Dating Revelation: Considering Iranaeus' Testimony

The key piece of evidence used today to prove a late date (95-98 AD) for the book of Revelation is the testimony of Iranaeus. Iranaeus was the bishop of Lyons between 175-190 A.D. He was a disciple of Polycarp who was in turn a disciple of the apostle John.

There are no extant complete copies of Iranaeus’ writings in the Greek. What does exist are writings by Eusebius, fourth century historian, and others who wrote in Greek and supposedly give us direct quotes from Iranaeus’ writings. The only complete copies of Iranaeus’ work that scholars possess are fourth century Latin copies. The text of these Latin manuscripts is what McClintock and Strong’s Biblical Encyclopedia calls "barbaric Latin" and as a result much of Iranaeus is "now quite obscure".

What I am suggesting is that the very manuscripts, upon which so much weight is placed by the advocates for a late date of Revelation, are themselves open to question. It simply is not known by scholars whether the Latin copies of Iranaeus are accurate depictions of his actual words. This fact alone should give one pause before accepting Iranaeus’ testimony as the "last word" for the late date of Revelation.

Another factor that should give caution about accepting Iranaeus’ testimony is the fact that he admits he was but a small child when he heard the testimony upon which the late date rests, and that he did not write anything down. The late date for Revelation depends primarily on testimony of an event witnessed by a young child, and remembered and recorded over 50 years later.

These are two preliminary facts about the testimony of Iranaeus. We have not yet even examined what it is he is reported to have said about the Revelation. I shall do that in the another article. My point in noting the above is to help the reader realize that Iranaeus may not be the kind of totally reliable witness he has been made out to be. He certainly was not infallible; the records we have of the vital incident are questionable; and the witness himself admits what he relates is the memory of an event he experienced when he was a small child. The testimony of Iranaeus must be viewed with extreme caution.

Is Iranaeus a reliable witness?

The very least that can be said for Iranaeus is that he was "eccentric." He was a thorough going Chiliast, a form of millennialism but distinguished from dispensationalism, and his Chilialism was grossly materialistic. He believed in a future kingdom in which "vines will be produce, each one having a thousand branches, and each branch ten thousand twigs, and on each twig ten thousand shoots, and on each shoot ten thousand clusters, and in each cluster ten thousand grapes, and each grape when pressed will give twenty-five metretes of wine. Similarly, a grain of wheat will produce ten thousand ears, and each ear will have ten thousand grains, and each grain will yield ten pounds of pure flour." (Against Heresies, Book V:33:3 in Early Church Fathers, Cyril Richardson editor, p. 394-395.)

The good bishop used some very strange exegetical tools in his reasoning. He insisted there were four gospels written because there are four corners of the world. Since there are four winds, and four corners of the world there absolutely had to be four gospels written — one four each corner of the world.

Not only was Iranaeus eccentric in doctrinal matters, he was not exactly trustworthy in historical matters either. Iranaeus believed that Jesus was over fifty years old in the days of his personal ministry — and he claimed the apostle John had delivered this "truth" to the church "elders" in Asia.

I could catalog many eccentricities and outright historical and doctrinal blunders and errors made by Iranaeus. The point is that Iranaeus was not inspired. He was but a man writing from memory about an incident that happened when he was a child. He is also demonstrably inaccurate in a host of areas. Why should his testimony that supposedly dates the Apocalypse be accepted without question? More, why should his testimony be accepted over the internal, that is, the self-witness of the book of Revelation itself?

Iranaeus makes for fascinating reading. But when Iranaeus is used today as the final authority for dating the book of Revelation it will be discovered that this star witness is somewhat less than trustworthy.

What is it Iranaeus (supposedly) said about the date of Revelation? Actually, Iranaeus did not discuss the dating of the book at all. The relevant quote is about the identity of the beast of Revelation and is found in the work of Eusebius, 4th century church historian, Book 5, chapter 8. Eusebius says Iranaeus speaks about John: "We, therefore, do not venture to affirm anything with certainty respecting the name of antichrist. For were it necessary that his name should be clearly announced to the present age, it would have been declared by him who saw the revelation. For it has not been long since it was seen, but almost in our own generation, about the end of Domitian’s reign."

This is the most common English translation of his words; but keep in mind my comments about the corruption of the Latin text of Iranaeus and the uncertainty of the translation of Eusebius’ quote.

Iranaeus’ point is not to discuss when the Revelation was seen — such a discussion was irrelevant. His point was the identity of the beast of Revelation. The citation makes far more contextual sense when we understand it to say that John could have settled the issue because he was seen not long before, in the closing days of Domitian.

How could the book of Revelation have settled the issue of the identity of the beast because it had been seen not long before? This is almost non-sensical. It is the revelation that had spoken of the beast without clearly giving his identity. But John could have settled the issue of the identity of the beast because he is the one who wrote the book which spoke of the beast.

This view of the passage from Iranaeus makes far more sense than the traditional construction. It fits the context far better.

Iranaeus’ testimony is far from the final word about the date of Revelation. Iranaeus was not a tremendously reliable historian; the Latin text of his quote is known to be highly suspect; the Greek translation is questionable; and Iranaeus was not an inspired witness. His testimony, even if stated in the clearest of terms, must be weighed against those of the book of Revelation itself. When this is done, the evidence is abundantly clear that the book of Revelation could not have been written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.