Gentry’s Before Jerusalem Fell, which defends a preterist interpretation of Revelation, is widely considered the standard work on the early date of Revelation. It was this work that Mark Hitchcock had before him when arguing for the late date in his doctoral dissertation.
The breadth of Gentry’s survey of the external evidence for the early date is impressive, and the work is a must read for anyone with a serious interest in the issue of dating.
The reader should, however, be aware of a few inaccuracies and problematic claims, and it is these I wish to consider in the present post. These are areas in which the book would benefit from correction; they do not seriously detract from the overall value of the book.
Note also that I’m primarily interested in the book’s survey of the external data for the early date. There is also a lot of good material in the book on the internal evidence for an early date, though I am not at all persuaded by arguments that the prophecies themselves refer to events that took place in the years leading up to AD 70 (i.e. preterism).
Irenaeus, as usually translated, claimed concerning the apocalyptic vision that “it was seen nearly in our day, late in Domitian’s reign.” However, as Gentry points out, the Greek word translated “it was seen” could also be translated “he was seen,” referring to John, rather than the apocalyptic vision.
Gentry has an extremely useful summary of English-speaking scholarship on the interpretation of Irenaeus’ words, but there are some inaccuracies.
The Latin Translation
Probably the most serious errors of the book are found in Gentry’s discussion of the Latin translation of Irenaeus’s words, which has “visum est” for “was seen.”
Gentry claims that the Latin stands against the interpretation of John as the subject and that it may refer to the vision as the subject. This is not the case. In fact, the Latin excludes the apocalyptic vision as a potential subject, thus providing very early evidence that the common interpretation (“it was seen”) was not universally accepted among ancient interpreters.
Not understanding the difference between natural and grammatical gender in Latin, Gentry has thought that the neuter passive particle visum in visum est would refer to a thing, like a book, while visa (he says) would have suggested a person. In fact, (“book”), which he provides as an example of a “thing,” is masculine in Latin, and “apocalyptic vision” is feminine (and thus would have used visa).
Gentry seems to have arrived at his conclusions through a misunderstanding of the arguments of John Robinson. What Robinson was noting was that the grammatical gender of neuter doesn’t agree with either John (which would be visus est) or the vision (which would be visa est), and that it must refer to “the beast,” which is grammatically neuter.
Gentry’s Error Repeated
Gentry’s claim that the Latin translation supports the late date has been repeated by at least two prominent late daters.
Disappointingly for a “Greek Testament” commentary series that should demonstrate familiarity with the ancient languages, Gregory Beale in his commentary on Revelation simply takes Gentry’s word for it, and cites Gentry for his claim that the Latin supports the vision as the subject.
Mark Hitchcock in his dissertation on the late dating of Revelation, citing Beale, asserts that the Latin translation supports the late date, and he similarly confuses grammatical and natural gender, stating that the Latin has visum, which would denote a thing, such as a book, whereas a person would be visa, though he has not cited Gentry.
-us or -um?
Gentry notes scholars who have suggested that the text may have been corrupted, from an original –us to –um. This is in fact quite a common occurrence. As Adam Ledgeway, an expert in Latin languages, has pointed out, “the addition and omission of final –M is notoriously unsystematic and cannot be consistently interpreted as reliable evidence for the accusative status of the subject” (see here).
However, there is also evidence for a deliberate use of an accusative subject with passive verbs, such as we see in Irenaeus’ passage. The Latin translator thus may have written visum est and intended John as the subject.
Either way, –um was sometimes written for –us, meaning that while the Latin excludes the vision as the subject, it may very well have intended John as the subject. The Latin is against the vision as the subject, but it does not exclude John as the subject, which is the opposite of what Gentry claims.
Irenaeus and Polycarp
Gentry introduces a reading into Irenaeus’ account of his hearing of Polycarp in his youth. I have placed the added words in bold:
“I can even tell the place where the blessed Polycarp and I conversed and his goings forth and comings in and the manner of his life …”
The bolded words do not occur in the translation cited by Gentry (John Keble, Five Books of St. Irenaeus, 1872, p. 540). There is no evidence that Irenaeus did anything more than hear Polycarp; there is no evidence he conversed with him or was his personal disciple.
Clement of Alexandria
Gentry argues for the early date from Gentry’s claim that the teaching ministry of the apostles, including Paul, ended with Nero:
“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.”Misc. 7:17
This passage is considered problematic, since it suggests that the twelve apostles had died by the end of Nero’s reign. Yet Clement elsewhere states that John settled in Ephesus after the death of the tyrant, who is identified by scholars either with Nero or Domitian.
Gentry attempts to resolve this problem by claiming that Clement was only limiting apostolic revelation to the reign of Nero. This interpretation is unique to Gentry, and seems unlikely, since he refers to teaching, not to revelation, and only two of the apostles (according to tradition) wrote “apostolic revelation.”
I discuss the passage here.
The Muratorian Canon
Gentry cites the Muratorian Canon (usually dated to c. 170) in support of an early date. It records:
the blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John,
writes to no more than seven churches by name.
Gentry argues that this requires that Revelation was written before Paul’s death, usually dated to around AD 67. However, as Hitchcock rightly points out in his dissertation (p. 52), the statement would require that Revelation was written before Paul wrote the last of his letters, which is generally held to have been around AD 62 or earlier. Possibly it places Revelation in Claudius’s reign, or early in Nero’s (see here).
Thus, while the MC is supportive of the view that the Domitianic dating wasn’t the only one, it does not support the view that Revelation was written in the period 65-68, in which Gentry places it. Gentry not only fails to acknowledge this but says that the MC is one of a “trio of harmonious evidences” for the early date, along with the correctly-interpreted Clement and Irenaeus.
Acts of John
Following the error originally found in the Ante Nicene Fathers collection, Gentry confuses the second/third century Acts of John with the much later Acts of John in Rome (sometimes called the Acts of John at Rome), which describes a Domitianic exile (though it seems to have conflated its account with a source which held to a Neronian exile, leading Gentry to suggest that perhaps John was exiled twice-which strikes me as an implausible and contrived explanation).
This is unfortunate as the early Acts of John provides good evidence for the Neronian exile (see here).
It is unfortunate that, when quoting Jerome, Gentry relies upon an English translation which follows a conjectural amendment to the Latin text which was introduced in the sixteenth century to rid Jerome of evidence for Tertullian’s Neronian dating of John’s exile, rather than upon a critical edition of the Latin.
Jerome cites Tertullian as having claimed that John was sent into the cauldron of boiling oil “by Nero” and not “at Rome,” but this reading was changed (“emended”) on the basis that Tertullian couldn’t have said that, since he elsewhere claimed that John was sent into exile after having escaped the boiling oil, and (it was believed) the exile happened in Domitian’s reign. So again, Gentry misses important evidence for the early date, from one of the most important ancient writers (Tertullian) by relying upon an erroneous reading of Jerome’s text.
Anyone reading Gentry’s work will receive an excellent education in the evidence for the early date of Revelation. At the same time, anyone interested in accuracy should be aware of the shortcomings in the work.
For an extensive discussion of the various traditions of the dating of John’s exile found in early Christian sources, see my Identity of John the Evangelist (Lanham: Fortress Academic, 2020)* (available here), or, for a free but less complete version, see my dissertation.
You can read the first edition of Gentry’s work for free here.
For the latest version, click here.