Thursday, January 19, 2006

Single-Source Theories And The Dating Of Revelation

Sometimes people who are arguing against a widespread belief of the early Christians will try to minimize the significance of the belief's popularity by suggesting that it might have become popular by means of the influence of one person. Opponents of premillennialism will sometimes suggest that men like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus accepted the doctrine through the influence of Papias. Or people who reject Matthew's authorship of the gospel of Matthew will suggest that the gospel's universal attribution to Matthew was due to Papias' influence.

It's plausible that an authority such as Paul or John would be able to bring about universal acceptance of something he taught. Papias wasn't an apostle, though, and we don't have any good reason to conclude that he had the sort of influence some people attribute to him. It's highly unlikely that a belief as popular as premillennialism or Matthean authorship of the gospel of Matthew was due entirely or almost entirely to the influence of one man like Papias. Even if it was, why conclude that Papias was wrong? Papias sometimes claims to have relied on multiple sources, so we can't just stop with Papias and blame him for a widespread belief we don't like.

There was a thread that began yesterday on the NTRM boards on the subject of the dating of the book of Revelation as it relates to eschatology. In that thread, I and another poster address some of the internal and external evidence for a dating of Revelation in the late first century rather than the middle of the century.

In this post, I want to quote some of the patristic passages I mention in that thread. Some critics of a late dating of Revelation suggest that the early patristic sources who give the book a late date were relying on Irenaeus for their information. It's also sometimes suggested that Irenaeus may not have been referring to a late date for Revelation, but instead was only referring to how long the apostle John lived. Is it credible to trace all of the late dating of Revelation back to Irenaeus? I don't think so. (And, again, even if we did trace it all to Irenaeus, why should we think that Irenaeus was wrong?)

As I explain in the thread on the NTRM boards, the status of the churches in Revelation 2-3 suggests a late date for the book. The church in Ephesus seems to have undergone a decline since the time Paul was in contact with them. The church in Smyrna seems to have been in existence more than just several years. The church of Laodicea is referred to as wealthy, yet Laodicea was recovering from an earthquake in the 60s. Etc. Below are Polycarp's comments suggesting that the church of Smyrna didn't exist yet when Paul wrote to the Philippians. We should ask whether Jesus' comments on the church of Smyrna in Revelation 2 would make more sense if the church had just come into existence or if it had been in existence for a few decades. Polycarp wrote:

"But who of us are ignorant of the judgment of the Lord? 'Do we not know that the saints shall judge the world?' as Paul teaches. But I have neither seen nor heard of any such thing among you [Philippians], in the midst of whom the blessed Paul laboured, and who are commended in the beginning of his Epistle. For he boasts of you in all those Churches which alone then knew the Lord; but we of Smyrna had not yet known Him." (Letter To The Philippians, 11)

Here's Irenaeus referring to Revelation's prophecies as yet to be fulfilled. Notice that his comments aren't limited to the millennium:

"In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord's disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules the earth shall be partitioned." (Against Heresies, 5:26:1)

Below are some examples of Victorinus and Eusebius dating the book of Revelation to the late first century. Notice that they don't refer to any rival traditions. Notice that they give a number of details surrounding the Domitian dating rather than just making a vague reference to a date. Notice that Victorinus says nothing about getting his information from Irenaeus and makes some comments on Domitian not found in Irenaeus. Notice that Eusebius refers to multiple sources for his information, not just Irenaeus. Notice how the widespread persecutions of Domitian that Victorinus and Eusebius refer to would provide a better background for the book of Revelation than a Neronian dating of the book would.

"He says this, because when John said these things he was in the island of Patmos, condemned to the labour of the mines by Caesar Domitian. There, therefore, he saw the Apocalypse; and when grown old, he thought that he should at length receive his quittance by suffering, Domitian being killed, all his judgments were discharged. And John being dismissed from the mines, thus subsequently delivered the same Apocalypse which he had received from God." (Victorinus, Commentary On The Apocalypse Of The Blessed John, 10:11)

"It is said that in this persecution [of Domitian] the apostle and evangelist John, who was still alive, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos in consequence of his testimony to the divine word. Irenaeus, in the fifth book of his work Against Heresies, where he discusses the number of the name of Antichrist which is given in the so-called Apocalypse of John, speaks as follows concerning him: 'If it were necessary for his name to be proclaimed openly at the present time, it would have been declared by him who saw the revelation. For it was seen not long ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.' To such a degree, indeed, did the teaching of our faith flourish at that time that even those writers who were far from our religion did not hesitate to mention in their histories the persecution and the martyrdoms which took place during it. And they, indeed, accurately indicated the time. For they recorded that in the fifteenth year of Domitian Flavia Domitilla, daughter of a sister of Flavius Clement, who at that time was one of the consuls of Rome, was exiled with many others to the island of Pontia in consequence of testimony borne to Christ. But when this same Domitian had commanded that the descendants of David should be slain, an ancient tradition says that some of the heretics brought accusation against the descendants of Jude (said to have been a brother of the Saviour according to the flesh), on the ground that they were of the lineage of David and were related to Christ himself." (Eusebius, Church History, 3:18-19)