Sergius Bale’s First Affirmarive
Resolved: The Book of Revelation, while not definitive, was likely written in the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 90s) after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Affirm: Sergius Bale
Deny: Don K. Preston
In the second part of this debate against Don K Preston, I, Sergius Bale, am to debate that, while not definitive, the book of Revelation was likely written in the reign of Emperor Domitian (90s CE) after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and explain why. In my first affirmative for this debate, I will begin by discussing what we have as available evidence to assist us in this endeavor of dating the Revelation. We will cover some archaeology and Roman historians here in the first affirmative. As has been aptly shown in the first part of this debate by Preston, the Revelation itself does not give us any inclination internally as to which emperor’s reign it is written under. One cannot determine from the text itself to give any conclusive or definitive fact about the reign it is written under. This applies to the reign of Nero as much as it does Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan.
Our oldest manuscripts and fragments of Revelation are as I write this: Papyrus Fragments P18 (200-400 CE), P47 (200-300 CE), P98 (150-250 CE), and P115 (275-400 CE) (which I will note is a rare variant found in Egypt that says 616 instead of 666). New pieces of history, historical data, papyrus fragments, scrolls, etc. are being discovered every year. It may very well be confirmed one day that we ultimately do find ourselves in possession of a papyrus fragment that is found in one of these emperor’s reigns such as Nero and will thus be able to settle this debate one day, making it conclusive but until then one cannot conclusively do so and it is certainly not a settled matter. While we cannot make a conclusive statement, this does not mean we cannot use what evidence we have at our disposal and make an educated guess and form a hypothesis about the dating of the Revelation of St. John and what reign he wrote it in with what we do possess. With the fragments we possess of Revelation, our oldest papyrus P98 fragment is an existing fragment from the reign of Antonius Pius and that is as far back with carbon dating that we can date the surviving texts of Revelation itself. Until new manuscripts or fragments are discovered there simply is no text that comes before this, so roughly we have around 150-200 CE, the text definitively exists without need of a claimant of the text.
Roman Historians and the Revelation
Moving on from the archaeological findings, we find historically that Christian persecution was largely in focus from Rome itself and from Jewish synagogues that were both in opposition to the sect. This leaves us roughly with a timeline between Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan’s reigns as emperor to go off from. Historians of the time only find the recording of Christian persecutions for the reigns of Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. Unless new history is discovered, we can probably exclude Galba, Otho, and Vitellus’ reigns as one finds nothing in recorded history about Christian persecution having happened in these reigns. We can also pretty safely exclude Titus’ imperial reign as there is no recorded history of him having dealt with or persecuted Christians during his reign as emperor from 79-81 CE, though it should be noted that we do have through Tacitus’ (56-120 CE) Fragments that Titus as general under Vespasian’s reign as the emperor did hold a council to deliberate over saving or destroying the temple at Jerusalem, ultimately deciding it was of prime necessity to do so “to wipe out more completely the religion of the Jews and the Christians; for they urged that these religions, although hostile to each other, nevertheless sprang from the same sources; the Christians had grown out of the Jews: if the root were destroyed, the stock would easily perish”. This was as a General so it can be excluded as it is not under his reign. Besides the Fragments of Tacitus, there is not much else for persecution under Vespasian’s reign as emperor though we cannot conclusively rule it out as the hatred for the Abrahamic religions does seem to be there, albeit very small. After Domitian’s reign, there is nothing of note that really happens in Nerva’s reign but we do find under Trajan’s reign he does have correspondence with Pliny over what to do with some Christians. Either way, the historical evidence-based off on Roman historians and the Christian witness leads most historians to strongly favor Nero and Domitian’s reigns for the dating. Which one does history favor to have led the persecution against the Church in the province of Asia Minor though?
