11.3.2. External Evidence for an Early Date

We now turn to the external evidence for an early date. This evidence tends to be less subjective and therefore more significant than the internal evidence.

Johnson cites several early documents which suggest that Paul borrowed from the pattern of the seven letters in the book of Revelation in writing his epistles: “Some external evidence for the early date exists in the Muratorian Fragment (170-190) and the Monarchian Prologues (250-350). These documents claim that Paul wrote to seven churches following the pattern of John’s example in Revelation. But this would date the book before the Pauline Epistles!”1 This is not very strong evidence because it really is just an early form of the sort of arguments which characterize textual criticism (internal evidence). As we have mentioned, similarity does not prove identity.2

It has also been held that Papias indicates, in relation to Jesus’ prophecy of Mark Mark 10:39, that John was martyred contemporaneously with his brother James. Since James was martyred in A.D. 63, this would make a late date for the book of Revelation impossible.3 Papias’ statement is preserved in the writings of “George the Sinner” of the 9th century:

After Domitian, Nerva reigned one year. He re-called John from the island and allowed him to live in Ephesus. At that time he was the sole survivor of the twelve disciples, and after writing the Gospel that bears his name was honored with martyrdom. For Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, who had seen him with his own eyes, claims in the second book of the Sayings of the Lord that he was killed by the Jews, thus clearly fulfilling, together with his brother, Christ’s prophecy concerning them and their own confession and agreement about this.—George the Sinner (9th century), Chronicle4

Papias’ statement simply says that like James, John was “killed by the Jews.” It does not necessarily follow that they perished at the same time. It appears that George the Sinner understood John’s martyrdom to have been after his return from Patmos at the conclusion of Domitian’s reign. Thus the statement of Papias does not necessitate an early date for John’s death. Moreover, church tradition relates that although John came to Ephesus in A.D. 66,5 he survived at least until the time of Trajan (A.D. 98 - 117).6

The major external evidence offered by early date advocate Gentry involves a forced and unconvincing reinterpretation of a key late-date testimony. This in itself is an indication of the dearth of external evidence for an early date. The controversy surrounds the interpretation of an important statement made by Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180):

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.7

Schaff comments on the statement of Irenaeus: “The traditional date of composition at the end of Domitian’s reign (95 or 96) rests on the clear and weighty testimony of Irenaeus, is confirmed by Eusebius and Jerome, and has still its learned defenders. . .”8 Even though Schaff’s own views concerning the date differed from the “learned defenders” he mentions, 9 it is clear that he understands the statement of Irenaeus in its straightforward sense. Irenaeus is stating that it was the apocalyptic vision which was seen toward the end of Domitian’s reign.

Early date advocates, such as Gentry, attempt to obscure the plain statement of Irenaeus by casting a shadow over its interpretation:

The most serious potential objection to the common translation has to do with the understanding of ἐωράθη [eōrathē] , “was seen.” What is the subject of this verb? Is it “him who saw the Apocalypse” (i.e., John) or “the Apocalypse”? What of these two antecedents “was seen” “almost” in Irenaeus’s time and near “the end of the reign of Domitian”?10

Gentry wants to insert doubt where none exists in order to perform his preterist ‘sleight of hand.’ He reverses the plain sense of the text, having us understand that it was John which was seen towards the end of Domitian’s reign, not the apocalyptic vision. Gentry goes to great lengths in his attempt to undermine the obvious reading of Irenaeus. If he is not successful at this, he suggests that the Latin translation is in error. And if that doesn’t persuade the reader, he spends several more pages convincing the reader that Irenaeus isn’t a reliable witness anyhow: “If Irenaeus’s famous statement is not to be re-interpreted along the lines of the argument as outlined above . . . it may still be removed as a hindrance to early date advocacy on [other] grounds.”11 Hitchcock counters Gentry’s attempt at reinterpreting Irenaeus:

