REVELATION’S DATE: EXTERNAL EVIDENCE (2)

PMW 2020-109 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

As I continue my series on the dating of Revelation, I will present two of the leading external witnesses for the late date: Irenaeus and Origen.

Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202)

Undoubtedly the most commonly used and strongest external objection to the early date of Revelation is the famous statement by Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) in book 5 of his Against Heresies. This statement is very early and seems clear and to the point. It occurs at the end of a section in which he is dealing with the identification of Revelation’s “666,” which Irenaeus applies to the Antichrist:

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.

Nevertheless, several problems reduce the usefulness of this statement for late date advocacy.

First, the translation problem. The statement “that was seen” (or “it was seen”) grammatically may refer either to one of two antecedents. It may refer either to “the apocalyptic vision” (i.e., Revelation) or to “him who beheld the apocalyptic vision” (i.e., John). Greek is an inflected language, containing the pronominal idea in the verb ending. Here the verb may legitimately be translated either “it was seen” or “he was seen.” According to David Aune in his recent, massive commentary, New Testament commentator J. Stolt (1977):

following Wettstein, Novum Testamentum Gracecum (2:746), has argued that ‘the one who saw the Apocalypse’ is the logical subject of eorathe and has proposed that what Irenaeus had in mind was to comment on how long the author of Revelation had lived, not on when he had written Revelation. This is in fact a view argued by various scholars since Wettstein.

The verb ending leaves the question open; Irenaeus does not provide conclusive external evidence.


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DVD by Ken Gentry

A summary of the evidence for Revelation’s early date. Helpful, succinct introduction to Revelation’s pre-AD 70 composition.

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com


Second, the contextual indication. Irenaeus’ argument regards the identity of the person represented by “666″:

“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 or he was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.”

This context seems to demand that Irenaeus refers to John, whom he believes to have lived almost to his (Irenaeus’) own time. When Irenaeus says: “it would have been announced by him” it would most logically follow that his next statement should be translated: “for he was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day.” In other words, Irenaeus appears to be urging: If John, who wrote Revelation with its mysterious 666, had wanted us to know who 666 identified, he would have told us personally, for he lived a long time after writing it, almost in my own time.”

Third, the point of Irenaeus. As Schaff notes a major point of Irenaeus’ work is to demonstrate the living continuity of the Church. He is concerned to show that the truths of Christianity are passed on orally from one generation to another. This purpose in his writing would suggest that his concern was with whether or not John talked about it among those to whom he ministered, rather than on when John wrote.

Fourth, the problem in Irenaeus. If this reference speaks of the date of the writing of Revelation and not the date to which John the author lived, then we have an unusual situation. Earlier in the same chapter Irenaeus speaks of “ancient copies” of Revelation (Heresies 5:30:1). Would he argue in one paragraph about the ancient copies of the book and then a few paragraphs later about the book’s original composition near to his own time? Surely the book was written earlier — in “ancient” times — even though John himself is presumed to have lived almost into Irenaeus’ day.

Fifth, the eyewitnesses of Irenaeus. assuming the common translation of Irenaeus’ statement, we must note that a major element of his proof is his reference to eyewitnesses. But Irenaeus uses eyewitnesses in another place to prove that Jesus lived to be almost fifty years old:

For how had He disciples, if He did not teach? And how did He teach, if He had not a Master’s age? For He came to Baptism as one Who had not yet fulfilled thirty years, but was beginning to be about thirty years old; (for so Luke, who hath signified His years, hath set it down; Now Jesus, when He came to Baptism, began to be about thirty years old:) and He preached for one year only after His Baptism: completing His thirtieth year He suffered, while He was still young, and not yet come to riper age. But the age of 30 years is the first of a young man’s mind, and that it reaches even to the fortieth year, everyone will allow: but after the fortieth and fiftieth year, it begins to verge towards elder age: which our Lord was of when He taught, as the Gospel and all the Elders witness, who in Asia conferred with John the Lord’s disciple, to the effect that John had delivered these things unto them: for he abode with them until the times of Trajan. And some of them saw not only John, but others also of the Apostles, and had this same account from them, and witness to the aforesaid relation. Whom ought we rather to believe? These, being such as they are, or Ptolemy, who never beheld the Apostles, nor ever in his dreams attained to any vestige of an Apostle?

So in the final analysis, his use of eyewitnesses is not always trustworthy, to say the least.

Thus, a re-interpretation of Irenaeus, the major witness for the late date, would appear in order. At the very least the strength of his witness should be lessened due to these very real problems facing the interpreter of Irenaeus.


