November 18: Revelation 17:9-11

Revelation 7:7-18, continued

An initial interpretation of the chapter 17 vision (the Woman on the Sea-creature) was given in verses 7-8 (discussed in the previous note); it is explained in more detail here in verses 9ff. Given the challenges and difficulties in understanding the rich symbolism of the book’s visions, special care should be given to those few passages, in the book itself, where an interpretation is provided. It is somewhat surprising that more attention is not given to these verses for an explanation of the Creature (or “Beast”) from the Sea as a symbol. A careful examination would all but eliminate some of the more outlandish lines of interpretation that have been offered in recent times. We might echo the opening words of the heavenly Messenger in verse 9: “Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed)”.

Verse 9

“Here a mind holding wisdom (is needed). The seven heads are seven mountains, at which (place) there the woman sits upon them. And they are (also) seven kings…”

They Messenger states the matter clearly: the seven heads of the Sea-creature represent seven mountains and also seven kings. Let us consider each of these.

Mountains—Before rushing into fanciful explanations in attempts to identify these “mountains” (or “hills”, o&rh), one ought to first examine carefully what the imagery would have meant to the author and original readers of the book. Anyone living in the Roman Empire during the latter part of the first-century A.D. likely would have been familiar with the representation of Rome as a woman seated on seven hills. It is clearly depicted so on many coins of the period (cf. the example here below).

Thus most readers of the book would have recognized the symbolism as referring to the Roman Empire. The “seven hills” of Rome itself was a traditional designation, already well-established by the end of the first century (e.g., Propertius, Elegies 3.111.57; Ovid, Tristia 1.5.69-60; Statius Silvae 4.1.6; cf. Koester, p. 677, 690). Though the specific identification of exactly seven hills has varied somewhat (cf. the diagram below), the tradition of seven dominates, being much more significant than the geographical data.

However, while the identification with Rome is clear enough, this does not represent the full extent of the symbolism. In both ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman tradition, mountains were symbolic of earthly kingdoms and their kings. In the prior note on the seventh bowl-vision (16:17-21), I discussed how this symbolism applied to the Judgment of the nations, along with the image of “Babylon” as the “Great City”. Both the waters of the Sea and the mountains of the Earth represent the worldly power of the nations in its wicked and evil aspect. We might note, in this regard, some interesting examples from Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, such as in Dio Chrysostom (Oration 1.78-84) where tyranny is personified as a woman sitting on a mountain. According to the imagery of 1 Enoch 18:6-8 (also 24:1ff) there are seven mountains in heaven where God’s throne is located; an important (eschatological) theme in 1 Enoch involves the failure of the wicked nations (and their rulers) to acknowledge properly the authority of God, seeking instead to take over His rule on earth themselves. Cf. Koester, p. 677.

Kings—This corresponds entirely with the mountain-symbolism, as noted above. More importantly, this line of interpretation follows that of the vision in Daniel 7, though there it is the horns of the creature, rather than its head(s), which represent particular rulers of the kingdom (as also here in vv. 12ff). With regard to the specific relationship between mountain and king, there are two possible ways that the imagery may be understood:

    • Each mountain represents a kingdom (i.e. nation or city-state), along with its ruler (king)—the seven collectively represent the nations as a whole, and/or a sequence of nations (as in the visions of Daniel 2 and 7)
    • As the seven mountains represent the seven hills of Rome, so the kings are Roman emperors

The second option better fits the immediate context of the interpretation in chap. 17.

Verse 10

“…the five are fallen, the one is, the other (has) not yet come—and, when he should come, it is necessary for him to remain (only) a little (while).”

The wording here plays on that of verse 8, referring to the Sea-creature as one who “was, and is not, and is about to (come…)”. As I discussed in the previous note, that phrase is an evil parody of the description of God Himself (as well as Jesus Christ) in 1:4,8; 4:8 (also 11:17; 16:5). Now the same phrase is given a new interpretation in terms of earthly kingdoms and kings. This is in keeping with the symbolism of the book, whereby many symbols have both heavenly and earthly aspects. Here the ‘heavenly’ aspect of the Sea-creature, representing the forces of evil, lies in its opposition to God, imitating the Divine power and presence so as to lead the entire world astray. On the earthly level, this reflects the influence and control of nations (and their kings) by the same forces of evil. For the readers of the book of Revelation, the current pinnacle of earthly power, ruling a vast empire, is Rome, the city on seven hills. As such, most critical commentators would identify the first six “kings” in verse 10 with first-century Roman emperors. The wording of the text itself indicates that five kings have died (“fallen”), and one is currently alive and ruling (“is”). On this basis, various attempts have been made to identify the six kings with specific emperors; of these, two are the most viable, depending upon when the book was written (cf. Koester, p. 73):

    1. Augustus
    2. Tiberius
    3. Gaius (Caligula)
    4. Claudius
    5. Nero (54-68 A.D.)
    6. Galba (68-69 A.D.)
    1. Gaius (Caligula)
    2. Claudius
    3. Nero
    4. Vespasian (69-79 A.D.)
    5. Titus (79-81 A.D.)
    6. Domitian (81-96 A.D.)

The first option, which assumes a date for the book of c. 69 A.D., has several advantages:

    • It includes all of the 1st-century emperors to that point, beginning with Augustus
    • Nero is the last of the five who died, which would give special emphasis to the idea that he might return
    • The brief reigns of four emperors in 68-69 could reflect the expectation that the coming emperor would reign only a “little while”

Most critical commentators would not date the book quite so early, preferring a time closer to 90-95 A.D., during the reign of Domitian. This would be the second option above, which may be preferred for the following reasons:

    • The period begins with the reign of Gaius (Caligula), the most notoriously wicked of the emperors (along with Nero); it thus marks the period of Imperial rule as especially wicked and opposed to God.
    • It allows more time for the return-of-Nero legends to develop and influence the Sea-creature imagery in chaps. 13ff
    • It retains a climactic position for the destruction of Jerusalem (and the Temple), an important eschatological keystone (and time indicator) for early Christians
    • The limited persecution indicated in the book would seem best to fit the reign of Domitian, and a late first-century time-frame
Verse 11

“And the wild animal, that was and is not, even he (himself) is the eighth (king), and is out of the seven, and leads under [i.e. goes away] into ruin.”

This is perhaps the most important part of the interpretation, and it shows rather clearly, I think, how this unusual symbolism fits together. It reflects a line of tradition expressed some time earlier (by Paul) in 2 Thessalonians. I have discussed the famous eschatological passage in 2 Thess 2:1-12 as part of an article in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. I would isolate the basic tradition as follows, guided by the expressions in 2 Thess 2:6-7ff:

    • “the (thing) holding down (power)”:
      The Roman Imperial government, embodying the “secret of lawlessness” currently at work in the world
      = the Woman on the Sea-creature as the “secret” of the forces at evil in the world, along with the first five heads (kings) of the creature
    • “the (one) holding down (power)”:
      The current/reigning Roman emperor, who soon will be removed (i.e. taken “out of the middle”)
      = the sixth king who currently is, and/or the seventh who is coming
    • “the lawless (one)”:
      A Satanic, demonic-inspired ruler (emperor) who will control all people
      = the eighth king

Based on the wickedness of the Roman Imperial government, manifest especially in several of the emperors (Gaius, Nero), it was easy enough for early Christians to envision an even more wicked ruler, following after the pattern of Gaius and/or Nero, coming to power over the Empire. The Old Testament Scriptures had already provided the eschatological template for this figure, from the visions in Daniel 7 and 9 (and again in chaps. 11-12), referring primarily to the historical figure of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. At the same time, other nation-oracles played on the same general idea of a wicked foreign ruler who speaks and acts against God, and who might dare to assume the role and authority of God on earth. In certain strands of Jewish tradition in the first centuries B.C./A.D., it is the Evil One himself (i.e. Belial) who is embodied in the form of this wicked end-time ruler. Ultimately this is the basis for the “Antichrist” tradition among early Christians, a subject I will be discussing in detail in an upcoming article. I would maintain that both 2 Thessalonians and the book of Revelation attest a belief, among Jews and Christians of the period, that the final (Imperial) ruler of the end-time will be a truly demonic figure, if not Belial himself.

