Supplemental Note 3 on Revelation: Interpretive Approaches

Interpretive Approaches to the Book of Revelation

The difficulties surrounding the symbolism of the book of Revelation (cf. Supplemental Note 2), along with other aspects of its eschatology, have led commentators to adopt very distinctive approaches to interpretation, sometimes to the point of constructing elaborate interpretive (and chronological) schema to explain the visions in the book (and how they might be fulfilled). In my notes, I have held tightly to an objective critical approach—which might be referred to also as the historical-grammatical method—focusing almost entirely on the Greek text of the book, its historical and cultural-religious background, and how the symbolism of the visions would likely have been understood by believers at the time (i.e. author and original audience in the late-first century A.D.).

However, the problem with this—and the reason why many Christians cannot accept a strict historical-grammatical approach, in the case of Revelation—lies in the early Christian eschatology reflected in the book. It is an imminent eschatology—i.e., author and audience in the late-first century expected the events described in the book to occur very soon, presumably within their own lifetime. This applies equally to many of the eschatological passages in the New Testament, and leads to the same interpretive problem for us today. I have discussed the point at length throughout the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament” (cf. especially the study on “Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament”), and in the notes on Revelation. I admit to making no attempt to solve this problem in the notes and articles, though I have addressed the matter at several points, and do so again more directly in the conclusion to the series.

Some might characterize my approach to the book of Revelation as preterist, but this is not particularly accurate, and would apply better to a critical study of the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse (cf. my four-part study), since most of the events and details predicted in the Discourse could be seen as being fulfilled, more or less accurately, during the first century A.D. The situation with the book of Revelation is rather different, but some of the same issues arise, in terms of a critical, historical-grammatical approach to the book; I would make the following points (which are also points of tension for believers today):

    • The historical life-setting of believers (in Asia Minor) in the late-first century A.D. (c. 80-100) informs the symbolism of the book, and the primary meaning of the symbols—and, with it, what the visions are describing and communicating—must be intelligible to those believers (author and original audience).
    • The eschatology of the book is imminent (cf. above)—author and audience expected the prophecies to be fulfilled very soon, within their lifetime.
    • The most immediate portion of the prophecies—depiction/description of the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, 7:14 etc)—is an extension (and intensification) of what believers at the time were already experiencing.

Admittedly, all three of the above points are problematic, especially the second. While some of the things described in the visions (i.e. those related to the period of distress and persecution of believers) could be seen as having been fulfilled in the first (or early second) century, many others clearly were not—most notably, the return of Jesus and onset of the great Judgment, has not yet occurred. The various specialized interpretive approaches to the book of Revelation (and other eschatological passages in the New Testament) are essentially attempts to solve this difficult problem and bridge the divide. I would outline four basic approaches which might be, and have been, adopted:

    • Church-historical
    • Present-futurist
    • Dual-fulfillment
    • General-spiritual

I will discuss each of these briefly.

The Church-Historical Approach

This approach interprets the visions in the book of Revelation in terms of a survey of Church history, with the various visions (and vision-cycles) representing different periods and events in history, each of which was fulfilled at the proper time. The basic approach appears to have developed in the Middle Ages, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries among members of the Franciscan order. It developed as part of their conflict with the Papacy, the clear allusions to the Roman Empire in the book finding a natural fulfillment in the Roman Catholic Church. The Franciscans saw themselves as a persecuted remnant of the faithful, with Rome (i.e. the Papacy) as the wicked persecutor. This line of interpretation was continued during the Protestant Reformation, involving a similar polemic against the Roman Catholic Church, to be followed by many Protestants thereafter. There are two main advantages to this approach:

    • It allows for both an immediate fulfillment (and relevance) among early believers, as well as a future fulfillment centuries later, covering as it does the span of Christian history
    • It recognizes and retains the (original) context of Roman imperial rule, transferring it to the Roman Catholic Church, and thus making it applicable for believers in subsequent generations.

The main problem with this approach is that it renders the visions—most of them, at any rate—largely irrelevant to the believers for whom the book was specifically (and originally) written. If the visions refer to things that will only be fulfilled centuries later, what real meaning to they have anymore for Christians in the first-century?

While once quite popular among Protestants, the Church-historical approach has been largely abandoned today; traditional-conservative (or ‘Evangelical’) Protestants tend to follow other interpretative approaches, many now assuming some form of Present-futurist interpretation.

The Present-Futurist Approach

This approach simply assumes that, if the prophecies in Revelation have not yet been clearly fulfilled, then they must (and will) be in the future. And, since most individuals and groups who evince an eschatological interest or orientation tend to believe that they are the generation who will witness the end-time events (period of distress, return of Jesus, etc), this future becomes the present—i.e. the prophecies will be fulfilled, for us today, very soon. There are two principal (and rather obvious) advantages to this approach:

    • It retains the strong sense of imminence expressed in the book, transferring it from the first-century to the present-day.
    • It allows for an accurate fulfillment of all the prophecies in the book—presumably at some time in the (very near) future.

Unfortunately, even more than with the Church-historical approach (cf. above), the main problem (and fatal flaw) of any Present-futurist interpretation is that it effectively negates (or at least minimizes greatly) the significance of the visions for believers in the first-century—that is, those for whom the book was specifically written. If the visions speak of things only to be fulfilled centuries (or thousands) of years later, what relevance do they have for believers at the time? Moreover, this approach seems to ignore passages which clearly place the visions (and their interpretation) in the immediate context of first-century believers—as, for example, the explanation of the Sea-creature’s heads in 17:9-11, or the instruction regarding the number/mark of the Sea-creature (13:18), to say nothing of the many clear declarations, exhortations, and warnings to believers at the time.

Obviously, in any Present-futurist approach, details deriving from a first-century context have to be translated (i.e. transferred) into a modern setting. In the case of the historical/cultural setting of the Roman Empire, this has been understood in terms of a ‘revived’ Roman Empire, sometimes identified with the modern European Union (EU), or something similar. In any case, it would be a real, modern-day kingdom or ’empire’ of some sort, patterned in a sense after the ancient Roman Empire. Similarly, the “Antichrist” will be the ruler of this wicked modern empire.

For those who have long since accepted (and simply take for granted) the fundamental validity of a Present-futurist approach, the debate now revolves around specific chronological and interpretive schema—i.e., how the 7 (and/or 3½) year period of distress (Tribulation) fits in relation to the “rapture” of the Church, the return of Jesus, the Millennial reign (chap. 20), and so forth. Especially popular are forms of this approach which seek to find modern-day fulfillment of specific symbols and details, attempting to establish correlations which often border on the absurd. The diversity of the symbolism, of course, makes possible a very wide range of interpretation, and, for many commentators, no opportunity is lost to make a modern-day connection. In many instances, such interpretation is very far removed from how the symbolism would have been understood by first-century Christians.

Dual-Fulfillment Approach

This approach is basic to all early Christian eschatology, as expressed in the New Testament; it attempts to retain the original imminent eschatology (and its relevance for early Christians) while also maintaining an accurate fulfillment of every prophecy. It perhaps is a better fit for the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, i.e.—(1) partial fulfillment in the first-century A.D. (persecution of the disciple, false Messiahs, Jewish War, Roman siege, destruction of the Temple, etc), and (2) secondary/final fulfillment in the future. The Discourse itself supports the idea of dual-fulfillment, in the case of the prophecy in Dan 9:27, being fulfilled in the actions of Antiochus IV in the 2nd century B.C., and again, by a wicked ruler (Roman emperor?) in the 1st century A.D. In this instance, a modern dual-fulfillment approach would mean a three-fold fufillment—(1) 2nd century B.C. (Antiochus), (2) 1st century A.D. (Roman), and (3) future/end-time (Antichrist?). Of course, certain events, such as the end-time return of Jesus, could really only be fulfilled in the future.

In applying this approach to the book of Revelation, one might deem it a plausible mode of interpretation, at least in terms of the end-time period of distress, as long as individual details were not interpreted in an overly concrete, literalist manner:

    • The forces of evil manifest in the Roman Empire (locally in Asia Minor), with its commercial, military, and political power; the corrupting false religion of the imperial cult would lead to increasing persecution of Christians, even to the point of tests involving the veneration of an image of the emperor (13:14-15, cp. Pliny the Younger Epistles 10.97.2).
    • In the future, the forces of evil will be manifest in another wicked/corrupt world-power, which will behave (and act toward Christians) in a manner similar to the Roman Empire in the 1st/2nd century.

As mentioned above, this approach has the advantage of preserving the imminent eschatology of the New Testament, while allowing for the accurate fulfillment of prophecy in the future. This makes the approach quite attractive, but also, for this very reason, is perhaps a bit too convenient. What basis is there, in the New Testament writings themselves, for such a dual-fulfillment idea, apart from our own desire (and need) to preserve the inspired integrity of Scripture? I can find very little substantive evidence to support this approach, however appealing it may be. It may, however, turn out to be best starting-point in the development of a genuine solution to the problem. Much work remains to be done by commentators and theologians in this regard.

The General-Spiritual Approach

In this approach to New Testament eschatology (and the book of Revelation in particular), the visions and prophecies are interpreted more generally, in a way that would apply them to believers in all times. This can be done a number of ways. With regard to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament, the aspect of imminence is often understood in terms of what may happen, or could happen (at any time), rather than what will happen (very soon). In my view, this misreads and distorts the fundamental emphasis in such passages, but the approach is quite understandable as a way of making the eschatological outlook more applicable to us today.

With regard to the main eschatological events—the period of distress and persecution, the return of Jesus, and the great Judgment—central as they are to the book of Revelation, it is similarly possible to interpret them in a generalized or “spiritual” sense, rather than as events for which there will be a concrete (metaphysical) manifestation in space and time. This might seem difficult to accept in the case of Jesus’ return, but a passage such as Luke 17:20-21 could be seen as pointing in that direction. Much more basic, at least in terms of the period of distress (qli/yi$), is the fact that Christians have faced, and continue to experience today, considerable opposition and persecution by the wicked (and by the forces of evil in the world). It need not be limited to any one moment or period in time, but could be seen as a general condition in the current Age. Similarly, the graphic imagery of Judgment—disruptions of the natural order, catastrophic phenomena, plagues and suffering—could be viewed more generally (even realistically) as things experienced by humankind throughout history. Ultimately, the Judgment—the final realization of it—would take place in the afterlife and the heavenly/eternal realm of God.

This would probably be the preferred approach for many Christians today, avoiding as it does all the thorny critical (and doctrinal) questions involving the compatibility of the imminent eschatology of early Christians with the 1900+ years that have since passed. But it is this very point that represents the fatal weakness of the approach—it ignores the clear force of the New Testament eschatology, with its imminence, urgency, and expectation of a terrible coming Judgment.

