October 26: Revelation 13 (summary)

Summary of the Two Visions in Rev 13:1-18

As a way of summarizing the results of the study (in these notes) on the visions of Revelation 13, we will attempt to give greater clarity to the symbolic figures of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature, and the relationship between the three—how the author/visionary likely understood them and what they would have meant to the first readers of the book.

Like nearly all of the symbols in the book of Revelation, these are complex and function at different levels of meaning, being drawn from multiple strands of tradition. I would isolate four aspects, or sources, in particular.

Mythological. There can be no real doubt that the figures of the Dragon and the creature from the Sea are drawn from ancient Near Eastern myth—specifically, tales of a great conflict between God and the Sea. This is a cosmological myth, meaning that it relates to the creation of the universe and the establishment of the current created order. The personified Sea represents the primordial waters, a dark and chaotic mass, which, according to the basic ancient Near Eastern cosmology, was the original state of the universe prior to the establishment of the created order by the Deity (cp. Genesis 1:2, etc). The subduing and defeat of the Sea was, in many ways, the central event of establishing order, and, with it, the Deity’s control over the life-giving waters. There are vestiges of this common cosmological myth throughout the Old Testament, but only two more or less direct allusions, in Psalm 74:13-14 and Isa 27:1 (cf. also Job 26:13) The form-pattern of the Dragon and Sea-creature in Revelation 12-13, the Serpent-figure with seven heads, is similarly found in a variety of ancient myths, most notably in the Canaanite Baal Epic—the Sea’s ally L£t¹n¥ (OT /t*y`w=l!, Leviathan). I discuss this myth-type in a separate article (in the “Ancient Parallels” series).

Typological. The Earth-Sea image paradigm in Revelation 12-13 is envisioned as two distinct realms, located side by side with a boundary in between. The Dragon is situated on a strip of territory on the boundary between the two (12:18). This dual-construct is both spatial/visual and conceptual. And, it would seem that, conceptually, the “Earth” represents the realm populated by human beings, i.e. the inhabited world as we know it. On the other hand, the “Sea” in this regard is a more complex symbol, one which relates to the mythological aspect discussed above. As a type, the “Sea” represents the realm of chaos, danger, disorder, and violence at the border of the known world. As such it has a typological connection with the forces of evil and death. In Old Testament tradition, this is expressed by the tumult of raging, destructive waters which threaten people living nearby. This violent tumult served as a fitting symbol for the military attack of enemy nations, along with the chaos/disorder that ensues from it. Thus the Sea (and its waters) was frequently used in the Prophets as an image of the danger posed to Israel, etc, from the surrounding nations (and their rulers)—cf. Isa 8:7; 17:12-13; Jer 46:7-8; 51:55). Ultimately, however, it is YHWH with his control over the waters who has control over these “raging waters” of the nations (Isa 28:2; Jer 10:13; 51:16; Ezek 26:19).

Scriptural Tradition. The visions in chapter 13 also draw on specific Scripture passages, contributing both to the essential shape of the visions, as well to a number of particular details. These have already been discussed, but we may summarize here again the most noteworthy examples:

    • The framework of the visions themselves comes from the Daniel 7 vision (vv. 2-8, 15-25)
    • The blasphemous speaking and arrogance of the Sea-creature (13:5-6ff), with its persecution of the righteous/believers, is a reflection of the specific ruler-figure prophesied in Daniel 7:25; 9:26-27; 11:36ff—generally regarded as referring to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it was interpreted by early Christians as a future/eschatological reference to their own time (Mark 13:14; 2 Thess 2:3-12)
      • This figure is part of a wider Old Testament tradition of the boastful/arrogant foreign ruler who would put himself in the position of God (cf. the various nation-oracles in the Prophets, esp. Isa 14:13ff and Ezek 28:2ff)
    • The image of the Sea-creature (13:13-15) reflects Nebuchadnezzar’s statue in the Daniel 3 episode
    • The mark of the Sea-creature (vv. 16-18), as a contrast to the mark on the faithful believers (7:3; 14:1), likely alludes to Ezekiel 9:4ff
    • The Earth-creature functions as a miracle-working false prophet (v. 13), an antitype of the prophet Elijah (allusions to the Elijah traditions, 1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12)

Historical Context. The author and his readers lived in Asia Minor, in a province of the Roman Empire. As such, the historical context of Roman imperial rule certainly influenced the symbolism of the visions. This is true of many details in the vision; but let us consider more broadly the figures of the two creatures coming from the Sea and Earth, respectively. With an understanding of the Earth as the realm of the inhabited world (cf. above), Roman rule at the end of the first century A.D. practically extended to the furthest reaches of the earth, as known by people at the time. However, the association of Rome with the sea is more significant for an understanding of the vision. The Roman empire’s power was largely the result of its control of the sea, both militarily and commercially. So complete was their dominion over the Mediterranean, in particular, that the Romans called it “our sea” (mare nostrum). In territories such as Asia Minor (especially in cities and regions nearer the coast), people would certainly have associated the establishment of Roman control as coming by way of the adjoining Sea (as in the visions of Rev 13). In Jewish tradition, Rome was identified with the ancient maritime power of the Kittim (originally referring to Phoenician influence in the Mediterranean, including the island of Cyprus); similarly, in 2/4 Esdras, generally contemporary with the book of Revelation, Rome is depicted symbolically as a great creature (an eagle) from the Sea (11:1). Cf. Koester, pp. 569, 580.

Summary

Let us now bring these different strands together and see how these symbolic figures relate in the setting of the visions.

The Dragon. The “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn), a snake-like hybrid creature with seven heads, represents the forces of evil, and is explicitly identified with the Evil One (Devil/Satan) in the text (12:9), so there is little question about its meaning.

The Sea-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Sea clearly resembles the Dragon, having a similar appearance. Moreover, the Dragon’s presence at the edge of the Sea, along with the Sea-creature following the Dragon in its “making war” against believers, shows that it acts under the influence of the Dragon—that is, under the control of Satan and the forces of evil. The mythological, typological, and Scriptural aspects of the symbolism (cf. above) would have identified this creature from the Sea as an opponent/adversary of God, and the details of the visions bear this out, especially in the creature’s persecution of the people of God (believers). However, the realm of this creature is the Sea, not the Earth—that is to say, its normal realm is not that of the inhabited world (of human beings). In terms of the historical context, this aspect is realized in the sense that this creature represents a foreign power (i.e. the Roman empire) coming to the land (i.e. Asia Minor) from the sea. In the Daniel 7 vision, the beasts coming up out of the sea are specifically interpreted as kingdoms, and this may be inferred here as well, though not made explicit as such until later in the book. Many commentators believe that the detail of the head which was healed/restored from an apparent fatal blow is an allusion to the legend of Nero’s return.

The Earth-Creature. The creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up from the Earth has a different appearance, more closely resembling a normal earthly creature (a lamb). Only the detail of its two horns, and the way that it speaks (like the Dragon) indicate its evil character. If the Daniel 8 vision is in view, then the Earth-creature also represents an earthly king/kingdom, but one more precisely localized regionally and in historical terms. Based on the symbolism of the Earth here as the inhabited world of human beings, we must envision an actual earthy kingdom or government. In the historical context of the book (and the Roman empire), the creature would represent the functioning local governments of Asia Minor. However, since the Earth-creature acts to establish the rule of the Sea-creature (on earth), this would mean the local administration insofar as it acts under the authority of the Roman government, to establish the imperial rule in the provinces. On a broader level of symbolism, the Earth-creature represents the earthly manifestation of mythic-evil power. The Earth-creature is a miracle-working false prophet who deceives people with supernatural power.

The Image of the Sea-Creature. Ultimately it is through the presence of the living image of the Sea-creature that the rule of the Sea-creature is established on earth. The people inhabiting the earth construct the image, and it is then empowered by the evil ‘magic’ of the Earth-creature. It is the image of the Sea-creature, and not the Earth-creature, that commands the people on earth. This is an important aspect of the dynamic which is not always understood by readers (and is obscured in many translations). The allusion to idolatry is clear enough—i.e. an earthly image of mythic-evil power—but it is the Scriptural and historical aspects which are more prominent, especially (1) the Nebuchadnezzar statue (and other Danielic traditions), and (2) as a representation of Roman imperial administration. Both lines of tradition essentially relate to earthly ruling powers which seek to establish obedience and veneration from the populace as a means of rule. Most commentators correctly identify a strong allusion to the contemporary Imperial cult, well-established and widespread in the provinces by the end of the first century A.D. That, indeed, should be seen as the primary reference. The cult was manifest both in the civic/political realm (images, temples, public celebrations) and the commercial (the mark/stamp on coinage, etc). Believers would be confronted with these cultic symbols and associations on a regular basis, part of a recognized atmosphere of pervasive evil and conflict (i.e. opposition to God and Christ), even if it did not necessarily result in believers being arrested or put to death. The connection of the Sea-creature (and its image) with Rome and the Imperial cult is made more precise in subsequent visions, which will be examined in due course.

