In the first two parts of this study (1 & 2) I examined the Old Testament and Jewish background of the Antichrist tradition—or, stated more precisely, the eschatological themes and motifs which influenced and helped shape that tradition. Now, here in Part 3, it remains to explore the New Testament writings themselves.
The meaning and significance of the adjective a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos, “against the Anointed”) was discussed in Part 1. This adjective occurs five times in the New Testament, and all in the letters of John (1 Jn 2:18 [twice], 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7). Moreover, the author of 1 and 2 John uses it (and inteprets it) in a way that is quite different from the customary usage (based on the developed Antichrist tradition). The irony in the New Testament is that the passages typically thought to refer to the Antichrist do not use the term a)nti/xristo$ at all, while the passages that do use it are not referring to the traditional Antichrist-figure, or at least not primarily so. This will be discussed further below.
There are four sections of the New Testament that may be said to relate in some way to the later Antichrist tradition, and which likely played a role in its development:
I have already discussed these passages in considerable detail in earlier articles in this series (and in the daily notes on the book of Revelation). Thus, I will not present a full exegesis here, but will focus instead on only those details or features which relate to the Antichrist Tradition.
1. The Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13 par)
I have examined the “Eschatological Discourse” at length in an earlier four-part article (Pts 1, 2, 3, 4). It is, of course, unique to the Synoptic Tradition, set during the final period of Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 13, par Matt 24-25, Luke 21:5-36). I will use the Markan version as the primary point of reference.
The heart of the Discourse relates to the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, v. 19; cp. Rev 7:14, etc), presented in three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23. Some might see this as a chronological sequence of events, but I believe it is better to view them as different aspects of the same period of distress, describing:
Each of these sections contains at least one important theme which relates to the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. In fact, in each case it is the leading theme of the section, stated or expressed in the initial verse.
Section 1: The rise of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets” (Mark 13:5f, also vv. 21-22)
This is the leading theme of the section, framed in a general way in verse 5:
“You must look (to it that) no one should lead you astray [planh/sh|]”
“For there will rise false Anointeds [yeudo/xristoi] and false Foretellers [yeudoprofh=tai]…” —that is, false Messiahs (Christs) and false Prophets.
These persons will deceive and lead humankind astray (thus the emphasis at the start of the first section), and even, if possible, actual disciples of Jesus (believers, vv. 22b-23). The issue of false Christs (Messiahs) is stated two ways, in verses 6 and 21, respectively:
“Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)’….” (v. 6)
“…if anyone should say to you ‘See, here (is) the Anointed…'” (v. 21)
The first statement suggests that people will claim to be Jesus himself. However, the Matthean version reads differently, no doubt intended to clarify the situation:
“For may will come upon my name, saying ‘I am the Anointed‘…” (24:5)
This almost certainly reflects the meaning of Jesus’ statement in its original context—people will claim to be the Messiah (Christ), not Jesus himself. Of course, for early Christians, claiming to be the Christ would essentially be the same thing as taking Jesus’ place, since only he is the true Anointed One (Messiah or Christ). In this regard, the noun yeudo/xristo$ (pseudóchristos, “false Anointed”) is close in meaning to the adjective anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), with the prefix a)nti/ (antí) in the sense of “in place of”, “in exchange for” —i.e., an imitation or false version.
There is also a close connection between the idea of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets“, though this may not be immediately apparent to the average reader today. We are not accustomed to thinking of the Messiah as a prophet; however, there were a number of different Messianic figure-types in Jewish thought during this period, as I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. These figure-types include several kinds of Anointed Prophet, most notably those patterned after the figures of Moses and Elijah (cf. Parts 2–3 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In Jesus’ own lifetime, and especially during the period of his ministry in Galilee, he tended to be identified as an Anointed Prophet as much (or more so than) as a Messiah of the Davidic-ruler type. In Luke 4:17-21ff, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff; also, in the transfiguration scene (Mark 9:2-8 par), Jesus is associated directly with both Messianic Prophet-figures—Moses and Elijah. More examples could be given (cf. the aforementioned articles).
