When the Revelation Was Written

A Short-Standing Debate

The last century has seen the growth of a view among Christians that the Book of Revelation was written before the year AD 70. They believe the majority of the prophecies in the book are about the events leading to AD 70, and it can’t very well be that John predicted events after they happened. A fringe group among this crowd of Christians actually believes the entire Revelation — indeed, they believe all biblical prophecy — concludes with AD 70 and the destruction of Jerusalem. Using a handful of points, these groups of Christians believe the Revelation was written around AD 66-68.

In AD 70, Rome overpowered Jerusalem after a four-year war and destroyed its temple. AD 70 is the year of importance in this debate because it is the focal point of Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecy in Mark 13 (parallels in Matt 24, Luke 21), and the Revelation seems to overlap with Jesus’ prophecy.

Was the Revelation written before AD 70 and so predicted Jerusalem’s fall, or was the book written after AD 70 and Jerusalem’s fall informs the background of the book’s contents?

Inconclusive Information

The following is a set of facts that are typically pulled one way or the other by the two views, pre- and post-70. However, despite their usual presence in the discussion, these points really do not have much bearing on the book’s date.

Rev 1.7 says ‘the tribes of the earth will mourn’. Some pre-70 proponents claim the verse should be translated as ‘the tribes of the land’, meaning the twelve tribes in the land of Israel, and so they assert the verse gives us the ‘thematic focus’ of the book, namely, the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.1 We don’t find the particular phrase again in the book, and while the word ‘tribe’ is used throughout the book, only about half of those refer to the Israelite tribes, while the other half refers to any group of people living in the known world. The verse does not give enough information to affect the book’s date.

Rev 1.11 and Rev 2.8-11 mention the church in Smyrna. Pre-70 proponents argue the church in Smyrna was established in AD 64, but this is not known with any degree of certainty, and seems to come wholly from inference based on Acts 19.10,26. Ignatius of Antioch addressed a letter to the church in Smyrna circa 105 AD, with the implication that it had existed for perhaps a decade or more. The presence of a Smyrnaean church in the Revelation cannot be used to date the book.

Rev 3.17 mentions the wealth of the Asian city Laodicea. Laodicea was hit by an earthquake in AD 60, but the city was so wealthy it declined Imperial aid in reconstruction. Some argue the book must have been written when the earthquake was a distant memory or else it would be mentioned in relation to Laodicea’s wealth. It could instead just be that the earthquake was not of importance to the author.

Rev 11.1-3 mentions the ‘temple of God’. Proponents of pre-70 argue this refers to Jerusalem’s temple, and that it had not been destroyed yet when the Revelation was written. Proponents of post-70 argue that Rev 11 follows a symbolic pattern established in Ezek 40-48 and Zech 1-2, both having to do with the temple being rebuilt, suggesting Jerusalem’s temple has already been destroyed and that John anticipates another one. However, Rev 3.12 has already identified the Christian community as the building components of God’s temple, and the dense symbolism of the passage may not be referencing a literal temple at all.

Rev 13.16-18 identifies Nero Caesar by name via gematria. This practice of translating a person’s name into the sum of the numeric value of its letter had been around for a long time. Identifying Nero by name (via the Hebrew number of his name) only means the book could not have come before his time; it does not determine the latest the book could have been written.

John wrote the Revelation in Greek, but at a few points he provides Hebrew proper nouns, which he then translates into Greek (e.g. Rev 9.11). He also indicates his audience had a close relationship to the synagogues. This suggests the Revelation’s seven churches were bilingual, comprised mostly of Greek-speakers and a few Hebrew-speakers. This sets the book almost anytime after the Asian region established a Christian base.

The Shepherd of Hermas, another apocalyptic Christian text, is believed to have borrowed from the Revelation, particularly chapters 9, 13, and 17. While pre-70 proponents date Hermas to about AD 85, thus requiring the Revelation to come from AD 70 to come earlier than that, virtually no scholar agrees with this dating of Hermas.2 Hermas is usually dated to the first half of the second century.

Information Supporting a Date

The pre-70 view claims that the Revelation is entirely concerned with the fall of Jerusalem. It follows, then, that the book should address circumstances of that time and place. Instead, the information we find consistently points to a post-70 world, with the book explicitly addressed to an Asian audience, not Judean.

The Four Villains of the Book

A necessary point to begin with is information found in Rev 2.13-14,20, where John identifies the four main antagonists of the Asian churches: the satan, the royal Balak, the false prophet Balaam, and the royal ‘prostitute’ Jezebel.3 The ‘false prophet’ Balaam and the ‘prostitute’ Jezebel are each said to enforce idolatry. ‘Balak’, ‘Balaam’, and ‘Jezebel’ are obviously ciphers, since the names come from the Hebrew scriptures.

