Before Jerusalem Fell, Dating the Book of Revelation, An Exegetical and Historical Argument for a Pre-A.D. 70 Composition, by Kenneth L. Gentry Jr., Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989, 418 pp.
As the author of this book Kenneth L. Gentry notes, the debate over the dating of the book of Revelation is ultimately between two camps — the “late” camp holding to a date c. A.D. 95 and an “early” camp holding to a pre-70 A.D. date. Before Jerusalem Fell is a treatise supporting the “early” view. Included in the book is a valuable list of other early-date advocates and their related publications. (p. 30-38) This list includes, among theologians I have some familiarity with: Adams, Bahnsen, Baur, Bruce, Bultman, Chilton, Crampton, Farrar, Grotius, Hort, F. N. Lee, Moule, Renan, Schaff, Augustus Strong, Tillich, and Westcott along with many other (presumably eminent) theologians with whom I am not familiar.
The external evidence, Gentry notes, is “generally conceded on all sides to be their [the late date proponents’] strongest argument.” The most important statement in view is that of Irenaeus who wrote (here translated into English):
“We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.”
The question then is what “for that was seen” refers back to. Is it “the apocalyptic vision” or “him who saw the apocalypse”? Gentry notes the “perceptive” observations of S. H. Chase (among others) that Ireneaus could have been referring to the fact that John lived until Domitian’s reign and thus was available to be asked about the name of the antichirst. (p. 50-51) Though even many early-date advocates are not convinced of such an interpretation (p. 53), Gentry adeptly traces the history and reasons of scholars who have argued for it. One argument he notes is based on a saying of Irenaeus regarding “ancient copies” of the book of Revelation. That is, if Irenaeus was writing in 185 A. D., it is argued that reference to “ancient copies” lends towards the “early” view. This, in my opinion however, is certainly not persuasive. But with the external evidence largely relying on Irenaeus, and with doubts to the meaning and import of Irenaeus’ saying, we might need to move on to the internal evidence.
But, before moving too quickly to the internal evidence, Gentry looks at some other external evidences. First is that of Clement of Alexandria who wrote that John left Patmos for Ephesus “after the death of the tyrant.” With Domitian and Nero each having had persecuted the church, the question of who the tyrant is to be identified as is not easily answered, though Gentry shows through many historical citations why Nero is most fitting for the title. Interestingly, in Clement’s Miscellanies he speaks of the teaching of the apostles ending in the time of Nero, placing the writing of not only the book of Revelation but of all New Testament books before Nero’s death in 68 A. D. (p. 84)
A number of other earlier church sources are referenced. The Shepherd of Hermas is presented as evidence. If an early date for this book (perhaps 85-90 A. D. ) is accepted, and Hermas borrows language from Revelation, then an early date of Revelation is necessary. (p. 91) The Muratorian Canon also is given as evidence for it notes that Paul wrote to seven churches following the rule of his predecessor John. (p. 94) This confuses me because I do not know of one of Paul’s letters to a church being written so late (67-70 A. D.). Then there is Tertullian who “strongly suggests that John’s banishment occurred at the same time Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom.” (p. 95) Regarding the writing of Victorious that John was banished to work in the mines on Patmos during the reign of Domitian, Gentry notes that a 90-year old John would scarcely be able to do such physical work. An earlier date again makes more sense. The apocryphal Acts of John interestingly has Domitian banish John after John had written Revelation. (p. 100) And the Syriac tradition also has John’s banishment under Nero. (p. 106) Ultimately, however, Gentry concludes, “there was no sure, uniform, and certain tradition in the early centuries of the Church on this matter.” Yet “all things considered even the external evidence leads toward a Neronic date.” (p. 109)
Next, Gentry moves on to the internal evidence. He notes six lines of evidence from early-date supporters James M. McDonald:
(1) The peculiar idiom of Revelation indicates a younger John, before his mastery of the Greek language, a mastery evidenced in his more polished Gospel from a later period.
(2) The existence of only seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 1) indicates a date before the greater expansion of Christianity into that region.
(3) The activity of Judaizing heretics in the Church (Rev. 2, 3) should be less conspicuous after a broader circulation of Paul’s anti-Judaizing letters.
(4) The prominence of the Jewish persecution of Christianity (Rev. 6, 11) indicates the relative safety and confidence of the Jews in their land.
(5) The existence and integrity of Jerusalem and the Temple (Rev. 11) suggest the early date.
