On Revelation’s Beast and 666 symbolizing Gnostic Wisdom

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by Neil Godfrey

So you think you can figure out the “seven kings” and work out the time-frame of Rome in the Book of Revelation. Here’s something to push you off-balance with all your ingenuity. It’s from one of those “Dutch Radicals” of a hundred years ago. It’s a slightly edited machine translation. All bolded highlighting is my own.

Symbolism in the Apocalypse of John.


Dr. G. A. van den Bergh van Eysinga, Santpoort.

The next occasion for my lecture topic (the lecture was given during the congress of the Dutch Oriental Society in Leyden, 21 April 1922) is probably the contribution by Carl Clemens on the pictoriality of the Revelation of John, published in the Festgabe für Julias Kaftan.1 The important studies by Gunkel, Bousset, Boll and others have primarily focused on the origin of the apocalyptic images – Clemens wanted to place more emphasis on what the author himself and his readers thought of his book, which then also includes an understanding of the literary forms he used.

Holy Wisdom Icon – Wikimedia

Reading this essay has inspired me to take up again a question I dealt with ten years ago during the international congress on the history of religion here and to examine more closely the solution proposed at that time.2 The starting point for me at that time was the interpretation of the famous number of the great beast,3 Apoc. 13:18, the triangular number (αριθμός τρίγωνος) 666, which can be traced back to the basic number 36 according to a custom that can often be proven in antiquity and is thus interchangeable. 36, however, is also a triangular number and as such can be replaced by 8.1 The eight was then easily associated with the eightness, the Ogdoas, which in the Gnostic systems is another name for wisdom, Sophia or Chokma. The Ogdoas appears as a place, namely the fixed starry sky above the seven planetary spheres (Clem. Alex. Strom. IV. 159, 2). According to Plutarch (Theseus 36), it has the peculiarity of the abiding and immovable; it is the transcendent world, the εστώς, the άπίάνητος Λιών (cf. Clem. Alex. V. 36, 3). After traversing the seven spheres, Tyche, for example, enters, according to Poimandres (XIII. 17 ff.), into the Ogdoas, the place for the songs of praise of those redeemed from the body (I. 26). As the heavenly Jerusalem, however, it is with the Valentinians the mother of all living creatures (Hippol. VI. 34, 3). In the Ogdoas, which is called the Day of the Lord, the spiritual beings come to rest and remain there with the mother until perfection (Clem. Alex. Excerpt from Theodotus 63, 1).2 But the mother-deity becomes in the Gnosis an abstract concept, namely Wisdom, Sophia, Chokma. 3 The one brought forth by the earthly mother is led into death and into the world, the one reborn by Christ is led over into life, into the Ogdoas (a. a. O. 80, 1). According to Bousset1 , the mother has a much greater significance than Jesus in the practice of the sacraments and often also in the basic mood of piety.  The mother is the χύριος, the cult heroine of the gnostic, not Jesus.  In Clemens Alexandrinus (Strom. VI. 140, 3] as in the Gnostic Markos (Hippol. VI. 47, 1) the Lord is called Επίσημος ΰγδόας. That the apocalyptic really means Sophia by his number comes out when he himself says in a veiled way: ωδε ή σοφία. When it is said of the beast 17:8 [sic. corr 17:11] that it is itself the ογδοος, this is almost literally true again of my supposition; when it is further said that it belongs to – better perhaps: it consists of – the seven, then consider that the Gnostic Ogdoas as mother belongs to the seven aeons, or as pleroma consists of the seven aeons. On the seven heads of the beast there is a name of lust: this name is probably distributed over the seven heads, a name of seven letters, therefore, consisting of the seven vowels, which denote the στοιχεια, the elemental powers. The a and ω, i.e. the sum of syllabic vowels,2 is, according to the Apocalypse, not the Pleroma of the Aeons, but God (1:8; 21:6) or Christ (22:18). The magic prayer of the Papyrus Anastasy contains these words: “the God who founded the earth, created men and spirits, . . who wears the diadem of the world, is ιαωουηα, the άπλάνητος ΑΙών.” So the god of the seven spheres, who is in contrast to the planets ο ίστώς and at the same time the Νους, the Syrian god of light and the Yahweh of the Jews; 3 in the papyri, however, the Sophia is expressly called the Aion.

