How the Diocletian Persecution Upsets Assumptions About the Timing and
the intent of the Book of Revelation, the Roman Empire, and Bible Prophecy
by Mark Mountjoy
Late, not early; far beyond the lifetime of even the Apostle John, the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, in a number of very important ways, upsets and destroys carefully laid theories about the timing and intent of the Book of Revelation. And so much that is assumed by late date advocates about the role of the Romans comes undone precisely because it fails (rather dramatically) to parallel Revelation’s course of the judgment, loss, and downfall of an unnamed, but strongly insinuated antagonistic civilization in any way, shape or form.
Traditional interpretations emphasize the Bible’s supposed focus on the hostility of the empire against Christians in a small stretch of time from 18 July A.D.64 (under Nero), to the death of Domitian on 18 September A.D.96, but they are unwilling to also say that the Christians came out from under these hardships into a post-Apocalyptic world—as was eagerly expected (2 Peter 3:11-14). According to non-Premillennial exegetes, within these 32 years (and mainly toward the latter end) the Book of Revelation makes the best sense. Does it?
“Eusebius in his Church History (CH) provides the first reference to Domitian persecuting the church. Writing over three centuries later in the early fourth century C.E., this ancient Christian historian first quotes Melito of Sardis, who mentioned that Domitian brought slanderous accusations against Christians (CH 4.26.9). He also cites Tertullian, who claimed that Domitian was cruel like the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.), but that Domitian was more intelligent, so he ceased his cruelty and recalled the Christians he had exiled (CH 3.20.9). Eusebius also quotes Irenaeus, who claimed Domitian’s persecution consisted only of John’s banishment to Patmos and the exile of other Christians to the island of Pontia (CH 3.18.1, 5).
Despite these cautious statements by three earlier authors, Eusebius then spun his own alternative fact by claiming that Domitian, like Nero, had “stirred up persecution against us” (“anekinei diōgmon”; CH 3.17). From here the tradition was enlarged by Orosius (d. 420 C.E.), who, in his History Against the Pagans, wrote that Domitian issued edicts for a general and cruel persecution (7.10.5). Despite a lack of evidence, Jones observes that the tradition concerning Domitian’s persecution persists: “From a frail, almost non-existent basis, it gradually developed and grew large.”2 Thus the alternative facts sown by these ancient historians grew to a truism of Christian history.
No pagan writer of the time ever accused Domitian, as they had Nero, of persecuting Christians. Pliny, for example, served as a lawyer under Domitian and wrote in a letter to Trajan (r. 98–117 C.E.) that he was never present at the trial of a Christian (Letters 10.96.1). This is a strange claim for one of Domitian’s former officials if Christian persecution were so prevalent. The archaeologist Julian Bennett, who has written a biography of Trajan, also fails to mention any general persecution of Christians at this time. Domitian’s execution of Clemens has sometimes been linked to the senator’s apparent “atheism,” a term sometimes given to Christians. However, there is no “smoking gun” linking Clemens’s death to Christian persecution.3 So Jones concludes, “No convincing evidence exists for a Domitianic persecution of the Christians.”
A related “fact” is that Domitian claimed the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). The evidence here is mixed. The poet Statius (Silvae 1.6.83–84) states that Domitian rejected the title Dominus as his predecessor Augustus (the first Roman emperor) had done. The historian Suetonius (Life of Domitian 13.2) does report that Domitian dictated a letter that began, “Our Lord and Master orders…,” but it was only his sycophantic officials who began to address him in this way. The story was again embellished by later historians to the point that Domitian is said to have ordered its use. Jones thinks the story incredible because Domitian was known for his habitual attention to theological detail in traditional Roman worship, so he would not have adopted such inflammatory divine language. After their deaths, the best that emperors could hope for was to be called Divus (Divine), not Deus (God). If Domitian were such a megalomaniac who ordered worship to himself, why haven’t any inscriptions been found using this formula? In fact, no epigraphic evidence exists attesting to Christians being forced to call him “Lord and God.”1
It is interesting that neither the supposed Neronian nor the Domitianic persecution brings the Christians any closer to the aspirations they looked for (which was the end of the age, i.e., the cessation of the competing animal sacrificial system which was entrusted to the Levitical priesthood and run by the Sadducees). Nor did any Roman persecution carry the implications that the way into the building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens was, for the very first time, opened for entrance and habitation (Hebrews 8:4; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Hebrews 11:10-16 cf.13:14).
In other words, where the downfall and annulment of Jewish messianic ambitions demonstrated the verity of Christian claims for an altered cosmic order on earth and in the eternal state, Roman persecutions (whether they were persistent or intermittent) were completely beside the point.