(6) The reign of the sixth emperor (Rev. 17) must indicate a date in the A.D. 60s. (p. 115)
Gentry yet deems (1) “doubtful” and (2) “based on insufficient evidence.” He regards (5) and (6) as “stronger” and “virtually certain.” (p. 118)
For Gentry, “it would seem certain that the theme of Revelation deals with Christ’s Judgment coming upon the generation of those Jews who crucified Him” and that this allows “only a pre-70 A.D. date” for no other event but the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. “parallels the magnitude and covenantal significance of this event.” (p. 131)
Further, Gentry believes, there is a “contemporary expectation of the author regarding the fulfillment of the prophecies.” (p. 132) John speaks of these events three times as “the things which must shortly take place,” and he has Jesus five times say He is coming “quickly.” As for the dispensationalist view that this only means that when Jesus comes he will come with great rapidity, Gentry notes that this would have offered no consolation to the persecuted saints of the seven churches who received the letter.
Gentry then has a valuable section on the identity of the sixth king of Revelation 17:9-10 which reads, “Here is the mind which has wisdom.The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.” Rome is a city “universally recognized by its seven hills” (Palentine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, and Capitoline) and is very likely John’s referent. And so looking to Rome for the identity of the kings is reasonable enough. There is some challenge with ascertaining which Caesar the counting would begin with. Nevertheless Gentry sees good reason to believe the kings to be ordered 1) Julius Caesar, 2) Augustus, 3) Tiberius, 4) Gaius, 5) Claudius, 6) Nero, and 7) Galba. With Nero’s death in June A. D. 68, and if Nero is in view in Revelation, then the book is written prior to that date. And then Galba reigns “for a little while” — only about 7 months.
The evidence now mounting, Gentry suggests that “the early date position approaches certainty.” While I’m generally favorable to his interpretation, I’m at a loss at this point in the book as to how “certainty” could be considered near. But Gentry bases this also on the “yet-to-come internal evidence” so perhaps he has more conclusive arguments to come.
The next evidence comes from Revelation 11 which references the temple as still standing. In fact, as noted by John A. T. Robinson, none of the New Testament books mention the cataclysmic event of 70 A. D. as a past fact. Even some late date advocates (here typically Liberals, so-called “higher critics”) are forced to conclude that this section of Revelation 11 must be an earlier fragment incorporated into the book.
The Epistle of Barnabas does indisputably speak of the destruction of the temple as a past event — “the house of God” “pulled down” by the enemies of the Jews. Ignatius possibly alludes to it. And Justin Martyr tells of “the temple of the Jews which was afterwards destroyed.” These post-70 A. D. writings, among others, note the fall of Jerusalem and/or the destruction of temple as past events, yet Revelation does not. But the famous saying applies, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” It is difficult if not impossible to put “weight” on the various arguments Gentry makes. They are decent arguments. But how decent the argument or how many decent arguments does one need to have certainty?
And so the argument moves on to the role of Caesar Nero. This was one argument well known to me even before reading this book. The number of the beast, 666, is known to equal the value assigned to the letters of Caesar Nero’s name in Hebrew. And a textual variant of 616 fits a variant of Nero’s name, possibly an intentional but erroneous fix of a scribal editor. Hence, the argument is, the early Christians — or at least one scribe — knew that Nero was meant. Yet, “no early church father suggests Nero’s name as the proper designation of 666, even though various suggestions were given.” (p. 205) Gentry suggests that “the true interpretation, whatever it was, very quickly had been lost.” (p. 205) The name “Lateinos” suggested by some ante-nicene fathers “could well involve the Empire’s head”, Caesar. And so that evidence might indicate that some of the fathers were looking in the right direction. Arguments that 666 even in Greek sounds like the hissing of a snake (which Nero was called) and that the red color mentioned in Revelation is in reference to Nero’s red beard I find fanciful at best.
Next Gentry provides evidence of the earliness of Revelation in that Christianity is still seen as strongly attached to the Jewish community. Believers in the book of Revelation are still called “Jews” (2:9 and 3:9). Quoting then from Torrey, Gentry writes, “we can safely observe that ‘the Apocalypse of John plainly belongs to the period in which Jews and Christians still lived together.'” (p. 225) The radical us/them distinction between Christians and Jews later given in the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 100 A. D.), Ignatius (c. 107 A. D.), and Justin Martyr (c. 160 A. D.) is not present in Revelation. Likewise the Romans at an early point were apt to identify the Christians and Jews, but later distinguished between the two. Gentry notes that “many scholars recognize the significance of 70 A. D. in the separation of Judaism and Christianity .” (p. 229)
Gentry also notes that many of the features of the land and of the city of Jerusalem given in Revelation describe the place before the destruction of the Romans. (p. 232 – 236) He then notes some general and specific correspondences between scenes in Revelation and the events of 70 A.D. (p. 240 – 256) Then, in the last section before the conclusion, Gentry examines the alleged “Domitianic evidences” of the late-date view.
Before Jerusalem Fell is truly an excellent book. Gentry handles the available data and arguments well. I’m just not entirely convinced that the data and arguments are sufficient to dogmatically say Revelation is pre 70 A. D. Though I favor that interpretation, I would certainly give a charitable ear to those who have other opinions.