The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Rev. 12 1–4), William Blake, 1803–1805
St. John receives his Revelation. Saint-Sever Beatus, 11th century.
Irenæus introduced an opinion that the Apocalypse was written in the time of Domitian; but then he also postponed the writing of some others of the sacred books, and was to place the Apocalypse after them: he might perhaps have heard from his master Polycarp that he had received this book from John about the time of Domitian’s death; or indeed John might himself at that time have made a new publication of it, from whence Irenæus might imagine it was then but newly written. Eusebius in his Chronicle and Ecclesiastical History follows Irenœus; but afterwards in his Evangelical Demonstrations, he conjoins the banishment of John into Patmos, with the deaths of Peter and Paul: and so do Tertullian and Pseudo-Prochorus, as well as the first author, whoever he was, of that very antient fable, that John was put by Nero into a vessel of hot oil, and coming out unhurt, was banished by him into Patmos. Tho this story be no more than a fiction yet was it founded on a tradition of the first churches, that John was banished into Patmos in the days of Nero. Epiphanius represents the Gospel of John as written in the time of Domitian, and the Apocalypse even before that of Nero. Arethas in the beginning of his Commentary quotes the opinion of Irenæus from Eusebius, but follows it not: for he afterwards affirms the Apocalypse was written before the destruction of Jerusalem, and that former commentators had expounded the sixth seal of that destruction.
With the opinion of the first Commentators agrees the tradition of the Churches of Syria, preserved to this day in the title of the Syriac Version of the Apocalypse, which title is this: The Revelation which was made to John the Evangelist by God in the Island Patmos, into which he was banished by Nero the Cæsar. The fame is confirmed by a story told by Eusebius out of Clemens Alexandrinus, and other antient authors, concerning a youth, whom John some time after his return from Patmos committed to the care of the Bishop of a certain city. The Bishop educated, instructed, and at length baptized him; but then remitting of his care, the young man thereupon got into ill company, and began by degrees first to revel and grow vitious, then to abuse and spoil those he met in the night; and at last grew so desperate, that his companions turning a band of high-way men, made him their Captain: and, saith Chrysostom, he continued their Captain a long time. At length John returning to that city, and hearing what was done, rode to the thief; and, when he out of reverence to his old master fled, John rode after him, recalled him, and restored him to the Church. This is a story of many years, and requires that John should have returned from Patmos rather at the death of Nero than at that of Domitian; because between the death of Domitian and that of John there were but two years and an half; and John in his old age was so infirm as to be carried to Church, dying above 90 years old, and therefore could not be then suppos’d able to ride after the thief.
This opinion is further supported by the allusions in the Apocalypse to the Temple and Altar, and holy City, as then standing; and to the Gentiles, who were soon after to tread under foot the holy City and outward Court. ‘Tis confirmed also by the style of the Apocalypse itself, which is fuller of Hebraisms than his Gospel. For thence it may be gathered, that it was written when John was newly come out of Judea, where he had been used to the Syriac tongue; and that he did not write his Gospel, till by long converse with the Asiatick Greeks he had left off most of the Hebraisms. It is confirmed also by the many false Apocalypses, as those of Peter, Paul, Thomas, Stephen, Elias and Cerinthus, written in imitation of the true one. For as the many false Gospels, false Acts, and false Epistles were occasioned by true ones; and the writing many false Apocalypses, and ascribing them to Apostles and Prophets, argues that there was a true Apostolic one in great request with the first Christians: so this true one may well be suppos’d to have been written early, that there may be room in the Apostolic age for the writing of so many false ones afterwards, and fathering them upon Peter, Paul, Thomas and others, who were dead before John. Caius, who was contemporary with Tertullian, tells us that Cerinthus wrote his Revelations as a great Apostle, and pretended the visions were shewn him by Angels, asserting a millennium of carnal pleasures at Jerusalem after the resurrection; so that his Apocalypse was plainly written in imitation of John’s: and yet he lived so early, that he resisted the Apostles at Jerusalem in or before the first year of Claudius, that is, 26 years before the death of Nero, and died before John.
