Perhaps more than any other New Testament book, the date for the writing of Revelation is important for interpreting the book. If the book was written in the 90s, then the immediate background for the book is persecution of Christians under Domitian. But if the book was written before A.D. 70, then the persecution in the background of the book is Nero’s backlash against Christians after the fire of Rome.

Destruction of Jerusalem by Ercole de' RobertiAnother factor is the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It is fairly obvious the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple are somehow related to the images in the book. For a preterist like Ken Gentry, the book of Revelation is revealing “what will happen soon,” and the soon-event is the destruction of Jerusalem. (See his Before Jerusalem Fell, for example.) For other preterists who do not feel the need to preserve Revelation as a book of prophecy, the fall of Jerusalem is in the background as a past event that provides a set of metaphors.

The majority of the early church assumed that it was under Domitian’s persecution that the book was written. Irenaues said that John wrote “nearly in our generation,” at the end of the reign of Domitian. All of the secular evidence for persecution under Domitian comes from after his reign. Pliny the Younger wrote a tribute to Emperor Trajan:

He [Domitian] was a madman, blind to the true meaning of his position, who used the arena for collecting charges of high treason, who felt himself slighted and scorned if we failed to pay homage to his gladiators, taking any criticism of them to himself and seeing insults to his own godhead and divinity; who deemed himself the equal of the gods yet raised his gladiators to his equal.

In 1 Clement 1:1, written in A.D. 96, alludes to “the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses that have befallen us.” 1 Clement 4-7 contains several references which might be taken as either referring to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul or the present persecutions under Domitian.

Since all of the sources describing Domitian as a megalomaniac who demanded worship as a god date from after his reign, some argue the later sources are painting the old emperor in a negative light (perhaps to paint Trajan in a good light). DeSilva disagrees, arguing instead that “Domitian valued cultic language as an expression of social and political relationships.” This language would have been imposed on the lower levels of society as a method of declaring loyalty to the state (“The ‘Image of the Beast’” TrinJ 12 [1991], 199).

I am personally inclined to retain the late date for the book and see the imperial cult as the potential background for many things in the book. I am not opposed to the destruction of Jerusalem as a possible background, but (for me) it does not have to be predictive of the event. There is no problem for John to be using a past event like Rome’s obliteration of the city of Jerusalem to talk about other, still future judgments.

What difference might it make to reading Revelation if the book is early (pre A.D. 70) as opposed to in the 90s?