What is not often noticed is that these four antagonists of the Asian churches are given fuller form in Rev 12-20, in the symbols of the dragon, the royal first beast, the false prophet second beast, and the royal ‘prostitute’ Babylon. These are not two sets of different villains in the book, but two ways of referring to the same villains: the satan is the dragon, Balak is the first beast, Balaam is the second beast, and Jezebel is Babylon.

The Royal First Beast

The first ‘beast’ has an existing presence in Judean literature prior to the Revelation. Dan 7 contains a symbolic vision of four ‘beasts’, with each one representing a different kingdom of the world.

As for these four great beasts, four kingdoms shall arise out of the earth. [...] As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth that shall be different from all the other kingdoms
Dan 7.17,23

The Book of Daniel actually names these four kingdoms by name,4 but by the end of the first century Judeans of various theological backgrounds were interpreting the fourth of these beasts as a symbol for the Roman Empire (e.g. 4 Ezra 12.11-15; Josephus’ Judean Antiquities 10.10). The Revelation does not mention Daniel by name as these do, but John does present his first beast as an amalgam of all four beasts from Dan 7. Because of the view of John’s peers, it is a safe assumption that he too is thinking of the Roman Empire when he writes of this beast. Identifying the first beast of the Revelation as symbolizing the Roman Empire does not automatically determine the book’s date, but it enables us to accurately interpret more information that does.

The False Prophet Second Beast

Rev 1-3 suggests violent persecution is imminent for the Asian churches, but has only just begun; the death of but one person is noteworthy (Rev 2.13). Later portions of the book, especially Rev 13, associate this imminent persecution with idolatry by the two beasts. Persecution prior to AD 70 was sporadic, isolated, and ‘unofficial’. While proponents of pre-70 point to a couple of passages in Acts to implicate ‘the Jews’ as a monolithic entity that was constantly persecuting Christians from the time of Jesus all the way to the fall of Jerusalem,5 the book does not depict any such situation. The most violent persecution of Christians prior to AD 70 as best we can tell was restricted to Rome under the direction of Nero, far removed from Asia (or even Judea). Persecution of Asian Christians at the direction of the Roman Empire doesn’t begin until the end of the first century. Pliny’s letter to Trajan, written about that time, describes how Christians were forced into worship of the state gods:

I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. [...] Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshiped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed the Christ.

Rev 4.11 uses the phrase ‘our Lord and God’ in praise of God. The post-70 majority argues this phrasing alludes to Emperor Domitian. The emperor cult became hugely important in Asia under Domitian,6 beginning with a temple built in Ephesus at his order.7 Multiple ancient sources state that Domitian was addressed as ‘our lord and god’,8 so John’s application of this phrase to Israel’s God acts to subvert the claims of the imperial cult.9

The meaning of the royal ‘Balak’ and false prophet ‘Balaam’ as a threat to the Asian churches (Rev 2.13-14) becomes obvious when read under the light of the royal beast and the false prophet beast, respectively symbolizing the Roman Empire and the imperial cult. (This identification may be furthered hinted at the origins of the two beasts; the royal beast comes from the sea, i.e. the Roman Empire crossing the Mediterranean, while the false prophet beast rises from the earth itself, i.e. the imperial cult’s presence in Asia.) This historical context for the book has almost no relation to Asia (or Judea) in the late-60s, but snaps right into place with Asia of the early- to mid-90s.


Rev 14.8 and Rev 16-19 identify one of the chief antagonists of the book as ‘Babylon’, the ‘prostitute’ which is the ‘great city’ that ‘rules over the kings of the earth’.

Proponents of pre-70 argue that ‘Babylon’ must be Jerusalem, so that the destruction of ‘Babylon’, of primary focus in Rev 17-18, is the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.10 However, no other ancient text identifies Jerusalem as ‘Babylon’.

Instead, several texts contemporary to the Revelation identify Rome as ‘Babylon’. This use of ‘Babylon’ as a cipher for Rome only emerged because Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, which the historical Babylon had done more than six centuries earlier. The reference to ‘Babylon’ in Rev 17.9,18 as the ‘great city’ which sits on ‘seven hills’ was never an identification for ancient Jerusalem, but it was (and still is) a common description of Rome. Rev 17’s depiction of ‘Babylon’ as a prostitute sitting on seven hills is a smear on the depiction of Rome as a goddess sitting on seven hills, which appears on Roman coins minted post-70.

The compact condemnations in Rev 14.8-12 also imply Babylon’s complicity in the idolatry of the imperial cult. As with ‘Balak’ and ‘Balaam’, this shows the relevance of Babylon to the Asian churches; she is ‘Jezebel’, the force that is ultimately responsible for the idolatry the Asian Christians are being forced to participate in. The presence of the imperial cult’s idolatry in Asia came at the behest of Rome.


