Section 4: Alleged Domitianic Evidences Expamined
Chapter 15: Introduction to Domitianic Evidences
In this brief chapter Gentry introduces the arguments attached to the Domitianic evidences in favor of a late date of Revelation:
1. The indications in Revelation of emperor-worship, which was prevalent in Domitian's day.
2. The indications in Revelation of persecution fit better into a Domitian period.
3. Revelation shows knowledge of the Nero redivivus myth that can only be expected to have developed by the time of Domitian's reign.
4. The churches of Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation seems to have a period of development behind them, which would have been unlikely during Nero's reign.
Chapter 16: The Role of Emperor Worship
Gentry cites several scholars who have argued that Rev. 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; and 20:4 show evidence of emperor worship, which supports a Domitian dating of Revelation, for several imperial cults were prominent during his reign. Gentry begins his examination of the evidence by discussing the difficulty of dating the emperor cult. Even proponents of the view must recognize that emperor worship was not limited to Domitian's reign, for even Julius Caesar was worshiped as a god during his lifetime. Gentry then proceeds to discuss the argument for a pre-Neronian history of the emperor cult. He gives four arguments:
1. Emperor worship is traceable as far back as Julius Caesar, who lives almost 100 years before Nero's death.
2. Formal temples erected for worship of the emperor are known to exist in Augustus's reign in c. 29 B.C.
3. It is unknown what method Domitian used to enforce emperor worship, so it is not certain that he was the first or only to have persecuted non-participants (as Revelation indicates).
4. The first official imperial evidence of the enforcement of emperor worship is after both Nero and Domitian, during the reign of Trajan.
Gentry then proceeds to fill out these arguments with evidence and supporting claims. He cites several sources of evidence showing that Julius not only claimed divine honors, but also had men slain as victims of sacrifice to himself. Although Augustus declined divine honors in Rome, he still sanctioned worship and the building of altars to himself outside of Rome. Gentry sees an allusion to emperor worship in Christ's remarks during the reign of Tiberius when he was questioned by the Jewish leaders about tribute money (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26), which is supported by historical evidence of temples erected in honor of Tiberius. Caligula also had temples erected to himself, complete with priests and sacrifices. Claudius was voted a god, then deposed later by Nero, only to be restored by Vespasian (Claudius also had a temple erected to himself during his lifetime). Thus, emperor worship seems to have been regular preceding the time of Nero.
Gentry then turns to the evidence for emperor worship under Nero's reign. Much has already been said about the evil nature and reputation of Nero. Nero's infatuation with the god Apollo (taking the title, "Son of Apollos") is telling of his estimation of himself, and inscriptions have been found that refer to Nero as "God and Savior." Gentry cites several ancient sources that give clear indications that emperor worship was encouraged by Nero and observed during his reign. The combination of these sources with the numerous others testifying to Nero's persecution of Christianity make the references in Revelation well-suited to a Neronian reference. Gentry then provides some qualifications of the emperor worship argument. First, there needn't have been a formal or legal relationship between emperor worship and the references made in Revelation. The incompatibility of exalting the emperor and exalting Christ is apparent to anyone observing the situation. Anyone willing to assert the Kingship of Christ would have felt a fear for someone like Nero, who had no problem murdering those who he felt threatened his claims to kingship. Second, the Revelation references could be referencing the spiritual, or philosophical (i.e. the underlying ideas) issues of worship rather than judicially sanctioned ones.
Finally, Gentry discusses the potential holes in the argument that the emperor cult played a part in Domitian's persecution of Christians during his reign. He cites several scholars who downplay the possibility, as well as citing the fact that official judicial evidence for such persecution is not extant until Trajan, the second emperor after Domitian. The evidence seems to favor Nero rather than Domitian in light of Nero's cruelty and especially in particular his cruelty to Christians as Christians. Gentry bolsters Nero's motivations for persecution while downplaying Domitian's context in a few lengthy paragraphs that I will pass over here. He then concludes the chapter and moves on to the next.
