The general statements of some historical records are considered to support a late date (96 AD) rather than one prior to 70 AD. However, the testimony of history rests solely upon a single account: A short statement from Irenaeus. His record is the only historical argument for the late date; and without it there simply is no historical platform for a late date argument.
Irenaeus wrote near the end of the second century. In his fifth treatise against Gnosticism (all of which were titled Against Heresies), he stated:
“We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of the Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our own day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.”
(Irenaeus’ quote as found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. A. Cleveland Coxe, ed. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, trans. Peabody; Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Reprinted 1995, pg. 559.)
Linguists have long recognized that it is impossible to note whether it was the Apostle John being spoken of as having been “seen” or the book of Revelation. Some English translations of this passage use the impersonal pronoun “it” in the phrase – “for if it were necessary that ‘its’ name…” At least one commentator (the late author and evangelist Arthur Ogden) quoted this passage using the third person masculine pronoun “he” in the phrase, “…for he was seen no very long time since…” However, these are questionable renditions.
It is generally concluded, from the general reading, that it is the book of Revelation which was noted as recently “seen.” I would suggest that conclusion lies outside of the context and intent of the remark itself.
The quote was made as a clue in identifying the beast and the number of the beast. This is referred to by Irenaeus as identifying “the Anti-Christ.” In noting this we ought to observe, 1): that this likely indicates Irenaeus misunderstood the very meaning of the phrase “anti-Christ,” as was common both then and now; and 2): continuing with the context, Irenaeus preferred the name “Titus” or “Titan” (Teitan is the actual transliteration from the Greek), when identifying the number as a name. Therefore, his intent seemed to be that if it had been necessary to announce a name to fit the number of the beast (again, here misstated as “the Anti-Christ”), that John could easily have done so as he had been alive near to the point when Irenaeus had penned this – about 80 years beyond the time of the Apostles. However, the inference for these theories is that the phrase indicates the book itself had just been recently penned and circulated.
To suggest Irenaeus was discussing one of the headiest questions in Revelation while at the same time noting that it was then fresh from the scribes and was a newly penned-and-published document, ought to be better scrutinized. Irenaeus seems instead to be commenting that if John had desired to relieve the searchers of the mystery of deciphering the number of the beast, he could have done so easily, as he was yet alive when Irenaeus had penned this note; and to his, that is Irenaeus’ knowledge, the Revelation of John had already been published widely by the last part of the first century. (Irenaeus Ante-Nicene 392)
Why would anyone suggest otherwise? Can we state that Irenaeus had a limited knowledge of the events and that we have a much clearer one? Irenaeus listed one other mention of John being alive during the reign of Domitian: hence the association of the dates. Most historians prefer this single source and record.
With these things noted, my view is that the reference does not appear to have added anything to identifying the time of the writing.
Another writer who took up this subject was Clement of Alexandria (born 150, died prior to 220). Clement’s record is unusual in its recounting of some events late in the Apostle John’s life so that some (like me) would classify it as fictional literature. This even though Clement claimed to have studied as the feet of the Apostle as a child. He relates that the Apostle John lived beyond 96 AD. Supposing modestly that John was between twenty and thirty years of age when the Lord began his ministry around 29 AD, this would have made him at least an octogenarian by the late nineties. Yet Clement has him pursuing “bandits” on horseback beyond the death of Domitian (96) – a daunting task for a young man much less of one nearing or beyond ninety years of age.
To the reader I ask: Why-oh-why would the sole surviving Apostle of Christ be out doing something like that in the first place? Not impossible certainly, but unlikely even under better circumstances. The question is – why would someone favor Irenaeus’ or Clement’s account, yet at the same time disregarding Tertullian’s account (born the same year as Clement – died before 250)? Tertullian recorded that the Apostle John survived being plunged into boiling oil at Rome; and following that was dispatched “to his island exile” at about the same time that Peter was crucified, and Paul beheaded.
(We cannot post footnotes “correctly” with this software. This is the note as posted and listed on the manuscript page:
“Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority (of apostles themselves). How happy is the church, on which apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like the Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John’s! Where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island exile.”
Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3 Latin Christianity Tertullian. pg 260.)
In my view, this record is not well received because it includes a miracle; and more than a few secular historians (and religious writers too), will simply not have that, because they do not believe in miracles (whether performed by Christ or his Apostles and disciples). If the record is accurate, it would place the mentioned events during the reign of Nero and prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Which of these records would you choose: Irenaeus’ – Clement’s – Tertullian’s – some mix? Perhaps none of these? Certainly, the report of Tertullian is no more incredible than Clement’s. I suggest that Tertullian’s report is given less weight because modern theorists prefer Irenaeus’ as it better fits their postulations. I also suspect this indicates the theories drive the sources rather than the sources driving the theories, as is sometimes the case. Tertullian also stated that Domitian’s persecution of Christians had been milder than Nero’s, presenting another problem for late date theories. Tertullian stated: “Domitian too, a man of Nero’s type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished.” ( Ibid. pg. 22). Note that the persons were stated to have been “banished” — not saw into pieces, crucified upside down, boiled in oil, beheaded, thrown to the lions in the Coliseum or burned on a pyre. I suggest that you cannot “restore” the dead. What sayest thou?