2 Euseb- Praepar. ev. XI. 6: by joining the seven vowels together, the unspeakable name of the All-Holy One can be obtained. They express the glory of the divine name.

As I proved in my lecture of 19124, the apocalypticist did not have Rome in mind at all with his references to Babylon. For him, Babylon is the symbol of astrology and of the closely connected magic and conjuration.1 Babylon, the gate of God and the gate of truth, which, for example, is still regarded by the Manichaeans as the holy city and the centre of the world2 and where, according to the Babylonian-Persian view, the divine messenger descends, became, in the estimation of his enemies, the innermost part of hell.3 Opposite this seat of sin and demons, according to the Jewish view, stands Jerusalem, the city of the seven pillars or of life. For Herodotus I. 181 already knew of the house of life on the seven towers in Babylon; for the Jews, this was later the Hana of the false wisdom, the foreign wooer, situated high above the city.4 In the Apocalypse, Babylon refers precisely to the devilish worship of wisdom. Rightly did Irenaeus (v. 30, 1) behold in the great beast the image of apostasy, the church of Antichrist.5 The πόρνεια which is pronounced by her throughout is heathen idolatry with sorcery (16:2) and demon-beings (16:14). Babylon is a ποςνή because she has given herself up to demons. She sits on Sophia, the ethnicising gnosis, the astral religion that engages in sorcery practice and demon summoning; in God’s hand, this very Sophia causes her fall (17:3). The beast is covered with blasphemous names; these are probably magic names, which give the same power to the knower as the bearer of the name has.

The woman in the 12th chapter is the antitype of the beast; if in Irenaeus (I. 29, 1) the Barbelo or Gnostic Sophia is called “a never-aging aeon in a female spirit”, it is noticeable that the woman of 12:1 is also thought of as everlasting, when she appears clothed with the sun and has the moon under her feet, which according to Horapollon 1 is a sign of eternity.6

Important in this respect is the 11th chapter, where the two witnesses are probably Moses and Elijah, who are then again symbolic representatives of the law and the prophets as in the story of the transfiguration; they prophesy in robes of repentance and encourage repentance. They fall prey to the beast and then lie in the market place of the great city called ηνευματιχως Sodom and Egypt Which city is meant here? In the 5th book of the Sibyllines (v. 154, 226, 413) the πόλις is indeed Jerusalem, and one might think in connection with the mention of the temple (11:1 f.) that this is also the case here, but 18:2, 10, and 21 is evidently meant Babylon, and this agrees better with the epithets Sodom and Egypt, which typically stand for πόρνεια and μάγεία. To all appearance the witnesses perish; but they stand on their feet again after 3½ days, and ascend to heaven in a cloud, just as Mt. 17:5 is testified of Moses and Elijah: νεφελή φωτεινή επεσχίπσεν αύτούς. They are raptured. Thus the beast of the abyss is here again the Babylonian gnosis, which divides itself threateningly against the Messianic church, which kills law and prophets – in Babel, where libertinism and magic are at home; where also the Lord of Moses and Elijah was crucified; he fell, after all, victim to the same pagan powers, which are now worshipped by Christians in an almost unbelievable manner! The great question of the relationship between the old and the new is thus solved in the Apocalypse in a more conservative way than in the Gospel of Matthew. 16:19 Allo (p. 241) has understood the matter correctly; there, too, the great city that falls into three parts is not, as Weizsäcker, Joh. Weiß and most others think, Jerusalem, but Babylon, although there is as little reason for his equation Babylon = Rome here as anywhere else; one may well agree with Allo that Babylon serves as a type for the church of the Antichrist, which in my opinion is closer to the Babylonian-oriented astral religion and magical gnosis than to the Roman world empire with its imperial cult. The φαρμαχοί or sorcerers (18:23; 22:15), the angel-worshippers of 19 :10, the idolaters (βδίλυγμα) and heretics (ψευδος), 21:7, 27; 22: 15, are, besides the Nicolaitans, the blasphemers who call themselves Jews and are not, but a congregation of Satan, those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, the pseudo-apostles and pseudo-prophets,1 probably the Gnostics, who, it is true, are not to be fixed on any particular school, still less on any of the greater systems, but must be regarded as the far-reaching direction of the times, imbued with Babylonian wisdom.

