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 the religious historian 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.
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 here is as given in the English translation found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers.)
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 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, both make for dubious renditions.
It is generally concluded, from the reading, that it is the book of Revelation which was noted as recently “seen.” I would suggest that conclusion lies outside of the actual context and intent of the remark.
The quote was made as a clue to identifying the beast and the number of the beast. This is referred to by Irenaeus as identifying “the Anti-Christ.” In this we should observe: 1) that this likely indicates Irenaeus misunderstood the meaning of the phrase “anti-Christ,” as was unfortunately 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 he is identifying the number as a name. It seems his intent was to note 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 the Apostle John could easily have done so, for he had been alive near to the point when Irenaeus penned this – about 30 to 50 years beyond the time of the rest of the Apostles. However, the inference within 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 as a newly penned-and-published document, ought to be better thought through. He 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 easily done so as he was yet alive when he (Irenaeus) penned this note. That to his knowledge, the Revelation of John had already been published widely by the last part of the first century. Why would anyone suggest otherwise? Can we state categorically that Irenaeus had a limited knowledge of the events and that we have a 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 source and the record of Irenaeus. With these things noted, in my view, the reference does not appear to have added anything, either pro or con, to identifying the time of the writing. (Irenaeus Ante-Nicene 392)
Another writer who wrote in respect to 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 pure fiction. This even though Clement stated that he had “studied at the feet of the Apostle” John as a child. (Noting the year of Clement’s birth, this last statement should be seriously considered prior to quoting him for any reason on any topic. The Apostle John would have been better than 120 years old when Clement was around. Irenaeus’ would likely have had “infant’s feet” at the time and may not have had studying on his mind. Good sense and simple math should take over somewhere.)
Clement 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 to 31 AD this would have made him at minimum a well-seasoned octogenarian or perhaps a centenarian by the end of that century. Yet Clement has John 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. (Read the simple math problem in the previous paragraph again, if necessary.)
Gentle reader, I must now ask. Why-oh-why would the sole surviving and quite elderly Apostle of Christ be with a posse chasing bandits in the first place? Not impossible certainly, but unlikely even under better circumstances. Yet, Clement’s record is preferred by late date theorists. Yet, another question remains – why would someone favor Irenaeus’ or Clement’s account, while at the same time disregarding Tertullian’s report (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 had been crucified, and Paul beheaded.
“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. 260.)
In my meager view, this record is not well received because it includes a miracle; and more than just a few secular historians, with one or two religious writers thrown in for good measure, simply will not have that — because they do not believe in miracles. Yet if the records were accurate, it would place the mentioned events during the reign of Nero and prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. Think 42 months.
Which of these records might you choose: Irenaeus’ – Clement’s – Tertullian’s – some mix of these? Perhaps none of them? Certainly, the report of Tertullian is no more or less incredible than Clement’s. I suggest that Tertullian’s report is given less weight because modern theorists simply prefer Irenaeus’ (and Clement’s) as it better fits pre-determined theorems. I also suspect this is another indication the theories drive the sources rather than the sources driving the theories, as is (dare we say it?), sometimes the case. Tertullian also wrote that Domitian’s persecution of Christians had been milder than Nero’s, which other historians also stated, presenting another problem for late date theorists. He penned: “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 the persecuted persons were stated to have been banished — not sawn into pieces, crucified upside down, set afire in the circus, boiled in oil, beheaded, thrown to the lions or burned alive on a pyre. I suggest that you cannot restore the dead. What sayest thou?