PROBLEMS WITH REVELATION’S EARLY DATE (3)

Nero redivivusPMT 2015-050 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

I am continuing a brief series on problems scholars have with the early (pre-AD 70) date of Revelation. I am using his Leon Morris’ book: The Revelation of St. John (2d. ed.: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) as my main source. Let’s get to work!

A most unusual phenomenon seems to appear in Revelation, according to Morris. His third argument is very popular among late-date theorists. This evidence regards the very unusual and ancient legend known as the Nero Redivivus myth. Morris briefly explains the myth and confidently employs it: “Again, it is urged that the book shows evidence of knowledge of the Nero redivivus myth (e.g. xvii. 8, 11). After Nero’s death it was thought in some circles that he would return. At first this appears to have been a refusal to believe that he was actually dead. Later it took the form of a belief that he would come to life again. This took time to develop and Domitian’s reign is about as early as we can expect it” (Morris 37).

In providing the myth as late-date evidence David Aune boldly claims that “it is not likely that the Nero redivivus or Nero redux myth was widely circulated until the end of the first century A.D.”[1] In Moffatt’s commentary on Revelation 17 he speaks strongly of the myth’s role in interpreting the passage, when he noted that “the latter trait is unmistakably due to the legend of Nero redivivus, apart from which the oracle is unintelligible.” [2]

Nero so fearfully impressed the world in his era that pagan, Jewish, and Christian legends quickly sprang up around his death. These legends asserted themselves among the general populace throughout the far-flung reaches of the empire. In the pagan literature references to the expectation of Nero’s return after his fall from power may be found in the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Xiphilinus, Zonaras, and Dion Chrysostom. [3] Among the Jews the myth surfaces in the Talmud. In Christian circles :Lt is mentioned in books by Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Jerome, and Augustine. [4] Several Sibylline Oracles of various origins — Christian, Jewish, and pagan — use the myth as well. [5]


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Interestingly, the myth was not simply a “wives’ tale” of little significance. It had a measurable impact even on political affairs. Pretenders to the imperial throne, claiming to be Nero used the myth in quests for power. [6].

Clearly the existence, spread, and influence of the Nero Redivivus myth cannot be disputed. It is one of the most fascinating and best-known legends in all of political history. But the questions with which we must deal are: Does the myth appear in Revelation? And if so, does this necessitate a late date for the composition of Revelation?

Despite the confidence with which some late-date advocates employ the Nero Redivivus myth, two intriguing facts arise in regard to its use by Biblical scholars.

First, not all late-date proponents allow the argument as helpful to the question of the dating of Revelation. Donald B. Guthrie, a most able late-date adherent, carefully considers the merits of the Nero Redivivus argument, but discourages its endorsement in the debate: “If then an allusion to the Nero myth is still maintained as underlying the language of Revelation xiii and xvii, it must be regarded as extremely inconclusive for a Domitianic date. The most that can be said is that it may possibly point to this.” [7] In fact, some admit it could arise soon after Nero’s death: “Given the presence of this legend, the Book of Revelation cold not have been written in its present form before 68 CE when Nero died, but the legend could have spread quickly after Nero’s death.” [8]

Second, a number of early date advocates believe the myth appears in Revelation, but still maintain the Neronic dating position. John A. T. Robinson is a case in point: “As virtually all agree, there must be a reference to Nero redivivus in the beast that ‘once was alive and is alive no longer but has yet to ascend out of the abyss before going to perdition.” [9]

It is most interesting to find proponents of both dating positions able to admit the presence of an element which the late-date school proffers as a leading proof for its position! Beyond these two initial problems, however; significant and reasonable possibilities available to hand wholly undermine the Nero Redivivus argument for a late date.

Despite the intriguing correspondences between the Nero Redivivus myth and some of Revelation prophecies, the two are not related. We may easily interpret the relevant passages in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Nero Redivivus myth. In addition, this interpretation is more appropriate, not only in regard to one of the major events of the first century, but also to the theme of Revelation. What John is speaking about is not a myth, but the historical phenomena associated with the death of Nero, the near demise of Rome, and its reestablishment under Vespasian.