Ultimately, there is (as yet) no clear solution to the fundamental problem regarding the imminent eschatology of the New Testament. The most honest and forthright approach I can see, and which I have tried to maintain throughout, is to begin with an objective critical study of the text, looking first (and principally) at its original historical, religious-cultural, and literary context. What would these visions and their symbolism have meant to first-century believers in Asia Minor? How did they understand the visionary narrative and its realization? What does the narrative communicate to Christians at that time? Only then can we properly, and reliably, understand what the book of Revelation means for us today.

Supplemental Note 2 on Revelation: Symbols in the Book

Symbols in the Book of Revelation

More than anything it is the vivid and striking imagery in the book of Revelation which has given it a lasting place in the Christian consciousness. It is at the heart of the expressive power of the book. And yet, so rich and varied is the symbolism that it has been possible for readers and commentators to find just about anything one wishes in it, subjecting the images and symbols to a wide range of interpretation. However, the correctness and accuracy of any interpretive approach depends on properly understanding the nature and character of the symbols themselves. As symbols, one may isolate specific objects, personages, details, and the like; at the same time, these are built up within larger symbolic matrices. Each visionary scene or episode in the book represents a matrix of connected symbols; the larger vision-cycles are even more complex, each with its own symbolic marker—seal, trumpet, offering-dish.

When approaching the visionary symbols and images of the book, I would maintain that there are three important principles that must be observed, if one hopes to obtain a sound understanding of what is being communicated through this symbolism:

    1. The symbolic, figurative character of the imagery must be recognized throughout and consistently applied.
    2. Most of the symbols carry multiple layers of meaning, being drawn from multiple strands of tradition
    3. There is a fundamental dual-aspect to a number of the major symbols (and lines of symbolism) in the book

1. The Symbolic character of the imagery

In referring to the images in the book of Revelation as symbols, and symbolic, we mean that the image is a specific sign which represents another idea or thing—that is, something other that what is typically understood by the image itself (i.e. the sign vs. what it signifies). As a rather obvious example, the image of a lamb (a)rni/on), used repeatedly in a number of visions, does not simply refer to the animal (i.e. an ordinary lamb), but symbolizes the person of Jesus Christ, in his exalted position and state in heaven following his death and resurrection. Even a casual reading by someone unfamiliar with early Christian symbolism would likely lead to this conclusion, based on how the lamb-image is used in context. It becomes all the more clear when one is aware of the various strands of tradition that go into this association of Jesus with a lamb. Indeed, for early Christians, there was no real need to explain the symbolism; for most believers, it would have been readily apparent.

A basic problem with much interpretation, especially among more traditional-conservative commentators, is the inconsistent way these symbols are treated, with a tendency to understand them in a ‘literal’, concrete way whenever possible. As an example, the Temple in 11:1-2 is actually the Jerusalem Temple complex, but the Prostitute in chapter 17 is not an actual prostitute; similarly, the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel are actually 144,000 Israelites, but the seven-headed Sea-creature is not an actual seven-headed hybrid animal coming out of the sea. In my view, this distorts and misreads the symbolism of the book—if the seven-headed creature from the sea is symbolic and figurative, then almost certainly the image of the 144,000 from the twelve tribes is symbolic as well.

That these images are all substantially symbolic seems to me to be without question; however, there may be some difference in the degree or extent of the symbolism. For example, a seven-headed monster is more clearly figurative than other images; and, while the specific detail of 3½ or 1000 years is symbolic, it still relates to a period of time. Moreover, the symbolism may be rooted in a particular aspect of the imagery, or may relate specifically to how different images are connected. In this regard, the visions of Revelation are comparable to the Gospel parables of Jesus—the basis of the (figurative) illustration lies more in the overall scenario and portrait than in the meaning that is attached to each individual detail.

In the notes, I have made every attempt to analyze the symbolism for each vision carefully, with the guiding premise that, in every case, the imagery is symbolic, and not to be understood in a concrete, literalist manner.

2. Multiple Layers of Meaning

In many instances, the symbols in the visions carry multiple layers of meaning, based on their manifold derivation, drawing upon different strands of tradition. It is often possible to demonstrate this (and I have done so at many places in the notes), isolating the distinct strands, which tend to come from three broad lines of tradition:

    • The Old Testament Scriptures, along with subsequent Jewish (eschatological and Messianic) tradition
    • The surrounding Greco-Roman world—its literature, culture, manner of expression, et al.
    • The life experience of believers, both in community and in relation to the wider (Greco-Roman [pagan] and Jewish) world; obviously, it is the experience of believers in Asia Minor, in the late-first century A.D., that informs the imagery.

The first line of tradition is perhaps the most notable. The visions in the book are packed full of references and allusions to Old Testament and Jewish tradition; it may be possible to distinguish these further:

    • Historical references, especially to passages and episodes which relate to the idea of God’s Judgment upon the wicked—Moses and the Exodus (i.e. the plagues on Egypt), Sodom and Gomorrah, the prophetic oracles (in Joel, Ezekiel, Zechariah) depicting the collective Judgment on the Nations, etc.
    • Eschatological and Messianic references—these are replete throughout, but may be seen as including the many references to the book of Daniel
    • Images specifically related to the idea (and identity) of Israel as the people of God—regularly applied to believers as the people of God in the New Covenant (and New Age)
    • Cosmological mythic/archetypal images, including motifs from the Creation narrative (Paradise, river, tree of life, etc); a prominent line of Near Eastern mythic tradition is associated with the Dragon/Sea-creature imagery in the second half of the book (chapters 12-13ff), and other examples could be cited as well.

With regard to the second area, it is the traditional imagery of the imperial cult that is most to be noted, with many details and motifs in the visions alluding in various ways to Roman imperial iconography. It is hard to know how readily the Greek-speaking readers/hearers at the time would have picked up on these allusions, but I suspect that the visions communicated this aspect to them clearly enough, so immersed as they were within the surrounding Roman culture.

The same Roman (imperial) environment relates to the third area—the life-experience of believers in Asia Minor. It was their sense of common identity, in the face of the surrounding pagan (and Roman imperial) culture, which establishes the fundamental conflict that runs through the visionary narrative. The experience of actual persecution at the time, to varying degrees, informs the depiction of the more intense and widespread persecution to come, during the period of distress. The community life and identity of believers informs the symbolism in many other ways as well; I have attempted to bring out this aspect at a number of points in the notes.

3. A Dual-Aspect to the Symbolism

In addition to the multiple layers of meaning to the symbols, it is possible to recognized a wider dual-aspect to the major strands of symbolism. Generally speaking, this may be defined as a dualism consisting of an earthly and heavenly aspect. It does not apply so much to individual symbols as it does to the larger symbolic matrices. I would note three areas where it is most prevalent, and where it is important to recognize its application to the meaning of the symbolism:

    • Believers as the People of God—in their heavenly aspect, they are shown existing in an exalted state, in heaven, along with multitudes of heavenly beings; at the same time, in their earthly aspect, they face oppression and persecution from the forces of evil at work in the world. Only in the closing chapters, during the New Age, when the heavenly “Jerusalem” descends to earth, are both aspects united.
    • The Forces of Evil—involving the various symbols of the Dragon, Sea-creature, the “Great City”, Prostitute, etc.; there is similarly a ‘heavenly’ and earthly aspect. Most of the visions focus on the manifestation of evil on earth, but throughout there is a transcendent, cosmic aspect, evident most clearly in the symbol of the Dragon, who, in chapter 12, is depicted in conflict with the People of God both on earth and in heaven.
    • The Judgment—again, there is both an earthly and heavenly aspect to the end-time Judgment; for the most part, the visions (esp. the Trumpet- and Bowl-cycles) focus on the earthly aspect, but, during the later chapters especially, the heavenly aspect is more clearly in view.

 

Supplemental Note 1 on Revelation: Authorship and Date of the Book

Authorship and Date of the Book of Revelation

I dealt with the question of authorship briefly in the earlier note on 1:9—i.e. the identity of the seer Yohanan (John) in the book. However, it is worth discussing the matter a bit more comprehensively, now that we have come to the end of the notes themselves. In most commentaries, this subject is part of an introduction, prior to the exegesis; I opted for the reverse approach, to deal with such matters only after the text has been thoroughly discussed. This allows the reader to consider the text objectively, without presuppositions or pre-judgments regarding authorship. The question of date—when the book was written—is more pertinent to a critical study, and to providing a sound, basic interpretation for a number of the visions; however, even here I felt it best to avoid discussion of theories on the book’s date as much as possible.

Critical commentators today are not as inclined (as past generations) to view the book as pseudonymous, despite the fact that much Apocalyptic literature is pseudepigraphic in nature (cf. my earlier article on these terms, and also note the discussion in Part 2 of my study “The Antichrist Tradition”). The book is generally lacking in the kinds of details and references one might expect if the author were presenting himself as a famous (apostolic) figure. Some Christians chose the third option above, identifying the author with a second-generation Elder/Presbyter named John (cf. Eusebius, Church History III.39.4-6; VII.24.7ff). However, the main lines of Christian tradition identified the author as John the Apostle, an identification which appears to have been reasonably well-established by the end of the 2nd century (cf. Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 81.4; Irenaeus Against Heresies III.11.1, 16.5ff; V.30.3; Clement On the Rich Man §42, etc).

However, there is no evidence in the book itself that this John is an apostle, or even an elder; however, it is clear that he is a prophet (profh/th$, “foreteller”). The book throughout demonstrates a keen interest in the role of genuine prophecy (profhtei/a), characterizing itself as such (cf. 1:3; 10:7, 11; 11:3-18; 16:6; 18:20, 24; 19:10; 22:6-10, 18-19). Moreover, it shows an understanding of the dynamic of prophecy in early Christianity—especially the way that the Spirit of God interacts with the gifted spirit of the prophet. Also noteworthy is the opposition to false prophecy, being inspired as it is by the forces of evil (i.e. an evil/deceptive spirit)—cf. 2:14, 20ff; 16:13; 19:20; 20:10. In early Christianity, “prophecy” (profhtei/a) entailed much more than predicting the future; the term referred primarily to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for God, by which the word and will of God was communicated to others. As such, the role of the Christian prophet was closer to the meaning of the corresponding Hebrew word ayb!n`. Thus the “John” of Revelation can be identified as a Christian minister, a gifted prophet; whether he was also an apostle (and/or John the Apostle) remains quite uncertain.

