Seven Reasons to Consider the Jewish War as the Background of the Book of Revelation

Zerstörung Jerusalems durch Titus (Titus Destroying Jerusalem), Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1846)

I am currently teaching the Book of Revelation in the college class at our congregation. In our introductory lesson I summarized the major approaches to the book and then explained what my own view is. In short, I lean toward the pre-AD 70 date for the book, and I believe a good case can be made that in addition to depicting the judgment on imperial Rome, Revelation also describes the judgment on Jerusalem in AD 70. I don’t think that everything in the book was fulfilled then, of course. In my view, we are in the thousand year period described in Revelation 20:1-6, living and reigning with Christ (this is sometimes called the amillennial view). And we look forward to the new heaven and earth of Revelation 21-22.

Whether the particular historical referent for certain passages is imperial Rome or apostate Israel, the ultimate meaning of the book – the triumph of Christ over all enemies – remains the same. Nevertheless, I do believe there are some good reasons to take the pre-AD 70 view of the book, especially in connection with the Jewish revolt that lasted from AD 66-73 and culminated with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. This is a minority view to be sure (although it may be making a comeback – take a look at Peter Leithart’s excellent posts on Revelation at First Things). Most commentators date Revelation in the mid-90’s in the time of Emperor Domitian, after the fall of Jerusalem. But here are a few points that merit giving the earlier date under the reign of Nero and before the fall of Jerusalem a second look:

1.  The thematic verse in Revelation 1:7.

Revelation 1:7 says, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”

The “coming with the clouds” phraseology traces back to Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man is pictured coming on the clouds to the Ancient of Days. What is often overlook is the direction of this coming. This is not a coming down to earth but a coming up to God for enthronement. It is not a reference to the Second Coming but rather to the ascension and coronation of Jesus.

In Matthew 24:30, Jesus says that the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple will be a vivid sign that he indeed reigns as Israel’s true King. Notice the similarity of the language here to that in Revelation 1:7-

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30).

Since Jesus defines the time frame of this sign of judgment as the generation of his contemporaries (Matthew 24:34), this helps us to understand that the “coming” in view here is not the end of history, but the judgment on Jerusalem in history. And the close correlation between this language and the statement in Revelation 1:7 suggests that a similar context is in view.

2.  The references to Jewish and Roman persecution in the letters to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3).

Christians were persecuted before and after the events of AD 70. However, even those who date Revelation later in the time of Domitian must concede that “persecution under Domitian is possible but is supported by documentary evidence only in writers subsequent to his reign” (G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p. 12). No one questions that imperial Rome shifted strongly against Christians in the time of Nero. And the Book of Acts gives ample evidence of Jewish animosity toward Christians. This data is consistent with (though certainly does not clinch) an earlier date for the book.

3.  The parallels with the Olivet Discourse in Revelation Six.

Revelation Six reveals a series of judgments in the form of a vision of seven seals. These judgments are very similar to those in Jesus’ discourse about the judgment on the temple delivered in the Mount of Olives. Notice how closely the content (and even the order) compares:

  • Seal 1: War (Revelation 6:2; cf. Luke 21:9)
  • Seal 2: Peace taken from earth (Revelation 6:2-4; cf. Luke 21:10)
  • Seal 3: Famine (Revelation 6:5-6; cf. Luke 21:11)
  • Seal 4: Pestilence (Revelation 6:7-8; cf. Luke 21:11)
  • Seal 5: Persecution (Revelation 6:9-11; cf. Luke 21:12)
  • Seal 6: Signs in the heavens and earthquake  (Revelation 6:12-14; Luke 21:11, 25)

I will grant that apocalyptic language uses certain stock images that may refer to more than one historical referent. But these similarities are striking.

4.  The trampling of the temple in Revelation 11:2.

In Revelation 11:1-2 John sees the temple of God and is told that the court “is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months.” Notice the closely related statement by Jesus about the fall of Jerusalem in Luke 21:24-

They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

This suggests John is seeing the same event prophesied by Jesus.

5.  The association of the “great city” in Revelation 11:8 with the place where Jesus was crucified.

John sees two witnesses from God meet their death at the hands of the citizens of the “great city,” which is identified as the city “that symbolically (“mystically,” NASB) is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.” The latter phrase clearly refers to Jerusalem, which in the OT is sometimes described as “Sodom” (Isaiah 1:10; Jeremiah 23:14; Ezekiel 16:46-52). I understand the argument that says all three references here in Revelation 11:8 are symbolic and refer to Rome, but that does not seem to me to be the best view of the syntax of the verse. And if “where their Lord was crucified” refers to Jerusalem, this fits hand-in-glove with the earlier reference to the temple in 11:1-2.

6.  The contrast between the Great Prostitute (Revelation 17-18) and the Bride (Revelation 19-21).

John pictures an enemy of God’s people in terms of a double metaphor, a city that is also a woman – “the great prostitute” (Revelation 17:1-5). At the end of the book, he sees the glorified people of God in terms of another double metaphor, a city that is also a woman.

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (21:2).

This is not a knock-down argument to be sure, but it seems beautifully symmetrical to juxtapose the bride – the new Jerusalem, with the great prostitute – the old Jerusalem.

7.  The use of “Babylon” imagery in Revelation 17-18 and the Olivet Discourse.

Unquestionably, the strongest text from which to make the case that the great prostitute is the city of Rome is in Revelation 17-18 (though I think a good response can make made to these arguments). There, John refers to the prostitute/city as “Babylon,” and given the broad commercial and political power ascribed to “Babylon” in these chapters, many commentators see a reference to Rome rather than Jerusalem. But what is often overlooked is that Jesus employed the language of the fall of Babylon (drawn from Isaiah 13:1-10) in the Olivet discourse to describe the fall of Jerusalem (see Matthew 24:29). As R.T. France observes,

It is certainly shocking that Isaiah’s patriotic denunciation of Babylon…could be turned against Jerusalem, and God’s own city reduced to the level of a pagan power, but…this reversal of roles is at the heart of the message of these verses” (The Gospel of Matthew, p. 922).

I believe John is doing the same thing, on a much larger scale, in Revelation 17-18 (for a detailed explanation of this view, see Iain Provan’s article, “Foul Spirits, Fornication and Finance: Revelation 18 from an Old Testament Perspective” in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament [1996: vol. 64,  pp 81-110]).

So there you have my reasons for leaning in the direction of the early date. But the academic discussion of the background of the book should never obscure its practical importance. The Book of Revelation is an immensely uplifting book. It offers hope to God’s people that whatever enemies may challenge the Lord Jesus, they will be defeated and the followers of the Lamb will triumph.

“Come, Lord Jesus!”

8 Comments

  1. This is a frightening article. I just completed teaching the book of Revelation and this introduction sounds almost exactly like mine. I had never found anyone who agreed with me. Should I feel vindicated or frightened?

  2. Shane, Phil Roberts told us the the “great city” of Revelation 11:8 had to be Rome. That settles it for me. 🙂

  3. Shane, when I’ve taught Revelation, I’ve always used the late date, but these are great thoughts to consider. I’ll take a fresh look at it next time. Thanks for your insight!

  4. A couple of questions, Isn’t Satan supposed to be bound in the 1,000 year reign and unable to deceive the nations? If so, why is he so active now? Also, where are the Saints that were beheaded that are to rule with Christ?

    • The binding of Satan, if I understand it, was in his use of nations. Has he succeeded in doing that since the fall of Jerusalem/Rome?

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