The book of Revelation is as problematic as any eschatology. It was written by an unknown author simply referred to as "John," whom many scholars believe is not identical to the author who wrote the Gospel and letters of the same name. However, the exact time period John is writing for is not known. He is obviously writing for persecuted Christians, and evidence exists to indicate such events took place in the early part of the first millennium of the Common Era. But Revelation has also been applied to other times as well. When the Black Death swept through Europe during the 1500's, some took it as a sign of divine wrath. Both World Wars were also taken as signs of the coming end. And today, with the dawning of a new millennium, pontificators have attempted to apply the events John describes to events of the current day. While it can be all too tempting to connect the Book of Revelation with today's world, the book is best suited for study of the events in the ancient world.
The exact dating of the book of Revelation has been debated upon for years, but most authors place its composition between the years of 64-70 CE, during Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians and after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. Though some scholars date it later, perhaps as late as the end of the first century. Throughout the book, "Babylon" is understood to be a code word for Rome. David Aune, who translated the book of Revelation for the HarperCollins Study Bible, writes that "Jews only used this code name only after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70."(1) He also suggests that the book may have gone through several stages of editing. If Revelation did go through several stages of editing, it is possible the book may have seen changes as late as 250 and 303 CE during the reigns of Decius and Diocletian. The basic framework for the book was probably laid down early, but at this phase the book played off Jesus' teachings on eschatology. Later additions may have focused on criticism of the current social world and relating the Day of Judgment to new converts.
Symbols and Theological Interpretations of the Book of Revelation
Perhaps the most striking and complex aspect of Revelation is the wide range of symbolism John uses to describe the apocalypse. He seems to draw off both Jewish and Roman symbolism as he describes the events that unfold before his eyes. This may give some clues as to John's background. David Aune suggests that he was Jewish because he appears to have a knowledge of the Old Testament, especially Daniel and Ezekiel. However, Peter Lorie believes differently. He argues "John drew upon knowledge of his own pre-Christian, pagan past," mostly in the form of astronomical symbols.(2) Regardless of his actual background, there may have been a reason for incorporating pagan symbolism into his writing, as will be discussed later.
A wide variety of unusual creatures inhabit the visions of Revelation; some familiar, others unique. In chapter four, John describes four living creatures akin to the strange entities Ezekiel witnesses in the opening chapter of his book. They are "full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the forth living creature like a flying eagle."(3) John's description of these creatures differs from Ezekiel in that his account separates the entities into four different beings as opposed to blending them to form one creature. Lorie believes this to be evidence of John's pagan upbringing. "The 'four beasts' mentioned in Chapter Four of Revelation-the Calf (Ox), the Lion, the lion, the Eagle, and the Man, relate to the four main zodiacal signs of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio (the eagle), and Aquarius (the human water-bearer)."(4) Scorpio as the eagle is supposed to represent the "higher" aspects of the sign, which is the ability to persevere in times of difficulty and transcend limitations, as opposed to the "lower" aspects of the venomous scorpion, or to wait underground until the right moment to strike. This higher aspect would certainly have been a necessity during times of heavy persecution. The eagle was also an important bird in the pagan religion of the time. It had the important job of carrying Jupiter's lightning bolts and figures in the myth of Prometheus as the vehicle of divine punishment. An eagle was said to rip out his liver each day as punishment for bringing fire to humanity.
