The Common Situation Facing the Seven Churches of Revelation (?)

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by Neil Godfrey

By Jonadab – This file has been extracted from another file, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4662867

In Thyatira the woman Jezebel, a “so-called prophetess”, teaches the same message that was identified as the “doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans” in the church at Pergamon: sexual immorality and the worship of idols. If we accept Thomas Witulski’s [W.] analysis (see The Doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans) it follows that the same pressures arising from unprecedented innovations in emperor worship in the Roman province of Asia lie behind the “false teachings” in Thyatira.

Revelation 2:20 . . . . thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, who calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.

21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not.

22 Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.

23 And I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He that searcheth the reins and hearts; and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.

24 But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine and who have not known the depths of Satan (as they say) I will put upon you no other burden.

Jezebel was infamous for introducing the worship of pagan deities, in particular Baal, to Israel: 1 Kings 16:31-34; 21:25-26; 2 Kings 9:22; Josephus Ant. VIII 316-318. As we saw in the post on the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, fornication is a metaphor for being enticed into participation in the cult meals and festivities of deities other than the “true God”.

The “depths of Satan” surely here means the teaching that it is permissible to participate in idolatrous feasts and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we can understand the likely reasoning. Idols are nothing and since there is only one God there can be no harm in participating in feasts prepared for “make-believe” gods. The “as they say” phrase may be an ironic dig at their claim to have grasped “the depths of God” (cf. 1 Cor 2:10) or, as others have suggested, it may be the label given by the faithful members to their wayward brethren.

I have not yet covered the details of the evidence that the inhabitants of the Roman province of Asia were required to set up altars dedicated to Hadrian in their houses (usually near the entrances) and would like to do so soon. Meanwhile, W. argues that this requirement explains the situations that are implied in the respective letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3.

Since W. has identified Satan with Zeus (see the Throne of Satan post) it follows that Zeus probably held a significant place in the teaching of “Jezebel”. Recall that the emperor Hadrian was even assimilated into Zeus in this new level of emperor-worship in the Greek world. The remains of two of these household shrines have been recovered from the ruins of ancient Thyatira: see TAM V 908 and 909: they translate as “Emperor Hadrian, Divine Olympios [= the title of Zeus], saviour and founder”.

To get some idea of how these household shrines came into play:

The involvement of the whole community was also expressed by the regulation that householders should sacrifice on altars outside their houses as the procession passed. This practice, which was followed in the Hellenistic period for cults both of gods and of rulers, may also be detected in the imperial cult. Long series of small imperial altars have been found at Athens, Sparta, Miletus, Mytilene and Pergamum. In any given city the series of altars is relatively uniform in its dedication, but diverse in its actual details of design and execution, and this is only explicable on the assumption that the city passed a decree instructing all citizens to provide their own altars. (Price, p. 112)

Now that Pergamon and Thyatira have been reviewed, I’ll briefly touch on the other five churches:

Ephesus (2:1-7): they were once confronted by the “false” apostles and rejected their teachings so that they can be said to hate the idea of yielding to pressure to participate in the worship of Zeus/Hadrian.

Smyrna (2:8-11): they experience slander of those who claim falsely to be Jews. Smyrna was the city of Hadrian’s close friend and advisor, Polemon, who appears to have been responsible for winning the unusual honour of Smyrna hosting a second cult centre for the worship of the emperor. Without going into details in this post, I can say for now that the evidence indicates that the pressure to be awarded this second imperial cult establishment (it required new constructions and priests and related services) came from the community itself, not from the emperor. There is also an inscription boasting of a special gift by the Jewish community of 1000 denarii for a palm grove to go with the new temple. If Jews were part of the community’s enthusiasm to establish this second cult centre for Hadrian one can begin to imagine how they might have responded to those in their ranks who did not approve. Were the “faithful” in Smyrna being slandered, denounced, as disloyal to the emperor?

Sardis (3:1-6): only a few members in this church had not “stained their garments”. Sardis became a member of the Panhellenion — the primary function of the Panhellenion being emperor-worship — in 132 CE. The image of “staining” is another metaphor for idolatry:

Whereas the majority of the people in the church at Sardis had compromised by not bearing witness to their faith, there were still a few who had been faithful in the task. The fact that they had “not stained their garments,” as had the rest, reveals that the manner in which most of the Sardian Christians were suppressing their witness was by assuming a low profile in idolatrous contexts of the pagan culture in which they had daily interaction. That a context of idolatry is in mind is apparent from the use of μολύνω (“stain”), which is used elsewhere of the threat of being “stained” with the pollution of idolatry: cf. 14:4 with 14:6–9, where “those not stained with women” is a metaphor of abstinence from sexual immorality, which most likely refers to believers’ separation from idolatrous involvement (Ethiopic and Bohairic have “did not defile their garments with a woman” in 3:4, which explicitly identifies this verse with 14:4). “Fornicate” (πορνεύω) is used in similar metaphorical manner in 2:14, 20–21 (cf. likewise 1 Cor. 8:7 and μολυσμός [“defilement”] in 2 Cor. 7:1 [cf. 6:1418]; Isa. 65:4 LXX uses μολύνω of defilement from idols). (Beale, 276)

Philadelphia (3:7-13): As with Smyrna, they were faced with “false Jews”.

Laodicea (3:14-21): The author finds nothing to praise in Laodicea. They apparently had become indistinguishable from the world around them as a result of thinking they were rich in being able both to worship God and to safely participate in idolatrous festivals or ceremonies.

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Carlisle, Cumbria: Eerdmans, 1998.

Price, S. R. F. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Revised ed. Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007.


Hadrian — Man, Program and Impact in the Context of Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

In the preceding post I copied extracts from Demetrios Kritsotakis’s thesis Hadrian and the Greek East that illustrated the unprecedented level to which the Roman emperor Hadrian was exalted as a divinity — all in the context of Thomas Witulski’s thesis that the Book of Revelation is best dated to the time of Hadrian (117-138 CE). Here I continue quoting Kritsotakis (and works he cites) insofar as they arguably support the interpretation that Hadrian best represents the principal “beast” figure in Revelation.

Who can make war with the beast?

Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? (Rev 13:4)


Hadrian followed a non-expansion policy and his reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts, apart from the Second Roman-Jewish War.