An interpretation of these symbols with the contemporary situation of Roman Imperial rule in Asia Minor seems clear enough. This is surely not the full extent of the symbolism; however, even commentators who adopt a modern-futurist approach to the visions (and those in Daniel), recognize the allusions to the Roman Empire (thus the various theories regarding a new or “revived” Roman Empire in modern times). An examination of these various interpretative approaches and systems must wait until the conclusion of this series of notes, but it is well to begin widening the scope of our study, especially as we will face increasingly complex and difficult issues involving the remaining visions of the book. This I hope to do, starting with the upcoming notes on chapter 14.

October 21: Revelation 13:16-18

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

In verses 13-15 (discussed in the previous note), the creature from the Earth establishes control over the people on earth, on behalf of the creature from the Sea, by effectively forcing them to worship an image (ei)kw/n) of the Sea-creature. This living image, animating by the magical-prophetic power of the Earth-creature, functions as the Sea-creature’s living and ruling representative on the earth. This refers to the civic/political realm of government. Now, in verses 16-18, the Sea-creature’s control is established in the commercial/economic sphere as well. The economic control comes by way of a “mark” (xa/ragma), the so-called “mark of the Beast”. Perhaps no detail in the entire book has been subject to so much unbridled speculation throughout the centuries. To some extent the book itself is to blame for this, in the cryptic and provocative way the matter is presented in verse 18 (cf. below), seeming to invite all manner of speculation (much of which has been dubious and ill-founded, to say the least). For this reason, it is especially important to begin with a careful reading of the text and how it likely would have been understood by Christians in the late-1st century.

Revelation 3:16

“And he makes all (people)—the small and the great, the rich and the poor, the free and the slave—(so) that they should receive an engraved (mark) [xa/ragma] upon their receiving [i.e. right] hand or upon the (space) between their eyes…”

This description is clear enough. The only real question is whether the subject of poiei= (“he makes”) is the Earth-creature or the living image of the Sea-creature; the latter is to be preferred on the basis of the overall scenario, whereby it is the image that rules on earth as the Sea-creature’s representative (cf. the discussion in the previous note). In any case, every person on earth is given a xa/ragma, either on their right hand or on the middle of their forehead (“between the eyes”). The noun xa/ragma properly refers to something that is engraved into a surface, but can include the result of branding or stamping as well, along with more generalized use to indicate a “mark” or “sign”. Probably the more immediate reference here is to branding, as might occur for slaves or captured/defeated enemies, etc. There are examples of branding in a religious setting as well (cf. below). Some have thought that the specific reference to the hand and forehead could be an allusion to the Jewish phylacteries, in which the text of God’s command was ‘bound’ to a person, marking their religious identity and devotion.

Revelation 13:17

“…even (so) that no one would be able to go to the market-place (to purchase) or to sell (anything), if th(is person) was not holding the engraved (mark with) the name of the wild animal or the number of his name.”

The practical effect of this order is expressed by a pair of infinitives governed by the negative expression mh/ ti$ du/natai (“no one would be able [to]…”):

    • a)gora/sai, literally “go to the market-place”, the a)gora/ being the public square where commercial business (buying/selling) was being done. Here the verb also has the specific denotation of purchasing something (at the market-palce).
    • pwlh=sai, to deal in goods, to exchange, trade, sell, etc—that is, from the standpoint of the dealer or merchant (i.e. seller).

The principal statement thus is a comprehensive reference covering all kinds of commercial business (buying/selling/trading). No one would be able to engage in any such business if that person was not holding on their body the previously mentioned engraved mark (xa/ragma). An articular participle is used to express this (o( e&xw/n, “the [one] holding”), signifying the basic character and identity of the person. Implied here is that receiving the mark indicates the person’s identity as one who belongs to the Sea-creature and accepts his rule. There would seem to be three primary strands to the background of this imagery:

    • As a direct parallel to the seal given to believers, on the forehead, which marks them as belonging to God (lit. “slaves of God”) in the vision of chapter 7 (vv. 3ff). The seal refers to an engraved image stamped into a soft surface (of clay, wax, lead, etc), especially used to indicate that a particular document, etc, belongs to an individual. In 14:1, this seal is defined in terms of the name of the Lamb (and of God the Father) written on the believer’s forehead. Thus the basic imagery is identical—only here in chapter 13 it conveys just the opposite: that non-believers belong to the Sea-creature (and the Dragon). Ultimately, this idea likely derives from Ezekiel 9:4, or from a corresponding underlying tradition.
    • Roman imperial coinage was stamped with the image of the emperor, along with honorific/divine names and titles, and other symbols representing imperial power and/or associated with the imperial cult. Such a coin-stamp into metal could be called a xa/ragma. The obvious connection of coins with commercial activity throughout the empire makes this a key aspect of the symbolism. The very handling of such coins venerating the emperor forced Christians into the sort of ethical quandary that Jews in the Greco-Roman world had been facing for several centuries.
    • The specific act of branding of persons in a pagan religious setting. There is an example cited in 3 Maccabees 2:28-29 that is close in meaning to the scenario in Rev 13:13-18. Jews in Alexandria (3rd century B.C.) were required to have the image of an ivy-leaf, sign of the god Dionysus, branded on their bodies, and those who refused this were put to death (cf. Koester, p. 595).

Neither at the time the book of Revelation was written, nor in the following two centuries, were Christians intentionally barred from commercial activity along the lines described here in the vision. So, then, how should this be understood? Given the pervasiveness of the imperial cult throughout society, including within the economic sphere, believers in the provinces (of Asia Minor, etc) were already being forced to recognize, and in some sense accept, the symbols of the cult as an established and ordinary part of daily life. It was a simple enough matter to envision a more coercive application of this established order, especially in the setting of the period of intense persecution anticipated in these visions. The viewpoint of the book of Revelation was that the entire Roman imperial establishment, as an embodiment of worldly and Satanic rule, was fundamentally wicked. It was already corrupting and controlling people even without the universal coercive measures described in the chap. 13 visions.

Revelation 13:18

“Here is wisdom: the (one) holding a mind (to reason) must work (out) with pebbles [i.e. compute] th(is) number of the wild animal—for it is (the) number of a man, and his number (is) six-hundred sixty six.”

How much simpler would a study of this vision (and the book of Revelation as a whole) be without this verse! It has resulted in all manner of speculation, much of it quite unhealthy. And, in spite what the author/visionary says at the start of the verse, it has proven virtually impossible for Christians to solve this numeric riddle in any meaningful or convincing way. At least this is so for Christians living after the first century, since already by the mid/late-second century a knowledgeable author such as Irenaeus, so well-informed regarding early tradition, can only make vague guesses as to its meaning (Against Heresies V.30). We might assume that believers living around the time of the book’s writing (late-1st century), and members of the circle of congregations (in Asia Minor) to whom it was addressed, may have had a clearer sense of what was intended; but, if so, that is now lost to us today.

All that we can be sure of is that the numerical cypher involved a process referred to as gematria, best known from its application by Jewish writers and commentators as a mode of interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures. In both Hebrew and Greek, letters of the alphabet were used to represent numbers, meaning that individual words and phrases carried a certain numeric value, obtained by adding up the letters. This is why the author/seer instructs his audience to compute (lit. adding by “using pebbles”) the number of the engraved name. Even though the various figures and images used throughout the book of Revelation are symbolic, and, for the most part, do not necessarily refer to a specific person or thing, here it would seem that the author does have in mind a specific name. The directive to compute the name would result in a specious bit of symbolism if a definite name were not involved. However, there are still a number of ways one might interpret the idea of specific name here; these can be reduced to two primary approaches:

    • The name is still symbolic, i.e. it does not necessarily refer to a specific historical person. Admittedly, the author does say that “it is the number of a man”, but this could simply mean that it is a human name serving as the symbol, just as the territorial name of “Babylon” is used in subsequent visions.
    • The name is meant refer to a concrete individual, presumably a particular ruler, perhaps a specific Roman emperor.