Now there were a total of 70 Roman emperors from 27 B.C. to A.D. 476. Roman history after that is considered the Byzantine Period because Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. However, in any case, if it can be shown that the worst Roman persecution Christians had to face happened, not in the first century, but in the fourth century, many, many theories and assumptions will instantly come into question, dispute and, in fact, fall to pieces as completely untenable.
Let’s look at the available evidence . . .
Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletian reigned twenty years, five months, and eleven days—and he was the 49th Roman emperor—that alone renders many ideas about the Book of Revelation, the Roman Empire, and the supposed corresponding meaning of Bible prophecy essentially meaningless (mainly because the timeline of important events do not match and, just as importantly, the outcomes don’t add up at all).
Events and features, corollaries, and outcomes must make sense of texts; it doesn’t matter if it is in the Book of Ruth or in the Book of Revelation. We need to know if the early Roman Empire was even the relevant threat the Book of Revelation addresses in the first place and if it isn’t what is that threat?
We need to also ask ourselves about the all-important outcomes: What did the early Christians expect to see as a result of the fulfillment of prophecy in John’s revelation of Jesus? Did they expect life on earth as we now know it? Did they long for a utopian paradise; a civilized environment completely free from sin and decay? Did they aspire to no more wars (Jewish or otherwise); no more fears and no more tears? We need to look to discover the answers.
Events Surrounding Competition of the Synagogue
Revelation 1:9; 2:9 and 3:9 frame, in strong terms, the struggle of the early Christians as a competition with the Synagogue, not the Roman Empire. From as early as the time of St. Stephen, the Sanhedrim and the Zealots had a strong hand in what happened to curb the outreach and growth of churches of Judæa and the Diaspora (see, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 and Acts 17:5-9). In Revelation 2:9 tribulation is tied to their poverty and to slander by those claiming to be Jewish. Conversely, in Revelation 3:9 humiliation of this constituency is imminent and foreseeable, but, so far, not a word is given about possible Roman setbacks.
Stories Mirroring the Exodus of Israel Out of Egypt
Revelation 2:14’s mention of Balak and Balaam harks back to the twin epistles of 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11 which each speak of greedy infiltrators in the churches who are apparently Jewish spies scoping out the Christians’ liberty; the goings-on and the procedures of the unsuspecting Christians. By citing this problem, Jesus is directly insinuating that the conditions of 1 Peter and Jude and Revelation 2 overlap and had not changed in any fundamental way between these three writings. And since this is so it allows us to conclude that the seven churches of Asia Minor are living in the twilight years leading up to the Destruction of Jerusalem and not after it.
More could be said about this.
For example, while it is easy to conceive and show that the New Testament depicts the rise of Christians as a kind of Exodus from a corrupt Bible Judaism (see e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:1ff and Hebrews 3:6-19; 4:1-11), but by no stretch of the imagination do the Scriptures posit an exit of Christians, similarly, from the Roman Empire.
King Ahab’s Wife’s Direct Influence on the Morality of Christians in Asia Minor
In Revelation 2:20, again, is an Israelite motif, relating to the apostasy of the Kingdom of Israel centered around the hubris and immorality of Jezebel. She is evoked by Jesus to speak to the church about outside harmful influences which had befallen many at Thyatira. But it is a mistake to think Jezebel was an Israelite, she was not, but she was married to an Israelite (Ahab) and ruled with him as his queen (1 Kings 16:31 cf. 19:1). And so, from this, it may have been that this particular woman corrupting the church was not Jewish but was married to a local Jewish ruler and had access to the Jewish Christian congregation either through him or by some other means that allowed her to have her fatal charms to seduce and spread her deadly effects to run rough-shod and rampant throughout that congregation.
An Impending Humiliation of the Synagogue, not the Roman Military
Revelation 2:9; 3:10-11; 6:9-17 (cf. Luke 23:27-31); Revelation 11:1-2; 14:8-20; 16:1-21; 17:1-17; 18:1-24; 19:1-4 and 19:11-21 foresee a Jewish disaster approaching the historical horizon at that time. The idea that Jewish people would bow in front of Christians and confess that Jesus loved them when their hardened position was always that Jesus died, but the body was stolen by the Apostles (see e.g., Matthew 28:13) shows just how extraordinarily shocking some eye-opening and spine-tingling public event was going to end up being.
And here we must be perfectly clear: No disaster affecting the Romans, their capital or government, their horsemen or footsoldiers or their navy would or could make the Jews bend the knee and confess to Christians, “Jesus loves you!”
