Listeners of my recent debate on the dating of Revelation with James Rochford have shared concerns about the argumentation used by my opponent. While James Rochford maintained a pleasant and cordial tone throughout the discussion, and while I appreciated that he had made himself familiar with my book and with some of the arguments on this site, after much reflection I have concluded that the level of discourse was inappropriate for a formal debate, for reasons I shall explain below.
The video can be viewed here.
Rochford introduced Irenaeus as one to whom Polycarp had personally recounted his conversations with John. Irenaeus only says that he heard Polycarp recount these things in public lectures.
5 Arguments for the Apocalyptic Vision as That Which was Seen
Rochford provided five arguments for the standard interpretation of Irenaeus, that the apocalyptic vision (and not John, as I argue) “was seen” late in Domitian’s reign.
1. The vision is the nearest antecedent to the verb.
Rochford illustrated this in English: “John picked up Alex at the store. He needed to buy groceries.”
But the antecedent is not always the nearest possible one in ancient Greek; e.g., Irenaeus himself:
“The Nicolaitans are the followers of that Nicolas who was one of the seven first ordained to the diaconate by the apostles. They lead lives of unrestrained indulgence.Haer. 1.26.3
Here “the apostles” is the nearest possible antecedent, but the subject is the Nicolaitans.
2. Eusebius begins and ends this section by speaking of Revelation, and “the focus was not John.”
This problematic claim was a harbinger of the direction the debate was to take. Rochford should have known that the context of the statement is determined by Irenaeus in his original work, not by Eusebius.
The immediate context in Irenaeus is John and his non declaration of the name; the apocalyptic vision is not mentioned until the quote in question. The mention of the context in Eusebius was a red herring.
Furthermore, John is emphasized in the original Greek, both by the emphatic position in the sentence and by a demonstrative pronoun. He is the focus.
by that one it would have been announced, who also saw the apocalyptic vision, for he/it was seen …
3. The verb “to see” had just been used of the vision.
Yes, this is true, but the emphatic placement of John in the sentence would have focused the reader’s attention on him. Furthermore, the same verb is used of John at the beginning of the very passage that we were discussing:
Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number  being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it] …Haer. 5.30.1.
If Irenaeus had wanted to refer back to this time when John was seen by the elders as the occasion on which John would have declared the meaning of the name (which would make sense, as the number 666 was discussed on that occasion), it would have been natural for him to have repeated the verb.
John discussed 666 with the elders when he was seen by them … and if we were meant to know the meaning of the name in the present time, he would have declared it, because he was seen by them nearly in our generation.
Elsewhere Irenaeus speaks of the elders as those who saw John or other apostles:
- The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the kingdom, … as the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, related that they had heard from him. Haer. 5.33.3.
- But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth. Haer. 3.3.4
- those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord … And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also … Whether such men as these, or Ptolemaeus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle? Haer. 2.22.5
Hort thought this use of “to see” was an important consideration in interpreting Irenaeus’s use of the verb in our passage.
Irenaeus had referred both to the “ancient copies” of Revelation, and to Papias as “an ancient man,” and yet here he speaks of that which was seen as having been seen “nearly in our generation.” This points to John, not the vision, as the subject, for the point would have been that John was seen by the elders whose lives overlapped the lives of Irenaeus and his contemporaries; he was seen “nearly in our generation” because the previous generation had seen him.
4. The same verb is used throughout the book of Revelation of John seeing visions.
This was irrelevant as we already know the verb “to see” can be used of visions, and this doesn’t mean it can only be used of visions.
5. Later church fathers thought that the statement was “crystal clear.”
I knew Rochford had pulled this from Hitchcock’s dissertation, presumably without verifying it for himself, and so I decided simply to note that no church father other than Eusebius even discusses it, rather than challenging him to produce the names of these church fathers during the cross examination.
Invented by Westein
Rochford then characterized the interpretation “he was seen” as a “revisionist reading” invented by the preterist Wetstein, and he suggested that only preterists would find it plausible. Here again he was probably just following the lead of Hitchcock. Of course, just because a preterist suggested it doesn’t make it wrong, and many non-preterist scholars have acknowledged the possibility of the alternative interpretation, as I went on to show. The argument should have been evaluated on its own merits, minus loaded adjectives like “revisionist,” which beg the question and unfairly bias the audience (the genetic fallacy).