The peace policy was further strengthened by the erection of permanent fortifications along the empire’s borders, such as the British Wall and the fortifications along the Rhine frontier. (pp 1f)

Hadrian’s wall (history.com) — Relief from the time of Marcus Aurelius depicting the fortress lines begun by Hadrian (FollowingHadrian)

Hadrian abandoned his predecessor Trajan’s newly conquered territories of Mesopotamia, Armenia and Assyria, an unpopular decision with many Roman senators, but he “made up” for those withdrawals by establishing secure and clearly visible boundaries and introducing an era of “peace and prosperity”:

However, Hadrian insisted on holding the Empire within its limits, on the one hand by ceasing further expansion, on the other by marking the limits of the Empire. Beginning in 121, a continuous palisade was to mark the empire’s limits on the Rhine frontier. Besides its military value, to the barbarians it marked off the Empire more clearly than ever before. In Britain he began, in 122, the great Wall and in North Africa he organized the southern frontier of the Empire. (p. 32)

After he was declared emperor in 117 . . .  the strengthening of the empire’s frontiers became a priority for Hadrian. Accordingly, during his first trip from 121 to 125 Hadrian paid special attention to the borders of the empire. It was in this period that he inaugurated the construction of the British wall (122) as well as of a palisade on the Rhine frontier (121), and there is evidence that he attempted to construct a similar border in Northern Africa153. To further secure the borders of the empire, Hadrian improved military discipline by example. According to Dio, the emperor so trained and disciplined the army both by his example and his precepts that even in Dio’s own days “the methods then introduced by him (Hadrian) are the soldier’s law of campaigning.”

153 . . . A passage in [Historia Augusta] may allude to it.  The author claims that “in many regions where the barbarians are [held] back not by rivers but by artificial barriers, Hadrian shut them off by means of high stakes planted deep in the ground and fastened together in the manner of a palisade” (pp. 68f.)

Image from Deo Moneta

Another allusion to Hadrian’s domination of the world, this time emphasizing his military skills, is found on a silver denarius from Rome. The obverse depicts a laureate bust of Hadrian while another image of the emperor is seen on the reverse. Here the emperor is presented bare-headed, in military dress, holding a rudder on a globe in his right hand and a spear reversed in his left. The image of the emperor who seems to rest rather than being in preparation for a battle, and the symbol of leadership, the rudder, resting on the globe, speak of his rule over the world, achieved by military skill. (140)

Hadrian as a New Nero

Continue reading “Hadrian — Man, Program and Impact in the Context of Revelation”


Hadrian the God

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by Neil Godfrey

Demetrios Kritsotakis

Even though I went through a “Hadrian focus” in my reading some years back, I remained unaware of the potential relevance of several details of that emperor’s reign to the Book of Revelation as highlighted by Thomas Witulski’s several works. So when my good friend Serendipity showed me another work independently addressing some of the same issues Witulski covered, I once again put blog posting on hold until I could finish reading that new work along with several of its citations. The “new” work is a PhD thesis by Demetrios Kritsotakis and the extracts below will tell you why I think it is an appropriate addition to the discussion of Witulski’s thesis:

Hadrian and the Divine

An important factor that determined Hadrian’s policy in the East was his personality. Among other things, the emperor was interested in divination and mystic cults, magic and superstitions, was skilled in astrology, knowledge of every science and art, and was even credited with healing powers. Although this aspect of his personality is not directly connected with his cult in the region, it pertains to the divine, the superhuman and as such I deem it worthy of being examined here. Moreover, I believe that these interests of his facilitated his reception among the. Greeks. They were part of the religion-colored language that the Greeks and the emperor used to communicate with each other.

In spite of the fact that this aspect of Hadrian’s life was the subject of great interest in our sources, modern scholarship has underestimated the significant role that it played in the creation of his image in the East.

(Kritsotakis, Demetrios. Hadrian and the Greek East: Imperial Policy and Communication. PhD, Ohio State University, 2008.  pp. 186f.)

and . . .

This chapter will discuss the role of religion in the promotion of Hadrian’s program and vision for the Greek East in the region. The center of his religious program was the imperial cult, which focused on the emperor but also on the imperial house, especially his wife Sabina, and outside of it on his young lover Antinoos. However, here I will not talk about the mechanisms of the cult and the individuals involved. This has been amply treated in modern scholarship. Instead, I will discuss aspects of his religious program that have not received the attention they deserve so far (K, p 161)

I will post in two parts a series of extracts from Kritsotakis’ thesis, grouping them under headings relevant to W’s interpretations of Hadrian in Revelation. (The one detail K does not mention is the introduction in Asia Minor of private household shrines for Hadrian.)

Emperor Cult Taken to New Levels

. . . and they worshipped the beast (Rev 13:4)

Hadrian received more divine honors in the Greek East than any of his predecessors. These honors, among them the unprecedented erection of statues, his worship in shrines, and close association with many Greek divinities, strengthened his relationship with the region and placed him in the heart of religion and the Greek pantheon. In honoring him the Greeks identified Hadrian with major divinities of their pantheon. Hadrian became the manifestation of Zeus, Apollo and other gods on earth, and a number of epithets were used to address him as a god. (K. 162)


Hadrian was hailed by the Greeks in an unprecedented association with Zeus and was viewed by them as the new Olympian who would preside over their councils and lead them. (163)


To start at the beginning, Hadrian promoted his appointment as emperor as the direct result of divine appointment. Among the senatorial ranks in Rome questions had been raised about the legitimacy of his succession to Trajan.

From Coins of the Roman Empire in the British Museum Vol. 3

Thus, early in his reign, Hadrian wanted to state his divine election publicly. . . . [T]he message carried here [the eagle coming to Hadrian in the coin image above] was that it was not by the foresight of mortal men or even a mortal now deified, but by the foresight and the care which the gods exercised for the Roman commonwealth that Jupiter sent his messenger, the eagle, to grant Hadrian the ruling of the world. . . .

. . .  if it were ever doubted whether Rome’s rulers were appointed by chance or by the gods, it is now clear that the present princeps owes his position to the will of the gods; not by dark processes of fate, but clearly and openly by Jupiter himself. (167-168)

But back to the worship of Hadrian . . .