Josephus notes several instances of would-be Messianic/Prophetic figures, spanning from the time of Jesus (the reign of Pilate, c. 36 A.D.) down to the aftermath of the Jewish War (post 66-70 A.D.)—cf. Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-172; War 7.437ff. In each of these instances it would seem that an end-time “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-18) was primarily in view—that is, a miracle-working Messianic Prophet, patterned after Moses, who would lead his people into the ‘Promised Land’.
It is not only the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse that connected the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple with the coming of the end; the War itself appears to have been fueled, in part at least, by eschatological and Messianic expectations (Josephus War 6.312f; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.13.2, and Seutonius Vespasian 4.5). In such an environment, in the face of rebellion, war, and upheaval, it is hardly surprising that “false prophets” and “false Messiahs” might appear, even as predicted by Jesus in the Discourse. Indeed, false prophets were an element of the end-time period of distress and wickedness, according to the eschatological pattern in the Jewish apocalyptic writings (discussed in Part 2). In a more developed form, this would be understood in terms of the influence of Belial and his “spirits of deceit”, inspiring the false prophets. This is most significant in light of how the term “antichrist” is used in the letters of John (cf. below).
Section 2: An intense persecution of Believers (Mark 13:9ff)
The end-time period of distress would also be a time of suffering and persecution for Jesus’ disciples (believers), as summarized in verses 9-13, and also in other Gospel passages. Beginning with his death, the disciples would enter into an “hour of darkness”, a time of testing (peirasmo/$) that would continue until his future return. What Jesus predicts in this section of the discourse was in fact fulfilled, during the first century, among his disciples (and the first generation[s] of believers), as is well-documented, for example, in the book of Acts, the letters of Paul, and in the book of Revelation. While 1st-century Christians certainly believed they were already living in an end-time period of distress, the persecution was expected to become much more intense, and the suffering more acute, as the end drew nearer.
This expectation of greater persecution and suffering, by the surrounding population as well as the governmental authorities, certainly informs the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. We will see it expressed more precisely in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 13ff (cf. below). It also represents a continuation of the earlier Jewish (and Old Testament) traditions—of the “wicked tyrant” motif, the theme of the hostility shown by the (wicked) nations, and so forth (Parts 1 & 2). In particular, the development of the “wicked-tyrant” type-pattern, shaped by the figure of Antiochus IV in the book of Daniel, included prominently the idea of the wicked ruler’s oppression and persecution of the righteous, even to the point of brutally attacking their religious beliefs.
Section 3: The “stinking thing of Desolation” (Mark 13:14)
The third section of the Discourse, describing the suffering of the people in Judea and Jerusalem (including believers), opens with a somewhat cryptic reference to the tradition in Daniel 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11):
“And when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’ [bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$] having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not (be)…then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Mk 13:14)
Matthew’s version clarifies the situation somewhat, while retaining the aside “the (one) reading must have (it) in mind”, making the reference to Daniel explicit:
“So (then), when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’, the (thing) uttered through Daniel the Foreteller, having stood in the holy place…” (24:15)
Matthew’s description brings the statement in line with the context of the Daniel references, in which the “disgusting thing[s] bringing desolation” clearly involve the Temple sanctuary and its sacrificial offerings. Commentators continue to debate the exact nature and identity of “the disgusting thing bringing desolation” (<m@ovm! JWQV!h^). It is especially problematic in light of the actual wording in Dan 9:27:
“and upon the wing [[nk] of despicable (thing)s he lays waste”
“and upon the wing of despicable (thing)s (the one) laying waste (comes)”
This does not make particularly good sense in the context of the verse, complicated further by the interpretation/translation in the Greek versions:
“and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”
The Hebrew suggests a person, whereas the Greek, perhaps understanding the “wing” [[nk] to be the side or pinnacle of the Temple (cf. Lk 4:9), seems to indicate something (an idolatrous object?) placed on the Temple structure. The earliest interpretation is found in 1 Maccabees 1:54, following the Greek rendering—the “stinking thing of desolations” [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn] is identified with a pagan altar that Antiochus IV had set upon the altar in the Temple (v. 59, also 4:43), and upon which, it would seem, unlawful/unclean pagan sacrifices were offered (cf. 2 Macc 6:5).
