Provenance and Destination
John writes from the Mediterranean island of Patmos (1:9), a rugged, rocky island about 40 miles (24 kms) southwest of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea, used by the Romans as a place of exile (see Pliny, Natural History 4.23). The document is written to the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:4, 11; 2:1–3:22).
Date of Writing
The two main proposals for dating Revelation center on the respective reigns of Nero (54-68) and Domitian (81-96). The key pieces of evidence are as follows:
1. Persecution of Christians. The Christians to whom Revelation is addressed seem to have been suffering severe and widespread persecution that would eventually worsen (1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4). Nero’s persecution lasted from 64 to 68, but it was primarily confined to the city of Rome. The persecution of Domitian was most intense from 95 to 96, and though the strongest evidence for it comes from later writers,1 the imposition of emperor worship during this time (see below) adds more credence to this potential setting than do the alternatives.
2. Emperor Worship. Christians in the book of Revelation were being pressured to worship the secular ruling power (13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). The seeds of emperor worship were to some degree evident in Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Caligula, but it was not until Domitian that the imperial cult was enforced.2
3. Condition of the churches. A Christian named Antipas had already suffered martyrdom in Pergamum (2:13) and members of the church at Smyrna were soon to face imprisonment and potentially the death penalty (2:10). Spiritual stagnation was a problem in many of the Asian churches (2:4, 5; 3:1-3, 15-17), and the church of Laodicea was wealthy at the time (3:17).3 These conditions are more conducive to the period of Domitian’s reign.
4. The temple of God. John is called upon to measure “the temple of God” (11:1-2). If this is taken as a reference to the literal Jewish temple in Jerusalem, a date before 70 would be implied. However, since the book of Revelation is filled with signs and symbols, the most natural interpretation of this passage is metaphoric, not literal. Some see a prophecy of the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem in the allusion to the “holy city” being trampled for “forty-two months” (Rev. 11:2). However, when Ezekiel saw his vision of the temple being measured (Ezek. 40:1–42:20), the temple and the city had already been destroyed by the Babylonians fourteen years earlier (Ezek. 40:1).
5. The succession of kings. In 17:9-11 eight kings are mentioned, and the one that appears to have been reigning at the time of writing was number six. If this passage is taken literally and the succession of kings begins with the first recognized emperor, an earlier date is then suggested. However, this argument is not decisive. Are the kings in this vision past, present, or future? Is the count to begin with Julius Caesar (the first dictator), Augustus (the first emperor), or Caligula (the first persecutor)? Should the comparatively insignificant rulers, who were in power for only brief periods (e.g. 68-69), be counted or not? Should the respective numbers be interpreted literally or symbolically?
Internal evidence places the most probable context of Revelation toward the end of the reign of Domitian, i.e., 95-96. This conclusion is supported by the weight of early testimonies, viz. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.3; Victorinus, Apoc. 10.11; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.18; Clement of Alexandria, Quis div. 42; Origen, Matt. 16.6.
-- Kevin L. Moore
1 See Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.18.4; Sulpicius Severus, Chronicle 2.31; Paulus Orosius, Book 7 of Historiarum lib. Vii, adv. paganos. Even though the most definitive information comes from Orosius in the year 417, his history is substantially based on the much earlier works of Justin and Eutropius (see M’Clintock and Strong 7:455-56), and he also had access to other documentation that is no longer extant.
2 According to the Latin writer Suetonius (Dom. 13.1-2), Domitian required his subjects to address him as dominus et dues noster (‘our lord and god’). See also Dio Cassius 67.4.7; 67.13.4; and Pliny the Younger, Pan. 33.4; 52.2. The first imperial cult temple in Ephesus was established in the year 89 under Domitian’s rule. In fact, it was during this period that “in some areas – especially in Asia Minor – governors and other local officials demanded public participation in the cult as evidence of citizens’ loyalty and patriotism” (S. L. Harris, Understanding the Bible [7th ed.] 518).
3 Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 (cf. Tacitus, Annals 14.26-27), and it is commonly assumed that an extensive period of time would have been necessary for the city to be rebuilt and become prosperous. This assumption, however, is tentative at best, since the residents of Laodicea were wealthy enough to rebuild the city without aid from the Roman government. Nevertheless, the fact that a congregation was in existence in Smyrna may be suggestive of a later date (see D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 710).
Related Posts: Introducing Revelation Part 1
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