Summarized from Chapter 7 of The Identity of John the Evangelist: Revision and Reinterpretation in Early Christian Sources (Lanham: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2020) by Dean Furlong, PhD. An earlier version was published as chapter 6 of my dissertation which can be read for free.
When was Revelation written, according to early Christian sources?
This chapter challenges the dominant view that the early Christians dated John’s exile late in Domitian’s reign, arguing instead that the earliest sources (Irenaeus, the Acts of John, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria) held to the tradition of John’s Neronian banishment.
It does not discuss sources which placed John’s exile in Claudius’s reign (e.g. Epiphanius, Muratorian Canon, Dionysius of Alexandria, Origen (?) Apringius), which are discussed separately in Chapter 4.
Eusebius’s construction of the Domitianic date was discussed in Chapter 6.
Irenaeus (c. 185)
Irenaeus claims that at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, Cerinthus was actively disseminating his teachings, which the Nicolaitans had also disseminated “a long time previously” (Haer. 3.11.1). Elsewhere Irenaeus states that the Nicolaitans were active at the time of the writing of Revelation (Haer. 1.26.3), suggesting that he also placed the writing of Revelation “a long time previously” to the writing of the Gospel.
Irenaeus likely placed Cerinthus (who was, according to him, contemporary with the publication of John’s Gospel) at the end of the first century, since he relates that he was known by Polycarp (Haer. 3.3.4), who was martyred in the mid second century. Thus:
- Time of Cerinthus = end of first century = time of John’s Gospel
- Time of Nicolaitans = “a long time previous” to Cerinthus = time of Revelation
More on the Nicolaitans
According to Eusebius, the Nicolaitans “subsisted for a very short time” (Hist. eccl. 3.29.1). The chapter also notes that 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); these two were active in Asia at the end of Paul’s life (i.e. during Nero’s reign).
If this represented a common tradition, then Irenaeus would have placed the Nicolaitans—and Revelation—in the 60s and Cerinthus—and the Gospel of John—in the 90s of the common era.
“He was Seen“
Irenaeus is often believed to have claimed that the apocalyptic vision was seen (ἑωράθη) by John at the end of Domitian’s reign (προς τῷ τέλει τῆς Δομετιανοῦ ἀρχῆς). This passage was discussed in Chapter 6.
The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke (c. 190)
This second century work, while not direct evidence for the early date, does claim that “John first wrote Revelation in the island of Patmos, and afterwards the Gospel (Latin adds: “in Asia”), which is consistent with the evidence of Irenaeus discussed above.
Tertullian (c. 205)
Tertullian speaks of Rome as the place,
where Peter attains to the suffering of the Lord, where Paul is crowned with the departure of John [i.e. was beheaded], where the apostle John, after he was plunged into boiling oil, having suffered nothing, is exiled to an island.Praescr. 36
Tertullian does not specifically say that John was exiled at the same time as Peter and Paul were martyred, though some scholars believe it is implied.
But Jerome records an otherwise lost statement of Tertullian which claimed that John was plunged into the boiling oil by Nero:
moreover, Tertullian relates that, having been thrown into a terracotta jar of burning oil by Nero (a Nerone missus in ferventis olei dolium), he came out cleaner and more vigorous than when he entered.Jov. 1.26
The reading “by Nero,” found in all the manuscripts, was amended by an editor to read Romae (“at Rome”) because of its support for the Neronian exile (the editor justified this on the basis that we know the exile happened in Domitian’s reign).
Jerome’s source could not have been Tertullian’s extant Prescription of Heretics as he quotes details about the oil incident (e.g. that John came out more youthful) which are not found in that work. Instead, he probably quoted from one of Tertullian’s lost works.
- Tertullian states that “the apostle John, after he was plunged into boiling oil, having suffered nothing, is exiled to an island,” showing the close connection of the events.
- Tertullian (as quoted by Jerome) states that John was thrown into the boiling oil in Nero’s reign.
- Therefore, if Tertullian made both statements, he must have placed both the oil incident and the exile that followed it in the reign of Nero.
Jerome also cited unnamed “ecclesiastical histories” as relating that John was “immediately” (statim) sent into exile after surviving being plunged into the boiling oil.
