When Was the Book of Revelation Written?
It is important to date the times of composition of the various New Testament books because this is the first step in providing a benchmark to help determine when the final canonization took place. The Book of Revelation is cardinal to the whole issue. Since there is strong tradition that the apostle John lived till the end of the 1st century and that he wrote Revelation near his death, this would seem to date the completion of the canon to about 96 C.E. to 98.
There have been, however, a good number of scholars over the past hundred and fifty years who have leaned heavily toward the late 50s or early 60s C.E. for the composition of the Book of Revelation simply because the historical indications within the book point more appropriately to that time. And true enough, if John were recording historical events contemporary with the writing of the book, then the composition must be dated to near 60 C.E. Let us look at some of the reasons for this.
Recall in previous chapters that the apostles, and many Jews and Gentiles, were expecting the soon appearing of the Messianic kingdom on earth. The critical date for the apostles appears to have been the Sabbatical Year of 62 to 63 C.E. Up to that time the apostle Paul was emphasizing the nearness of the second advent, but by 63 or 64 C.E. he had adopted a completely different attitude to the matter. The apostles Peter and John may have waited until after the miraculous events in the spring of 66 C.E. concerning the Temple before they decided for certain that Christ was not returning in that generation, but whatever the case, the period before C.E.62 was alive with the imminent expectation of the Kingdom of God on earth.
This fact brings us to the first reason why the Book of Revelation could have been written around 60 C.E. (if there is a historical basis to its contents). This is because the book presents, in a profound way, the nearness of the Second Advent.
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to show unto his servants things that must shortly come to pass ... for the time is at hand.”
Revelation 1:1, 3
“The Lord God of the holy prophets sent his angel to show unto his servants the things which must shortly be done. Behold, I come quickly. ... for the time is at hand. ... And, behold, I come quickly. ... Surely, I come quickly. Amen. Even so come, Lord Jesus.”
Revelation 22:6–7, 10, 12, 20
This appeal to the soon advent of Christ is also found in the messages to the Seven Churches of chapters two and three.
“I will come unto you quickly. ... Repent; or else I will come unto you quickly. ... hold fast till I come ... shall not know what hour I will come upon you. ... Behold, I come quickly. ... Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”
Revelation 2:5, 16, 25, 3:3, 11, 20
Coupled with these verses about the imminence of the second advent, there was John’s reference that some of the people who actually pierced Christ at his crucifixion would seemingly be alive at his return (Revelation 1:7). Further, John describes the Temple at Jerusalem as being in existence in Revelation 11:1–2 and this would demand a pre-70 C.E. period before the Temple was destroyed. John’s indication that Jerusalem had a population of about 70,000 persons (Revelation 11:13) could only apply to the time before the war. In fact, the Tenth Legion occupied the central area of Jerusalem after 70 C.E. and in no way could the population then be about 70,000.
Another point that shows an early date of composition are two statements made by John in which he indicated that to be reckoned as Jewish was, in that time, an honorable and desirable thing. The two references concern the wish of some Christians to be Jewish, though in actual fact they were not Jews (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). These two statements indicate an early writing of Revelation because after the Jewish/Roman War of 66 to 73 C.E., there was hardly a Christian (especially any Gentile Christian) who wanted to be identified with the Jewish people. During and after the war, the Jewish people were held in disdain throughout the Roman Empire because of the war and (what Gentiles considered) their antisocial behavior. But before 66 C.E. it was quite popular among Christians in wanting to be “Jewish.”
The biggest problem that Paul had to cope with among his Gentile converts was their persistent hankering to become Jews or to adopt Jewish ways. Paul even found them wishing to be supervised by Jewish/Christian authorities (2 Corinthians chapters 11 & 12). But this desire of Christians to identify with the Jews stopped by the end of the Jewish/Roman War. Indeed, the Book of Barnabas, which was written near the end of the 1st century by a Jewish/Christian, was decidedly anti-Jewish in its themes. It is well recognized that even the Gospel of John, from beginning to end, is never flattering to the Jews. So the references in the Book of Revelation that people were still desiring to be identified with Jews is evidence against a post-70 C.E. period for its composition.
Another reason for suggesting an early writing is the mention that some heretics were calling themselves “apostles” (Revelation 2:2). To imagine that one could be an apostle like the original ones selected by Christ was seldom, if ever, imposed upon the Christian community after 70 C.E. This is because there were special New Testament requirements to become an apostle that later people had no hope of meeting. For one, it was essential that each apostle had to have “seen” Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1) and there had to be many miraculous signs associated with their ministries (2 Corinthians 12:12). It is noteworthy that later Christendom, after 70 C.E., had no quarrel over who was or was not an apostle. But in pre-70 C.E. times, this was a major problem (2 Corinthians 11:13–15). So, the reference to false apostles of Revelation 2:2 would tend to place the writing of the book before the fall of Jerusalem if a historical basis is what John intended.