I also felt that Rochford misrepresented the evidence when he implied that no other interpretation was known before Wetstein. We know from the ancient Latin translation that Eusebius’ interpretation was not the only one.
Summary of Rochford‘s Case for Irenaeus
- Polycarp personally told Irenaeus about his conversations with John
- the grammar made the vision the subject because it was the nearest antecedent
- the verb “to see” was used of the apocalyptic vision
- the verb “to see” and was used of the visions in Revelation
- Revelation was the subject being discussed in the context of the passage
- there was no emphasis on John
- all the church fathers accepted the vision as the subject
- no-one else ever dreamed up any other interpretation until a preterist showed up 1500 years later
This sounds very persuasive, but it was for the most part simply not true:
- Irenaeus didn’t know Polycarp personally
- Greek doesn’t require the nearest possible antecedent
- Irenaeus does use the verb “to see” of John in the passage and of John and the apostles elsewhere
- This is irrelevant as the verb is not only used of visions, and in Irenaeus it is used of persons too
- John is the subject of the immediate context in Irenaeus and the apocalyptic vision is mentioned only for the first time in this sentence
- John was grammatically emphasized in the sentence
- no church fathers ever discussed it other than Eusebius
- there was another interpretation of Irenaeus which was likely much older than Eusebius’
This was far too much to be addressed in a 7 minute rebuttal, in which other matters also needed to be discussed. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to respond to some of these points during the cross examination.
“A long time previously”
I also appealed to Irenaeus, for he had stated that John wrote his Gospel to refute the errors that were being sown by Cerinthus, and which had been sown “a long time previously” by the Nicolaitans. Since Irenaeus placed Cerinthus at the time of the writing of the Gospel, and the Nicolaitans at the time of the writing of Revelation, and since he placed the Nicolaitans a “long time” prior to Cerinthus, he logically must have placed Revelation “a long time” prior to the Gospel also.
Rochford didn’t deny the logical implications of the argument. Instead, he dismissed the reference to a “long time previously” on the basis that the period wasn’t defined in years and was consequently a “nebulous” temporal marker.
Did Rochford actually believe that when Irenaeus said that the Nicolaitans had sown their doctrines “a long time previously” to Cerinthus (in around AD 98 at the latest), that he placed their activities in around AD 95, just three years earlier? Or was this just a contrived answer to evade the difficulty?
In fact he employed the “fallacy of the beard” that claims that something is invalid unless it can be defined precisely. We can’t define a precise moment when stubble becomes a beard, but we know the difference between the two. We can’t define “a long time” precisely, but we know the difference between a long time and a short time. And AD 95 is not “a long time prior” to AD 98 (the year John died, according to Eusebius’ Chronicle). Irenaeus’ own statements demand that he placed considerable time between the Gospel of John and his earlier Revelation.
The Time of the Nicolaitans
Rochford quickly changed the subject. He noted that Eusebius would have placed the Nicolaitans at the end of the first century, since he placed the writing of Revelation at that time.
Of course the argument is about what Irenaeus said, not what Eusebius said. This was another red herring. But Eusebius is useful in that he preserves the tradition that the Nicolaitans existed for a very short time, which he would have learned from a source, perhaps without realizing the discrepancy this created for his dating of Revelation
The Origin of the Nicolaitans
Rochford then steered the discussion into a question of whether Irenaeus’ origin narrative for the Nicolaitans was credible or not. No one disputes its questionable nature, nor the fact that it contradicted Clement’s view (though both associated the origin with the deacon Nicholas of Acts 6). Rochford must have known that this makes no difference to my argument that Irenaeus placed the Nicolaitans a long time prior to Cerinthus.
Rochford was just muddying the waters. Indeed, while he spent 15 seconds dismissing “a long time previously” as a nebulous time marker, he took up two or three minutes with these other, irrelevant points. His refutation of strawmen would in turn have given the audience the impression he had answered my evidence, when he hadn’t.
Clement of Alexandria
The Temporal Markers
Rochford dismissed the temporal markers indicating a long period of time in Clement’s narrative of John’s travels in Asia, following his return from Patmos, on the basis that people can fall away fast and be restored quickly.
But the point was, the narrative itself indicates that it was not a quick process, and is difficult if not impossible to fit into the period between Domitian’s death in AD 96 and John’s in AD 98, especially when even an individual part of the story (the young man leading a band of robbers) is said to have transpired over a “long time.”