We know little else about him from the book itself, except that, at the time of receiving his visions, this John was residing on the island of Patmos, about 40 miles off the southwestern coast of Asia Minor (almost directly west of Miletus). He says that he came to be there “through the account of God and the witness of Yeshua” (1:9). This could mean that he was on the island as part of his ministry/missionary activity; however, most commentators understand it as a reference to banishment, i.e. as a punitive action against him, (relegatio ad insulum, “relegation to an island”), possibly even a permanent exile (“deportation”, deportatio ad insulum); for more on this, cf. Koester, pp. 242-3. Patmos was scarcely a desolate locale, contrary to popular portraits of John receiving his visions in Christian art, etc; it had a thriving culture and society, including festivals, athletic events, and so forth. There was also a strong religious life on the island, including major pagan cult centers, though the prevalence of the imperial cult, so strong elsewhere in Asia Minor at the time, is less certain. The tradition regarding John the Apostle’s exile on Patmos is attested by the end of the 2nd century (Tertullian Against Marcion 3.14.3, 24.4; Prescription Against Heretics 36); Irenaeus presumably accepted it (Against Heresies 5.30.3, cf. above), though he does not mention that specific detail.

The Problem of Dating the Book

The book of Revelation has been variously dated by scholars and commentators, sometimes based on established tradition (i.e. regarding John the Apostle, cf. above), though more commonly (in recent years) on the basis of internal (historical-critical) evidence in the book itself. For those interested in establishing a specific date, or time-frame, the two main options, favored by commentators, are: (1) early, in the 60s A.D., or (2) at the end of the first-century A.D., c. 95. A third (3) minority view would set the book in the early second-century A.D. (sometime between c. 115 and 135). The language and vocabulary offer little help in establishing a precise date, and similarly with regard to other literary and rhetorical factors. Scholars thus have tended to turn to details which relate to the historical and cultural background of the book (i.e. historical criticism).

1. Foremost of these details is the description of the heads of the Sea-creature (i.e. ‘beast’ from the Sea), especially the interpretation in 17:7-18 (vv. 9-11). This is one of the only instances where the book itself offers an explanation of the visionary symbolism, so it must be taken most seriously as a guide for interpretation. The seven heads are explained as seven kings, which most commentators—correctly, it would seem—understand as a sequence of first-century Roman emperors. Five of these emperors have already died (“five [have] fallen”) at the time the book was written, while the sixth is the current reigning emperor (“one is“, i.e. is currently alive). This has encouraged commentators to attempt to identify the six heads with a sequence of six emperors, which would more or less establish a date for the book; for example:

    • beginning with Julius Caesar, the sixth emperor would be Nero (r. 54-68)
    • beginning with Augustus, the sixth emperor would be Galba (r. 68-9)
      • or, skipping over the short reigns of the four emperors in 68-9, the sixth would be Vespasian (r. 69-79)
    • beginning with Gaius (Caligula), and skipping over the four of 68-9, the sixth would be Domitian (r. 81-96)
    • beginning with Nero, the sixth (strictly) would be Titus (r. 79-81); counting more loosely, it might also be Domitian.

It is, however, highly questionable whether the symbolism of the heads can be interpreted (reliably) with such historical precision. After all, the motif of seven heads derives from ancient tradition, and relates to the seven-vision cycles throughout the book, as does the 5 + 2 motif. It seems likely that it was meant to apply only generally to the historical circumstances of the Empire. If any of the above schema are accurate, I would say that the second and fourth are most plausible—i.e. (a) from Augustus to Galba, or (b) from Gaius (Caligula) to Domitian. Caligula was the first emperor to begin his reign after the death/resurrection of Jesus, and would have been the first to fit clearly into the eschatological “wicked tyrant” pattern (cf. my three-part article “The Antichrist Tradition”).

2. Along these same lines, many commentators find a number of references or allusions to the Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) in the book; this could be cited as evidence for the setting of the book itself (i.e. during Nero’s reign), or as an indication that Nero was one of the (five) emperors who had died previously. The latter seems much more likely, especially if the common interpretation regarding the head with the death-blow (“strike of death”) in 13:3 (cf. the earlier note) is correct—that it is, in part at least, an allusion to Nero (and the Nero legend). The wording in 17:11 may represent a similar allusion. One plausible line of interpretation would be that: (a) Nero was one of the emperors who had died, but (b) he would ‘return’ in the form of the last (eighth) emperor, a demonic ‘Antichrist’ figure patterned after him. For Christians in the second half of the first century A.D., Nero would have been the persecuting emperor, and the more intense persecution to come during the time of distress could legitimately be regarded as a revival of Nero’s actions.

It has also been popular to interpret the famous ‘mark of the beast’ in 13:18 as a veiled reference to Nero. I will not discuss that cryptic verse any further here (consult my earlier note). Even if correct, it could be understood either as a reference to Nero as the current emperor, or to the previously-mentioned idea that the wicked ruler of the end would be patterned after Nero.

3. Two other historical points are important for a dating of the book—(1) the extent of the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor, and (2) the influence of the imperial cult in the region. The persecution of believers during Nero’s reign, while notorious enough, was relatively brief, and more or less limited to the city of Rome. Evidence for persecution during the reigns of the subsequent emperors (such as Vespasian or Domitian) is uncertain or sketchy at best, and has been very much exaggerated, it would seem, by Christian writers in the case of Domitian (cf. Koester, pp. 76-8). We have a little more evidence for the arrest/interrogation of believers, in the provinces (e.g., Asia Minor), during the early-second century (cf. especially Pliny the Younger Epistles 10.97.2, cited in the note on 13:15); however, there were no widespread state-sponsored attacks on Christians until later in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

This generally accords with the portrait we have of the situation in Asia Minor at the time the book of Revelation was written. Persecution was sporadic, with believers being held for interrogation a much more common occurrence than their being put to death. Executions were apparently infrequent enough that special mention could be made of Antipas’ death in Pergamum (2:13). While the visions of Revelation foresee a time (very soon) when persecution would be much more intense and widespread, this had not yet been fulfilled. A setting in the late first or early second century would seem to fit this evidence.

Much the same is true of the prevalence of the imperial cult, which would become the focus of the 2nd-century persecutions. The unwillingness of believers to participate in the various aspects of the imperial cult—including worship/veneration of the emperor and his images—would put them at odds with the surrounding society, and, increasingly, with the provincial and imperial authorities. There can be little doubt that the Roman imperial cult informs much of the depiction of the Sea-creature’s wicked regime in chapters 13ff (esp. the detail in 13:11-18); however, again, the book envisions a dramatic increase (and intensification) of the current situation. The imperial iconography and religious associations, while well-established in Asia Minor by the end of the first century, would only become more pronounced in the second, during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian.

Consider the example of Pergamum, an important center of Roman administration in the province. Already in the late 1st century B.C., a provincial temple to Augustus and Roma (goddess of the city Rome) had been constructed, including dedicatory altars (remains of which have survived). First century coins depict many images and scenes of the rich religious culture (festivals, games, etc) associated with the cult. Later, during the reign of Trajan, a new temple (to Zeus and the emperor) was founded in 114 A.D., further dedicated in 129, in the time of Hadrian, who was similarly identified with Zeus Olympus at the temple in Athens (dedicated 132).

4. One argument for an early date (i.e. pre-70 A.D.) is the lack of any clear reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple; indeed, the symbolism of the Temple precincts in 11:1-2 has been taken as an indication that the Temple was still standing. If correct, it would seem to require the book be dated to the reign of Nero (54-68) or Galba (68-9). However, attempts to date the New Testament Writings based on references to the Temple are questionable at best. Long before the Temple had been destroyed, early Christians had spiritualized its significance, treating it as a symbol and figure of the person of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the union of believers, and so forth. Moreover, lack of reference to the Temple’s destruction could just as easily indicate a significant time after 70 A.D., when the reality and physical existence of the Temple building had long ceased to be important. With the exception of Paul’s mention of the Temple in 2 Thess 2:4, references elsewhere in the New Testament tend to be ambiguous, in terms of the question of date, and whether or not the Temple building still stood at the time of writing. Consider, for example, the complex way the matter is handled in the letter to the Hebrews; there is no indication of the Temple’s destruction, and yet, the writing tends to be dated to latter part of the first century by most commentators, based on numerous other factors.

Overall, the evidence points to a general time frame of the last quarter of the first century A.D. (c. 75-100) for the composition of Revelation. Traditionally, a date for the book has been set at the end of Domitian’s reign (c. 95 A.D.), a tradition attested at least as early as Irenaeus in his Against Heresies (5.30.3), and followed by Eusebius (Church History 3.18.3, 20.8-9; 5.8.6) and Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 9), as well as others (cf. Koester, p. 74). A majority of commentators today would tend to concur with this, and a date for composition c. 90-95 A.D. is probably not far from the mark.

References marked “Koester” are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

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Antichrist and the Nero Legend

In my study on the Antichrist Tradition (Part 3), I mentioned the possibility, accepted by many commentators, that the book of Revelation is drawing upon the legend of Nero’s return (Nero redivivus). The emperor Nero (r. 54-68 A.D.) was a notorious figure already in his own lifetime, as the historians of the period (Tacitus, Suetonius, et al) amply document. In response to rumors that he was responsible for the great fire in Rome, Nero instigated a persecution of Christians in the city, during which many were put to death (cf. Tacitus Annals 15.44). This would leave an indelible impression on believers, for whom Nero would remain in memory as the persecutor of Christians. Evidence for imperial persecution (arrests and executions) of believers during the reigns of the subsequent emperors (such as Domitian) in the 1st and early 2nd centuries is uncertain at best. Even under Nero, the period of persecution was brief, and more or less limited to the city of Rome. It wasn’t until much later, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, that widespread, state-sponsored persecutions took place.

For early Christians, the role of the emperor itself was representative of impiety and wickedness, especially as the establishment of the imperial cult throughout the provinces emphasized all the more the traditional pretensions to deity intrinsic to ancient kingship (cf. the “wicked tyrant” motif in Part 1). Nero’s character and behavior added a particularly monstrous layer of wickedness to the figure of the Roman emperor, which would greatly influence how first-century Christians viewed imperial rule (compare how Paul speaks of it, prior to Nero). In some ways, this had been prefigured by the reign of Gaius (Caligula) some years earlier, but outside of the specific context of the persecution of believers.

By all accounts, Nero died by his own hand (committing suicide, cf. Suetonius, Nero 49.3-4) in 68 A.D. However, rumors soon took hold that Nero had not actually died, but had gone into hiding—perhaps in the East (among the Parthians), waiting for the opportunity to return and reclaim the throne. In the twenty or so years after his death, a number of Nero-pretenders appeared on the scene (Tacitus Histories 2.8-9; Suetonius Nero 57; Dio Cassius Roman History 66.19.3), and rumors doubtless persisted for a number of decades after that.

