Mark Hitchcock’s Dissertation on the Late Dating of Revelation: A Critique. Part 3: Irenaeus

Is Irenaeus supportive of the Domitianic dating of Revelation?

Chapter 2 of Mark Hitchcock’s dissertation examines the evidence provided by two early Christians: Hegesippus and Irenaeus (d. c. 200). We have already discussed Hegesippus and we shall now proceed to discuss the evidence of Irenaeus, whom Hitchcock refers to as “the most important ancient witness” to the late date.

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Hitchcock quotes the passage from Irenaeus from the Loeb edition, which reads:

But if it had been necessary to announce his name plainly at the present time, it would have been spoken by him who saw the apocalypse. For it was not seen long ago, but almost in our time, at the end of the reign of Domitian.

Haer. 5.30.3; trans. Kirsopp Lake

This is, no doubt, the weightiest piece of evidence for the late date, and the most complex to deal with.

Interpreting Irenaeus

While Lake’s translation represents the generally accepted interpretation of Irenaeus, it is not the only one. The question of how Irenaeus’s statement should be interpreted, and whether he actually referred to the apocalyptic vision as that which was seen, or to John himself, has been discussed for centuries.

MH unfortunately again demonstrates a lack of scholarly constraint by characterizing those who hold John as the subject as having “attacked Irenaeus’ statement” (p. 20).

What is Irenaeus Discussing?

The subsequent discussion suggests that MH has only poorly-digested the arguments alleged in favor of understanding John as the subject, for he insists again and again that the apocalyptic vision is the context of the entire section of Irenaeus’ work.

Hitchcock correctly notes that Eusebius quoted this passage because of his interest in Revelation, but he has no basis for transferring this interest to Irenaeus, without any consideration of the actual context provided in Irenaeus’ work.

In fact, it is the number of the beast, and the meaning of the number, that is under discussion, and those who argue for John as the subject of the verb emphasize that in the immediate context, the subject is John and his ability to have declared the name openly nearly in Irenaeus’ generation.

The Context of Irenaeus’ Statement

This section begins by relating that the number 666, and not the variant 616, was handed down by those who saw John face to face. This raises the question of who saw him.

Later on he speaks of the elders who saw John and learned from him concerning the days of the kingdom in the millennium. Irenaeus thus seems to have understood that the elders discussed these matters with John, and this is what makes the timing of John’s ability to have declared the name important, for these elders lived at the end of the first century.

The immediate argument of Irenaeus is that the name will only be plainly revealed when its fulfillment is imminent (i.e. when the beast is about to make a historical appearance). If this were imminent in his day, it would have been plainly revealed by John, who saw the apocalyptic vision, for either John or the vision was seen nearly in his generation, at the end of Domitian’s reign.

So Which Translation Fits Better?

Irenaeus could have been saying that John would have plainly declared the name since the prophecy of the beast was given (in the apocalyptic vision) nearly in Irenaeus’ time, or he could have been saying that John would have revealed it because John himself was seen by the elders, with whom he discussed the number of the beast and other eschatological matters, late in Domitian’s reign.

However, the emphasis of Irenaeus is on John’s ability to have announced the name, not on when the vision was given, which is in any case only mentioned parenthetically.

Indeed, a literal translation of the Greek shows (as Chase pointed out) how Irenaeus is emphasizing John, both by the emphatic pronoun (‘that one”) and by the word order (John is placed first in the clause). It is John and his ability to have declared the name with which Irenaeus is concerned, with the mention of John as having also seen the apocalyptic vision being parenthetical:

If it were meant to be plainly revealed in our time, by that one it would have been declared, who also saw the apocalyptic vision, for

Clearly the thought is still on John, not on the parenthetically-mentioned apocalyptic vision. It is John’s ability to have plainly told the name in nearly Irenaeus’ generation that Irenaeus is drawing attention to, not when the apocalyptic vision was received.

Despite citing Chase, Hitchcock does not address this emphatic placement of John in Irenaeus’ argument.

Nearly in Our Generation

Chase had argued that a book written nearly a hundred years previously could hardly be said to have been written “nearly in our generation.” On the other hand, since John’s life extended beyond that of his contemporaries, and since he was seen by those who lived nearly to Irenaeus’ day, it would be natural to state that John was seen “nearly in our generation.”

After referring to the passage from Chase (as quoted by Gentry), MH remarkably says that since in either case, either John or the vision would have been seen in c. 95, that the problem of how that could be “nearly in our generation” would be equally problematic for both sides. He does not interact with Chase’s arguments at all, which illustrates just how poorly digested the arguments for John as the subject are in MH’s discussion.

He concludes by claiming that he has considered the arguments for John as the subject. In truth, he does not appear to have even understood them.

English Translations

Hitchcock argues that the four standard translations of Irenaeus all make the vision the subject, without any footnote to suggest any other reading. The translation has no doubt been influenced by Eusebius’ understanding of the passage. And things may change with the publication of John Behr’s translation, which is due to be published by Oxford University Press shortly.

Probably the most commonly-cited reason why translators have opted for the vision as the subject is that if Irenaeus were arguing from the lateness of John’s ability to declare the name, then he would have brought it down to the reign of Trajan, in whose reign John died, and not Domitian’s. It was for this reason that even some early daters like Robinson and Hort accepted Eusebius’ interpretation, though Hort did take note of how the preposition gar (“for”) in the passage was problematic for the standard interpretation.