Continue reading “Hadrian the God”


The Throne of Satan in Revelation

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by Neil Godfrey

To the angel of the church in Pergamum write: . . . I know where you live—where Satan has his throne (Revelation 2:13)

This post continues from The Doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. We are looking at the arguments of Thomas Witulski for dating the final book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, to the time of the emperor Hadrian. (Though the last book in the NT canon, I think there are good arguments for suspecting it may have been one of the earliest NT books written – but that’s another subject.)

What was the Throne of Satan (θρόνος τοῦ σατανᾶ) in the city of Pergamon?

In research, the question of what or which sanctuary might have been in the apocalyptist’s mind when using the term θρόνος τού σατανά is extremely controversial. (250f — all references are to W’s Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian and all quotations are translations)

Through 25 pages with most of the text in small print and lengthy footnotes W. addresses the pros and cons of the many proposals:

  • Temple of Augustus and the goddess Roma — the first imperial temple in the Roman province of Asia
  • The Great Altar for sacrifices for the nearby temples of Athena and Zeus Soter (Saviour).
  • Pergamon was the place of the chair of the judge of the proconsul of the province of Asia — Christians presumably would have been tried there
  • A major sanctuary dedicated to the healing god Asclepius Soter (Saviour)
  • The city of Pergamon — because it had been the place of intense persecution of Christians
  • The city of Pergamon — since it was a major centre of emperor worship
  • The city of Pergamon — since it was a major centre of pagan worship
  • The hill on which Pergamon was built — its shape lending itself to the interpretation

However, here I will cut to the chase and announce “the winner”. It is one that another scholar, Yarbro Collins, had rejected despite all the points in its favour simply because it is “too late”. In W’s view, the throne of Satan was a reference to the giant statue of Zeus Philios, king of the gods, seated on his throne within a stunning temple complex overlooking the city. [This is not the same temple for Zeus Soter included in the above list. That temple was small and lower down on the hill.] The temple of Zeus Philios was consecrated in the year 129, the time of Hadrian. W accordingly sets 129 as the earliest Revelation would have been written.

Justifications for W’s identification of the Throne of Satan with the statue of the enthroned Zeus Philios:

Zeus subdues the rebel Giants or Titans. From the frieze on the Great Altar in Pergamon. From Caproni Collection
    1. The author of Revelation makes a clear distinction between Satan and both the Roman empire and the emperors at its head. Satan is the celestial enemy of God who was cast out of heaven, as we read in Revelation 12. Satan gave power to the beast but was distinct from the beast, the beast being Rome or its emperor, as per Revelation 13. The temple of Zeus Philios (Roman name: Jupiter Amicalis) was devoted to the worship of Zeus directly, alone, and was not part of the cult of emperor worship.
    2. Zeus/Jupiter stood at the head of the Greco-Roman pantheon. His dominance was such that the poetry, the philosophical writings, the daily public attention he received in worship and the prevalent artwork, was so overwhelming that one might almost wonder if his figure signified a trend toward monotheism. Such a deity would readily be identified with Satan by followers of the Jewish Scriptures.
    3. Justin, writing in the middle of the second century, informs us that Christians looked on pagan gods as fallen angels or demons (2 Apology 5). This view of the gods was based on the account of the fallen angels in the Jewish Book of Enoch. For Jews and Christians, then, the head of the pagan gods was Satan. (Similarly, in another Jewish writing, Joseph and Aseneth, the highest god of the Egyptians was identified with Satan.) Shortly after Justin, Clement of Alexandria recorded in Exhortation to the Heathen that Zeus could appear as a dragon. W. cites multiple sources of various kinds to demonstrate that the author of Revelation constructed his figure of Satan and the dragon from motifs well-known at the time to apply to Zeus.
    4. The word “throne” in Revelation is always used in the literal sense of a chair or throne seat. This makes it unlikely that the author meant to use the term with reference to Pergamon in a figurative sense as a symbol of power or as a substitute for an altar. The smashed remains of a giant statue of Zeus seated on a throne have been discovered at Pergamon in the relevant time period. This statue was originally set in the Temple of Zeus Philios/Jupiter Amicalis at the top of the acropolis overlooking the city. It dominated all other temples in the area. Construction of this temple began with the emperor Trajan in 114 CE though it was not completed and consecrated until the time of Hadrian in 129 CE.

      The long overall construction time was not least due to the fact that before the actual sanctuary was erected on the hilltop of the Pergamenian acropolis on its southwestern slope, supporting structures had to be built to a considerable extent, which had to carry the courtyard and the sacrificial altar of the temple. For the construction of such an extensive sanctuary, an in itself extraordinarily unsuitable location was chosen. This is certainly due to the fact that the sanctuary built here was to have a highly exposed position that would determine the entire cityscape.
      (276, my bolding in all quotations)
    5. The temple was devoted to the worship of Zeus alone, independently of the emperor. It contained an enormous statue of Zeus seated on his throne. Coins depicted the emperor Trajan standing before the enthroned Zeus. The temple dominated the acropolis and the entire city.
Coin depicting Zeus enthroned in the Pergamon temple – with Trajan standing before him. Image from Corpus Nummorum

Continue reading “The Throne of Satan in Revelation”


The Doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans

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by Neil Godfrey

This post begins to set out the main points of Thomas Witulski’s discussion of the situation facing the Christians in Pergamon as described in Revelation 2:12-17. This account, following his discussion of the two beasts in Revelation 13, is part of the larger argument to place Revelation in the time of Hadrian. The numbers in brackets are the source page numbers in Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian.

Reconstructed view of Acropolis of Pergamon by Friedrich Thierch – 1882.

Revelation 2:12 To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:

These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.

14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.

17 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.

Noting what the passage says:

The Pergamene Christians live (at the time of the writing of Revelation) where Satan’s seat is located. (238) (The identification of Satan’s throne will be the subject of the next post in this series.)

At some time before this was written, the Pergamene Christians were shaken but remained steadfast when Antipas had been killed for his faith.