While Dio Cassius has nothing to mention about Christians or Nero in his telling of Roman history, Suetonius (69-122 CE) does speak on Nero’s reign and says that “During his reign, many cases of abuse were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to the distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing the people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city.” He makes clear that Nero became extremely paranoid and superstitious about his own death happening after a comet appeared for several successive nights (around 64 CE) and Nero had consulted with an astrologer Balbillus and learned from him that to avert assassination, kings usually had some distinguished men executed (a superstition). From this point on in his emperorship, he condemned many to death and those he did banish, rarely, usually were eventually executed as well. Suetonius says after his having Piso of Rome slaughtered he would rarely spare even children. If they were not just put together to be slain along with their preceptors and attendants they were banished but he usually just had everyone executed. After 64 CE, Nero is said by Suetonius to have anyone he desired to be killed that he thought would oppose him. The historian Suetonius speaks kindly about Nero’s early years but then shows his deep dive into madness, evil, and debauchery and makes very clear Nero preferred execution and that exile was a bit of a rarity, which he would usually have executed later like he had done to his own mother and various others simply due to massive paranoia of letting his opposition live. In no instance like that of Domitian’s reign does Nero ever get noted by the historian of calling himself Lord and/or God in any way beyond him having the Emperor’s Genius be worshipped by the Imperial Cult as all emperors of Rome did. We must note that the Genius of the Emperor is not the same as the Emperor. Nero did not deify himself while alive though he did liken himself to be like the gods Apollo and Sol, son of Zeus in the pantheon.
Tacitus (56-120 CE) seems to agree with Suetonius’ history in his Annals. You rarely find exile takes place in Tacitus’ works with Nero in contrast to his amount of murder and executions. While he could have certainly had a moment where he spared John and had him be exiled to Patmos, we know that from Christian history and tradition that Nero seems to have had Peter and Paul both killed; Paul by beheading for being a Roman citizen and Peter crucified upside down. In Book 15, Chapter 34 Tacitus mentions the persecution that took place on Christians. To quell the rumor that he had caused the Great Fire of Rome, “Nero substituted as culprits and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christ, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs, or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, despite a pang of guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. Though plausible, it seems unlikely that John the Apostle would have been spared in this persecution in Rome by Nero. It also seems to be that this persecution was local and only in the capital of Rome itself and did not reach Asia Minor’s province. While he did some rare exiles at the time, Nero usually reserved exile for family and had them executed later due to his paranoia. For a Jew like John with no human rights in consideration, he would be counted as non-persona by Rome. Though a plausible theory, with Peter and Paul in mind, it seems rather unlikely that Nero would bother to spare a Christian and send him off to the salt mines of Patmos under an exile when he could use them as scapegoats for the Great Fire of 64 instead.
Tacitus writes that Nero continued the same practice as others before him of not being worshipped until he had ceased to live and move among men. In the Cultus of the Imperator, you as a Roman citizen did have to worship the “genius” of the emperor and this certainly would have caused conflict with Christians and Rome and its Imperial Cults. Jews were the only ones exempt from having to do this worship to the emperor and as we saw earlier, the Christians were known of by Rome at the time as a sect of Judaism but may have been seen as not being exempt, especially the Gentile believers because they were not Jews at all.
The “genius” of the emperor is different from the emperor himself and I will note that again here. Tacitus finds “in the records of the senate that Anicius Cerialis, consul designate, gave it as his opinion that a temple should be built to Nero as the Divine, as early as possible and out of public funds. His motion, it is true, merely implied that the prince had transcended mortal eminence and earned the worship of mankind; but it was vetoed by that prince [Nero], because by other interpreters it might be wrested into an omen of, and aspiration for, his decease; for the honor of divine is not paid to the emperor until he has ceased to live and move among men”. We also do not see it written anywhere of persecution that was anywhere under Nero except for persecution being localized to the capital of Rome itself. Could people under Nero’s reign in Asia Minor have been persecuted? It is possible but we know from the historical record that the imperial cult of Nero himself was non-existent there, at least as far as a dedicated neokorate being established to him. Nero’s closest potential for a neokorate was the unfinished one he had begun building for his predecessor Claudius but besides that, if there were any Imperial worship of Nero in Asia Minor, the persecution on the people of Asia Minor was never recorded anywhere in the history books like it is recorded in the capital of the Roman Empire by Tacitus and others. In Book 2, Chapter 8 of Histories we do find after Nero’s death in 68 CE, in Achaia and Asia that the Nero Redivivus legend was strong and was widespread as a belief that Nero would return and retake Rome. It is well documented that many people there imagined he was still alive and there are multiple documentations of people who have tried to pretend to be him and cause rebellions all over Rome. It makes it possible but unlikely that Nero’s reign was the one Revelation was written in. There is also little to no support from patristics about Nero’s reign being the one John wrote his Revelation under. It is also very plausible the Church saw Domitian instead as a second Nero. Nero was still deeply embedded in the memory of all Roman people and the people saw Domitian more or less like he who was quite similar in many ways.
