Section 2: External Evidence
Chapter 3: Introduction to the External Evidence
Gentry opens the chapter by admitting that many late-date advocates place great stress upon the external evidence, especially the tradition stemming from Irenaeus. Yet, in true debate form, Gentry opens with the arguments from external evidence, which he considers to be weaker than the internal evidence.
The first external matter concerns the date of John's banishment and exile to Patmos. A few scholars reject entirely that John was banished, arguing from the interpretation of certain meanings of Greek words in Rev. 1:9. However, Gentry doesn't interact very much with this view, dismissing it with a few considerations:
Despite such vigorous protestations against the notion of a banishment, the fact of John’s banishment seems indisputably clear to the candid mind. In Revelation 1:9 John speaks of his being in “the tribulation” [Gk. phrase] with the saints; and the traumatic content of much of his book would support this conclusion. In addition, it is difficult to conceive of the [Gk. word] being applied to a future purpose, i.e. that John went there with the view to preaching the Gospel. Then, too, we must ask why he chose the barren, virtually deserted island of Patmos to do so? Furthermore, despite disagreements as to the tine of John’s banishment, there is virtual harmony in antiquity as to the fact of his banishment. (42)
Gentry then argues that many late date advocates provide little internal evidence to use in positively affirming a late date, although they employ internal evidence to critique early date arguments. Instead, "the external evidence is quite important to late date advocacy. The authorities invariably cited by these scholars, and virtually all late date advocates, are: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Victorious, Eusebius, and Jerome" (43).
Gentry's main focus in the arguments regarding external evidence is the tradition from Irenaeus and from Clement, but he also deals with the positive evidence in favor of a Neronic banishment (i.e. pre-A.D. 70) and the inconclusiveness of late date external evidence.
Chapter 4: Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons
Irenaeus's life spanned from A.D. 130-202 and he wrote his comments concerning the dating of Revelation between A.D. 180-190. The obvious significance of the evidence is that it is less than a century following the date in question. Gentry cites several other reasons why Irenaeus is important, including his claim to have personally known Polycarp, who in turn is considered to have personally known John the Apostle.
The text in question comes from book five of Irenaeus's work, Against Heresy. Gentry provides the original Greek and provides the translation in its general context:
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. (46-47)
The key interpretive question the Gentry wants to raise and expose is the indicative pronoun translated "that was seen." Gentry acknowledges that the first two critical questions regarding any examination of textual evidence is the integrity of the text itself and the accuracy of the translation. No arguments against the textual integrity are waged, but Gentry gives detailed consideration to the accuracy of translation.
Gentry notes that the majority of scholars do not consider the translation a problem, although he cites several scholars who question it. Gentry engages with three aspects of the translation:
1. The referent of the word translated, "was seen."
2. The significance of the time reference: "no long time ago was it seen, but almost in our own time."
3. "The overall internal confusion in Irenaeus suggested by the incompatibility of Irenaeus’s statements on Revelation" (48).
The first question is the most important, for if the referent is "the Apocalypse," as has been traditionally understood, the early date argument suffers considerably in terms of external evidence, but if the referent is to "him who saw" (i.e. John the Apostle), then the statement does not demand a late date for the Apocalypse itself, since the author could have easily outlived the writing of the book and thus been seen at a later date than when it was written. Gentry carefully considers the grammatical arguments of several scholars, which I will not reproduce here (primarily due to my lack of a Greek font). The context as well as the usage common to Irenaeus is consistent with the view that John is the correct referent. Irenaeus's comments seem to be indicating the continuity of the Church through the relative closeness the people in his present generation have to the apostles of the previous one.
Gentry continues by noting that the grammatical context and consistency with other forms of expression used by Irenaeus has not convinced everyone, including some early-date advocates. Gentry addresses the three major objections to the reinterpretations and offers rebuttals.