Since the apocalyptist describes the death of one μάρτυς [martyr/witness] Antipas as the climax of the hostilities acting from without on the Christians living in Pergamum, it can be assumed that his death was the only case of a Christian killed for the sake of his faith in that city at the time of the writing of Revelation. This means, however, that up to this time there can be no question of a comprehensive or general persecution of the Pergamenian Christians. (239, translation)

No details are given to enable us to know whether the death of Antipas was the result of a lynching or a formal trial. Both are conceivable. (239)

But there’s a problem. Among these Christians are false teachers whose teachings match those of Balaam whom we know from Numbers 25. Since the comparative adverbs translated above as “likewise” and “also” identify the teaching of the Nicolaitans, plural, as being the same false doctrine that is identified with that of Balaam, we can conclude that some members here called “Nicolaitans” are teaching the same false doctrine of the Old Testament’s Balaam. (240f)

So what was the teaching of Balaam?

While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them. – Numbers 25:1-3

They [the Midianite women] were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident. – Numbers 31:16

The false teaching consisted of seducing the people to commit apostasy. The sexual sin was not the point. That was only “the means” to the goal. It was what the sexual sin was designed to lead to — idolatry — that was the issue. (I am reminded of that old joke: Why do Methodists not have sex while standing up? Because it might lead to dancing.)

Paying attention to details:

Continue reading “The Doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans”



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by Neil Godfrey

Virgin of Light (Manichaean Cosmology)

Was a crucifixion in heaven possible? conceivable?


But the following, again, is the cause of men’s dying: A certain virgin, fair in person, and beautiful in attire, and of most persuasive address, aims at making spoil of the princes [= archons] that have been borne up and crucified on the firmament by the living Spirit . . . . 

Acta Archelai 8, describing a third century Manichean answer to the question, Why death?


What gave rise to Gnosticism from within Judaism?

Birger Pearson’s answer is very similar to what I think led to the emergence of Christianity from within Judaism. If gnostics fell away from Judaism by rejecting its god as a blind and ignorant Demiurge who gave a law that enslaved its followers to the ways of the flesh, Christianity offered a positive response to similar circumstances, a new covenant grounded in an allegorical revision of the old rather than an outright rejection of it:

One can hear in this text echoes of existential despair arising in circles of the people of the Cove­nant faced with a crisis of history, with the apparent failure of the God of history: “What kind of a God is this?”‘ (48,1); “These things he has said (and done, failed to do) to those who believe in him and serve him!” (48,13ff.). Such expressions of existential anguish are not without paral­lels in our own generation of history “after Auschwitz.”

Historical existence in an age of historical crisis, for a people whose God after all had been the Lord of history and of the created order, can, and apparently did, bring about a new and revolutionary look at the old traditions and ‘assumptions, a “new hermeneutic”. This new herme­neutic arising in an age of historical crisis and religiocultural syncretism is the primary element in the origin of Gnosticism.

Pearson, Birger. Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1990. p. 51

How to explain Paul’s letters if we see signs of Philo and Seneca in them?

Philo: Continue reading “Miscellany”


The 7 Kings of Revelation 17 — part 4

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by Neil Godfrey

From a comment:

That argument would make good sense if it were not for one major objection I see: in this reconstruction in which the author actually has knowledge of #7 and #8, #7 reigns only “for a short time”. But the emperor before Hadrian as #8 was Trajan who would be #7. But Trajan ruled for 19 years, hardly a “short time”.

In other words, would an author of Revelation writing of Hadrian as #8, in the time of Hadrian, write an ex eventu prophecy that Hadrian’s immediate predecessor, Trajan, would only reign “a short time”?

Why the “short time”?

The Hadrian theory is interesting and appealing on other grounds that you have named, but the explanation of the 8 heads has this objection that I see.

W’s discussion of the “short time”, both machine translation and original German followed by a comment of my own: Continue reading “The 7 Kings of Revelation 17 — part 4”


The 7 Kings of Revelation 17 — part 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas Witulski

So where does the comparison we set out in the previous post lead us?

Revelation 17:9 This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.


The comparison of the account in Rev 17:10 with the quoted texts from 4Esr 11f and Sib V raises the question whether the apocalypticist here in Rev 17:10 was at all concerned with the fact that his readers can refer the five “fallen” kings, the sixth who reigns at the time of the writing of the Apk, and the seventh who has not yet taken up the reign but apparently will do so soon and must then reign, to historical persons and assign them to certain emperors. The apparent vagueness in the account in Rev 17:10f suggests that the apocalypticist did not intend the assignment of the seven or eight βασιλείς to specific Roman rulers. (p. 328, translation)

He is not alone. From Aune’s commentary (p. 948):

Some have maintained, I think correctly, that John is not referring to seven specific kings; rather he is using the number seven as an apocalyptic symbol, a view that has become increasingly popular among scholars (Beckwith, 704-8; Kiddle-Ross, 350-51; Lohmeyer, 143; Beasley-Murray, 256-57; Caird, 218-19; Lohse, 95; Guthrie, Introduction, 959; Mounce, 315; Sweet, 257; Harrington, 172; Giblin, 164-65; Talbert, 81). For several reasons, the symbolic rather than the historical approach to interpreting the seven kings is convincing.

(a) Seven, a symbolic number widely used in the ancient world, occurs fifty-three times in Revelation to reflect the divine arrangement and design of history and the cosmos. The enumeration of just seven kings, therefore, suggests the propriety of a symbolic rather than a historical interpretation,

(b) The seven heads of the beast, first interpreted as seven hills and then as seven kings, is based on the archaic mythic tradition of the seven-headed dragon widely known in the ancient world (see Comment on 12:3). Since the author is working with traditional material, this again suggests that precisely seven kings should be interpreted symbolically,

(c) Rome, founded in 753 b.c. according to Varro (several alternate dates are suggested by other ancient authors), was an Etruscan monarchy until the expulsion of the last Etruscan king, Tarquinius Superbus, in 508 b.c. From the perspective of canonical Roman tradition, there were exactly seven kings in all: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcus, Tarquinus Priscus, Servius Tullius (the only king of Latin origin), and Tarquinius Superbus (though it is true that Lars Porsenna, the Etruscan king of Clusium, controlled Rome briefly after the expulsion of Tarquinius Superbus [Tacitus Hist. 3.72; Pliny Hist. nat. 34.139]). While there were probably more than seven historical kings (Momigliano, CAH7/2:96), Roman and Etruscan historians identified minor figures with major ones to maintain the canonical number. The number seven was referred to frequently in that connection (Appian Bell. civ. praef. 14; bk. 1, frag. 2; a magical prayer in Demotic found in PDM XIV.299 is addressed to the seven kings, though what this means is impossible to say). There is also occasional reference to the seven archons who rule the seven planetary spheres (the sun, the moon, and five planets) as kings (Ap.John II/1 11.4-6).

