November 25: Revelation 17:15-18

Revelation 17:7-18, concluded

Verses 15-18 provide a separate, parallel interpretation of the vision by the heavenly Messenger, alongside that of vv. 7-14.

Verse 15

“And he says to me: ‘The waters which you saw, on which the prostitute sits, are peoples and throngs (of people), nations and tongues.'”

In my earlier note on verse 1, I interpreted the “many waters” in relation to the overall symbol of the Sea (from which the Sea-creature emerges). The “Sea” represents the dark and chaotic forces of evil in the world, while the “waters” their manifestation and influence in the inhabited world of humankind. In the third bowl-vision (16:4ff), these waters were identified specifically as being on the earth—rivers and springs—in close proximity to human civilization, and upon which such communities depend. Thus the “waters” may be said to represent the presence and influence of the “Sea” over humankind (i.e. the nations). The Angel’s interpretation here in verse 15, similarly, but more explicitly, identifies the waters as the nations and peoples over whom the Sea-creature (and the Woman) exercise control.

Verse 16

“‘And the ten horns that you saw, and the wild animal (itself), these will hate the prostitute and will make her (as one) having become desolate and naked, and they will eat her flesh and burn her down in fire.'”

Here we have the extraordinary climax to the vision, as the Sea-creature with its horns turns against the Woman (the “prostitute”), stripping her of all her fine clothing and jewelry and destroying her in the most savage way. The imagery is that of a military siege and destruction of a city, according to the standards of warfare in the ancient world. The tendency to personify cities in feminine terms leads to the motif of stripping and humiliating a woman. Such imagery can be found in the nation-oracles of the Prophets, referring to the judgment against powerful cities (including Jerusalem)—cf. Hosea 2:5, 12; Nahum 3:5; Isa 47:3; Jer 13:26-27; Ezek 16:37-38; 23:10; 26-29; Koester, p. 680). Sculpted scenes of Roman conquests are often depicted in terms of violence and cruelty against a woman, images that are rightly disturbing to us today. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem (by the Romans in 70 A.D.), according to the Lukan version of the Eschatological Discourse, is similarly described as her “desolation” (e)rh/mwsi$, 21:20; cp. Mk 13:14 par, and cf. Lk 19:43-44).

The imagery of “eating flesh” and “burning in fire” more properly describes the result of siege warfare. A goal of such military tactics was to cut off the food supply and shut the population within the walls of the city, until the unbearable suffering forced them to capitulate. Siege warfare often brought famine and disease in its wake (similarly portrayed, it would seem, in the first four seal-visions, 6:1-8). A successful siege would likely end in the destruction and burning of the city, a fate met by Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., as also by countless other cities in ancient times. The eating of the woman’s flesh may also be an allusion to the end met by Jezebel (according to 2 Kings 9:30-37). This wicked queen, notorious as representing religious unfaithfulness (by promoting religious syncretism) among the people of Israel, was used as a figure-type for wickedness earlier in 2:20ff. Having one’s flesh ‘consumed’ also serves as a general image for a person being exploited by another (Psalm 27:2; Mic 3:3; Koester, p. 680).

Verse 17

“‘For God gave (it) into their hearts to do (according to) His (way of) knowing, and (so) to do (according to) one [mi/a] (way of) knowing, and to give their kingdom to the wild animal until the accounts of God should be completed.'”

God’s sovereignty over the end-time affairs, specifically as it relates to the enactment of the Judgment, is clearly expressed here. In verses 12-13, it was said of the horns—i.e. (vassal) kings—of the Sea-creature, that they ruled together with the creature for a single (mi/a) hour, and held a single (mi/a) mind. This unity of purpose is here declared to be according to God’s own purpose. The word translated “mind” is gnw/mh, also used here in v. 17, and more properly refers to a way of knowing or thinking about something, as I have rendered literally above. In more conventional theological terms, we might say that they act according to the will of God, in the sense that God allows (and directs) their wickedness to accomplish His own purpose. Throughout Israelite and Old Testament tradition, the execution of YHWH’s judgment against a people or nation was often seen as coming about through the concrete military action of an invading human army. So it is here in the vision as well.