Whatever was going to happen would have to be something that directly involved what was valuable and precious and priceless in the eyes of Jews alone and nothing else could it be except the complete disappearance of their famed Second Temple and holy city; this obviously had not happened yet (which allows us to say, with a high degree of confidence, that Revelation was penned and delivered to the churches a few years before Jerusalem fell and before the Temple of God was no longer in existence).
A String of Deadly Debacles Brings a People to Their Knees
Revelation chapters 6 through 19 predict a cyclone of events that seem to be designed to bring people to their knees. Six seals, Seven trumpets, and seven bowls unleash havoc and chaos cutting the population demographic by thirds in no time at all!
Anomalies of nature; prodigies of supernatural and mythical entities plague the land and before it was well underway God saw fit to seal for protection one hundred and forty-four thousand people, all from the Twelve Tribes of Israel—Ruben and Gad; Asher and Nephthali; Manasses and Simeon; Levi and Issachar; Zabulon, Joseph, and Benjamin—it would be an entirely bizarre transaction to enact twenty-five after the fact of the great slaughter which was the Destruction of Jerusalem (Revelation 7:1-8).
We know from the writings of Josephus and the rabbis and Roman chroniclers that the fallout from Jerusalem’s destruction created upheaval and carnage that spread out and persisted all the way up to the big revolutionary explosion of A.D.132 and ended in the year A.D.136.
Put simply, the woes were designed to make the country fall to its knees in repentance (Revelation 9:21), or rebel and fall by the sword and captivity (Revelation 13:9-10)—however, this was not the fate of the Romans, who wielded the sword and did all the capturing of others in numbers as high as ninety-seven thousand individuals!2
The Flight of the Church to the Wilderness
Now, after the Zealot invasion of the Temple and the apparent sacrilegious desecration of Jerusalem (described in Revelation chapter 11:1-2), apparently, the Church found it necessary to flee the land for a place of safety (Revelation 12:6, 14). This is a historically documented trek from Jerusalem to Pella.3
On the other hand, the Romans prepared to come against the Jewish revolt and to subdue it as quickly as possible (which turned out to be a nearly four-year span of time), but this also means the Romans cannot be considered the ones succumbing to any conquest whatsoever.
But this brings us to Revelation chapter 13 where someone’s military answer is loudly articulated. The destiny of first-century Judæa seemed to be assured when the Zealots managed to kill five thousand three hundred footmen and three hundred and eighty Roman horsemen.4 This unlikely and surprising incident happened at the famous Beth Horon pass where Judas the Maccabee beat the Seleucid armies 230 years prior to this, but this initial Jewish victory against the Romans was really the beginning of the end!
Fatal Blowback Destined for Catastrophic Loss
In Revelation 13 and 19 (together) we see hubris (Revelation 13:4), blasphemy (Revelation 13:5) and an attempt at genocide (Revelation 13:7) appear as clearly unusual methods of an unconventional approach to warfare. To top that, it appears that a false prophet (Revelation 13:11-15 cf. The Wars of the Jews 6.5.2:285) employed some form of Theurgic trick used by the ancients to make statues appear to move and speak.5 This type of sorcery was facilitated by the use of drugs smeared on the eyes, but we have no historical confirmation from Josephus or anyone else that this is exactly what was going on. What we do know is that the realization of complete Jewish power over the city and over the Temple was a terrible omen of almost immediate loss for a cause which, one would think, wanted to extend the life of the Jewish state without also threatening the principles of its way of life, its taboos and its moral conventions.
In the Revelation text, someone said, “Who is like the Beast? Who is able to make war with him?” But who says things like this, but loses? Who brags about their ability to win, only to fail spectacularly? Not the Romans! The course of events from Revelation chapter 13 to Revelation chapter 19 makes it clear that the beast and his army will end up in appalling heaps of carnage, a bloody fate the Romans were well able to avoid until more than a thousand years had passed by.
Challenging Events in the Late Roman Empire
But 170 years after the last Jewish persecution of Christians, under Simeon Bar Kokhba (A.D.15-135) and his Sanhedrin government of second-century Israel (A.D.132-136), Emperor Diocletian, in 303, instituted the worst Roman persecution the Christians ever had to face, which trial of blood and destruction of Bibles lasted just under two years, according to Eusebius.6 Diocletian was reacting to the perceived ill-fortunes of the day and, perhaps, seeing the number of Christians in the Roman Empire reaching, for the very first time, critical mass. Diocletian sought to reverse this course, but he was already acting too late to do anything effective about it.