1. One scholar, Stuart, argues that the consensus of the early church fathers concerning the Apocalypse is consistent with the common interpretation of Irenaeus. Gentry's rebuttal:
First, regarding Stuart’s statement that the early fathers seemed to have understood him in terms of the common interpretation, it should be noted that although many ancient fathers employed Irenaeus with high regard, they do not seem to have regarded him as a final authority. For instance, contrary to Irenaeus, Tertullian placed John’s banishment after his being dipped in a cauldron of burning oil, which Jerome says was in Nero’s reign. Photus preserved extracts of “Life of Timotheus” in which he states that John’s banishment was under Nero. Others who record a pre-Domitianic date for John’s banishment include: Epiphanies (
Heresies 51:12, 33), Arethas (Revelation 7:1-8), the Syriac versions of Revelation, History of John, the Son of Zebedee, and Theophylact (John). Though Eusebius quotes Irenaeus as proof of the date to which John lived (i.e., into the reign of Trajan), he disagrees with Irenaeus as to the Johannine authorship of Revelation. (54)
2. The Latin translation of Irenaeus stands against it by its use of visum (which better suggests a thing, such as a book), instead of visa (which is more suggestive of a person). Gentry's rebuttal is to question the integrity of the Latin translation of the original (and non-extant) Greek text of Irenaeus. He quotes several scholars who argue that the quality of the Latin translation is poor, that Irenaeus's Greek was difficult to translate, and the possibility of the Latin text being corrupt on the matter. Gentry's argument one this point has significant scholarly support, but I do not have the knowledge of Greek, Latin, or general translation to approve or disapprove it on my own merit. The argument is certainly plausible.
3. If Irenaeus is to be re-interpreted along the lines of these previous two rebuttals then there would seem to be some confusion in Irenaeus’s record. Specifically, "the third problem with the re-interpretation of Irenaeus is explaining how Irenaeus could speak of those who saw John toward the latter end of Domitian’s reign in light of the fact that he also tells us John lived into Trajan’s reign" (56). To this objection Gentry replies that the end of Domitian's reign (A.D. 96) and the beginning of Trajan's reign (A.D. 98) is separated by only two years, and that the text (per re-interpretation) does not indicate that John died in Domitian's reign, but that he was seen in Domitian's reign. Gentry then cites a scholar who argues that it is feasible that John withdrew from public life during the reign of Trajan, such that he was only actively seen by the Christians at Ephesus as far back as Domitian.
The second major heading considering the arguments regarding Irenaeus is the significance of the time reference. There is too much Greek and a lengthy quotation from Chase (whom Gentry also relies upon heavily in the argument above just covered) for me to reproduce here, but the significant argument of Gentry shall be provided verbatim: "Not only does the contextual emphasis on personal contact with and knowledge of John provide a clue to the referent of [Greek word for "was seen"], but also the phraseology as to when “John” or “it” was seen" (57). A secondary, and perhaps as strong, argument is that it is difficult to reconcile the referent being "the Apocalypse" with Irenaeus's generation. The vision itself could not have been seen in the generation of Irenaeus unless the term "generation" is taken loosely, since Irenaeus was not even born until at least 25 years after the death of Domitian.
The third major argument concerning Irenaeus is the apparent incompatibility of several of his statements regarding Revelation. The difficulty is that Irenaeus speaks about the reliability of "the ancient copies of Revelation." The word ancient in reference to copies of the book would seem to indicate that its original composition was rather early (taking a common sense interpretation of the word "ancient"). It becomes especially odd for Irenaeus to consider the copies ancient if the original vision was supposed to have occurred toward the end of Domitian's reign, only a century before the time when Irenaeus was writing. If the meaning of "ancient" is consistent with its common understanding (again, there may be some argument to be made from the original language in which Irenaeus wrote) then it would seem untenable that the composition of Revelation was late, while its copies were also ancient.
Next, Gentry argues for further inconsistency in Irenaeus on the basis of other historical inaccuracies in his writings, as well as historical inaccuracies appearing in other early church fathers. The more of these historical errors that appear, the less reliable are their sources in dating the book of Revelation. If one is unwilling to accept the re-interpretation of Irenaeus that Gentry offers and argues for, then one may see the unreliability of Irenaeus in terms of other historical inaccuracies he makes. Gentry cites several scholars who speak to the unreliability of Ireneaus on matters of history in general as well as in the dating of Revelation in particular.
