October 21: Revelation 13:16-18

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

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

Revelation 3:16

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

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

Revelation 13:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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