The direction given by the author to his audience—i.e. those living in Asia Minor at the time—would be virtually meaningless if it did not refer to a name/person that could be identified. This fact generally invalidates any interpretive approach that requires discovery of the name by Christians living hundreds (or thousands) of years later. Perhaps the most common solution to the numeric riddle, accepted by many commentators as being at least the most plausible to date, is that it represents a transliteration in Hebrew of “Nero Caesar” (rsq /wrn), a form attested in several documents from the first and early-second centuries A.D. This would fit the basic setting and background of the book, including imagery that likely draws (in part) on legends surrounding Nero (as will be discussed further in subsequent notes). However, the main problem is that this theory assumes that the Greek-speaking audience of the book would be familiar enough with Hebrew to make such a calculation, and this is far from certain (cf. the explanation of Hebrew words in 9:11; 16:16). A computation involving a particular Greek name would be more likely.

In several manuscripts (Ë115 C) and other ancient witnesses, the number cited in verse 18 is 616 rather than 666. This has given rise to the possibility that the intended name is the Greek form of “Gaius Caesar” (Gaio$ Kaisar), which adds up to 616. Gaius (Caligula) was the most notorious emperor of the first century, after Nero. According to Josephus (Antiquities 18.261), Gaius had ordered his statue to be set up in the Jerusalem Temple, making him a kind of 1st-century fulfillment of Antiochus Epiphanes (Dan 9:27; 11:31ff), and a suitable point of reference for the eschatological predictions in Mark 13:14 par; 2 Thess 2:4ff.

For other examples of gematria applied to the specific names of rulers and other leading figures, and as a way to identify them, note e.g., Lucian Alexander 11; Sibylline Oracles 1.137-46, 324-9; 5.1-51; cf. Koester, p. 606.

Given the fact that so much of the imagery in the book of Revelation, especially here in chapter 13 and the visions which follow, is related, at a basic level, to the contemporary reality of the Roman Empire and the Imperial cult, it seems quite plausible that the name/number of the Sea-creature’s mark is that of a Roman emperor (such as Nero or Gaius). If the book of Revelation were written during Nero’s reign, then a veiled reference to him would be quite likely. More probable, however, is that the author intends to compare the Sea-creature’s rule in terms of the wicked emperors Gaius and/or Nero, but cannot mention their names except by hidden code. To name them outright would be both impious and contrary to the symbolic style and artistry of the book. Even Rome itself cannot be mentioned explicitly, but only referred to through certain symbolic details or other names such as “Babylon”.

Admittedly, this is far from a satisfactory solution; however, a more definitive interpretation, such as this is even possible, will have to wait until we have studied the remaining visions in the book which make reference to the Sea-creature and his “mark”. Before proceeding to an examination of the chapter 14 visions, it may be worth summarizing those in chapter 13, especially in terms of the relationship between the two creatures (of Sea and Earth)—this I will do in the next daily note.

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October 19: Revelation 13:13-15

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

The appearance and character of the creature (“wild animal”, qhri/on) coming up out of the Earth was described in vv. 11-12 (cf. the previous note); now in vv. 13-18 the creature’s actions are described. These actions are intended to ensure that all people on the earth worship the Sea-creature, and are centered on both an image (ei)kw/n) and ‘mark’ (xa/ragma) of the creature. The image (vv. 13-15) reflects civic pressure to conform, while the ‘mark’ (vv. 16-18) involves commercial pressure. Christians in all times and places have faced pressure (and persecution) on both of these fronts, to varying degrees. And, correspondingly, the symbolism here can have a universal application to believers everywhere. However, we must begin with, and focus primarily on, an examination of this vision from the standpoint of how it would have been understood by the author and Christians (living in Asia Minor) at the time. This is all the more important here, since the details of vv. 13-18 have been subject to all kinds of speculation, much of it quite implausible (even preposterous), and nearly all of it far removed from the original setting of the book.

Revelation 13:13

“And he makes great signs (happen), (so) that he should even make fire step [i.e. come] down out of the heaven (and) onto the earth, in the sight of all men…”

This first statement draws upon the notice in verse 12 that the Earth-creature acts with the authority/ability (e)cousi/a) of the Sea-creature. Literally it was said that the Earth-creature “makes” (poiei=) things happen with that authority, and also makes that authority function on the earth, which is his domain. The same basic verb (poie/w, “do, make”) is used here to clarify something of how this authority and power is made manifest: “he makes [poiei=] great signs [shmei=a mega/la] (happen)”. The noun shmei=on can indeed be used to refer to miracles a person performs, but only so far as they are an indication (and demonstration) of divine/supernatural power. Elsewhere in the book of Revelation shmei=on is used for momentous images seen by the visionary, which are clearly recognized to be of great significance and meaning (12:1, 3; 15:1). However, in 16:14 and 19:20, the plural again occurs in precisely the same context as it does here—for the supernatural power and miracles demonstrated by the creature.

These miracles are understood to be real (i.e. not illusory), performed through the evil (demonic/Satanic) power of the Dragon. This is made clear enough in 16:14, as it is also of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (see v. 9), an eschatological passage which has much in common with the visions of Rev 13. In 2 Thess 2:9, the “signs” are said to be false (yeu=do$), in the sense that they deceive people and lead them astray. Here, too, the Earth-creature has the nature of a “false prophet”, an association made explicit in the subsequent visions (16:13; 19:20). In particular, the image of bringing down fire from heaven draws upon the famous traditions in the Elijah narratives (1 Kings 18:24, 37-38; 2 Kings 1:10-12). The motif came to be a traditional allusion to prophetic ability and power (Luke 9:54, etc). The idea of fire from heaven also relates to the essential imagery of storm and sky deities (including Zeus in the Greco-Roman world), manifest in, but not limited to, the natural phenomenon of fires being started on earth from bolts of lightning.

In passing, it is worth noting here that miracles and supernatural events often surrounded prominent leaders, as part of the general superstition and religious understanding of the ancient world. In particular, supposed miraculous events involving the Roman emperors were part of the fabric of the Imperial cult. We might mention certain legendary details associated with the emperor Vespasian (Tacitus Histories 1.86; 4.81.1-3; Suetonius Vespasian 5.7; 7.2; cf. Koester, p. 592), whose reign (69-79 A.D.) likely occurred not long before the writing of the book of Revelation.

Revelation 13:14

“…and he makes all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth go astray through the signs, th(ose) for which power was given to him to make (happen), in the sight of the wild animal, saying to the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth (that they are) to make an image [ei)kw/n] for the wild animal, th(e one) which held a strike of the sword and (yet) lived.”

Here we see the effect of the supernatural “signs” performed by the Earth-creature. It is said that he tells the people of earth to make an image of the Sea-creature, but, in a real sense, this is the result of the signs he performs—that is, the miracles themselves “tell” the people how to act. However, we also have the idea here of people on the earth—some of them, at least—beginning to act in the service of the Earth-creature, which likely implies some level of political or governmental cooperation. The effect of the signs is also describing primarily in the traditional (religious) language of people going astray (“wandering”, vb. plana/w); the same idea is present in 2 Thess 2:10-11, and also characterizes the end-time period of distress in the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:5-6 par; Matt 24:24), where it is part of a specific warning to believers. The Dragon (i.e. Satan) is characterized (and personified) as one who leads people astray (12:9), that is, promoting falsehood and also inciting people to evil. In 2:20 the verb is used of false teaching by supposed believers (cp. the discussion in 1 John). The verb takes on greater prominence as the eschatological conflict reaches its climax in the later visions of the book (18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10).

The image (ei)kw/n) that is created depicts the seven-headed Sea-creature (apparently the likeness extends to include the detail of his fatal and miraculously healed wound). The specific wording here can easily be lost in translation; but there is a clear parallel:

    • the Earth-creature is able to make (poih=sai) these great signs happen in the sight of the Sea-creature
    • the people on earth are led to make (poih=sai) an image that visually resembles the Sea-creature

The word ei)kw/n, referring to a copy or that which resembles something (or someone) else, is relatively rare in the New Testament (used 23 times). In all 10 occurrences in Revelation, it refers to this image of the evil Sea-creature (who also resembles the Dragon). The majority of other occurrences are found in the Pauline letters, where it tends to have Christological meaning (see esp. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). Just as Christ is the image of God, so also believers in Christ take on his image. Something of this connotation may be intended here in the Rev 13 visions as well, part of the evil parody of Jesus represented by the two creatures—i.e. non-believers on earth follow after the image of the wicked creature, even as believers conform to the image of Jesus.