Irenaeus's relationship to Polycarp is next in line of arguments regarding Irenaeus. Irenaeus admits to have met Polycarp during his own childhood, and did not record anything of their conversation. His memories of the meeting are written much later in Against Heresies. From these two observations Gentry seeks to undermine the reliability of Irenaeus's memory and maturity at the time of the meeting.
Gentry also notes that not all of the early church fathers agreed with Irenaeus, although he only cites two examples from Eusebius to support his claim (neither of which are the date of Revelation). He then cites an example of historical inaccuracy in Irenaeus--his false belief about the age of Jesus at his death and the length of his ministry. Finally, Gentry repeats that the external evidence is the strongest argument for the late date advocates, and that the tradition of the church fathers follows uncritically from Irenaeus, such that any error he made was repeated in later uses of his writings by others (e.g. Eusebius and Jerome).
Gentry finishes his rather extensive treatment of Irenaeus with three alternative possibilities for understanding his statements regarding Revelation:
In closing it should be noted that there are several other possible reasons for Irenaeus’s error, if it be such. (1) Irenaeus could have had information that related to Domitian’s brief reign for Vespasian in A.D. 70 when he had “full consular authority — imperio consulari.“ Tacitus states in his Histories that before Vespasian came to Rome to assume power “Caesar Domitian received the praetorship. His name was prefixed to epistles and edicts.” Irenaeus could have confounded this evidence with Domitian’s later reign as emperor. (2) John could have suffered twice, under both Nero and Domitian. This certainly could account for Irenaeus’s confusion. (3) Also it should be remembered that Irenaeus was at Lyons when he wrote – quite far away from ecclesiastical tradition. (66-67)
Chapter 5: Clement of Alexandria
Gentry jumps right into the discussion of Clement, quoting the phrase in his works that pertains to the date of Revelation:
The statement from Clement that is deemed useful is found in
his Quis Saluus Diues (i.e., Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved?), Section 42.
And to give you confidence, when you have thus truly repented, that there remains for you a trustworthy hope of salvation, hear a story that is no mere story, but a true account of John the apostle that has been handed down and preserved in memory. When after the death of the tyrant he removed from the island of Patmos to Ephesus, he used to journey by request to the neighboring districts of the Gentiles, in some places to appoint bishops, in others to regulate whole churches, in others to set among the clergy some one man, it may be, of those indicated by the Spirit. (68)
Gentry notes that the important phrase is "after the death of the tyranny he removed from the island of Patmos to Ephesus." The key question is the identification of the tyrant to whom Clement refers. The reference does not directly mention any emperor by name, but Gentry believes Nero is the best candidate, for the reasons that follow.
First, Gentry argues that the fear of Nero was universally recognized. He cites Pliny the elder, a contemporary of Nero, who calls Nero "the destroyers of the human race" and "the poison of the world." Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st century figure, claims that Nero was frequently referred to as a tyrant. Several first to second century figures mention Nero's cruelty and tyranny, including Tacitus, Suetonius, and Juvenal. Even in the Syriac The History of John the Son of Zebedee Nero is referred to as "the unclean and impure and wicked king." Gentry also cites several contemporaries of Nero who thought him to be responsible for the fires that burned down a great part of Rome (which Nero blamed upon Christians). Gentry then proceeds to cite several modern biblical scholars and historians who comment on the tyrannical nature of Nero.
Second, Gentry argues from the Nero redivivus myth: the fear that Nero would return to power after his death. These rumors began circulating after the death of Nero and led many people during the time into fear. Gentry notes that the rumor is recorded in several ancient authors, including Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Zonara, Dio Chrysostom, Augustine, and others. The Sibylline Oracles frequently refer to Nero as a constant threat to the world. Gentry cites the evidence from these oracles extensively.
Third, Nero was the first emperor to enact serious persecution upon Christians. Tacitus especially records Nero's cruel persecution of Christians. Clement of Rome (1st century) claims that Nero persecuted a great number of the elect. The second century pseudopigrapha work Ascension of Isaiah refers to Nero's persecuting, and Tertullian and Eusebius both comment record bitter words for Nero's persecution of Christians. Lactantius (3rd century) records Nero's death after his persecution led to the death of the apostles Peter and Paul. Sulpicius Severus (4th and 5th century) also speaks of Nero's persecutions and labels him as the initiator of Roman cruelty toward Christians. Gentry quotes several times from the apocryphal Acts of John the Son of Zebedee regarding the scope and intensity of Nero's persecution and the fear it struck in Christians during his reign.