Dio Cassius never records a word about Nero declaring himself a deity while living nor establishing a neokorate to dedicate to himself in Asia Minor, in Roman History, Epitome 67 but he does write that Domitian put many men out of the way on many different pretexts, some by murder and many others by banishment. This agrees with Pliny the Younger in his Letters, where he notes in Book 3, Letters 9 and 11 of Domitian’s cruel acts and his tendency to exile like he did in the case of 89 CE where he tried to have banished all philosophers from Rome. One should note that Christianity was enough of a presence by Trajan’s time that Pliny the Younger, Governor of Bithynia and Pontus, is writing to ask what to do about Christians in legal examinations around 112 CE, which is a province right next to Asia Minor, something not seen in the historical record until this time whereas earlier Christians were mostly treated as Jews and thus non-persona unless they had Roman citizenship or were non-Jew. Pliny does not speak highly of Domitian’s terrible regime but when he questions if he is correct to do to Christians on trial as was done in the past since he has never tried one before until now, Trajan replies that he is correct in his ways and judgments. If Imperial Worship was going on in this manner with Domitian’s reign, Revelation 13’s mentions of the worship of the beast’s image potentially bear an uncanny resemblance to this.
Dio Cassius notes that Domitian famously when elected consul for ten years and censor for life, employed twenty-four lectors (or chanters/singers) who would follow him day and night and sing songs of praise and worship to him. He kept these singers even after he became emperor and would make everyone wear a triumphal white garb whenever he would enter the senate-house insisting “upon being regarded as a god and took vast pride in being called ‘Lord’ and ‘God’” in both speech and written documents. Domitian had the entirety of Rome as far as he could fill it with his image constructed of silver and gold so that people could worship him anywhere. He would give expensive spectacles and celebrations and contests and put on what would be known as the Domitian Games. He would force everyone to dress in white robes and Dio Cassius says that if there were a heavy rain or violent storm to come, it was against the law for anyone other than him to change clothes or leave. Even “though he changed his clothing to thick wool cloaks, he would not allow the others to change their attire, so that not a few fell sick and died”. These could last all day and all night and it would be as long as Domitian desired.. He notably banished Caecilius Rufinus from the senate and all philosophers from Rome. One man named Juventus Celsus it is noted was famously spared when the man who had conspired against Domitian begged to speak to him and repeatedly called him “master” and “god” and would be a spy and report all things for him from now on (to which he famously never reported anyone). Revelation 13 again shows and bears a lot of similarities here. Pliny even records that Domitian was “the Beast of the Sea, whose teeth drip with the blood of good Romans”. At least in Ephesus where there was a new port installed by Domitian’s city-building tendencies, a citizen would be required to swear their allegiance and worship to this “Divine Emperor”. After offering incense (possibly at a location like the Flavian temple), you were given a stamp or mark that allowed you to engage in local commerce. Without this and without the proper coinage, you could not buy or sell in either of the Ephesian agoras.