John Could Not Walk and Could Hardly Talk in his Old Age
When I pointed out that Clement’s narrative of John’s travels best fitted an early period, as John couldn’t walk and could hardly talk in his extreme old age, according to a tradition preserved by Jerome, Rochford responded that if John could survive boiling oil, he could ride a horse.
But what has a miraculous event got to do with whether someone can ride a horse at a time when they would have otherwise–on the assumption of the late date–been bedridden? Was he suggesting that John received some miraculous enablement to ride the horse?
Clearly John’s journeys and exertions weren’t meant to be understood as miraculous, as the survival of the boiling oil was. John couldn’t walk and could hardly talk in his old age, making such travel across Asia at the end of the first century impossible. Rochford’s answer was again unconvincing and contrived.
The Exile of John
Rochford quoted Tertullian’s claim that John was sent into exile from Rome. He then argued that since he wasn’t executed like Peter and Paul, and since Domitian exiled people for religious beliefs (the charge of “atheism”), that John was exiled in Domitian’s reign.
I later challenged him on the claim that Domitian exiled people for their religious beliefs (see below).
I did point out that according to Tertullian, an attempt was made to kill John before he was exiled. It was the failure of the immersion in boiling oil that led to the exile. And we know that exile was used as a punishment for magic. We also know of at least about fifty people whom Nero exiled on various grounds, so it is certainly not the case that Domitian exiled and Nero didn’t.
Tertullian Logically Demands the Early Date
If Tertullian said that John was placed into oil by Nero (as Jerome records), and if he said that John was sent into exile upon his deliverance from the oil, then we have firm evidence for his Neronic placement of John’s exile–enough that an editor in the sixteenth century altered the text.
It’s a simple logical deduction. E.g.:
If someone said that they graduated from high school in the summer of 2018, and at another time they said that they flew to the Bahamas immediately after their high school graduation, without providing a date, we would correctly deduce that they visited the Bahamas in 2018.
Dismissing a Fragment
Rochford claimed that it was a “problem” that the text only survives in the quotation by Jerome. This was a red herring. It is common for fragments of otherwise lost works to be preserved in later writers, and the very Greek text of Irenaeus’ statement to which he appeals as his chief source survives only in the quotation of Eusebius, a later writer.
Rochford further claimed that this story seemed to him to be hagiography on Jerome’s part. Hagiography was a literary genre that attached fictional anecdotes to saintly figures out of a misguided piety. Basically Rochford was saying that Jerome made up the information.
But Jerome wasn’t writing hagiography; he was a historian, like Eusebius, and he matter-of-factly cites Tertullian as the source of his claims, including that John was placed in the oil by Nero and that he came out fresher than before. Rochford’s misattribution of the genre was no more than a ploy designed to evade the logical implications of Jerome’s quotation from Tertullian.
Now the story of the boiling oil may be apocryphal, but Tertullian (and Jerome) evidently believed it to be true, and he placed it (along with John’s exile) in Nero’s reign.
He further claimed that if Jerome can interpret Tertullian, then Eusebius can interpret Irenaeus. This made little sense. There was nothing ambiguous about Jerome’s citation that required interpretation, and had Jerome attempted to interpret him, he would no doubt have done so in favor of the Domitianic dating which he held, not the Neronian one.
Domitian Mentioned in Context
There was also more smoke and mirrors as Rochford noted that in the context, Jerome placed John’s exile in Domitian’s reign, as though that had some bearing on the citation from Tertullian. No one is denying that Jerome held the late date (he relied heavily on Eusebius’ work). The fact he quoted Tertullian expressing a different view only strengthens the case that the mention of Nero goes back to Tertullian.
Acts of John
I wish I had noted that the Acts of John says that John spent four years just in Smyrna alone, during his travels in Asia. Clearly we are talking of a long period of ministry in Asia, culminating in John’s death, as Clement apparently is.
While this might have been the weakest piece of evidence (it rules out a Domitianic date, but it only allows the possibility of a Neronian one), the evidence is very suggestive that the work depicted the exile in its lost beginning, since:
a) it commences at Miletus, near Ephesus, which is where John is said to have been shipwrecked following his release from Patmos, in other traditions.
b) it seems to have originally recorded John as visiting all seven churches of Revelation, in order, upon his return. This suggests that he had already received the letters to the churches.
c) it depicts John’s final return to Ephesus after visiting Laodicea, and his death there, with no mention of an exile under Domitian.
d) its narrative complements Clement’s and seems to reflect the same tradition of John’s travelling through Asia and visiting the churches upon his return from exile.