Beckwith (704-708): Continue reading “The 7 Kings of Revelation 17 — part 3”


The 7 Kings of Revelation 17 — part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

The question to which Roman emperors the κεφαλαι ἑπτά [=seven heads] are to be referred has been and continues to be the subject of extraordinary controversy among scholars.  This is not least due to the fact that the apocalypticist does not give his readers any real clue regarding the historical attribution of the [emperors] in the enigma Rev 17:10, unlike, for example, the author of 4Esr 11f and the author of Sib V 12-51. (Witulski, 326)

“Does not give the readers any real clue”? Let’s read the [not real] clues:

17: 9 “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

We saw in the previous post that “seven kings” means “seven emperors”. Five “are fallen”. The verb επεσαν (a form of πίπτειν) suggests a violent death. W. cites Lohmeyer, 

. . .  und επεσαν als „sie starben“ zu fassen, ist sprachlich und sachlich unmöglich. = and to take επεσαν as “they died” is linguistically and factually impossible. (Lohmeyer, 141)

and Aune,

10a οί πέντε έπεσαν, ό εις έστιν, ό άλλος ούπω ήλθεν, “of whom five have fallen, one is living, the other has not yet come.” έπεσαν, “have fallen” (from πίπτειν, “to fall”), does not simply mean “died” but carries the connotation of being overthrown or being killed violently (Lohmeyer, 143; Strobel, ATTS 10 [1963-64] 439). “To fall” is commonly used in the euphemistic metaphorical sense of a person’s violent death, usually in war, in both Israelite-Jewish and Greek literature (Exod 32:28; 1 Sam4:10; 2 Sam 1:19,25,27; 3:38; 21:22; Job 14:10 [LXX only]; 1 Chr 5:10; 20:8; 1 Macc 3:24; 4:15, 34; 2 Macc 12:34; Jdt 7:11; Gk. 1 Enoch 14:6; 1 Cor 10:18; Barn. 12:5; Iliad 8.67, 10.200; 11.157, 500; Xenophon Cyr. 1.4.24; Herodotus 9.67; see Louw-Nida, § 23.105) . . . .

Many of the Roman emperors died violent deaths: Julius Caesar was assassinated by being stabbed twenty-three times (Plutarch Caesar 66.4-14; Suetonius Julius 82; Dio Cassius 44.19.1-5); Caligula was stabbed repeatedly with swords (Suetonius Caligula 58; Tacitus Annals 11.29; Jos. Ant. 19.104—113; Dio Cassius 59.29.4-7; Seneca Dial. 2.18.3; 4.7); Claudius was poisoned (Suetonius Claudius 44-45; Tacitus Annals 12.66-67; 14.63; Pliny Hist. nat. 2.92; 11.189; 22.92); Nero committed suicide (Suetonius Nero 49; Jos. J. W. 4.493); Galba was stabbed to death by many using swords, decapitated, and his corpse mutilated (Tacitus Hist. 1.41.2; Plutarch Galba 27); Otho committed suicide with a dagger (Plutarch Otho 17; Suetonius Otho 11); Vitellius was beaten to death (Suetonius Vit. 17-18; Tacitus Hist. 3.84-85; Jos. J.W. 4.645; Cassius Dio 64.20.1-21.2); and Domitian was assassinated with a dagger (Suetonius Dom 18). (Aune, 949 – my bolded highlighting in all quotations)

W. adds Strobel as another witness:

1. Caligula (-41 AD). Assassinated.

2. Claudius (-54 AD). Poisoned.

3. Nero (-68 AD). Suicide.

4. Vespasian (-79 AD). Died of a fever [Suetonius Vesp. 24.8].  Later, the rumour spread of his poisoning by Titus [Dio Cassius lxvi, 17. . . ].

5 Titus (-81 AD). Died of a fever [Suetonius, Tit. 10]. The suddenness of his death also gave rise to the rumour that he had been violently assassinated [10 Allegedly at the instigation of his brother Domitian. On the matter cf. Paulys R .E . VI, Sp. 2722.].

(Strobel, 439)

So that makes ten, not five, having “fallen”.

But return to where I left off in the last post. We were about to compare Revelation with other apocalyptic literature of the time: 4 Ezra and the Sibylline Oracle V.

The point W. makes is that both of those texts offer the reader numerous clues on how to interpret the metaphorical imagery.

In contrast, the 4Esr 11f surviving eagle vision and its interpretation, for example, offers numerous clues to the identification of the Roman emperors meant in each case. However, for all the literary-critical and redactional-historical problems that this text may raise, it is undisputed among scholars that the second wing, which reigns longer than any of the others, is Augustus, and the three heads are the Flavian emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. This makes it possible to relate a large part of the other wings listed in the vision to Roman emperors or rebellious princes and troop leaders. This unanimity among exegetes, as can be seen in the interpretation of the eagle vision 4Esr 11f is lacking in view of the interpretation of Apk 17:10f, precisely because in these verses the apocalypticist offers no clear indications of the historical classification of the seven or eight βασιλείς.

(Witulski, 327)

The same assessment is made in relation to the Sibylline Oracle V,

Even within the discussion of the individual Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Hadrian’s adopted sons in Sib V 12-51, there are sufficiently clear references in each case to allow readers to clearly identify the individual emperors.

Compare 4 Ezra 11. Although the identifications of many of the details are open to dispute, there is enough description provided for readers to have little doubt about the identity of Augustus being the second ruler after Julius Caesar (the second wing who reigned for a very long time) and again, enough details are offered to enable readers to identify Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian (three heads, after the death of the first, one of the remaining two “devoured” the other — as Domitian was rumoured to have killed Titus),

11:1 On the second night I had a dream, and, behold, there came up from the sea an eagle, which had twelve feathered wings, and three heads.
11:2 And I saw, and, behold, she spread her wings over all the earth . . . 

1:12 And I looked, and, behold, on the right side there arose one feather, and reigned over all the earth;
11:13 And so it was, that when it reigned, the end of it came, and the place thereof appeared no more: so the next wing following stood up, and reigned, and had a long reign . . .
[Augustus ruled longer than any other emperor]

11:29 And when they were planning, behold, there awakened one of the heads that were at rest, namely, the one that was in the middle; for that was greater than the other two heads.
11:30 And I saw how it allied the two heads with itself . . . .