In 303, the Emperors Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius issued a series of edicts rescinding Christians’ legal rights and demanding that they comply with traditional religious practices. Later edicts targeted the clergy and demanded universal sacrifice, ordering all inhabitants to sacrifice to the gods.7
By this time Diocletian deliberately divided the unyieldingly large Roman Empire into four parts, called tetrarchies; these had three other corresponding emperors beside himself—Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius I. It is said of Diocletian that he, “. . .was an author of crimes and a deviser of evil; he ruined everything and could not even keep his hands from God. In his greed and anxiety, he turned the world upside down. He appointed three men to share his rule, dividing the world into four parts and multiplying the armies, since each of the four strove to have a far larger number of troops than the previous emperors had had when they were governing the state alone.”8
According to Scarre, Diocletian’s first order issued against Christians came in 297 or 298 when he required all soldiers and administrators to sacrifice to the gods and those who refused to do so were forced to quit the service. Things remained in this posture for the next six years. After that, on February 24, 303 a decree was issued ordering the destruction of churches and all Bibles in the Roman Empire and included the punishment of Christian leaders.
Later on, in the year Diocletian ordered the arrest and imprisonment of all Christian ministers, and their release was predicated upon their sacrifice to the traditional gods of the Romans. And then, in April of the year 304, a final decree was issued requiring all Christians, of any rank, clergy, or laity, to offer sacrifices on pain of death. With the number of Christians living in the empire large enough to make a significant minority, these policies and actions held the possibility of wreaking widespread harm, like never before. But, in fact, we are told, that the situation played itself out quite unevenly—not as tough in the western parts of the empire, so much as in the eastern regions where Diocletian and Galerius presided over a spectacle of horror and chaos on a grand scale.
But by April 304 Diocletian's health was also failing him and his situation declined precipitously to the point where he had to retire from public life for the remaining seven years of his life, which ended, peacefully, on December 3, 311. In all the measures that he took against Christians and their leaders, the Bible and church property, there was nothing strange or unusual about the decline or death of Diocletian that would suggest in even the slightest way that apocalyptic realities manifested to haunt or torment him for any of his political decisions against the safety and well-being of the people of God, but, in fact, not many years after his death, Christians were to be granted a position they could not have expected in their wildest imaginations religio lecita, finally and at last.
The Late Dating of the Book of Revelation and the Assumptions That
the Apocalypse is Covertly About the Romans Misses Important Clues
What can we learn about Revelation if we agree to the assumption that the book was written late (in the A.D.90s) and if we grant that it is certainly about the Church’s fraught relationship with the Roman government? We apparently are no better off for it mainly because the important clues that constitute internal evidence points to Jewish mendacity, rather than Roman miscreants. This is true when we examine Revelation 1 or 2 or 3. This is true when we recall that Daniel 7:7-27 declared the judgment would be held and decide to take the kingdom away from the clutches of the fourth sea beast and give it to the people of the saints of the Most High God. This is reflected in the Gospel in the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46). On this last, be sure to note what Jesus said in verse 43.
And there’s more.
In Jesus’ declaration: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32) there is solid evidence that the promised kingdom of God was held out in front of the eyes of the Apostles as something they, not their foes, would surely attain. Put bluntly, God did not take the kingdom from the Romans and give it to Christians, but he did take it from the Jews (Matthew 8:11-12). Other factors stand firm as undeniable facets and exclude the possibility of the Book of Revelation addressing Roman adversaries of the Church, see, e.g., what Jesus said in Matthew 23:29-39; Luke 11:45-51 and compare with the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4:21-31. It is not possible for Babylon the Great to be a moniker for Rome without, at the same time, flouting the words of our Lord and the grave indictment he directly attributed to Jerusalem and Jerusalem only (Revelation 11:8; 17:6; 18:20, 24 and Revelation 19:1-4).
What all this means is that searching for Rome and Romans in the Book of Revelation is an exercise in futility. At no point in the narrative does a scathing rebuke of Rome's economic policies or her persecution of Christians shine through, and why not? Was it as important to depend on as the knowledge that the mystery of godliness, Jesus, the Son of God in flesh, came to overcome those of his own country who sought to overthrow him by his arrest and death on Calvary’s cross? Was the course of Roman history weighty enough to trump the assurance that after this life, whether peaceful or weary, whether rich or poor, whether small or great God's people have a building of God, a country, whose builder and maker is God?
Such knowledge makes the unfortunate, tragic and sadder vicissitudes of life much more tolerable so that knowing “to live is Christ, but to die is gain” cannot compare with the piddling achievement of being declared by the Roman government a religio lecita. The one thing is something to shout from the rooftops, but the other thing, not so much!
