The First Witness
The first witness who claims our attention is undoubtedly Irenaeus, appointed Bishop of Lyons, A.D. 177, in succession to Pothinus, whose age, ninety years, takes us back to the generation that saw the last of the Apostles, and with whom Irenaeus, as one of his Presbyters, can scarcely have failed to have had familiar intercourse. The words of Irenaeus have been preserved by Eusebius, “for no long time ago was it (the Revelation) seen, but almost in our generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.”
An effort no doubt has been made to evade the force of the conclusion to which these words lead, by suggesting that the subject of [the Greek word] in the sentence is not “the Revelation” but St. John himself – not “it” but “he” was seen.
Argument against such a supposition may be dispensed with. Although supported by an able writer (generally supposed to be Dr. Goodwin) on the Apocalypse in the Biblical Review, and by Dr. Macdonald in his Life and Writings of t. John, no Greek scholar would for a moment endeavour to defend it.
Weiss has indeed recently advanced another proposal for getting rid of the testimony of Irenaeus. Proceeding upon the supposition that the beast of chapter 17:11, who is the eighth and of the seven, is Domitian he concludes that Iranaeus, believing St. John to be a prophet, could entertain no other idea than an Apocalypse so associated with the terrors of that reign must have been written at that time.
That is, however, inconsistent with the conclusion to which the belief of Irenaeus in the prophetic character of St. John would have naturally led him. The apostle he thought was a true prophet of God. Why then should he have waited till the end of Domitian’s reign, for it is of “the end of the Reign” that Irenaeus speaks, before he beheld the visions and uttered the prophecy? Would not he have more clearly revealed his prophetic character had he both seen and spoken at an earlier date?
The supposition of Weiss, so far from accounting for the mistakes thought to have been committed by Irenaeus, is the very thing that would have led that Father to an entirely different conclusion had the circumstances of the case not been too strong for him.
The testimony of Irenaeus is therefore clear. The meaning of his statement is indisputable; and we must either accept it or all (what may certainly have happened) that he was mistaken. Yet he was not likely to be mistaken, and several other considerations lay weight to the witness he bears with so much precision.
The following may be mentioned:
1) His nearness to the apostolic age; for he cannot have been born later that A.D. 130, while many have contended that his birth should be placed at least twenty or twenty-five years earlier this century.
2) The well-known fact that he had been a disciple and friend of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who had been a contemporary of the apostle John himself, who had held intercourse with him and who was wont to relate in the circle of his friends incidents out of that deeply interesting past. In this respect Irenaeus’s own letter to Florius, in which he details the nature of his intercourse with Polycarp, will always remain one of the most precious monuments of Christian antiquity, showing as it does in the clearest manner the spirit of inquiry, the intelligence, the vivacity, and the effort to form distinct conceptions of times anterior to their own, by which these old Fathers of the Church were marked. 3) The object which Irenaeus had in view in making the statement now commented on. He had been discussing the number of the beast as given in Rev. 13:18, and it goes on to explain that it was only at some risk that anyone could endeavour to interpret it; for, had the Apostle desired “the present time” to know the interpretation, he could himself have given it, inasmuch as the vision had been granted him on the very borders of the generation to which Irenaeus spoke.
The date of the book was thus no trifling matter in the eyes of this Father, for it powerfully affected the relation in which he stood to one of the most difficult mysteries of the Apocalypse. 4) The confidence of Eusebius in the statement made by him. This confidence, it will not be denied, appears in all that Eusebius has said upon the point; and no one could have know better than he any counter opinions which are supposed to have existed long before his day, and to have formed another and wholly different current of tradition.
It is unnecessary to say more. There need be no hesitation in asserting that in regard to few facts of early Christian antiquity have we a statement more positively or clearly given than that of Irenaeus, that the Seer beheld the visions of his book at the end of Domitian’s reign, that is, about A.D. 96.
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on the Apocalypse, Macmillan and Co., 1893, pp 77-79.
Clement of Alexandria
The Second Witness
We turn next to the testimony of Clement of Alexandria who flourished towards the close of the second and early part of the third century. For this we are again indebted to Eusebius, who quotes from Clement the beautiful story of the young robber, in order to prove that, after the death of Domitian, the Apostle John returned from his exile in Patmos to Ephesus, and presided over the churches there.
It is true that, in his account of the story, Clement does not name Domitian, saying merely that John had returned “after the death of the tyrant”. But no one can read Eusebius without seeing that he at least distinctly understood Clement to mean that John had been banished to Patmos by Domitian, and that, at a period subsequent to that Emperor’s death, he had presided over the church in the neighborhood of Ephesus.
Nor is there any force in the objection that, if so, the Apostle must have lived into the second century, because the incidents of that story, beginning only about A.D. 95, would require some years for their complete development.
Nothing is told that might not have happened in the course of a single year; while, if we suppose, and it is the only other possible supposition, that St. John’s return took place after the death of Nero, when he was in all probability not more than sixty years of age, and when he may have been in reality nearly ten years less, many expressions of the narrative of Clement, such as “forgetful of his age,” and “thy aged father,” lose their force, and the whole object of its quotation by Eusebius is destroyed.At the close of the second century, therefore, the impression certainly prevailed in Alexandria that St. John’s banishment to Patmos had taken place under Domitian, and that before that date the Book of Revelation could not have been penned.
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on the Apocalypse, Macmillan and Co., 1893, pp 80,81.
The Third Witness
The evidence of Tertullian, but little later than that of Clement, for he died A.D. 240, may appropriately follow. His own words indeed will hardly justify any positive conclusion upon the point, for, after having spoken of Nero as the first persecutor of the Christians, he merely adds, “Domitian, too, a man of Nero’s type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished.”