Revelation 13:15

“And it was given him to give spirit/breath [pneu=ma] to the image of the wild animal, (so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk and would make (it so) [that], if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off.”

The narration here is powerful and evocative; and, in order to avoid misunderstanding, it is necessary to examine each component and detail carefully. First, we should note the three-fold reference to the image (ei)kw/n)—in each occurrence the full expression “the image of the wild animal” is used, repeatedly emphasizing that it is specifically an image of the evil Sea-creature.

“it was given him to give pneu=ma to the image…” The dual use of the same verb (di/dwmi, “give”) is often avoided in translation, but it is important to preserve it here, as a way of reinforcing the idea of the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature working in tandem. Power is given by the Dragon to the Sea-creature, who then gives it to the Earth-creature, who, in turn, gives it to the image of the Sea-creature on earth. This reflects a key aspect of the vision which is often overlooked. The domain of the Sea-creature is the Sea, and, in order to exercise his authority fully on the Earth, he needs the cooperation of the Earth-creature. The Earth-creature effectively facilitates the Sea-creature’s control on earth through this image of the Sea-creature.

Here the noun pneu=ma is used in its ordinary sense of “spirit” —i.e. the animating spirit or “breath” that gives life and movement to a living being. An allusion to the Spirit of God may also be intended, as part of the evil parody of the two creatures with Jesus. Believers are moved and given life by the Spirit, while non-believers are controlled by the evil/demonic “spirit” that animates the image of the Creature. Admittedly, references to the Spirit (Pneu=ma) are relatively rare in the book of Revelation, but it would be easy enough for Christian readers here to draw the parallel.

“(so) that the image of the wild animal would even talk” This animating “spirit” makes the image of the Sea-creature come to life (or at least seem to), to the point that it could even talk. This is presumably meant to depict a genuine miracle or supernatural event, rather than a trick, though there are ancient examples of attempts to create the illusion that statues, etc, were moving and talking (e.g., Bel and the Dragon 1-26; Lucian Alexander 26; Koester, p. 593). The idea that magicians and wonder-workers might bring statues and figurines to life was a relatively common feature in ancient tales. In the vision here, however, this takes on a special significance, since it is this living/speaking/acting image that allows the Sea-creature to exercise his rule on the earth.

“and would make (it so) [that]…” The Greek syntax is unclear, but it would seem that the subjunctive “would make” (poih/sh|) is parallel to the earlier “would speak” (lalh/sh|), and thus refers to the action of the image rather than the Earth-creature himself. This creates an interesting scenario—i.e., the image orders people worship to the image. However, this, I believe, is precisely what the visions intend to represent. Note the way the forces of evil function according to the overall imagery of the vision:

    • The Dragon works through =>
      • the Sea-creature, who works through =>
        • the Earth-creature, who works through =>
          • the living image of the Sea-creature; and, through
        • this comprehensive power present in the image =>
      • people come to worship the image of the Sea-creature, and in turn =>
    • they worship the Dragon

This gives to this scene a subtle difference from the most obvious parallel—namely, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3.

“if any would not kiss toward [i.e. worship] the image of the wild animal, they should be killed off” This wording generally corresponds to the command given by Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:4-6), and certainly the vision here alludes to that famous Scriptural episode. The righteous ones (Daniel and his companions) were faced with the choice of complying with the command to show obedience to the royal power by venerating its image (i.e. the great statue), or to face the punishment of death. Believers in the Roman Empire faced a similar choice with the regard to the pervasive presence of the Imperial cult. Statues of the emperor, etc, could be seen, not only in the temples, but in many other public places, having been erected and dedicated by influential citizens and civic groups. As such, they were a clear and prominent representation of the Imperial cult—i.e. the public worship of the Empire and its rule.

Admittedly, there is little evidence, even in the book of Revelation itself, of any widespread persecution by the authorities at the time the book was written. The notice given to the example of Antipas in 2:13 suggests that executions of believers were a relatively rare occurrence. Much more common would have been the imprisonment for the purposes of interrogation. However, the author/visionary clearly expects that this persecution would intensify considerably, with imprisonment and execution referenced specifically in 13:10, as a manifestation of how the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) “makes war” on believers. There would, in fact, be periods of more widespread, state-sponsored persecution of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, especially during the reigns of Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Decius (249-251), Valerian (253-26o), and Diocletian (284-305). The extent of imperial persecution in the late 1st and early 2nd century remains uncertain and debated. The period of arrests and public executions under Nero (64 A.D.) was brief and limited to the city of Rome. A more widespread persecution was thought to have occurred during Domitian’s reign (81-96)—often considered to be contemporaneous with the writing of Revelation—but this has since been re-evaluated by historians.

As it happens, we do have an example, from the reign of Trajan (98-117), which is actually quite close to what is described in Revelation 13:15. Pliny the Younger served as governor of Bithynia and Pontus (in Asia Minor), c. 110-113 A.D. He had occasion to write to the emperor regarding the investigation and punishment of Christians, seeking guidance and instruction on the matter (Epistle 10.96). As part of his attempt to identify those who were actual Christians, Pliny describes his use of a statue of the emperor as a means of testing:

“I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your [the emperor’s] statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do. Others … did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.” (10.96.5-6, translation Koester, p. 594)

Interestingly, the emperor wrote back (Ep. 10.97) to Pliny saying that he approved of the method of testing, but insisted that Christians were not to be hunted down. This, along with the fact that a governor had to ask for guidance about how to deal with Christians in the first place, indicates that persecution of believers in the provinces was by no means widespread or common at the time. We do not have clear documentation for a similar use of statues of the emperor in subsequent periods of imperial persecution, but the detail is mentioned in a number of the martyrdom narratives (set during the 2nd-3rd century persecutions).

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October 15: Revelation 13:5-10

Revelation 12:18-13:10 (Continued)

The first part of this vision (13:1-4), describing the “wild animal” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, was examined in the previous note. If we were to outline the vision itself, it would be:

    • Appearance and description of the creature (vv. 1-4)
    • Action of the creature—making war on believers (vv. 5-8)
    • Concluding exhortation for believers (vv. 9-10)
Revelation 13:5

“And a mouth speaking great (thing)s and insults (against God) was given to him, and (the) e)cousi/a was given to him to do (this for) forty [and] two months.”

Just as the mouth (sto/ma) of the Dragon poured out destructive waters against the Woman (i.e. the People of God), so the mouth of the Sea-creature (which resembles the Dragon) sends out (“speaks”) prideful and arrogant things that are against God. Like the vision as a whole, this detail comes from Daniel 7 and the description of the fourth beast (vv. 8, 11, 25). There it is one particular horn (i.e. one king) which has such a mouth; here, it is not one horn or head, but the creature itself. Most commentators would identify the arrogant-speaking horn/king with Antiochus IV Epiphanes, particularly in light of the detail in other passages (9:24-27; 11:36-39). The description in Rev 13:5ff specifically echoes that of Dan 7:25, with the combination of three details: (1) speaking words against the Most High, (2) afflicting the holy ones, and (3) his power limited to a period of 3½ years (“time, times and half a time”).

The power to rule and act comes from the Dragon (v. 4), and yet the passive e)do/qh, “was given”, here (and in v. 7) is better understood as the so-called “divine passive” with God as the implied agent. In other words, it is God who ultimately gives to the creature, in the sense of allowing or permitting it, the ability to act as he does. The noun e)cousi/a (untranslated above) indicates both the authority and ability to do something. This authority is limited (by God) to a period of “forty-two months”, which is another way of referring to the symbolic 3½ years that marks the end-time period of distress (12:14 [Dan 7:25], etc).

Revelation 13:6

“And he opened up his mouth unto insult(s) toward God, to insult His Name and His Tent—the (one)s setting up (their) tent [i.e. dwelling] in heaven.”

As previously noted, blasfhmi/a means insult, usually in the religious sense as an insult toward/against God (i.e. “blasphemy”), often so implied but here made explicit. In particular, the creature insults God’s name and his tent (skhnh/, i.e. dwelling-place). In v. 2, the creature is said to have upon his head names insulting to God; now, it is God’s own name that he insults. These are flip sides of the same basic image. In the ancient world, as part of a quasi-magical way of thinking, a person’s name was identified closely with the person himself (or herself)—that is, as an embodiment of the essential identity, nature, and character of the person. Thus an attack on God’s name was effectively an attack on God Himself.