It is possible to understand the idea of Nero’s “return” in a figurative sense, in terms of his cruelty and tyranny being repeated in subsequent Emperors; on comparisons between Domitian and Nero, cf. Juvenal Satires 4.38; Pliny the Younger Panegyricus 53.4; Philostratus Life of Pythagoras 7.4.1 (Koester Revelation, p. 571). This is probably closer to how the book of Revelation makes use of Nero (and the Nero-legend)—as a type-pattern for the wicked ruler of the end-time, similar to that of the earlier emperor Gaius (Caligula) and the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (in Daniel 7-12 etc).

However, many commentators would see in the book of Revelation a more precise application of the Nero-legend, especially in the detail of the Sea-creature’s head that had apparently received a death-blow (“strike of death”) and was then healed/restored to life (13:3). The phrasing in 17:11 is thought to reflect this same imagery. The idea is that one of the heads (emperors) had suffered a mortal wound, but then recovered; on the assumption that this is an allusion to Nero, he would presumably be one of the first five emperors (heads) mentioned in 17:10. The eighth emperor, then, would be a demonic incarnation, in the form of Nero, or patterned after him—and, in this sense, he ‘returns’ from the dead. The visionary symbolism here may indeed have something like this in mind; certainly, the eighth ruler appears to be a direct (personal) manifestation of the forces of evil (cf. also on 2 Thess 2:3-12 and the Ascension of Isaiah 4:2ff in Part 3).

The Nero-legend would seem to feature in several eschatological passages in the Sibylline Oracles (cf. the survey in Part 2). This is rather clear, for example, in 4:119-24, 137-9—a great king’s flight from Italy, into the land of the Parthians, from whence he returns leading a great army. Nero also seems to be primarily in view in 5:28-34, 137-51, 214-27, 361-71; these verses include the idea that the wicked king flees from Rome (‘Babylon’), and, ultimately, on his return, will seize and destroy the Temple in Jerusalem (which the emperor did in 70 A.D.). Also worth mentioning is the detail in 3:63ff, when Beliar (= Belial), at the end-time, will appear, coming “from the Sebastenoi [Sebasthnoi/]”, which has sometimes been identified with the Sebastoi, the house of the emperor Augustus. This could refer to the idea that Beliar will be manifest/incarnate as a Roman emperor, and could apply to Nero (as well as any other early emperor). The incarnation of Satan/Belial (or a comparable evil Spirit-being) was certainly a component of the developed Antichrist Tradition, as mentioned and discussed in Part 3.

The Antichrist Tradition: Part 3

In the first two parts of this study (1 & 2) I examined the Old Testament and Jewish background of the Antichrist tradition—or, stated more precisely, the eschatological themes and motifs which influenced and helped shape that tradition. Now, here in Part 3, it remains to explore the New Testament writings themselves.

The meaning and significance of the adjective a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos, “against the Anointed”) was discussed in Part 1. This adjective occurs five times in the New Testament, and all in the letters of John (1 Jn 2:18 [twice], 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7). Moreover, the author of 1 and 2 John uses it (and inteprets it) in a way that is quite different from the customary usage (based on the developed Antichrist tradition). The irony in the New Testament is that the passages typically thought to refer to the Antichrist do not use the term a)nti/xristo$ at all, while the passages that do use it are not referring to the traditional Antichrist-figure, or at least not primarily so. This will be discussed further below.

There are four sections of the New Testament that may be said to relate in some way to the later Antichrist tradition, and which likely played a role in its development:

    1. The Eschatological Discourse of Jesus in the Synoptics (Mark 13 par)
    2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
    3. Revelation 13, and the chapters following (esp. 17:7-14)
    4. The References in 1 and 2 John
    5. Early Christian References outside the New Testament

I have already discussed these passages in considerable detail in earlier articles in this series (and in the daily notes on the book of Revelation). Thus, I will not present a full exegesis here, but will focus instead on only those details or features which relate to the Antichrist Tradition.

1. The Eschatological Discourse of Jesus (Mark 13 par)

I have examined the “Eschatological Discourse” at length in an earlier four-part article (Pts 1, 2, 3, 4). It is, of course, unique to the Synoptic Tradition, set during the final period of Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 13, par Matt 24-25, Luke 21:5-36). I will use the Markan version as the primary point of reference.

The heart of the Discourse relates to the end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, v. 19; cp. Rev 7:14, etc), presented in three sections—vv. 5-8, 9-13, and 14-23. Some might see this as a chronological sequence of events, but I believe it is better to view them as different aspects of the same period of distress, describing:

    • Its affect on humankind as a whole (vv. 5-8)
    • Its affect on Jesus’ disciples (believers), in terms of their witness/mission (vv. 9-13)
    • Its affect on the people of Judea, especially those in and around Jerusalem (vv. 14-23)

Each of these sections contains at least one important theme which relates to the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. In fact, in each case it is the leading theme of the section, stated or expressed in the initial verse.

Section 1: The rise of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets” (Mark 13:5f, also vv. 21-22)

This is the leading theme of the section, framed in a general way in verse 5:

“You must look (to it that) no one should lead you astray [planh/sh|]”

The warning follows in verse 6, though the matter is stated more clearly later in verse 22:

“For there will rise false Anointeds [yeudo/xristoi] and false Foretellers [yeudoprofh=tai]…” —that is, false Messiahs (Christs) and false Prophets.

These persons will deceive and lead humankind astray (thus the emphasis at the start of the first section), and even, if possible, actual disciples of Jesus (believers, vv. 22b-23). The issue of false Christs (Messiahs) is stated two ways, in verses 6 and 21, respectively:

“Many will come upon my name, saying that ‘I am (he)’….” (v. 6)
“…if anyone should say to you ‘See, here (is) the Anointed…'” (v. 21)

The first statement suggests that people will claim to be Jesus himself. However, the Matthean version reads differently, no doubt intended to clarify the situation:

“For may will come upon my name, saying ‘I am the Anointed‘…” (24:5)

This almost certainly reflects the meaning of Jesus’ statement in its original context—people will claim to be the Messiah (Christ), not Jesus himself. Of course, for early Christians, claiming to be the Christ would essentially be the same thing as taking Jesus’ place, since only he is the true Anointed One (Messiah or Christ). In this regard, the noun yeudo/xristo$ (pseudóchristos, “false Anointed”) is close in meaning to the adjective anti/xristo$ (antíchristos), with the prefix a)nti/ (antí) in the sense of “in place of”, “in exchange for” —i.e., an imitation or false version.

There is also a close connection between the idea of “false Messiahs” and “false Prophets“, though this may not be immediately apparent to the average reader today. We are not accustomed to thinking of the Messiah as a prophet; however, there were a number of different Messianic figure-types in Jewish thought during this period, as I discuss at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. These figure-types include several kinds of Anointed Prophet, most notably those patterned after the figures of Moses and Elijah (cf. Parts 23 of “Yeshua the Anointed”). In Jesus’ own lifetime, and especially during the period of his ministry in Galilee, he tended to be identified as an Anointed Prophet as much (or more so than) as a Messiah of the Davidic-ruler type. In Luke 4:17-21ff, Jesus explicitly identifies himself with the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff; also, in the transfiguration scene (Mark 9:2-8 par), Jesus is associated directly with both Messianic Prophet-figures—Moses and Elijah. More examples could be given (cf. the aforementioned articles).

Josephus notes several instances of would-be Messianic/Prophetic figures, spanning from the time of Jesus (the reign of Pilate, c. 36 A.D.) down to the aftermath of the Jewish War (post 66-70 A.D.)—cf. Antiquities 18.85; 20.97, 169-172; War 7.437ff. In each of these instances it would seem that an end-time “Prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15-18) was primarily in view—that is, a miracle-working Messianic Prophet, patterned after Moses, who would lead his people into the ‘Promised Land’.

It is not only the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse that connected the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple with the coming of the end; the War itself appears to have been fueled, in part at least, by eschatological and Messianic expectations (Josephus War 6.312f; cf. also Tacitus Histories 5.13.2, and Seutonius Vespasian 4.5). In such an environment, in the face of rebellion, war, and upheaval, it is hardly surprising that “false prophets” and “false Messiahs” might appear, even as predicted by Jesus in the Discourse. Indeed, false prophets were an element of the end-time period of distress and wickedness, according to the eschatological pattern in the Jewish apocalyptic writings (discussed in Part 2). In a more developed form, this would be understood in terms of the influence of Belial and his “spirits of deceit”, inspiring the false prophets. This is most significant in light of how the term “antichrist” is used in the letters of John (cf. below).

Section 2: An intense persecution of Believers (Mark 13:9ff)

The end-time period of distress would also be a time of suffering and persecution for Jesus’ disciples (believers), as summarized in verses 9-13, and also in other Gospel passages. Beginning with his death, the disciples would enter into an “hour of darkness”, a time of testing (peirasmo/$) that would continue until his future return. What Jesus predicts in this section of the discourse was in fact fulfilled, during the first century, among his disciples (and the first generation[s] of believers), as is well-documented, for example, in the book of Acts, the letters of Paul, and in the book of Revelation. While 1st-century Christians certainly believed they were already living in an end-time period of distress, the persecution was expected to become much more intense, and the suffering more acute, as the end drew nearer.

This expectation of greater persecution and suffering, by the surrounding population as well as the governmental authorities, certainly informs the subsequent Antichrist Tradition. We will see it expressed more precisely in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 13ff (cf. below). It also represents a continuation of the earlier Jewish (and Old Testament) traditions—of the “wicked tyrant” motif, the theme of the hostility shown by the (wicked) nations, and so forth (Parts 1 & 2). In particular, the development of the “wicked-tyrant” type-pattern, shaped by the figure of Antiochus IV in the book of Daniel, included prominently the idea of the wicked ruler’s oppression and persecution of the righteous, even to the point of brutally attacking their religious beliefs.

Section 3: The “stinking thing of Desolation” (Mark 13:14)

The third section of the Discourse, describing the suffering of the people in Judea and Jerusalem (including believers), opens with a somewhat cryptic reference to the tradition in Daniel 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11):

“And when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’ [bde/lugma th=$ e)rhmw/sew$] having stood where it is necessary (that it should) not (be)…then the (one)s in Yehudah must flee into the mountains…” (Mk 13:14)

Matthew’s version clarifies the situation somewhat, while retaining the aside “the (one) reading must have (it) in mind”, making the reference to Daniel explicit:

“So (then), when you should see the ‘stinking (thing) of desolation’, the (thing) uttered through Daniel the Foreteller, having stood in the holy place…” (24:15)

Matthew’s description brings the statement in line with the context of the Daniel references, in which the “disgusting thing[s] bringing desolation” clearly involve the Temple sanctuary and its sacrificial offerings. Commentators continue to debate the exact nature and identity of “the disgusting thing bringing desolation” (<m@ovm! JWQV!h^). It is especially problematic in light of the actual wording in Dan 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)”

This does not make particularly good sense in the context of the verse, complicated further by the interpretation/translation in the Greek versions:

“and upon the Temple there will be a stinking (thing) of desolations [bde/lugma tw=n e)rhmw/sewn]”

The Hebrew suggests a person, whereas the Greek, perhaps understanding the “wing” [[nk] to be the side or pinnacle of the Temple (cf. Lk 4:9), seems to indicate something (an idolatrous object?) placed on the Temple structure. 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 light of this, some critical commentators have proposed emending the Hebrew [nk (“wing”) to <nk (“their place”), with the expression then being <nk lu (“upon their place”, cf. Dan 11:38), i.e. the pagan altar with its sacrifices in place of the prescribed sacrificial offerings of the Temple (Collins, Daniel, p. 358). This is very reasonable, but it involves the always questionable step of emending the text; it also depends on the particular interpretation of vv. 26-27 as describing the reign of Antiochus IV.

