Caligula and the Book of Revelation?

What if the book of Revelation was written in 41 AD? 

(edited 2024-06-16)

Contrary to the modern academic consensus, ancient Christian writings mention 10 different scenarios for John’s presence on the Isle of Patmos prior to 70AD.  This excellent article lists and discusses each of these proposed occasions.

At seminary, I was only taught that it was Domitian who had sent John to a mine as a slave, and that it was about 95 AD when John recorded his visions. The basis was several early Christian writings. We were not taught that there was much uncertainty about the date. I became aware that many modern Calvinists and Preterists had rejected this dating system and believed that it was Nero who had imprisoned or exiled John, and that Revelation was written in the late 60’s. This showed me that there were some Bible scholars who did not feel the extra-Biblical evidence was binding or convincing. So, it seemed logical to me to reconsider the internal evidence. I noticed that proponents of both positions admitted that they could not identify the 7 kings of revelation 17:10.  Revelation 17:9-13 has never been interpreted adequately. Perhaps a difference timeline might offer a slight improvement.

But, also at seminary, in defense of the 95 AD date of Revelation, a professor defended an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 12:1-13 that I could not accept.  In this passage, written about 55 AD, Paul ‘reluctantly’ boasts of the basis for his apostolic authority and ministry. In 12:2 he says ‘I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was taken up to heaven…and heard things that no one is allowed to speak.’  The professor said Paul was talking about himself.  When I took the time to read this passage carefully, I saw no reason for that interpretation. Paul was clearly talking about someone else. Then Revelation 10:4 came to mind. John, who in his visions had ‘been taken up to heaven’, had heard the Seven Thunders, and ordered not to write down what they said. There is nothing else like this inside or outside of the Bible. How could Paul not be describing John?  In Acts 15, Paul’s appearance before the Council of Jerusalem which took place between 48-51 AD. In Galatians 2:9, Paul says that he was received and approved by James, Peter and John. Paul would have been there for several days, and the actual council meetings would not have prevented Paul from having some free time. This would have been the perfect opportunity for Paul to have become acquainted with John. If John had written the Revelation earlier, Paul would have been exposed to it at this time. So, what if Paul had read the Revelation, and discussed it with John? That certainly would have shown up in Paul’s writings. I believe it does.  Paul occasionally made statements about Jesus’ return in his letters which include information not present in the Olivet Discourse or the rest of the Gospel texts, but which is similar to the content of Revelation. For example:

‘No one is to deceive you in any way! For it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction…’.     2 Thessalonians 2:3 NASB

The gospels do not record Jesus ever saying anything like this. Yet this is the subject of the 7th Trumpet of Revelation. To say that Paul received this knowledge by direct revelation is to make an unsupportable and non-falsifiable assertion.  When Peter concludes his 1st letter from Rome, why does he call the city of Rome, ‘Babylon’ (I Peter 5:13)? This makes sense if the content of John’s Revelation was known to Peter and to his readers. Other explanations seem inadequate.

In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul, writing about 55 AD, says that this ‘man in Christ’ had this amazing experience 14 years earlier. So what happened in AD41? The emperor Caligula was assassinated on January 24 of AD 41. It would have taken a few weeks before all of his political prisoners were pardoned by Claudius. If John had been sent to by Patmos during Caligula’s reign, he would have still been there, perhaps under relaxed circumstances after news of the death and new emperor had reached the area. This might have been a good opportunity for John to seek the Lord as he anticipated his release.

So why Patmos? While He was on the Cross, Jesus assigned the care of His mother Mary to John. I assume that her welfare instantly became John’s top priority. In only a couple of years the persecution of everyone associated with Jesus by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had started. Shortly after the stoning of Stephen, Saul’s crusade against Believers began.

‘But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house; and he would drag away men and women and put them in prison.’ Acts: 8:3 NASB

Notice that this very first wave of persecution of the early church targeted both men and women.  Mary was not safe in Jerusalem. John needed to get Mary away from there. Many scholars think John took her to Ephesus. John’s influence on the region around Ephesus is evident in the Revelation, and in many extra-Biblical documents. Patmos is just offshore from Ephesus. Today there is a weekday ferry that runs between Ephesus and Patmos. It is a 2-hour ride. The tombs of Mary and John are at Ephesus.

There are arguments against Revelation being written at such an early date. One that got my attention was the argument that the 7 Churches of Revelation needed more time to develop the problems addressed in the Revelation 2-3. There are two reasons why I discount this objection.