Because this idea is so critical to the interpretation of the vision in chapter 17, I feel it is necessary to discuss the matter a bit further, which I will do, in the next two notes, beginning with an exposition of vv. 12-14.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig L. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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2 Thess 2:3-4 and Early Christian Eschatology

As previously noted in the studies on the eschatology of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul appears to have shared, with other first-century believers, a traditional outlook on the end times. In his letters he does not go much beyond this, and only offers a presentation of this eschatology in any real detail in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. In my view, Paul held to an eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (cf. my earlier 4-part study on the Discourse). Even though the Eschatological Discourse likely represents an early Christian (traditional-literary) arrangement of Jesus’ teaching, this does not mean that the basic framework was not shared by Jesus himself. In fact, there is every reason to think that it was, in general, shared by many Jews and Christians of the time.

The simplest form of the Synoptic Discourse is the Markan version (chap. 13), which has the following framework:

    • A single period of “distress” which precedes the coming of the end, presented from three different points of view:
      (1) The world and humankind generally (vv. 5-8)
      (2) The disciples of Jesus (vv. 9-13)
      (3) The people of Judea specifically (vv. 14-22)
      [Probably the destruction of the Temple signifies the end/climax of this period]
    • The end of the current Age, marked by the appearance of the Son of Man and the gathering/deliverance of the Elect [i.e. the final Judgment] (vv. 24-27)

The Matthean and Lukan versions develop and expand this somewhat. It is worth noting that Paul, in 1 and 2 Thessalonians (assuming the latter is genuinely Pauline), was writing c. 50 A.D., only 20 or so years after Jesus’ own teaching, and well before any of the Synoptic Gospels were written. The points of correspondence between the eschatology of 1-2 Thessalonians and the underlying traditions of the Discourse are:

    • He seems to believe (and affirm) that the suffering and persecution believers are experiencing at the time is part of the end-time period of distress (1 Thess 1:6ff; 2:14ff; 2 Thess 1:4-12). This corresponds with Jesus’ teaching in Mk 13:9-13 par. Paul uses the key term qli/yi$ (“distress”) in 2 Thess 1:4, 6 (also 1 Thess 1:6; cf. Mk 13:19, 24 par; Rev 7:14 etc.
    • Paul’s controversial words in 1 Thess 2:14-16, regarding the judgment facing Jewish opponents of the Gospel, likely reflects the idea of specific suffering that is to come upon the people of Judea (and Jerusalem) as part of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:14-22 par). I discussed this in an earlier note.
    • The teaching in 1 Thess 4:13-17 (cf. the discussion in Part 2) is said to derive from Jesus’ own words (“word/account of the Lord”, v. 15), that is, transmitted through early Gospel tradition. It is essentially an expanded form of Mk 13:26-27 par, naturally identifying the coming of the “Son of Man” with the return of Jesus (cf. also 1 Thess 1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 2 Thess 1:7; 2:1).
    • The instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-3ff also echoes Jesus’ proverbial teaching in Mk 13:32-37 par, esp. Matt 24:42-44).
    • 2 Thess 2:1-12 contains much detail in common with Jesus’ description of the end-time period of distress (Mk 13:5ff, 14, 19-22 par).

It is the last point, in particular, that I wish to discuss here. Having already examined 2 Thess 2:1-12 in Part 3 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, it is necessary to look at verses 3-4 in a bit more detail, and in light of the framework of the Eschatological Discourse.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4

One of the events which, according to Paul, must occur before the final Judgment of God (against the wicked) arrives, is the appearance of a person called “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$, v. 3) or “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$, v. 8). While this descriptive title could be understood in a general sense, Paul’s exposition in vv. 3-10 strongly suggests that it refers to a political leader of some sort. At the time of writing (c. 50 A.D., assuming Pauline authorship), this likely would have meant a Roman emperor. We would have a clearer sense of what Paul had in mind, and the passage would be easier to interpret, were it not for two factors: (1) the difficult language/syntax in vv. 6-7, and (2) the role of the Temple in verse 4. I discuss the meaning of the Greek of vv. 6-7 in Part 3 and earlier notes (cf. also below). Here it is necessary to look specifically at the role of the Temple, since it marks a defining act by the “man of lawlessness”. Verse 4:

“…the (one) stretching himself out against, and lifting himself over, all (thing)s being counted as God or reverenced, even as to his sitting in the shrine [nao/$] of God, showing himself from (this) that he is God.”

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul here is drawing upon an early Christian use of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, of a wicked foreign ruler who would come and desecrate the Temple (9:26-27; 11:31-39; 12:11). The original context of these prophecies is as a reference to the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the events of 167-164 B.C., in which the sacrificial ritual in the Jerusalem Temple was halted/abolished, being replaced by a form of pagan worship. This act of desecration was specifically identified with the difficult Hebrew wording of 9:27 — “and upon the wing [[nk] of despicable (thing)s he lays waste”, or, perhaps: “and upon the wing of despicable (thing)s (the one) laying waste (comes)”. In Greek, this phrase was translated as “and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”. 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 his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple; however, the source and basis for this tradition is unclear.

Both Jews and Christians in the 1st century B.C./A.D. had cause to re-interpret the Daniel prophecy, applying it to their own time (a century or two later). Since no definitive judgment/defeat of the wicked occurred in the years immediately following 164 B.C., his meant that the prophecy still had to be fulfilled in some manner. The Dan 9:27 tradition, with a variation of the same Greek expression “stinking thing of desolation” (bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$), is used in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14):

“But when you should see the stinking thing of desolation having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not [i.e. where it ought not to be]…”

The aside which follows, coming either from the Gospel writer or an earlier traditional notice, suggests an interpretation, unstated in the text, that is presumed to be understood by Christians of the time (c. 60 A.D.?). Matthew’s version preserves the same cryptic notice but otherwise makes the Daniel reference (24:15) more clear (differences/additions in italics):

Therefore when you should see ‘the stinking thing of desolation’ that was uttered through Danîyel the Foreteller (now) having stood in the holy place…”

Jesus’ disciples, along with other Christians of the time, c. 35-60 A.D., are warned that the appearance of “the stinking thing of desolation” standing in the Temple sanctuary marks the beginning of a time of terrible distress for the people of Judea. While the original reference in the Synoptic Discourse (Mark/Matthew) may have been well-understood by the first readers, its precise interpretation is unclear for us today. However, the idea of something standing in the Temple suggests perhaps a statue or similar (pagan) construction. The tradition preserved in Jerome’s commentary on Daniel (cf. above) indicated that Antiochus IV had set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Temple. This was echoed c. 40 A.D. by the emperor Gaius’ (Caligula), as part of his establishment of the imperial cult, intending that his statue was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307). Jesus’ use of Dan 9:27 indicates that he is predicting something similar to happen at the end-time, and it could conceivably relate to the historical actions/intentions of the emperor (c. 40 A.D.).