In light of this, some critical commentators have proposed emending the Hebrew [nk (“wing”) to <nk (“their place”), with the expression then being <nk lu (“upon their place”, cf. Dan 11:38), i.e. the pagan altar with its sacrifices in place of the prescribed sacrificial offerings of the Temple (Collins, Daniel, p. 358). This is very reasonable, but it involves the always questionable step of emending the text; it also depends on the particular interpretation of vv. 26-27 as describing the reign of Antiochus IV.
In the (original) context of the Daniel prophecy, this desecration of the Temple was fulfilled by the actions of Antiochus IV, the very embodiment of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The use of the same prophecy, by Jesus (and early Christians) in the first century A.D., indicates a belief that it would be fulfilled (again), presumably by another wicked (foreign) ruler, following the type-pattern of Antiochus. I have previously mentioned several possibilities for how this might have been understood by early Christians, assuming an expectation of its fulfillment in the general time-frame of the first century:
- The emperor Gaius’ (Caligula) establishment of the imperial cult, including his statue which was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (c. 40 A.D., Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307).
In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had similarly set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple.
- The destruction and despoiling of the Temple by Titus in 70 A.D.
- The transformation of Jerusalem into a (pagan) Roman city (Aelia Capitolina) in the reign of Hadrian, following the suppression of the Jewish (Bar-Kochba) revolt in 132-135 A.D.
- The emperor Gaius’ (Caligula) establishment of the imperial cult, including his statue which was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (c. 40 A.D., Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307).
The first two are the most relevant (and plausible). Indeed, in the Lukan version of the Discourse, the Daniel prophecy appears to be interpreted in terms of the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple:
“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by swaths of soldiers, then know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near” (Lk 21:20)
This emphasis receives confirmation from the statement by Jesus in 19:41-44, located at the fateful moment of his approach to Jerusalem. If we accept vv. 43-44 as authentic, then Jesus, on at least one occasion, prophesied a horrific military siege of the city. The wording is similar to both the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (21:6 par), as well as that here in v. 20. The destruction of the Temple by pagans (i.e. Romans) would, in and of itself, represent a terrible act of desecration. It would also mean that Jesus’ prediction was accurately fulfilled in the war of 66-70 A.D. For more on this, cf. the earlier article on the Eschatological Discourse, esp. Part 3 on the Lukan version. We may thus isolate three aspects of this prophecy which relate to the Antichrist tradition:
- According to the Hebrew (MT) of Dan 9:27, it refers to the actions of a person—i.e. the wicked tyrant Antiochus IV and his forces
- The idea of the desecration of the Temple by including a pagan altar (and/or statue), thereby turning it into a pagan shrine; this certainly could be understood in relation to the establishment of the Roman Imperial Cult (cf. below)
- The destruction of the Temple by hostile pagan forces, led by a wicked (foreign) ruler
2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
(This section is an abridgment of the earlier article in this series.)
In 2 Thess 2:1-12, the description of the figure called “the man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (verse 3, v.l. “man of sin […th=$ a(marti/a$]”) and “the lawless (one) [o( a&nomo$]” (v. 8) is often assumed to be a reference to ‘the Antichrist’ —that is, to the Antichrist tradition. Much can be said in favor of this, at least in a general sense, since the portrait of this “lawless one” does more or less follow the contours of the later tradition. It also continues the earlier line of tradition (the “wicked tyrant” motif, etc) preserved in Jewish apocalyptic writings of the period (Part 2); cf. especially the use of the same expression (“lawless one”) for the wicked tyrant in Ps Sol 17. The description here begins in verse 3:
“No one should deceive you (then), not by any turn! (For it is) that, if there should not first come the standing away from (the truth) [a)postasi/a]—(by this I mean that) the man of lawlessness [a)nomi/a] should be uncovered, the son of ruin [a)pw/leia]…”
It would seem that some among the Thessalonians were saying that the experience of suffering and persecution meant that the “Day of the Lord” had come. Paul warns forcefully that they should not be deceived (vb e)capata/w) into thinking this. In my view, the importance of this point for Paul is that the “Day of the Lord” signifies the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked, and the precise moment for that has not yet come. Paul begins to explain this with a conditional sentence that he never finishes: “(For it is) that if there should not first come a standing away from (the truth)…”. If we were to complete the thought, it would presumably be something like “…then the Day of the Lord cannot come“. Instead of finishing the sentence, he expounds the significance of this “standing away” (a)postasi/a, often transliterated in English as “apostasy”).
