Return of the King – Dating Revelation

There are two main options -an early date pre AD70 under Emperor Nero or a later date around about AD90- AD95 under Emperor Domitian.

JAT Robinson favours an early date -his book “Redating the New Testament” he strongly argues that the whole of the New Testament must be understood as written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

He notes that there is strong external evidence for a later date based on the early traditions of the church.

“For what it is worth, however, the credit of this witness is good. Irenaeus, himself a native of Asia Minor, who claims to have known Polycarp who knew John, writes in c. 180+ with regards to the name of the beast in Rev 13.18; [1]

Irenaeus says:

‘If it had been necessary that his name should be publicly proclaimed at the present season, it would have ben uttered by him who saw the Apocalypse. For it was seen no such  long time ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.’ [2]

This is twice quoted by Eusebius, who supplies us with the original Greek. “[3]

Robinson isn’t convinced however, that Irenaeus was right

“It would be easier to believe that the Apocalypse was written by an unknown John than that both books belong alike to John’s extreme old age…it is difficult to credit that a work as vigorous as the Apocalypse could really be the product of a nonagenarian, as John the son of Zebedee must by then have been, even if he was as much as ten years younger than Jesus.”[4]

There’s also evidence that John was banished much earlier.

“For what it is worth, both the title to the Syriac version of Revelation and The History of John, the Son of Zebedee in Syriac say that it was Nero who banished John.”[5]

The mainstream 19th Century  view was that Revelation was written early[6]

“Hort, together with Lightfoot and Westcott, none of whom can be accused of sitting light to ancient tradition, still rejected a Domitianic date in favour of one between the death of Nero in AD68 and the fall of Jerusalem in 70.”[7]


 “Since then the pendulum has swung completely the other way.”[8]

Some good reasons for supporting an early date include  games contemporary to Nero’s life that played with numerical values for his name. For example, one little rhyme went:

“Count the numerical values

Of the letters in Nero’s name

And in ‘murdered his own mother’

You will find that their sum is the same.”[9]

It is possible that “666” is a variant on this game.  He also sees internal evidence to suggest that Jerusalem hasn’t fallen yet.

“If Jerusalem had actually been destroyed, it is surely incredible that the worst judgement upon it should be that in a violent earthquake (and not by enemy action) ‘a tenth of the city fell’ (11:13). Rather we should expect as Moule has said, a description of the doom of the city ‘where the Lord was crucified’ parallel to that other great city also with its allegorical name of evil (cf 11.8 with 18.10) where ‘the blood of the prophets and God’s people was found (18:24). If in the case of Jerusalem ‘the smoke of her conflagration’ (18.9, 18), so vividly described by Jospehus had already been seen, it is astonishing that it receives no mention.”[10]

One objection to an early date is that it does not allow Laodicea time to recover from a massive 60-61AD earthquake and be “wealthy”

“But the city took pride in having rebuilt itself without waiting for help from imperial funds, and by the end of the decade may well have boasted, ‘How well I have done! I have everything I want in the world.’ (Rev 3.17). Ironically Moffart holds that I is irrelevant to connect this with the reconstruction after the earthquake because by the 90s the incident is too far back.”[11]

Carson, Moo and Morris note the following arguments

For a late date

“A date for Revelation in the reign of Domitian, and probably towards the end of that reign (say 95-96), receives the most support from the early fathers. Irenaeus, who is a key source for this tradition, was in the position, to have direct information about the matter. Most scholars have been inclined to follow Irenaeus in his dating of Revelation at the close of the reign of Domitian.”[12]

For an early date

“Advocates of the Domitianic date have generally appealed to the early Christian tradition that pictured the years 95-96 as a period of intense persecution. Advocates of the earlier date, for their part point out that the evidence for the persecution is quite slim.  The clearest evidence comes from later writers (Orosius, Eusebius, Sulpicius, Severus), while those more contemporary to Domititian’s time say nothing about a systematic persecution of Christians.  In contrast, evidence for a persecution of Christians under Nero is clear and irrefutable. We have no evidence that Nero’s persecution extended beyond Rome, but if we are looking for a period when Christians in Asia Minor were likely to be persecuted, a time when Christians were being persecuted elsewhere is more likely than a time when we are not sure that they were being persecuted at all.”[13]

Another major argument for a later date is that Emperor worship looks to have become a significant issue in Domitian’s time and appears to be an issue in Revelation -eg.13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11; 15:2[14]

The condition of the churches at the time needs to be taken into account. That there had been decline and stagnation may suggest a long period from the start. However, Paul’s letters show that decline and stagnation could be very rapid.[15] They also note the question about Laodicea needing time to recover from the earthquake in AD60-61[16]

On the Nero myth, they comment.

“Popular hatred and fear of Nero led to stories circulating after his death to the effect that he would return to Rome leading a Parthian army.  Passages in Revelation that speak of the beast recovering from a mortal wound (13: 3-4) it is argued, allude to a Nero-redivivus myth, and it must have taken time for the myth to circulate and become known.  However, the Nero myth is not really very close to what is actually said of the beast in the Revelation, so the argument carries little weight.”[17]

Overall they favour later date[18]


There are strong arguments for both dates. Whilst generally speaking I find Robinson’s willingness to defend the earliest dating of the NT persuasive and helpful, I do think we need to give some weight to the external evidence here.  Dating Revelation to AD90 still puts it within the sphere of eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Even with a later date, there is the strong sense that John and the church are still living in the shadow of Nero with myths and rumors circulating about him and his enduring power.

[1] JAT Robinson, Redating the New Testament., 221.

[2] Cited in JAT Robinson, Redating the New Testament., 221.

[3] JAT Robinson, Redating the New Testament., 221.

[4] Robinson, Redating, 222.

[5] Robinson, Redating, 224.

[6] Robinson, Redating, 224.

[7] Robinson, Redating, 224.

[8] Robinson, Redating, 225.

[9] Cited in Robinson, Redating, 235.

[10] Robinson, Redating, 240.

[11] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament,  230.

[12] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 473.

[13] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 474.

[14] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 474-5.

[15] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 475.

[16] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament,475.

[17] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 475.

[18] Carson, Moo, Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 476.

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