However, in Luke’s version of the Discourse, the Dan 9:27 reference has been completely recast as a reference to the (Roman) invasion of Jerusalem, in which the presence of a pagan army would both desecrate and destroy the Temple:

“And when you shall see Jerusalem encircled by foot-soldiers, then you should know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near.” (Lk 21:20; cf. also 19:41-44)

This of course was accurately fulfilled in 70 A.D. The Lukan version of the Discourse expands the chronological scope somewhat, allowing for a period during which Jerusalem (and the Temple) would be “trampled under (the feet of) the nations”. The length of time involved is not clear, though from the author’s standpoint (probably writing c. 70-80) it would have to be at least a number of years (though scarcely the 1,900+ years looked at from our vantage point today).

Returning to 2 Thessalonians 2:4, Paul seems to accept a rather different interpretation of the Dan 9:27 / Mk 13:14 tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person; it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as 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. It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

There are actually a number of foreign (Greco-Roman) figures whose lives and actions fed into the idea of a wicked end-time ruler along the lines of this “man of lawlessness”. In addition to Antiochus IV and Gaius (Caligula), we may note the Roman general Pompey (106-48 B.C.). It was he who first subjugated Judea to Roman rule (64/63 B.C.), placing it as a tributary under the governorship of Syria. According to many scholars, the so-called “Psalms of Solomon” were written not long after Pompey’s conquest, and that he is the pattern for the wicked/foreign ruler of the end-time envisioned in several of the Psalms. There are some interesting parallels between 17:11-22 and 2 Thess 2:3-4, both conceptually and in the Greek wording used. The Pompey figure is also called “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$) and his rule is characterized as an especially wicked time of sin and turning of the people away from God. The book of Revelation, written some time after 2 Thessalonians, appears to contain similar allusions to Nero, and, perhaps, other emperors as well (Vespasian?, Domitian?).

In summary, we may note the following points:

    • Paul predicts the rise of a wicked ruler who would stand/sit in the Temple sanctuary, as a fulfillment of the Dan 9:26-27 prophecy (as understood through the Eschatological Discourse [Mk 13:14 par], etc).
    • This wicked ruler would appear toward the end of the period of distress (qli/yi$) in which Paul and his readers were already living (c. 50 A.D.). This may correspond with the conjunction of the time of persecution of believers (13:9-13) and suffering in Judea (13:14-22) outlined in the framework of the Discourse.
    • The reign of this wicked ruler, though relatively brief, would be one of intense wickedness and evil, with supernatural signs and miracles that would deceive people and lead them astray. This also echoes the description of the end-time distress for Judea in Mk 13:14-22, though Paul does not seem to limit the geographic extent so narrowly (in spite of the Temple reference).
    • The destruction of this wicked ruler is described in traditional Messianic language (allusion to Isa 11:4, etc), transferred to the Christian idea of Jesus’ return.
    • From a chronological standpoint, Paul is speaking of something he expects to happen soon, i.e. not long after 50 A.D., when the letter was written. This would generally fit the time frame (of approx. 20 years) before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. In this regard, Paul is fully in accord with the earliest Christian eschatology as expressed in the New Testament—i.e. of the “last days” as a period more or less corresponding to the first generation of believers (30-40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection).

The fundamental problem with this Pauline chronology is the same as that which we have seen already with the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse and the eschatology of the New Testament as a whole. While many of the expected/predicted events and details were accurately fulfilled in the 1st century A.D., the end—i.e. the return of Jesus and final Judgment—did not occur at that time. Paul’s apparent predictions in 2 Thess 2:3ff involve the Jerusalem Temple, as do those of Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse. The Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. which makes it impossible for the event described in 2:4 to be fulfilled—at least not in a concrete historical sense. This has led many traditional-conservative (and Evangelical) commentators to interpret and apply the passage in a more figurative or symbolic sense; this may be done several different ways:

    • as a conflict with the “antichristian” forces of evil, etc, without any specific eschatological significance for the believer today; while this may be a valid application, it effectively negates the clear eschatological context of the passage.
    • as a similar conflict, but an eschatological setting (of sorts) is preserved by viewing the “last days” broadly as the entire period (of nearly 2,000 years) from the time of the apostles to the present day.
    • the specific Temple setting, etc, is figurative but the passage does refer to an actual person who will appear at some point yet in the future (i.e. after 2020 A.D.); as predicted, this ruler will stand in direct opposition to God and Christ and will deceive the world (part of the wider Antichrist tradition).
    • [Some Christians would preserve a literal fulfillment by relying upon the idea that the actual Jerusalem Temple will be rebuilt in the future. While a rebuilding of the Temple does feature in Jewish eschatology to some extent, the idea is almost entirely absent from the New Testament; there is no suggestion, either in 2 Thess 2:3ff or in the Eschatological Discourse, that a rebuilt Temple is in view.]

Only the third approach does justice to the eschatology of the passage, but it founders in the general disregard (admittedly out of practical necessity) for the imminence of Paul’s eschatology clearly expressed throughout 1-2 Thessalonians. As discussed at many points in this series, the basic conflict between the imminent eschatology of the New Testament and the 1,900+ years (and counting) that have since passed, is a problem for which there is no easy solution. It will be addressed more extensively as the series draws to a close.

For more on the Temple in Jewish and early Christian eschatology, see my earlier article on the subject. On the prophecy of Daniel 9:25-27, in particular, consult my note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, as well as the article here on the Eschatological Discourse.

The “man of lawlessness” of 2 Thess 2:3-11 will be discussed further in an upcoming special article in this series on the “Antichrist” tradition.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: 1 and 2 Thessalonians (Pt 3)

Part 3: “Day of the Lord”: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

This discussion is on the second of two eschatological sections in 1 and 2 Thessalonians dealing specifically with “the day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou). The first, 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, was discussed in Part 2; for a study of the other eschatological passages in the Thessalonian letters, cf. Part 1 and the special note on 1 Thess 2:14-16. It is worth surveying, however briefly, the background of this expression “day of the Lord”.

The Day of the Lord—the “Day of YHWH”

The expression “day of the Lord” (h(me/ra kuri/ou) in the New Testament was inherited by early Christians from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition. The original expression in Hebrew is hw`hy+ <oy, “day of YHWH”. It developed among the Israelite Prophets of the 8th-5th centuries B.C., especially in the context of the various nation-oracles preserved in the Prophetic books. The expression referred to a time of judgment (i.e. punishment) which YHWH would bring upon the various peoples—including his own people Israel. Originally, the usage was not eschatological, though it did indicate an imminent judgment that would come in the (near) future. Gradually, the expression took on more eschatological significance, something we begin to see already in the (later) Prophets. The “Day of YHWH” would be framed as a judgment on the surrounding nations, collectively, coinciding with the deliverance/rescue of God’s people—the faithful ones, at least—at some future time. The key occurrences of the expression in the Prophets are: Isaiah 13:6; Amos 5:18-20; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Obadiah 15; Zephaniah 1:7-8, 14; Jeremiah 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; and Malachi 4:5.

