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.
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 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 has been misinterpreted. Irenaeus did not claim that “the apocalyptic vision was seen late in Domitian’s reign” but that “John was seen” by the elders when they came to him on a specific occasion at that time.
The chapter accepts that earlier attempts at arguing for John as the subject were mistaken when they attempted to argue that by “he was seen,” Irenaeus was referring to the elders’ life-long interaction with John.
This explanation fails to satisfactorily account for the use of the aorist tense of the verb and for the nuances of the preposition προς in “at the end of Domitian’s reign,” both of which naturally suggest a point in time, not a period of decades.
The chapter notes that it was the unlikelihood that Irenaeus could have been speaking of John’s being seen over a long period which compelled even early daters like Westcott and Robinson to concede the standard interpretation of Irenaeus (i.e. that he referred to the apocalyptic vision, not John, as that which was seen).
Earlier in the passage, Irenaeus speaks of the elders who saw John face to face. The chapter claims therefore that ἑωράθη is referring back to this occasion, and it further associates this with the widespread early tradition of the elders coming to John late in his life (some place it late in Domitian’s reign) and imploring him to write his Gospel, the sources for which (the Muratorian Canon, Clement of Alexandria, Victorinus, and Jerome, et al.) are discussed elsewhere in the work.
Irenaeus’ argument is that John would have declared to the elders the name of the Antichrist, had its fulfillment been imminent, for they saw him at the end of the first century, close to Irenaeus’ own period. Since John, the one who saw the apocalyptic vision, did not declare it to them at that time, Irenaeus concluded that the fulfillment was not imminent.
The Latin Translation
Additional support for this interpretation is provided by the ancient (probably pre-Eusebian) Latin translation of Irenaeus’ words (visum est). This could make John the subject (grammatical evidence is provided from recent linguistic research into the use of the accusative subject in passive constructions in the Latin language), but it cannot have referred to the apocalyptic vision as the subject (which would have been visa est).
The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke (c. 190)
This second century work, while not direct evidence for the early date, does claim that John wrote Revelation before he wrote his Gospel, which is consistent with the evidence of Irenaeus (later the book argues that both sources were dependent upon Papias).
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 show that the story must have been envisioned as taking place over many years. Additional support for this is provided from Chrysostom.
Furthermore, this narrative cannot be fitted into the brief time between the death of Domitian in 96 and John’s death by the end of the first century. And according to Jerome, John could not even walk in his old age, whereas in this story John is said to have traveled on horseback and to have vigorously pursued the robber. Instead, this narrative was set sometime between John’s return from exile after Nero’s death and the onset of John’s extreme old age, during a decades-long ministry in Asia.
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, 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 Minor 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.
In other sections of this work, evidence is provided for the early martyrdom of John the Apostle (see summary here), which is placed in Jerusalem in the fifties, late in Claudius’ reign.
This is constructed from various sources, including the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Papias, ancient martyrologies, Heracleon, the Acts of Andrew, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus of Rome, the Muratorian Canon, Origen, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Aphrahat of Nineveh, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Latin Incomplete Commentary on Matthew. However, according to the chapter, it was not the Apostle John but another eyewitness disciple named John that was associated with the writing of the Gospel and Revelation.
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