11:32 Moreover this middle head gained control of the whole earth [Vespasian], and with much oppression dominated its inhabitants; and it had greater power over the world than all the wings that had gone before.
11:33 And after this I looked, and behold, the middle head suddenly disappeared and was no more, just as the wings had done.
11:34 But there remained the two heads, which also ruled over the earth and its inhabitants.
11:35 And I looked, and behold, the head upon the right side devoured the one that was upon the left side. [Domitian thought to have assassinated Titus]

Similarly with the Sibylline Oracle V, 10-50:

. . . after the man of the race and blood of Assaracus, who came from Troy, and broke through the raging fire, and after many kings and warlike men, and after the babes whom the wolf took for her nurslings, shall come a king first of all, the first letter of whose name shall sum twice ten [twice ten = K, Caesar]; he shall prevail greatly in war : and for his first sign he shall have the number ten [ten = I, i.e. I/Julius];

so that after him shall rule one who has the first letter as his initial [first letter =A, i.e. Augustus]; before whom Thrace shall cower [battle at Philippi, 42 B.C.] and Sicily [defeat of Pompey’s son who had controlled Sicily with his fleet], then Memphis, Memphis brought low by the fault of her leaders, and of a woman undaunted [i.e. Cleopatra], who fell on the wave (by the spear ?). He shall give laws to the peoples and bring all into subjection, and after a long time shall hand on his kingship to one who shall have the number three hundred for his first letter [300 = T, Tiberius], and a name well known from a river [= Tiber River], whose sway shall reach to the Persians and Babylon : and he shall smite the Medes with the spear.

Then shall rule one whose name-letter is the number three [3 = G, Gaius] ; then one whose initial is twenty [20 = K, i.e. Claudius]: he shall reach the furthest ebb of Ocean’s tide [i.e. Britain], swiftly travelling with his Ausonian company. Then one with the letter fifty shall be king [50 = N, i.e. Nero], a fell dragon breathing out grievous war [i.e. war against the Jews from 66 CE], who shall lift his hand against his own people to slay them, and shall spread confusion, playing the athlete, charioteer, assassin, a man of many ill-deeds [Nero participated in chariot races, assassinated his mother and others]; he shall cut through the mountain between two seas and stain it with blood [isthmus canal of Corinth, 6000 Jewish slaves sent to work on it]; yet he shall vanish to destruction (?) ; then he shall return, making himself equal to God : but God shall reveal his nothingness.

Three kings after him shall perish at each other’s hand [civil war and successive emperors Galba, Otho, Vitellius]; then shall come a great destroyer of the godly, whom the number seventy plainly shows [70 = O, Vespasian, in Greek, Ούεσπασιανός]. His son, revealed by the number three hundred [300 = T, Titus], shall take away his power [Rumour was that Titus poisoned his father]. After him shall rule a devouring tyrant, marked by the letter four [4 = D, Domitian], and then a venerable man, by number fifty [50 = N, the aged Nerva who reduced harsh penalties on Jews] :

but after him one to whom falls the initial sign three hundred, a Celt, ranging the mountains [300 = T, Trajan, from Spain, conquered mountainous Armenia], but hastening to the clash of conflict he shall not escape an unseemly doom, but shall fall ; the dust of a strange land shall cover him in death, a land named from the Nemean flower. Following him a silver-haired king shall reign : his name is that of a sea [Hadrian, cf Adriatic Sea]; he shall be a man of excellence and all discernment. . . . [written before the Bar Kochba war at a time when it was hoped he would restore the temple?]

Contrast the seven kings in Revelation 17. Readers are left guessing without sufficient clues to identify any of them with certainty. Here is Strobel’s summary of the problem (translated from the German):

If we begin the ‘five’ with Augustus and ignore the interregnum emperors, the ‘one’ is Vespasian (69-79) and the ‘other’, who may only remain for a ‘short time’, is Titus (79-81). If we count from Caesar onwards, Nero would be the ‘one’, currently reigning emperor (54-68) and Vespasian the ‘other’, who nevertheless held the throne for 11 years. If we include the interregnum emperors (beginning with Augustus), a writing under Galba in particular suggests itself as the ‘One’ who is. He still ruled from Jun 68 to January 69 and also found some recognition in the Orient. . . .  In addition, one also remembers those early church testimonies which claim to know of a death of the apocalypticist under Nero or of a death of the Zebedaid John in the years before the destruction of Jerusalem. Insofar as the undoubtedly important old Christian tradition of a writing under Domitian is considered relevant, one considers the processing of a source originating from the time of Vespasian . . . (433f)

A remarkable solution, despite its idiosyncrasy, is offered by E. B. Allo among the modern interpreters. Beginning the count with Nero without sufficient reasons and including at least two of the three intermediate emperors, he succeeds in proving Domitian to be the ‘one’. . . . (436)

But why not begin the count with Tiberius? The rationale for this starting point is that it marks the crucifixion of Jesus and hence the “real” turning point of history:

His imagined point in world history is neither the beginnings of the Principate nor the rebirth of Rome in the golden, Augustan age, of which Virgil, for example, sings. Rather, it is unquestionably identical with the term of the cross and the exaltation of Christ as ‘Lord of lords’ under Tiberius. In other words: for the apocalypticist, the cross and the exaltation signify the telos of the old aeon in an eminently historical sense . . . . (437)

But no, there is even a reason to exclude Tiberius and begin with Gaius Caligula:

. . .  the Roman emperors after Tiberius are typical representatives of the final anti-Christian phase of world history. Tiberius, whose reign began long before the appearance of Christ (= 14 A.D.), was naturally not included in the series of ‘anti-Christian’ emperors who had risen since the Messiah. The exclusively post-teleological aspect necessarily led to the restriction to those emperors who came to power only after Christ. They were introduced by Caligula. . . .  since the apocalypticist undoubtedly had in mind only the Roman emperors of the post-Messianic period. (440)

No doubt there are other starting points, omissions and inclusions, that can only add to the confusion or at least to the uncertainty of any proposal that attempts to align the heads with a sequence of historical emperors.