The corresponding expression in the New Testament is actually relatively rare, occurring just 5 times—Acts 2:20 (citing Joel); 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10. However, it is implied in many other passages, often using the shorthand “the day”, or the Christian formulation “the day of Christ”, etc. As such, Paul references it frequently; the various occurrences will be discussed throughout these articles on the Eschatology of Paul. We have already examined its use in 1 Thess 5:2 (Part 2 of this article), where it provides clear evidence for the uniquely Christian dimension given to the expression—namely, the end-time coming (parousia) of Jesus back to earth. Three components, or lines of tradition, helped to create this distinct interpretation of the “day of the Lord” among early Christians:

    • The Messianic traditions derived from Malachi 3:1ff; Daniel 7:13-14; 12:1ff, etc, which variously express the idea of a divine/heavenly representative of YHWH appearing to rescue His people and usher in the Judgment.
    • The firm belief in Jesus as the Messiah (“Anointed One”), especially his identification with the Davidic ruler and heavenly deliverer figure-types. Since Jesus did not fulfill all that was expected/prophesied of these Messianic figures during his time on earth, he would have to return at some future time to do so. This naturally coincided with the divine-representative motif above.
    • The eschatological “Son of Man” sayings of Jesus, in which he identifies himself with this heavenly figure who will appear at the end time.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

So it is that we turn to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, one of the most famous (and difficult) eschatological passages in the New Testament. Outside of the Eschatological Discourse, and the various visions in the book of Revelation, it is perhaps the only passage which offers any detailed information about end-time events that were expected to occur prior to the coming of Jesus. On the one hand, the basic scenario described is clear enough; at the same time, however, for Christians and other readers today, it is highly problematic (and controversial), for two main reasons:

    • Much of the wording and syntax used by the author (Paul) is difficult to intepret; at several points, the basic meaning and translation continue to be hotly disputed.
    • As with other examples of the imminent eschatology of early Christians, it is hard to square with our vantage point today, from which we must take into account the passing of 1,900+ years. However, this aspect of the modern interpretive problem is even more acute in 2 Thess 2:1-2, since it, like the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, involves the Jerusalem Temple, a building which was destroyed in 70 A.D.
Verses 1-2

“I would ask of you, brothers, over the (com)ing to be alongside [parousi/a] (us) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, and our gathering together at (that time) about him, unto your not being shaken [i.e. for you not to be shaken] from (the) thought—not through a spirit (speaking), and not through a (normal) account, and not through a (message) sent upon (you) as (though it were) through us—as (if it were) that the Day of the Lord has (now) stood in (on you).”

Paul makes use here of fairly complex syntax, which can perhaps be a bit misleading or confusing when rendered literally (as I have attempted to do here). To bring out the basic line of the statement, the intervening modifying clause has been highlighted above. We might restate the principal statement, in more conventional English, as follows:

“I would ask of you, brothers, regarding the coming of our Lord Yeshua (to us) and our gathering together around him, that you would not be shaken by thinking…that the Day of the Lord is now present.”

The verb in the last clause of verse 2 is e)ni/sthmi (“stand in”), perfect e)ne/sthken (“has stood in”, i.e. entered), similar in meaning to h&ggiken (“has come near”). In other words, the idea is that the “Day of the Lord” has now come, and the Thessalonians are experiencing it. Paul rather forcefully urges them that they should not be shaken by this thought, since it is not correct. Much has been made of the supposed eschatological issue being addressed here, with considerable speculation by commentators. For my part, the matter seems clear and simple enough, in light of the previous message in 1:6-10 (discussed in Part 1). The suffering and persecution experienced by the Thessalonians is considered to be part of the end-time distress facing believers (according to the imminent eschatology held by Paul, along with most Christians at the time). Apparently, some were referring to this as the “Day of the Lord” (cf. above), indicating, it would seem, a lack of understanding of the precise meaning of the expression. The “Day of the Lord” refers ostensibly to the end-time Judgment on the wicked, not believers. While Christians will experience suffering during the end-time period of distress, the “Day of the Lord”, as such, represents the moment of deliverance for them, even as it is the moment of judgment/punishment for the wicked (non-believers). It also coincides with the appearance of Jesus, who, as God’s Anointed, will usher in the great Judgment.

All of this was generally explained by Paul in 1:6-10, but now he gives a more precise formulation, to the effect that the “Day of the Lord” will not occur until the return of Jesus. He also goes on (in 2:3ff) to explain something of the specific events expected to take place during the period of distress. While he and his audience are thought to be living in this period, it is not yet over; certain things are yet to happen, though they could occur suddenly, at any time.

(On the highlighted clause above, see the concluding note at the end of this article.)

Verses 3-4

“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], 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.”

As noted above, 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”).

This noun is extremely rare in the New Testament, occurring just twice, the only other instance is found in Acts 21:21 where it is used in the religious sense of departing from the truth (and from God); this also characterizes the rare usage in the LXX as well. However, a)postasi/a can also be used in the political sense of standing away from an agreement, with the more forceful and violent connotation of “rebellion”, etc. Here the reference is to a widespread departure from God—not only from the true Christian (and Jewish) belief, but even in the more general sense of reverence or recognition of anything divine at all. As bad as things might be in society at the time of writing, it was soon expected to become much worse.

This dramatic “standing away” is associated with the coming of a particular (ruling) figure, referred to by a pair of titles:

    • “the man of lawlessness” (o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$)
      [Some manuscripts instead read “man of sin” …th=$ a(marti/a$.]
    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)

The noun a)nomi/a (literally something, or the condition of, being “without law” [a&nomo$]) is relatively common in both the LXX and the New Testament, though appearing in the latter only 15 times. It is used by Jesus in the Matthean version of the Eschatological Discourse (24:12), and several other instances where there is a definite eschatological context (Matt 13:41; 1 John 3:4). It tends to be used in the general sense of wickedness and violation of the proper order of things established by God (and society).

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”). The derivation of the Hebrew lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) remains uncertain, but it generally signifies an association with death, chaos, disorder, and may also reflect a mythological personification of Death/Chaos itself. A “son of Beliyya’al” refers to someone who acts in a manner characteristic of Beliyya’al, violating the social and religious order of things, tending toward wickedness and violence (and destined to meet a bad or violent end). 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=. 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. As such, it fed into the early Christian “Antichrist” tradition, and is almost certainly in view here as well.

This person is also characterized by the participial phrase:

    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      — “laying/stretching out against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      — “raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

Thus, in two different directions, he challenges the Divine. This is dramatically depicting by the image of this “man of lawlessness” sitting in the Temple:

“…(even) as to his sitting in the shrine of God, showing (of) himself [i.e. demonstrating] from (this) that he is 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. The significance of this image from the standpoint of New Testament eschatology will be discussed in a separate note.

Verses 5-7

“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.”

Apparently Paul had previously discussed these things with the Thessalonian congregations, but they may not have entirely understood his teaching. In my view, Paul likely held to a traditional eschatological framework similar to that of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. I will be discussing this in the aforementioned supplemental note; on the Eschatological Discourse, cf. my earlier 4-part article in this series. Verses 6-7 are notorious and represent for commentators one of the most difficult and debated passages in the New Testament. I have discussed the verses in some detail in an earlier article, and here will summarize the results of that study.