There are other reasons to suspect a pre–70 C.E. date for the writing of the Book of Revelation. If one will observe closely the historical features that seem to be found in the book, one has to look within the emperorship of Nero or the rule of King Agrippa the Second to find such occurrences. For example, John wrote in the Book of Revelation that five rulers had already ceased to have power and that a sixth was then within his sovereignty (Revelation 17:10). All realize that at the time John wrote the Book of Revelation the principal world empire was Rome. If John had in mind the Roman emperors when he spoke of the sixth ruler, then the composition of Revelation was in the time of Nero (54 to 68 C.E.). Nero was actually the fifth emperor, but in a prophetical sense the Jews reckoned Julius Caesar as the first emperor. 1 The second was Augustus; the third, Tiberius; the fourth, Gaius (Caligula); the fifth, Claudius; and the sixth was Nero.
Or, if one thinks John was talking about the rulers of Jerusalem rather than Rome (since it is clear that John’s “Mystery Babylon” was Jerusalem), it could reasonably be suggested that Herod the Great was the first king of the prophecy and that Agrippa the Second was the “sixth.” 2 So, if:
Whether one looks at Rome or Jerusalem as the political power being discussed in the Book of Revelation, we find the historical indications are almost parallel to the years of Nero’s rule. Thus, the date for its writing was somewhere in the period 54 to 68 C.E. But there is a further factor that could help pinpoint the time even closer.
In Revelation there is given a clear reference to the city of Laodicea as being rich and prosperous (Revelation 3:17–18). But in 60/61 C.E., Laodicea suffered a devastating earthquake. 3 It is hardly possible that Laodicea could have been rebuilt and once more rich and prosperous by the beginning of the Jewish/Roman War in 66 C.E. — or even before the death of Nero (68 C.E.). Thus a date just before 60 C.E. for the composition of the book could make good sense. And, as stated earlier, 56 to 60 C.E. is just before the critical Sabbatical Year of 62 to 63 C.E. which was expected to usher in the major events leading up to the second advent of Christ. The Book of Revelation was certainly emphasizing the soon appearing of Christ’s return from heaven.
From all of this, it seems reasonable that Revelation could have been written from about 56 to 60 C.E., just before the end-time events were expected to occur. This, however, is just the problem with the early date for its composition. Since the information within the Book of Revelation is reported to have come from Jesus Christ himself, and not John (Revelation 1:1), this seems to indicate that even Christ, some 30 years after his resurrection and ascension to heaven, was confident of his return to earth very quickly. He was persistent in the book with “I come quickly.”
Of course Christ did not come back as depicted in the Book of Revelation or the other New Testament books. It would be daft indeed to imagine that Christ actually did come back to earth between 63 and 70 C.E. Yet, strange as it may seem, there appears to have been a few people who insisted that he did. By the year 65 C.E. Paul was reporting the errors of some people who believed that a resurrection from the dead had already occurred (2 Timothy 2:18). Since the apostles taught that Christ’s second advent would be accompanied by the resurrection from the dead, there must have been some who taught that Christ had somehow “returned” —perhaps in a mystic or secret manner. Paul, however, assured Timothy that this in no way had happened.
The fact is, Christ did not return “quickly” in the decade of the 60s C.E. Indeed, the very teaching of the Book of Revelation stated quite dogmatically that the end-time events would occur “quickly,” may have been the precise reason why so many Jewish people in Palestine turned against the teachings of Christianity just after 63 C.E. and prepared to go to war with the Romans as Peter and Jude reported. They no doubt began to believe that the whole prophecy had failed, and that the teachings in the Book of Revelation were false.
As for me, the answer seems clear. While the first draft of the Book of Revelation could well have been composed just before 60 C.E., the Book of Revelation has no chronological or historical relevance in its message as far as the 1st century is concerned. It is describing a special time in the future called the Day of the Lord in which all end-time events will take place. The text simply says that John “came to be in the Spirit in the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10), that is, he was transported in vision into the Day of the Lord. Even his “seeing” his revelations in the isle of Patmos had a visionary aspect to them because, again, the text says: “I came to be in the isle called Patmos.” This is describing a spiritual, or visionary, experience that took him to Patmos, not something literal. Indeed, the whole book is made up of symbolic and allegorical teachings which must be carefully interpreted to understand their literal applications.
The allegorical illustrations throughout the book were intended to describe events at the end of the age, not to those who lived in the 1st century. We find that John was witnessing in vision the crucial events:
Thus, when Christ said throughout the book that his return from heaven was to occur very quickly, those statements have to be interpreted within the time period near the Day of the Lord. If this is the way Revelation is to be understood, then the events must be reckoned as allegorical and prophetic without reference to any past historical events or chronological time periods.
