Dating the Book of Revelation
by Steve A. Hamilton
The date when the book of Revelation was written has been a controversial subject for centuries. The insight I have gained and relate in this article is not likely to change the debate in favor of any certain date. However, after reading many different sources on the subject, I have not found anyone who has addressed Hegesippus’ testimony as it relates to the dating of the book of Revelation.
Eusebius was a fourth-century historian who preserved many early writings. He is credited with quoting Irenaeus’ testimony (abt. 180 A.D.) that John wrote the book of Revelation near the end of Domitian’s reign. Domitian was executed in 96 A.D. “Eusebius quoted also Hegesippus’ testimony [abt. 150 A.D.] that John returned to Ephesus upon being released from exile after the accession of Nerva in A. D. 96 (HE III. xx).” Nerva was the successor of Domitian and served as the Roman Emperor from 96 A.D. to 98 A.D.
Barring any evidence to the contrary or attacks on the credibility of Eusebius, this information presents a real problem for those who hold to the early date (abt. 64-68 A.D.) for the writing of the book of Revelation. John has told us he “was on the island that is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:9). Please notice the past tense implies John wrote what he experienced after he was off the island. The only logical conclusion is that John wrote the book of Revelation after 96 A.D.
Arthur M. Ogden, the well-known author of “The Avenging of the Apostles and Prophets” among members of the churches of Christ, advances the early date in his commentary on the book of Revelation. He states, “If the late date is accepted, it would be impractical and meaningless to interpret the book in the light of the fall of Israel.” Therefore, I would expect Brother Ogden to make the most convincing argument to contradict the quotes given by Eusebius. He acknowledges “the strongest arguments for the late date” are made concerning Irenaeus’ testimony. However, he gives a weak defense by implying through another commentator who uses Robert Young’s statement (late 1800), that Irenaeus really meant Nero. Brother Ogden goes on to question the reliability of Irenaeus’ statement. Yet, he never even mentions Hegesippus’ testimony by the same historian (Eusebius).
Logically speaking, if the early date is correct and Hegesippus’ testimony is also correct then John was in exile for some thirty years. If John wrote the book of Revelation while on the island (as early date proponents support) then we are left wondering how he got the document off the island in time for it to provide comfort to the reader before the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.). Of course, we are assuming that John had access to scarce writing materials while he was a prisoner on a secluded island. And if we can locate John in any other place other than the Isle of Patmos between 64 A.D. and 96 A.D. then we would know for sure that the early date is inaccurate.
If we add the testimony of Victorinus (late 3rd century) and Jerome (late 4th century) we come to the same logical conclusion. Both of these men expressly testify that John was sent to the Isle of Patmos by Domitian. In fact, Jerome identifies the 14th year of Domitian’s reign as to when John was sent to Patmos.
The only external evidence Brother Ogden uses in support of an early date is the Syriac Version. He writes, “The Syriac Version of the New Testament, which is the oldest version of the New Testament, dating all the way back to the second century, places the Revelation in the period of Nero, 68 A.D.” The oldest Syriac Version of the New Testament is called the Peschito. “The Old Syriac Peschito version does not contain the Apocalypse.” Subsequent Syriac versions do include the Book of Revelation but not the oldest one that dates back to the second century.
The reason Brother Ogden made such a bold statement concerning the Syriac Version of the New Testament is due to a title inserted into a translation known as the Syriac Vulgate Bible that was dated to the 6th century. The uninspired title asserts that John wrote the Apocalypse in Patmos where he was sent by Nero Caesar. The title is not part of any earlier manuscript from which that version was translated. Therefore, it is 6th-century evidence and not 2nd-century evidence as implied in his statement.
The external evidence used in this article to support a later date for the writing of the book of Revelation is from the 2nd century to the 4th century. The external evidence against an early date for the writing of the Book of Revelation is pretty solid.