    • 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 articular 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. If Paul is indeed the author (writing c. 50 A.D.), then the current emperor would be Claudius, but the same basic idea would apply even if the letter were pseudonymous (as some critics think) and/or written at a later time. He may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured some of the same characteristics. 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.
Verses 8-10

“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.”

This is another long and complex sentence, with a modifying intermediate statement, which can cause considerable confusion when not read carefully. Again I have highlighted the intermediate portion so as to make clear the primary line of the sentence. The point of confusion is in the sequence of the Lord’s coming (parousia) followed immediately by the coming (parousia) of the Lawless One. In Greek, this portion reads:

th=$ parousi/a$ au)tou= ou! e)stin h( parousi/a
“…of his coming to be alongside, of whom the coming to be alongside is…”

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.

The use of the verb de/xomai (“receive”) in verse 10 can also be misleading, as though implying that, for those deceived by the Lawless One, it was from God that they did not receive the “love of the truth”. Rather, the middle voice here indicates that it was they themselves who were unwilling to accept (i.e. love) the truth. God’s action in this regard is described in the verses that follow.

Verses 11-12

“And, through this, God will send to them (something) working wandering in (them), unto their trusting th(at which is) false, (so) that they might be judged, all the (one)s not trusting in the truth but thinking good of injustice (instead).”

Here, 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. 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).

There can be no doubt that the description of the Lawless One / Man of Lawlessness relates in some way to the “Antichrist” tradition, even more so than the vision of the creature from the Sea in Revelation 13 (cf. the recent note on this passage). In point of fact, the actual term a)nti/xristo$ (antichristos, “against the Anointed”) is used neither in 2 Thess 2:1-12 nor Revelation 13, but occurs only in the Johannine letters (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7) where it has a rather different meaning or application. One should therefore be extremely cautious about referring to the Lawless One here simply as “the Antichrist”. However, in terms of the fundamental meaning of the word (“against the Anointed”, “in place of the Anointed”), the term a)nti/xristo$ is entirely appropriate to the description of the Lawless One, since he clearly is described in a way that imitates Jesus Christ. In his sitting in the shrine of God, the Man of Lawlessness symbolically takes the place of God and His Anointed. I will be discussing the Antichrist tradition in more detail in a special upcoming article.

Appendix: On Verse 2 and the Composition/Date of 2 Thessalonians

In verse 2 (cf. above), as part of Paul’s attempt to convince the Thessalonians that their experience of suffering/persecution did not mean that the “Day of the Lord” had come, he mentions, in summary form, three different ways they might mistakenly come to think this:

    • dia\ pneu/mato$, “through a spirit (speaking)”
    • dia\ lo/gou, “through a (normal) account”
    • di’ e)pistolh=$, “through a (message) sent upon (you)” [i.e. a message sent in writing = letter, epistle]

The first means a spirit speaking through a human oracle or prophet; since the information is basically incorrect, it could not be the Holy Spirit, but some other kind of “spirit”. The second just means ordinary human speech. The third specifically means a message sent in writing (e)pistolh/, transliterated in English as epistle). It is qualified here to include any letter claiming to be from Paul and his associates (“…as [if] through us”). Some commentators take this to mean that Paul (or the author) is referring to a letter previously sent to the Thessalonians, usually identified with 1 Thessalonians, on the assumption that it was the earlier letter. This has an important bearing both on the date of 2 Thessalonians and the precise point being made in 2 Thess 2:1-12. Both questions depend on whether one regards 2 Thessalonians as a genuine Pauline letter or as pseudonymous.

1. For commentators who accept Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, if the e)pistolh/ in verse 2 refers to 1 Thessalonians, then it is possible that the discussion in 2:1ff relates to the eschatology of the earlier letter (esp. 4:13-5:11, cf. Part 2). It is often thought that, based on the imminent eschatology in 1 Thessalonians, the Thessalonian believers—some of them, at any rate—mistakenly believed that Day of the Lord had come, or was about to come. Paul corrects their misunderstanding, pointing out that certain events still need to take place before Jesus returns.

2. Many who view 2 Thessalonians as pseudonymous believe that the author is here intentionally contradicting or ‘correcting’ the imminent eschatology of Paul in 1 Thessalonians, and that 2 Thessalonians was written, in imitation of the first letter, primarily for that purpose. It is assumed that 1 Thessalonians is being discredited (as a true account of Paul’s teaching) by the use of the phrase w($ di’ h(mw=n (“as [though it were] through us”). The author would have held an eschatological chronology comparable perhaps to the developed form of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (i.e. in Matthew and/or Luke), and likely dating from a similar period (c. 80 A.D.?). For more on the relationship between 2 Thess 2:1-12 and the framework of the Eschatological Discourse, cf. the upcoming supplemental note.

“Secret of Lawlessness”: 2 Thess 2:6-8; Rev 17:5, 7

Having discussed the context of the expression “secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in 2 Thess 2:7 in the previous study, here I will examine a bit further the interpretation of 2 Thess 2:6-8, as well as a similar use of the term musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7.

2 Thessalonians 2:6-8

Assuming that my analysis of vv. 6-8, and, in particular, the use of the verb kate/xw, is on the right track (cf. the previous study), it may be possible to discern something of what Paul has in mind, specifically, in this passage. Let us briefly examine each portion:

Verse 6

“Now you have seen/known the (thing) holding down (power)”—This indicates that Paul’s readers should be able to recognize what this is that currently “holds down (power)” [to\ kate/xon]. The neuter suggests that the reference is to a particular condition, situation, or tendency currently at work and in a position of power in the world.

“unto his being uncovered”—The preposition ei)$ indicates the purpose or direction (“so that”, “toward”) of the thing holding down power. It is possible that a temporal sense is also implied (“until”). The verb here is a passive infinitive of a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from, uncover”). In Greek the syntax of an infinitive + accusative can be very difficult to translate; often it is necessary to render it as a possessive + participle (or gerund) construction—as in this instance: “his being uncovered”. Perhaps a more literal translation is to be preferred: “the removing of the cover (from) him”. Clearly the “he/him” (au)to/n) is different from the thing (currently) holding down power (to\ kate/xon is neuter). The nearest reference point is the “man of lawlessness” (some MSS “man of sin”) in vv. 3-4.

“in his (own) time”—That is, when the time is right for the “man of lawlessness” to be revealed. The expression may also connote the idea that, in a sense, this time belongs to him, i.e. a ‘time of lawlessness’. For the use of kairo/$ (“time, season”) in a definite eschatological context, or suggesting a time of evil and testing, cf. Mark 1:15; 13:33 par; Matt 16:3; 26:18; Luke 4:13; 8:13; 19:44; 21:8, 24, etc; and for a similar use of “hour” (w%ra), cf. Mark 13:11, 32; 14:35, 41; Luke 12:40, 46; 22:53, etc.

Verse 7

“For the secret of lawlessness is already working in (the world)”—The adverb h&dh (“already”) indicates “even now”, currently (in Paul’s own time). On the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$), cf. the prior study. The present verb e)nerge/w means that the secret is (currently) active, i.e. at work (e&rgon), in (e)n) the world (and the present Age).