The Lamb is also an important symbol in Revelation. But this is no ordinary lamb. John writes "I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes."(5) The Lamb is understood to be Christ, and the appearance of having been slaughtered refers to the crucifixion. Horns were known to be symbolic of power in many parts of the ancient world, especially since horns are often found on strong animals like bulls, rams, and goats. Therefore, to possess horns was to have strength. In addition, there are several Biblical references to the horns on the altar.(6) Eyes were known to be symbols of watchfulness and all-seeing as well as divine protection. For example, one of the most powerful magic symbols of ancient Egypt was the wdjat, or Eye of Horus. According to Egyptian mythology, this eye "had been torn out and broken up in combat with Seth. It was later restored by Thoth, and consequently acquired the name wdjat, 'the healthy [eye]."(7) These talismans operated via sympathetic magic, and it was believed the wdjat could bestow "on the mummy the authority which it represented."(8) Since Horus was the warrior god who kept chaos (Seth) in check and overcame all adversity, his symbol should be able to transfer the same power to the deceased, protecting the mummy from the greatest of insults: damage by grave robbers.(9) The fact that the Lamb possesses seven horns and eyes should be of no surprise. Seven is the most holy of numbers in Judaism and Christianity, believed to symbolize the seven days of creation. John certainly made use of this idea, for events in Revelation tend to occur in groups of seven. But it was also important in other parts of the ancient Near East as well. "In the very earliest Babylonian observations of the skies there were seen to be seven planets [the five visible ones and] including the Sun and the Moon, and these were believed to be the divine expressions of cosmic order."(10) Therefore, it could be seen as a number representing the heavens, or the perfect and eternal. "In Greece the number seven was sacred to Apollo, there were seven sons and seven daughters of Niobe, the seven wise men, and the 'Seven against Thebes.'"(11) It should also be noted the Canaanites made use of the number as well. It usually occurred with the number eight in poetic formulas to indicate completeness. "The synonym for any number (x) is the next higher number (x+1). The favorite numbers used in this way are three and four, seven and eight, and one thousand and ten thousand."(12) Hebrew poets were also known to use similar formulas. Amos makes use of this formula in chapters 1:3-2:16, the prophet gives several oracles against the nations, each beginning in a similar fashion. For example:
Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of
and for four, I will not revoke
In Canaanite lore, Baal's palace was completed in seven days, and important events tend to be described with the x / x+1 formula:
For seven years let Baal fail,
eight, the Rider on the Clouds:
no dew, no showers,
no surging of the two seas,
no benefit of Baal's voice.(14)
The Four Horsemen play an important role in the book as the bringers of disaster. With the exception of Death, each Horseman bears an insignia of some type to symbolize the woes he is going to bring upon mankind. First comes War carrying a bow, wearing a crown, and riding a white horse. The bow represents divine punishment, and is a common symbol of such in both the Jewish and pagan religions of the time. Job for example, mentions God using poisoned arrows against him and complains "his archers surround me."(15) Apollo is also associated with the bow, as is his sister Artemis. The crown is a symbol of kingship and victory. The next Horseman is Pestilence or (death in battle) riding a red horse and carrying a great sword. He is sent to take peace from the world. His red horse symbolizes bloodshed and the sword is a traditional symbol of the warrior. Also, the Old Testament makes multiple references to Israel's children dying by the sword of other nations. In the pagan religions of the area, the sword was seen more a weapon of the hero rather than the god. None of the Greco-Roman or Mesopotamian gods seem to be too strongly connected with this weapon. The third Horseman is Famine, riding a black horse and carrying a scale. After the Lamb releases him, John hears a voice shouting "A quart of wheat for a day's pay, and three quarts of barley for a day's pay, but do not damage the olive oil and wine!"(16) Famine is not going to spread his woe by killing off vegetation, but rather by striking the human heart with greed so that merchants will charge higher prices for food, thus keeping it from the mouths of the poor. The final Horseman is Death on his pale green horse. He bears no device, but instead is given the power to take life through war, starvation, and disease. Death is personified with Hades, the Greek underworld. By connecting the fourth Horseman with Hades, John is perhaps trying to make his message clearer to Greek pagan converts by using terms they would understand or identify with. Each Horseman symbolizes the vehicles "that bring the greatest fears of humanity into fruition."(17)
The next major symbols of Revelation are the beasts. One of these monsters rises from the sea, the other from the earth, thus allowing the two beasts to nicely be compared with God's cosmic enemies Leviathan and Behemoth. The first beast is described as having seven heads and ten horns. This monster is believed to represent Rome and the Roman Emperors. The ten horns represent ten kingdoms of the Roman Empire, and as horns were often symbols of power these kingdoms are what give strength to the beast. The seven heads are understood to be seven emperors, but exactly which ones is not known. One head is understood to be Emperor Nero. John describes one of the heads receiving a death blow, but then returning to life. Around the time Revelations was written, the emperors, and sometimes their wives and children, were viewed as deities. Nero was no exception, and his "suicide by sword blow in 68 C.E.-let alone the more bizarre aspects of his reign-were so mysterious they gave rise to a host of stories and legends."(18) It was also widely believed that Nero would return from the dead someday to reclaim Rome. It would be natural for Christians to associate him with the beast and later the Antichrist, for he was seen as "a paradigm of megalomania, evil, and cruelty according to Roman historians as well as Christians and Jews."(19) There is also significance to the beast's physical appearance. It has the body of a leopard, feet like a bear, and a mouth like a lion. These images may have been influenced by the Romans, for "in Roman mythology, the leopard was a symbol of wildness, aggression, and power."(20) The lion's mouth represents unrestrained power, and the bear was seen as a symbol of rebirth because of its ability to hibernate through the winter and be "reborn" in spring.
