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.

October 26: Revelation 13 (summary)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Special Note on 1 Thess 4:17: the “Rapture”

This note is supplemental to the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and, in particular, to Part 2 of the article on Paul’s eschatology in 1-2 Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:13-5:11). In 4:16-17, Paul vividly describes the coming of Jesus down to earth at the end-time Judgment, almost certainly drawing upon the same tradition of Jesus’ teaching found in Mark 13:26-27 par. It is, however, the specific image in 4:17, of believers being caught up (“seized”, vb a(rpa/zw) into clouds to meet Jesus in the air, that has especially captured the imagination of Christians, being referred to as “the rapture“, from Latin rapio—the Latin Vulgate translates the Greek a(rpaghso/meqa (“we will be seized”) with rapiemur. This idea of “the rapture” is so commonplace and well-established in modern eschatological discussion that many Christians today might be surprised to realize that it is scarcely to be found anywhere else in the New Testament. It does, of course, involve three distinct eschatological components, associated with the tradition of Jesus’ end-time return:

    • The gathering together of (all) believers—already featured as part of several key eschatological “Son of Man” sayings by Jesus (Mark 13:27 par; Matt 13:41-43, 49; 25:32-34ff, etc). Paul refers to this basic idea, generally, in a number of places (see esp. 2 Thess 2:1-2), but it is only described in any detail here in 1 Thess 4:16-17. He includes the idea of believers who have died being raised to join those living, but this likely only makes explicit what would have been assumed in the common tradition.
    • The motif of Jesus appearing in the clouds—this would seem to derive from the key Gospel traditions of Jesus’ Son of Man sayings in Mark 13:26 par and 14:62 par, and which are ultimately based on the language and imagery in Daniel 7:13-14. This same traditional imagery is utilized in the book of Revelation (esp. 1:7), and is implied in the narration of Jesus’ ascension in the book of Acts (1:9-11). Paul is drawing upon the same basic tradition.
    • The image of Jesus’ ascension—while this is described visually only in Acts 1:9ff, it would have been understood, as a common point of reference, by virtually all believers in the 1st century. Only in more recent times have Christians found difficulty in the concrete localization of heaven spatially as up in the sky. Moreover, there is an ideal of ascension for the righteous (while still alive) which is part of an important line of Israelite and Jewish tradition. The notice of Enoch in Gen 5:24, however brief and enigmatic, is usually understood as a living ascension to heaven, part of a more expansive Enoch tradition. Elijah’s is the most famous such ascension, described vividly in 2 Kings 2:11-12. Jesus’ own ascension would have served as a kind of pattern for believers—just as Jesus ascended alive to heaven, it was only natural for believers to see themselves, at the time his return, ascending in a similar manner.

However, if the specific detail of believers rising up in to the sky to meet Jesus was widespread as part of the early Christian expectation, it is surprising that there is no other clear evidence for it in the New Testament. In particular, in the book of Revelation, that treasury of eschatological tradition and imagery, we would well expect to find it. Yet there can be no doubt of the wide acceptance of the basic underlying idea—that believers will be gathered together to face/meet Jesus when he appears.

Unfortunately, the relatively simple notion of Christians meeting Jesus and being taken with him to heaven has been obscured by the use of the expression “the Rapture” as a kind of shorthand point of reference relating to a whole range of eschatological issues and speculation among Christians today. Some of this valuable and important, some idle and unhelpful, but nearly all of it, I should say, is rather far removed from the thought-world of the New Testament and 1st century Christian eschatology. In this series, I have tried to focus exclusively on the original context and background of the relevant New Testament passages—that is to say, on the eschatological expectation of the author and his audience in the 1st century A.D., as expressed in the text. It has been necessary, at times, to mention various modern-day theories and eschatological schema, but I have sought to keep this to a minimum. Here, however, it is worth pointing out several key aspects of much modern eschatological thought, relating to “the Rapture”, since they are so widely referenced, often without much regard to the soundness of their basis in Scripture. Three aspects, in particular, should be mentioned:

    • The question of when the “Rapture” will occur, in relation to other end-time events.
    • Whether it means that believers will be kept from the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$) that is to come upon humankind, or will have to endure it, either in whole or in part.
    • According to some lines of interpretation, this “Rapture” will be secret—that is to say, it will not correspond with the general idea of Jesus coming to earth (visibly) to bring the Judgment. Rather, the visible return of Jesus will occur at a later time, following the period of distress on earth. Those who hold this view believe the “Rapture” will take place prior to the completion of the period of distress (i.e. pre- or mid-Tribulation Rapture view).