These reasons may suffice for determining the time; and yet there is one more, which to considering men may seem a good reason, to others not. I’ll propound it, and leave it to every man’s judgment. The Apocalypse seems to be alluded to in the Epistles of Peter and that to the Hebrews and therefore to have been written before them. Such allusions in the Epistle to the Hebrews, I take to be the discourses concerning the High-Priest in the heavenly Tabernacle, who is both Priest and King, as was Melchisedec; and those concerning the word of God, with the sharp two-edged sword, the σαββατισμος, or millennial rest, the earth whose end is to be burned, suppose by the lake of fire, the judgment and fiery indignation which shall devour the adversaries, the heavenly City which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God, the cloud of witnesses, mount Sion, heavenly Jerusalem, general assembly, spirits of just men made perfect, viz. by the resurrection, and the shaking of heaven and earth, and removing them, that the new heaven, new earth and new kingdom which cannot be shaken, may remain. In the first of Peter occur these: The Revelation of Jesus Christ, twice or thrice repeated; the blood of Christ as of a Lamb foreordained before the foundation of the world; the spiritual building in heaven, 1 Pet. ii. 5. an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for us, who are kept unto the salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time, 1 Pet. i. 4, 5. the royal Priesthood, the holy Priesthood the judgment beginning at the house of God, and the Church at Babylon. These are indeed obscurer allusions; but the second Epistle, from the 19th verse of the first Chapter to the end, seems to be a continued Commentary upon the Apocalypse. There, in writing to the Churches in Asia, to whom John was commanded to send this Prophecy, he tells them, they have a more sure word of Prophecy, to be heeded by them, as a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in their hearts, that is, until they begin to understand it: for no Prophecy, saith he, of the scripture is of any private interpretation; the Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake, as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Daniel himself professes that he understood not his own Prophecies; and therefore the Churches were not to expect the interpretation from their Prophet John, but to study the Prophecies themselves. This is the substance of what Peter says in the first chapter; and then in the second he proceeds to describe, out of this sure word of Prophecy, how there should arise in the Church false Prophets, or false teachers, expressed collectively in the Apocalypse by the name of the false Prophet; who should bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, which is the character of Antichrist: And many, saith he, shall follow their lusts; they that dwell on the earth shall be deceived by the false Prophet, and be made drunk with the wine of the Whore’s fornication, by reason of whom the way of truth shall be blasphemed; for the Beast is full of blasphemy: and thro’ covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandize of you; for these are the Merchants of the Earth, who trade with the great Whore, and their merchandize is all things of price, with the bodies and souls of men: whose judgment — lingreth not, and their damnation slumbreth not, but shall surely come upon them at the last day suddenly, as the flood upon the old world, and fire and brimstone upon Sodom and Gomorrha, when the just shall be delivered like Lot; for the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished, in the lake of fire; but chiefly them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, being made drunk with the wine of the Whore’s fornication; who despise dominion, and are not afraid to blaspheme glories; for the beast opened his mouth against God to blaspheme his name and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. These, as natural brute beasts, the ten-horned beast and two-horned beast, or false Prophet, made to be taken and destroyed, in the lake of fire, blaspheme the things they understand not: — they count it pleasure to riot in the day-time — sporting themselves with their own deceivings, while they feast with you, having eyes full of an Adulteress: for the kingdoms of the beast live deliciously with the great Whore, and the nations are made drunk with the wine of her fornication. They are gone astray, following the way of Balaam,the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness, the false Prophet who taught Balak to cast a stumbling-block before the children of Israel. These are, not fountains of living water, but wells without water; not such clouds of Saints as the two witnesses ascend in, but clouds that are carried with a tempest, &c. Thus does the author of this Epistle spend all the second Chapter in describing the qualities of the Apocalyptic Beasts and false Prophet: and then in the third he goes on to describe their destruction more fully, and the future kingdom. He saith, that because the coming of Christ should be long deferred, they should scoff, saying, where is the promise of his coming? Then he describes the sudden coming of the day of the Lord upon them, as a thief in the night, which is the Apocalyptic phrase; and the millennium, or thousand years, which are with God but as a day; the passing away of the old heavens and earth, by a conflagration in the lake of fire, and our looking for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
Seeing therefore Peter and John were Apostles of the circumcision, it seems to me that they staid with their Churches in Judea and Syria till the Romans made war upon their nation, that is, till the twelfth year of Nero; that they then followed the main body of their flying Churches into Asia, and that Peter went thence by Corinth to Rome; that the Roman Empire looked upon those Churches as enemies, because Jews by birth; and therefore to prevent insurrections, secured their leaders, and banished John into Patmos. It seems also probable to me that the Apocalypse was there composed, and that soon after the Epistle to the Hebrews and those of Peter were written to these Churches, with reference to this Prophecy as what they were particularly concerned in. For it appears by these Epistles, that they were written in times of general affliction and tribulation under the heathens, and by consequence when the Empire made war upon the Jews; for till then the heathens were at peace with the Christian Jews, as well as with the rest. The Epistle to the Hebrews, since it mentions Timothy as related to those Hebrews, must be written to them after their flight into Asia, where Timothy was Bishop; and by consequence after the war began, the Hebrews in Judea being strangers to Timothy. Peter seems also to call Rome Babylon, as well with respect to the war made upon Judea, and the approaching captivity, like that under old Babylon, as with respect to that name in the Apocalypse: and in writing to the strangers scattered thro’out Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, he seems to intimate that they were the strangers newly scattered by the Roman wars; for those were the only strangers there belonging to his care.