In the (original) context of the Daniel prophecy, this desecration of the Temple was fulfilled by the actions of Antiochus IV, the very embodiment of the “wicked tyrant” motif. The use of the same prophecy, by Jesus (and early Christians) in the first century A.D., indicates a belief that it would be fulfilled (again), presumably by another wicked (foreign) ruler, following the type-pattern of Antiochus. I have previously mentioned several possibilities for how this might have been understood by early Christians, assuming an expectation of its fulfillment in the general time-frame of the first century:

    • The emperor Gaius’ (Caligula) establishment of the imperial cult, including his statue which was to be placed in the Jerusalem Temple, transforming it into an imperial shrine (c. 40 A.D., Josephus, Antiquities 18.256-307).
      In his Commentary on Daniel (11:31), Jerome states that Antiochus IV had similarly set up an image of Jupiter (Zeus) Olympius in the Jerusalem Temple.
    • The destruction and despoiling of the Temple by Titus in 70 A.D.
    • The transformation of Jerusalem into a (pagan) Roman city (Aelia Capitolina) in the reign of Hadrian, following the suppression of the Jewish (Bar-Kochba) revolt in 132-135 A.D.

The first two are the most relevant (and plausible). Indeed, in the Lukan version of the Discourse, the Daniel prophecy appears to be interpreted in terms of the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple:

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by swaths of soldiers, then know that her desolation [e)rh/mwsi$] has come near” (Lk 21:20)

This emphasis receives confirmation from the statement by Jesus in 19:41-44, located at the fateful moment of his approach to Jerusalem. If we accept vv. 43-44 as authentic, then Jesus, on at least one occasion, prophesied a horrific military siege of the city. The wording is similar to both the prediction of the Temple’s destruction (21:6 par), as well as that here in v. 20. The destruction of the Temple by pagans (i.e. Romans) would, in and of itself, represent a terrible act of desecration. It would also mean that Jesus’ prediction was accurately fulfilled in the war of 66-70 A.D. For more on this, cf. the earlier article on the Eschatological Discourse, esp. Part 3 on the Lukan version. We may thus isolate three aspects of this prophecy which relate to the Antichrist tradition:

    • According to the Hebrew (MT) of Dan 9:27, it refers to the actions of a person—i.e. the wicked tyrant Antiochus IV and his forces
    • The idea of the desecration of the Temple by including a pagan altar (and/or statue), thereby turning it into a pagan shrine; this certainly could be understood in relation to the establishment of the Roman Imperial Cult (cf. below)
    • The destruction of the Temple by hostile pagan forces, led by a wicked (foreign) ruler

2. 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12

(This section is an abridgment of the earlier article in this series.)

In 2 Thess 2:1-12, the description of the figure called “the man of lawlessness [o( a&nqrwpo$ th=$ a)nomi/a$]” (verse 3, v.l. “man of sin […th=$ a(marti/a$]”) and “the lawless (one) [o( a&nomo$]” (v. 8) is often assumed to be a reference to ‘the Antichrist’ —that is, to the Antichrist tradition. Much can be said in favor of this, at least in a general sense, since the portrait of this “lawless one” does more or less follow the contours of the later tradition. It also continues the earlier line of tradition (the “wicked tyrant” motif, etc) preserved in Jewish apocalyptic writings of the period (Part 2); cf. especially the use of the same expression (“lawless one”) for the wicked tyrant in Ps Sol 17. The description here begins in verse 3:

“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]…”

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”).

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”). On the original Hebrew term lu^Y~l!B= (b®liyya±al) and the name Belial, cf. the discussion in Part 2. 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=. As previously discussed, 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. This “man of lawlessness” is further described as:

“…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.” (verse 4)

The wording in v. 4a echoes the language and imagery of the “wicked tyrant” motif, going back to the Old Testament Prophets (cf. Part 1). Only here, this figure takes the divine pretensions a step further, by sitting in the Temple sanctuary (“the shrine of 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. In this regard, the adjective anti/qeo$ (“opposed to God, in place of God”), corollary to anti/xristo$, certainly would apply to him.

“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.” (vv. 5-7)

For a detailed discussion of the difficult syntax in this passage, cf. the earlier article. Here are the most important things to note:

    • 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 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 (cf. below). The author (Paul) may be anticipating the sudden rise of an emperor far more wicked, along the lines of Gaius (Caligula) who embodied and prefigured the “wicked tyrant” motif. 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.

“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.” (vv. 8-10)

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. This person will thus be a “false Christ” and “false Prophet”, a development of the expectation expressed by Jesus in the Eschatological Discourse (cf. above).

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 (cf. below). 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).

Most commentators are in agreement that Paul is drawing upon the same tradition from Dan 9:27 that is alluded to in the Eschatological Discourse (Mk 13:14 par, cf. above). If so, he seems to accept a rather different interpretation of this tradition—what stands in the Temple sanctuary is not a statue, but a person (cf. the actual Hebrew in Dan 9:27 MT, noted above); it is not a pagan army, rather, it is a wicked pagan ruler. Almost certainly, Paul would have understood this as a 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 (assuming Paul was indeed the author). It would not have been difficult to see it as a foreshadowing of something that would be done by an even more wicked ruler.

This portrait of the “lawless one”, while following in the line of Jewish and early Christian tradition, brings out several particular points of emphasis which, when taken together, can be viewed as representing a kernel of the subsequent Antichrist tradition:

    • The divine pretensions of this wicked ruler reach the point where he is in the position (i.e. in the Temple sanctuary) of being worshiped by the people as God.
    • He is a personal embodiment of a wider manifestation of the forces of evil (“the secret of lawlessness”) at work in the end-time, and in the current wicked Age.
    • He will work miracles and wonders that are directly inspired by Satan, by which humankind will be led astray; this is close to the developed Jewish tradition of the personal manifestation of Belial (with his spirits of deceit) at the end-time.
    • His appearance (and activity) directly imitates the coming (parousia) of Jesus (the Christ)—thus, he can rightly be referred to as “antichrist” (against, or in place of, the Anointed).

3. Revelation 13ff (esp. Rev 17:7-14)

The visionary symbolism of the book of Revelation is extremely complex, and I have devoted a lengthy series of detailed notes to its exposition. The portions most relevant to the Antichrist Tradition are the chapters dealing with the ‘beast’ (lit. “wild animal”, qhri/on) that comes up out of the Sea. This symbolism is introduced in chapter 13 and continues into the final Judgment visions of chapters 19 and 20. Space here does not permit anything like a thorough study of these references (for this, you must consult the daily notes, beginning with those on chapter 13; cf. also the summary note on the chapter). I will be focusing here specifically on several details in chapter 13, along with the interpretation given in chap. 17 (vv. 7-14) on this ‘beast’ (Sea-creature) and its heads.

To begin with, this symbolism—of the Sea-creature and the corresponding Earth-creature (13:1-4ff, 11-12ff)—stems from two primary lines of Old Testament and Jewish tradition:

    • The vision in Daniel 7, of the four ‘beasts’ that come up out of the Sea (vv. 2-8); in the interpretation that follows (vv. 15ff), these beasts are said to be “kingdoms” which, correspondingly, arise out of the Earth (v. 15). The fourth beast, in particular, resembles the Sea-creature of Revelation.
    • The apocalyptic/eschatological tradition of Leviathan (from the sea) and Behemoth (from the earth), as primeval/mythic creatures who embody the forces of darkness and chaos, wickedness and disorder. See, e.g., the references to this tradition in 1 Enoch 60:7-8, 24-25; 2 Baruch 29:4; and 2/4 Esdras 6:49-52 (in Part 1); the latter two are more or less contemporary with the book of Revelation. On the ancient (and Old Testament) background to this tradition, cf. my earlier supplemental article and the summary note on Rev 13.

The “antichrist” aspect to this symbolism derives largely from the “wicked tyrant” motif in Daniel 7, etc, with the original/historical type-pattern of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (cf. the discussion in Part 1). The Sea-creature, with its horns and heads, acts (and speaks) much like the “little horn” in Daniel 7-8. However, in the vision(s) of Revelation 13, there has been a considerable development of the symbolism, both in terms of its specific (and contextual) detail, and in the way it brings together nearly all of the eschatological themes and motifs expressed (earlier) in the Eschatological Discourse and the description of the “lawless one” in 2 Thess 2:1-12 (discussed in Sections 1 and 2 above). Note the following, more or less in order of their occurrence in chapter 13:

    • The Sea-creature resembles the evil Dragon (i.e. the Satan/Devil)—cp. 13:1 with 12:3—thus emphasizing its Satanic/demonic nature and character, being a kind of manifestation of Satan himself (cf. further below).
    • Specifically the Dragon (Satan) gives the creature its authority, i.e. power to act (verse 2, cp. 2 Thess 2:9)
    • The Sea-creature’s diadems, names, and its apparently fatal wound (from which it lives again), all play into the idea that it is a wicked imitation, an evil parody, of the exalted Christ; cf. on 2 Thess 2:3-12 above
    • Humankind is drawn to worship the Sea-creature, i.e. as God (vv. 4ff, cp. 2 Thess 2:4); this is also part of his names, etc, which are an insult to God (vv. 1, 5-6)
    • The Sea-creature “makes war” on the holy ones (vv. 7ff)—i.e., attacking and persecuting believers, even to point of putting them to death

All of these “antichrist” elements are put into effect through the work of the Earth-creature (vv. 11-18), with two aspects being especially emphasized: (a) the worship of the Sea-creature, and (b) the persecution of believers. However, based on the tradition in Daniel 7, it is clear that the Sea-creature is not a person, but a kingdom. Thus, contrary to what is often assumed, chapter 13 does not refer specifically to a wicked ruler (personal Antichrist), but to a wicked kingdom or system of government (which, of course, would be headed by a king, etc). I would interpret the Sea-creature as representing the forces of evil at work on earth—that is, in the kingdoms of the world. The Earth-creature represents the local manifestation of this power, i.e. in particular aspects of society and government, both political and religious. This local government enables the forces of evil to dominate and influence humankind, on a practical level.