After Pentecost, there were 5,000 new Believers, all Jews or Proselytes, and many of them returned to their homes in Turkey (called Asia in the New Testament). These had no written information concerning Jesus’ life and teachings. They would have returned to their synagogues, and soon began meeting also at private homes, to discuss what they had experienced and to pursue their new faith. Without any written Gospels, or the presence of any Apostles, their belief and practices would have remained very Jewish. Being so far away from Jerusalem, without leadership, there would have been almost nothing to prevent their new faith from going in many different directions. It would have taken a while for the persecution of Believers by Jews to have reached Ephesus. It seems reasonable that at the next year’s Pentecost, many of these new Believers returned to Jerusalem, became more familiar with the Gospel, and met with some of the Apostles. I think John became friends with some of the new believers from Ephesus. When John needed to find a safe place for Mary, Ephesus was the best choice. We know that John had a strong influence on the church at Ephesus, and the West Turkey (Asia Minor) region, but this is always described as if it was only in a much later context. There is no documentation of a church at Ephesus when Paul arrived in the AD 50’s, 20+ years later. It is assumed that Paul founded the first church in Ephesus in AD 52. But there would have been Believers at Ephesus since Pentecost. They would not have been there 20 years without doing anything. If the persecution by Saul in Acts 8 started as early as 5 years after Jesus’ death, that still gives plenty of time for the Believers at Ephesus to develop some quirks. When John arrived at Ephesus, secrecy would have been very important. It would have been Mary’s only protection. Mary would have been kept away from the city, and information about her presence treated like a classified Top Secret. John’s presence in the vicinity of Ephesus would have to be protected as well.

John was on Patmos for the sake of Gospel.

 ‘I, John, your brother and fellow participant in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ Revelation 1:9 NASB

How did this happen? Shortly after the beginning of Caligula’s reign, the major north African port city of Alexandria was rocked by Jewish riots. In the year of AD38, Caligula’s administration responded by persecuting the Jews there.

This would not have directly affected Christians, but it tells us that much was going on in this time period that occurred with very little historical documentation.

Philo and Josephus record Caligula’s efforts to have his statue, displaying himself as the god Jupiter, set up in every temple in the empire, including the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

There does not appear to be any record of Christians being persecuted separately from Jews before Nero. But if it happened locally, there would have been few or no records. So, any speculation of John’s imprisonment being related to Caligula will remain non-falsifiable. It cannot be proven or disproven. Individual Jews often had some influence on local authorities. It must be conceded that John could have been sent to Patmos by some official order due to his Christian faith being a nuisance. Contrary to popular opinion, Patmos does not appear to have ever been a penal colony. It had a very busy port and was an important terminal for regional trade. It even had its own hippodrome for horse races. John might have merely been banished from Ephesus, rather than being a Roman prisoner on Patmos. Perhaps John was not a prisoner or even in exile, but was there on a mission. 

Regardless of the terms that brought John to Patmos, and what his circumstances were like, he was free to worship and had time to receive and document all the visions of Revelation while he was still on the island. It may not matter whether or not the emperor himself was involved in the persecution of Christians.

‘and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.’ Revelation 17:10

Many see a ‘time stamp’ in Revelation 18:10, but it doesn’t seem to be working well. Attempts to identify these seven kings in the context of a date for Revelation are usually ignored, and alternative meanings attached to this verse, because it just doesn’t work out.

If John wrote Revelation in AD 41, how would this make sense?   If Caligula had been the 5th king, Claudius was the current 6th king, and Nero later became the 7th king, then it would seem that this verse is about the Claudio-Julio dynasty. That is how it is usually thought of. But, Caligula was not the 5th king. There was Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius then Caligula. Was someone left out? It depends. When Caesar was murdered, a trio of men co-ruled the Empire. Two were very important, Octavius and Mark Anthony. These were literally co-emperors for 13 years, Octavius ruling the west from Rome and Anthony ruling the east from Antioch. Judea and Ephesus were under Anthony. For 13 years he was their king. He is generally ignored, since he was never sole ruler. But his identify as a king in the Julian dynasty is legitimate. If this is the perspective of Revelation 17:12, then John wrote Revelation after the death of the 5th King, Caligula, in the spring of AD 41, fourteen years before Paul wrote these words:

I know a man in Christ, who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. In behalf of such a man I will boast; but in my own behalf I will not boast, except regarding my weaknesses.’ 2 Corinthians 12:2 NASB

Since nothing like this can ever be conclusive, and since such a long-standing contrary consensus exists on this subject, my position will always be considered speculative.

However, my analysis of the historical development of New Testament eschatology will be done from this perspective. When I see something in Paul’s writings, not present in Jesus’ teachings, but similar in content to the Revelation, I will consider the possibility that Paul is demonstrating first-hand knowledge of the Revelation acquired when he met John at the Jerusalem council.

It is also important to note that the date for the writing of Revelation may have little effect on how I interpret it. I do not accept the Nero = Antichrist narrative. Even if the 666 (of 616) can be identified with Nero, he never used his name as a mark on peoples’ bodies. The Antichrist’s wrath against Christians is because they were helping the Jews, who the Antichrist is determined to exterminate. Neither Nero nor Domitian ever expressed such intent.