Blessed Is He Who Reads: A Primer on the Book of Revelation
By Larry E. Ball

A basic survey of Revelation from an orthodox, evangelical, and Reformed preterist perspective. Ball understands John to be focusing on the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. Insightful. Easy to read.

For more Christian studies see: www.KennethGentry.com


Origen (A.D. 185-254)

Origen wrote early in the third century. He is almost universally cited as a late date witness. His famous statement is found in his commentary on Matthew:

The king of the Romans, as tradition teaches, condemned John, who bore testimony, on account of the word of truth, to the isle of Patmos. John, moreover, teaches us things respecting his testimony, without saying who condemned him when he utters these things in the Apocalypse. He seems also to have seen the Apocalypse in the island.

It should strike the unprejudiced mind that this writer — considered one of the leading witnesses for the late date — does not even name the emperor of the banishment. The name of Domitian is merely assumed to apply there, and for two basic reasons: (1) Banishment was more frequently used by Domitian. (2) Irenaeus, a few years earlier, apparently taught that Revelation was received by John in Domitian’s day. But the first reason is a mere probability statement and the second relies on a debatable interpretation of Irenaeus. The reference to Origen is less than convincing.

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12 thoughts on “REVELATION’S DATE: EXTERNAL EVIDENCE (2)

  1. Fred V. Squillante December 22, 2020 at 2:45 pm

    Yes, as you begin your article, undoubtedly Irenaeus and his notorious statement are at the heart of the problem of understanding, not only Revelation but the Olivet Discourse, Daniel – all of eschatology. That simple twist from the true meaning of “John” was seen to “it” was seen, or “that” was seen makes the fulfillment of what Jesus said at Olivet moot. The catastrophe of A.D. 70 has become an insignificant fact of history when, in fact, it is the pinnacle of it (other than the resurrection and virgin birth, of course).

    Virtually everyone who does not adhere to the early date will tell you Revelation was written in the time of Domitian and will even mention his name, even say he is the beast. Probably, very few have actually read what Irenaeus wrote to see that he was spending an inordinate amount of time talking about the beast, not the date of the Apocalypse.

    Also, when Irenaeus published his work, Against Heresies (about 180) that was pretty much the end of the period of the “Five ‘Good’ Roman Emperors”: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Pius, and Aurelius (if you can believe that). It was a dangerous time for Christians as they were being persecuted by the Jews and the Romans. That’s why it amazes me that Irenaeus doesn’t mention Nero or the Temple’s destruction. Undoubtedly, they all had to look over their shoulder.

  2. Dr Dean Furlong December 22, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    The Latin of Irenaeus is important too, since it translates ἑωράθη with visum est, which could represent a neuter subject nominative (“it was seen”) or a masculine subject accusative (“he was seen”). It cannot refer to the vision, however, since this word is feminine in Latin, which would be visa est. The Latin translation probably predates Eusebius by over a century.

  3. B Jay December 23, 2020 at 8:08 am

    It appears that Irenaeus and Origen are very flimsy sources for late date advocates to hang their hats on. They would be better off to abandon that argument all together.

  4. Alvin Plummer December 27, 2020 at 1:49 am

    One correction for your second paragraph. You wrote: “Undoubtedly the most commonly used and strongest external objection to the early date of Revelation is the famous sNovember 2, 2020tatement by Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) in book 5 of his Against Heresies.”

    I am quite sure that “the famous sNovember 2, 2020tatement” is an error, and should read “the famous statement”.

    I hope this correction is useful to you!

  5. Kenneth Gentry December 27, 2020 at 8:51 am

    Oops. Instead of hitting Ctrl-S for Save I hit Ctrl-D for Date. Now you know when I wrote the article! Thanks.

  6. Brittany December 28, 2020 at 5:51 pm

    My pastor is going over Revelation now and holds to the Premillennial view. I’ve read He Shall Have Dominion and listened to many talks on Postmillennialism but I still feel so weak in my arguments when people ask me why I’m post mill. Our pastor brought up the same dating stuff with that quote and has made everyone think that there is no way it was written earlier. Even after reading these articles..I’m so confused and still don’t feel like I have a defence to make when people ask me how it could’ve been written before 70. I feel stupid most of time when people ask because I don’t have a ton of knowledge or the right words to explain it. Any help??