Rev 13.16-18 identifies the ‘mark of the beast’ as the name of a man, or the number of the man’s name. This is a clear example of isopsephy or gematria. When ‘Nero Caesar’ is run through the Hebrew alphabet, the numeric value of his name equals six-hundred sixty six. This makes Nero a component of the beast’s identity, but that alone is not evidence of the book’s date. What does point that direction is the way elements of the Nero Redivivus legend show up throughout the book.

This legend emerged only after AD 69, when a few imposters claimed to be Nero, and became widespread in the final decade of the first century. According to the legend, Nero hadn’t actually died but escaped over the Euphrates (or he had died but would one day return to life), and would bring armies from the east back to Rome to conquer or destroy it. The legend can be found in the Sibylline Oracles multiple times:

A mighty king shall flee over the Euphrates’ stream like a runaway slave [...] And then strife awakened of war shall come to the West, and the fugitive of Rome shall also come, bearing a great spear, having marched across the Euphrates with his many myriads.
Sibylline Oracles 4.155-180
the destructive man shall also vanish out of sight. Then, making himself equal to God, he shall return, but God will prove him to be nothing.
Sibylline Oracles 5.46-90
When one from Italy shall smite the neck of the isthmus, mighty king of mighty Rome [...] From Babylon shall flee the fearful lord [...] And he shall come to kings of the Medes and Persians
Sibylline Oracles 5.188-200
And from the limits of the earth a matricidal man shall come, fleeing and pondering sharp things in his mind, and who shall overpower every land, and shall rule over all things, and shall see all things more wisely than all men, and he shall seize immediately that for which sake he himself was slain.
Sibylline Oracles 5.488-493

Rev 17.10 identifies the beast’s seven heads as symbols for seven of Rome’s emperors, and 13.3,12,14 state that one of the beast’s seven heads was ‘fatally wounded’ from a sword (Nero’s death), but was healed (Nero’s revival, or Vespasian rescuing the empire from collapse after Nero’s death). Armies from beyond the Euphrates are seen in Rev 9.15-21, and again in Rev 16.12-16, where they are summoned by ‘the beast’. At the least, John treats Nero as emblematic of the Roman Empire’s viciousness toward Christians. Whether he believed Nero would literally return or if he was merely playing off the legend’s popularity is irrelevant; the point is that John portrays the ‘beast’ seen in Nero as coming upon the Christians of Asia in a time long after Nero’s death.


The most significant pieces of the Revelation that can be used to date the book most naturally find their home in a late first century context, especially with relevance to Asian Christians: identification of Daniel’s fourth beast with the Roman Empire, the imperial cult’s prominence in the cities of the seven churches, identification of Roman emperors through gematria or isopsephy, identifying Rome as ‘Babylon’, yet-to-emerge systematic persecution of Christians, Nero Redivivus. Based on this review of the evidence, the Revelation was most likely written between AD 90 and 95, though this does not rule out the author’s reflection upon AD 70 as a past event (as was the case with 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and the Sibylline Oracles).


1 Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, 121ff; Chilton, Days of Vengeance, 38-39.

2 Dating the Shepherd of Hermas to AD 85 started with John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament. Most of Robinson’s dates are rejected, if at least because of his severely flawed methodology.

3 cf. 2 Kings 9.22, in which the historical Jezebel is accused of ‘prostitution’. Texts in the Hebrew bible occasionally describe idolatry with metaphors of ‘sexual immorality’.

4 Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece; cf. Daniel 7.1, 8.20-21, 10.13,20.

5 Chilton, Days of Vengeance, 54, 139, 173. The anti-Semitic undertones of Chilton’s view become more resolute as his commentary continues, e.g. ‘We have already noted the Satanic character of Judaism’ (109). He even claims multiple times that ‘the Jews’ caused Nero to persecute Christians, something for which there is no historical evidence.

6 Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, 9.

7 Friesen, Twice Neokoros, 49; Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 27.

8 Cassius Dio, Roman History 67.4.7, 67.13.4; Dio Chrysostom, Discourse 45.1; Martial, Epigrams 5.8.1, 7.34.8, 9.66.3; Suetonius, Domitian 13.2.

9 Floyd Parker, ‘‘Our Lord and Our God’ in Rev 4,11: Evidence for the Late Date of Revelation?’, argues that John’s phrasing (our Lord and God) naturally grew out of vaguely similar phrases found in Psa 34.23 (my God and my Lord), Dan 2.47 (God of gods and Lord of kings), Tobit 13.4 (he is our Lord and he is our God and he is our Father), Judith 5.21 (their Lord and their God), 7.28 (our God and the Lord of our fathers), and Sirach 23.4 (Lord, Father, and God). The basis of the argument is the mere presence of the words ‘lord’ and ‘god’, not their order, nor their context. The connection to Domitian is stronger because it is the same phrase, from the same time period, from the same part of the world, and John elsewhere demonstrates his subversion of Rome.

10 Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell 240-241 fn26; Chilton, Days of Vengeance 149, 173-174; Beale, The Book of Revelation 44.