Chapter 17: The Persecution of Christianity
The next argument is that the persecution of Christians evident in Revelation accords best with Domitian's reign. Gentry begins his critique of this argument with the difficulties it faces. He cites a list of scholars who don't even use the argument in seeking to prove their late-date theories, some of whom deny the evidence that persecution of Christians was not empire-wide during Domitian's reign, and others arguing that there was none at all! The only evidence of a Domitian persecution comes from Christian sources alone (as opposed to the numerous Christian and non-Christian sources documenting Nero's vast persecutions). Only one non-Christian source is ever cited in defense of a Domitian persecution, and it is ambiguous, for it states only that Domitian's cousin Falvius Clements was executed and his wife banished on the basis of the charge of "atheism," which the source (Dio) equates with the practice of Judaism rather than Christianity. Moreover, the extant Dio texts come to us from the 11th and 12th century, and are accused of being carelessly handled in the precise section where Domitian is mentioned. The absence of any mention of Domitian persecution in the same sources who document Nero's persecutions is also interesting.
Gentry also has much evidence to present supporting a Neronic argument for the evidence of persecution. The earliest evidence comes from 1 Clement, mentioned in an earlier chapter, and which Gentry believes was written in the late 60s. He goes on to cite Christian and non-Christian sources documenting Nero's cruelty and persecution. Most of the evidence is building up the earlier arguments Gentry has made in this regard, so I'll pass over it here.
Chapter 18: The Nero Redivivus Myth
A few scholars see evidence of the Nero Redivivus myth in the text of Revelation, which leads them to argue for a Domitian date. They do not believe the myth could have spread during Nero's own reign. However, Gentry has several arguments ready for this particular question.
The pertinent texts in Revelation are 13:3,14 and 17:8,11. The myth that Nero would return to power. The myth was circulated after he was mortally wounded and received a public funeral. Gentry replies with two observations: 1) not all late date proponents allow the myth as a significance piece of evidence, and 2) several early date advocates recognize the myth in Revelation and yet maintain a Neronic date for the book. Gentry then goes on to show that the myth was in existence from a prophecy that was made early during his reign rather than after his death. But even if the myth were not widespread until late in Nero's reign, the Apostle John writing a prophecy surely doesn't preclude him seeing the future time when the myth would be used in the way he writes it in Revelation. Indeed, evidence suggests that the rapid spread of the myth occurred almost immediately following Nero's death. Thus, many believed, in accordance with John's prophetic word (if the myth is in his mind), that Nero would return to power. However well the myth might accord with John's prophetic word, Gentry has another interpretation that accords with Revelation and with history that does not need to make use of the myth at all.
The argument Gentry advances is that Galba is the so-called "Nero Redivivus" that John the Apostle has in view in Revelation. In this way, the eighth head would be a symbolic return of the sixth head rather than a literal return. In what sense does the symbolism reference history then? Galba is the seventh king who reigned only "a little while" and then Otho is the eighth, whose ascension Seutonious records in an interesting fashion:
When in the midst of the other adulations of those who congratulated and flattered him, he was hailed by the common herd as Nero, he made no sign of dissent; on the contrary, according to some writers, he even made use of that surname in his commissions and his first letters to some of the governors of the provinces. (309)
Tacitus also mentions Otho's use of Nero's memory, including setting up some statues of Nero, and even answering to the acclaimed name, "Nero Otho." Not only did Otho imitate Nero, but so too did the next emperor, Vitellius. Thus, Genty's case is that the revival of Nero (the sixth king) mentioned by John in Revelation is confirmed in the symbolic resurrection of his name and authority in the persons of the succeeding emperors of Rome. That so many lived in such fear of Nero would have cased the people to "wonder" at the revivification of his name by others, according to Gentry. But the symbolic purpose is not exhausted in these later emperors. Gentry has already mentioned the double-symbolism of the Beast as both the head of Rome (emperor) and Rome itself. The "Nero Redivivus" myth also accords with an understand of the empire of Rome as that which reigned, fell, and was restored to the marvel of the people. It is significant according to several reasons given by Gentry:
1) The death of Nero marked the end of the Julio-Claudian lines of emperors.