The “tent” of God refers back to the old tent-shrine (i.e. ‘Tabernacle’) tradition from Israelite history, realized anew in Jerusalem Temple. References to the Temple in the book of Revelation locate it in heaven, as a figure for the dwelling of God (and the People of God). At the time the book was written, the Jerusalem Temple had likely been destroyed; however, even before its destruction, there was an early Christian tendency to identify the true Temple with believers (i.e. the People of God)—both collectively and individually (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21; Rev 3:12). This was more or less done in the earlier vision of 11:1-2ff, and the identification is even more explicit here. Admittedly, in some manuscripts there is a conjunction kai/ (“and”), which makes “the ones setting up their tent in heaven” distinct from the actual “Tent” of God; however, the phrase is better viewed as an explanatory statement interpreting the Tent/Dwelling of God. It refers to all the People of God, especially in its heavenly aspect, which can encompass both Angels and believers (particularly those put to death for their faith).

Revelation 13:7

“And it was given to him to make war with the holy (one)s, and to be victorious (over) them, and e)cousi/a was given to him upon [i.e. over] every offshoot (of the human race), and (every) people and tongue and nation.”

Here again is the divine passive (e)do/qh, “it was given”), i.e. God permits/allows the creature to have control and authority over people on earth, including believers. In that the creature “makes war with the holy (one)s”, it shows that he acts as the Dragon’s ally in making war on believers (12:17), and that the visions in chapters 12 and 13 are certainly so connected. There is a different nuance of the verb nika/w (“be victorious [over]”) here compared with how it was used earlier in 12:11. There believers are said to be victorious over the Dragon, but now the Dragon is victorious over them. The latter sense of being victorious is secondary, and temporary—it refers to the creature’s ability to attack believers, leading to their imprisonment and being put to death (cf. on vv. 9-10 below). This temporary “victory” of the Dragon and his allies actually ends up in final/permanent victory for the People of God.

Again God allows the creature to have e)cousi/a over all of humankind—every race and nation—indicating his authority and governing control. This means both that: (a) the creature is allowed to attack believers everywhere, and (b) he exercises full control (and rule) over people on earth. That this generally characterizes the Roman Empire, from the standpoint and worldview of people (living in the Empire) at the time, seems clear enough. Attempts to extend the universality of the creature’s rule to cover an ethic/geographic extent of humankind that accords with our vantage point today are questionable at best. We must read the text primarily in terms of the worldview that would have prevailed at the time. Application to the situation of believers today, while important, should be a secondary concern in our interpretation.

Revelation 13:8

“And they shall kiss toward [i.e. worship] him, all the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] upon the earth, (every one) for whom his name is not written in the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of Life—(that) of [i.e. belonging to] the Lamb, the (one) having been slain—from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world.”

The worship/veneration of the Sea-creature (and the Dragon) was mentioned in verse 4, and likely reflects the Imperial cult that had been established, and was widespread throughout the Empire, by the end of the first century. On this, cf. the discussion in the previous note, as well as the earlier notes on the letters to the churches (chaps. 2-3). It is clear, however, that the author/seer now envisions a much more serious (and widespread) situation, whereby everyone on earth venerates the Sea-creature and his rule. Only (true) believers in Christ do not succumb to the influence and power of the creature (cf. the concluding discussion below). This is framed in terms of predestination (to use the classic theological term)—those who are true believers, and thus will not worship the Sea-creature, have had their names already written down in the “scroll of Life”. This idiom draws upon two basic lines of tradition: (1) the Old Testament image in Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:28, etc, and (2) the idea of citizens, i.e. in the Greco-Roman world, being registered as belonging to a particular city. The “city” for believers in the book of Revelation, of course, is the heavenly New Jerusalem (cp. Phil 3:20ff; Heb 12:22-24). The eschatological (and Judgment) context of the “scroll of Life” image can be seen, e.g., in Daniel 12:1, and again in the book of Revelation (20:11-15; 21:27).

The syntax of v. 8b is a bit confusing, and can be read two different ways, based on how one relates the final phrase “from the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world”. Does it modify the expression “the Lamb the (one) having been slain” immediately preceding, or the earlier phrase “…written down in the scroll of Life”? The first option implies that Jesus was slain (or destined to be slain) from the beginning of creation; this idea is expressed in 1 Peter 1:19-20, but is otherwise not to be found in the New Testament. The second option is to be preferred, based on the clear parallel in Rev 17:8. This means that believers have been destined for (eternal) Life since the beginning of creation. We must, however, be cautious about reading modern concepts (and questions) regarding “predestination” into passages such as this. While a basic belief in predestination is found throughout the New Testament, it goes hand in hand with another basic belief—that human beings are able to choose to accept or reject the truth (of God and Christ). Difficulties arise when attempts are made to place these two beliefs within a more detailed, systematic philosophical and theological framework; such difficulties, to be sure, remain today, and go far beyond the scope of these notes.

Revelation 13:9-10

“If any(one) holds an ear (to hear), he must hear (this). If one (is set) into being taken by spear-point, (then) he goes away into being taken by spear-point; if one (is set for) his being killed off in a sword (strike), (then so he is) to be killed off in a sword (strike). Here is (to be found) the remaining under [i.e. endurance] and the trust of the holy (one)s.”

The exhortation in verse 9 follows the pattern used at the conclusion of the letters to the congregations (2:7, etc). For the prediction in v. 10a, I have attempted to rendered it as literally as possible. The terseness of the syntax, with its repetition of phrases, makes for very awkward English. However, the basic line of expression may be paraphrased more smoothly as: “If one is destined to be taken by spear-point, he will go off captive at spear-point; if one is destined to be killed by the sword, he is killed by the sword”. This goes back to the idea of predestination in verse 8 (cf. above). Just as believers are (pre)destined for eternal Life, so they are also destined to face persecution. For many, but certainly not all, this will include both (a) imprisonment (“taken by spear-point”) and (b) being put to death (“in a sword [strike]”). The specific idiom utilizes military language, which is appropriate to the basic idea of the creature “making war” on believers.

As the concluding words make clear, it is this experience of persecution—to the point of imprisonment and death—that marks the character of true believers. This is expressed by two common terms, both of which take on greater significance in this period of testing and distress:

(1) u(pomonh/, literally “remaining under”, i.e. enduring, staying strong, keeping faith, etc. It characterizes believers in 1:9, and again throughout the letters to the churches (2:2-3, 19; 3:10). The same basic declaration here is repeated at 14:12.

(2) pi/sti$, “trust”. This of course means trust (i.e. faith) in Jesus Christ. As such, it is one of the most common Christian terms in the New Testament; however, somewhat surprisingly, it is rather rare in the book of Revelation, occurring only three other times: twice in the letters to the churches (2:13, 19) and in the parallel declaration at 14:12.

Concluding note

In conclusion of our discussion of this vision, it is worth asking whether, or to what extent, the author/seer thought that it was possible for believers to be influenced by the Sea-creature. Clearly, no true believer could actually worship the creature; but, if there was no real danger of being tempted or adversely influenced, it is hard to explain the repeated warnings and exhortations throughout the book. If we accept a basic, underlying identification with the Roman Empire and its Imperial cult, etc, then the Sea-creature represents an extension (and intensification) of something believers living in Asia Minor (and elsewhere) had to deal with on a daily basis. So pervasive was the pagan Roman (Imperial) culture, that it would have been hard for Christians to avoid, and, in doing so, there would have been consequences. Unwillingness to participate in the cultural and civic events would have put believers at odds with the society around them, even if they never ended up being imprisoned or put to death by the authorities. There are many different levels of persecution that believers may face.

Ultimately, this ties back to the idea of predestination expressed in verses 8-10 (see above). The persecution experienced by believers, as part of the time of distress, is for them a period of testing, and, indeed, this persecution will reveal just who the true believers are. Jesus says as much in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, that “the (one) remaining under [vb u(pome/nw, i.e. enduring] unto the completion, that (person) will be saved” (Mk 13:13 par). The deception from political and (pseudo-)religious leaders in the time of distress will be so great that even the Elect (i.e. true believers) might almost be led astray by it (v. 22 par). This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes on the second vision of chapter 13 (vv. 11-18).