So why is the author of Revelation so opaque? So indecipherable in relation to the history of the Roman emperors?


Aune, David E. Revelation 17-22. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 52C. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1998.

Bate, Herbert N., trans. The Sibylline Oracles, Books III-V. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1918. http://archive.org/details/sibyllineoracles00bateiala.

Lohmeyer, E. Die Offenbarung des Johannes. Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr (P. Siebeck), 1926. http://archive.org/details/dieoffenbarungde0000unse_n5x5.

Strobel, A. “Abfassung Und Geschichts Theologie Der Apokalypse Nach Kap. XVII. 9–12.” New Testament Studies 10, no. 4 (July 1964): 433–45. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500001880.

Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007.




K. L. Schmidt’s The Framework of the Story of Jesus: Now in English!

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by Tim Widowfield

I bear glad tidings of good news. Karl Ludwig Schmidt’s magnum opus has finally been translated into English. The publication date is 2021, but I became aware of it earlier this month. The translator, Byron R. McCane was also responsible for the highly readable The Place of the Gospels in the General History of Literature, which is a good sign.

Schmidt became somewhat of a star in the world of biblical scholarship after the publication of Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu.  In it, he laid out the evidence for the nature of the framework in Mark’s gospel — namely that it was based on separate pieces of oral tradition, hung upon a mostly secondary structure. In previous decades, the theory of Markan priority among the synoptics had gained many adherents and eventually became the overwhelming consensus position.

Emboldened by that consensus, many scholars (mostly Protestant) attempted to write modern biographies of Jesus using the synoptics as their source material and leaning heavily on the second gospel for details concerning their chronology and topological itinerary. (This is what Schweitzer called Leben Jesu Forschung or “life of Jesus research.”) William Wrede and, to some extent, Albert Schweitzer demolished the idea that this was even possible. In The Messianic Secret (1901), Wrede sought to demonstrate that Mark’s overall narrative does not have a coherent narrative structure, but is instead arranged thematically and theologically. Julius Wellhausen in his analyses of the gospels came to the same conclusion, making the case emphatically in Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (1905).

The foundations of form criticism

These predecessors laid the groundwork for Schmidt, who in Framework painstakingly analyzed the perocopae of Mark’s gospel and their related sections in Matthew and Luke. Rudolf Bultmann hailed the work as an impressive and important achievement which would provide the foundation for form criticism. On the other hand, conservative scholars, especially apologists in the English-speaking world, attacked it on various fronts. Probably the most well-known sustained attack came from Methodist minister David R. Hall. He criticized Schmidt’s assumptions and arguments in The Gospel Framework: Fiction or Fact?, a book you can read for free on archive.org.

For those readers not fluent in German, Hall’s book may have been a bit frustrating. Similar to the experience of reading Origen’s Contra Celsum, wishing than an extant copy of The True Word had survived for comparison, we wonder whether Hall has given Schmidt a fair shake. But now, after more than a century, we have an English translation.

I hope to post more on Rahmen in the coming weeks, as time permits, but for now I would like to offer a few words about translating German into English. In previous posts, I have sometimes translated Der Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu as The Framework of the History of Jesus. As you probably know, the word Geschichte means both story and history. However, I think our translator got it right with The Framework of the Story of Jesus, and the proof is in the subtitle: Literary-Critical Investigations of the Earliest Jesus Tradition. Schmidt is not offering up a strictly historical-critical work here. He’s staying, for the most part, on the layer of the text itself (in its disconnected pericope form), examining the textual clues related to the formation of the gospels from the received tradition. Continue reading “K. L. Schmidt’s The Framework of the Story of Jesus: Now in English!”

The 7 Kings of Revelation 17 — part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Thomas Witulski steers the reader from Rev 13 back to the letters to the seven churches to demonstrate what was facing the various churches at the time of Hadrian. But since the question of how W. interprets the seven heads, five fallen, one is, etc. has arisen, I have chosen to skip ahead to W’s analysis of chapter 17. But I’ll cover it in a series of small posts, one bite/byte at a time. That gives me the opportunity to consult the various citations and any additional material of relevance as I go.

Revelation 17:1 One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. 2 With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.” 3 Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. . . . .

9 This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. 10 They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while. 11 The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction.

In Revelation 17 we read of “the great whore”, interpreted in verse 18 as the city of Rome, sitting upon a scarlet-coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, and having seven heads and ten horns.

. . . and I saw a woman sitting upon a scarlet-colored beast, full of names of blasphemy, and having seven heads and ten horns

The seven heads of that beast are interpreted as the legendary seven hills of Rome:

17:9 And here is the mind which hath wisdom: The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sitteth.

But there is a double meaning because the next verse points to seven kings:

17:10 And there are seven kings

Kings are not necessarily emperors but the word here for kings, βασιλείς, was used for emperors by the time of Hadrian: 

The term βασιλείς, usually translated “kings,” and the most elevated tide of Hellenistic monarchs, can equally well be translated “emperors.” However, βασιλεύς is not widely used as a Greek translation of the Latin term imperator, “emperor,” until the second century A.D.  — (Aune, 946 — quoted in part by W., 323).

In the above quotation, Aune is referencing Greek Terms for Roman Institutions: A Lexicon and Analysis by Mason. Here is the more complete account by Mason:

By the second century A.D., αύτοκράτωρ as a general word for “emperor” came under challenge, especially in literary works, from βασιλεύς. Although Dio, for example, always used αύηοκράτωρ and never βασιλεύς, in other writers both terms are used indiscriminately, as in a phrase in Philostratus (VS 1.24 fin.), Άδριανός αντοκράτωρ . . . enιτηδειότατος των βασιλέων. Both words are found in such authors as Appian, Aristides, Dio Chrysostom, Galen, Herodian and Lucian. . . . .

βασιλεύς is applied to the emperor in verse as early as the time of Augustus, in a poem of Antipater of Thessaly (AP 10.25). But in prose, βασιλεύς is not employed before the second century. . . .

But derivatives of βασιλεύς are in use by the time of Plutarch, βασιλεύω occurs in the case of Vespasian ([Plu.] Amatorius 25.771), βασιλικός is used for the gardens of Lucullus (Plu. Lucull. 39.518). Josephus twice employs βασιλειάω to describe would-be emperors (BJ 1.5, 4.546), and speaks of the βασιλεία of Vespasian (BJ 5.409).