It must be pointed out that all three aspects are specifically a product of modern eschatology. I find little or no evidence to indicate that any of them were of real concern to believers in the 1st century. To begin with the third item above, the idea of a “secret” appearance by Jesus, for the purpose of gathering the Elect, which is separate from his coming to usher in the Judgment, runs contrary to all such references to Jesus’ return in the New Testament (cf. the various passages cited above). There is only one coming of Jesus, and it occurs at the moment of the end when the Judgment is realized. Believers are saved/rescued from this Judgment. The two-appearance scheme (and “secret” rapture) came to be introduced into modern eschatology, it would seem, out of the need to support the particular belief that believers would be rescued from the period of distress that precedes the Judgment.

However, early Christians appear to have taken for granted that they would have to endure the period of distress, which brings us to the second aspect mentioned above. We may note, in particular, the numerous passages expressing the view of believers in the first century, that they were already living in the “last days”, and that, as such, the suffering they were experiencing was part of this end-time period of distress. For example, in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse, the persecution of Jesus’ disciples (believers) is set clearly within the period of distress that precedes the coming of the “Son of Man” (Mark 13:5-23 par, vv. 9-13). For other clear instances of this view, cf. Parts 1 and 2 of the article on 1-2 Thessalonians, the article on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”, as well as in my current series of daily notes on the Book of Revelation.

Finally, with regard to modern views concerning the return of Jesus and coming of the Judgment, they are complicated by the (modern) tendency of attempting to assemble the various eschatological passages in the New Testament into a coherent and systematic framework. The book of Revelation is especially problematic, even though, on the surface at least, it may seem to provide the very framework needed to assemble the pieces. The sequence of visions, and vision-cycles, appear to describe a chronological order of events; however, as a careful reading and study of the book (being undertaken in the current series of daily notes) will show, the symbolism of the visions defies such systematization. Many, if not most, of the symbols are multivalent, with various possible associations and levels of meaning.

As it happens, there is one relatively clear and consistent eschatological framework in the New Testament—the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse. For first-century Christians, this represented the closest thing to a systematic presentation of eschatology that we will find. The teaching goes back to the words of Jesus himself, but, in all likelihood, the “Discourse” as we have it reflects a traditional and literary arrangement of material. I have given a relatively simple outline of the chronology of the Discourse (in Part 4 of the prior article); here it may be worth presenting it again:

The Markan version is the shortest and simplest and may safely be considered as closer to the core Synoptic tradition and arrangement (generally followed by Matthew, though with development and inclusion of additional material):

    • 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 Lukan version demonstrates a more precise sequence:

    • A period of mission work (and persecution) for Jesus’ disciples prior to the destruction of the Temple [c. 35-65? A.D.] (vv. 12-19)
    • A period of distress for Judea and Jerusalem, characterized by warfare/uprising (i.e. in the Roman Empire), the appearance of false prophets and false Messiahs, as well as signs in heaven indicating the coming suffering. The central event of this period (c. 66-70) is the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of the city and the Temple [70 A.D.] (vv. 8-11, 20-24)
    • (An intervening period during which Jerusalem is “trampled” by the Gentiles [Romans], i.e. the “times of the nations”, of unspecified length, v. 24)
    • A time of distress for all the Nations, again marked by signs in heaven, etc (vv. 25-26)
    • The coming of the Son of Man—the end of the current Age and the manifestation/realization of the Kingdom of God (vv. 27-28, 31)

The “Rapture” of 1 Thess 4:17 corresponds with the coming of the Son of Man (understood as the return of Jesus), and the gathering of the Elect (believers), at the conclusion of this chronology (Mk 13:27 par). The coming of the Son of Man (Jesus) also ushers in the final Judgment, though this is only implied in the Discourse (Mk 13:24-25, 32ff par); Matthew’s version expounds it more clearly (the parables in chap. 25, esp. verses 31-46), as does Paul in 2 Thess 1:6-10 (cf. Part 1).