Here the expressions “man of lawlessness” and “son of ruin/destruction” likely reflect the Old Testament “son[s] of Beliyya’al” (and “man/men of Beliyya’al”). On the original Hebrew term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) and the name Belial, cf. the discussion in Part 2. On several occasions, Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= is translated in the LXX by a)nomi/a (or the related a)no/mhma), “without law, lawlessness”. In 2 Cor 6:14f, a)nomi/a is parallel with Beli/ar, a variant transliteration in Greek (i.e. Beli/al, Belial) of Hebrew lu^Y~l!B=. As previously discussed, in the Qumran texts and other Jewish writings of the period, Belial/Beliar is a title for the Evil One (i.e. the Devil/Satan), but is also used in the eschatological context of an evil/Satanic figure or ruler who will appear at the end-time. This “man of lawlessness” is further described as:
“…the (one) stretching out against and lifting (himself) over all (thing)s counted as God or (worthy of) reverence, (even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself from (this) that he is God.” (verse 4)
The wording in v. 4a echoes the language and imagery of the “wicked tyrant” motif, going back to the Old Testament Prophets (cf. Part 1). Only here, this figure takes the divine pretensions a step further, by sitting in the Temple sanctuary (“the shrine of God”). In many later manuscripts, this pretension to deity is made even more clear with the addition of w($ qeo/n (“as God”): “…sitting as God in the shrine of God”. According to the ancient religious worldview, temples were the dwelling places of God, especially the sanctuary or inner shrine, where the specific image/manifestation of the deity was located. For the Jerusalem Temple, the inner shrine housed the golden box (“ark”) which represented the seat or throne of YHWH. Thus, by sitting in the shrine, the “man of lawlessness” puts himself in the place of God. In this regard, the adjective anti/qeo$ (“opposed to God, in place of God”), corollary to anti/xristo$, certainly would apply to him.
“Do you not remember that, (in) my being yet (facing) toward [i.e. when I was still with] you, I related these (thing)s to you? And now you have seen the (thing) holding down (power) unto [i.e. leading toward] the uncovering of him in his (own) time. For the secret of lawlessness already works in (the world), only until the (one) holding down (power) now comes to be out of the middle.” (vv. 5-7)
For a detailed discussion of the difficult syntax in this passage, cf. the earlier article. Here are the most important things to note:
- The verb kate/xw literally means “hold down”. It can be used either in the transitive sense of holding someone down (i.e. restraining them), or the intransitive sense of holding down a position or control. In my view, the latter best fits the context of the passage.
- This verb is used here twice, as two participles—one neuter (to\ kate/xon, “the [thing] holding down”) and one masculine (o( kate/xwn, “the [one] holding down”). The latter is correctly understood as a person. The neuter expression refers to the “secret [musth/rion] of lawlessness”, characterizing the current time prior to the rise of the Man of Lawlessness, while the masculine refers to a person “holding down power” during this same time.
- Lawlessness already prevails in this current time (i.e. the end-time), but in a secret way, so that many people (i.e. believers) are not always immediately aware of its power and influence—i.e. it does not operate in the open. With the appearance of the “Lawless One” (= Man of Lawlessness) the cover will be removed, and lawlessness will no longer work in a hidden manner.
- The phrase “come to be out of the middle [e)k me/sou]” could mean either that: (a) someone will appear from the middle, or (b) someone will be taken out of (i.e. removed) from the middle. The latter is to be preferred, and understood of the one “holding down power” prior to the appearance of the Lawless One.
- Probably the reference here is to the current Roman emperor and his imperial administration (cf. below). The author (Paul) may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured the “wicked tyrant” motif. This wicked ruler would either follow the current emperor or appear sometime soon thereafter. However, it should be made clear that he will be no ordinary emperor or ruler.
