PROBLEMS WITH THE EARLY DATE OF REVELATION (4)

Seven churchesPMT 2015-051 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

This is my final study of the leading objections to the early date. I am using Leon Morris, The Revelation of St. John (2d. ed.: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) in considering the arguments.

The historical situations of the seven churches (Rev. 1:4; 2; 3), suggest a late date. Since these are historical churches to which John wrote, the letters may contain historical allusions helpful in dating Revelation. As Morris states it, the “indication is that the churches of Asia Minor seem to have a period of development behind them. This would scarcely have been possible at the time of the Neronic persecution, the only serious competitor in date to the Domitianic period” (Morris, 38). Mounce, Swete, Kümmel, Guthrie, and Beale employ the same argument.

Since I have not previously touched upon this evidence it deserves a little lengthier treatment. I will consider the four strongest arguments from this perspective, once again following the order found in Morris’s work on Revelation.

The Wealth of Laodicea (Rev. 3:17)

The first evidence Morris offers in this regard is drawn from Revelation 3:17: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched anti miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Morris notes that in this letter the Laodicean church is spoken of as “rich,” but “a. the city was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 60/61 this must have been considerably later” (Morris, 38). All late-date advocates follow Morris’s approach.


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According to Tacitus, Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake about this time (Tacitus, Annals 4:27). The idea behind the argument is that such a devastating event as an earthquake necessarily must have severe and long-term economic repercussions on the community. And in such. a community, the minority Christians could be expected to have suffered, perhaps even disproportionately. If Revelation were written prior to A.D. 70, it is argued, the time frame would be insufficient to allow for the enrichment of the church at Laodicea. But by the time of Domitian a few decades later such would not be difficult to imagine.

Despite the initial plausibility of this argument it is not as strong as it appears. In the first place,

who is to say that the reference to “riches” mentioned by John is not a reference to spiritual riches? Alter all, such language is used in Scripture of those who glory in their presumed spiritual riches: Luke 12:21; 16:15; 18:11, 12; 1 Corinthians 1:5; 13:12; 2 Corinthians 8:9. In fact, this language is used in a way very similar to Revelation in 1 Corinthians 4:8 and Hosea 12:8. If the spiritual riches view is valid, then the entire force of the late-date argument would be dispelled. Surprisingly, this is even the view of late-date advocate Robert Mounce: “The ‘wealth’ claimed by the Laodicean church, however, was not material but spiritual.” And this despite the fact he uses the wealth of Laodicea as a late-date evidence. [1].

Second, fascinating historical evidence undermines the whole foundation of the late-date point, even if material riches are in view: Laodicea had a relatively effortless, unaided, and rapid recovery from the earthquake. Tacitus reports that the city did not even find it necessary to apply for an imperial subsidy to help them rebuild, even though such was customary for cities in Asia Minor. [2] Thus, despite the earthquake, economic resources were so readily available within Laodicea that the city easily recovered itself from the damage.

Third, who can say that the Christian community was necessarily overwhelmed by the quake in

that city? In Revelation 3:17 the church is in view, not the city. Even the horribly destructive earthquakes in Mexico City on September 19 and 20 of 1985 did not destroy every sector of the city. Perhaps, by the grace of God, the Christians were in areas less affected by the quake, as Israel was in an area of Egypt unaffected by the plagues (Ex. 8:22; 9:4, 6, 24; 10:23; 11:27). If the Laodicean church had been spared the effects of the quake, would this token of God’s providence lead the Laodiceans to a too proud confidence in their standing, as in Revelation 3:17? Perhaps a roughly analogous situation is found with the situation at Corinth, which Paul set about to correct (1 Cor. 4:6-8). Such boastful pride is ever a danger to those blessed of God (Deut. 8:18, cp. vv. 11-17).


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The Existence of the Church in Smyrna

Morris’s second argument is that “the church at Smyrna seems not to have been in existence in the days of Paul” (Morris, 37). Obviously, if the church mentioned in Revelation 2:8-11 did not exist until after Paul’s death it could not have been founded before Paul’s martyrdom, which occurred in A.D. 67 or 68. Thus Revelation’s date could not precede A.D. 67/68. (It would not necessarily affect, however, a date after A.D. 67 and before A.D. 70)

This late-date objection is based on a statement by Polycarp in a letter written to the church at Philippi:

But I have neither perceived nor heard any such thing among you [i.e., the church at Philippi], among whom the blessed Paul laboured, who are praised in the beginning of his Epistle. For concerning you he boasts in all the churches who then alone had known the Lord, for we had not yet known him [1].