October 21: Revelation 13:16-18

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

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

Revelation 3:16

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

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

Revelation 13:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 19: Revelation 13:13-15

Revelation 13:11-18, continued

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

Revelation 13:13

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:14

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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October 18: Revelation 13:11-12

Having discussed the first vision of chapter 13 (the creature from the Sea, vv. 1-10) in the previous two notes, we now turn to the second vision—the creature from the Earth (vv. 11-18). As most commentators recognize, this pairing of creatures, from the land and sea, respectively, draws upon the Jewish tradition of Behemoth and Leviathan. The pairing is first seen in Job 40:15-24 and chapter 41. The Hebrew hm*h@B= (plural tomh@B=) appears to be a general word referring to cattle or other large (land) animals (“beasts”); its ultimate derivation is uncertain, though the Old Testament usage corresponds to the earlier Canaanite (Ugaritic). In Job 40:15, the plural form should probably be understood as an intensive (or extensive) plural, indicating an especially large and powerful creature, perhaps alluding specifically to the Egyptian hippopotamus. By contrast, the Leviathan (Hebrew /t*y`w+l!) is more properly identified as a mythic/cosmic creature, known from the Ugaritic texts (L£t¹n¥), where, in the cosmological Baal ‘Epic’ (III.3.41-42; V.1.1-2), it is the name of a “twisting” Snake-like figure (with seven heads) associated with the primeval Sea (personified, Yamm). Admittedly, the Dragon and ‘Beast from the Sea’ are much closer to Leviathan than the ‘Beast from the Earth’ is to Behemoth. However, the general pattern likely prevails here, given the coupling of Behemoth and Leviathan in various eschatological/apocalyptic Jewish texts of the first centuries B.C./A.D. (e.g., 1 Enoch 60:7-9, 24; 2 Baruch 29:4; 2/4 Esdras 6:49-52).

Revelation 13:11-18

The vision in Rev 13:11-18 focuses on the Earth-creature. The study of this vision will be broken up into three notes, according to the following outline:

    • Description of the creature—vv. 11-12
    • Its action: The image of the Sea-creature—vv. 13-15
    • Its action: The ‘mark’ of the Sea-creature—vv. 16-18
Revelation 13:11-12

“And I saw another wild animal stepping up out of the earth, and he held two horns, like a lamb, and (yet) he spoke as (the) Fabulous Creature (did).” (v. 11)

The initial description of the Earth-creature follows the pattern of the Sea-creature vision (v. 1); both ultimately derive from the Daniel 7 vision of four beasts (hybrid animal-creatures) coming up from the sea—note the parallel of rising from the sea/earth in 7:3, 17. Unlike the Sea-creature, the Earth-creature has just two horns (and, it would seem, a single head). As noted previously, the horn is a traditional image symbolizing power. It is hard to say just what the number two here signifies, though there is likely an allusion to the two-horned ram in the vision of Daniel 8. This implies that, though he otherwise resembles a lamb, the Earth-creature, with his powerful horns, is an aggressive, dangerous, and violent figure. Almost certainly there is an intentional contrast of this lamb-like creature with the Lamb symbolizing the exalted Jesus; it is part of the same evil parody of Jesus represented by the Sea-creature (cf. the prior note). While the holy ones and heavenly beings exalt the Lamb, this other evil “lamb” exalts the Sea-creature (and the Dragon). This is indicated in the final phrase of the verse—kai\ e)la/lei w($ dra/kwn, which could be understood two ways:

    • “and he spoke as a fabulous (creature)” —that is, despite the simple/gentle appearance as a lamb, the creature actually speaks like a “fabulous creature” or dragon (i.e. serpent). This may reflected the shrewdness and cunning of the Genesis 3 Serpent; cp. also the proverbial sayings by Jesus in Matt 7:15; 10:16.
    • and he spoke as the Fabulous (Creature)” —in other words, he imitates the great evil Dragon of these visions.

The latter interpretation is to be preferred. The lamb-like Earth-creature, despite his appearance, speaks with the voice of the seven headed Dragon. The inference is both to his evil character, and also that, by his actions, he serves as an ally of the Dragon.

