The Date of Revelation (late 60s or mid 90s?)
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Apart from a few Pauline letters, most documents in the New Testament do not provide sufficient information to determine exactly when they were written. For the books of the NT, the potential dates for authorship range from 40–120 AD. Dating the material is a matter of triangulating early Church traditions, internal clues, and literary dependance to establish the most probable window of time.
The book of Revelation is typically dated to the reign of either Nero (late 60s) or Domitian (mid-90s), the emperors famous for persecuting Christians. This post summarizes the main arguments in favor of the earlier date. We separate the points into four categories.
Details in Revelation refer to Nero (54–68 AD).
1. Nero Resurrected. Revelation 13:3 mentions a head that receives a mortal wound and then lives (13:3). This refers to the Nero redivivus myth. Soon after Nero’s death in 68 AD, rumors spread through Asia Minor that Nero was still alive and would return.
2. Nero as 666. The (in)famous number of the beast in Rev 13:18 is generally read as an insider reference to Nero. When transliterated into Hebrew, the letters of “Nero Caesar” add up to six-hundred and sixty-six.
3. Nero and Apollo. Rev 9:11 mentions Apollyon, which seems to refer to the god Apollo, who was Nero’s patron deity. Moreover, the combat in Rev 12 seems to echo a popular Apollo combat myth, prominent during Nero’s reign.
4. Nero’s Extravagance. Rev 18 rebukes the Roman empire for living in luxury. Roman authors note the extravagance and wantonness of Nero, whereas Domitian was remembered as being stingy.
Details about life in the churches reflect an earlier date.
5. Idolatry. In the letters to Pergamon and Thyatira, John mentions eating food sacrificed to idols. This issue affected the church in the 50s, as seen in the Jerusalem Council letter (Acts 15) and Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians (1 Cor 8,10). The church addressed the question of idolatry in the middle part of the first century AD.
6. Laodicea’s Riches. Rev 3:17, 18 refers to the wealth of Laodicea. Along with most of the Lycus valley, Laodicea was leveled by an earthquake in 60 AD. The city rejected assistance from the emperor and took pride in rebuilding itself. John’s comments seem to refer to this scenario in the 60s.
7. Leadership. The church leadership assumed in Revelation depicts an era of charismatic, less-structured leadership, as was common in the earlier church. Prophets and apostles are mentioned, but not pastors or bishops.
8. Christology. The book of Revelation has a remarkably high Christology. Christ is the figure of Dan 7, sits on the throne, and receives worship. Scholars Bauckham and Trebilco have argued that early Christology appears to be the most reverent. (This may not count as an argument for a Neronian date, but it at least undercuts an alleged argument for the later date.)
Information in Revelation represents political realities from before 70 AD.
9. Jerusalem Temple. Rev 11 implies that the temple in Jerusalem remains in existence. Despite the language of destruction throughout the book, there seems to be no reference to the end of the temple. Since Titus destroyed the temple in 70 AD, this suggests a pre-70 date.
10. Kings of the East. Rev 16:12 states that the great River Euphrates “was dried up in order to prepare the way for the kings from the east.” The eastern portions of the Roman empire had client-kings until the 70s, but then Vespasian reorganized the region and appointed Roman governors in the provinces. So, by the time of Domitian in the 90s, there were no longer “kings” in the east.
11. Fire in Rome. In Rev 18, a great fire burns the city. A devasting fire burned over half of Rome in 64 AD, and Nero was associated with that fire, as people accused him of starting it (or at least not stopping it) so that he could build the city according to his wishes.
12. Political Chaos. The 60s were a time of tremendous upheaval and chaos (in the first and twentieth centuries!). Rome endured the tyrannical final years of Nero only to experience the year of four emperors in 69 AD. Jerusalem was attacked and destroyed in 66-70 AD, causing the church there to take refuge elsewhere. In such circumstances, Christians may have felt “the world was coming to an end,” as depicted in Revelation.
A few arguments suggest the Domitian date, though they prove inconclusive.
13. “Babylon.” Rev 14–18 refers to Rome as “Babylon” several times. Scholars say this symbolic name is used only after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. However, this argument works from silence (the absence of evidence) and ignores the reference in 1 Pet 5:13.
14. Domitian. The last Flavian emperor was remembered by Roman and Christian historians for being savage and hateful toward Christians. However, historians have noted this presentation of Domitian stemmed from opponents’ propaganda more than reality. There is little evidence of persecution during Domitian’s reign.
Two additional issues.
Two matters are often discussed, but interpretations of the data seem predetermined by biases. The points becomes a Rorschach test that mirrors the interpreters' assumptions.
15. Irenaeus. The second-century Church Father Irenaeus reports that John saw the apocalypse “towards the end of Domitian's reign” (Ag. Her. 5.30.3). People who date Revelation late (generally more liberal) quote Irenaeus uncritically here, but find fault with his other historical claims (e.g., the apostle John wrote Revelation). However, earlier daters of Revelation (generally more conservative) find ways to critically explain this comment while accepting other claims at face value.
16. The Seven Kings. In Rev 17:9–11, John says that the seven heads of the beast are “seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come.” Scholars debate which Roman emperor should begin the list and which should be included. To me the most sensible solution is to start with Augustus, the first Roman "Emperor." In this count, Nero is the fifth emperor, the living sixth head would be Galba who reigned in 69 AD.
However, historical reconstructions of John's seven heads vary so widely, one senses that commentaries backfill the list to reach their preferred conclusion. The possibilities are too ambiguous to weigh in favor of any argument.
These are the main data points for determining when the apocalypse was written. The balance of evidence seems to favor the earlier dating of Revelation—i.e., the late 60s.
For more information, see the introduction to any critical commentary, Mark Wilson’s article “The Early Christians in Ephesus and the Date of Revelation, Again,” or Chapter 4 of J. Brenier, Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament.