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Before AD 70?

Of course, having read the previous pages, one would quickly conclude that the answer to the question that leads to this paragraph would be a definite yes! That indeed Revelation was written before AD 70. This, despite the overwhelming popular opinion that the book was written during the reign of Domitian, around AD 90. Still, it is the assumption of this study that Revelation was written by John prior to AD 70 as reflected in Jesus’ pin-point prophecy in His sermon on the Mount of Olives.

According to Irenaeus, an influential church leader in the second century AD, John actually witnessed the revelations of his book as they came to pass. This would have occurred sometime near the end of Domitian’s reign between AD 81-96.[1]This view and its dating of Revelation’s events beyond AD 70 has become almost sacrosanct among many modern commentators today.[2]All this, despite the fact that there’s no reference whatsoever to the destruction of Jerusalem in the book of Revelation or elsewhere in the New Testament for that matter does make their argument worthwhile, if not wrong.

Again, there is near consensus among most that it was written sometime after the first Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70.[3]However, since Domitian—who Eusebius refers to as “a second Nero”—actually ruled for almost a year while his father, Vespasian was away at war, it could very well be that Irenaeus simply got his dates confused. Furthermore, the glaring omission of any mention of the destruction of the temple continues to lead many to conclude that John composed the book prior to AD 70 because the temple was still standing. That would mean it was during the reign of Nero, and not Domitian that the persecution described in Revelation took place. After all, the 60’s AD were a turbulent time for the Roman Empire and no actual evidence exists that Domitian ever persecuted anyone other than his political opponents.[4]

That brings us to two crucial issues: (1) When did John expect these prophecies to be fulfilled? (2) And how would John have expected them to be interpreted? Not surprisingly both issues are discussed in the opening chapter of Revelation. Despite the fascinating nature of the books’ strange imagery, John’s expectations are not completely obscured. Neither is its meaning lost in the glare of the book’s somewhat “bizarrely lit” descriptions. Yet, so many well intended students tend to run past John’s expectations as presented by the historical occasion of the book in order to get to the “dramatic stuff”that begs for human speculation. After all that, most only find themselves confused rather than enlightened or inspired by their encounter the Apocalypse.[5]

In the first 3 verses, John expressly informs his readers that he expects the prophesied events to occur “soon,” emphasizing an urgentconcern as cause for his reader’s immediate attention.[6]John uses two terms to express his urgency; “shortly”and “near.”[7]The word translated “shortly”appears as an explanation for his writing; “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond-servants, the things which must shortlytake place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond-servant John.”[8]

The word translated “near”follows quickly behind the word “shortly,” just two verses later. The word “near” commonly speaks of events close in terms of timely proximities, such as an approaching celebration, the coming of a new season, or a soon occurring event.[9]The idea of John’s use of terms like “shortly”and “near,“can mean nothing less than the short measure of the ordinary passage of time. There’s no mistaking that something was going to happen within a short period. Add to that, Jesus’ warning, in His Olivet sermon that His prophecy would be fulfilled within a generation, and it seems fairly certain that seeing the 70 AD event as fulfillment is the only date that makes sense.

An historical approach encourages one to accept the fact that John was prophesying events to come in his day as well as events to come in the future (now and not yet). Just as Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming Messiah was directed to his audience in the seventh century BC yet applied more consummately to those who lived in Jesus’ day. So, John’s words applied to the people of his day and to us today as well. Even though Jesus has come and gone, and we expect Him to come again.[10]

Today’s popular emphasis upon an almost entirely “futuristic” interpretation of Revelation’s symbols teaches that most of the events, at least from chapter four onward, are yet to come of the catastrophes John anticipates in these chapters. While this study isn’t intended to be antagonistic toward futuristic approaches as such, it does challenge the trendy nature of these popular theories and I believe helps explain the utter failure of end times prognostications.

 

Methods of Interpretation

Ask people—whether they are professing Christians or not—what they think of the Bible’s last book, and chances are they’ll tell you it’s a book about the “end of the world.” Odds are even greater that they have never read it, since it’s filled with all sorts of peculiar beasts, odd symbolism and creepy signs of doom and gloom. Most are simply unaware that there are various ways to reasonably approach and understand Revelation other than to just take someone else’s word for it.