“And he makes all the e)cousi/a of the first wild animal (function) in his sight; and he makes the Earth, and the (one)s putting down house [i.e. dwelling] in her, (so) that they will kiss toward [i.e. worship] the first wild animal, of whom his strike of death was attended to [i.e. healed].” (v. 12)

Here, in this verse, we have a summary encapsulation of the relationship between the Dragon, Sea-creature, and Earth-creature. The noun e)cousi/a, which I have left untranslated in these passages, signifies a person’s authority or ability to do something, often in the context of being granted it by a superior. In the first vision (v. 4), it was stated that the Sea-creature’s authority was given to it by the Dragon; now, we see that the Earth-creature similarly acts on the Sea-creature’s behalf. It is not said that the Sea-creature gives authority/ability to the Earth-creature; rather, it is that the two creatures function in tandem (though with the Sea-creature as the superior), operating in two different domains—the Earth and Sea, respectively. This will be commented on further below.

This enactment of the Sea-creature’s authority is aimed at one primary purpose: to make everyone living on earth to worship and venerate the Sea Creature. Mention is made again of the apparently fatal wound (“blow of death”) on one of the Sea-creature’s heads (v. 3), which had been attended to, and was thus healed. As I discussed in the prior note, while this detail may be an allusion to an early form of the Nero-legend, its main significance is as an evil parody of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bringing out the detail here only emphasizes the parallel with Jesus. Believers everywhere worship the Lamb (Jesus) that was slain; similarly, all other people (non-believers) on earth worship the Creature that seemed to have been slain—and a different “lamb” works to bring about this wicked parody.

In the next note, we will examine in more detail just how the Earth-creature works to ensure that everyone on earth worships the Sea-creature. However, in conclusion, I feel it is necessary to give a bit more consideration to the relationship between these two creatures, in terms of their localization in the Sea (qa/lassa) and Earth (gh=).

Earth and sea were mentioned together earlier in the book (e.g., 5:13; 7:1-3), but as a specific pair first in the central vision of chapter 12 (v. 12, part of the heavenly voice of praise). That warning served as an ominous foreshadowing of these two chapter 13 visions, introduced by the notice (according to the best textual evidence) that the Dragon went and stood at the edge (lit. “sand”) of the Sea (v. 18). Thus, the Dragon was positioned at a point, on a strip of territory, between the Earth and Sea. This localization perhaps echoes that of the heavenly Messenger in 10:1-17, who stands with one foot on the sea and the other on the earth (v. 2, 5), thus similarly positioned between the two. While Earth and Sea are the core components of a rich ancient (Near Eastern) cosmology, here they are envisioned as a simple duality: two territories side by side with a boundary in between. While the creature from the Sea exercises authority and control of the territory of the Earth, he does so through the services of the creature from the Earth. Since that second creature comes from the Earth, he is more closely connected with it, and thus can more effectively establish the Sea-creature’s control over it.

As we continue through these notes, both here in chapter 13 and the subsequent visions involving the two creatures, the specific symbolism will be explored further and in more detail. In particular, it will be necessary to consider to what extent it is meant to symbolize the (actual) situation facing first century Christians in Asia Minor (the setting of the book), and to what extent it encompasses a more general religious-spiritual symbolism which can be applied to the situation of believers in all ages.

In the next note, we will examine the first action of the Earth-creature (vv. 13-15), involving the image (ei)kw/n) of the Sea-creature.

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October 15: Revelation 13:5-10

Revelation 12:18-13:10 (Continued)

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:6

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

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

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

Revelation 13:7

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

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

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

Revelation 13:8

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

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

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

Revelation 13:9-10

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding note

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

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

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October 14: Revelation 12:18-13:4

Revelation 12:18-13:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:3

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 13:4

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

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

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

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

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

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October 13: Revelation 12:13-17

Revelation 12:13-17

“And when the Fabulous (Creature) saw that he was thrown (down) onto the earth, he pursued the (same) Woman who (had) produced the male (child). And the two wings of a great eagle were given to the woman, (so) that she might take wing [i.e. fly] into the desolate land, into her place (in) which she will be nourished there—for a time, times, and half a time—(away) from the face of the Snake.” (vv. 13-14)

This episode continues the conflict between the “Fabulous Creature” (dra/kwn) and the Woman from vv. 1-6. As I discussed in the prior note on that passage, the Woman should be understood as representing the People of God, in both a heavenly and earthly aspect. Similarly, the Dragon embodies the forces/powers of evil and wickedness; it, too, has both heavenly and earthly aspects. This dual-aspect of the symbolism—heavenly and earthly—is the key to understanding this passage; it also reflects the overall eschatological worldview of the book as a whole. This is similar, in many respects, to the outlook of the Community of the Qumran texts, which viewed itself as the “holy ones” on earth, in conjunction with the “Holy Ones” in heaven (i.e. Michael and the Angels). The two dimensions existed and functioned in tandem, on parallel levels, but would come to be more properly united, working and acting together, at the end time. The War Scroll (1QM) is perhaps the best example of this eschatological expectation, whether realized figuratively or as a concrete historical event, as the Community and Angelic forces join together in a war between the “Sons of Light” and the “Sons of Darkness”. Revelation 12 evinces a similar sort of military imagery, with the forces of evil (the Dragon) “making war” against the People of God.

While the three episodes of chapter 12 make up a three-part narrative, it is also possible to view vv. 7-17 as a kind of unit, with a parallel/chiastic structure:

    • Dragon makes war on the People of God (Angels) in heaven (vv. 7)
      • He is unable to prevail in heaven (v. 8)
        • He is thrown down to earth (v. 9)
          • Voice sounding the victory of the Kingdom of God (vv. 10-12)
        • Conflict on earth with the Woman (vv. 13ff)
      • He is unable to prevail on earth (v. 16)
    • Dragon makes war on the People of God (Believers) on earth (v. 17)
Revelation 12:13 (translation above)

In the first episode, the Dragon stands close by, threatening the Woman and waiting to devour her (first-born) male child (v. 4). The child, clearly to be identified with Jesus Christ, was “seized” and taken up to God (i.e. the resurrection/ascension/exaltation of Jesus) away from the Dragon’s grasp. Now the monster is only able to go after the Woman, and he pursues her. This verb (diw/kw) is often used in the sense of pursuing someone with hostile intent, and so came to be a technical term for the persecution of believers. While the Woman clearly has a heavenly aspect (v. 1), as noted above, it is the earthly aspect that is primarily emphasized in this vision. As the People of God, the Woman represents Israel, but should not be limited to such an identification. In the first episode, representing the period of Jesus’ birth and earthly life, it would be proper to understand the Woman as the People of God according to the Old Covenant (cf. the Lukan Infancy narratives for examples of this emphasis). Here, however, the vision is describing the period after Jesus’ resurrection; and yet, believers in Christ are not specifically mentioned until the end of the episode (v. 17). It is, perhaps, best to see the Woman here as representing the People of God according to the New Covenant, understood at first (vv. 13-16) in a general sense.

Revelation 12:14 (translation above)

There are three key motifs in this verse:

    • the wings of an eagle—In Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the wings of an eagle (Gk. a)eto/$) are used to symbolize the salvation and protection God provides for his people (cf. Exod 19:4; Deut 32:10-12; also Isa 40:31; Psalm 103:5, etc). In particular, the Exodus/Wilderness setting of Exod 19:4 and Deut 32:10ff is probably in view here. The passive form of e)do/qhsan (“was given”) is an example of the “divine passive”, where God is the implied actor. The parallel in Rev 17:3 would suggest that the great bird-image here essentially refers to the Spirit.
    • flight into the desert—In Israelite/Jewish history and tradition, the desert (Gk. e&rhmo$, “desolate [land]”) is a place to which one flees for safety and protection. In the case of God’s people, alone in the desert, they must then rely entirely upon God (YHWH) himself for care and sustenance. The most prominent example, of course, is the wilderness wanderings of Israel (Exodus 16ff; Deut 32:10ff, etc); but there are other notable traditions involving Hagar/Ishmael (Gen 16:1-13; 21:8-19), Moses (Exod 2:15-3:1), David (1 Sam 23:25), and Elijah (1 Kings 17:1-7; 19:4-8). Jesus was similarly sustained in the desert, according to the early Gospel tradition in Mark 1:12-13 par; and there is also the famous tradition of the Flight to Egypt in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2:13-15). From such imagery developed the religious-spiritual tradition of the desert as the place where a person encounters the presence of God (Isa 40:3ff; Hos 2:14, etc).
    • “time, times, and half a time” —This expression comes from the book of Daniel (Dan 7:25; 12:7), and is another way of referring to the 3½ years that marks the end-time period of distress. The orientation of the book of Revelation suggests that believers were living at the very beginning or onset of this period, during which they would endure intense persecution (cf. below).

It is likely that the “place” (to/po$) the Woman finds (with God) in the desert is meant to echo the “place” (to/po$) that the Dragon (Satan and the other Angels) loses in heaven (v. 8).

Revelation 12:15-16

“And the Snake cast out of his mouth, in back of [i.e. after] the Woman, water as a (great) river, (so) that he might make her (to be) carried (away) by the river. And the Earth ran to the cry (of) the Woman and opened up her mouth, and drank down the river which the Fabulous (Creature) cast out of his mouth.”

This vision-narrative here is replete with a closely connected set of mythological images. In addition to the figures of the Woman and Dragon, the Earth (gh=) is personified as well. Like the Woman and Dragon, it too has a kind of dual aspect. Note—

1. There is a close affinity between Earth and the Woman. As noted above, here the Woman represents the People of God on earth—that is, human believers (cf. below). Also the word gh= is grammatically feminine, and so Earth is personified as a woman. Traditionally, such mythic-cosmological personifications of Earth have a strong fertility component—i.e. the Earth as a Mother, giving birth to life on earth. In the vision, the Woman is also principally a mother, so it is quite natural that the personified Earth would seek to help her.

2. At the same time, there is also a kind of parallel between the Earth and the Dragon, which foreshadows the following visions in chapter 13 (cf. the prior warning in v. 12). Just as the Dragon opens its mouth (sto/ma) to blast out water, so also the Earth opens her mouth (sto/ma) to contain it. The Dragon lost its place in Heaven, and so it now forced to reside on the Earth; many Snake/Serpent traditions in ancient myth have a strong chthonic aspect—i.e., tying it to pattern of earthly/material existence, the boundaries of the created order, etc.

The matrix of images Earth-Water-River here also serves as an important symbol with several levels of meaning:

    • The natural motif related to rivers in the desert (including many of the rivers in Palestine)—dry river beds (wadis) which are filled suddenly with water by powerful rain-torrents. This is generally a positive image of life and sustenance (Psalm 105:41; Isa 43:19), but it could also signify a time of great danger (i.e. for someone standing in/near the river-bed).
    • In the Exodus traditions, during the wanderings in the desert, God provided for Israel with water-streams that came out of the rock (Exod 17:6; Psalm 78:16). Here we have the reverse image of the earth (i.e. the desert ‘rocks’) helping the people of God by taking back in the waters.
    • Also in the wilderness period traditions, we have the episode of the Korah rebellion, in which the earth “opened up” to swallow the wicked rebels (Num 16:32-34). Here the earth responds similarly to swallow up the evil waters of the Dragon; implicit is the idea that the earth (like all of creation) responds to the will and command of God (cf. Wisdom 16:17ff; 19:6; Koester, p. 554).

As in vv. 13-14, here the Fabulous Creature or Dragon (dra/kwn, v. 16) is identified as a great Snake (o&fi$, v. 15), reflecting both: (1) a snake-like appearance, and (2) the Serpent of Genesis 3 as a personification/manifestation of the Evil One (Satan/Devil), as the earlier aside in v. 9 makes clear. The name Dia/bolo$ (i.e. Devil) is derived from the verb ba/llw (“throw, cast”), literally referring to one who “throws over” accusations/insults, or who “casts (evil) throughout”. Here the Dragon/Snake is said to “cast” (e&balen, from ba/llw) out the destructive waters against the Woman from its mouth.

Revelation 12:17

“And (so) the Fabulous (Creature) was in anger about the Woman, and went from (there) to make war with the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed, the (one)s keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God and holding the witness of Yeshua.”

Unable to destroy the Woman, the Dragon goes away to focus on attacking her children. This is the first we hear in the vision of any other children by the Woman. It is to be inferred that, after the birth of her (first) male child (Jesus), she gave birth to other children, here expressed as “the (one)s remaining (out) of her seed”. How are we to understand this distinction between the Dragon’s attack on the Woman, and that against her remaining children? Are the Woman and her Children two different figures or aspects of the same basic image. On the one hand, they are different:

    • 1st Episode: Woman = People of God under the Old Covenant
      • Jesus (the Messiah) is the male child born of her
    • 2nd Episode: Woman = People of God under the New Covenant
      • Believers in Christ are the children born of her

On the other hand, we may see it as the same image—i.e., the Woman represents the People of God on earth, under the New Covenant, which is equal to all believers in Christ. The specific expression “the remainder of her seed” probably means simply all other children after Jesus, distinguishing believers from Jesus himself. Conceivably, the idea of “remaining” could also imply believers who are still alive after the attack on the Woman (i.e. an initial period of persecution). These children of the Woman are here defined as believers, by two phrases, describing them as those:

    • “keeping watch (over) the e)ntolai/ of God” and
    • “holding the witness of Yeshua”

With regard to the first phrase, I have left the plural noun e)ntolai/ untranslated above. Typically it is translated as “commandments”, but literally the word e)ntolh/ refers to something (a duty, charge, etc) which is placed on someone to complete. The only other occurrence of the word in the book of Revelation is at 14:12, where the same phrase is used. The expression “the e)ntolai/ of God” here may be understood one of three ways:

    • It refers to the commands, precepts, etc, of the Old Testament Law (Torah), either in its full sense or as it might be applied to Christians.
    • It is equivalent to Paul’s expression “law of God” (no/mo$ qeou=, Rom 7:22, 25; 1 Cor 9:21), which I take to mean the will of God in the broader sense. Paul’s also uses the phrase “keeping watch over the e)ntolai/ of God” in 1 Cor 7:19, where “e)ntolai/ of God” probably has the same meaning as “law of God”.
    • It is being used in the Johannine sense, referring to the two-fold command—(1) true faith in Christ and (2) Christ-like love for fellow believers—expressed by the use of e)ntolh/ throughout the Gospel and Letters (see esp. 1 Jn 3:23-24).

In my view, the second option above best fits the context here in the book of Revelation. By “commands of God” (or the Pauline equivalent “law of God”), early Christians would surely have understood the idea of believers fulfilling the will of God by following the example and teaching of Jesus. The Pauline and Johannine emphasis on the Spirit as the source of guidance and teaching for believers in this regard is generally absent from the book of Revelation (but note the wording in 2:7 etc). Some commentators would see the reference to the “commands of God” here as an indication that Jewish Christians were specifically in view, but I find this to be unlikely. Throughout the book of Revelation, images and motifs from Israelite/Jewish tradition are consistently applied to believers—that is, all believers—in a general sense.

The second descriptive phrase in v. 17 is “the ones holding the witness of Yeshua”. The genitive could be understood as subjective (Jesus is giving the witness) or objective (it is witness about Jesus). In Rev 1:2, it is subjective, meaning that the witness/message comes from Jesus; however, elsewhere in the book, the idea of believers functioning as witnesses tends to dominate. Clearly, both concepts are related, and I would argue that we should give weight to them both here as well. The close connection between Jesus and believers as children of the Woman makes this all the more valid. In giving witness of the Gospel (about Jesus), believers follow the example of Jesus himself in giving witness. The verb e&xw should be translated literally (and concretely) as “hold”, conveying the idea of the need to hold firmly to the Gospel during the time of distress, parallel to the verb thre/w (“keep watch [over]”).

Some commentators would include the short sentence in 12:18 (“And he stood upon the sand of the Sea”) as part of the vision in chapter 12; however, it is best considered as part of the vision that follows in chapter 13. In many way, it is serves as a transition between the two visions, joining together the images of Earth and Sea (as in v. 12). I will discuss verse 18, together with the first portion of chapter 13 (vv. 1-10) in the next daily note.

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