Polycarp (ca. A.D. 69-155), was the bishop of the church at Smyrna and is thought to have been the disciple of John. He seems to refer here to the Smyrnaeans church when he writes “we had not yet known him.” By this statement he may mean hi church at Smyrna was not yet founded while Paul was alive. Several late-date advocates consider this among their strongest arguments. Nevertheless, strong objections undermine its usefulness.

First, it is not at all necessary that Polycarp’s statement be interpreted in the manner demanded by Morris and others, i.e., as indicating that the church was founded after Paul died. Re-read the statement for yourself Does it demand that Paul was dead before the church at Smyrna was founded? Or could it easily be interpreted to mean that Paul praised the church at Philippi in his letter before the church at Smyrna was founded? It is much easier to understand Polycarp to be merely stating that Paul praised the Philippians for their conversion, which praise occurred before the Smyrnaeans were even converted. Polycarp would not then be saying that the Smyrnaeans church was founded after Paul died.

In the second place, most probably Smyrna was evangelized soon after Ephesus. We say this in light of the statements in Acts 19:10, 26. The Acts account emphasizes in conjunction with Paul’s labors in Ephesus, that “all who lived in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus” and that “in almost all of Asia” Paul was making progress in the promotion of the Gospel. Smyrna is one of the cities of Asia (Rev. 1:4, 11). If Smyrna was evangelized soon after Ephesus, then this would put Smyrna’s founding before the year 60. No necessity exists for assuming a late date for Revelation based on John’s letter to Smyrna and Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians.

The Spiritual Decline in Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea

The most familiar of the evidences from the Seven Letters is derived from warnings of spiritual decline at Ephesus, Sardis, and Laodicea. Obvious spiritual decline is noted in Revelation 2:4, 5; 3:1-2, 15-18. Morris states the late-date position thus: “All the churches in chapters ii and iii appear to have had a period of history. Especially is this the case with those of whom things could be said like ‘thou hast left thy first love’ (ii. 4)” (Morris 38).

Late-date theorists insist that the spiritual decline manifested in the churches demands a period of time more readily available if John wrote during Domitian’s reign. It seems a reasonable expectation that the early fervency of a newfound faith would wane only after the passing of various perils encountered over an extended period of time.

Despite all the vigorous assertions, however, a major objection destroys this argument: Granting a marked deterioration in the churches, the whole question of the length of time necessary for such lies at the heart of the situation. How long does it take for faith to wane? Was not Paul surprised at the rapid decline among the Galatians when he wrote: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel”?

Consider also Paul’s concern over the multitude of troubles within the church of Corinth. This church was founded in A.D. 49 and Paul wrote to it with heavy heart in A.D. 57. Apparently, Paul anticipated such problems among churches virtually as soon as he left the scene, as he noted to the elders of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:29ff.). Was not Timothy urged to remain at Ephesus because of the entry of false doctrine within Paul’s lifetime (1 Tim. 1:6)?

Paul also experienced distressing defections from fidelity to him as a servant of Christ within his ministry (2 Tim. 4:10). Paul expresses concern over the labors of Archippus at Laodicea (one of the churches in question) when he warns him to “take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it” (Col. 4:13-17).

How much more would such a problem of slackened zeal be aggravated by the political circumstances generated from the initiation of the Neronic persecution in A.D. 64? Did not Jesus’ teaching anticipates such (Matt. 13:20, 21; 24:9, 10)? No compelling reason whatsoever requires rejecting the early date of Revelation on the basis of the spiritual decline in certain of the Seven Churches. After considering this line of argument, late-date advocate Aune confesses: “Both lines of argument are capable of a variety of interpretations, so that a firm date late in the first century A.D. cannot be based on these arguments.” [2]

Conclusion

A careful consideration of the merits of the major arguments from the Seven Letters demonstrates their inconclusive nature. Neither the arguments individually, nor all of them collectively compels acceptance of the Domitianic date of Revelation. This is all the more obvious when their inconclusive nature is contrasted with the wealth of other internal considerations for an early date, as rehearsed heretofore in the present work.

In fact, the Seven Letters even have elements suggesting a period prior to the destruction of the temple: (1) The presence of strong Judaistic elements in the churches (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). This bespeaks an early period of Christian development prior to the cleavage between Jew and Christian in the A.D. 60s. (2) John’s exhortation to the churches anticipates the “judgment coming” of Christ (Rev. 2:5, 16; 3:3, 10). No events expected in Domitian’s day approached the magnitude and significance — either culturally or theologically — of the Neronic persecution, the death of Nero and the extinction of the Julio-Claudian imperial line, the destruction of Judaism’s temple, and the near demise of Rome in the Civil Wars of A.D. 68-69.

The early date stands, despite the attempted objections on the foregoing bases.

Notes

  1. Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians 11:3.
  2. David Aune, Revelation 1-5, lxiii
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