“only until the (one) holding down (power) now”—In my view, this is the best way to read this portion of the difficult clause in v. 7. The temporal aspect is indicated by the formula “only…now until” (mo/nona&rti e%w$). This means that there is someone holding down power now (currently, that is, in Paul’s time), but will only continue to do so for a (short) period of time. On a similar Pauline use of clauses with e%w$ (or w($) in the postpositive position, cf. Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 3:5; 6:4; 7:17; 2 Cor 2:4; Gal 2:10, etc (Wanamaker, p. 255).

“should come to be out of the middle”—The use of gi/nomai (“come to be”) with the preposition e)k (“out of, from”) could be taken to mean that either the “one holding down (power)” or the “lawless one” will appear in/from the midst/middle (of things?); however, the expression e)k me/sou (“out of the middle”) rather suggests someone or something being removed. When the one (currently) holding down power is ‘removed’, then the way will be clear for the lawless one to appear.

Verse 8

“and then the cover will be (removed) from the lawless (one)”—This renders quite literally the verb a)pokalu/ptw (“remove the cover from”, “uncover”, i.e. disclose, reveal, etc); the passive form probably should be understood as a “divine passive” (with God effectively as the one who acts). The adverbial particle to/te (“then”) fills out the temporal sequence from verse 7h&dh (“already”), a&rti (“now”), to/te (“then”). The substantive adjective “the lawless (one)” (o( a&nomo$) gives personal expression to the impersonal “lawlessness” (a)nomi/a) in v. 7, and is certainly synonymous with the “man of lawlessness” in vv. 3-4. In 1 Cor 9:21 Paul uses the adjective a&nomo$ in the specific (literal) sense of those “without the Law”—that is, without the Torah, i.e. Gentiles (cf. also Acts 2:23). Normally, however, it is used in the more general sense of persons who do not adhere to established law and custom—in society at large this means crime and rebellion (Luke 22:37), while, from a religious standpoint, typically immorality is indicated (2 Peter 2:8); in 1 Tim 1:9 both aspects are combined. The character and action of this person is described in vv. 3-4.

“whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up…in the shining (forth) of his (com)ing to be alongside upon (the earth)”—The terms e)pifa/neia (“shining upon”, i.e. appearance, manifestation) and parousi/a (“[com]ing to be along[side]”) both had a history of eschatological and apocalyptic usage by the time Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, and they are combined here, in especially exalted language for dramatic effect. The word parousi/a (parousía) in particular quickly turned into a technical term for the end-time appearance (return) of Christ. In the previous study, I commented on the intentional parallel (and contrast) drawn between the coming (parousia) of Christ and the coming (parousia) of the “lawless one”. The rest of verse 8, describing the punishment and fate of the lawless one, is drawn from the traditional language and (Messianic) imagery of Isaiah 11:4.

Summary

Here I would suggest the following thumbnail interpretation of what Paul is describing, and perhaps envisions, in vv. 6-8:

  • The secret of lawlessness—This is the power of sin, evil and opposition to God, which has been, and is currently (h&dh, “already”) at work in the world. It is a “secret” (musth/rion) in the sense that its presence and activity is largely hidden to people at large—they are unaware of it and how it functions. Also, its true nature, and full manifestation, are kept away from people—this will only be revealed at the end time. It is generally to be equated with the working of “the Evil (One)”, i.e. Satan, and the various (invisible) evil powers that control and influence the fallen world. It is also possible to view the “secret” in terms of the timing and duration of this lawless/evil period within the hidden plan/will of God (see esp. the Qumran text 1QS 4:18-19).
  • The (thing) holding down power—This is best understood as worldly power, taken as a whole, specifically the ruling power in Paul’s time: the Roman imperial government and authority (i.e., the Roman Empire). While often viewed in a negative light by early Christians (as in the book of Revelation, cf. below), the Roman Empire was not evil per se. However, the exercise of worldly power was generally seen as being opposed to the way of God and Christ. Though it is related to the “secret of lawlessness”, the thing “holding down power” (to\ kate/xon) is not identical with it.
  • The (one) holding down power—If the general identification with the Roman Empire as “the (thing) holding down (power)” is correct, then “the (one) holding down power” (o( kate/xwn) probably should be taken as a reference to the current Roman Emperor. When Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians (late 40s/early 50s, c. 50 A.D.?), the ruling Emperor would have been Claudius. The Emperor would rule until such time has he “came to be (removed) from the midst”. Perhaps an imperial coup or assassination was imagined, for which there certainly had been precedents, and would hardly be surprising; however, ultimately such historical processes were controlled by God himself.
  • The lawless (one)—The removal (?) of the current ruler would allow for the “cover to be removed” (by God), thus revealing “the lawless one” (o( a&nomo$). This figure would fulfill more completely the prophecies by Daniel (in 9:20-27; 11:31; 12:11, etc), of the coming wicked ruler which had already been embodied by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the mid-2nd century B.C. Jesus’ own eschatological teaching in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 13 par) seems to follow the same basic line of interpretation (note the allusion to Dan 9:27 in v. 14). Prior to the reign of Claudius, Gaius (Caligula) had come close to living and acting out many of these expectations; so, it was not at all unreasonable to expect that the next ruler (or one soon coming) would be even more wicked and godless. Almost certainly, from the early Christian standpoint, the idea of an Antichrist-ruler of the end-time was largely modeled after the pattern of Roman rulers such as Pompey, Gaius, Nero, and (possibly) Domitian. For more on this, cf. the discussion on Revelation 17:5, 7 below. However, Paul makes clear that this is no ordinary political ruler, but a truly evil figure, empowered and inspired by Satan.

Revelation 17:5, 7

These two references have a contextual setting that is similar, in many ways, to that of 2 Thess 2:1-11. Chapters 17-19 of Revelation serve as the climax to the division of the book which spans chapters 12-19. I outline this division as follows:

    • Chs. 12:1-14:5—The faithful (people of God), symbolized as a woman who is attacked by the dragon (and its beasts)
      • 12:1-17—Vision of the Woman giving birth; the labor pains, etc, relate to the war made on her children (believers, people of God) by the dragon (the Devil and his Messengers)
      • 12:18-13:18—Vision of the two beasts, which are ‘offspring’ of the dragon
      • 14:1-5—Vision of the 144,000, the faithful ones who have endured the dragon’s attacks (implied)
    • Chs. 14:6-16:21—Judgment of God upon the world (Babylon) and the wicked
      • 14:6-13—Vision of the (Angelic) announcement of Judgment
      • 14:14-20—Vision of the Man with the sickle, about to reap the harvest (of the Judgment)
      • 15:1-8—Heavenly vision that introduces the pouring out of God’s wrath
      • 16:1-21—Vision of the Seven Bowls of God’s wrath poured out on the world
    • Chs. 17-19—Wicked/worldly power, symbolized as a woman seated upon the beast
      • 17—Vision of the Woman (prostitute) identified as “Babylon”, with an interpretation
      • 18—Oracle (Hymn) on the fall of Babylon
      • 19:1-10—Heavenly vision and hymn (on the fall of Babylon)
      • 19:11-21—Vision of the Rider on the White Horse and the defeat of the Beast

Two women are set in (contrasting) parallel with each other—one representing the faithful people of God, the other symbolizing the wicked of the world—each flanking a great cluster of visions describing the end-time Judgment. This second woman is depicted in chapter 17 under the figure of a prostitute (pornh/). All the rulers and inhabitants of the earth are said to have had intercourse (euphemistically, “soaked from her wine”) with this prostitute (v. 2). As part of the actual vision (vv. 3-6a), we find this detail:

“…and upon the (space) between her eye(s) [i.e. her forehead] a name has been written (which is) a secret [musth/rion]: ‘Babylon the Great, the mother of prostitutes and stinking (thing)s of the earth'”

In Greco-Roman literature of the period we read of prostitutes adopting the names of colorful characters (e.g. Demonsthenes, Oration 59.19; Juvenal, Satires 6.123), as well as wearing bands around their foreheads (Herodotus, Histories I.199.2). In Jeremiah 3:3, the expression “forehead of a prostitute” (hn`oz hV*a! j^x^m@) to indicate blatant immorality is likely proverbial. While it is possible that a prostitute might write a name upon her forehead band, here in Rev 17:5 the name should be understood as one applied (by God) to her in the vision. The main aspect of the “secret” has to do with the identification of the prostitute as Babylon. In verse 7, the secret involves the woman herself (the Angel speaking):

“And I will utter to you the secret [musth/rion] of th(is) woman and of the beast th(at is) bearing [i.e. lifting/carrying] her, the (one) holding seven heads and ten horns.”

Here the “secret” involves the explanation or interpretation of the vision, much as the “secret of the Kingdom of God” in Mark 4:11 par involved the explanation of Jesus’ parables to his circle of followers. Of greater influence for the book of Revelation is the use of the Aramaic zr` (“secret”) in reference to the vision-interpretations given to Daniel (Dan 2:18-19, 27-30, 47; 4:9); in these passages God is said to reveal to Daniel the secrets hidden in the visions.

By combining the name of prostitute (“Babylon”) with the explanation of the visionary details provided in 17:7ff, it seems fairly clear that this woman is meant to symbolize the wicked/worldly power associated with Rome (i.e. the Roman Empire). An association between Rome and Babylon was already traditional by the end of the New Testament period, as indicated by the setting in other Apocalyptic writings (2/4 Esdras 3:1-2, 29-31; 16:1; 2 Baruch 10:2; 11:1; 67:7; Sibylline Oracles 5:143, 159); “Babylon” in 1 Peter 5:13 is probably also a cipher for Rome. The association was natural, since both Rome and Babylon were the center of great empires (i.e. the Babylonian empire of the 7th/6th century B.C.), and both invaded/conquered Judea and Jerusalem, destroying the Temple in the process. The identification with Rome would seem to be confirmed by the interpretation of the beast in vv. 7ff and the imagery of the hymn in chapter 18. The explanation of the “seven horns” as “seven mountains” (v. 9) certainly suggests the seven hills traditionally connected with the city of Rome. Moreover, chapter 18 describes a great commercial empire with control of the seas. With such an identification, the “seven kings” (another interpretation of the horns) would presumably represent rulers of the Empire, five of whom have died and a sixth who is currently living (ruling?). The author and/or audience of the book may have known just who these six rulers (Emperors?) were, but today we can only guess; various proposals have been made, none of which are entirely convincing.

It is important to point out that, even if the primary association of the woman (and the beast) is with the Roman Empire, that is simply because it was the clearest and strongest manifestation of wicked/worldly power at the time that the book of Revelation was written (as in the case of 2 Thessalonians, cf. above). Clearly, the evil power and influence of the beast(s)—and, in turn, the dragon (identified with the Devil/Satan)—transcends the specific connection with Rome. The heads/horns of the beast represent power and authority which rightly belongs to God, but which the beast and the worldly rulers he controls have appropriated for themselves. Similarly, God is typically seen as residing upon a mountain in ancient (Near Eastern) religious and mythological imagery; the association with the symbolic (sacred/divine) number seven only strengthens this idea. There are two interesting (contemporary) examples in this regard:

    • In 1 Enoch 18:6-8 the heavenly vision includes seven great mountains, the central of which stretches “to heaven like the throne of God”. These seven mountains are connected more closely with God’s throne in chapters 24-25. First Enoch was probably composed variously over a considerable span of time, from the 3rd century B.C. to the 1st cent. A.D.; it was popular and influential on Jewish thought (and apocalyptic/messianic thought, in particular) at the time of the New Testament. Chapters 37-71 may date from the early 1st century A.D., being contemporary with the earliest layers of Christian tradition. An important theme of the book (especially in chaps. 37-71) is how the kings of the earth will face God’s Judgment for their (arrogant) refusal to submit themselves to His authority, and for their mistreatment/persecution of God’s people.
    • In the 1st Oration, or Discourse, of Dio Chrysostom (on Kingship), we find a vision of two great mountain peaks (66-84)—one is the Royal peak, associated with Zeus, upon which is a beautiful and dignified woman, representing true and proper kingship; the second is the peak of Tyranny, upon which is seated another woman (representing Tyranny) and described in a manner reminiscent of Revelation 17-18. Dio would have been in his prime c. 90 A.D., about the time often assumed for the composition of the book of Revelation.

The prostitute is carried, born aloft, by the beast, meaning that she is supported by him. His horns and heads are a natural, if grotesque, outgrowth of the beast’s evil life and power.

For some of the references cited above (and others), cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014), pp. 674-8.
References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).

“Secret” in Paul’s Letters: 2 Thess 2:7

This study, dealing with the occurrences of the word musth/rion (“secret”) in the New Testament, examines 2 Thessalonians 2:7 and a very distinctive use of the term.

2 Thessalonians 2:7

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, Paul addresses an eschatological issue: regarding whether the “day of the Lord” might have already come. The expression “day of the Lord” was inherited from Old Testament and Jewish tradition—a reference to the time, at the end of this current Age, when the Lord (YHWH) would appear to bring judgment upon the world and deliver the faithful among his people. By the time of the New Testament, the concept was closely tied to Messianic expectation—the end-time appearance of an “anointed” ruler and/or representative of God, whose appearance will precede or usher-in the Judgment. Jesus was universally accepted by early Christians as the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ)—for the associations between Jesus and the main Messianic figure-types, cf. the notes and articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed”—and the uniquely Christian contribution to the traditional eschatological picture was that Jesus would return (as God’s representative) to deliver his people (believers) and oversee the administration of the final Judgment. Paul, like virtually all believers of the time, expected that the end-time Judgment and return of Jesus were imminent, to occur very soon, and so it was understandable that the experience of intense suffering and persecution (the “birth pains”) might lead Christians to think that the Judgment was in the process of taking place. Paul wishes to make clear, in vv. 3ff, that certain events must still occur before the final Judgment comes. He is drawing upon a traditional eschatological framework—taken primarily from Daniel 7-12, especially 9:20-27, and the various apocalyptic works inspired by it (cf. my article on this passage). Jesus’ own eschatological teaching, as recorded in Synoptic tradition (Mark 13 par), draws from this line of tradition as well.