But, finally, the biggest takeaway from this examination is the awareness that the Roman persecutions, as they came and went, seem to have no corollary or bearing on anything in the Scriptures. And so, in light of this, a different premise, and different assumptions, ones centered around Jewish civilization and the concerns and ambitions of the synagogue in the late Second Temple period seem to be a better angle and a surer perspective to use as a legitimate lens to understand the events of the Book of Revelation.
1 Wilson, Mark, Biblical Archaeology Society, Alternative Facts: Domitian’s Persecution of Christians (https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/post-biblical-period/domitian-persecution-of-christians/)
Was Roman emperor Domitian really the great persecutor of Christians? Bible History Daily 2020.
2 Josephus, The Complete Works, The Wars of the Jews 6.9.3:420.
3 Learn more about the Pella flight of the Jerusalem church here.
4 A great Jewish victory over the Roman general Cestius Gallus happened on Marcheshvan 8, 3826-27 (or the Roman year 66 of the Common Era) See Josephus, The Complete Works, The Wars of the Jews 2.19.6:538-9:555.
5 Wilken, Robert L., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, pp. 167-168. Yale University Press, 1984. Although we do not have direct evidence of sorcery during the Jewish Revolt, we do have surviving evidence in what is preserved in the Tractate Sanhedrin of the Jerusalem Talmud, 27b, 29f. There is preserved a statement or incantation used by the Zealots that amounts to “(הגונב את הקסוה והמקלל בקוסם והבוצל ארמית (ה)קנאין פוגצין בו:).” Martin Hengel sites S. Krauss, “ . . .who assumes that it was an abbreviation of a non-orthodox name of God like Κοσμοπλάστης or else a corrupt form of the tetragrammaton. It was used ‘in (the manner of) one casting spells,’ like Balaam, Numbers 22:7; 23:23; Deuteronomy 18:10.” See, Hengel, Martin, The Zealots, p. 67, T & Clark Ltd. 1989.
6 See Wikipedia.
7 Ibid, Wiki.
8 Scarre, Chris, Chronicle of the Roman Emperors, p. 196, Thames and Hudson, 1995.
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* Caption of Emperor Diocletian by Daniel Voshart. Source: Google.
Recommended reading . . .
A roughly sketched fragment, of which the present volume is the development and completion, received from the judges the award of the Hulsean Essay Prize in 1874. It is with the aid of Mr. Hulse’s benefaction that the work is now published: and the author has to thank those who selected the subject for having first set him to work upon this most interesting period.
My book ventures, contrary to established etiquette, to pretend to something not unlike originality. Of course, but few new ‘facts’ have been disclosed. There are not many ‘facts’—in that limited sense of the word which excludes all that is inward, all that turns a string of events into History—still left to be discovered in any historical field: they are as rare as gold nuggets. But I have made a real effort to understand for myself, what the ‘facts’ which are everybody’s property mean, without following any previous author. No English writer of any eminence has made a special study of the great crisis, though Dean Milman shows careful thought and a just appreciation of the Persecution as a whole; and Gibbon is always masterly. Far the best account of the period that I know is in the Duke de Broglie’s exquisite book, L’ Église et l’Empire; but this too is only a cursory description.
To several of the German authors I owe a great deal; in fact to one—Pfarrer Hunziker—I am head over ears in debt for his book zur Regierung und Christenverfolgung des Kaisers Diocletianus und seiner Nachfolger. He has furnished me not only with many useful references and much carefully worked chronology, but also to some extent with my method, and with many suggestions which I have used. But it will be found that I very rarely agree with Mr. Hunziker, or with any of the German scholars, to whom I endeavor to state my obligations in the notes. The laborious erudition of Tillemont presents the grateful student with every shred of information that can be gathered from antiquity: but no historian could call him master.
The chief novelties in this book may be briefly mentioned, with a view to their confirmation or exposure in the interests of truth. They are as follows:—the notion that Constantine’s Church policy was a fulfillment of Diocletian’s design; the modeling of Diocletian’s Persecution after that of Valerian (together with the contrast shown between Valerian’s and Decius’ efforts); the proof that Diocletian had nothing to do with the so-called Fourth Edict; his conduct at the Abdication newly explained; the true dating of the Manichaean Edict; the demolishing of Constantine’s supposed Second Act of Toleration; and a number of lesser points. My view of the character of the great Emperor is, I trust, not wholly new: only in the present year, I was glad to observe, the British Quarterly Magazine contained an article by Mr. Freeman, in which something like justice was done to Diocletian’s memory. The admirable portraits on the title page will show something of the difference between his colleague and himself; though it must be owned that the unflattering likeness of Maximian (which does not bear out his description in John Malalas) was coined in the place where Maximian was best hated, at Rome.
Morton, October 1976.