It is a well-known fact that in mythological representations the figure closely associated with an animal is often to be thought of in even closer connection with it, indeed as identical with it. Thus Babylon appears on the great beast, the harlot who courts the kings of the earth, identical with the mother-goddess herself, and here comes to light the equally well-known fact that the queen of heaven, as an immoral woman, not only consorted alternately with various male mythical figures, but also entered into a love relationship with the earthly kings.2 According to the Gnostic Justin in Hippolytus (v. 26, 4), Babel is even a maternal angelic being alongside Achamoth and others, is identified with Persephone and causes fornication and divorce (20).

The extent to which vulgar gnosis and magic are connected is also emphasised by Bousset when he3 writes: “How easily the concept of gnosis can turn completely into that of magic is shown by Epiphanius 31, 7, 3; p. 397, 9 H ……. In the Zosimus text appended by Reitzenstein, Poimandres, p. 103, the πνευματικός Άνθρωπος, however, expressly rejects magic. But the rejection shows how much gnosis and magic are accustomed to combine.” 

How very uncertain one actually still is in the conventional conception of the apocalyptic beasts becomes clear when one hears the question in Bousset with regard to the pseudoprophet: the priesthood of the imperial cult? We involuntarily think of a figure like Simon Magus of Samaria, the pagan region influenced by the Euphrates, whose disciples do not care about the moral commandments. Their mystical priests lead a lustful life and indulge in sorcery, curses, incantations, love potions, lures, etc. (Iren. I. 23, 1). They have an image of Simon made after the model of Zeus, and one of Helena made after the model of Hera (I. 23, 4; cf. Hippel. VI 20, 1). Menander, a pupil of Simon, reached the height of sorcery, so that he could even overcome the wave-creating angels, and introduced others to his art (I. 23, 5). Of the Carpocratians Irenaeus reports the same (I. 25, 3), so that the Church Father can assert: they were brought forth by Satan just as well as the heathen, to the dishonour of the divine name of the Church.

The most remarkable thing about the whole affair is that the author of the Apocalypse moves entirely in the language and imagination of his opponents and fights them with their own weapons, so to speak. The star-gods have here become God-serving spirits. As Allo1 has rightly put it: John has consciously or unconsciously been inspired by a popular Hellenistic system whose ideas he has spiritualised. I would add that he uses these forms in order to make the foreign tributary to Christianity, but strives to avoid and suppress all pagan essence. The Judaeo-Christian element is therefore not narrow here, but has a broad horizon.2

2 After the conclusion of this essay, the work of Franz Dornseiffa (Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie, 1922) comes into my hands, where 8. 106 ff. our explanation is rejected.The terminology ψηφισατω τον αριθμον τού θηρίου is m. Ε. intentionally borrowed from the thought circle of Gematria; ο νουν εχων but do not be misled by this; the riddle is just more difficult than the ordinary Gematria! I still regard ‘Αριθμος as belonging to a human number system, because D. has not taught me better; nor is his reference to the Book of Jeû  able to change my exegesis of Apk. Joh. 13 :17.

Bergh van Eysinga, G. A. van den. “Symbolisches in der Apokalypse Johannis.” Acta orientalia 2 (1924): 32ff. http://archive.org/details/in.gov.ignca.26535