“And then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the spirit/breath of His mouth and will make inactive in the shining of his coming along [parousi/a] upon (the earth), (and) whose coming along is according to the working of (the) Satan in him in all lying power and signs and marvels, and in all (the) deceit of injustice for the (one)s going to ruin, against whom (it is that) they did not receive the love of the truth unto their being [i.e. so that they might be] saved.” (vv. 8-10)
One might easily misread the relative pronoun ou! (“of whom, whose”) as referring to the Lord (Jesus), when in fact it refers back to the Lawless One. If we were to translate the primary line of the sentence, in more conventional English, it might be:
“And then the Lawless One will be uncovered… and (his) coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power and false signs and wonders, and in all the deceit of injustice for the ones perishing, (those) who did not receive the love of the truth so that they would be saved.”
The nouns e)pifanei/a (“shining forth upon”) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be alongside”) both were common early Christian terms for the end-time appearance of Jesus on earth. The same noun parousi/a (parousia) is here also applied to the Lawless One, clearly indicating that his “coming” is an evil parody of Jesus’ return. And, just as the exalted Jesus will come with power and glory, so this Lawless One comes with great power, given to him by the working of Satan. There will be supernatural events and miracles associated with the Lawless One; they are called “false” (yeu=do$) not because they are illusory, but because they deceive people into thinking that they come from a Divine source. Paul, like most Christians of the time, would have admitted the reality of Satanic-inspired miracles. This person will thus be a “false Christ” and “false Prophet”, a development of the expectation expressed by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (cf. above).
In verses 11-12, we finally have described the coming of the “Day of the Lord”, i.e. when God acts to judge/punish the wicked. The beginning of this Judgment is that the wicked—all who did not trust in the truth of the Gospel—will be made (by God) to trust in something false instead. The implication is that they will trust in the Lawless One. There is here no mention of persecution of believers by the Lawless One, but this is likely to be inferred, based on parallels in the Eschatological Discourse and Revelation 13, etc (cf. below). The period of the Lawless One’s rule presumably will be short, but characterized by intense and widespread wickedness and injustice, though, in all likelihood, those deceived by him would not be aware of this negative aspect. The period is brought to an end with the coming of Jesus (“the Lord”), who will destroy the Lawless One (v. 8, described in Messianic language from Isa 11:4b, etc).
Most commentators are in agreement that Paul is drawing upon the same tradition from Dan 9:27 that is alluded to in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:14 par, cf. above). If so, he seems to accept a rather different interpretation of this tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person (cf. the actual Hebrew in Dan 9:27 MT, noted above); it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as a Roman emperor, perhaps one fulfilling the pattern of the wicked Gaius (Caligula) who had intended his own image to be set up in the Temple (cf. above). This would have occurred just ten years or so (c. 40 A.D.) before 2 Thessalonians was written (assuming Paul was indeed the author). It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.
This portrait of the “lawless one”, while following in the line of Jewish and early Christian tradition, brings out several particular points of emphasis which, when taken together, can be viewed as representing a kernel of the subsequent Antichrist tradition:
- The divine pretensions of this wicked ruler reach the point where he is in the position (i.e. in the Temple sanctuary) of being worshiped by the people as God.
- He is a personal embodiment of a wider manifestation of the forces of evil (“the secret of lawlessness”) at work in the end-time, and in the current wicked Age.
- He will work miracles and wonders that are directly inspired by Satan, by which humankind will be led astray; this is close to the developed Jewish tradition of the personal manifestation of Belial (with his spirits of deceit) at the end-time.
- His appearance (and activity) directly imitates the coming (parousia) of Jesus (the Christ)—thus, he can rightly be referred to as “antichrist” (against, or in place of, the Anointed).
3. Revelation 13ff (esp. Rev 17:7-14)
The visionary symbolism of the book of Revelation is extremely complex, and I have devoted a lengthy series of detailed notes to its exposition. The portions most relevant to the Antichrist Tradition are the chapters dealing with the ‘beast’ (lit. “wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea. This symbolism is introduced in chapter 13 and continues into the final Judgment visions of chapters 19 and 20. Space here does not permit anything like a thorough study of these references (for this, you must consult the daily notes, beginning with those on chapter 13; cf. also the summary note on the chapter). I will be focusing here specifically on several details in chapter 13, along with the interpretation given in chap. 17 (vv. 7-14) on this ‘beast’ (Sea-creature) and its heads.
