Dating of Revelation–Numismatic Evidence

24 01 2008

An excellent article on the dating of Revelation is by George H. van Kooten, “The Year of the Four Emperors and the Revelation of John:  The ‘pro-Neronian’ Emperors Otho and Vitellius, and the Images and Colossus of Nero in Rome,” JSNT 30.2 (2007) 205-248.  Van Kooten proposes an early date for the composition of Revelation.  He even narrows the dating down to the reign of Vitellius (April-December 69 CE).  I have a great deal of sympathy for an early date for Revelation, and van Kooten brings in some interesting evidence to support his premise.  There are several issues I would take with his evidence, however, let me deal with only one because it deals with ancient numismatics.

Van Kooten suggests that the image of the beast referenced in Revelation is an allusion to the colossus statue that Nero had commissioned.  He writes, “The intertwining of Nero’s identity with that of the Sun was expressed in the Colossus.  As we know from the only known representations of the Colossus, on coins issued in the reigns of Severus Alexander (222-235) and Gordian III (238-244), at the time when the Colossus was still standing, Nero’s head was adorned with sunrays and his left arm was bent to hold a globe” (p. 217).  Here is a positive example of attempting to use numismatic evidence, and also a negative example of not having the expertise.  The above section from van Kooten is drawn from two sources, both of which are not numismatic references.   One of the errors is that the coins of Severus Alexander and Gordian III may not be the only known examples of this statue.  In fact an example much closer to the time period was minted by Vespasian and also by his son Titus.    Here is the example of a denarius. 


On the obverse is the head of Vespasian, laureated, right.  The inscription is IMP CAESAR VESPASIANVS AVG.  On the reverse is a radiate figure, standing on a column and holding a vertical spear in the right hand.  Three ‘rostra’ are projecting on either side of the column.  The inscription is TR POT X COS VIIII.  This coins was minted in 79 CE before Vespasian’s death in June.  In Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum, Vol. II, Vespasian to Domitian, the author Harold Mattingly suggests that this figure represents the colossus “. . . with the features of Nero or of Titus, set up in 75” (p. xlii).

Van Kooten also notes that in the later depictions of the statue, which now seems to represent Sol, the right hand holds a globe.  This is true in some of the types for Severus Alexander.  However, there is another frequent type that has Sol sans globe and with a whip in the right hand.  Here is a sestertius example.


The obverse is a laureate draped bust right with the inscription IMP ALEXANDER PIVS AVG.  The reverse is Sol standing left with a hand raised and a whip.  The inscription is PM TR P XII COS III S-C.  This coin was minted in 233 CE.

Ancient numismatics is an excellent lens for for reading Revelation, however, care needs to be taken in its use.




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