The interpretation of the millennium in the Apocalypse of John (Rev 20) has been contested throughout church history. Background and exegetical study of the text is indecisive; there really is no such thing as “the Bible says” on this one. So we have at least three options (pre-millennialism, amillennialism, post-millennialism) for interpreting this passage that are exegetically viable. Here is where a study of the fore-ground of the text, its earliest reception history or Wirkungsgeschichte, can illuminate our understanding of the passage.
Papias (60s?-155?) authored the five-volume Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord, of which we have only fragments preserved in other writings. According to Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 5.33.4; late 2nd c.), Papias was a “hearer” of the apostle John and a companion of Polycarp, perhaps the most famous of John’s disciples. Assuming this is accurate, this means that Papias had direct access to John’s teaching, and he might be uniquely qualified to comment on John’s teaching. Concerning the millennium of Revelation 20, then, we are told (by Eusebius, H. E. 3.39.12) this about Papias: “Among other things he says that there will be a period of a thousand years after the resurrection of the dead when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth.” Eusebius, an amillennialist, thought Papias an idiot in this regard, reflecting the ascendancy of amillennialism in especially the third century. Be that as it may, here we have strong evidence that Papias, a “hearer” of John, interpreted Revelation 20 in a pre-millennial fashion.
Justin Martyr (100-165?) might also be linked with the apostle John. His Dialogue with Trypho is presented as having taken place in Ephesus, where tradition holds that John lived out his days well into the 90s. This means it is very possible that Justin had access to the living memory of John through those who were students and disciples of the apostle. Appealing to John’s memory, Justin writes, “But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem…” (Dial. Tryp. 80). Another link to John, another pre-millennial interpretation.
The Didache, Epistle of Barnabas, and Irenaeus of Lyons also offer potential early support for the dominance of pre-millennial interpretation in early Christianity. Yet it is this evidence, resulting from access to the living memory of the apostle John, that I find very interesting. Of course, it is possible that the traditions are wrong or there’s some grand conspiracy at work, but Occam’s Razor suggests otherwise. This apostolic memory is not an infallible guide for interpretation, but I suggest it should count as significant evidence.