- The vision in Daniel 7, of the four ‘beasts’ that come up out of the Sea (vv. 2-8); in the interpretation that follows (vv. 15ff), these beasts are said to be “kingdoms” which, correspondingly, arise out of the Earth (v. 15). The fourth beast, in particular, resembles the Sea-creature of Revelation.
- The apocalyptic/eschatological tradition of Leviathan (from the sea) and Behemoth (from the earth), as primeval/mythic creatures who embody the forces of darkness and chaos, wickedness and disorder. See, e.g., the references to this tradition in 1 Enoch 60:7-8, 24-25; 2 Baruch 29:4; and 2/4 Esdras 6:49-52 (in Part 1); the latter two are more or less contemporary with the book of Revelation. On the ancient (and Old Testament) background to this tradition, cf. my earlier supplemental article and the summary note on Rev 13.
The “antichrist” aspect to this symbolism derives largely from the “wicked tyrant” motif in Daniel 7, etc, with the original/historical type-pattern of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (cf. the discussion in Part 1). The Sea-creature, with its horns and heads, acts (and speaks) much like the “little horn” in Daniel 7-8. However, in the vision(s) of Revelation 13, there has been a considerable development of the symbolism, both in terms of its specific (and contextual) detail, and in the way it brings together nearly all of the eschatological themes and motifs expressed (earlier) in the Eschatological Discourse and the description of the “lawless one” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (discussed in Sections 1 and 2 above). Note the following, more or less in order of their occurrence in chapter 13:
- The Sea-creature resembles the evil Dragon (i.e. the Satan/Devil)—cp. 13:1 with 12:3—thus emphasizing its Satanic/demonic nature and character, being a kind of manifestation of Satan himself (cf. further below).
- Specifically the Dragon (Satan) gives the creature its authority, i.e. power to act (verse 2, cp. 2 Thess 2:9)
- The Sea-creature’s diadems, names, and its apparently fatal wound (from which it lives again), all play into the idea that it is a wicked imitation, an evil parody, of the exalted Christ; cf. on 2 Thess 2:3-12 above
- Humankind is drawn to worship the Sea-creature, i.e. as God (vv. 4ff, cp. 2 Thess 2:4); this is also part of his names, etc, which are an insult to God (vv. 1, 5-6)
- The Sea-creature “makes war” on the holy ones (vv. 7ff)—i.e., attacking and persecuting believers, even to point of putting them to death
All of these “antichrist” elements are put into effect through the work of the Earth-creature (vv. 11-18), with two aspects being especially emphasized: (a) the worship of the Sea-creature, and (b) the persecution of believers. However, based on the tradition in Daniel 7, it is clear that the Sea-creature is not a person, but a kingdom. Thus, contrary to what is often assumed, chapter 13 does not refer specifically to a wicked ruler (personal Antichrist), but to a wicked kingdom or system of government (which, of course, would be headed by a king, etc). I would interpret the Sea-creature as representing the forces of evil at work on earth—that is, in the kingdoms of the world. The Earth-creature represents the local manifestation of this power, i.e. in particular aspects of society and government, both political and religious. This local government enables the forces of evil to dominate and influence humankind, on a practical level.
Most commentators recognize that the primary point of reference, from the standpoint of the historical background of the book of Revelation, is the Roman Empire—the preeminent world-power of the time. In particular, the work of the Earth-creature is manifest in the Imperial Cult, which had become pervasive and well-established throughout the empire by the end of the 1st century A.D. The refusal of Christians to participate in the various aspects of the Cult—including veneration of the emperor (and his image)—would be a prime reason for their being persecuted and put to death. At the time the book of Revelation was written, such persecution by the authorities was still infrequent and sporadic, but it would become far more widespread and intense in the decades and centuries to come. The Earth-creature is also referred to as a “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20), indicated as well by its miracle-working power (13:13-15; cf. Mk 13:22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-10). In its own way, the Earth-creature is an evil imitation of Christ (“false Christ” = “anti-Christ”), resembling the Lamb (Christ) but speaking and acting like the Dragon (Satan).
