The dating of the Book of Revelation has been a matter of no small controversy throughout the history of the church, some writers placing its authorship during the reign of Claudius (41 – 54 A.D.), others placing it during the reign of Nero (54 – 68 A.D.), and others placing it in the reign of Domitian (81 – 96 A.D.). In the realm of eschatology, Preterists choose an early date, while Dispensationalists and Historicists choose the later. It is not a matter that can be resolved by external testimony, because the external testimony itself is contradictory. But the internal evidence is quite compelling.
We propose that the matter of the dating of the Apocalypse of John can be resolved by internal evidence if we first endeavor to understand the chronological limits of the Iron period of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2. Once the dates of the Iron period are known, the internal evidence from Revelation places the date of authorship squarely in the reign of Nero. Historicists and Dispensationalists have generally been reluctant to allow the early dating out of fear of granting any credibility to the Preterist school. Ironically, however, the early dating of Revelation actually militates against the Preterist position, as we will show.
Let us first briefly touch on a small sampling of the external evidence, starting with Irenæaus (d. 202 A.D.). Irenæus appeared to assign the date of John’s vision to the reign of Domitian:
“We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.” (Irenæus, Against Heresies, Book V, chapter 30.3)
Jerome, too, understood that John had seen the Revelation during his banishment under Domitian:
“[F]or he saw in the island of Patmos, to which he had been banished by the Emperor Domitian as a martyr for the Lord, an Apocalypse containing the boundless mysteries of the future.” (Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book I, chapter 26)
Had we only Irenæus and Jerome, perhaps the matter could be settled. But other writers have suggested or claimed much earlier time frames. Tertullian (155 – 240 A.D.), for example, while not explicitly dating the Apocalypse, appears to place John’s exile in the reign of Nero. According to legend, John was said to have miraculously survived what would have been a martyr’s death when he emerged unharmed from a vat of boiling oil. In relating the incident, Tertullian seems to place the boiling oil incident chronologically prior to Paul’s martyrdom under Nero, just as Jesus’ passion was chronologically prior to Peter’s. Tertullian describes Rome as the city where Peter imitated Christ in death, and where Paul imitated “a death like John’s,” even though John’s “death” was unsuccessful:
“Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile!” (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, chapter 36)
The Muratorian Canon, dated in the late 2nd century, places the Apocalypse of John chronologically prior to Paul’s epistles, and has Paul imitating John’s pattern of writing in Revelation. The Muratorian Canon‘s reference to John’s letters to the seven churches can scarcely refer to anything else than the Apocalypse, and it represents John as laying down therein a rule that Paul followed after him:
“[T]he blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name…” (Muratorian Canon, 3)
There are other writers who explicitly place John’s exile to Patmos earlier than Nero. Epiphanius (320 – 403 A.D.) dates John’s gospel to “his old age,” but has his Apocalypse written under the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.):
“…the Holy Spirit compelled John to issue the Gospel in his old age when he was past ninety, after his return from Patmos under Claudius Caesar, and several years of his residence in Asia” (Epiphanius, Panarion, Book II, Heresy 51, 12,1)
“He foretold it prophetically by the mouth of St. John, who prophesied before his falling asleep, during the time of Claudius Caesar and earlier, when he was on the isle of Patmos.” (Epiphanius, Panarion, Book II, Heresy 51, 33,9)
Thus we can see that the external evidence of the date of the Apocalypse is far from unambiguous. We can hardly blame renown historian Philip Schaff, therefore, for changing his position in his revised edition of The History of the Christian Church. He once held to the later date, but after considering the evidence, switched to an earlier date:
“On two points I have changed my opinion—the second Roman captivity of Paul (which I am disposed to admit in the interest of the Pastoral Epistles), and the date of the Apocalypse (which I now assign, with the majority of modern critics, to the year 68 or 69 instead of 95, as before).” (Schaff, Philip, The History of the Christian Church, volume 1, Preface to the Revised Edition, (1882))
Were we left with no other devices we might suppose that the date of Revelation simply could not be determined. The diversity of the evidence and the wavering of a great church historian hardly bodes well for such an endeavor. But there is a way the date can be narrowed down to the reign of a particular Roman emperor, and it is provided for us within the Scriptures. The answer lies in the Iron Legs of the statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.
In his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel specifically identified the meaning of the Iron Legs and Iron & Clay Feet of the famous statue. The Iron Legs refer to a time when Rome was singularly irresistible as an empire:
“And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise.” (Daniel 2:40)
But there would come a time when the kingdom, while retaining the strength of Iron, would also show weakness in the same way that Iron & Clay would be weak when mixed together:
“And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay.” (Daniel 2:43)
When the Iron & Clay feet are finally separated chronologically into Toes, it is because the Iron Kingdom, having descended into Iron & Clay Feet, was finally and ultimately broken into fragments or pieces of Iron & Clay Toes. The Toes signify that “the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken” (Daniel 2:42).