Most commentators recognize that the primary point of reference, from the standpoint of the historical background of the book of Revelation, is the Roman Empire—the preeminent world-power of the time. In particular, the work of the Earth-creature is manifest in the Imperial Cult, which had become pervasive and well-established throughout the empire by the end of the 1st century A.D. The refusal of Christians to participate in the various aspects of the Cult—including veneration of the emperor (and his image)—would be a prime reason for their being persecuted and put to death. At the time the book of Revelation was written, such persecution by the authorities was still infrequent and sporadic, but it would become far more widespread and intense in the decades and centuries to come. The Earth-creature is also referred to as a “false prophet” (16:13; 19:20), indicated as well by its miracle-working power (13:13-15; cf. Mk 13:22 par; 2 Thess 2:9-10). In its own way, the Earth-creature is an evil imitation of Christ (“false Christ” = “anti-Christ”), resembling the Lamb (Christ) but speaking and acting like the Dragon (Satan).

It is in the heads (and horns) of the Sea-creature that we find the “wicked tyrant” motif expressed most directly. However, this aspect of the creature is alluded to only briefly in chapter 13—specifically, regarding the head which had, apparently, received a death-blow but was restored to life (v. 3). On the one hand, this detail is part of the evil parody of Jesus—the Lamb who was struck to death and came to life again (v. 8; 5:12, etc). At the same time, many commentators feel that it also reflects the historical circumstances of the “heads” (i.e. kings/emperors) of the Sea-creature (i.e. the Roman empire). This comes more firmly into view in chapter 17, with the interpretation (vv. 7-18) that follows the vision (of the Prostitute seated on the Sea-creature) in vv. 1-6. An interpretation of the heads of the creature occurs in vv. 7-14.

Revelation 17:7-14

I have discussed this passage in some detail in earlier notes. On the basic assumption that the heads (kings) are Roman emperors, various attempts have been made to identify the kings in vv. 10ff with a specific sequence of emperors. The text states clearly that “five have fallen” and “one is” (i.e. is currently living, at the time the book was written); this would imply a sequence of 5 emperors, followed by a sixth (the current emperor). I outline several scholarly theories in the notes; however, in terms of the Antichrist tradition, it is the wording in vv. 10b-11 that is most important. Though it would have been accepted that the author and audience were living the end-time, the book envisions at least a short period of time yet before the end, and it is expected that would yet be two more emperors:

    • a seventh (v. 10b), of which little is said except that he has “not yet come” (ou&pw h@lqen); his reign will be brief— “it is necessary for him to remain (for only) a little (time)”
    • an eighth (v. 11), the final ruler—this is the figure who best fits the ‘Antichrist’ type-pattern, i.e. the wicked world-ruler of the end-time

The language used to describe this eighth emperor is elusive, but significant:

“And the wild animal [i.e. the Sea-creature] that was, and is not, indeed he is the eighth, and is out of the seven, and he goes away into ruin” (v. 11)

I discuss this wording in one of the earlier notes; I take it to mean that this ruler, while appearing like one of the emperors, is actually an embodiment of the Sea-creature itself—in other words, a kind of Satanic or demonic incarnation. The phrasing here, along with idea of the death-blow and restoration of one of the heads (13:3), may also indicate that the book of Revelation is drawing upon the legend of Nero‘s return, as many commentators assume. I discuss this in a supplemental note. This does not mean that the author believes in the legend per se, nor that the visions confirm it as true, but simply that Nero is being used as a type-pattern for the wicked end-time ruler, much as Antiochus IV had been earlier. This concept of a ‘demonic emperor’ seems to correspond generally to the description in 2 Thess 2:3ff, as I understand it (cf. above).

4. The References in 1 and 2 John

As noted above, the term a)nti/xristo$ (antíchristos) occurs only in the letters of John—in 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 7. I discuss these passages in the current article in this series on the Letters of John, so I will only touch upon the matter briefly here. The main issue involves the author’s statement in 1 Jn 2:18:

“Little children, it is (the) last hour, and, even as you (have) heard that ‘against the Anointed [a)nti/xristo$] comes’, (so) even now many (who are) against the Anointed [a)nti/xristoi] have come to be—from which we know that it is (the) last hour.”

This is the earliest surviving occurrence of the adjective a)nti/xristo$, and yet the author treats it as a term known to his readers, requiring no explanation. Indeed, he seems to be referring to an eschatological tradition that would have been familiar to them. The question is whether this is to an early form of the Antichrist Tradition, as many commentators assume. If it does refer to the tradition of a wicked world-ruler of the end-time, then the author actually contradicts it—or, at least, he re-interprets it rather dramatically. I tend to think that this Johannine tradition of “(the) Antichrist” is itself somewhat different than the later Tradition; I would formulate it according to two possibilities:

    • A personal (or personified) manifestation of evil—a Satanic spirit-being (or Satan himself)—in which case, it would resemble the end-time appearance of Belial/Beliar, described in other writings of the period.
    • A more abstract manifestation of the forces of evil, though with the possibility of being further manifested/localized in (personal) spirit-beings. This would be closer to the symbolism of the Dragon and Sea-creature, etc, in the book of Revelation.

Throughout, the author is clearly talking about a spirit of “Antichrist” (against the Anointed), akin to the idea of Belial/Beliar and his “spirits of deceit”, i.e. evil/deceptive spirits who are the source of false prophecy (= the false teaching about Jesus). The world in the current Age was already under the control of the Evil One (the Satan/Devil/Belial), but this wicked control and influence would become even more pervasive and powerful as the end drew nearer. This was a basic premise of early Christian eschatology, and the wickedness of the end-time certainly included both hostility to believers and false teaching/prophecy about Christ himself. The author is saying that this end-time opposition to Christ (“against Christ, anti-Christ”) is being manifest in persons who claim to be Christian, but who he regards as false believers—and false teachers/prophets who effectively deny the truth about Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God). He thus considers them to be “antichrists”, and a fulfillment of the eschatological expectation.

5. Early Christian References outside the New Testament

When we turn to the extra-canonical writings of early Christians, in the period c. 90-150 A.D., there is little evidence for either the use of the term a)nti/xristo$ or the Antichrist tradition itself. As far as I am aware, a)nti/xristo$ occurs only once in these writings, in the epistle of Polycarp (d. 155 A.D.) to the Philippians (7:1). It is essentially a citation of 1 John 2:22 / 4:3 (cf. above), and clearly follows the Johannine tradition in its use and meaning of the term, and shows no indication of a development of the Antichrist Tradition as such. Noteworthy, perhaps, is his characterization of the person who holds the ‘false’ (antichrist) view of Jesus as “the firstborn of the Satan”. This tends to confirm the basic idea of “antichrist” as a kind of incarnation of Satan.

The “Teaching (of the Twelve Apostles)”, or Didache, offers perhaps the earliest evidence for the Antichrist Tradition in the 2nd century. At the close of this work, in chapter 16, there is an eschatological warning to believers, expressed in traditional early Christian terms (going back to the eschatological sayings of Jesus). It describes the end-time period of wickedness and distress, warning of the coming of false prophets, etc (v. 3-4). At the climax of this period we read:

“…and then shall be made to shine forth [i.e. shall appear] the (One) leading the world astray [kosmoplanh/$, i.e. World-Deceiver], (appearing) as (the) Son of God, and he will do signs and marvels, and the (whole) earth shall be given along into his hands, and he will do (thing)s without (regard for what is) set down (by law), (thing)s which have never come to be out of [i.e. since the beginning of] the Age.”

While generally following the sort of description given by Paul in 2 Thess 2:3ff (of the “lawless one”), clearly there has been a measure of development, and we are approaching here something closer to the later Antichrist Tradition.

Finally, mention should be made of the apocalyptic pseudepigraphon known as the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (discussed in Part 2), and other surviving pseudepigrapha, it represents a Christian re-working of earlier Jewish material. The main eschatological portion is in chapter 4, which includes a detailed description of the end-time coming of Beliar (= Belial). While this follows Jewish eschatological traditions regarding Belial (cf. in Part 2), these traditions have been developed and sharpened significantly, placing the portrait of Beliar in a Christian context that provides perhaps the clearest (and earliest) evidence for the Antichrist Tradition proper. Scholars tend to date the Ascension of Isaiah from the first half of the 2nd century A.D. The details and aspects most worth noting are (cf. Peerbolte, Antecedents, pp. 199-200):

    • Beliar descends in the form of a lawless king, i.e. incarnate as a wicked human ruler (v. 2)
    • He persecutes the Christians (v. 3)
    • He holds universal power, i.e. he is true world-ruler (vv. 4-5)
    • He pretends to be the Beloved, i.e. Jesus Christ—an imitation of Christ (v. 6)
    • He leads the whole world astray, even causing believers to fall away (vv. 7-9)
    • His statue is erected in all cities, by which he is worshiped (v. 11)
    • The period of his reign is approximately 3 ½ years (v. 12)

This is much closer to the standard idea of “the Antichrist” than anything we find, for example, in the book of Revelation. And, while there is certainly a line of development, from the New Testament to this 2nd century portrait, we must be cautious about reading this (later) portrait back into the New Testament itself.

February 28: Revelation 22:20-21

Revelation 22:20-21

The concluding words, of the exalted Jesus as a witness (ma/rtu$) to the prophetic message, come now in verse 20a:

“The (one) bearing witness [marturw=n] to these (thing)s says: ‘Yes, I come quickly [taxu/]’.”

To which the author of the book echoes:

“Amen, may you come, Lord Yeshua!” (v. 20b)

This refrain surely expresses the heartfelt desire of believers throughout the years, down to the present day. However, in the context of first-century Christianity, it carries a special significance, due to the nature of the imminent eschatology of early Christians and the profound effect it had on nearly every aspect of their thought. I have discussed the subject at length in these notes, and throughout the wider study series (“Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”). It bears repeating as our examination of the book of Revelation comes to a close. Believers at the time (c. 90 A.D.?) fully expected that they would live to see the events prophesied in the book–the great period of distress, the return of Jesus, and the onset of the Judgment. Indeed, this expectation is made clear all through the book itself, including the final words of 22:20.

Jesus states clearly, and unequivocally, that he is coming “quickly” (taxu/). The adverb taxu/, along with the related expression e)n ta/xei (“in [all] speed”), was used to express the widespread belief that Jesus’ return would occur soon (also with the sense of “suddenly”). This language has been used repeatedly, particularly at the beginning and end of the book (1:1; 2:16; 3:11; 22:6-7, 12); cf. also Luke 18:8; Rom 16:20, and the discussion in my earlier study on imminent eschatology in the New Testament.