Fourth, Gentry argues that the persecutions under Domitian were much less severe than those under Nero, even though he admits that they were certainly a "tyrannical outburst." He cites several scholars of differing positions to the same effect. Juvenal, Martial, and Tertullian all speak of Domitian's persecution in terms of Nero, indicating the primacy of Nero's example and his prominence as a persecutor of Christians. Tertullian (a near contemporary of Clement of Alexandria) is especially critical of Nero, although less so of Domitian. A pertinent quote from Tertullian:
For whoever knoweth him, can understand that nothing save some great good was condemned by Nero. Domitian too, who was somewhat of a Nero in cruelty, had tried it, but forasmuch as he was also a human being, he speedily stopped the undertaking, even restoring those whom he had banished. (82)
In addition to these arguments reading Clement of Alexandria's reference to "the tyrant" as Nero, Gentry argues that the surrounding context of the quote does not support a Domitian referent. The point deserves to be made in full, so I will simply quote Gentry directly:
The context following the critical statement cited above is more easily believable if John were about twenty-five years younger than the age required in the late date view. In connection with his returning from banishment under the “tyrant,” Clement informs us of John’s activities — activities incredible if by a nonagenarian, or possibly even a centenarian. Let us cite the passage again: “When after the death of the tyrant he removed from the island of Patmos to Ephesus, he used to journey by request to the neighboring districts of the Gentiles, in some places to appoint bishops, in others to regulate whole churches, in others to set among the clergy some
one man, it may be, of those indicated by the Spirit.”
In illustration of his activities, Clement immediately adds to the account a story in which John, disturbed by a young church leader’s forsaking of the faith, chased him on horseback “with all his might.” Clement records the matter thus: “but when he recognised John as he advanced, he turned, ashamed, to flight. The other followed with all his might, forgetting his age, crying, ‘Why, my son, dost thou flee from me, thy father, unarmed, old? Son pity me.’“ All of this is quite strenuous missionary activity for a man in his 90s! (83)
Gentry compares the age of John at ninety to the comparative statement of Paul, who at a much younger age called himself "the aged" in Phil. 9. The point is obviously that if the account of John provided by Clement of Alexandria is true, then it is difficult to believe it occurred in the reign of Domitian rather than Nero, when John was still young enough to be as active as the account indicates.
Gentry final argument from Clement of Alexandria is also strong, for it shows that Clement acknowledged two key factors: first, that John was indeed the author of Revelation, and two, the all biblical revelation was complete during the reign of Nero. The following includes the direct quotation:
In Book 7 of this work Clement deals with the perversion of truth by heretics he calls “Mystagogues of the souls of the impious. ” Their error is: “They do not make a right but a perverse use of the divine words. ” He then states that apostolic revelation has ceased: “For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, end with Nero." (85)
Gentry concludes with a summary of the evidence from Clement in three points: (1) the reference itself is vague and does not give a direct indication, (2) for it to refer to Domitian would require the incredible belief that John was riding a horse at full gallop at the age of ninety, and (3) a Domitian referent would contradict Clement's assertion that all revelation ceased under the reign of Nero.
Chapter 6: Additional External Witnesses
Gentry uses several other external witnesses in defense of the early date of Revelation. Since this post is already long and has dealt with the most important late date evidence, only a few brief comments will be made.
The Shepherd of Hermas - Although the dating of this work is uncertain, Gentry expends several pages arguing for an early date for the work (A.D. early 80s). If it is indeed early, Gentry use of it becomes pertinent, for Revelation is frequently quoted and used by the author. If Gentry's arguments are correct, the Shepherd of Hermas supports an early date for Revelation, since it uses it before the reign of Domitian and the date (A.D. 95) supposed by conservative late date advocates.