But Eusebius notices the passage in such a manner as to show that he believed St. John to be included among those to whom Tertullian refers.
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on the Apocalypse, London, 1893. p 81.
The Fourth Witness
Passing to another region of the Church, we are met by the testimony of Victorinus, Bishop of Pettau, in Pannonia, who was martyred under Diocletian, A.D. 303. So far as is known he is the earliest commentator on the Apocalypse; and it is natural to think that, as a commentator, he would take a greater than ordinary interest in such question as is now before us.
His testimony is of the most specific kind, for, commenting on Chapter 10:11, he says that “when John said these things he was in the island of Patmos, condemned to the labour of the mines by Caesar Domitian. There, he saw the Apocalypse.”
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on theApocalypse, London, 1893. p 82.
The Fifth Witness
In still another quarter we meet Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (A,D. 260 to A.D. 339), a man whose inquiring spirit led him to search out, and to preserve in his writings, many ancient documents of incalculable value to the student of early Christian antiquity.
Of his opinion there can be no doubt. We have already found him citing Irenaeus and Clement as authorities in favour of everything in connexion with this matter for which we need to contend; and, in his own historical account of the fourteenth year of Domitian’s reign, he says of the Apostle John that “he was banished” at that time “to Patmos, where he saw the Apocalypse, as Irenaeus shows.”
Nor is there any ground for the assertion that Eusebius simply repeated what Irenaeus had said more than a century before. That he relied greatly upon Irenaeus is unquestionable. His very object was to collect and preserve the testimonies which seemed to him to warrant a definite conclusion.
But he did not depend upon Irenaeus alone. Referring to the point before us, he in one place names also Clement of Alexandria as his authority, and in another the “tradition of the ancients”.
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on the Apocalypse, Macmillan and Co., 1893, pp 82.
The Sixth Witness
This list of witnesses may be fitly closed with Jerome, who died A.D. 420, the most learned of all the Fathers except Origen, and one who, as is well known, devoted himself to the study of Scripture with a zeal not even surpassed by that of his illustrious predecessor in the same field. Speaking of St. John in his Treatise on IllustriousMen, he says of him that “having been banished in the fourteenth year of Domitian to the island of Patmos, he wrote the Apocalypse.”
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on the Apocalypse, London, 1893. pp 83.
A Discordant Voice
Thus far the evidence adduced on behalf of the composition of the Apocalypse before the fall of Jerusalem may without impropriety be spoken of as unworthy of regard. It is somewhat different when we come to Epiphanius, appointed Bishop of Salamis A.D. 367, and one of the most voluminous writers of his age.
Lucke, anxious as he is to find proof of the earlier date, speaks of him as the first to interrupt the Irenaeus tradition. What does the interruption amount to? Epiphanius has spoken upon the point in two passages. In the first, he says that John, though he shrank from the task, was constrained by the Holy Spirit to write a Gospel, “in his old age, when he had spent ninety years of life, after his return from Patmos, which took place in the reign of the Emperor Claudius.”
In the second, he speaks of the Apostle as having prophesied in the time of Emperor Claudius, when he went to the island of Patmos.
The impossibility of receiving these statements must be at once apparent. The Emperor Claudius died in A.D. 54, so that St. John was even then ninety years old, and that he wrote his Gospel at that time.
Besides this, it is to be observed that Claudius did not persecute the Christians generally, though they may be included among “the Jews” whom he banished from Rome. The universal voice of early Christian antiquity is that Nero was the first persecutor, Domitian the second.
How Epiphanius was led into his mistake, whether by that general inaccuracy and want of critical acumen for which he is noted, or by some misapprehension connected with the words of Acts 18:2, it is impossible to say; but that there is error either on his part or on the part of those who copied him there can be hardly a moment’s doubt.
This is rendered the more probable by the singular fact that the story of Epiphanius appears never to have made the slightest impression upon those that came after him. No tradition in that form exists; the statement seems to have been forgotten until revived by Grotius and Hammond; and it now stands in the pages of its author, a striking instance of the perplexity which one single inaccuracy may introduce into our efforts to reconstruct the past.
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on the Apocalypse, London, 1893. pp 89,90
Milligan was the professor of Divinity and Biblical Criticism at The University of Aberdeen. His comments on the dating of the Apocalypse were originally published as appendices in the Volume “The Revelation of St. John” first published in 1886.
Summary of Early Witnesses
From Iranaeus to Jerome
Testimonies subsequent to these [those after Jerome], however clear, hardly possess so much authority as to entitle them to quotation. Looking back upon what has been said we have the following result. From the first witness who speaks upon the point in the latter half of the second century down to the first half of the fifth we have a succession of Fathers bearing testimony with one accord, and in language which admits of no misunderstanding, to the fact that St. John was banished to Patmos under the reign of Domitian, and that there he beheld those visions of the Apocalypse which he afterwards committed to writing.
These Fathers, too, are men who in their interest in the subject immediately in hand (to say nothing of other subjects), in ability, learning, and critical insight into the history of bygone times surpass all the Fathers, except one to be afterwards mentioned, of their respective eras.
In their spheres of labour, if not by birth, they belong to the most different and widespread regions of the Church - Gaul, Alexandria, North Africa, Pannonia, Syria and Rome.
They are thus in a great degree independent of each other, and they convey to us the incontestable impression that, for at least the first four centuries of the Christian era and over the whole extent of the Christian Church, it was firmly believed that St. John had beheld the visions of the Apocalypse in the days of Domitian and not of Nero.
Milligan, William, D.D., Discussions on the Apocalypse,London,1893.p92.