2) Following the death of Nero the Roman empire plunged into a civil war that nearly destroyed it.
3) After the civil war the empire was revived under Vespasian, who ended the civil war and restored order to the empire.
Gentry has to do some difficult exegetical work to harmonize this view with the Revelation text, and it would be better for the reader to consult his full defense rather than to consider my reproduction of it here. In any case, Gentry is confident that his arguments have secured a strong refutation of the Nero Redivivus myth in support of any late date of Revelation.
Chapter 19: The Condition of the Seven Churches
The last argument concerns the condition of the seven church in Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation. Gentry answers the arguments under this view one by one.
First is the wealth of the church in Laodicea (Rev. 3:17), which is argued to have been impossible during the reign of Nero, because the city was destroyed by an earthquake in A.D. 60/61. It would have been too quick of a turnaround for them to have restored their wealth during the reign of Nero, it is argued. Gentry exposes several flaws in this argument, despite its face-value. First, the riches mentioned by John need not refer to monetary wealth, but may refer to "spritual" riches (following allusions and parallels to 1 Cor. 4:8, Hosea 12:8, Luke 18:11,12; 16:15; and 1 Cor. 13:1). Even if material wealth is meant, there is historical evidence that the recovery of Laodicea from the earthquake was rather effortless. Tacitus (who recorded the earthquake) mentions that the city did not even apply for an imperial subsidy to help them rebuild, although this was a customary thing to do at the time. In addition to this reference, it is not necessary to assume that the earthquake's epicenter was in the center of the city, or that its devastation reached throughout the whole city, or even the portion of the city where Christians were gathered. Gentry cites the fact that not all of Mexico City was destroyed by the earthquake that struck it horribly in 1985.
Second is the existence of the church in Smyrna, which is supposed not to have existed during Paul's days. This argument is based on the statement of Polycarp who was bishop of Smyrna, who says the following:
But I have not found any such thing in you [i.e., the church at Philippi], neither have heard thereof, among whom the blessed Paul labored, who were his letters in the beginning. For he boasteth of you in all those churches which alone at that time knew God; for we knew him not as yet. (322)
This has been taken to mean that the church at Smyrna had not yet existed, but the interpretation could indicate that the Philippians (to whom Polycarp is writing) were converted before the Smyrnaens rather than that they didn't exist during Paul's time at all. Rather, it seems likely that Smyrna was evangelized soon after Ephesus (Acts 19:10,26), i.e., before A.D. 60. Moreover, the difficulty in dating Paul's letter to the Philippians make it inconclusive to argue from it against the evangelization of Smyrna before the death of Paul.
Third is the spiritual decline in Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea. It is assumed that such a significant decline could not have occurred in the short time required by an early date view of Revelation. However, this assumption is unwarranted. Paul's letter to the Galatians indicates that their initial good start was in serious jeopardy (cf. 5:7 and 1:6-7). This same kind of concern of Paul is evident in his letters to the Corinthians, a church founded in A.D. 49 and to which Paul writes with a heavy heart in A.D. 57. In addition to this, it is as difficult to believe that such rapid decline would have been possible given the fact that John the Apostle would have been working in these churches for over twenty-five years if he were writing during the Domitian reign. Would his influence have been so ineffectual, despite his apostolic authority and oversight?
Gentry concludes by again pointing up the argument that the evidence concerning the churches befits a time prior to the destruction of the Temple. He has already laid out these evidences in earlier chapters. Thus, we conclude the summary of section four here and look forward to the concluding section of the book, section five.