The ten kings “give” their kingdom(s) to the Sea-creature, meaning that they recognize his authority, just as the elders of the heavenly People do for God in 4:10. This alliance lasts until the lo/goi of God are completed. Here the plural lo/goi may be understood several ways:

    • In the more literal sense of lo/go$ as an account, or accounting, meaning that the proper judgment is meted out, according to the wickedness of the nations, etc.
    • The conventional sense of lo/go$ as written account, specifically the words of the Prophets as recorded in Scripture. Future events, including the fate of various nations and cities, were made known in these texts. Oracles against Babylon are found in Isaiah 13-14, 21, 47, and Jeremiah 50-51, and these may be in view here; certainly the poem of “Babylon’s” fall in chapter 18 (to be discussed in the next note) was influenced by Jer 50-51, along with other portions of the nation-oracles.
    • The word lo/go$ can also be used in the specific sense of a revelation of the will of God, especially to apostles, Christian prophets, and other believers in Christ. This may take the form of a specific message or pattern of communication (i.e. proclamation of the Gospel), and thus an “account”. As discussed throughout the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, the inspired authors and speakers in the New Testament writings make various pronouncements regarding the coming end-time Judgment.
Verse 18

“‘And the woman which you saw is the Great City, the (one) holding rule as king upon [i.e. over] the kings of the earth.'”

The expression “the Great City” (h( po/li$ h( mega/lh) occurs numerous times in the book of Revelation; it is synonymous with “Babylon” in chapters 13ff (14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:10, 16, 18-19, 21), but was also used earlier in 11:8 where it was identified with Jerusalem (but also called “Egypt” and “Sodom”). As most commentators would agree, in the New Testament (in Revelation and also 1 Pet 5:13) “Babylon” is a cypher for Rome. The parallels, especially in relation to the destruction of Jerusalem, are obvious: Babylon and Rome were the capital cities of the conquering Empires of the time. In various recent notes, we have discussed how the symbolism of the visions would relate to the Roman Empire as the ruling power—and pinnacle of wicked, worldly power—for Christians at the end of the first century. While this does not exhaust the symbolism, in many instances it seems clear that the primary point of reference is Rome and the Roman Imperial government. From that standpoint, the symbolism here in chapter 17 may be summarized as follows:

    • The Sea and its Waters—The “Sea” represents the dark and turbulent forces of evil at work in the world; the “waters” refer to the presence of the Sea in the inhabited world, i.e. among human beings with their communities and nations.
    • The Sea Creature—This fabulous and hybrid “wild animal” comes up out of the Sea, and resembles the “Dragon”; thus its character is fundamentally wicked, characterized and influenced by the forces of evil. Like the creatures of the Daniel 7 vision, it represents a great kingdom and conquering empire. At the time of the book of Revelation, this is the Roman Empire.
    • The Woman—She is called a prostitute, signifying her blatant wickedness, immorality, and promiscuity, with an ability to seduce and influence people on earth. She is also identified as a city: the “great city” and “Babylon”. She sits upon the Sea-Creature, and the waters of the Sea, demonstrating her close connection with the Creature. If the Sea-Creature represents the Roman Empire, then the Woman, the City, is Rome; she sits upon “seven mountains”, best understood in terms of the traditional “seven hills” of Rome.

Based on this essential framework, other details in the vision (and its exposition) may be interpreted as follows:

    • The Seven Heads of the Sea-Creature—these “kings” almost certainly refer to Roman Emperors of the first-century, though it is probably no longer possible (if it ever were) to identify them precisely with a sequence of seven emperors. The author and his audience were living during the reign of the sixth emperor, and another was yet to come (for more on this, cf. below).
    • The Ten Horns of the Creature—these “kings” are best understood as vassal kingdoms (and their rulers), who reign as subordinates under Roman Imperial authority; presumably their reigns correspond to the current/future rule of the sixth and seventh (and eighth) emperors. They, like the seventh emperor, will rule for only a short time (“one hour”).

To the extent that the visionary narrative in chapter 17 is meant to describe a sequence of actual historical events, it may outlined as follows:

    • The author and his audience are (presumably) living during the reign of the “sixth” king (emperor); this would likely correspond to an approximate date of 69 or 90-95 A.D., depending on just when the book of Revelation was composed. Most critical commentators would opt for the latter date.
    • The brief reign of the “seventh” king (emperor) would soon follow; this could conceivably refer to a short period of time rather the specific reign of a single emperor. In any case, it is likely that only a few years would be involved, probably less than a decade, unless the visionary details are more broadly symbolic.
    • After this, an “eighth” king (emperor) will reign; this will be a truly evil, demonic incarnation of the wicked Sea-creature itself, and not an ‘ordinary’ human emperor at all (cp. 2 Thess 2:3-12). The specific wording in verse 8 (cf. also 13:3, 12, 14) raises the possibility that this demonic figure may resemble an earlier emperor who had previously died. This is all the more likely if the Nero redivivus (return of Nero) legend is in view here, as most critical commentators would hold.
    • At the time of this demonic emperor, there will be an alliance of vassal kingdoms (the “ten horns”); the alliance is temporary and short-lived, but it probably should be seen as beginning after the reign of the “sixth” emperor.
    • At some point, these vassal kings will turn on the city Rome and lay siege to it, destroying it and burning it with fire. This is probably to be understood as occurring prior to the great final battle (19:11-21, cp. 16:12-16ff).

