Tuesday, 13 December 2016

"The Book of Revelation"

In Chapter VIII of Redating the New Testament, Robinson addresses the date of Revelation. Throughout my posts on Robinson, a general theme has emerged: Robinson was right to reject the fixation upon Domitian's reign that has bedeviled the chronology of the New Testament writings since Lightfoot, but in the process of so doing he replaced it with a fixation upon the end of Nero's reign. If Robinson reads of persecution in an epistle, he seems to almost automatically see Nero lurking in the background. I think that in the case of, for instance, the Petrine epistles and Jude, this leads him into possible blind alleys. With Revelation, he is probably quite right to detect Nero haunting the text, and I find his consequent decision to place the text in the late 60s quite compelling.

Revelation has what the other texts that Robinson places during the latter days of Nero's reign lacks: a fairly clear reference to Nero, namely the statement that the number of the beast is the number of a man, the famous "666" (Rev. 13:18). From what I know of the matter, it seems to be near-universally agreed among critical commentators that this is a reference to Nero, the sum of whose letters in Hebrew (where each letter had a numerical value) would indeed be 666. There is also a suggestion that the one of the beasts' heads had suffered a fatal wound, but would return, healed (13:3): a statement generally taken to refer to the manner of Nero's death (head wound, inflicted by a servant acting at Nero's behest) and the widespread belief that he would one day return. This would seem to suppose that Nero is already dead. Even those who hold to a Domitianic date generally have to concede this reference to Nero, and that it likely means that much of the imagery in Revelation is related to the latter days of his reign as well as perhaps the chaos of the Year of Four Emperors (68-69 C.E.) that intervened between Nero's death and the founding of the Flavian dynasty. Such persons have to resort to expediencies such as suggesting that a Domitianic writer is making use of material from the Neronian or immediate post-Neronian period. Robinson simply takes the step of identifying that later Domitianic context as unnecessary, and thus situating the Revelation around the time with which it seems most immediately concerned. As is his tendency, he also seeks to show how the Revelation supposes a situation in which the Jerusalem temple still stands, and indeed it is not clear to me how one could read chapter 11 without thinking that that this was the case.

But what of the traditions that John was banished to Patmos by Domitian, and then restored by Nerva? Surely that must suggest that John's banishment occurred in the 90s, towards the end of Domitian's reign, and his return sometime in 96 or 97, during Nerva's reign of barely a year (we talk about Nerva reigning from 96 to 98, but really he became emperor in September of 96 and died in January of 98, making his reign approximately 16 months long). And surely he must have written the Revelation during that banishment. But surely is that? Here Robinson discusses at length the ingenuous explanation earlier proposed in George Edmundson's 1913 study of the early church in Rome (a study that has only been equaled in my opinion by Lampe's From Paul to Valentinus, and which exceeds Lampe's in terms of "basic history"). The Year of the Four Emperors ended with the elevation of Vespasian to emperor on July 1, 69. But Vespasian was busy in the East, and his eldest son Titus was tied up with the revolt in Judea. In his stead, his eighteen-year-old son, the future emperor Domitian, functioned as emperor. Indeed, for the first half of 70 he was granted that title in Rome. Domitian was draconian in putting down any dissent against the new Flavian dynasty. Now, this is where it gets interesting. When Vespasian arrived at Rome, he decided to pursue a more moderate policy when it came to dissent. He took Nerva, the future emperor, as his fellow consul. Edmundson's argument is that John was indeed banished to Patmos by Domitian and pardoned by Nerva, but that this occurred not in the 90s, when Nerva succeeded Domitian as emperor, but rather in 69-70, when Domitian was ruling in Vespasian's stead and Nerva was subsequently charged by Vespasian to undo the damage done by Domitian's harsh measures. Robinson notes difficulties with this argument, notably that it requires that the king "list" of Rev. 17:10 begin with Claudius, and is thus reluctant to affirm the hypothesis, but also notes that overall it handles the Patristic evidence regarding the date of the Revelation quite admirably. Ultimately though, Robinson is generally inclined to see this Patristic evidence of lacking in much relevance for considering the origin of Revelation.

Whatever we make of such issues as the external evidence or the count of kings in 17:10, I am generally persuaded that Revelation fits best in the relatively narrow time before Nero's death in 68 and the destruction of the temple in 70.

1 comment:

  1. Are scholars generally agreed that John is claiming to be on Patmos as a result of "banishment" or exile? Or could being on Patmos "on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus" be in regards to a voluntary, missional purpose?

    Been enjoying the review of Robinson, many thanks for the great blog!