Thus, three chronological phases may be understood from Daniel’s depiction of the Roman Empire. The Iron Legs, the Iron & Clay Feet, and the Iron & Clay Toes. If the dream is to be understood chronologically, there must be some discernible aspect to the chronology so that we may understand the periods Daniel is describing. In other words, we ought to be able to understand from the Scriptures when the Legs transition to Feet, and when the Feet transition to Toes. We are clearly able to understand when the Head of Gold transitioned to the Breast and Arms of Silver, and when the Breast and Arms transitioned to the Belly and Thighs of Brass, and when the Belly and Thighs transitioned to Legs of Iron. Just so, we ought to be able to understand the transition from Legs to Feet to Toes.
As we showed in The Single Frame Hypothesis, the Brass period may be bounded by Alexander’s victory at the Battle of the Persian Gate in 330 B.C. and the death of Pompey in 48 B.C. We include this entire period within the Brass Kingdom because in chapter 11 Daniel describes the events between 11:4 and 11:45 as the distribution, “plucking up,” and related conflicts between the remnants of Alexander’s divided empire. The entire narrative from start to finish encompasses events after Alexander’s empire is “divided toward the four winds of heaven” (Daniel 11:4) but before Julius Cæsar became permanent dictator. It is the Greek period that is in view for the whole chapter, and that period concludes with the death of Pompey. What occurred within the time frame of Daniel 11 is that all four of the successor kingdoms were subsumed under the republican rule of the Roman Senate. Macedonia in the west succumbed to Rome, both Asia Minor and Egypt were bequeathed to Rome, Tigranes conquered the Seleucids in Syria to the East, and Pompey then conquered Tigranes. The rise and fall of the Greek era occurs entirely within the period described in Daniel 11.
Pompey died in 48 B.C. just as Rome was about to complete its transition from Republic to Empire when Julius Caesar would be declared Dictator perpetuo, Dictator in Perpetuity, in 44 B.C.. It is then that the Empire of Rome finally had its first “king.” Julius was its first “emperor”—in function if not yet in name. He would be assassinated only two months later, but his descendants and relations would govern the Empire for the greater part of the next century. Daniel 11:45 marks the end of the Brass period of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, and Julius Cæsar marks the beginning of the Iron Period—the Iron Legs of the statue.
That Iron Period of course would not endure, for eventually those Iron Legs would become Feet of Iron & Clay. Daniel marks the transition for us by saying that “the iron mixed with miry clay” signifies that “they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men” (Daniel 2:41,43). There is therefore something that is true about the period of the Feet that is not true of the period of the Legs, and the difference is in the mingling of “the seed.” Because seed bears a genetic connotation, we need only examine the genetic lineages of the preceding empires as described in Scripture to understand how “the seed” would be mingled.
In spite of their internecine warfare, debauchery and intrigue, the preceding empires were not “mingled” outside of royal genetic lines. The Babylonian empire was ruled by a succession of royalty descended from Nebuchadnezzar, for his son was king after him (Daniel 5:2). Then the Medes reigned, passing the kingdom from father to son, for Darius was “the son of Ahasuerus, of the seed of the Medes” (Daniel 9:1), and then the Persians reigned passing the kingdom from father to son (see Ezra 4:5-6 and this list of Persian Kings). The Greek empire was then ruled by Alexander, and notably he serves as the sole exception to this rule. The Scripture points out the exception for us: Alexander is notable because he left his kingdom “not to his posterity” (Daniel 11:4). His kingdom was left to his generals and to their descendants—most visibly to the warring Ptolemaic and Seleucid families as each king left his portion of the fragmented kingdom to his son.
None of these preceding kingdoms—Babylonian, Median, Persian or Greek—are characterized as “mingled with the seed of men.” There was a tremendous amount of internal wrangling between family members and their descendants, and yet none of those empires are characterized as “mingled” the way the Feet are considered “mingled.” When Rome was in its ascendancy, it exceeded all the preceding empires in military prowess (Daniel 2:40), and it was not “mingled” either. From Julius Caesar through most of the first century A.D., the Roman Empire simply appears to be in the phase of the Iron Legs. It is not in any sense a kingdom displaying any weakness at all. It is Iron to the core.