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Late-date proponent James Moffatt is particularly interesting at this point. He attempts to hold to the best of both worlds: (1) He vigorously attests that the Nero Redivivus myth appears in Revelation 13 and 17. He urges that its appearance helps establish the late date for Revelation, in that its highly developed form is not possible until Domitian’s reign (A.D. 81-96). [10] (2) But then he also adopts the interpretation of Revelation 13 and 17 like I suggest: That the death wound and revival of the beast refer to the Roman Civil Wars of A.D. 68-69. Notice his comments on Revelation 13:3:

The allusion is . . . to the terrible convulsions which in 69 A.D. shook the empire to its foundations (Tac Hist. i. 11). Nero’s death with the bloody interregnum after it, was a wound to the State, from which it only recovered under Vespasian. It fulfilled the tradition of the wounded head. . . . The vitality of the pagan empire, shown in this power of righting itself after the revolution, only added to its prestige. [11].

Thus, a vigorous late-date advocate and Nero Redivivus enthusiast admits that the references allude to the Roman Civil Wars and Rome’s revival under Vespasian. This is a telling admission. If the references in question can be applied to the Roman Civil Wars of A.D. 68-69, how can these same references point to Nero Redivivus and demand an A.D. 96 date for the book?

If the verses in Revelation can properly be understood as making reference to the earth-shaking historical events of the era, why would any commentator be driven to employ a myth to make sense of the passages? And this being the case, how can the myth be used as a major chronology datum from the internal evidence?

From our observations, it is obvious that the Nero Redivivus myth cannot be used with any degree of success to establish a late date for Revelation. There is good reason to doubt that it even appears in Revelation. The presumed evidence based on this myth cannot undermine the facts derived from the documented historical matters by which we may establish its early date.

Notes

  1. David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5, lxi. See also: James Moffatt, Revelation, 317.
  2. James Moffatt, Revelation, 450.
  3. Tacitus, Historic 1:2; 2:8, 9; Suetonius, Nero 40, 57, Domitian 6; Dio Cassius, Roman History 63:9:3; 66:19:3; Xiphilinus 64:9; Zonaras, Annals 11:151-8; and Dion Chrysostom, Orations l.
  4. Lactantius, On The Death of the Persecutors 2; Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History 2:28; Jerome, Daniel 11:28; and Augustine, The City of God 20:19:3.
  5. Sibylline Oracles 3:63ff.; 4:1 15ff.; 5:33ff.; 8:68ff.; 12:78; 13:89ff.
  6. Tacitus, Histories 1:78; 2:8; Suetonius, Nero 57.
  7. Donald B. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 4th ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1990), 953.
  8. Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (New York: Oxford, 1990), 14.
  9. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 245. Moses Stuart and E. Earle Ellis are orthodox orthodox early-date scholars who allow that the myth appears in Revelation. Moses Stuart, Commentary on the Apocalypse (Andover: Allen, Morrill, Wardwell, 1845). E. Earle Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (Boston: Brill, 1999), 212.
  10. Moffatt, Revelation, 317.
  11. Moffatt, Revelation, 430.
  12. Interestingly, Mounce does the same thing: On page 19 of his work, he employs the myth to demonstrate a late date for Revelation, but in his commentary at Revelation 13 and 17 he opts for the revival-of-the-Empire interpretation (Revelation, 248, 318).
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5 thoughts on “PROBLEMS WITH REVELATION’S EARLY DATE (3)

  1. backtotheplate April 24, 2015 at 8:09 am

    There was no chapter “3,” correct?

  2. Kenneth Gentry April 24, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Oops. Fixed the numbering problem. I feel better already! Thanks.

  3. Doug Hitzel April 24, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    It appears that I am missing PROBLEMS WITH REVELATION’S EARLY DATE (3)

    Did you send it?

  4. Frank Brito. April 27, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Dr. Gentry, have you ever considered the possibillity that the book of Revelation itself could have originated the “Nero Redivivus myth”, in the sense that some of the early readers may have understood these passages in that way and that eventually spread among the pagans? If we presume that Revelation was understood by the early readers, it is easy to imagine how some people could have come to that conclusion and how it could have spread fast.

  5. Kenneth Gentry April 28, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    I haven’t tried that. But it would seem that the Nero Redivivus Myth was current especially among the pagans who wouldn’t have known or cared ab out Revelation.

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