It must be admitted that nothing quite like this ever took place, and certainly not within the time-frame suggested here in the vision. Rome was, in fact, sacked and destroyed (at least partially) by the invading armies of ‘vassal’ kingdoms, i.e. the migrating Germanic peoples with whom Rome was forced to form alliances, etc. The first such sacking took place in 390 B.C. (by the Senone Gauls), but the others occurred in the centuries after the book of Revelation was written; note the following events, with the associated people and ruler (in parentheses):

    • 410 A.D., by the Visigoths (Alaric I)
    • 455 A.D., by the Vandals (Genseric)
    • 546 A.D. (and again in 549-550) by the Ostrogoths (Totila)

As we approach the conclusion of this series of notes, we will explore various attempts to interpret the first-century eschatology of Revelation from the vantage point (and time-frame) of later generations, including our own today. To avoid unnecessary complication, these interpretive approaches have been studiously avoided, so that the viewpoint of the author and his audience can be allowed to speak for itself, as far as that is possible.

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November 22: Revelation 17:12-14

Revelation 17:7-18, continued

Verse 12

“And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings, th(ose) which did not yet receive a kingdom, but they receive e)cousi/a as kings (for) one hour with the wild animal.”

In verses 9-11, the Messenger interpreted the seven heads of the Sea-creature as kings, correlating them to the time of the vision (and the writing of the book, i.e. its readers). In the previous note, I discussed the generally accepted view that the Sea-creature =represents the Roman Empire, as a predominant symbol of corrupt and wicked worldly power–with the seven mountains alluding to Rome and her ‘seven hills’, and the seven kings as first-century emperors up to (and beyond) the readers’ own time. Various attempts have been made to identity the seven with a particular sequence of seven emperors, and I noted what I regard as the two most plausible such schema. However, both seven and ten are symbolic numbers, functioning as symbols in the visions, and should not be made to fit historical circumstances exactly. Indeed, the division of 5+2 is a numeric scheme utilized in the vision-cycles—visions 1-5 grouped together, followed by visions 6 and 7; this is particularly true in both the seal-vision and bowl-vision cycles. Similarly, here the first five kings form a group—those who have “fallen” (i.e. have died or been killed), ruling in the past; the last two reign in the present and immediate future.

Likewise, the ten horns are also kings, just as the ten horns of the fourth creature in the Daniel 7 vision (vv. 7-8, 11, 20ff, 24ff; on the horn as a symbol of power and strength, cf. the prior note on 13:1). In the earlier description, the horns were said to have “diadems” (cloth/silk band wrapped around), indicating a royal status. Thus there are two groups of kings. Important details are offered by the Angelic interpreter which help to identify the nature of these “kings”:

    • “(they) did not yet receive a kingdom”
    • “they receive e)cousi/a as kings for one hour…”

This wording suggests that they are not rulers in the sense that the “heads” are, i.e. are not emperors; rather they are vassal kings, who receive kingship and rule from the head-king (emperor), reigning as semi-independent subordinates, but only for a relatively short time. Governing the vast territory of the Roman Empire, with its ethnic and cultural diversity, required that local vassal kings be employed on occasion, and in certain places. Herod the Great was just such a king (over Judea), one who could be removed from power at any time, as Rome saw fit. This king-making authority is demonstrated by a historical anecdote associated with the emperor Nero; when a Parthian leader offered his allegiance to Rome (and Nero), the emperor is said to have responded, “I now declare you king of Armenia…I have power to take away kingdoms and to bestow them” (Dio Cassius, Roman History 62.5.3, as cited in Koester, p. 679). Here in verse 12 the wording is clear: the horn-kings receive their kingdoms from the head-king, and they also receive the e)cousi/a from him to act as kings. The noun e)cousi/a is difficult to render literally in English, as I have often noted; basically it refers to a person’s own ability to do something, often in the sense of it being granted to him/her from a superior (i.e. the authority to do something). That is very much the situation here. These kings rule “(together) with” the Sea-creature (and its head), meaning that they reign under the creature’s authority.