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October 14: Revelation 12:18-13:4

Revelation 12:18-13:10

The vision in chapter 12 had a three-part structure (cf. the previous notes); in chapter 13, it is a dual-vision, of a “beast” (qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea, and the Earth, respectively. These visions in chaps. 12-13 are clearly connected, but the precise relationship depends upon how one reads the short narrative statement in 12:18. There is a small but important textual variant in this verse:

“And he stood [e)sta/qh] upon the sand of the Sea.”
“And I stood [e)sta/qhn] upon the sand of the Sea.”

The first is the reading of Ë47 and the key uncials a A C, along with significant portion of the ancient versions (Latin/Vulgate, Armenian, Ethiopic, and the Harclean Syriac). The second has the support of uncials P 046 051, is the majority reading (i.e. of most minuscules), and the Coptic and Philoxenian Syriac versions (cf. Metzger/UBS, Textual Commentary [2d edition], p. 673). Based on this second (majority) reading, the seer simply is transferred to a different visionary location to observe the next vision. The first reading, however, provides a clearer transition from the prior vision, with the verb e)sta/qh (“he stood”) certainly referring to the Dragon (dra/kwn, “Fabulous Creature”) of chap. 12. This reading is to be preferred, based on the wide geographic distribution (in the versions), and its attestation in some of the earliest/best manuscripts. What does this mean for an interpretation of the vision?

In verse 17, following the failed attack of the Dragon/Snake on the Woman in the desert (cf. the previous note on the vv. 13-17 episode), it is said that the Dragon “went (away) from there to make war with the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed”, that is, on her other children (after Jesus), i.e. believers. Reading verse 18 as a continuation of v. 17, we have an image of where the Dragon went: namely, to the seashore (lit. “the sand of the sea”). We may also infer from this that he goes to the edge of the sea as part of his intended purpose—to make war on believers. In the second episode of the chap. 12 vision (vv. 7-12, cf. the prior note), the Dragon also makes war, but in heaven. There he has heavenly allies, Angelic beings (a&ggeloi, “Messengers”) fighting on his side. Similarly, on earth, even though these rebel Angels were thrown down with him, the Dragon also has earthly allies fighting on his side.

In this regard, it is worth noting the traditional use of Dragon/Serpent or ‘sea-monster’ imagery to describe wicked or hostile earthly rulers (Ezek 29:3-6; 32:2ff; Jer 51:34, etc). Particularly significant in relation to the visions of Revelation is the allusion in the Psalms of Solomon 2:29 (mid-1st century B.C.), often thought to be part of a description of the Roman general Pompey. Nero also was compared to a serpent (Sibylline Oracles 5:28-29; Plutarch Moralia 367F). The application of this sort of imagery to the Roman Empire likely informs the symbolism of the visions here. Cf. Koester, p. 559, and the works he cites.

The Dragon positions himself at the boundary between the land and the sea; we may interpret here the “sand” (a&mmo$) as a strip of territory between the Earth and Sea, allowing him to observe (and oversee) events in both locales. The first vision in chapter 13 is focused on the Sea.

Revelation 13:1

“And I saw a wild animal [qhri/on] stepping up out of the Sea, holding ten horns and seven heads, and upon his horns (were) ten strips bound round [diadh/mata], and upon his heads (were) name[s] of insult [blasfhmi/a] (to God).” (v. 1)

The vision involves a creature that comes out of the Sea. The word qhri/on, typically translated “beast”, more properly refers to a wild animal. It is a general term, but, as many wild animals are untamed and can be dangerous, the negative aspect is certainly in view here. Let us consider each of the components of this image.

First, it comes up out of the Sea (qa/lassa). In ancient thought, the sea often symbolized chaos and disorder, including the threat to life and existence. The water of the sea/ocean frequently stood as a vast boundary at the edge of the inhabited world. It could threaten human dwelling with tidal waves and flooding, and was often dangerous for those traveling it (by boat). It was dark, with unknown depths, home to many mysterious creatures, including any number of dangerous animals and large “monsters”, all of which were only ever partially visible. Even more significant is the image of water in the ancient Near Eastern cosmology. In the beginning, there was only a dark mass of water (Gen 1:2), out of which the universe proper took shape—as a sphere (or hemisphere) surrounded by water. Cosmological myths frequently involved the deity establishing the ordered world by subduing or defeating the Sea (i.e. the primordial waters). The Sea could be personified as a human deity or by fabulous mythic creatures, often Serpent-like in appearance. I will be discussing this further in an upcoming article in the “Ancient Parallels” series.

Also relevant to the imagery here in the vision is the fact that the Roman Empire owed much of its power to its control of the sea, both from a military and commercial standpoint. The book of Revelation draws upon both of these aspects. The Mediterranean, in particular, was the Roman sea (“our sea”, mare nostrum, cf. Caesar Gallic War 5.1.2; Koester, p. 580).

However, ultimately this scene of the animal coming up out of the sea is patterned after the vision in Daniel 7:2-8. There are two features of this sea-creature’s appearance described here in verse 1:

    • “ten horns” (ke/rata de/ka)—the horn of an animal was seen as a symbol of power, being frequently used of royalty, etc, in the Old Testament (and elsewhere, cf. the Messianic significance in Lk 1:69), but here the image comes specifically from the vision of the fourth beast in Daniel 7:7ff.
    • “seven heads” (kefalai/ e(pta/)—multi-headed (including seven-headed) creatures are familiar from Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, such as the Typhon/Typhoeus monster (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc).

These attributes match those of the Dragon (12:3), and clearly demonstrate the sea-creature’s close relationship to the evil Serpent-figure. Subsequently, in chapter 17, these heads and horns are interpreted as seven kings (also seven hills/mountains), and ten vassal rulers, respectively. Most commentators readily accept the imagery, with the explanation in 17:9-14, as a reference to the Roman Empire, even as the fourth beast of Daniel 7 was identified with Rome already in the 1st century A.D. (cf. 2/4 Esdras 12:11). This association is generally admitted, even by those who would insist on a future (modern-day) interpretation of the visions, leading to the theory of a new or “revived” Roman Empire in our own time, occasionally identified with the current European Union, etc; however, on the whole, these represent a highly questionable attempt to reinvent the ancient setting of the book. There are sounder ways of applying the imagery of the visions to the situation of believers in modern times, as will be discussed further on in this series of notes.

There are two other features associated with the horns and heads of this creature:

    • Upon the horns: “ten strips bound around (them)” (de/ka diadh/mata)—the translation “crowns” is somewhat misleading (and inaccurate), the diadh/ma more properly referring to a strip of cloth (such as silk) wrapped completely around the head. It was a sign of kingship, but was typically not worn by the Roman emperors. This detail also matches the description of the Dragon in 12:3.
    • Upon the heads: “name[s] of insult (to God)” (o)no/ma[ta] blasfhmi/a$)—there is textual uncertainty as to whether this is a single name or multiple names; in light of the parallel in 17:3 the plural is more likely. The word blasfhmi/a generally means “insult(s)”, but in the LXX and New Testament is typically used in the religious sense of an insult to God. The parallel here with the ‘diadems’ implies that these “names” are honorific (divine) titles which properly belong to God. Cf. further on verse 4.
Revelation 13:2

“And the wild animal which I saw was like a leopard [pa/rdali$], and his feet (were) as a bear’s, and his mouth (was) as a lion’s. And the Fabulous Creature gave to it his (own) power, and also his ruling-seat and (his) great e)cousi/a.”

The hybrid animal imagery, typical of such mythic creatures, is basically a combination of the attributes of the four beasts in Daniel 7. They all represent some of the fiercest and most powerful characteristics of earthly animals. Almost certainly there is also an intentional contrast with the animal-imagery in the throne visions of chapters 4 and 5. Especially important is the detail that the Fabulous Creature (‘Dragon’), whom the sea-creature so clearly resembles, gives to it his own evil power. That is to say, it has Satanic power, according to the mythic personification of the Dragon as the Evil One and embodiment of the forces of evil. This granting of power (du/nami$) gives to the wild animal a personal life and and ability beyond even that normally possessed by such a mythic creature. This power includes both (1) the Dragon’s own qro/no$ (“ruling seat”), and (2) e)cousi/a, a word difficult to translate, but generally signifying a person’s authority and ability to act. This description is of the greatest significance, for it means that, in addition to the creature as a symbol of earthly rule (i.e. kings and emperors), it also possesses the evil power that controls and dominates the current Age.