This was all dismissed as “inferential,” as though it carried no logical implications for the late date.
He also portrayed the text as very unreliable, on the basis that it has been reconstructed by scholarship. Perhaps he did after all see that the text posited a challenge for the late date.
Summary of My Evidence
- Irenaeus placed Revelation a long time previous to John’s Gospel, written no later than AD 98. AD 95/96 is not a “long time previous” to AD 98.
- Tertullian both placed the boiling in oil at the time of John’s exile, and (in a citation preserved by Jerome) he placed it in Nero’s reign.
- Clement records John’s travels in Asia following his return from exile, and one particular story seems to have occurred over numerous years and is difficult to compress into the period AD 96 to AD 98.
- According to a tradition preserved by Jerome, John could hardly talk and couldn’t walk in his extreme old age, which is consistent with an earlier context for Clement’s narrative.
- The Acts of John does not relate any exile of John during his final years in Ephesus; indications suggest that it had likely been related in its lost beginning, set long before the end of Domitian’s reign.
There was no serious interaction with any of these points.
Does Victorinus Disagree with Eusebius’ Late Date?
I noted that according to Victorinus, John had grown old on Patmos, and so had been there for many years, whereas Eusebius had claimed that he was there only a short time, having been sent there during the persecution at the end of Domitian’s reign.
I asked Rochford if he accepted that Victorinus was not evidence for Eusebius’ view that John was sent into exile late in Domitian’s reign. After some hesitation, he mused that perhaps Victorinus just meant that John was an old man at the end of his stay, but he then abruptly conceded that there was a discrepancy between Eusebius and Victorinus.
Muddying the Waters
Rochford then made reference to one of my books in which I argued that the early Christians understood John the son of Zebedee and John the Evangelist as two separate figures. After turning my two Johns into four or five (I couldn’t make out the third one), including both the “Elder” and the “Presbyter”–when these are two different translations of the same title–he said that I argue from “divergent traditions.”
I felt that this was underhanded and constituted a subtle ad hominem. “This guy just picks holes in the narratives, and look where it’s got him–five Johns!” He must have known that the audience for the most part would have held to the traditional view that there was one John, and that bringing up (a straw man of) my position would have unfairly undermined my credibility.
An opponent is expected to direct their arguments against the issues at hand. Obviously I wasn’t in a position to defend my thesis on the identity of John the Evangelist during a discussion of Victorinus.
Victorinus the Mid-Dater
Rochford then commenced another line of argumentation: Even if Victorinus held an 80s date for Revelation, it would still be under Domitian. However, the debate was over whether Revelation was written early (65/66) or late (95/96), not whether it was written under Domitian (81-96) or in AD 65 (“moving the goalposts”).
He had just argued for a late c. AD 95 date from Irenaeus, his chief potential piece of evidence from before Eusebius, and so I pointed out that he couldn’t argue for the AD 95 date and cite Victorinus, anymore than I could argue for an AD 65 date and cite the Muratorian Canon, which places Revelation in c. AD 60 (the earlier part of Nero’s reign), or earlier.
The Muratorian Canon
Rochford responded that I couldn’t claim the Muratorian Canon for an earlier Neronian date as it only allows a Claudian date, since Paul began writing in Claudius’ reign. He then noted that the MC mentioned Galatians, which was written AD 48/49 (I guess he holds to the southern Galatian view), and 1 Thessalonians, dated to AD 50, and these would be before Nero (whose reign commenced in AD 54). He added that the MC gets the order of Paul’s letters wrong.
Rochford omitted to mention that the MC mentions 1 Corinthians, written c. AD 55 or in Nero’s reign (it mentions these three separately but it lists all of Paul’s letters to the churches, though in an unusual order–see below).
I pointed out that if Paul was following the example of his predecessor John when writing to seven churches, as the MC claims, then this need only mean that Paul finished writing his seven letters after Revelation, which would allow a date up to the early 60s (assuming the traditional dating of Philippians).