The second beast comes from the earth and is described as having two horns, which are described as being like a lamb's, and the voice of a dragon. The lamb horns suggest a harmless and meek appearance, but the voice of a dragon indicates his power comes from Satan. The second beast's purpose is to deceive Christians by performing miracles and giving glory to the first beast. The second beast also is responsible for marking people with its number on either the head or right hand. This mark is the number 666, though according to the footnotes in the HarperCollins Study Bible, some sources claim the number of the beast is 616.(21) This number is thought to represent the numeric value of Nero's name when written in Hebrew. Not all church officials agreed with this notion of Nero as the Antichrist. Irenaeus, a second century bishop in France, believed the Antichrist would need to be Jewish. He clinged to "the older tradition that the antimessiah, like the true messiah, must be of Jewish origin."(22)
There is a great deal in the book of Revelation that tells us about the state of the Roman world in the early part of the first millennium of the Common Era. This time was marked by religious conflict between the early Christians and their pagan neighbors. The Roman religion was one that did not agree with Christianity. As seen by the emperor cults, "it was a characteristic Roman conviction that the primary function of religion was to serve the interests of the state."(23) The Romans were generally tolerant of the religions of those they conquered, as long as the defeated nation was willing to pledge loyalty to Caesar. But this was one rule the early church could not accept, and "the growing Christian movement found itself seriously involved and its loyalty to the state definitely challenged because of non-participation in the cult."(24) Refusal to worship Caesar as a god, as well as Christianity simply being a new religion, caused Christians to be feared by their pagan neighbors. Above all, the Romans respected tradition and loyalty to the past, but Christianity "encouraged people to abandon ancestral customs and break the sacred bonds of family, society, and nation."(25) Revelation indicates a time of hostility towards Christianity, but if the book's pagan influences imply later editing, it also may indicate the attitude changes towards this new religion later in time. In the third and fourth centuries, Christian persecution began to become more widespread. As the church grew, it became more common to blame disaster on Christians. The real trouble started in 250 CE, when "Emperor Decius invoked the aid of the gods in his war against the Goths and required all citizens worship the state gods publicly. True Christians could not obey, and Decius instituted a major persecution."(26) Times didn't improve, and in 303 CE Emperor Diocletian "launched the most serious persecution inflicted on the Christians in the Roman Empire. The persecution horrified many pagans, and the plight and the demeanor of the martyrs often aroused pity and sympathy."(27) Shortly after Diocletian began his persecutions, Galerius ended the bloodshed in 311 and issued a decree that Christianity should be tolerated. But it wouldn't be until the year 394 that Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. This may have been the first major turning point for the early Christian church, though even in earlier times some pagans admired the Christians' plight. For example, Justin recalls seeing a group of Christians executed in the gladiatorial ring in the year 140 CE and realized the martyrs achieved the goal all philosophers strived for: "accepting death with equanimity, an accomplishment which the gladiators' bravado merely parodied."(28)
This turn of events may explain some of the pagan influences in Revelation. During this time, "it was by no means unusual for people to worship new deities alongside the old and even intertwine elements of several to form a new amalgam by the device called syncretism (italics his)."(29) It was also possible to absorb elements from one religion into another. By incorporating pagan elements into Revelation, John (and any other authors responsible for editing the book) could make the vision familiar and understandable to potential pagan converts, and hopefully aid the conversion process. This certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility because Christianity has done its share of absorbing pagan ideas into it. Two of the religion's most important holidays are based on pagan holy days. Many popular fixtures of Christmas, like the Yule log, Christmas tree, and garland derive from pagan practices. The date for Christmas was believed to have been chosen on December 25th because it fell near the Winter Solstice and the Roman holiday of Saturnalia.(30) Easter is another Christian holiday that incorporated pagan traditions. Easter is named after the Teutonic goddess Ostara (also called Eastre), the goddess of spring. Ostara was a "goddess so dearly loved by the old Teutons, that even after the Christianity had been introduced they retained so pleasant a recollection of her, that they refused to have her degraded to the rank of a demon, like many of their other divinities, and they transferred her name to their great Christian feast."(31) One of the key points to the pagan holiday was celebrate by exchanging colored eggs, seen as a symbol of the renewal of life. The Christians "continued to observe this rule, declaring, however, that the egg is also a symbol of the Resurrection."(32) Rather than lose these converts, the church probably saw it harmless to let them keep the name Ostara and the practice of coloring eggs.