It is in the heads (and horns) of the Sea-creature that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif expressed most directly. However, this aspect of the creature is alluded to only briefly in chapter 13—specifically, regarding the head which had, apparently, received a death-blow but was restored to life (v. 3). On the one hand, this detail is part of the evil parody of Jesus—the Lamb who was struck to death and came to life again (v. 8; 5:12, etc). At the same time, many commentators feel that it also reflects the historical circumstances of the “heads” (i.e. kings/emperors) of the Sea-creature (i.e. the Roman empire). This comes more firmly into view in chapter 17, with the interpretation (vv. 7-18) that follows the vision (of the Prostitute seated on the Sea-creature) in vv. 1-6. An interpretation of the heads of the creature occurs in vv. 7-14.
I have discussed this passage in some detail in earlier notes. On the basic assumption that the heads (kings) are Roman emperors, various attempts have been made to identify the kings in vv. 10ff with a specific sequence of emperors. The text states clearly that “five have fallen” and “one is” (i.e. is currently living, at the time the book was written); this would imply a sequence of 5 emperors, followed by a sixth (the current emperor). I outline several scholarly theories in the notes; however, in terms of the Antichrist tradition, it is the wording in vv. 10b-11 that is most important. Though it would have been accepted that the author and audience were living the end-time, the book envisions at least a short period of time yet before the end, and it is expected that would yet be two more emperors:
- a seventh (v. 10b), of which little is said except that he has “not yet come” (ou&pw h@lqen); his reign will be brief— “it is necessary for him to remain (for only) a little (time)”
- an eighth (v. 11), the final ruler—this is the figure who best fits the ‘Antichrist’ type-pattern, i.e. the wicked world-ruler of the end-time
The language used to describe this eighth emperor is elusive, but significant:
“And the wild animal [i.e. the Sea-creature] that was, and is not, indeed he is the eighth, and is out of the seven, and he goes away into ruin” (v. 11)
I discuss this wording in one of the earlier notes; I take it to mean that this ruler, while appearing like one of the emperors, is actually an embodiment of the Sea-creature itself—in other words, a kind of Satanic or demonic incarnation. The phrasing here, along with idea of the death-blow and restoration of one of the heads (13:3), may also indicate that the book of Revelation is drawing upon the legend of Nero‘s return, as many commentators assume. I discuss this in a supplemental note. This does not mean that the author believes in the legend per se, nor that the visions confirm it as true, but simply that Nero is being used as a type-pattern for the wicked end-time ruler, much as Antiochus IV had been earlier. This concept of a ‘demonic emperor’ seems to correspond generally to the description in 2 Thess 2:3ff, as I understand it (cf. above).
4. The References in 1 and 2 John
As noted above, the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos) occurs only in the letters of John—in 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7. I discuss these passages in the current article in this series on the Letters of John, so I will only touch upon the matter briefly here. The main issue involves the author’s statement in 1 Jn 2:18:
“Little children, it is (the) last hour, and, even as you (have) heard that ‘against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$] comes’, (so) even now many (who are) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristoi] have come to be—from which we know that it is (the) last hour.”
This is the earliest surviving occurrence of the adjective a)nti/xristo$, and yet the author treats it as a term known to his readers, requiring no explanation. Indeed, he seems to be referring to an eschatological tradition that would have been familiar to them. The question is whether this is to an early form of the Antichrist Tradition, as many commentators assume. If it does refer to the tradition of a wicked world-ruler of the end-time, then the author actually contradicts it—or, at least, he re-interprets it rather dramatically. I tend to think that this Johannine tradition of “(the) Antichrist” is itself somewhat different than the later Tradition; I would formulate it according to two possibilities:
- A personal (or personified) manifestation of evil—a Satanic spirit-being (or Satan himself)—in which case, it would resemble the end-time appearance of Belial/Beliar, described in other writings of the period.
- A more abstract manifestation of the forces of evil, though with the possibility of being further manifested/localized in (personal) spirit-beings. This would be closer to the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea-creature, etc, in the book of Revelation.