  7. Kenneth Gentry December 29, 2020 at 9:29 am

    I would start with the Great Commission, which is known and loved by Christians.
    Check this short series: https://postmillennialworldview.com/2018/09/14/great-commission-and-cultural-mandate-1/

    Perhaps this study might be helpful: https://postmillennialworldview.com/2019/11/19/a-postmill-interview-1/

    I would recommend reading my short book, Postmillennialism Made Easy. It surveys in brief fashion the main texts supporting postmillennialism.
    http://www.kennethgentry.com/postmillennialism-made-easy-book-by-gentry/

  8. Dean W. Arnold April 17, 2022 at 3:46 pm

    I am a big fan of Before Jerusalem Fell. Read it several times (I’m working on a commentary of Revelation.) I think the crux of refuting the preterist argument is Irenaeus’s famous line, and I believe he was mistranlated. I do love the quote that appears to have him representing Jesus living to his 40s and 50s. But in kicking all tires to make my case as solid as possible, I do see a possibility of a different interpretation.

    “completing His thirtieth year He suffered, while He was still young, and not yet come to riper age. But the age of 30 years is the first of a young man’s mind, and that it reaches even to the fortieth year, everyone will allow: but after the fortieth and fiftieth year, it begins to verge towards elder age: which our Lord was of when He taught …”

    He “suffered when he was young” sounds like an acknowledgment of his passion in his early 30s. Then he speaks of the general fact that typically men have “elder age” wisdom in their 40s and 50s. However, Jesus was not typical and had this “elder age” wisdom (“which our Lord was of”) in his 30s. That’s why at the beginning of the quote he says, “And how did He teach, if He had not a Master’s age?” He did, more exceptionally (or miraculously) in his 30s.

    It’s not clear, and kind of garbled. But that may also be a produect of the “tortured” translations of Irenaeus.

    This makes more sense to me. It is difficult to believe Irenaeus would get this so factually wrong, while it is easy to believe the pronoun for “has seen” is John, not Revelation. I think it is safer not to rely on arguments that aren’t as solid. Would like your opinion on this.

  9. Dean W. Arnold April 18, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    Okay, read that and a companion piece https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2016/07/15/irenaeus-botched-thinking-jesus-age-and-other-bad-apologetics/

    (Btw, Craig Truglia interviewed me on my Ethiopia book.) He gives a couple quotes that seem to seal the deal for a 40-50 old Irenaeus Jesus:

    “They [the Gnostics], however, that they may establish their false opinion…maintain that He preached for one year only, and then suffered in the twelfth month. [In speaking thus,] they are forgetful to their own disadvantage, destroying His whole work, and robbing Him of that age which is both more necessary and more honourable than any other; that more advanced age, I mean, during which also as a teacher He excelled all others (Par 5).”

    And this one:

    “Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, everyone will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed (Par 5).”

    I was ready to be persuaded, but then one of the commenters pointed to a link that argues that Roman old age is 31-50, and so Irenaeus is only saying Jesus made it to 33, which gets him to the “old age” category. http://www.biblicalcatholic.com/apologetics/a38.htm

    So I guess I have more homework to do.

    But that gets me back to my original point– that we may not want to use arguments that beg for potshots. Although I could still be persuaded on an old Irenaeus Jesus.

    But I think the real crux is how to translate “has seen.” Since I am Eastern Orthodox, I am less comfortable just dubbing Irenaeus incorrect, especially since Chrysostom and others echo him on this matter. But I am more than comfortable having the Arian Eusebius mistranslate him!

    In that vein, I spent some time trying to find Hort’s quote that the pronoun connected to “have seen” is likely John, not the Apocalypse. But I think I figured out that there are no direct quotes on that, only notes taken by a couple people who heard him say it in lectures.

    Which begs my next question. I would like to find a top Greek expert who can verify that the pronoun can go either way, or especially one who will say it is more likely referring to John. That’s what I was trying to get from Hort. Is there another one out there on record? Is there a current one I could email or interview?

    Is Wettstein that guy? (And who is J. Holt that Aune is quoting?)

  10. Kenneth Gentry April 19, 2022 at 10:29 am

    It is almost always the case that pronouns can “go either way.” Such is the nature of this part of speech. However, if it does not compel you, you would want to drop it. If you do some research on it and found out something compelling, I hope you will let me know. I would consult S. H. Chase, “The Date of the Apocalypse,” Journal of Theological Studies 8 (1907).

  11. Dean W. Arnold April 19, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    I think you must mean F. H. Ely, not Chase? Anyway, the link I found contains only the first page, but apparently the key one, as it includes his repeating of what Hort said in the lecture.

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/23949121?refreqid=excelsior%3A7ebb7bef8dbf3106543d7394d42cb0de

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