This account of things agrees best with history when duly rectified. For Justin and Irenæus say, that Simon Magus came to Rome in the reign of Claudius, and exercised juggling tricks there. Pseudo-Clemens adds, that he endeavoured there to fly, but broke his neck thro’ the prayers of Peter. Whence Eusebius, or rather his interpolator Jerom, has recorded, that Peter came to Rome in the second year of Claudius: but Cyril Bishop of Jerusalem, Philastrius, Sulpitius, Prosper, Maximus Taurinensis, and Hegesippus junior, place this victory of Peter in the time of Nero. Indeed the antienter tradition was, that Peter came to Rome in the days of this Emperor, as may be seen in Lactantius. Chrysostom tells us, that the Apostles continued long in Judea, and that then being driven out by the Jews they went to the Gentiles. This dispersion was in the first year of the Jewish war, when the Jews, as Josephus tells us, began to be tumultuous and violent in all places. For all agree that the Apostles were dispersed into several regions at once; and Origen has set down the time, telling us that in the beginning of the Judaic war, the Apostles and disciples of our Lord were scattered into all nations; Thomas into Parthia, Andrew into Scythia, John into Asia, and Peter first into Asia, where he preacht to the dispersion, and thence into Italy. Dionysius Corinthius saith, that Peter went from Asia by Corinth to Rome, and all antiquity agrees that Peter and Paul were martyred there in the end of Nero’s reign. Mark went with Timothy to Rome, 2 Tim. iv. 11. Colos. iv. 10. Sylvanus was Paul’s assistant; and by the companions of Peter, mentioned in his first Epistle, we may know that he wrote from Rome; and the Antients generally agree, that in this Epistle he understood Rome by Babylon. His second Epistle was writ to the same dispersed strangers with the first, 2 Pet. iii. 1. and therein he saith, that Paul had writ of the same things to them, and also in his other Epistles, ver. 15, 16. Now as there is no Epistle of Paul to these strangers besides that to the Hebrews, so in this Epistle, chap. x. 11, 12. we find at large all those things which Peter had been speaking of, and here refers to; particularly the passing away of the old heavens and earth, and establishing an inheritance immoveable, with an exhortation to grace, because God, to the wicked, is a consuming fire, Heb. xii. 25, 26, 28, 29.
Having determined the time of writing the Apocalyse, I need not say much about the truth of it, since it was in such request with the first ages, that many endeavoured to imitate it, by feigning Apocalypses under the Apostles names; and the Apostles themselves, as I have just now shewed, studied it, and used its phrases; by which means the style of the Epistle to the Hebrews became more mystical than that of Paul’s other Epistles, and the style of John’s Gospel more figurative and majestical than that of the other Gospels. I do not apprehend that Christ was called the word of God in any book of the New Testament written before the Apocalypse; and therefore am of opinion, the language was taken from this Prophecy, as were also many other phrases in this Gospel, such as those of Christ’s being the light which enlightens the world, the lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, the bridegroom, he that testifieth, he that came down from heaven, the Son of God, &c. Justin Martyr, who within thirty years after John’s death became a Christian, writes expressly that a certain man among the Christians whose name was John, one of the twelve Apostles of Christ, in the Revelation which was shewed him, prophesied that those who believed in Christ should live a thousand years at Jerusalem. And a few lines before he saith: But I, and as many as are Christians, in all things right in their opinions, believe both that there shall be a resurrection of the flesh, and a thousand years life at Jerusalem built, adorned and enlarged. Which is as much as to say, that all true Christians in that early age received this Prophecy: for in all ages, as many as believed the thousand years, received the Apocalypse as the foundation of their opinion: and I do not know one instance to the contrary. Papias Bishop of Hierapolis, a man of the Apostolic age, and one of John’s own disciples, did not only teach the doctrine of the thousand years, but also asserted the Apocalypse as written by divine inspiration. Melito, who flourished next after Justin, wrote a commentary upon this Prophecy; and he, being Bishop of Sardis one of the seven Churches, could neither be ignorant of their tradition about it, nor impose upon them. Irenæus, who was contemporary with Melito, wrote much upon it, and said, that the number 666 was in all the antient and approved copies; and that he had it also confirmed to him by those who had seen John face to face, meaning no doubt his master Polycarp for one. At the same time Theophilus Bishop of Antioch asserted it, and so did Tertullian, Clemens Alexandrinus, and Origen soon after; and their contemporary Hippolytus the Martyr, Metropolitan of the Arabians, wrote a commentary upon it. All these were antient men, flourishing within a hundred and twenty years after John’s death, and of greatest note in the Churches of those times. Soon after did Victorinus Pictaviensis write another commentary upon it; and he lived in the time of Dioclesian. This may surely suffice to shew how the Apocalypse was received and studied in the first ages: and I do not indeed find any other book of the New Testament so strongly attested, or commented upon so early as this. The Prophecy said: Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this Prophecy, and keep the things which are written therein. This animated the first Christians to study it so much, till the difficulty made them remit, and comment more upon the other books of the New Testament. This was the state of the Apocalypse, till the thousand years being misunderstood, brought a prejudice against it: and Dionysius of Alexandria, noting how it abounded with barbarisms, that is with Hebraisms, promoted that prejudice so far, as to cause many Greeks in the fourth century to doubt of the book. But whilst the Latins, and a great part of the Greeks, always retained the Apocalypse, and the rest doubted only out of prejudice, it makes nothing against its authority.