By far, today’s most popular view (eschatology) is what has been called the “futurist” model, based on dispensationalist interpretations. The assumption is that Revelation’s predictions are nearly all events that are not yet fulfilled but will be in the future. That is, in the “distant future” as far as those who actually lived when the prophecy was offered. It is only the “near future” for those who sell and purchase modern prophetic books. However, and despite its popularity, this view is certainly not the only one, nor is it necessarily the best one. As a matter of fact, the futurist view has only been around for a couple of hundred years and its origins are tied to some suspicious thinking. So, a person might do well to look further to see if more traditional alternatives are worth investigating.

Anyone’s who’s read the Gospels or Paul’s New Testament letters, knows that Jesus’ Second Coming and the end of the world seem to be described as one and the same event. However, Jesus’ Olivet sermon says otherwise. The “end of the age,” as spoken of by Jesus eventually came to be understood as a separate idea from the “end of the world.”[11]Thus there developed more extensive investigations of the book of Revelation other than just it being some future divine scheme to bail out disciples prior to the worlds’ cataclysmic end. Below is a brief summary of the four conventional models for interpreting Revelation.[12]

 

  1. Preterism (Revelation is Prophecy fulfilled)

Revelation’s prophecies have been (for the most part or completely) fulfilled.

|—Revelation———Prophecy Fulfilled 70 AD——|

Those called “Preterists,”interpret the prophecies of Revelation, as well as the Old Testament book of Daniel,as having been already fulfilled. They argue that ancient Israel’s covenant with God was to be continued, or better said, “fulfilled,” by the birth of the Christian churchat the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Those who rejected God’s covenant were pruned away from the prophetic stump of Christ and those who embraced God’s covenant, including non-Jews (Gentiles) were grafted into the tree of Abraham’s descendants by faith.Preterists insist that an accurate reading of Matthew 16:28, where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” places His second coming in the first century AD. Meanwhile, the end of the world is yet to come.

The first real preterist explanation of prophecy was offered by a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest named Luis de Alcasarduring theCounter Reformation.[13]Moses Stuartnotes that Alcasar’s preterist interpretation—ironically enough—defended the Catholic Church’s eschatological views during its feud with Protestants.[14]What’s more, preterism has been aptly described as a Catholic defense against the Protestant Historicist view that was held by the Reformers in which they openly identified the Roman Catholic Church as being the Antichrist.[15]

 

  1. Historicism (Revelation is prophecy being fulfilled)

Revelation’s prophecies have been fulfilled throughout history and are still being fulfilled today.

|—Revelation———Prophecy Being Fulfilled——|

Since this interpretation has faded in popularity due to futurism’s rise to prominence, those familiar with futurism are surprised to learn that most of the classic commentaries from a century or so ago were written from at least a partial historicist viewpoint. According to historicists, Revelation is a kind of survey of church history—past, present and future—with historical events being symbolically portrayed throughout the text. Most of these events are prophetic predictions tied to Jesus’ Olivet Sermon that occurred just before or during the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. For the most part, its reasoned that the early believers understood John’s prophecy to be God’s direct response to the crucifixion of His Son by the keepers of the old covenant who were complicit in Jesus’ death. Thus, the Saviors’ crucifixion represents the “Great Divorce” that marked the ending of the “age of the law” under Israel’s watchful eye and it inaugurated the new “age of grace” overseen by the church that now includes Gentiles as well as Jews. (See the article above, “The End of the Age”). (Also, see article “Historical as Contrasted to Dispensational Premillennialism”below).

The challenge for historicists has been to align actual historic events from John’s era with the symbolic details in his biblical text. This requires a lot of speculation as well as flexibility to revise interpretations in light of ongoing events that may or may not shed light on previous knowledge. Thus, critics frequently point out that historicism hasn’t kept up with history, in that it doesn’t seem to recognize the more recent and significant developments in biblical prophecy or the Church itself in other parts of the world besides Europe and the West.

 

  1. Futurism (Revelation is prophecy to be fulfilled)

Revelation as almost totally future events.

|—Revelation————–Prophecy to be Fulfilled-|

   This view is the most popular in contemporary evangelical circles. Ironically, like Preterism, the futurist outlook originated with Francsco Ribeira, a Spanish Jesuit, as a means of refuting the more historically connected views of the Protestant reformers.