Papias of Hierapolis - Papias is said to have been a disciple of John the Apostle and a friend of Polycarp (another of John's disciples). None of his works are extant, such that only Eusebius and a few other church fathers supply a record of his works for us today. The quote attributed to Papias asserts that John the Apostle was martyred by the Jews, which would most certainly have occurred before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, as even one late date scholar (Swete) admits. However, this piece of evidence is only as good as the authenticity of the provided quote, which may never be determined with certainty.
The Muratorian Canon - This canon was likely written sometime in the mid to late 2nd century. It is thus contemporary with Irenaeus, if the late date for Irenaeus be held firm. The canon clearly states that John wrote to the seven church in Asia minor before Paul, including Revelation, a feat which could not have occurred after the death of Paul, which occurred in A.D. 67 or 68 without dispute.
Tertullian - In his work, Exclusion of Heretics, Tertullian appears to indicate that the exile of John the Apostle occurred in Nero's reign. He mentions the deaths of Peter, Paul, and the persecution and exile of John together, and elsewhere in his discussion of Domitian nowhere mentions the banishment of John.
Origen - Although used by late date advocates, Gentry shows that the quotation in Origen is indeterminate, mentioning no direct names (only, "King of the Romans") or clear indication of Domitian. Origen provides no clear support for either date.
Victorious - This 4th century bishop is apparently another favorite of late date advocates. He clearly asserts that the exile of John occurred under Domitian. The sources is pre-Eusebian, but Gentry finds it hard to believe that John would be banished to the mines over the age of 90, which he would have been under Domitian. It is upon this observation alone that Gentry considers Victorious an unreliable source.
The Acts of John - This is another work that directly ascribes a Domitian date to the exile of John. However, Gentry sees in the quote the possibility of two exiles and a hint that the work of Revelation was already published prior to the Domitian exile. He thinks this could explain why two traditions for the exile of John exist. The quote itself does not provide clear evidence of Revelation being circulated, although it is clear that it indicates that John was at least spreading rumors that Rome would soon be overthrown and given to another. It is possible this reference indicates Revelation, but it is not conclusive.
Eusebius - The stature and credibility of Eusebius make him a favorite source for late date proponents, since he clearly indicates a Domitian date for the writing of Revelation. However, it is clear that Eusebius is following the traditional interpretation of Irenaeus (he cites the quote and the interpretation). At least one scholar considers Eusebius to be an uncritical and less discerning historian, and is thus simply parroting the Irenaeus tradition. However, Eusebius disagrees with Irenaeus that John knew Papias and the John even wrote Revelation, despite agreeing for the Domitian dating of Revelation and agreeing that Polycarp knew John. Eusebius seems to hold to contradictory positions. And Gentry cites other contradictions in Eusebius.
Epiphanies of Salamis - A 4th century bishop, he attributes the banishment of John to the reign of Claudius. Scholars have argued that Epiphanes isn't relying upon an erroneous tradition, but simply records a careless designation by using the name Claudius. Hippolytus, a possible source for Epiphanes, indicated that one of Nero's names was Claudius.
Jerome - Jerome clearly indicates a late date, but uses Tertullian to indicate as much. Gentry thinks that Jerome in conflating the two traditions of exile (Neronian and Domitian) in his use of Tertullian to support his Domitian statement.
Syriac Witnesses - This source directly attributes John's banishment to Nero. These are late 5th and early 6th century sources.
Andreas of Cappadocia - (beginning of 6th century) Supports a Domitian date for Revelation. Still, he attributes several passages in Revelation to events of the Fall of Jerusalem and he indicates that several commentators during the 6th century supported a pre-A.D. 70 date for the book.
Arethas - This sixth century commentator on Revelation also remarks on the Fall of Jerusalem as indicated in the pages of Revelation, and he gives suggestive comments that indicate he does not agree with Eusebius's dating of the book under Domitian.
Theophylact - this twelfth century figure indicates a two-fold tradition for John's exile, citing it under Trajan, but giving a date that indicates it was under Nero.
Gentry then concludes the chapter with a short review of the major evidence and again argues that the external evidence is far too inconclusive to be authoritative. It is clear that he prefers the internal evidence, which we will turn to next time.