The source could not have been Tertullian, as he did not write an ecclesiastical history. This thus seems to suggest yet another independent source of a tradition which associated the oil immersion with the exile. The chapter suggests Hegesippus’ Memoirs as the “histories” referred to and as Tertullian’s source for the tradition.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 200)
The chapter discusses Clement’s story of the robber captain who fell from the faith and was later restored to it by John, which Clement places sometime after John’s return from exile. Indications in the text suggest that the story was envisioned as taking place over many years.
Thus, John is travelling through the surrounding region, appointing bishops in the churches. On one occasion, John visited a city not far from Ephesus (the Chronicon Paschale identifies it with Smyrna, about 45 miles north of Ephesus) and committed a young man (νεανίσκος) to the pastoral care of the bishop of the church there. This bishop “reared him” (ἔτρεφεν) in the faith, “kept him and at last (τὸ τελευταῖον) enlightened [i.e. baptized] him.”
The Fall of the Young Man
At this point, the bishop relaxed his care, and the young man began at first (πρῶτον) attending extravagant feasts with youths his own age; next (εἶτά) they took him on night-time robberies and then (εἶτά) they urged him on to greater crimes. Gradually (κατʼ ὀλίγον) he became accustomed to this way of life until he finally (τελέως) renounced salvation; casting aside all restraint, Clement continues, he went on to form his own band of robbers and excelled in violence and murder.
Chrysostom, who apparently also knows the traditions, stated that the young man “first became a disciple of John, but later was a chief of robbers for a long time (ἐπὶ πολὺν χρόνον)” (ad Theod. 1. 17).
After some time (χρόνος ἐν μέσῳ), John returned to the city on account of some business and made inquiries after the young man. When he was informed of what had transpired, he called for a horse and set out for the robbers’ outpost, intending to be taken into custody so that he might be brought before the young man, their leader.
When the young man recognized John, he is said to have turned and fled rather than face him. John, however, “forgetful of his age (ἡλικία), rigorously (ἀνὰ κράτος) pursued him, shouting out, ‘why do you flee from me, child, from your own father, from this unarmed old man (γέρων)?’” John is said to have successfully entreated him to return to the faith and to have subsequently brought him back to the church, joining with him in continual fasting.
The Narrative Supports an Early Date
The temporal markers used by Clement in the account do not give an impression that these events unfolded rapidly. Probably the young man’s instruction, baptism, gradual falling away, time as a robber bandit and eventual restoration to the faith took place over the course of a number of years.
If the tyrant were Domitian, who was killed in the year 96, and if John died around the year 98, this would require a great compression of the narrative which seems to go against a natural reading of it. It does not seem to provide enough time for the young man’s instruction, falling away, time as a robber captain, and restoration.
Furthermore, according to Jerome, John could not even walk in his old age, and could hardly talk, whereas in this story John is said to have traveled on horseback and to have vigorously pursued the robber and to have shouted out to him.
The Acts of John (c. 200)
The extant text of this second- or third-century Gnostic work begins with John sailing to Ephesus from Miletus, after which it relates a lengthy account of John’s Asian ministry (e.g. he stays just in Smyrna for four years), culminating in the story of John’s death.
The exile is not mentioned in the extant text, but some scholars think it was probably related in the lost beginning of the work (especially since Miletus is a natural stopping point from Patmos to Ephesus). This narrative is consistent with that proposed for Clement, of a long ministry of John in Asia following his return from exile.
The chapter also provides evidence that the Acts of John envisioned this ministry as occurring over decades, and it argues that John probably visited all seven churches of Revelation, in order, during this time, citing Tertullian, the Passio Iohannis, of Ps.-Melito, and other works in support.
The Neronian exile is attested in Syriac versions of Revelation which may date to as early as the fourth century. It is also attested in the Syriac work entitled the History of John, which may also have been written as early as the fourth century.
Tyconius of Carthage (fl. 380)
Tyconius identified the sixth king of John’s vision (of whom it is said “one is”) as Nero, suggesting that he or his source placed the vision in Nero’s reign.
The chapter also discusses the dating of John’s exile in the Acts of John by Prochorus, Acts of John in Rome (a late work occasionally confused with the far earlier Acts of John), Andreas of Caesarea, and Arethas of Caesarea.
An earlier version can be found in chapter 6 of my dissertation, which you can read for free here.
The latest version of the research can be found here:
You may also view the debate that I had on this subject with James Rochford. Unfortunately the debate was characterized by numerous fallacies and erroneous claims, only a fraction of which I was able to deal with during the time allotted. For more information, see here.
For full list of articles on the subject, see here.