Revelation does not explicitly state when it was written, so its date is a mystery to be solved. And like any good mystery, there is evidence, both internal and external, to consider.
Internal evidence consists of clues within the book itself. For example, John mentions Jesus Christ in 1:1. So, John wrote Revelation after Jesus’ ministry, that is, after A.D. 30. External evidence consists of clues left by other writers about the book. For example, in approximately A.D. 130, Justin Martyr refers to Revelation. So, Revelation was written before then.
Can we date John’s Apocalypse with more precision? Yes and no. Yes: Commentators agree that a closer examination of all the evidence yields a more precise date. But, no: They disagree about the precise date that examination yields. According to Robert H. Mounce, “The majority of scholars place the composition of the Apocalypse either during the reign of Domitian (A.D. 81–96) or toward the end or immediately after the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68).”[i]
External evidence favors the Domitian date. In the late second century, Irenaeus wrote, “For it [Revelation] was seen not long ago, but almost in our generation, near the end of Domitian’s reign.”[ii] Other proponents of the Domitian date include Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the third century, and Victorinus, Eusebius, and Jerome in the fourth. The Nero date lacks similarly compelling external evidence.
Truth is not determined by majority opinion, however, but by sound arguments. Advocates of the Nero date make the following case[iii]: (1) The angelic instructions to measure the Temple in 11:1–2 assume that it is still standing, which was not true after A.D. 70. (2) The number 666 in 13:18 is a cryptic reference to Nero, since the numerical value of NRWN QSR (“Nero Caesar” in Hebrew letters) is exactly 666. (3) The “seven heads” of 17:9–11 favor the Nero date. The five kings who have fallen are Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, and Claudius. The “one who is” is Nero. The one to come and remain “only a little while” is Galba, who reigned for only seven months.
But, in reply, it might be pointed out that the reference to the temple can be interpreted symbolically. The identification of 666 with NRWN QSR was unknown to Irenaeus when he listed the various candidates in the early third century. And neither Otho nor Vitellius (who succeeded Galba A.D. 69) make good candidates for the beast of Revelation 17:11. Their reigns were even shorter than his!
The Domitian date, on the other hand, explains the internal evidence well, its proponents argue. Mounce writes, “The Roman Empire is personified as a beast who demands universal worship (13:4, 15–17; 14:9; 16:2; 19:20), insisting that everyone bear his ‘mark’ or be put to death (13:15–17; 14:9: 16:2; 19:20; 20:4).”[iv] While Nero’s persecution of Christians was politically motivated and limited to Rome, Domitian’s persecution was religiously motivated—Christians would not worship Caesar as “Lord”— and spread beyond Rome. But, in reply, even Domitian’s persecution does not seem to match the intensity of the one described in Revelation.
Whichever date one finally adopts, perhaps it is wisest to consider the times in which Revelation was written, rather than the time at which it was written. They were difficult times for Christians, if we are to believe the language of martyrdom that pervades John’s Apocalypse (e.g., 17:6, 18:24, 19:2). And difficult times always call for a resilient faith—whoever the specific emperor may be.
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[i] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 15–16.
[ii] Quoted in Mounce, Revelation, 16.
[iii] According to Mounce, Revelation, 19–21.
[iv] Mounce, Revelation, 16.