There are four simple points that render Gentry’s position highly suspect. First, the nearest antecedent to the verb “it was seen” is “the apocalypse” . . . David Aune observes, “Further the passive verb eorathe, ‘he/she/it was seen,’ does not appear to be the most appropriate way to describe the length of a person’s life. . .” Second the verb “was seen” fits perfectly the noun apokalupsis. . . Third, if John were the intended subject . . . Irenaeus . . . would have surely said that John lived into the reign of Trajan, a fact that Irenaeus knew well. Fourth, the vast majority of scholars . . . have accepted the fact that this statement refers to the time the Apocalypse was seen.12

It should also be recognized where early-date advocate Gentry is eventually headed with his argument: an identification of Nero as the Beast of Revelation. He conveniently omits the statements of Irenaeus immediately following those in question which clearly indicate that Irenaeus had no such notion of Nero as the Beast:

But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the rest, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance, in which kingdom the Lord declared, that “many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”13

A few commentators have suggested that “it was seen” should be translated “he [John] was seen,” so that the phrase does not mean the Apocalypse was written during Domitian’s time but only that John was seen during Domitian’s time. But “the Apocalypse” is the closest antecedent, and the Latin translation of Irenaeus supports this understanding of the clause. The majority of patristic writers and subsequent commentators up to the present understand Irenaeus’s words as referring to the time when the Apocalypse “was seen.” In the same context, Irenaeus discusses various possible identifications for the number of the “beast” (666). But he does not entertain the possibility that the beast is to be identified with Nero, and he even rejects the possibility that the beast is to be identified with any Roman emperor at all. [emphasis added]14

Here is a man writing approximately 110 years after the death of Nero and infinitely closer than us to the culture and events of that time who understands the Beast of Revelation to be yet future. No wonder Gentry fails to mention this, because the full context of Irenaeus’ statement undermines the main thesis of the preterists! Irenaeus understands the Beast to be a future world figure who will reign for a literal three and one-half years (Rev. Rev. 11:2+; Rev. 13:5+) and be destroyed at the Second Coming of Christ ushering in the Messianic Kingdom (predicted by the OT) upon the earth. Gentry is trying to bend the simple statement of an early church futurist to serve the modern-day preterist agenda.

Notes

1 Alan F. Johnson, Revelation: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1966), 10.

2 How much better to understand the parallel between Paul’s church epistles and the seven letters of Revelation as evidence of common authorship by the Holy Spirit.

3 “Thus it is obvious that James died in the year A.D. 63, for that is the date on the ossuary lid. Which brings us to the very date that Josephus, the great first century historian, said of James, one of the first early church leaders, who was martyred for his faith in A.D. 63. It also agrees with Dr. Luke, author of the book of Acts that describes the scene in Acts Acts 12:2.”—LaHaye, “Newsletter,” in Thomas Ice, ed., Pre-Trib Perspectives (Dallas, TX: Pre-Trib Research Center, January 2003), 2.

4 J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 318.

5 “Tradition claims that John had come to Ephesus in A.D. 66. That meant he had been there for nearly thirty years. . . . By A.D. 95, he was an old man—probably in his eighties.”—Edward Hindson, Revelation: Unlocking the Future (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), 20.

6 “Irenaeus and others record that John, the theologian and apostle, survived until the time of Trajan [A.D. 98-117].—Eusebius, Chronicle”—Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 313.

7 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997), s.v. “ECF 1.1.7.1.5.31.”

8 Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997, 1916), 1.XII.101.

9 Schaff goes on to state that the internal evidence favors an earlier date,“The internal evidence strongly favors an earlier date between the death of Nero (June 9, 68) and the destruction of Jerusalem (August 10, 70).”—Ibid., but as we have pointed out, external evidence should take precedence over internal evidence which is subject to greater interpretive bias.

10 Kenneth L. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1998), 48-49.

11 Ibid., 61.

12 Mark Hitchcock, “The Stake in the Heart—The A.D. 95 Date of Revelation,” in Tim LaHaye and Thomas Ice, eds., The End Times Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2003), 128-129.

13 Roberts, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I, s.v. “ECF 1.1.7.1.5.31.”

14 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 20.