The Greek e&rxou ku/rie (“may you come, Lord”) reflects an underlying Semitic (Aramaic) expression at* an`r^m* (m¹ranâ tâ), which is preserved transliterated in Greek (mara/na qa/) by Paul at the close of 1 Corinthians (16:22). Indeed, the closing of the book of Revelation (v. 21) resembles that of Paul in a number of his letters (1 Thess 5:28; 1 Cor 16:23; Rom 16:20; also 2 Thess 3:18; Gal 6:18; 2 Cor 13:13; Phil 4:23; Philemon 25), cf. below. Interestingly, Paul also uses the expression “may you come, Lord” (mara/na qa/) in 1 Cor 16:22 directly after a curse-formula, just as here in Revelation (cf. the previous note). The verb form e&rxou is an imperative (“you must come, come!”), but when used to address God (or the exalted Jesus) it is perhaps more fitting to translate it as an exhortation (“may you come”), much as imperatives are typically rendered in a prayer-setting (e.g., in the Lord’s Prayer). In the early Christian writing known as the “Teaching (of the Twelve)”, the Didache, the curse + marana/ qa/ format is used in a eucharistic context (10:6), cp. the reference to Jesus’ return in 1 Cor 11:26.

The final words of the book of Revelation are a benediction, or blessing, quite similar to that used by Paul in his letters, as noted above; the closest examples are in 2 Corinthians and 2 Thessalonians:

“(May) the favor of the Lord Yeshua (be) with (you) all” (Rev 22:21)
“(May) the favor of our Lord Yeshua (be) with you all” (2 Thess 3:18)
“(May) the favor of the Lord Yeshua…(be) with you all” (2 Cor 13:13)

This may simply indicate a standard form, commonly used by believers at the time. There are a considerable number of textual variations in v. 21, no doubt reflecting variations in usage of the basic form over time, and preserved by copyists. The absence of the pronoun (u(mw=n, “[with] you”) could be due to the fact that, strictly speaking, the book of Revelation was not written to a specific congregation, but to believers generally, over a wide region. In a very real sense, it was written “to all”, i.e. to all believers.

* * * * * * *

This concludes the series of daily notes on the book of Revelation; however, as a way of summarizing the results of this study, I feel it is important now to deal with certain topics which were left largely unaddressed in the notes. These involve issues regarding the authorship and date of the book, different approaches to interpreting the visions, and application of the eschatology for modern-day Christians. I purposely avoided these issues so as not to detract (and distract) from a careful examination of the text itself. Thus, a short set of supplemental notes will be presented during the upcoming week.

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February 27: Revelation 22:18b-19

Revelation 22:18b-19

The declaration of the truthfulness of the book’s message, as testified formally by the exalted Jesus himself (v. 18a, cf. the previous note), is followed by a curse in vv. 18b-19. Such a “curse” is part of the ancient concept of the binding agreement, which utilized various religious and magical formulae as a way of guaranteeing adherence to the agreement. Quite frequently, deities were called upon as witnesses to the binding agreement, who would, it was thought, punish those who violated the terms of the agreement. Punishment (or “curse”) forms were built into the structure of the agreement, and the description of what would happen if the terms were violated was equally binding.

The exalted Jesus, functioning as God’s witness (1:1, etc), has the power and authority to effect the divine punishment for violating the agreement—which here must be understood in terms of verses 7ff, the expectation that all true and faithful believers will guard the message of the book. Anyone who violates this implicit agreement will face the punishment declared by Jesus in vv. 18b-19:

“If any(one) would set (anything else) upon these (thing)s, God shall set upon him the (thing)s (that will) strike, (those) having been written in this paper-roll [i.e. scroll]; and if any(one) would take (anything) away from the accounts of the paper-roll [i.e. scroll] of this foretelling [i.e. prophecy], God shall take away his portion from the tree of life and out of the holy city, (all) the (thing)s having been written in this paper-roll [i.e. scroll].”

This curse-formula follows the ancient lex talionis principle, whereby the punishment matches the nature of the transgression. The violation is two-fold, each part mirroring the other:

    • Violation: Put (anything else) upon [i.e. add to] what is in the book
      Punishment: God will put upon him (same verb, e)piti/qhmi) what is described in the book (i.e. the Judgment on the wicked)
    • Violation: Take (anything) away from what is in the book
      Punishment: God will take away from him (same verb, a)faire/w) what is in the book (i.e. the reward of eternal life for the righteous)

Some commentators would question whether this strictly refers to altering the book itself—its content and text—or if, instead, the primary reference is to faithful observance, etc, of the prophetic message. Certainly, there are examples, both in Greco-Roman and Jewish literature, of warnings given against tampering with a written work, especially one considered to be a sacred text—cf. Epistle of Aristeas 311; Josephus Against Apion 1.42; 1 Enoch 104:10-13; Artemidorus Onirocritica 2.70; Koester, p. 845). However, in this instance, a closer parallel is perhaps to be found in the traditional understanding of adherence to the Torah (the terms of the Covenant between YHWH and Israel), such as expressed in Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32, etc:

“You shall not add (anything) upon the word that I (have) charged you (to keep), and you shall not shave off (anything) from it (either), (but you are) to guard (the thing)s charged (to you) of [i.e. by] YHWH your God, which (indeed) I have charged (you).” (Deut 4:2)

In the Greek LXX, the verb corresponding to “add upon” (Heb. [s^y` + preposition lu^]) is prosti/qhmi (“set/place toward [i.e. next to]”), which is close to the e)piti/qhmi (“set/place upon”) here in v. 18. The Hebrew “shave off from” (ur^G` + preposition /m!) is translated by the verb a)faire/w (“take [away] from”), just as here in v. 19.

Thus, once again, the book of Revelation draws upon Old Testament tradition, regarding Israel as the people of God (according to the old Covenant), applying it to believers in Christ (in the new Covenant). Just as one who willfully disobeyed or disregarded the Torah could not belong to the true people of God, based on the terms of the old Covenant, so one who similarly disobeyed the inspired message of Revelation’s prophecies could not be part of God’s people (believers) in the new Covenant. Since the message of the visions centered on the need to remain faithful to Jesus during the end-time period of distress, with a clear distinction between those who belong to the Lamb and those who belong to the forces of evil (Dragon and Sea-creature), a true believer would not (and could not) violate this message.

It is also likely that the curse was meant to warn people from tampering with the book itself; if so, I would tend to agree with Koester (p. 858) that this emphasis is secondary. The message, not the text, is primary; and yet, so vital is this message, in the context of the imminent/impending time of distress, that it is to be preserved and transmitted with the utmost care.

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

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February 22: Revelation 22:17-18a

Revelation 22:17

In the previous note, I treated verse 17 as the conclusion to the section spanning vv. 6-17; however, it is also possible to view it as transitional to the concluding section (vv. 18-21). I have chosen here to discuss verse 17 along with v. 18a:

“And the Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come!’ And the (one) hearing must (also) say: ‘Come!’ And (the) one thirsting must come—the (one) willing (to do so), let him take/receive the water of life as a gift [i.e. freely]. I (myself) bear witness to every (one) hearing the accounts of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll…” (vv. 17-18a)

In verse 17 there are three distinct imperatives, exhorting/commanding people to come (vb. e&rxomai). Together these serve as a beautiful communal image of believers in the end-time; their response, as believers, is centered around the book of Revelation itself. Let us briefly consider each statement:

“And the Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come! [e&rxou]'”

This reflects two aspects of the prophetic visions and messages in the book:

    • Source of the visions—their inspiration by the Spirit (pneu=ma) of God (and Christ), which communicates with the prophetic spirit of the seer
    • Content of the visions—their depiction of the community of true believers as the Bride (of Christ), i.e. the people of God in its exalted, heavenly aspect

It may also be that the community of believers adds its own (inspired) voice to that of the Spirit; certainly this would express the actual dynamic of how the prophetic gift was understood and realized in early Christianity.

“And the (one) hearing must (also) say: ‘Come! [e&rxou]'”

Once the prophetic message had been written down and made available for others, it would have been read aloud in the congregations—in the early Christian setting, such texts would have been heard, rather than read, by the majority of people (cf. the previous note on v. 16). Having received (i.e. heard) this message, true believers in the local congregation would add their voice to the inspired Community—i.e., the people of God in their earthly aspect.

“And (the) one thirsting must come [e)rxe/sqw]…”

Here the verb is a third person imperative, and it elucidates what is meant by the second person command, and how people (believers) respond to the command. The wording alludes to Isaiah 55:1 (as in 21:6b, cf. below), and reflects the true believer’s longing (i.e. “thirst”) for God and desire for eternal life. This is very much a Johannine motif—the verb and idiom occurs in the Gospel Discourses of Jesus (4:13-15; 6:35; 7:37, cf. also Matt 5:6); the exhortation in Jn 7:37 provides a close formal parallel:

“If any (one) should thirst, he must come [e)rxe/sqw, i.e. let him come] toward me and drink.”

Here, however, we are not dealing with a person’s response to the Gospel, but to their faithfulness in following Jesus, even in the face of suffering and testing, during the end-time period of distress. This is the significance of the believer’s response to the message of the book—he/she will take special care to remain faithful, aware of the severe tests and challenges to trust in Jesus that are coming, but also reminded of the promise of God’s ultimate victory over evil.

“the (one) willing (to do so), let him take/receive the water of life as a gift [dwrea/n, i.e. freely]”

The same statement, and allusion to Isa 55:1, occurred earlier in the “new Jerusalem” vision (21:6b, cf. the earlier note). Here the imperative is best rendered as an exhortative (“let him take/receive”, labe/tw), corresponding to the imperative pine/tw (“let him drink”) in Jn 7:37. The verb lamba/nw is often translated “receive”, but here it is perhaps better to render it in its fundamental sense as “take”. The context is that of the Paradise-motifs—river, tree of life—which symbolize eternal life, and which were inaccessible to humankind during the old order of Creation (i.e. the current Age). Now, however, in the New Age (and a new order of Creation), believers are able to come and take (i.e. eat and drink) from the tree and water of Life.

Revelation 22:18-21

Revelation 22:18a

“I (myself) bear witness [marturw=] to every (one) hearing the accounts of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll]”

Here the exalted Jesus repeats his personal declaration from v. 16—again with the emphatic personal pronoun e)gw/ (“I”)—only this time he makes explicit the significance of his declaration as a witness (ma/rtu$), i.e. one who gives truthful and reliable testimony (cf. the previous note). It is once again the congregational setting, where the written accounts (lo/goi) of the visions in the book of Revelation are heard read aloud. Jesus himself bears witness that they are true; since he himself is the original witness who received the revelation from God (1:1), this confirms the truth of the message in a special way. In the Greek-speaking world of the time, official documents (esp. living wills and other binding agreements) would often begin with the person’s name, followed by marturw= (“I bear witness…”), e.g. P.Oxy. 105.13-14; 489.24-26; 490.15-16; cf. Koester, p. 844.