When was Revelation written? If one looks at the traditional evidence that comes to us from the middle 2nd century and shortly afterward, one has to date the composition of the Book of Revelation to the last decade of the 1st century. 4 There is little doubt in my mind that this period is the time that the Book of Revelation was finally canonized. Actually, because so many people felt the prophecy was a dismal failure, the Revelation had to be given again to John (or at least re-verified), and this was done about 96 C.E. John even stated in Revelation that a further prophecy was to be given concerning the end-times (Revelation 10:8–11). 5 Christ told Peter he would die an old man by martyrdom (John 21:18–19) but that John would remain “until I am coming” (John 21:22–23).
This statement by Christ has been seen as an enigma to many for generations. Just what did he mean that John would live beyond the death of Peter “until I am coming”? Even in the 1st century there was confusion over the prophecy. Some people thought it meant that John would continue to live until the Second Advent (verse 23). John, however, assured his readers that Christ did not mean that. Indeed, he couldn’t have intended that meaning because Christ had earlier prophesied that John and his brother James would both undergo martyrdom:
“And he [Jesus] said unto them, ‘You shall drink indeed of my cup [of martyrdom], and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father.’”
The New Testament said that Agrippa the First killed his brother James (Acts 12:2). Other early records relate that John was also martyred for his faith in his later years of life. 6
What then, did Christ mean when he said John would live to an old age beyond Peter’s death “until I am coming”? The answer is simple if one will let examples within the biblical revelation be the guide. Christ told John that he would “tarry [or remain around] till I come” (John 21:22–23). We will come to see later in this book, when we appraise the writings of the apostle Paul, that any writing of a person to someone in a different part of the earth (or in another age, if the writing were retained for later times) was reckoned as if the person who wrote the document were there in person when the document was read.
With John writing his Gospel, the Book of Revelation and his three epistles (and he was the one who put together the final collection of books to form the New Testament), the reading of these documents by people in various parts of the world or in future ages of time would be accounted by God (in common custom with the early Christians) as though the person (or persons) who wrote the books WERE PRESENT WHEN TIME DOCUMENTS WERE. READ. I will discuss this principle later, but it is an important one to realize for us who live in these modern times. It simply means that when you read any letter of Paul, of Peter, or of John, then the biblical custom actually accounts that particular person who wrote the words to be there IN YOUR PRESENCE (though the person is actually dead and awaiting the resurrection from the dead).
When John wrote his books and finally canonized the New Testament to be sacred literature alongside the Old Testament, his writings were to be accepted by future generations as coming from John himself who continued TO LIVE through his words. The same principle applied to the other apostolic writings as well. This is one of the meanings of Christ’s statement to John that he would continue to “tarry till I come” (John 21:22–23) because John’s writings (and those of the other apostles who found an inclusion in the New Testament canon) continue TO LIVE in our midst today though the original apostles are actually dead (and have been dead for about 1900 years).
The upshot of this matter means that the canonization completed by the apostle John would continue TO LIVE among all future generations of Christians, and would continue TO LIVE until the second advent of Christ back to this earth. It simply means that the books of the New Testament would BE ALIVE with the truths of Christ, and that what John and the other apostles wrote would be in our midst today as if THEY WERE STILL ALIVE AND STILL TEACHING TODAY. Thus, John would indeed (as Christ told him) “tarry till I come” (John 21:22–23).
The final canonization by John must have taken place long after Peter and Paul were dead. Things make far better overall sense when this is accepted as nearest to the truth. It was John (who had the rank of a priest, and was the special person among the apostles whom Christ “loved more”) who had this special privilege and commission to canonize the New Testament scriptures. He did his task admirably. In a later chapter I will show why this understanding becomes important in evaluating the proper manuscript order of the New Testament books. It means that the complete number of 27 books was sanctioned by the apostle John (and his helpers). Those writings were placed in their various divisions and in a particular order so that the Christian congregations, from the close of the 1st century, would have a divinely inspired set of books which would dovetail with the 22 Old Testament books to form the canon.
It is now time to look at the divisions and order of those New Testament books which were canonized by John. The next chapter begins with a survey of the Gospels and the Book of Acts.
1 Cf. Josephus, Antiquities XVIII.2.2 ¶33; XVIII.6.10 ¶224-225.
2 Eusebius quoted an early prophetic belief that once the Jews ceased having native kings, the Messiah would then be able to arrive on earth (Ecclesiastical History 1.6). The prophecy was interpreted as starting with Herod.
3 Tacitus, Annals 14.27: "One of the famous cities of Asia, Laodicea, was that same year overthrown by an earthquake, and, without any relief from us, recovered itself by its own resources." in Complete Works of Tacitus, trans. by A.J. Church, W.J. Brodribb, and Sara Bryant edited for Perseus (New York: Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc., reprinted 1942). http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078&layout=&loc=14.27
4 Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.30.3.
5 "And the voice which I heard from heaven spoke unto me again, and said, 'Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which stands upon the sea and upon the earth.' And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, 'Give me the little book.' And he said unto me, 'Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make your belly bitter, but it shall be in your mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter. And he said unto me, 'You must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings'" (Revelation 10:8-11).
6 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III.31.
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