This was already acknowledged by Mark Hitchcock in his dissertation, on which Rochford was heavily dependent for his online article on the subject:
… following Gentry’s argument would mean that Revelation must have been written earlier than the last of these seven Pauline epistles, which would be the epistle to the Philippians, which is normally dated near the end of Paul’s two-year period of house arrest in Rome, in A.D. 61-62.“A Defense of the Domitianic Date of the Book of Revelation,” (PhD diss, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2005), 52.
Rochford nevertheless maintained that while I couldn’t use the MC, he could use Victorinus. Apparently the debate could only be Domitianic vs. AD 65, not Domitianic vs. Neronian or AD 65 vs. AD 95. This is equivocation with respect to definition of “early” and “late.”
Implying Chronological Error in the MC
Rochford also brought up that the MC has an irregular order of Paul’s letters, which he implied reflected a flawed chronology (“they’re not even in the right order,” accompanied with a snigger). Nevertheless, he still cited Irenaeus (as I did), even though he believed Jesus lived to nearly 50, and he still cited Victorinus, even though he mistakenly claims that John was sent to the mines on Patmos (there were no mines on Patmos, and his claim contradicts the earlier Tertullian, who stated that John received the far less harsh sentence of relegatio). Presumably the presence of mistakes only invalidates documents when they are supportive of the early date.
The order in the Muratorian Canon is in any case likely derived from earlier arrangements of Paul’s letters in the manuscripts, based on size and other non-chronological considerations (i.e. as Mitton and others showed). He assumed it was chronological.
Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians
Rochford wrongly claimed that according to Polycarp, the church in Smyrna didn’t exist during Paul’s ministry. I quoted the passage and pointed out that it only stated that there was no church in Smyrna at the time of Paul’s writing of Philippians.
I noted that the Life of Polycarp by Pionius records Paul visiting the church at Smyrna, which at the latest would have been shortly before his Roman imprisonment. However, it would have strengthened my position had I put a date to this, which would have been around AD 62 or 63.
If there was a church in Smyrna in 62, then there is no problem with such a church being addressed in Revelation three or four years later.
Beckwith and Charles
The moderator (a late dater) quoted (from Hitchcock’s dissertation, and with not a small hint of an appeal to authority) Beckwith’s mistaken assertion that Polycarp claimed that the church at Smyrna didn’t exist during Paul’s ministry. This is not what Polycarp said, as I had just pointed out, and as has been pointed out by others like Robinson. He also cited Hitchcock’s quotation of Charles’s view that there was not enough time between the writing of Philippians and an early date of Revelation, but Charles dated Philippians to as late as AD 64, which wouldn’t find much, if any, support in scholarship today.
How Long was the Church in Smyrna in Existence?
Rochford now seemed to accept that Polycarp had only stated that the church at Smyrna didn’t exist at the time of Paul’s writing to the Philippians, but he maintained that the church had been in existence for too long at the time of the writing of Revelation for it to allow both an early date of Revelation and a writing of Philippians in AD 60.
The Smyrnaean church seems to have existed for some time; where they were under persecution, and so forth.
On this precarious basis he claimed that an AD 60 dating of Philippians ruled out an AD 65/66 dating of Revelation. He had dismissed my logical deductions from early sources on the basis that they were only “inferential,” yet he treated this tenuous supposition as fact.
I noted in passing that I held to the dating of Philippians during an earlier Ephesian imprisonment (AD 54/55). I considered the matter inconsequential (I had arrived at this view years before I adopted the early dating of Revelation).
Since Rochford had excluded the possibility of holding both to the early date of Revelation and to the traditional dating of Philippians, he portrayed the Ephesian imprisonment hypothesis as groundless.
Thus, without even having established why the Roman imprisonment hypothesis (i.e. AD 60 date of Philippians) ruled out the early date of Revelation, he proceeded with a relatively lengthy argument for the Roman provenance (which he had obviously rehearsed), complete with the names of supportive evangelical scholars.
I could have not mentioned the Ephesian hypothesis and have simply stated that the five or six years between the writing of Philippians in AD 60 and Revelation in AD 65/66 were sufficient, while noting the evidence of the Life of Polycarp by Pionius that a church existed in Smyrna in c. AD 62. Instead my mention of it provided Rochford with opportunity to go off at another lengthy tangent. Moreover, he never did acknowledge the evidence in the Life of Polycarp; perhaps this was just another “divergence” to be dismissed as inconsequential.