The remainder of the concluding section, beginning with vv. 18b-19, will be discussed the next few daily notes.

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February 21: Revelation 22:8-9, 16-17

Revelation 22:8-9, 16f

This is the last of the four components in vv. 6-17—a personal declaration by the seer Yohanan (John) and the exalted Jesus, respectively. Each begins with the emphatic personal pronoun e)gw/ (“I, Yohanan/Yeshua…”). The parallelism relates to how each person is a witness of the divine message being delivered, the prophecy recorded in the book (vv. 6, 10). On the relation between the two, and the place each holds within the overall inspired witness, see esp. the opening verses of the book (1:1-2); thus, again, the conclusion of the book of Revelation corresponds to its introduction. On the identity of this “Yohanan”, cf. my earlier note on 1:9; I will discuss the question of authorship a bit further at the conclusion of this series.

There is also a clear contrast between the two figures; this is indicated both by the content of the declaration (vv. 8, 16a), but also by the response that follows (vv. 9, 16b): in one, it is emphasized that John is a mere servant, while Jesus is exalted as the Messiah and a divine being deserving of worship.

Verses 8-9

“And I [ka)gw/], Yohanan, (am) the (one) hearing and looking at [i.e. seeing] these (thing)s. And when I heard and looked, I fell (down) in front of the feet of the Messenger, the (one) having shown these (thing)s to me, (in order) to kiss toward [i.e. worship] (him). And he says to me, ‘See (that) you do not (do this)! (For) I am a slave together with you, and (with) your brothers the foretellers [i.e. prophets], and (with) the (one)s keeping watch (over) the accounts of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll]—(it is) God you must kiss toward [i.e. worship]!'” (vv. 8-9)

In prophetic and apocalyptic texts, it is often the case that the seer, the one witnessing the divine message and visionary experience, announces his name. The most immediate parallel comes from the conclusion of the book of Daniel (12:5, “I, Daniel…”). This an essential aspect of the person serving as a witness (ma/rtu$, 1:2, etc), as the prophet formally testifies to the truth of what he saw and heard.

Also traditional is the prophet’s response to the heavenly Messenger (Angel)—i.e. falling down in fear and reverence, as would be fitting toward a divine/heavenly being. However, the parameters of Israelite/Jewish and Christian monotheism, strictly speaking, do not permit worship of any being other than God (YHWH); this means that worship or veneration of Angels is quite inappropriate, as the Messenger himself declares, stating that he is only another slave (i.e. servant) of God, just like all faithful human believers. The same thing happened in an earlier encounter (19:10, cf. the prior note). By contrast, the seer fell down to venerate the exalted Jesus in 1:17, who was deserving of such worship. This is important, in light of the parallel here with Jesus in v. 16.

Verses 16-17

“I [e)gw/], Yeshua, sent my Messenger to give witness (of) these (thing)s to you [plur.] upon the (gathering)s of (those) called out [e)kklhsi/ai]. I am (both) the root and the (thing) coming to be (out) of David, the radiant first star (of the morning).” (v. 16)

A conjunction of the two I-statements, by John and Jesus, perfectly replicates the initial statement in 1:1, illustrating the role of each in the prophetic witness (vb marture/w):

“(The) uncovering of Yeshua (the) Anointed, which God gave to him, to show to his slaves…sending (it) forth through his Messenger to his slave Yohanan…”

The chain of relationship is explicit:

    • God gives the revelation to the exalted Jesus =>
      • who gives it to his Messenger (Angel) =>
        • who gives it to the prophet Yohanan =>
          • who gives it to the other believers

The use of the plural u(mi=n (“to you [pl.]”) and the phrase e)pi\ tai=$ e)kklhsi/ai$ (lit. “upon the [gathering]s of [those] called out”) fills out the last two stages of the chain of transmission:

    • the Messenger gives it to the prophet Yohanan =>
      • who makes it available (in written form) to other ministers =>
        • who have it read (out loud) in the congregations [e)kklhsi/ai]

The first phrase of verse 16b is a Messianic inflection of the earlier identification of Jesus as the “Alpha and Omega” —Messianic in its association with David (i.e. the Davidic Ruler figure-type). It is also a key Christological statement within the book of Revelation: Jesus is both the descendant of David (humanity) and the source of his own life and existence (deity). Note the parallelism:

    • Alpha [first/beginning]—the Root (r(i/za) of David, from which he comes to be
    • Omega [last/completion]—the ge/no$ of David, i.e. one who comes to be (born) from him

The language derives from Isaiah 11:1, 10 (an important Messianic passage), along with other references to the Davidic line (2 Sam 7, etc); for more on this, cf. Parts 68 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, and also the earlier note on Rev 5:5. The second phrase of v. 16b alludes to a different Messianic tradition, that of Num 24:17 etc, using the image of a star that will rise (i.e. the morning star) to bring the light of salvation and deliverance to God’s people. I discuss this line of tradition in prior articles.

“And the Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come!’ And the (one) hearing must (also) say: ‘Come!’ And (the) one thirsting must come—the (one) willing (to do so), let him take/receive the water of life as a gift [i.e. freely].” (v. 17)

This communal declaration summarizes the entire section, reflecting the dynamic of the prophetic witness and how it relates to the people of God as a whole. It will be discussed further in the next daily note.

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February 18: Revelation 22:7b, 14-15

Revelation 22:7b, 14-15

This is the third component within the parallel sections of vv. 6-17. Following the exalted Jesus’ announcement of his imminent return (vv. 7a, 12-13, cf. the previous note), there is a beatitude, or “macarism”, marked by the opening adjective maka/rio$ (makários, “happy”). The background of the beatitude-form is essentially eschatological, as I discuss in an earlier article (part of a series on the Beatitudes of Jesus). Here, of course, at the end of the book of Revelation, it is unquestionably so, referring to the blessed happiness that awaits for believers who remain faithful through the end-time period of distress. Ultimately, the source of this blessedness is the eternal life that the true believer is to experience, dwelling with God and Christ in the heavenly “Jerusalem” of the New Age (21:1-22:5).

The beatitude in verse 7b is brief and concise:

“Happy [maka/rio$] (is) the (one) keeping watch [thrw=n] (over) the accounts [i.e. words] of the foretelling [i.e. prophecy] of this scroll.”

As in vv. 6, 10, the reference is literary, i.e. to the book (bibli/on, “paper-roll, scroll”) of Revelation as a whole—all of the visions and messages contained in it. The beatitude thus relates to how people respond to the book (when they hear it read aloud, etc), and treat its contents. The verb thre/w means to “keep watch” over something; it is often used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, as part of ethical instruction and the exhortation to remain faithful as the end comes nearer (cf. earlier in 2:26; 3:3, 8, 10). This reproduces the beatitude in the opening of the book (1:3), where this aspect of imminence is clearly stated (“…for the moment [is] near.”).

The beatitude in verse 14 is more extensive:

“Happy (are) the (one)s washing their robes, (so) that their e)cousi/a will be upon the tree of life, and (that) they should enter into the gate-ways of the city.”

Here “keeping watch over” the prophecy is parallel with the expression “washing their robes” (plu/nonte$ ta\$ sto/la$ au)tw=n); however, in many (later) manuscripts, and some versions, the reading is instead the similar sounding poiou=nte$ ta\$ e)ntola/$ au)tou= (i.e., “doing His commands”, cp. 12:17; 14:12). The idiom of washing one’s robe (stolh/, a long ceremonial garment) was used earlier in 7:14, specifically in the context of believers who have remained faithful during the end-time period of distress (“…coming out of the great distress [qli/yi$]”). The implication of the parallelism, between verses 7b and 14, is that the true believer will accept the prophecies in the book, and will guard them with care. The verb thre/w is combined with the motif of keeping one’s garments clean in the beatitude of 16:15.

The idea of “washing” (vb plu/nw) alludes to the flowing (i.e. living, eternal) waters of the great river (of life) in the “new Jerusalem” (22:1), indicating a reward that corresponds to the believer’s actions. Here the same Paradise-setting is indicated by the motif of the “tree of life” (22:2, also 2:7); cf. the earlier note on 22:1-3a.

English translations tend to obscure the actual wording of the Greek in v. 14, as the subject of the second verb is not the believers themselves, but their e)cousi/a. The noun e)cousi/a is notoriously difficult to render accurately (and consistently) in English. Literally, it indicates something that comes out of a person’s own being, i.e. something he/she is able to do; however, it can specifically connote an ability that is given to the person from a superior, in which case, we might understand it in terms of permission. The word “authority” is perhaps the best option for capturing this semantic range in English. Here, the context is the ancient tradition of humankind being barred from access to the “tree of life”; in the New Age, for believers, this ‘curse’ is removed (v. 3), and we have the ability to come into the Garden of God and eat from the fruit of this tree. This access is part of the wider image of entering into the heavenly “city”, through the gate-ways that always stand open (21:25).

For the blessings described in v. 14, there is a corresponding curse in verse 15, defined in terms of being left outside (e&cw) the city (cp. Matt 8:12; 25:11-12, 30, etc):

Outside (are) the ‘dogs’ and the drug-handlers and the prostitute-(seek)ers and the murderers and the image-servers—indeed, every (one) being fond of, and doing, (what is) false.”

This more or less reproduces the vice-list of 21:8 (cf. also 9:20-21; 21:27), with the addition of the deprecatory label ku/ne$ (“dogs, hounds”); as a traditional term of opprobrium, it suggests both that a person is unclean and is deserving of contempt. On the idea of dogs (the actual animals) being excluded from the holy city, cf. the Qumran text 4Q394 fr. 8 iv. 8-9 (Koester, p. 843). The four terms, taken together, serve as a summary of human wickedness, traditionally associated (in Judaism and early Christianity) with the pagan culture of the “nations”:

    • fa/rmakoi (drug-handlers, drug-users)—a label for any kind of magical practice, perhaps best understood here, more generally and figuratively, for evil and mind-altering deception.
    • po/rnoi (those engaged in, or seeking, prostitution)—a traditional catch-term for any kind of immorality, sexual or otherwise.
    • fonei=$ (murderers, killers)—generally covering any kind of violent and lawless action.
    • ei)dwlola/trai (lit., ones serving images)—representing, not merely the idolatrous aspects of pagan religion, but false religion of any kind, and even, we may say, of pagan culture as a whole (i.e. the surrounding Greco-Roman world).

These are all summarized under the aspect of people “being fond of” (filw=n), as well as actually “doing” (poiw=n), what is false (yeu=do$).

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