Many of today’s futurists are known as “Dispensationalists,”proscribing to a fairly recent theological system that’s only been around since about 1830. An Irish lawyer named J.N. Darby began teaching and preaching the idea of a “Secret Rapture” of Christians that he said is expected at Revelation 4:1. Anyone reading this passage quickly realizes that such an interpretation is unlikely, if not far-fetched. The verse neither states nor implies such a rapture. Darby taught that a uniquely expansive persecution of the church called the Great Tribulation, would follow then a thousand-year (millennium) or rule of Christ with His disciples. This rather creative interpretation of the Apocalypse was launched onto the evangelical scene with a certain flair by the publication of C.I. Schoefield’s Reference Bible in 1909.[16]

While Futurists consider themselves “more literal” in their approach to John’s words in Revelation and therefore more “biblical” in contrast to other historical ideas of interpretation, the truth is, dispensationalism is anything but literal in its final analysis of Scripture. Since they believe that few, if any, of the events predicted in chapters 4 to 22 have taken place, it’s easy to these prophecies and insisting they be taken literally but without much historical—or for that matter—rational support. After all, they haven’t happened. Yet such a “literal” interpretation here of what was obviously intended to be a highly symbolic presentation when it originated, ignores the style of writing God obviously inspired John to use. So, on the one hand, what appears to be literal really isn’t all that literal at all. In the end what was obviously intended to be taken symbolically by Revelation’s author is taken literally by dispensationalists and the two are not compliant. By means of disregarding the language that John used in order to convey His message, makes it easier to avoid explaining the various symbols. But it also makes it out of sync with what the author obviously intended. Thus, you get a system that has all sorts of answers but very little consensus as to what it’s all supposed to mean. It really leaves the reader far too reliant upon “self-proclaimed” experts who, themselves must realize they have no special claims of insight into Scripture. At least no more than others who don’t share their opinions. Despite its popularity, this is not a hermeneutically sound approach to biblical study or the evangelization of one’s knowledge. (See “Historical as Contrasted to Dispensational Premillennialism”article below).

 

  1. Symbolism (Revelation is prophecy)

Revelation as Idealistic Symbolism

|—Revelation————–??Prophecy??–?|

   This view sees the book of Revelation as neither a primarily historic document or future prophecy. Instead the book is viewed as timeless teachings of God’s truth to God’s people about the final matter of good and evil. This is done by way of metaphor, allegory, and/or narrative. Passages regarded as chronological events (such as the seals, trumpets and the emergence of a beast) by other interpretations are regarded as allegorical by Idealists, recurring realities in history all being part of God’s sovereign plan for humankind. While idealism, (Amillennialism), offers much more latitude with regards to one’s personal outlook on how the book of Revelation should be understood, it equally offers little in the way of real theological substance in the end.

 

  1. Historic as Contrasted to Dispensational

Premillennialism

Premillennialism is a viewpoint based on the idea that Jesus will literally return to the earth before (pre) the millennium mentioned in Revelation 20;1-7, begins and that will himself inaugurate and rule over it. Premillennialism is usually divided into two groups of (1) historic premillennialists and (2) dispensational premillennialists. The difference between the two is their respective emphasis to the nation of Israel during the millennium.
Historic premillennialism teaches that prophetic passages such as those in Daniel and Revelation, provide the history of the Church in symbolic form. Thus, they look into the Church’s prophetic past and present to find fulfillment in order to estimate where the world is in accordance with God’s prophetic timetable. Many within historic premillennialism believe that the nation of Israel will undergo a national salvation immediately before the millennium is established, but there will be no national restoration of the state of Israel. Thus, the nation of Israel will not necessarily have a special role or function that’s distinct from the Church.
Dispensational premillennialism, on the other hand, teaches that the second coming of Christ, and subsequent establishment of the millennial kingdom, is to be preceded by a seven-year-long period known as the “Great Tribulation,” the earthly activity of the Antichrist as well as the outpouring of God’s wrath on humankind. What’s more, dispensational premillennialists teach that the nation of Israel will be saved and restored to a place of preeminence in the millennium. Thus, Israel will have a special function of service in the millennium that is different from that of the Church.
Dispensational premillennialists also maintain that the millennium is a literal 1000-year period of time, whereas some historic premillennialists see it as figurative. It might be said that the fundamental difference between historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism is the latter’s insistence on maintaining a distinction between the nation of Israel and the Church. According to dispensationalism, the millennium will be a time in which God reverts back to fulfilling His Old Testament promises made to ethnic Israel. As such, the millennium will include Jewish dominion over the world, along with a restored Jewish temple and priesthood.
Meanwhile, Christians who reign with Christ will be given eternal, glorified bodies, and reign spiritually, while the Jews own the world physically, and will live, marry, and die, just as people have throughout history. It is only after this thousand-year period, in which God fulfills His promises to ethnic Israel, that Christ will put down a final rebellion and usher in the eternal state with its New Heaven and New Earth. Historic premillennialism, on the other hand, merely looks ahead to a time when Christ will reign visibly on the earth, before He brings in the eternal state.[17]