Revelation 13:3

“And one out of his heads (was) as having been slain unto death, and (yet) his strike of death was attended to [i.e. healed]. And the whole earth wondered, (following) behind th(is) wild animal…”

From the identification of the heads as kings (i.e. emperors, cf. 17:9ff), the statement in verse 3 implies that a king/emperor has died (or seemed to die, was close to death) after being struck by a sword, but then was restored to life. This may be interpreted several ways:

    • It is an historical allusion, most likely to Nero, who suffered a violent death (Suetonius Nero 49:3-4), and after which rumors persisted that had not died or had returned from the dead. Already in the first century, a number of people had claimed to be Nero (Tacitus Histories 2.8-9; Dio Cassius 66.19.3; Suetonius Nero 57; Koester, p. 571).
    • It symbolizes the rule of the Roman Empire, in which, with the (sometimes violent) death of each emperor, a new one rises to take his place, each considered to be a new Caesar and Augustus.
    • The detail here simply exemplifies the (apparent) miracle-working power possessed by the creature, by which he is able to enthrall the world and lead it astray (cp. 2 Thess 2:9-10).

The statement may well be an allusion to an early form of the Nero-legend, but, if so, it is used here for a very distinct purpose—namely, to establish a general parallel with the death and resurrection of Jesus. The verb sfa/gw (“slay”), often used in the context of ritual (i.e. sacrificial) slaughter, occurs almost exclusively in the book of Revelation (8 of 10 occurrences in the NT). In the throne-vision of chapter 5 (vv. 6, 9, 12) it is used of the Lamb (Jesus), even as it is here in chapter 13 (v. 8). Indeed, 5:6 has the identical expression “as having been slain” (w($ e)sfagme/non). Thus the apparent death and recovery of the head/king serves as an evil parody of Jesus’ death and resurrection, even as the coming (parousia) of the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2 is an evil parody of the parousia of Jesus.

When it says that “the whole earth wondered”, it is presumably due to the (miraculous) recovery of the head/king, but also in that it reflects the amazing power of the creature taken as a whole. All throughout history the occurrence of miracles (whether real or false) has caught the attention of people, causing them to follow after the gifted leaders and wonder-workers who take advantage of such miracles. However, even without any supernatural aid, the public is apt to follow after powerful political and religious leaders. To follow “behind” or “in back of” (o)pi/sw) often signifies becoming a loyal and devoted disciple or ally. Here it is said that “the whole earth” became a loyal follower, a summary description that certainly would reflect the near-universal extent of Roman rule, i.e. of the whole inhabited earth (as known to people at the time).

Revelation 13:4

“…and they kissed toward [i.e. worshiped] the Fabulous Creature, (in) that he gave the e)cousi/a to the wild animal, and they (also) kissed toward the wild animal, saying, ‘Who is like th(is) wild animal, and who is able to make war with him?'”

In addition to following after the sea-creature, the world also worships the Fabulous Creature (Dragon), the verb proskune/w (lit. “kiss toward”) being the regular NT Greek idiom for the act of worship/veneration. It might be better to say that, in becoming loyal followers of the sea-creature, the people on earth actually are worshiping the Dragon, whether they are aware of it or not. Most commentators recognize here a thinly veiled reference to the Imperial cult, well established in Asia Minor by the end of the 1st century A.D., with temples and ritual honoring the emperor, alongside other deities. Beginning with Augustus, and thereafter, the emperor was considered to be divine, referred to as both “god” and “son of god”, along with other divine (and semi-divine) titles—”lord, master, savior”, etc. A primary purpose of the Imperial religion was to establish and affirm loyalty to the Empire (and its administration), especially in the provinces. In Asia Minor, at some of the very cities addressed in the book of Revelation, the Imperial cult had a prominent position. Already in 29 B.C., a major provincial temple to Augustus and the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) was built at Pergamum, with similar kinds of temples at Ephesus and Smyrna, etc, in the years and decades following (cf. Koester, p. 582). That this Imperial worship was considered to be evil and “Satanic” by the visionary/author of Revelation is clear enough, both here and throughout the book. Indeed, Pergamum, a major site of the cult, is described as the place “where the ruling-seat of the Satan (is)” and “where the Satan puts down house [i.e. dwells]” (2:13).

Interestingly, there is no act of overt religious worship described in v. 4; rather, what is expressed is more a general attitude by the people, revealing an underlying adoration that exalts the creature in a manner that should be reserved for God. The question “Who is like th(is) wild animal?” resembles traditional expressions praising God, such as in Exodus 15:11; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 35:10; 71:19; 113:5, etc. Here there may also be an allusion to Ezek 27:32, foreshadowing the parodic lament in chapter 18. The idea that no one was like the emperor is a common part of the tradition panegyric honoring him; note, for example, the declaration regarding Nero calling him “Our Apollo, our Augustus… no one is victorious (over) you!” (Dio Cassius Roman History 62.20.5). This leads to a main reason for the creature being unsurpassed by all others—that he is invincible in battle: “Who is able to make war with you?”. The military success of the Roman Empire in the 1st century scarcely requires comment. Apart from some difficulties (and defeats) at the furthest borders, Roman control over the provinces was largely unchallenged. The rebellion in Judea (66-70 A.D.) was brutally crushed, along with a number of similar uprisings. Such success and ability to conquer, in the popular mind, would seem to be a sure sign of divine power and blessing at work.

The remainder of this vision (vv. 5-10) will be studied in the next daily note.

References marked as “Koester” above, and throughout this series, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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January 25: Word study on “Gospel”

This note will focus on the second area involving the eu)aggel- word group which is important for an understanding of the early Christian usage. In the prior note, I looked at the use of the word group in the Old Testament (LXX); today, I will be discussing it as it relates to the Roman emperor (and the Imperial cult) in the 1st century A.D.

I mentioned previously how the nouns eu)aggeli/a and eu)agge/lion, along with the verb eu)aggeli/zw, tend to be used without any special religious significance per se. This is true in the LXX, certainly with regard to the two nouns, and follows the usage generally in Classical and Koine Greek. Most commonly the “good message”, brought by a messenger (a&ggelo$, i.e. “messenger of good [new]s”, eu)a/ggelo$), related to important public events such as the outcome of battle, birth of a child, death of significant persons, and so forth. Especially noteworthy is the “good news” which results from a military victory, often implying deliverance or “salvation” of the people from an enemy. Occasionally, the eu)a/ggelo$ may function as a prophet, or as one delivering the message of an oracle, in which case the “good message” has definite religious significance. Of course, in the ancient world, victory in battle, childbirth, and the like, were viewed as having been brought about by divine power(s)—i.e. by God or the gods. In a few instances, the idea of victory and deliverance is transferred to that of release from divine/demonic forces (TDNT 2:710-2).

While the feminine noun eu)aggeli/a refers to the “good message” proper, the neuter noun eu)agge/lion appears originally to have signified the response to good news—the reward given to the messenger, or celebration of the news itself (which might entail religious sacrifice or offerings of thanks). As mentioned above, it is typically used in the context of military victory, i.e. news of victory, and normally in the plural ([ta] eu)agge/lia). Offerings can also be made in response to religious oracles, but, again, usually in relation to military victory or similar important actions taken by rulers.

It is in regard to this last point that the eu)aggel- word group came to be used prominently in relation to the Roman emperor. The king, ruler, or other gifted leader, was seen as having a special connection to deity. In the ancient Near East, and, to a great extent, in the ancient world generally, the ruler represented symbolically (if not metaphysically) the divine presence and power on earth. This was all the more true in the Greco-Roman world in the case of the Emperor, who wielded such immense power over territory that spanned virtually the entire known world. Augustus (Gaius Octavius, Octavianus), as legal heir of the deified Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.). Royal (imperial) theology maintained that each successive emperor (Caesar) was likewise divine, being “son of god”.

I discussed the importance of this imperial theology in an earlier article on Augustus in relation to the birth of Jesus. It is worth summarizing that study and expanding on it here. First, let us consider again two important texts related to the birth of Augustus as “savior” (swth/r)—”savior of the whole world” (swth=ra tou= su/npanto$ ko/smou), Myra inscription (V. Ehrenberg and A. H. M. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford:1949], no. 72):

  1. A letter from proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus (c. 9-5 B.C.) to the territories of Asia under his charge, regarding the new calendar (the Julian), established by the Roman government, which set the birthday of Augustus (Sept 23) as the start of the new year. It included a decree which reads, in part:
    “…Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with arete for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of good news for the world because of him …..”
  2. The famous Calendar Inscription (best known from Priene), in which it is likewise stated of Augustus that his brith was “the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [h@rcen de\ tw=i ko/smwi tw=n di’ au)to\n eu)aggeli/wn h( gene/qlio$ tou= qeou=]”.

