech.
Ephesus logically could have been, with Miletus, one of the first cities reached by the text of the Revelation/Apocalypse received from Saint John on Patmos. Well, in the first letter to the Corinthians, written from Ephesus at the end of 55 AD we read (15.51-52): “Behold, I proclaim to you a mystery: certainly not all of us will die, but we will all be transformed in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet; in fact the trumpet will sound and the dead will rise incorrupt and we will be transformed”: are you referring to the Apocalypse?
The letter to the Hebrews also contains ideas that could derive from the Apocalypse (chapters 3, 5, 7, 14, 20 and 21): Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the great angelology, the assembly of the firstborn, the spirit of the righteous and Jesus mediator, the sprinkling of blood…
We read in fact (Heb 12,18-24): “For you have not approached a tangible place or a blazing fire, nor darkness, darkness or tempest, nor the blast of a trumpet or the sound of words, while those who heard it they begged that God would no longer speak to them; in fact they could not bear the injunction: If even a beast touches the mountain it must be stoned. The sight, in fact, was so terrifying that Moses said: I am afraid and trembling. But you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and myriads of angels , the festive gathering and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, God the judge of all and the spirits of the righteous brought to perfection, to the Mediator of the New Covenant and to the blood of sprinkling with a more eloquent voice than that of Abel.”
Since it is unlikely that the author of the Apocalypse read the letter to the Hebrews, the opposite is more logical, remaining inspired by the powerful images of the book of John.
These historical references allow us to best date all the apostolic writings and as regards Apocalypse, a reasonable hypothesis is that the book is prior to the first letter to the Corinthians.
John died very old, but wrote in his prime
The apostle John was very young when he was with Jesus (less than twenty). When Mary was taken up into heaven, the apostle Jesus loved was just over thirty years old. At the time of his imprisonment on Patmos he may have been around forty.
In the fourth gospel, Saint John reports almost in shorthand the long speech of Jesus after the last supper: four entire chapters are dedicated to him, from 14 to 17. The vision/revelation of Revelation is also written in great detail. In both cases they are vivid, undated, unreworked “notes”.
In the case of Jesus’ long farewell, the hypothesis of recitatives memorized, transmitted orally, in a manner not foreign to Jewish culture has been proposed (so Pierre Perrier, in “Gospels from oral to written”).
Even for the vision of Revelation it would make little sense to write it down decades after having seen and listened to the images and words imprinted in the memory of a young man gifted with uncommon acuity and the purity of heart which God used. Another consideration: while the three synoptic gospels report the apocalyptic speeches of Jesus (which are read in Advent), Saint John does not do so: perhaps because he had already written everything necessary?
When did Saint John leave Patmos? It is not known, but presumably at the end of the persecutions wanted by Nero. Before the disaster in Jerusalem and before the tragedy of Pompeii and Herculaneum, in 79 AD terrifying for all contemporaries.
Subsequently, Saint John may have experienced the (milder?) persecutions that occurred under Domitian.
Historical sources attribute to John a death at a very late age (at least ninety years old), so he could certainly have been alive at the time of the persecution under Domitian, still in time to meet and educate Polycarp, who was his disciple and became bishop of Smyrna during the reign of Trajan.
The Apocalypse for a time to come, which reaches up to ours
The dragon used the beast (the antichrist) to subjugate the kings of the earth, making use of the false prophet who acts with all possible masks for propaganda.
The book of the Apocalypse opens our gaze to a scenario that the history of men could not imagine: an instantaneous fall of all these realities, which would otherwise force us to wait for the prevalence of this or that, according to our deceptive sympathies, while above ‘there are those who use them as puppets, always against Christ.
The defeat of the beast, of the kings, of the false prophet will be instantaneous (Rev 18,21)…
It is truly a matter of faith and not of earthly studies and calculations. History has long periods of time, but Satan has a limited reign, to manifest himself untied at the end of a thousand years after the destruction of Babylon and before the glorious epilogue of times.
Satan is having a time for himself, but believers awaiting the Wedding of the Lamb and inhabiting the celestial Jerusalem can live the beatitudes given to us by Saint John in the Apocalypse which is not a threat of the end of everything, but of a world, of its prince, of the slavery in which he deceives, incarcerates and confuses the humanity loved by God.