No opportunity was given to me to respond to his arguments or the moderator’s.
Appeal to Authority
Rochford appealed to “Homer Kent, Craig Blomberg, and Gordon Fee” as favoring the Roman imprisonment. The fact some scholars hold it is not an argument in itself. This came across more like an appeal to authority than an acknowledgement of scholarly support, designed to undermine my position and unfairly bias the audience in his favor.
When I mentioned I held to the Ephesian view, I didn’t introduce it as: “I believe the Ephesian hypothesis, like Carson and Moo” (and, in fact, like the majority of New Testament scholars). Instead I stated that there was scholarly support for all three positions. He did the same with the question of the identity of John: “I believe in the traditional view, like Carson, Keener, and Köstenberger.” Well, I don’t, like Hengel, Bauckham, and Behr. So what? Let’s stick to the evidence.
Evidence for the Ephesian Imprisonment
The early date doesn’t rely on one particular view of the imprisonment, but even if it did, the Ephesian hypothesis would not have been something that could be cavalierly dismissed in a few minutes:
- Travel between Philippi and Rome was a major undertaking, which involved about six or seven weeks of travel, compared to a week or so between Philippi and Ephesus; and sailing was only possible for six months of the year. Philippians seems to suggest there were multiple journeys between Paul and Philippi:
- Philippi received news of Paul’s imprisonment
- Epaphroditus journeyed to Paul from Philippi
- News reached Philippi that Epaphroditus was sick
- Epaphroditus journeyed back to Philippi with the letter from Paul
- Paul plans to soon send Timothy
- Paul plans to shortly come himself
- Paul planned to visit Asia at the time of writing, yet according to Romans Paul had planned to visit Spain after Rome, not Asia.
- There is ancient evidence in a prologue to Colossians that the imprisonment was at Ephesus.
- Many argue that contingents of the praetorium guard were stationed throughout the empire, though this is rigorously denied by others. It is claimed in Carson and Moo’s Introducing the New Testament (p. 108), for example.
- There were about 9,000 praetorium guards at Rome, and it seems unlikely that they had all heard of Paul.
Arguments against Ephesus rely heavily on F. F. Bruce’s case, but none of these (to my knowledge) interact with Reumann’s rebuttal in his commentary on Philippians (Anchor Yale). He notes that a praetorium is known from inscriptional evidence to have been the name given for the headquarters of a proconsul, the governor of a senatorial province. Rochford wasn’t aware of it, as his argument relied upon the fact that Asia was a senatorial province to argue against the Ephesian view.
Failure to Acknowledge Alternative Interpretations
Rochford failed to acknowledge that reasonable alternative interpretations of the evidence exist, giving instead the impression that he had decisively settled the matter in just a few minutes (as if the majority of New Testament scholars had never considered his objections before).
Even if the early dating of Revelation were reliant on the Ephesian (or Caesarean) hypothesis (it isn’t), it still would not be a tenable position to exclude an early dating of Revelation based upon a disputed dating of Philippians.
This argument is considered suspect even by some late daters. Thus, Adela Yarbo Collins concedes that the earthquake in 60 is of no help in dating the book, since Laodicea restored itself without imperial help.
Rochford cited the Sibylline Oracles for the claim that it took twenty years to rebuild Laodicea. In fact, they simply state that Laodicea would be restored, and since this is believed to have been written after the fact, and in around the year 80, it can be deduced that Laodicea was already rebuilt in 80, not that the rebuilding was completed in that year.
The Domitianic Persecution
“Atheism” was a Pretext for Confiscating Wealth
The Roman historians stated that Domitian persecuted Roman aristocrats on various pretexts, including “atheism”, adultery, gladiator fighting, and consulting with astrologers. I asked how John’s exile would fit that context.
Rochford responded that while the Roman historians stated that aristocrats were executed and exiled by Domitian, it does not follow that only aristocrats were persecuted, and he provides as his example Domitilla who was exiled for atheism. I had to point out that Domitilla was an aristocrat and one of the leading women in Rome. His evidence for the exception was no exception. “Atheism” was one of the charges directed against the aristocracy.
