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THE DATE OF REVELATION
The date of the Book of Revelation is of paramount importance as regards its exegesis. The great majority of modern scholars of every shade of religion, and of unbelief
, adopt an early date for the Apocalypse, i.e., before the fall of the Temple. Catholic writers, almost alone, support the theory that Bool was written in Domitian's reign. This is all the more surprising as the Book is full of dogmatic Christian teaching, which gains in authority as it approximates to the time of Christ. Nearly the whole of the Apostles' Creed is contained in the Book of Revelation, including the Communion of Saints. It is the only case in which the higher critics insist on an earlier date than that claimed by Catholic Churchmen. A correct view of the date of the Book is essential to its interpretation and to the appreciation of its eschatological teaching.
Dr. Barry, in his manual for priests and students, on The Tradition of Scripture, published in the year 1906, says: “No view of the date, compilation, or literal meaning [of the Apocalypse] has ever been sanctioned by authority” (p. 198).
The present Holy Father, Pius X, in his letter to Bishop Le Camus, dated 1906, adverts to Scriptural exegesis, as follows.
“As we must condemn the temerity of those who, having more regard for novelty than for the teaching authority of the Church, do not hesitate to adopt a method of criticism altogether too free, so we should not approve the attitude of those who in no way dare to depart from the usual exegesis of Scripture, even when, faith not being at stake, the real advancement of learning requires such departure. You follow a wise course, and show by your example that there is nothing to be feared for the sacred books from the true progress of the art of criticism; nay, that a beneficial light can be derived from it, provided its use be coupled with a wise and prudent discernment" (Sept. 29, 1906).
The road is left open for reconsideration and research. Catholic writers cling to the Domitian date of the Book as a matter of tradition. Let us examine this tradition carefully,
and compare it with other traditions. The Domitian date of Revelation rests entirely on a casual remark of S. Irenæus, Bishop of Lyons, who was born in Asia Minor of Grecian parents " between the years 115 and 125, according to some, or according to others, between 130 and 142.". In the year 190 or 191, he interceded with Pope Victor on behalf of "communities in Asia Minor which persevered in the practice of the Quarto-decimans in regard to the celebration of Easter." “Nothing is known as to the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or beginning of the third century. In spite of some isolated and later testimony to that effect, it is not very probable that he ended his career with martyrdom" (A. Poncelet, S. J. Cath. Encyc.). S. Irenæus' occasional lapses into casual writing detract somewhat from his authority as a chronicler of historic facts. For example, in his third book he says:
“And Polycarp, a man who had been instructed by the Apostles and had familiar intercourse with many that had seen Christ, and had also been appointed Bishop by the Apostles in Asia, in the Church at Smyrna, whom we also have seen in our youth” (Euseb. H. E. iv. 14).
Here we may notice that S. Polycarp was put to death, according to the Chronicles of Eusebius, in the year 166, in the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. On the day of his martyrdom S. Polycarp announced in the Stadium that he was eighty-six years of age. This would place his birth in the year 80, and he would consequently be only eighteen years of age when S. John, the last of the Apostles died. But Waddington, followed by Harnack, places the Smyrnian persecution, in which he was executed, in the Proconsulship of Quadratus, in the year 155-156, in the reign of Antoninus Pius. Against this date we have the Rescript of Antoninus Pius admonishing the Governors of the Provinces not to trouble the Christians at all unless they made attempts against the Roman Government, and the letter of Melito, Bishop of Sardis, to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, stating that there was no persecution in Asia Minor before his time (161). "What indeed never before happened, the race of the pious is now persecuted ".(Euseb. H. E. iv. 26). It is not easy to reconcile the statement of S. Irenæus that Polycarp was made Bishop by the Apostles in Asia, with these data concerning the age of Polycarp:
S. Irenæus was acquainted with the writings of Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis. He says: “These things are attested by Papias, who was John's hearer and the associate of Polycarp, an ancient writer, who mentions them in the fourth book of
his works” (Euseb. H. E. iii. 39). Eusebius points out that S. Irenæus made a mistake in saying that Papias was S. John's hearer, as Papias himself wrote, “If therefore anyone came who had been a follower of the Presbyters, I would ask him about the words of the Presbyters ” (H. E. iii. 39). S. Irenæus held that the active ministry of our Lord occupied a period of from ten to fifteen years (Haer. II. xxii. 3 f.). He read the Apocalypse and accepted the millenarian view. He was interested in the question of Antichrist, as we have seen at page 26. He noticed that the number of “the Beast” was given as 666 " in all the genuine and ancient copies.” He says as they who saw John attest, reason itself shows that the number of the name of the beast is indicated by the Greek letters which it contains ” (Euseb. H. E. v. 8). In these remarks he shows that he held an anthropomorphic view about Antichrist, at variance with the teaching of ss. John and Polycarp. He was mistaken, moreover, in saying that the name of “the Beast," erroneously assumed by him to be Antichrist, would be indicated by the Greek letters which it contained, for the name is found with corresponding letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. The whole passage, both as regards Antichrist and the Greek clue as to the name of the Beast, has been a stumbling block to exegetes for centuries. If they who saw John attested that, it is evident that S. John did not explain the Revelation to them.
We must bear in mind that S. Irenæus was not writing about the date of the Apocalypse. He was writing about “the Beast," “ We therefore," says he,“ do not venture to affirm anything with certainty respecting the name of Antichrist. For, were it necessary that his name should be clearly announced to the present age it would have been declared by him who saw the Revelation " (ý åtokalufs). “For it has not been long since it was seen, but almost in our own generation, about the end of Domitian's reign” (Euseb. H. E. v. 8; Iren. v. 30, 3).
