The Nicolaitans and the Dating of Revelation

The description of the sect of the Nicolaitans in Revelation seems to fit an earlier contextualization of the book.

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The Nicolaitans

Two churches, at Ephesus (Rev. 2:6) and Pergamum (Rev. 2:15) respectively, are troubled by a sect called the Nicolaitans. While Ephesus is commended for hating the deeds of the Nicolaitans, the message to Pergamum is more critical:

Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

Rev 2:14-16 (NIV)

When Were the Nicolaitans Active?

According to Hippolytus, Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17–18) were following the teaching of Nicolas, the founder of the sect (De resurr. fr. 1). Thus they were active in Asia towards the end of Paul’s life (i.e. during Nero’s reign).

Eusebius stated that the Nicolaitans “subsisted for a very short time” (Histeccl. 3.29.1).

Irenaeus contrasts the time when the Nicolaitans had been active with the time when Cerinthus was sowing his doctrines. Cerinthus was active at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, but the Nicolaitans had been active “a long time previously” (Haer. 3.11.1).

Since Cerinthus was active at the time of Polycarp, who was martyred in the mid second century (Haer. 3.3.4), it is likely that Irenaeus placed the writing of John’s Gospel at the end of the first century.

  • Time of Cerinthus = end of first century = time of John’s Gospel
  • Time of Nicolaitans = “a long time previous” to Cerinthus = time of Revelation

The Doctrine of the Nicolaitans

The issues that seem to confront the Asian churches seem to have been an issue in the 50s and 60s (e.g. foods offered to idols, the condoning of immorality), and it was during this earlier time that Paul warned about “false apostles” who were visiting the churches (and who had apparently had a very destabilizing effect in Galatia especially).

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John had spent decades in the province of Asia, visiting the churches and ordaining trusted men as bishops. It is unlikely that the churches would have been a breeding ground for such doctrines after this time. The Nicolaitans far better fit a situation in the 60s,when Paul and other apostles were being imprisoned and martyred, and when Paul’s co-workers had forsaken him, leaving a void for heretical groups and false apostles to fill.

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