But there came a point when the Roman Empire took a sudden turn—from Legs to Feet—and we can identify that point by evaluating the dynastic succession of the Roman empire from Julius, its first “king.” The next six “kings” were related to him, and thus, as with the empires before Rome, the royal line remained “unmingled”:
Julius Caesar, (declared Dictator perpetuo in 44 B.C.)
— Civil Wars (44 – 27 B.C.) —
Augustus (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.), Julius’ grand-nephew
Tiberius (14 – 37 A.D.), Augustus’ step-son
Caligula (37 – 41 A.D.), Tiberius’ grand-nephew
Claudius (41 – 54 A.D.), Caligula’s uncle
Nero (54 – 68 A.D.), Claudius’ grand-nephew
Galba (68-69 A.D.), related by marriage and adoption
The succession of these first seven rulers of the Roman Empire bears a resemblance to the succession of kings of Babylon, Medo-Persia and Greece in that the succession was kept within a single family line. Galba, the last of them, was related only distantly to the preceding six, and his wife, Aemilia Lepida, was also related by marriage to the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.
After Galba, the Caesars began to come from much more diverse and frequently common and non-Roman lineage. It is with Galba’s successor that the imperial line became “mingled”:
Otho (Jan – Apr 69 A.D.), Etruscan (non-Roman) lineage
Vitellius (Apr – Dec 69 A.D.), of Latium or possibly common lineage
Vespasian (69 – 79 A.D.), a commoner
Titus (79 – 81 A.D.), Vespasian’s son
Domitian (81 – 96 A.D.), Titus’ brother
Nerva (96 – 98 A.D.), Coceii family, distantly related to the Julio-Claudian dynasty
Trajan (98 – 117 A.D.), of Hispanic and Italian stock
Hadrian (117 -138 A.D.), of Hispanic, possibly Italian stock
Antoninus (138 – 161 A.D.), from Nimes (southern France)
We will leave it to our readers to research the family lines of the rest of the Roman emperors. Our point here is simply to show that the first seven emperors of the Roman empire followed the pattern of the preceding empires in that kingly succession was kept within the family in a distinguishable line, or “seed”—civil wars and political intrigues notwithstanding.
After the first seven emperors, the rulers began to come from a much more diverse genetic and family lineage. This is what we believe Daniel had foreseen when he said that the Iron & Clay period signifies that “they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men” (Daniel 2:43). According to Daniel, there would be a significant and observable transition from the Legs to the Feet, and that transition took place in 69 A.D. when Galba was assassinated. The succession of emperors from that point forward was mingled “with the seed of men.” The emperors of Rome were no longer exclusively descended from Julius, and were not even exclusively “Roman.”
It is by this means that we may define the Iron Legs as the period of the first seven Roman emperors. The Iron Legs span the period from Julius Cæsar to Emperor Galba in 69 A.D.. Likewise, we assign the succeeding emperors to the period of Iron & Clay Feet when “they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men.”
Because John’s Apocalypse is so thoroughly Danielic in its imagery, we believe that John had that approaching transition in mind when he referred to the first Seven Emperors of the Roman Empire: “there are seven kings” (Revelation17:10). He was referring to the period of the Iron Legs, and here John reveals for us the proper dating of the Apocalypse. The Revelation to John was given during the reign of the sixth emperor of the Iron Legs period, just prior to the seventh and last, whose reign would be comparatively short:
“And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” (Revelation 17:10).
The phrase “and one is” can refer to none other than Nero, placing the writing of Revelation during the reign of the sixth emperor of the period of the Iron Legs of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. Galba was the seventh, the last emperor to be related to Julius, and his reign lasted only a few months. With his death, the Iron Period came to a close, and with Otho, the Iron & Clay period began.
Historicists and Dispensationalists typically eschew this dating because the early date for the authorship of Revelation ostensibly lends too much credence to the Preterist position which identifies Nero as the Antichrist. But that concern disappears once the significance of John’s Danielic language is understood. Revelation was written in Nero’s reign which was during the period of Iron Legs, making Nero chronologically prior to the emergence of the Toes of Daniel 2 or the Horns of Daniel 7. And since Antichrist must arise after the Toes of the Statue have formed, and after the horns of the Fourth Beast have emerged, the Preterist position of necessity requires that Nero’s reign occur during the period of the Feet rather than during the period of the Legs. Yet John has Nero plainly reigning in the period of the Iron Legs, entirely ruling him out as a candidate for Antichrist. In the end, an early dating of the book of Revelation does not lend credence to Preterism at all, but rather disproves it by assigning Nero to the period of the Iron Legs—a period during which it was impossible for Antichrist to rise.
We will continue on this theme next week.