Before discussing 2 Thess 2:7 in context, it is worth pointing out the considerable difficulties for modern-day Christians in studying and evaluating these eschatological passages in the New Testament (which I address in the upcoming series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”). A wide range of interpretations (and systems of interpretation) have developed over the years—some more plausible than others—in order to make sense of the relevant passages. There is special difficulty associated with 2 Thess 2:3ff, since it, perhaps more than any other in the New Testament, appears to be a prophecy regarding specific historical events, set (so it would seem) in Paul’s own time, and involving the presence of the Jerusalem Temple (v. 4)—in other words, prior to 70 A.D. There are three main interpretative approaches, as with most of the eschatological passages:

    • Imminent-Historical—The events should be taken at face value, as a prophecy of things which would soon happen (perhaps within a few years), assuming the existence of the Jerusalem Temple (i.e. prior to its destruction)
    • Futurist—Again the prophesied events are taken more or less at face value, but in a future time (where, apparently, a functioning Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt).
    • Symbolic—According to this view, Paul uses specific traditional-historical eschatological imagery (“man of lawlessness”, “the Temple”, etc) to refer to more general spiritual/religious tendencies (apostasy, rebellion against God), which have been occurring, and which will occur with greater intensity (today/in the future), as the end approaches.

There are strengths and weaknesses to each approach, some more serious than others. In my view, only the first deals honestly with the text (and the historical context) of the passage as we have it, though, admittedly, it raises important questions regarding 2 Thess 2:3ff as a genuine (historical) prophecy. For the purposes of this study, I assume that Paul basically has his own time in mind (including the pre-70 Temple), without making any judgment on the wider theological/doctrinal issues. The key portion is vv. 6-8. Paul has already made reference to a “standing away (from God) [a)postasi/a, apostasía, i.e. ‘apostasy’]” which immediately precedes the end, as well as the appearance of the “man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (some MSS read “man of sin” […th=$ a(marti/a$]). There is a tendency by many Christians to identify this figure automatically with the “Antichrist” of subsequent tradition, blending 2 Thess 2 together with the epistles of John and the book of Revelation; however, while the underlying concept of antichrist is appropriate to the context here, it is important to limit our examination to what Paul himself says. This “man of lawlessness” is expounded by two phrases in vv. 3-4:

    • “the son of ruin/destruction” (o( ui(o\$ th=$ a)pwlei/a$)
    • “the one (who is)…upon every thing counted as God or revered”; two verbal participles fill the ellipsis:
      —”laying/crouching down against” [a)ntikei/meno$]
      —”raising/lifting (himself) over” [u(perairo/meno$]

In other words, this person looks to attack, and to raise himself over, every proper religious idea people may have. This tendency culminates in the dramatic action of seating himself in the Temple sanctuary (nao/$) to demonstrate his own deity (v. 5). Verses 6-8 set the historical/chronological context for these events. Especially important (and difficult) is the use of the verb kate/xw (lit. “hold down”); there are two ways this can be understood—(1) holding someone down, in the sense of restraining or impeding him, or (2) holding down (i.e. having control of) power or a position. These two options lead to three basic ways of interpreting vv. 6-8 (for a good survey, cf. Wanamaker, pp. 249-58):

    • The lawless one and/or “secret of lawlessness” holds back (delays) the coming of Christ and the end judgment—i.e. it will not happen until the lawless one first appears
    • Someone/something holds back (restrains) the coming of the lawless one
    • The “secret of lawlessness”, including someone in particular, holds down (possesses) power until the time when the “lawless one” appears

In my view, the last of these approaches best fits the context and grammar of the passage. Here is a literal rendering of vv. 6-9 with this in mind:

“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—and then the lawless (one) will be uncovered, whom the Lord [Yeshua] will take up/away [i.e. destroy] with the Spirit 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.”

There is some confusion in the syntax due the reference of two different “comings” (lit. “coming to be along[side]”, parousi/a parousía)—that of the Lord (v. 8), and that of the “lawless one” (v. 9). This is rather easier to recognize in the original Greek, since the two relative pronouns (indicated by italics above) relate, by way of modifying clauses, to “the lawless one” at the beginning of v. 8:

    • “Then will be uncovered the lawless one [o( a&nomo$]
      • whom [o^n] the Lord will take up/away…and
      • whose [ou!] coming to be along [parousi/a] is…”

There can be little doubt that the juxtaposition of the coming of the Lord and the Lawless One is intentional, meant as a definite contrast—the coming of the Lawless One, who will show/proclaim himself as God, is an evil parody of the true coming of the Lord. Some manuscripts read “the Lord Yeshua” (o( ku/rio$ )Ihsou=$) , while others simply “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$). In the original Scriptural (Old Testament) tradition, it was God (YHWH) himself who would appear in Judgment at the end-time, though this was often understood as occurring through a heavenly/angelic representative—the “Messenger (Angel) of the Lord”, as (it would seem) in the original setting of Malachi 3:1ff. In subsequent Jewish thought, much of this role was taken by the Messiah, especially the figure-types of the Davidic Ruler and (heavenly) “Son of Man”. The imagery in verse 8b is drawn primarily from Isaiah 11:4, a popular ‘Messianic’ passage of the time.

Another important aspect of vv. 6-8 involves the expression “the secret of lawlessness” (to\ musth/rion th=$ a)nomi/a$) in verse 7. A similar expression (“secret[s] of sin”) is known from the Qumran texts (1QM 14:9; 1QH 5:36; 1Q27 1.2,7); and note also “secret of evil/wickedness” (musth/rion kaki/a$) in Josephus War 1.470 (cf. Wanamaker, p. 255). The word a)nomi/a (along with the adjective a&nomo$) essentially means “without law”, that is, without possessing or adhering to proper law and custom. From the societal standpoint, this results in “lawlessness” and is tantamount to anarchy and rebellion. In a religious sense, being “without law” generally refers to immorality; however, from a Jewish (and Christian) perspective, since the Law (Torah) is tied to the idea of the agreement established between God and his people, “lawlessness” is effectively the same as rebellion against God. Note the way that this dynamic is expressed in the eschatological context of vv. 6-8:

    • The (thing) holding down (power) [to\ kate/xon, neuter participle] (v. 6)
      • The secret of lawlessness [to\ musth/rion {neuter} th=$ a)nomi/a$] (v. 7a)
    • The (one) holding down (power) [o( kate/xwn, masculine participle] (v. 7b)
      • The lawless one [o( a&nomo$, masculine] (v. 8)

The parallel is clear and obvious, shifting from the neuter (a condition or tendency) to the masculine (a person or [personal] figure). The relationship can also be expressed as a chiasm, as follows:

    • The secret of lawlessness—i.e. of sin, evil and opposition to God
      —The (thing) holding down power
      —The (one) holding down power
    • The lawless one—directly empowered/inspired by Satan, opposed to God

The use of the verb kate/xw suggests a temporary situation—the holding down of power until [e%w$] the (final) manifestation of lawlessness in the “lawless one”. More to the point, the use of the term “secret” (musth/rion) indicates that this lawlessness is, to some extent, hidden during the current state of things (in Paul’s time). At the very least, we can infer that the true nature, and full extent, of this lawlessness is hidden from the awareness of ordinary people, though Paul definitely states that it is “at work in” (e)nergei=tai) the world (v. 7a). Again, there is a strong sense here of an evil parallel (and parody) with the Gospel:

    • The secret of God, which has been hidden away from the world
      —only now made known through the appearance and work of Christ
    • The secret of lawlessness, likewise hidden (at least in its full extent)
      —only to be made known through the appearance and (Satanic) work of the lawless one

A bit more must be said of this “lawless one” in the context of vv. 6-8; this will be done in the process of addressing the use of musth/rion in Revelation 17:5, 7, in the next study.

References marked “Wanamaker” above are to Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians in The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] series (Eerdmans/Paternoster Press: 1990).