 

[1]Cf., Against Heresies 5.30.3.

[2]For Eusebius’ reference to Domitian as a second Nero see Ecclesiastical History 5.30.3.

[3]Burkett, Delbert (2000). An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity. Cambridge University Press. P.503f.

[4]The “great tribulation” referred to in 7:9-14 fits well the situation when Rome burned in AD 64 as mentioned in in 1 Clement 6:1 who describes “multitudes” of believers dying. Tacitus writes, “A vast multitude of Christians were not only put to death but put to death with insult. They were either clothed in the skins of wild beasts and then exposed in the arena to the attacks of half-famished dogs, or else dipped in tar and put on crosses to be set on fire, and, when the daylight failed, to be burned as lights by night” (Annals XV, 44)

[5]Ibid.

[6]The following is from a sermon by Kim Riddlebarger, “The Time is Near”http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/downloadable-sermons-on-the-bo/The% 20Time%20Is%20Near %201%20revised. Pdf. Notice, too, that this revelation of Jesus Christ concerns things which “must soon take place.” This assertion creates a serious problem for futurists since it means that what John is about to reveal will concern the entire church age-these are things which must soon take place-not just events located at the end of the church age as Bible prophecy pundits often insist. That John is speaking of the entire church age in the Book of Revelation is reinforced by several other important passages in the New Testament. For one thing, in the Pentecost sermon, Peter declares that the last days were already at hand just fifty days after Christ’s resurrection because of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2:17). The author of Hebrews likewise states that the coming of Christ means that Christians in the first century were already living in the last days (Hebrews 1:2). This means that the entire period of time between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ-” this present evil age,” as Paul puts it in Galatians 1:4-are also the “last days.”

[7]The verb translated “it is necessary” or “must” is an impersonal verb which indicates that a moral necessity is involved; the nature of the case is such that the things revealed here mustcome to pass shortly. The aorist tense of the infinitive “to come to pass” adds to the truth that immediate action is necessary. The prepositional phrase translated “shortly” means just what it says—shortly, quickly, hastily. Two or three thousand years will be too late. The things revealed here must happen shortly, or the cause will be lost—Domitian will stamp out Christianity completely. Any attempt to make this phrase mean no more than “certainty” fails to meet the situation which is confronted by the churches. They were in need of assurance of help in the immediate present—not in some millennium of the distant and uncertain future.

[8]Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible: New International Version(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011).

[9]The least that can be said is that the wording in Revelation refers to the immediate future. John probably views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long- awaited kingdom of the end times, which the OT (e.g., Daniel) had predicted and which will continue to exist throughout the church age. (Revelation 1:3 NIGTC: Revelation)

[10]A cursory review of Roman history beginning with the great fire in Rome of AD 64 followed by a near pogrom against Christians in the later spring or early summer of 65 along with plagues, hurricanes and political coups of the time seem to suggest that this is the correct placement for John’s authoring the Bible’s last book.

[11]See “The End of the Age” p.7

[12]Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation, Four Views: A Parallel Commentary(Nashville, Tenn.: T. Nelson Publishers, ©1997).

[13]Farrar, Frederic (1882), The Early Days of Christianity.

[14]Stuart, Moses (1845), A Commentary on The Apocalypse. P.464.

[15]Cf. Halley’s Bible Handbook.

[16]See the article “The History of Dispensationalism in America at the following link: http://founders.org/fj09/the-history-of-dispensationalism-in-america/

[17]GotQuestions.com, https://www.gotquestions.org/dispensational-premillennialism.html