AIIOKAATØIE, signifying the “ Revelation," is the first word in the Book. “The Apocalypse" was the name of the Book in the time of S. Irenæus, as it is still. S. Irenæus wrote, “ For it has not been long since it (the Apocalypse) was seen.” He did not say that S. John was exiled, or that his Revelation was given, or that he saw the visions, or that the Book was written about the end of Domitian's reign. He makes no mention of a Domitian persecution. He says, “ov trpò moldoll xpóvov έωράθη.” If we take η αποκάλυψις as the subject of έωράθη it is open to the construction that he meant to refer to the Book, which we have reason to believe was copied and published in the Church for the first time about the end of Domitian's reign.
This is the nucleus of the Domitian theory as to the date of the Book. Dr. Chase, Bishop of Ely, points out that “Irenæus wrote the third book of his great work when Eleutherius was Bishop of Rome” (111. iii. 3), i.e., between 175 A.D. and 190 A.D. and the fifth book cannot be of an earlier date. Domitian was murdered in 96 A.D. Hence, if the Apocalypse was “ seen " at the close of Domitian's reign, nearly a hundred years had elapsed when Irenæus wrote his fifth book. Nevertheless S. Irenæus wrote of the close of Domitian's reign as being almost in his own generation. On this Dr. Chase founds a theory that S. Irenæus' “words imply that the Book was written a considerable time before the close of Domitian's reign" (Journal of Theological Studies, April, 1907, p. 433).
There is a tradition that S. John was exiled in a period of persecution, and that the Revelation was given to him partly as a panacea against persecution. There are said to have been two persecutions in S. John's lifetime, one under Nero, and the other at the end of Domitian's reign. Nero's persecution is a well-established fact. We have shown, in the Historic Notes, that Domitian's persecution is not well attested. It is not easy to understand why a poor and feeble centenarian like S. John should be exiled by Domitian. We have seen in the Historic Notes, p. 64, that Domitian sent to Judea for living scions of the Royal House of David, confessed Christians, and finding that they were poor, and aspired only to a celestial Kingdom, dismissed them with contempt.
One of the most striking and important visions of the Revelation of S. John is that which contains the cry of the martyrs : “ How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and revenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth” (R. vi. 10). On this cry, as a text, much of the Book is written. What occasion was there for this harrowing appeal to Heaven at the end of Domitian's reign ?
Many Christian men and women of fifty years of age and over, living in Domitian's reign, had witnessed the persecution of Nero, had seen the assault on the Church fail and recoil upon the head of the tyrant, who died, disgraced, by his own or by an assassin's hand. They were salted, as it were, by persecution; and the whole Church, young and old, had for thirty years flourished on the oft-told tale of Nero's abortive persecution and punishment. They had seen persecution end, abruptly, on the death of Nero and the accession of Galba to the purple. There was very little chance of their being cast into an extreme of terror or dismay by the short-lived, and, so to speak, oblique persecution of Domitian. His edicts were not aimed at Christians, as such.
It was not altogether a question of physical terror, there must have been an intellectual dread too. What of the promise of Christ ?--.“ I shall be with you all days, unto the end of the world. ..."
“ The gates of hell shall not prevail against you" (Matt. xvi. 18). To all appearance, at Rome, the Christian Church was drowning in its own blood in Nero's reign. We must consider the feeling of the ordinary Christian--the man in the street, so to speak—and look at it from his point of view. In later persecutions men had got to know that the Church could survive the furious edicts of Rome. But that was just the doubt which presented itself to the mind of the average Christian man in Nero's time.
Promises unfulfilled are apt to unsettle faith. The average Christian perhaps doubted, as well as feared. It was a critical time. The fate of the Church seemed to hang in the balance. Christ was at stake. When the Emperor himself assisted at the orgies of blood and cruelty under which the Church was groaning, when S. Peter was slain and the rock on which the Church was built disappeared, the promises of God to His Church seemed about to fail, the psychological moment had arrived for the publication of this Revelation. Then it was that S. John rapt into heaven received this message of hope to the bleeding Church. It proclaims the speedy end of persecution. It promises the rewards of eternal life to the constant in suffering and the white robe of glory to the Christian martyr. It foretells the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. That there was urgent need for this Revelation to allay the growing fears of Christians in the persecutions of Nero seems to be certain. That there was any such call for it in the time of Domitian is very improbable.
The Domitian theory is hardly reconcilable with the fact that S. John was about one hundred years of age, at the end of Domitian's reign. It is not reconcilable with the tradition that for some time before his death, in 98, he was too feeble by reason of old age to walk or preach, and had to be carried into Church, that is from one chamber to another. It clashes altogether with the tradition that S. John wrote his gospel after writing the Apocalypse, a tradition that is generally accepted and is vouched for by S. Irenæus. If S. John wrote his Book of Revelation at the end of Domitian's reign and wrote his Gospel afterwards, he wrote the latter when over a hundred years of age, in the paralysis of senile decay. No one accepts that. The tradition is that he wrote his Gospel about ten years after writing the Apocalypse, which is wholly incompatible with the Domitian theory, for he died two years after Domitian. The Gospel tradition is borne out by the fact that the Greek of S. John's Gospel is more correct and polished