This objection assumes that the reference to John being seen would refer to him being seen generally, over a period of years, by the elders. However, the early Christians witness a widespread tradition of the leaders and bishops of Asia coming to John late in his life and imploring him to write a Gospel. (and there is some evidence it was placed in around AD 95, or “sixty five years after the ascension”).

If Irenaeus was alluding to this tradition when he spoke of “those who saw John” then there would have been no ambiguity in his statement, for he would have been arguing that John would have told the elders when they came to him.

It isn’t that John was seen generally, over a period of time, by elders; it is that they came to him and he was seen by them on a specific occasion, at the end of Domitian’s reign. We have misunderstood it because we have lost the context of Irenaeus’ statement, and therefore we have followed Eusebius’ interpretation.

The Greek Grammar

MH presents confused arguments for why the Greek grammar requires the vision as the subject. Peake had argued that since a verb of sight had been used in the passage, that the subject of the second use of the verb would have been the same as the object of the first. However, the verb of sight had been used of John in the context, and the emphatic placement of John more than adequately explains this.

MH also quotes Aune to the effect that the aorist “was seen” is hardly a natural way of describing the length of someone’s life. However, it need not describe the length of his life. As argued above, the verb would more naturally refer to a specific occasion on which John was seen, and an aorist verb of sight would be perfectly acceptable.

After providing Peake’s argument, MH adds, “as David Aune notes …” MH thus seems to think that Peake and Aune are making the same argument, when they are making quite separate arguments. This suggests that he has poorly understood the arguments of both.

The Ancient Latin Translation

MH’s last argument is concerning the Latin translation, which he claims “stands against any effort to re-interpret the words of Irenaeus” (p. 26). Any reader with the least bit of familiarity with the Latin language will likely cringe at Hitchcock’s argument:

In the Latin translation from the Greek, the translator made a translation decision and used the word visum, a neuter word, which refers to a thing, such as a book in this case, rather than visa which indicates a person. The Latin translator clearly understood Irenaeus’ statement as a reference to when the Apocalypse was seen, not when John was seen” (p. 26).

Hitchcock clearly doesn’t understand the difference between natural gender and grammatical gender in languages such as Latin (and Greek). Visa would be used of a feminine person or thing, not of John (which would be visus), and a book (liber) is masculine in Latin, not neuter.

His argument and his misunderstandings of the Latin are in fact very similar to Gentry’s, though MH fails to cite him and passes them off as his own.

Had the Latin understood the apocalyptic vision as the subject (as Eusebius did), it would have been rendered “visa est,” not “visum est.” Had it understood John as the subject, we might expect “visus est,” though the endings –us and –um are often interchangeable in the manuscripts, and the use of –um for –us may have even been deliberate at times. Thus, the Latin could refer to John as the subject, but it cannot refer to the apocalyptic vision as the subject.

John Lived to the Reign of Trajan

MH argues that had John been the subject, Irenaeus would have stated that he was seen in Trajan’s reign, in whose reign he died, since he would have wanted to bring the time when John could have declared the name as close to his own time as possible.

Again, however, as argued above, this would not be the case if Irenaeus had in mind a particular occasion at the end of Domitian’s reign on which the elders came to John and discussed these matters with him.

Ambiguity

Lastly, MH claims that the passage isn’t ambiguous, and he suggests the idea of ambiguity was invented in modern times by preterists, beginning with Wetstein. Of course, he doesn’t address the evidence of the ancient Latin translation, which is probably much older than Eusebius, because he misinterpreted it.

Here are some scholars (some of whom have never expressed preterist views) that have questioned whether the vision is the subject:

  • Johannes J. Wetstein (1751): John
  • Gottlieb Christoph Harless  (1795): John or vision
  • Christian Gottlieb Kühnöl (1825): John or vision
  • Daniel Raynes Goodwin (1848): John
  • James Madison MacDonald (1848): John
  • Eduard Böhme (1855): John
  • J. Bovon (1887): John
  • Frederic Henry Chase (1907): John
  • F. J. A. Hort (1908): vision (but notes issues, as well as points favoring John)
  • George Edmundson (1913): John
  • Arthur Stapylton Barnes (1971): John
  • Jan Stolt (1977): John
  • Martin Karrer (1986): John
  • E. Earle Ellis (2002): John
  • Ian Boxall (2013): John or vision
  • John Behr (2019): John

MH asks, if it were ambiguous, why none of “the numerous witnesses in the early church” raised the issue (p. 27). But who discussed it? Eusebius quoted it, with his own spin, but it’s not quoted or discussed by any other writer to my knowledge; nor does Hitchcock name anyone. So there is the ancient Latin translator, and there is Eusebius, probably over a century later, each with a different interpretation, and MH claims numerous witnesses for his view and none for the other.

Evidence in Irenaeus for the Early Date

J. O. F. Murray in 1914 noted that while Irenaeus placed the writing of John’s Gospel at the end of the first century, at the time that the heretic Cerinthus was spreading his teachings in the province of Asia), that Irenaeus also claimed that the sect of the Nicolaitans had spread the same doctrines in Asia “a long time previously” to this (Haer. 3.11.1).

Elsewhere Irenaeus placed the activities of the Nicolaitans at the time when Revelation was written (Haer. 1.26.3).

The implication of this is that if Irenaeus placed the Nicolaitans, active at the time of Revelation, a “long time previously” to Cerinthus, who was active at the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, that he must therefore have also placed the writing of Revelation “a long time previously” to the writing of the Gospel. If John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first century, Revelation was written “a long time previous” to this.


Further Study

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.

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