When Was the Book of Revelation Written?
It’s an interesting question.
Today most scholars date the book of Revelation to late in the first century, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian.
According to this view, it was written around A.D. 96.
But there is very good reason to think that the book was written earlier than this—quite a bit earlier.
Here’s why . . .
The Temple Is Still Standing
The first piece of evidence is something we read in Revelation 11, where John writes:
Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told: “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months” [Rev. 11:1-2].
Although Revelation sometimes talks about God’s temple in heaven, it’s clear that here it’s talking about the temple in Jerusalem. That’s why it speaks of the outer court being given over to the nations—the gentiles—who will trample the holy city for forty-two months.
It also speaks of John measuring “those who worship there.”
Nobody worshipped at the temple after the summer of A.D. 70, because that’s when the Romans destroyed it.
This tells us that Revelation was written before the summer of A.D. 70.
Five Are Fallen
In Revelation 17, John sees the Whore of Babylon, who is seated on a seven-headed beast.
This beast is identified with the Roman empire and, specifically, its line of emperors.
John is told:
This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while.
As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to perdition [Rev. 17:9-11].
This allows us to represent the line of kings like this:
1. Fallen (no longer reigning)
2. Fallen (no longer reigning)
3. Fallen (no longer reigning)
4. Fallen (no longer reigning)
5. Fallen (no longer reigning)
6. Is (currently reigning)
7. Not yet come (will reign only a little while)
8. Not yet come (somehow seen as a return of one of the seven)
This indicates that Revelation was written in the reign of the sixth king. If we can identify who this is then we can tell when the book was written.
Can we do that?
Since we have good reason to identify the beast with the pagan Roman empire and its first century line of rulers, a logical way would be to start with Julius Caesar and proceed forward.
If we take Julius Caesar as our starting point, we get this:
1. Julius Caesar (fallen)
2. Augustus (fallen)
3. Tiberius (fallen)
4. Caligula (fallen)
5. Claudius (fallen)
6. Nero (currently reigning)
7. Galba (will reign only a little while)
8. Otho (somehow seen as a return of one of the seven)
In this case, Revelation would be written during the reign of Nero, which was from A.D. 54 to A.D. 68.
Likely, it would be written toward the end of that reign, after Nero had begun to persecute Christians after the Great Fire of Rome, which took place in July of A.D. 64.
Galba would then be the short-reigned emperor, and he did reign only a short time—the seven months between June of 68 and January of 69.
Otho would then be the one who goes to destruction and who somehow could be seen as a return of one of the seven.
That also fits. Otho had been a friend of Nero, and he reminded people of Nero. Upon becoming emperor, he even took the cognomen or “nickname” Nero. He set up Nero’s statutes again, reinstated Nero’s officials, and announced his intention to finish building Nero’s Golden House. It could, indeed, seem as if Nero had returned.
Otho also went to destruction. In the midst of civil war with the next emperor, Otho committed suicide in April, after only three months of reign.
The idea that Revelation was written in the reign of Nero has much to say in its favor, but there is another view that may fit the data as well or better.
One reason is that, although Julius Caesar was a famous Roman leader, he didn’t actually have the title “emperor.”
If the heads of the beast are identified with the line of Roman emperors then we should start it with the first emperor, who was Julius’s successor, Augustus.
If we do that, we get:
1. Augustus (fallen)
2. Tiberius (fallen)
3. Caligula (fallen)
4. Claudius (fallen)
5. Nero (fallen)
6. Galba (currently reigning)
7. Otho (will reign only a little while)
8. Vitellius (somehow seen as a return of one of the seven)
This would date the book of Revelation very precisely, to the seven months that Galba reigned, between June of A.D. 68 and January of A.D. 69.
Otho would then be the emperor who reigns for only a little while, which, indeed, he did—just three months.
And it would make Vitellius the emperor who is somehow seen as a return of one of the first seven and who goes to destruction.
That also fits. Vitellius was also a friend of Nero, and upon becoming emperor he celebrated Nero’s memory and imitated his style of governance. He publicly offered funerary offerings to Nero, and at the accompanying banquet demanded that Nero’s songs be played, at which point he was the first to applaud. He even jumped for joy.
Vitellius also signaled his intention to outdo even Nero himself in one respect, saying that Nero’s lavish Golden House wasn’t enough for him and he needed better.
He also went swiftly to destruction. After reigning eight months, he was killed by the troops of his successor, the emperor Vespasian.
Two Good Possibilities
We thus have two good possibilities for when the book of Revelation was written.
Either it was written during the reign of Nero, likely between the Great Fire of Rome in July of A.D. 64 and Nero’s suicide in June of A.D. 68.
Or it was written during the reign of Galba, between June of A.D. 68 and January of A.D. 69.
The evidence fits both scenarios rather well.
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