This Prophecy is called the Revelation, with respect to the scripture of truth, which Daniel was commanded to shut up and seal, till the time of the end. Daniel sealed it until the time of the end; and until that time comes, the Lamb is opening the seals: and afterwards the two Witnesses prophesy out of it a long time in sack-cloth, before they ascend up to heaven in a cloud. All which is as much as to say, that these Prophecies of Daniel and John should not be understood till the time of the end: but then some should prophesy out of them in an afflicted and mournful state for a long time, and that but darkly, so as to convert but few. But in the very end, the Prophecy should be so far interpreted as to convince many. Then, saith Daniel, many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be encreased. For the Gospel must be preached in all nations before the great tribulation, and end of the world. The palm-bearing multitude, which come out of this great tribulation, cannot be innumerable out of all nations, unless they be made so by the preaching of the Gospel before it comes. There must be a stone cut out of a mountain without hands, before it can fall upon the toes of the Image, and become a great mountain and fill the earth. An Angel must fly thro’ the midst of heaven with the everlasting Gospel to preach to all nations, before Babylon falls, and the Son of man reaps his harvest. The two Prophets must ascend up to heaven in a cloud, before the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of Christ. ‘Tis therefore a part of this Prophecy, that it should not be understood before the last age of the world; and therefore it makes for the credit of the Prophecy, that it is not yet understood. But if the last age, the age of opening these things, be now approaching, as by the great successes of late Interpreters it seems to be, we have more encouragement than ever to look into these things. If the general preaching of the Gospel be approaching, it is to us and our posterity that those words mainly belong: In the time of the end the wise shall understand, but none of the wicked shall understand. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this Prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein.
The folly of Interpreters has been, to foretel times and things by this Prophecy, as if God designed to make them Prophets. By this rashness they have not only exposed themselves, but brought the Prophecy also into contempt. The design of God was much otherwise. He gave this and the Prophecies of the Old Testament, not to gratify men’s curiosities by enabling them to foreknow things, but that after they were fulfilled they might be interpreted by the event, and his own Providence, not the Interpreters, be then manifested thereby to the world. For the event of things predicted many ages before, will then be a convincing argument that the world is governed by providence. For as the few and obscure Prophecies concerning Christ’s first coming were for setting up the Christian religion, which all nations have since corrupted; so the many and clear Prophecies concerning the things to be done at Christ’s second coming, are not only for predicting but also for effecting a recovery and re-establishment of the long-lost truth, and setting up a kingdom wherein dwells righteousness. The event will prove the Apocalypse; and this Prophecy, thus proved and understood, will open the old Prophets, and all together will make known the true religion, and establish it. For he that will understand the old Prophets, must begin with this; but the time is not yet come for understanding them perfectly, because the main revolution predicted in them is not yet come to pass. In the days of the voice of the seventh Angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God shall be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the Prophets: and then the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ, and he shall reign for ever, Apoc. x. 7. xi. 15. There is already so much of the Prophecy fulfilled, that as many as will take pains in this study, may see sufficient instances of God’s providence: but then the signal revolutions predicted by all the holy Prophets, will at once both turn mens eyes upon considering the predictions, and plainly interpret them. Till then we must content ourselves with interpreting what hath been already fulfilled.
Amongst the Interpreters of the last age there is scarce one of note who hath not made some discovery worth knowing; and thence I seem to gather that God is about opening these mysteries. The success of others put me upon considering it; and if I have done any thing which may be useful to following writers, I have my design.
Revelation 6.2: "And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer." White Rider from Tolkovy Apocalyps, Moscow, 17th century.