Mark Hitchcock’s Dallas Theological Seminary dissertation, entitled “A Defense of the Domitianic Date of the Book of Revelation” (accessible here) is considered by many as the last word in the discussion of the evidence for the dating of Revelation.
A close examination of Hitchcock’s arguments, however, demonstrates that he has not made the case for the late dating.
Please note my primary concerns are with the external evidence (what did the early Christians say?), not with the internal, which I may or may not address in this series.
Preterism and Dating
The first chapter of the dissertation lays out the need for and importance of the study. MH begins by tying the question of the dating to the theological system known as preterism, which sees the fulfillment of many of Revelation’s prophecies in the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
MH does not even acknowledge the possibility that one might be persuaded of the early date and not be a preterist. Instead, he makes the two irretrievably intertwined: there is “the preterist interpretation” (p. 4), and there is the position of everyone else. Yet his fellow DTS graduate and dispensationalist, Zane Hodges, holds to the early date. So did Francis Nigel Lee, a historicist. Sir Isaac Newton is perhaps the most famous non-preterist early dater. I came to the early date as a result of reconstructing early traditions of John’s exile, and I have never been a preterist.
But even if it were only a preterist interpretation, it would still need to be refuted on historical grounds, and MH’s introduction seems more like poisoning the well than preparing for an impartial analysis of the data.
Bias is Seldom One-Sided
MH never claims that he is interested in simply evaluating the historical evidence and seeing where it points. Rather, his goal is to refute a theological system, preterism, by attacking its “linchpin,” the early dating (p. 5), and he is quite open about this. The problem is, while he is pointing out that the preterists are date-dependent, which makes them “intent on defending the early date” (p. 8), which may be true enough, he seems quite unaware of his own polemically-motivated biases.
The Burden of Proof
Lastly, MH lays out his view that since the late date is the historically dominant one, the early date has the burden of bringing forth a preponderance of evidence in order to refute it.
Unless I am mistaken, this seems to imply that the evidence for the early date must be significantly stronger than that for the late date in order for the early date to be considered the winner, whereas the evidence for the late date only needs not to be significantly weaker than the early date.
Thus, MH attempts to unfairly burden the early date by holding it up to a different set of expectations from that required of the late date. This is a misunderstanding of the burden of proof, which is required of any side making a claim in a debate.
This discussion is not a criminal case where someone (or something, like the late dating) is innocent until proven guilty. This is a historical question, and as such the burden of proof is assumed by both parties, not one.
Thus, the evidence for both positions must be placed side by side to see which one bests explains the most evidence without recourse to multiple qualifications of the evidence.
The question is, “where does the evidence lead?,” not “who has the burden of proof.”
For an extensive discussion of the various early Christians traditions of John’s exile, see my Identity of John the Evangelist (Lanham: Fortress Academic, 2020)* (available here), or, for a free but less complete version, see my dissertation.