Instead of conceding the point, Rochford, quoting G. Beale and C. Blomberg (again, with not a little hint of an appeal to authority), proceeded to frame the Domitianic persecution as one that provides evidence of people being persecuted for their religious beliefs, as though I had never pointed out that the ones accused on account of their religious beliefs were exclusively aristocrats. This is equivocation.
Yes, some aristocrats were (ostensibly at least) persecuted on account of their religious beliefs, but only if they had estates worth stealing. The charge of “atheism” was one pretext among many, nothing more. If those persons who were persecuted weren’t prominent and wealthy Romans, whose estates could be confiscated, they wouldn’t have been targeted, whether guilty of “atheism” or not.
Rochford responded, “well of course those secular historians would emphasize that.” Wait a second. The Roman historians only speak of the charge of atheism as being directed against aristocrats, but Rochford had just arbitrarily posited that in fact others were persecuted too, and that the only reason we don’t know about it is because the historians–on whose accounts we are dependent–were too biased to mention it! He framed their claims in a misleading and equivocal way and he then accused the historians of bias for not including the details he arbitrarily invented. He failed to respond to my point that the motivation given for this persecution was to seize estates, which would only be applicable to aristocrats.
Hegesippus and Tertullian Not Referring to the Same Persecution
Hegesippus and Tertullian speak of a persecution of Christians by Domitian which he himself brought an end to, which is inconsistent with the persecution spoken of by the Roman historians, which ended only with Domitian’s death.
There simply wasn’t time to go further in depth with this, but according to the fifth century Acts of John at Rome, this happened at the beginning of Domitian’s reign (it relates that it happened after the destruction of Jerusalem and following Vespasian’s death, and it states that he would reign for many years). It has been suggested that Hegesippus mistook Domitian for Titus (e.g. Bauckham, Sordi), since he speaks of Domitian seeking out the descendants of David (not Christians as such) following the destruction of Jerusalem (n.b. I note scholars to show that there are alternative scholarly explanations, not to prove the point).
My Questioning Doesn’t Provide Evidence for Neronian Date
Rochford objected to my questioning on the basis that it didn’t establish a Neronian dating, but that was my time for cross examination of his position, not for me to defend my position.
The Ambiguous Case for the Late Date
Rochford did get considerable mileage out of an ambiguous statement of Irenaeus, which formed the crux of his argument, even though his interpretation contradicts Irenaeus himself (who placed Revelation “a long time previously” to the Gospel) and the ancient Latin translator’s rendering. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that the entire late date case basically boils down to Irenaeus. I couldn’t imagine having to defend a thesis on the grounds of one piece of ambiguous evidence, but he convincingly pulled it off.
The Case against the Early Date
My Evidence is Inferential While His is Referential
In his closing statement, Rochford maintained the claim that I had only inferential evidence while his case was based on “clear and explicit” references.
Inferential evidence is based on logical deduction. It is not merely suggestive evidence. My three major pieces of evidence (Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement) provide information that logically demands an early date. Denying that “a long time” means “a long time,” and denying that we can use fragments of lost works, are simply not legitimate objections.
Rochford could not concede that there was any ambiguity with Irenaeus’ statement, or that Victorinus wasn’t supportive of the late date. Rather, in what was a classic begging of the question, he maintained that these sources were “clear,” and I was trying “to disprove” them.
Clear Evidence Before Eusebius?
I had of course asked him during the cross-examination for just one piece of unambiguous evidence for the late placement of John’s exile and/or of Revelation before Eusebius, a source for which there isn’t any disagreement among leading scholars. First he said that Eusebius follows Victorinus. Actually there’s no evidence for this. He also answered with, “Irenaeus as interpreted by Eusebius.” Clearly that isn’t unambiguous, if it has to be mediated through Eusebius’ interpretation, and in any case I asked for a clear statement from before Eusebius.
But his main argument was that the question wasn’t fair, as scholars “are going to debate everything: especially the church fathers.” This was an exaggeration. To emphasize his point, he added that “you’re an academic” (appeal to flattery) and must know that scholars have to “publish or perish” and so challenge everything.
Rochford added: “to say that, [i.e.] ‘what is a source on which reputable, serious scholars do not debate?,’ come on, you know better than that.” This was a straw man (as well as another “appeal to flattery,” and an “appeal to ridicule”–i.e. painting the question as too absurd to warrant a response). Scholars discuss sources, but that doesn’t mean that the interpretation of every single statement is contested. I replied that Victorinus’ placement of John’s exile in Domitian’s reign isn’t contested, and with an incredulous voice, he replied, “no-one debates that?” Of course they don’t.