Both the birth, and, perhaps more importantly, the accession of each new emperor (as “son of god”) was similarly referred to as “good news”, often using the plural of eu)agge/lion ([ta] eu)agge/lia). Important in this regard is the idea of the acts of celebration/sacrifice which accompanied the “good message” of the emperor’s accession. We see this, for example, in the case of the emperors Gaius (A.D. 37, Philo Embassy to Gaius §§231-2, 356, cf. also §§18, 22, 99) and Vespasian (A.D. 60, Josephus War 6.618, 656; Stanton, pp. 28-9). This language (utilizing eu)aggelia/eu)agge/lion) was still being used in the third century (cf. G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol. III, p. 12; Stanton, p. 32).

At least as significant was the idea of the emperor as public benefactor. Especially important to the image of Augustus as “savior” was the time of peace and prosperity which he is thought to have brought about during his reign (cf. his own Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45] and the famous altar ara pacis augustae proclaiming the ‘peace of Augustus’ [Pax Augusta]). This extended to all of the benefits which the imperial government provided to people throughout the world. It is important to keep in mind several aspects of the word swthri/a (usually translated “salvation”), in this regard, which are significant both for the imperial cult and for early Christian understanding of the term:

    1. Being saved or rescued from an enemy (or other disaster)
    2. Providing protection from future/potential harm
    3. Attending to the general health, safety and welfare of the population

This comprehensive notion of the emperor as benefactor is expressed by Philo (of Gaius) in Embassy §18ff, where the emperor’s recovery from illness is described as “good news”, his health essentially being identified as the swthri/a of each person in the empire. The emperor was considered to be “savior and worker of good [i.e. benefactor]” (o( swth\r kai\ eu)erge/th$) who was expected to shower down benefits “upon all Asia and Europe” (§22).

Given this documented use of the eu)aggel- word group in the context of the Imperial cult, which came to be increasingly prevalent and widespread during the 1st century A.D., it would have been virtually impossible for early Christians not to be aware of it. We can be fairly certain that their own usage of the terminology was, in part, a response to the Imperial cult. However, it is only in the Gospel of Luke that there is a clear and unmistakable contrast made between Jesus and the Emperor. The references to Augustus (and Tiberius) in Lk 2:1ff; 3:1 are more than simple historical notices. The Augustan setting for the announcement of Jesus’ birth (2:10-14) is especially striking, as I have discussed. The apparent reluctance by Luke to use the term eu)agge/lion (it occurs only in Acts 15:7; 20:24) has never been entirely explained, but it could conceivably be an implicit reaction against the imperial/cultic usage. Other possible instances of early Christian response will be discussed in the coming notes.

References above marked “Stanton” are to Graham N. Stanton, Jesus and Gospel, Cambridge: 2004.

The Births of Augustus and Jesus

The announcement of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke is related in some way to that of the Roman emperor (Augustus). This is not just a matter of a chronological setting for the narrative; the mention of Augustus (2:1, cf. parallel reference to rulers in 1:5; 3:1f) almost certainly is of theological (christological) importance. Consider the following points of comparison between Augustus and Jesus:

1. Son of God. Gaius Octavius was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar (so, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus); upon the deification of Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), Octavianus effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.).

2. Bringer of Peace. Augustus pacified much of the Empire, as detailed in his own account (cf. Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45]) and that of other Roman historians. The shrine of Janus in the capital, open in time of war, was finally closed during Augustus’ reign, and the ‘peace of Augustus’ (Pax Augusta) was proclaimed (the famous altar ara pacis augustae).

3. Savior. Augustus was called “savior” (swth/r)—e.g. “savior of the whole world” (swth=ra tou= su/npanto$ ko/smou) in an inscription from Myra (V. Ehrenberg and A. H. M. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford:1949], no. 72).

Most notably, the Roman government established a new calendar (the Julian) which set the birthday of Augustus (Sept 23) as the start of the new year. A letter from proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus (c. 9-5 B.C.) to the territories of Asia under his charge, reads as follows (abridged):

It is subject to question whether the birthday of our most divine (emperor) Caesar spells more of joy or blessing, this being a date that we could probably without fear of contradiction equate with the beginning of alI things, if not in, terms of nature, certainly in terms of utility, seeing that he restored stability, when everything was collapsing and falling into disarray, and gave a new look to the entire world that would have been most happy to accept its own ruin had not the good and common fortune of all been born: CAESAR. Therefore people might justly assume that his birthday spells the beginning of life and real living and marks the end and boundary of any regret that they had themselves been born. And since no other day affords more promise of blessing for engagement in public or private enterprise than this one which is so fraught with good fortune for everyone…. it is my judgment that the one and the same day observed by all the citizens as New Year’s Day be celebrated as the birthday of Most Divine Caesar, and on that day, September 23, all elected officials shall assume office, with the prospect that through association with observances connected with the existing celebration, the birthday observance might attract all the more esteem and prove to be even more widely known and thereby confer no small benefit on the province. Therefore it would behoove the Asian League to pass a resolution that puts into writing all his aretai, so that our recognition of what redounds to the honor of Augustus might abide for all time. And I shall order the decree to be inscribed in (Greek and Latin) on a stele and set up in the temple.

Along with the letter is the decree, which reads (in part):

Decree of the Greek Assembly in the province of Asia, on motion of the High Priest Apollonios, son of Menophilos, of Aizanoi whereas Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with arete for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; ….. (proconsul Paul Fabius Maximus) has discovered a way to honour Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his nativity; therefore, with the blessings of Good Fortune and for their own welfare, the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and, to ensure that the dates coincide in every city, all documents are to carry both the Roman and the Greek date, and the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.

I have emphasized several phrases above in bold. Even more well-known is the so-called Priene Calendar Inscription, related to this decree, of which note especially lines 31-42 (again key phrases emphasized below, along with the corresponding Greek):

It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [swth/r], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [e)pifanei=n] (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [h@rcen de\ tw=i ko/smwi tw=n di’ au)to\n eu)aggeli/wn h( gene/qlio$ tou= qeou=],” which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

For the above letter of Paulus Fabius Maximus and the Asian decree, see Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field (1982), p. 217;
the translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription is courtesy of Craig A. Evans, Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel

The birth(day) and appearance of the ‘savior’ is called “good news/tidings”, the same word typically translated as “gospel”. The closest Gospel parallel is found in the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:10-14 (note the italicized portions):

10And the Messenger said to them, “Do not fear! For see—I bring a good message [eu)aggeli/zomai] to you of great joy which will be for all people: 11that today is brought forth for you a savior [swth/r]—which is Anointed, Lord—in the city of David! 12And this (is) the sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in cloth-bands [i.e. swaddled] and lying (down) in a feeding-(trough).” 13And suddenly there came to be with the Messenger a full crowd of (the) heavenly army praising God and saying,

14do/ca in the highest (places) to God,
and upon earth peace in [i.e. among] men of (his) eu)doki/a.”

(For more on the translation of this passage, and other critical notes related to the Infancy Narratives, see the recent Christmas article)

It cannot be mere coincidence that the Gospel here has such points of contact with the emperor Augustus (2:1). However, in order to understand the significance of this properly, the points of difference must be clearly brought out:

  • The announcement comes from a heavenly Messenger, and according to the pattern of angelic appearances elsewhere in Scripture.
  • The Savior is also called: (a) Anointed (Xristo/$), that is, an anointed ruler sent by God to his people; and (b) Lord (Ku/rio$), that is, the very title given to YHWH himself.
  • Though well-wrapped, the new-born Savior is lying in an animals’ feeding-trough—generally understood as a sign of humility and condescension, perhaps even as a symbol of Incarnation (see also Isa 1:3).
  • The message is especially addressed to the lowly in society.
  • Heaven and earth are united at the moment of revelation, in a powerful, mysterious way (verse 14)

do/ca e)n u(yi/stoi$ qew=|
kai\ e)pi\ gh=$ ei)rh/nh e)n a)nqrw/poi$ eu)doki/a$