As mentioned above, the specific number ten is symbolic, and it is probably foolish to attempt an identification of these horns with an actual set of ten vassal kings who reigned at a particular time. It may well be that the combination of head(s) and horns serves as a comprehensive symbol for the nations—those of the known world at the time, i.e. the Roman Empire and its vassals. This idea of the nations as a collective group was expressed differently in the last two bowl-visions:

    • Vision 6 (16:12-16)—Kings cross the great River (Euphrates), expanding to comprise all the kings of the inhabited world, who gather for battle in the day of Judgment
    • Vision 7 (16:17-21)—When the great City (Babylon) is toppled, all the cities of the nations—mountains and islands, etc—likewise fall and break apart; this is a depiction of the Judgment anticipated in the sixth vision (cf. 19:11-21)
Verse 13

“These hold one mind and give their power and e)cousi/a to the wild animal.”

The unity of these kings (nations) in their purpose and intention is emphasized. This indicates more than their loyalty to the Sea-creature (and its head); it anticipates their common hostility toward the creature, to be described in verses 16ff. However, they clearly recognize their status as vassals, acknowledging that their power and authority (e)cousi/a) comes from the Sea-creature. This generally reflects the situation in the Roman Empire, where the vassal rulers and nations had to acknowledge Rome’s sovereignty, but would seek any opportunity for true independence, to break free from Roman authority, if this were possible.

Verse 14

“These will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will be victorious over them, (in) that [i.e. because] he is (the) Lord of lords and King of kings, and the (one)s with him (are) called and gathered out and trusting (one)s.”

This verse summarizes the Judgment of the nations, as in the earlier visions of 14:17-20 and 16:17-21; it will be depicted in much greater detail in 19:11-21. There are three components to the description here:

    • War with the kings of the nations and their defeat
    • The Lamb (Jesus) identified as the greatest King and embodiment of all kingship and rule
    • Believers who serve (and rule) as his vassals

The initial wording (“they will make war with [the Lamb]”) reflects that of the conflict-visions in chapters 12-13, where the Dragon and Sea-creature likewise “make war with” the people of God (believers / offspring of the Woman, cf. 12:7ff, 17; 13:7). Likewise in the sixth bowl-vision, the kings of all the nations gather together to make war; ostensibly, the evil purpose of their gathering is to make war against God (here against the Lamb), but the Judgment they will face may, it seems, also involves their fighting against each other (vv. 16ff).

In depicting Jesus as the Lamb, this detail of the interpretation continues the emphasis on his death and resurrection that is central to the Christological portrait in the book of Revelation. It also reflects the uniquely Christian understanding of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), whose suffering and death was altogether contrary to the traditional Messianic figure-types in Judaism at the time. Jesus, in his earthly life, never fulfilled the traditional role, for example, of the David-ruler figure, who would subdue and punish the wicked nations. This was reserved for the time of his future return; even so, it is rarely mentioned in the New Testament; even in the book of Revelation it is, for the most part, only hinted at. At several points, the conquering Messiah of the end-time is anticipated (1:6-7; 12:10; 14:14-16ff), but is finally depicted only in the vision of 19:11-21 (to be discussed).

The three-fold reference to believers—using the adjectives klhto/$ (“called”), e)klekto/$ (“gathered out”), and pisto/$ (“trusting, trustworthy”)—is a bit curious. The context might suggest that Christians join with Jesus to do battle against the wicked nations, much as the Qumran Community seems to have imagined would take place in the great Eschatological/Messianic war (cf. especially the so-called War Scroll [1QM]). While the book of Revelation draws upon this same general tradition, it is unlikely that this is a reference to believers making war as part of the Lamb’s ‘army’. In my view, the mention of believers here brings together three important strands from the visionary narrative:

    • The idea of believers following the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4)
    • A continuation of the immediate symbolism–believers are “with” Jesus the King as his vassals, even as the horns/kings are vassals of the Sea-creature (and its head), ruling “with” him
    • The traditional motif of believers (the Elect, e)klektoi/) being gathered together to meet Jesus at his return (Mk 13:26-27 par; 1 Thess 4:14-16; 2 Thess 2:1)

This discussion will be picked up in the next daily note, on vv. 15-18.

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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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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.