He concluded that this question–asking for one clear piece of evidence–was requiring an “extraordinary burden of proof” before claiming that he had one good piece of evidence and that all my evidence was inferential.
He thus would not concede at all that there was a difference between a piece of evidence that is grammatically ambiguous and for which alternative arguments can be made, like Irenaeus, and a text making a straightforward claim (e.g., like Victorinus, who dated it to Domitian’s reign, or Epiphanius, who dated it to that of Claudius).
I was arguing from historical divergences
I had argued that his position could not reconcile the sources; that it brought Jerome (John couldn’t walk) into contradiction with Clement (John can run), Irenaeus into contradiction with himself (Revelation seen late in Domitian’s reign, and written a long time before John’s Gospel), and the Roman historians into contradiction with Hegesippus (Domitian’s exiles released after his death vs Domitian releasing them himself). It also threw out the Life of Polycarp.
That my point was valid was confirmed by Rochford himself, because in his conclusion he claimed that when we look at the ancient writings, we find that there were a “plethora” and “myriad” of difficulties with the early view, and he added that his view possessed “the most explanatory power” and that it “explained the most amount of data.” That is, he claimed the very things that he criticized me for claiming.
Did he not realize the contradiction? When I pointed out the contradictions his view creates, I was told that “every view has difficulties.” But then he goes on to claim that his view is preferable because it doesn’t create a myriad of difficulties like mine does!
And what exactly are these difficulties that the early date creates? What data did my view not explain?
How Many Johns?
I had not brought up the question of the identification of John in the debate, as it wasn’t directly relevant. I had even argued points based on the traditional view. E.g. I attempted to answer Rochford’s argument from 2 Timothy–that John isn’t mentioned–on this basis, even though I actually do believe John is mentioned in that letter (that is, as the John named Mark), and I didn’t use arguments I could have used had I held the traditional identification (e.g. I didn’t utilize Clement’s claim that the ministry of the twelve was finished by the death of Nero). Thus, I allowed the fact I didn’t hold it to go entirely in his favor, not using arguments based on the traditional identification while answering his points from the vantage point of the traditional view.
Nevertheless, both Rochford (see above) and the moderator brought up my work in relation to this question. In the comments section, the moderator said: “Not to be mean or anything but im not sure we have really heard much about the identity of this supposed different john yet.” What was that supposed to mean? Why was I supposed to bring it up in a debate on the dating of Revelation?
Towards the end of the discussion, Rochford asserted Occam’s Razor in favor of there having only been one John. But the question is, what do the historical sources say? If Papias says there were two Johns, and if there are two separate traditions, one of the early martyrdom of John the son of Zebedee in Jerusalem, and one of the natural death of the Evangelist in Ephesus at the end of the first century, and if the Zebedean John was a Galilean fisherman and the Evangelist was (as many sources state) an aristocratic, Levitical Jerusalemite, then the thesis that there were two Johns would in fact be the simplest explanation. The appeal to Occam’s Razor was a “fallacy fallacy.”
My arguments were met with contrived reasoning, logical fallacies, equivocation, and smoke and mirrors, all presented with assurance and poise. None of these have any place in any formal debate.
Nevertheless, I failed to press this to my advantage; I made my own points too quickly and without emphasis, and I did not aggressively expose his points, thinking they were so obviously contrived that the audience would see through them.
Having said that, it was my first debate, and I felt not a little blindsided by it all, and I was not expecting to be inundated with fallacies and contrived answers.
Ultimately, the audience, no matter their views, deserved to hear a fair presentation of the evidence for both sides.
Nevertheless, I am glad that many people found the debate informative, notwithstanding the many problems.
I made some minor errors in my presentation, though none of them affected the debate in any way.
- I was supposed to say that the twelfth-century source recorded John being shipwrecked at Miletus on his way back to Ephesus from Patmos, not exiled on Miletus.
- The commentary that talks about the Syriac possibly being as old as the fourth century was Koester, not Knox.
- The traditions say that either the bishops of Asia or the companions of John (I accidentally said “companions of Paul”) came to John.
- I said there were two Johns–the Elder and the Evangelist. That should have been the Apostle, son of Zebedee, and the Evangelist (or Elder).