Throughout, the author is clearly talking about a spirit of “Antichrist” (against the Anointed), akin to the idea of Belial/Beliar and his “spirits of deceit”, i.e. evil/deceptive spirits who are the source of false prophecy (= the false teaching about Jesus). The world in the current Age was already under the control of the Evil One (the Satan/Devil/Belial), but this wicked control and influence would become even more pervasive and powerful as the end drew nearer. This was a basic premise of early Christian eschatology, and the wickedness of the end-time certainly included both hostility to believers and false teaching/prophecy about Christ himself. The author is saying that this end-time opposition to Christ (“against Christ, anti-Christ”) is being manifest in persons who claim to be Christian, but who he regards as false believers—and false teachers/prophets who effectively deny the truth about Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God). He thus considers them to be “antichrists”, and a fulfillment of the eschatological expectation.
5. Early Christian References outside the New Testament
When we turn to the extra-canonical writings of early Christians, in the period c. 90-150 A.D., there is little evidence for either the use of the term a)nti/xristo$ or the Antichrist tradition itself. As far as I am aware, a)nti/xristo$ occurs only once in these writings, in the epistle of Polycarp (d. 155 A.D.) to the Philippians (7:1). It is essentially a citation of 1 John 2:22 / 4:3 (cf. above), and clearly follows the Johannine tradition in its use and meaning of the term, and shows no indication of a development of the Antichrist Tradition as such. Noteworthy, perhaps, is his characterization of the person who holds the ‘false’ (antichrist) view of Jesus as “the firstborn of the Satan”. This tends to confirm the basic idea of “antichrist” as a kind of incarnation of Satan.
The “Teaching (of the Twelve Apostles)”, or Didache, offers perhaps the earliest evidence for the Antichrist Tradition in the 2nd century. At the close of this work, in chapter 16, there is an eschatological warning to believers, expressed in traditional early Christian terms (going back to the eschatological sayings of Jesus). It describes the end-time period of wickedness and distress, warning of the coming of false prophets, etc (v. 3-4). At the climax of this period we read:
“…and then shall be made to shine forth [i.e. shall appear] the (One) leading the world astray [kosmoplanh/$, i.e. World-Deceiver], (appearing) as (the) Son of God, and he will do signs and marvels, and the (whole) earth shall be given along into his hands, and he will do (thing)s without (regard for what is) set down (by law), (thing)s which have never come to be out of [i.e. since the beginning of] the Age.”
While generally following the sort of description given by Paul in 2 Thess 2:3ff (of the “lawless one”), clearly there has been a measure of development, and we are approaching here something closer to the later Antichrist Tradition.
Finally, mention should be made of the apocalyptic pseudepigraphon known as the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (discussed in Part 2), and other surviving pseudepigrapha, it represents a Christian re-working of earlier Jewish material. The main eschatological portion is in chapter 4, which includes a detailed description of the end-time coming of Beliar (= Belial). While this follows Jewish eschatological traditions regarding Belial (cf. in Part 2), these traditions have been developed and sharpened significantly, placing the portrait of Beliar in a Christian context that provides perhaps the clearest (and earliest) evidence for the Antichrist Tradition proper. Scholars tend to date the Ascension of Isaiah from the first half of the 2nd century A.D. The details and aspects most worth noting are (cf. Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 199-200):
- Beliar descends in the form of a lawless king, i.e. incarnate as a wicked human ruler (v. 2)
- He persecutes the Christians (v. 3)
- He holds universal power, i.e. he is true world-ruler (vv. 4-5)
- He pretends to be the Beloved, i.e. Jesus Christ—an imitation of Christ (v. 6)
- He leads the whole world astray, even causing believers to fall away (vv. 7-9)
- His statue is erected in all cities, by which he is worshiped (v. 11)
- The period of his reign is approximately 3 ½ years (v. 12)
This is much closer to the standard idea of “the Antichrist” than anything we find, for example, in the book of Revelation. And, while there is certainly a line of development, from the New Testament to this 2nd century portrait, we must be cautious about reading this (later) portrait back into the New Testament itself.