The key to understanding Revelation is to see its symbols as metaphorical for the events of the time, but to understand the ideas as timeless. The Apocalypse is the end to the cycle of the Bible as Christians know it. The cycle begins in the opening words of Genesis as God creates the world. But evil enters the world and there is no choice but to bring about an end to the evil so life may continue again. The Christian Bible starts with the creation of heaven and earth, and ends with the creation of a new, perfect heaven and earth. This message of hope was essential for Christians under persecution to keep their world view in line with the promise that their God wouldn't let them suffer forever, and one day the Lord would free them from torment. But the motif of the cosmic battle is as timeless as the heavens themselves. There will be good and evil in every age, and thus, a need for action.
All eschatology revolves around a cycle. In order for there to be an end, there must first be a beginning. The imperfect world in which the human race dwells cannot last forever due to the nature of its very imperfection, and thus is doomed to one day implode. But humans can't comprehend the idea of death being the final end, or perhaps by our nature we are opposed to the idea that death has to be like the final curtain in a play that will never again be acted out. There is a certain yearning in the human soul that wants to believe there is a continuation after the termination. By fostering this hope, death loses its power and facing the final end no longer becomes terrifying, but is understood as the next phase in the cosmological cycle of the life.
Coogan, Michael David. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1978.
Craig, Albert M., et al. The Heritage of World Civilizations. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan College Publishing Company, 1994.
Guerber, H A. Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas. New York: Dover Publications, 1992.
HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993.
Lorie, Peter. Revelation. London: Labyrinth Publishing, 1994.
McGinn, Bernard. Antichrist. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.
Pagels, Elaine. Origin of Satan. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Spencer, A.J. Death in Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books, 1982.
Tis the Season. James G. Manning at el. 50 minutes. Loch Ness Productions, 1993. Planetarium show.
Willoughby, Harold R. Pagan Regeneration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929.
1HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Edition (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993), 2308.
2Peter Lorie, Revelation (London: Labyrinth Publishing Ltd., 1994), 12.
3Revelation 4: 6b-7.
5Revelation 5: 6.
6For example 1st Kings 2:28, Jeremiah. 17: 1, Amos 3: 14, and Psalms 118: 27.
7A.J. Spencer, Death in Ancient Egypt (London: Penguin Books, 1982), 156.
9And since the eye was restored, it may have served some purpose as a charm to assist the dead's regeneration in the next world.
12Michael David Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Loiusville: The Westminster Press, 1978), 16.
14Stories, 41. This particular verse comes from the legend of Aqhat and is part of a lament the hero Danel makes for his murdered son.
15Job 16: 12.
18Bernard McGinn, Antichrist (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994), 46.
21HCSB: NRSV, 2326.
23Harold R. Willoughby, Pagan Regeneration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929), 15.
25Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 114.
26Albert M. Craig, et al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, Vol. 1. 3rd ed. (New York: Macmillan College Publishing Company, 1994), 198.
27The Heritage, 198-9.
29The Heritage, 198.
30Tis the Season, by James G. Manning et al., 50 minutes, Loch Ness Productions, 1993, planetarium show.
31H.A. Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas (New York: Dover Publications, 1992), 55.
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