Domitian was so hated, that when he was assassinated, Emperor Nerva would have all his images and statues melted down and arches built to Domitian torn down. Nerva is said to have restored those in exile and banished as well and you were not allowed any longer to accuse anyone of maiestas or of adopting the Jewish mode of life because it had been such a problem with Domitian doing so to others. Pliny confirms this when In Panegyricus (33.4), he writes a tribute to Emperor Trajan saying: 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. Obviously, Christians in Ephesus and the surrounding area who were forced to participate in the Domitian Games would have objected to the Emperor and his worship if this is to be believed. Of note, however, we must note that the poet Statius in Silvae 1.6:83–84 does claim that Domitian rejected the titles. However, the majority consensus of historians at the time seems to suggest that Domitian did claim deity while living. We also must note that the poet Martial of the first century confirms Domitian to be “Lord” and calls him the “Thunderer”, a title that solely belongs to the god Jupiter (Zeus). Often in Martial’s writings, he calls Domitian “lord” and “lord and god” and interestingly, one should note that after Domitian’s death he repudiates these titles given to Domitian. Domitian did declare himself deity in life, something Nero never did. It is also shown evident by the fact that Emperor Nerva and Trajan afterward did as much as they could through damnatio memoriae to erase the many images and statues he had built for himself. Try as they could, the Ephesians still kept the Temple of Sebastoi standing (Domitian’s neokorate to himself and the Flavian Dynasty) and many coinages still survive which show Domitian’s claim to the deity while living such as these I will share below: Of particular note, we have coinages minted by Domitian with the image of the seven stars, something we also find in Revelation (1:16, 20; 2:1, 28; 3:1, 22:16) which, in the context of coinages and Revelation reflects an emperor worship imagery. Though not definitive, the usage of stars in Revelation does match up quite nicely with Roman imperial imagery in Domitian’s day and stars were in the first century associated with deified members of the imperial family. This coin is minted in 83 CE. Minted on it are pieces of evidence of Domitian’s claim to deity such as the bust of his wife Domitia and the inscription DIVI CAESAR MATRI and DIVI CAESARIS MATER, mother of Divine Caesar. On the reverse side is Domitian’s infant son who is depicted as DIVUS CAESARIMP DOMITIANIF, meaning, “the divine Caesar, son of Emperor Domitian. He is depicted as the baby of Jupiter (Zeus), who is head of the Roman pantheon. The globe he sits upon represents world dominion and ultimate power while the stars represent the divine nature of those they accompany. This son is depicted as the conqueror of the entire world and is the son of Jupiter (Zeus). If he is Domitian’s son, and he is a deity and a “son of God” then Domitian is pretty obviously claiming divinity here through his coinages. One cannot help but think in this debate about how Christ, the Son of God (Rev 2:18), in the Revelation is the one depicted holding in His right hand seven stars (Rev. 1:13, 16) and how a Christian would have to use these coinages from Domitian to do trade in Asia Minor where especially in Ephesus they may even have to directly defy Domitian himself.
If Domitian thought himself Jupiter (Zeus) then for the Christians in Pergamum who were under the “throne of Satan” (Rev. 2:13) this takes on an even deeper meaning since this Temple was none other than a Temple dedicated to Zeus which cast a shadow over Pergamum. Domitian would have, by declaring himself the current incarnation of Jupiter/Zeus have had many temples that were, by proxy, while not official neokorates like the one established in Ephesus, nonetheless temples where all would have to worship the emperor who had declared himself the living incarnation of Jupiter (Zeus). Here we have another coinage minted under Domitian where he holds the thunderbolt (fulmen) in his right hand, a sign of his deity. This coinage of 93 CE would heavily appeal to the Greeks since he, as Jupiter (Zeus) has in the coinage the goddess Minerva (Athena) behind him.
It is not difficult at all to make connections here. As was written before, we find in the Revelation Jesus is being worshipped as the true Lord and God by twenty-four elders clothed in white robes (Rev. 4:4) along with the four living creatures all calling Jesus “Lord and God” before the throne (Rev. 4:4-11). While one cannot call all these pieces of evidence conclusive for the dating to be in Domitian’s reign, many scholars do in fact argue that the vision in Revelation 4 is likely in some part referring to Domitian’s Domitian Games which would have occurred in Ephesus where he would force all of the city to come for, praise him, worship him, and dress in all white at his established neokorate, the first established by a living emperor in Asia Minor. It is also well recorded that as emperor, this neokorate was built in four years with a 30-foot statue of Domitian. The construction was so quick that people referred to it looking from the harbor of Ephesus as “the Beast rising out of the sea”. You can clearly see, while not conclusive, it is not a stretch at all to say that this may very well be what John is referencing in Revelation 13.
Suetonius notes that right before Domitian officially became emperor he already had used up so much money by building statues to himself to be worshipped, restoring many buildings after a fire (but also erasing the original builders’ names from them and then having his name inscription placed onto them instead), built the temple in Ephesus (the first neokorate to a living emperor) to the Flavian dynasty, a stadium, an Odium, and a pool for sea-fights.. This cost so much apparently that he ended up seizing everyone’s estates, living or deceased and it is noted that “The property of the living and the dead was seized everywhere on any charge brought by any accuser. It was enough to allege any action or word derogatory to the majesty of the prince… Besides other taxes, that on the Jews was levied with the utmost rigor, and those were prosecuted who without publicly acknowledging that faith yet lived as Jews, as well as those who concealed their origin and did not pay the tribute levied upon their people. I recall being present in my youth when the person of a man ninety years old was examined before the procurator and a very crowded court, to see whether he was circumcised”. This only became worse as Suetonius notes that “when he became emperor, he did not hesitate to boast in the senate that he had conferred their power on both his father and his brother and that they had but returned him his own; nor on taking back his wife after their divorce, that he had ‘recalled her to his divine couch’. He delighted to hear the people in the amphitheater shout on his feast day: ‘Good Fortune attends our Lord and Mistress’. Even more, in the Capitoline competition when all the people begged him with great unanimity to restore Palfurius Sura, who had been banished sometime before from the senate, and on that occasion received the prize for oratory, he deigned no reply, but merely had a crier bid them be silent. With no less arrogance, he began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the name of his procurators, “Our Master and our God bids that this is done.” And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way even in writing or in conversation. He suffered no statues to be set up in his honor in the Capitol, except gold and silver and of a fixed weight. He erected so many and such huge vaulted passageways and arches in the various regions of the city, adorned with chariots and triumphal emblems, that on one of them someone wrote in Greek: “It is enough.” He held the consulship seventeen times, more often than any of his predecessors. Of these, the seven middle ones were in successive years, but all of them he filled in name only, continuing none beyond the first of May and few after the Ides of January. Having assumed the surname Germanicus after his two triumphs, he renamed the months of September and October from his own names, calling them “Germanicus” and “Domitianus,” because in the former he had come to the throne and was born in the latter.” This seems more than enough evidence from the Roman historians to justify that there is a justifiable reason to believe that Domitian professed to be a deity which would be impossible for the Early Church and St. John to ignore and to justify dating the Revelation during Domitian’s reign.
Lastly, it is very well documented through all the Roman historians of Domitian’s cruelty to the Jewish people. This is a historical fact. While we do not have much for Christians’ persecution, much of the time Jew and Christians were mostly seen as two rivaling sects of Judaism versus each other rather than two distinct sects. Christianity was still growing in numbers and this should not come as a surprise as it is not until Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence that we actually get the first documentation of any sort of method that was used on Christians as part of their trials for refusing to partake in the Roman lifestyle. While not conclusive, there seems to be a good amount of evidence from Roman historians for the Revelation having been written at a late date.
In conclusion, though by no means exhaustive, and not at all definitive until more concrete evidence can be unearthed, as mentioned earlier, we can in fact make a good historical case for the Revelation being written in the reign of Domitian instead of Nero’s. In the second affirmative, I will be covering some more archaeology, history, probably Jewish literature and show some patristic support for the date of Revelation if I can fit it in to show why it is likely the Revelation was written historically in the reign of Domitian instead of Nero.
 Tacitus. Fragments. Ch. 1 & 2.
 Suetonius. Life of the Caesars. Life of Nero. 112.
 Ibid. 152-155.
 Tacitus. The Annals. Book 15.34. 284-285.
 Tacitus. Annals. 15.34. 334-335.
 Tacitus. Histories. Book 2. Chapter 8.
 Dio Cassius. Roman History. Epitome of Book 67. 324.
 Pliny the Younger. Letters. Book 3: Letters 9, 10, 11.
 Pliny the Younger. Letters 96.
 Pliny the Younger. Letters. 96-97
 Dio Cassius. 327. 329.
 Dio Cassius. 335-336. 348-349. Suetonius. Life of Caesars: Life of Domitian. 347.
 Dio Cassius. 348-349.
 Dio Cassius. Epitome of Book 68. 361-365.
 Suetonius. Life of Caesar: Life of Domitian. 351. 366-367.
 Suetonius. Life of Caesar: Life of Domitian. 366-367
 Ibid. 368-369.