βασιλεύς and related words begin to occur in inscriptions, though not yet in formal titulature, about the time of Hadrian. Notable examples are a dedication to Σαβεινα βασίλισσα from Megara (IC 7.73), a decree of the Panhellenes dated to 131-138 A.D. which reads (line 9): [π]ό re βασιλέων αίιτοκρατόρων and a dedication naming Hadrian δεσπότης βασιλεύς Επιφανέστατος νεός ‘Ασκληπιός (IGRom. 4.341). (Mason, 119f)

Most easy to follow, however, is Roloff’s comment:

Two quite different interpretations are given for the seven heads of the beast (v.9b-ll). The first equates the heads with seven mountains and thus refers to Rome, the capital city situated on the famous seven hills. The sitting of the harlot on the hills is a striking image for the fact that the city of Rome is the centre and power centre of the empire.  The second interpretation equates the heads with “kings”. This can only mean Emperors, for in the East of the Empire “king” was the common name for the emperor (cf. 1 Pet 2:13-17; 1 Tim 2:2). – (Roloff, translation from pp. 169f)


The author of Revelation in this chapter places the time of his writing during the reign of the sixth emperor.

And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other has not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.

“he is the eighth and is one of the seven and is headed for destruction.” . . . . There is widespread agreement that this king does indeed represent Nero and reflects the Nero redivivus legend . . . .  The symbolic significance of the number eight is relevant since the beast is called the “eighth.” In early Judaism and early Christianity, eight has eschatological significance since it represents the eighth day of the new creation after the seven days of the old creation have concluded (2Enoch 33:1-2; Bam. 15:9), and Sunday in early Christian tradition is occasionally called the eighth day (Barn. 15:9; Justin Dial. 24.1; 41.4; 138.1; see Bauckham, “Nero,” 396-97). . . . — Aune, p. 950

The final beast to arise, the one to be destroyed in the final cosmic battle, is the eighth — which, curiously, is said to have once before ruled in the past.

And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, yet is one of the seven and goeth into perdition.

We met this eighth beast, the one to arise in the end time, in chapter 13. We have seen the reasons for believing that the author intended readers to interpret that beast, Hadrian, as the restored Nero from the past. There, however, the author spoke of that beast in the present tense while in chapter 17 he is said to yet come.

The apocalyptic visionary is caught in a bind. While in chapter 13 he spoke of the end-time beast as present and known to his readers, in chapter 17 he strives to claim he belongs to the prophetic future. We will return to this back-dating in a later post.

W. observes another comparison between the two descriptions of 13 and 17. In both chapters, the visionary begins by presenting a figure representing the Roman empire as a whole (13: the seven-headed beast arises from the sea; 17: a woman riding the seven-headed beast thus signifying their unity as the one empire) but in each case narrows the focus so that we come to read of an individual emperor.

What do we make of the ten horns?

Here the ten kings represent Roman client kings. Roman generals in the Greek east, particularly Pompey and Antony, developed an elaborate system of client kingship. Various kings and dynasts were sanctioned or elevated in order to serve as an inexpensive and effective means for controlling their regions, some of which were reorganized as provinces. – Aune, p. 951

The ten horns, following Dan. 7,24, are interpreted as ten kings (v. 12-14). These are not . . . Roman emperors, but vassal kings, or more precisely: political leaders and rulers who initially do not yet have kingship, but who receive it together with the beast, i.e. Nero redivivus, because they support him and place their power and influence at his disposal. We are dealing here with a variant of the idea of 16,14, according to which the beast wins the kings of the earth circle as comrades-in-arms for his goals through the demonic art of seduction. . . . Of course, the helpers of the beast will only have power “for an hour”, i.e. only for a very short time, because Jesus will defeat them.  – Roloff, translation of p. 171

Some scholars have thought otherwise and interpreted the ten horns as ten Roman emperors. W. disputes this view. Though in Daniel 7 the number 10 may be applied to supreme kings, it is evident that the author of Revelation creatively modified the various sources that he drew upon. We cannot assume that the interpretation in Daniel 7 should apply to Revelation. The same principle applies to another possible apocalypse known to the author of Revelation, 4 Ezra 11.  In 4Ezra the 12 wings are explicitly stated to be the 12 Roman emperors. In Revelation one reads that the seven heads are clearly seven emperors so we should not interpret the ten kings as ten Roman emperors.

We have begun here to compare Revelation with other apocalyptic writings of the time. I’ll go into details in the next post.

Aune, David E. Revelation 17-22. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 52C. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.

Mason, Hugh J. Greek Terms for Roman Institutions: A Lexicon and Analysis. Toronto: Hakkert, 1974. https://archive.org/details/greektermsforrom0013maso

Roloff, Jürgen. Die Offenbarung des Johannes. Zürich : Theologischer Verlag, 1984. http://archive.org/details/dieoffenbarungde0000rolo.

Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007.


666 : Hadrian as Nero Redivivus

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by Neil Godfrey

There was one little detail I forgot to add in my earlier post: Hadrian as Nero Redivivus. I set out the ways Hadrian emulated the popular Nero but a commenter has brought to my attention that I have not yet explained the 666 link between Hadrian and Nero that the author of Revelation called on readers to identify and reflect upon.

Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666. — Revelation 13:18

Now everyone knows the name of “the man” Nero equals 666. Some manuscripts make his number equal 616. (See the linked article for details.)

But Revelation 13 speaks of a revival of the beast, a healed head-wound — a “second Nero” — if you will. Recall from our earlier post Corssen’s words:

So the apocalypticist says: the number of the name of the beast is the number of a human name. Does he mean to say: the name of the beast is the name of a human being, it is not an animal at all, but a human being, of whom I have so far only spoken allegorically as of an animal? That is the opinion of many commentators. But number and name are not necessarily identical, the same sum can consist of completely different summands and so the same number can give rise to different names.

When the apocalypticist says: “He who has understanding, calculate the number of the beast,” this is an impossible demand. For this calculation cannot be carried out without knowledge of the name. But in the demand lies the prerequisite that the animal as such has a name. If then the apocalypticist gives the number himself, which even the most intelligent could not have found in this way, it follows that the cleverness demanded does not consist in finding the tacitly presupposed name of the beast, but in deriving from its numerical value the name of a man of the same numerical value. In other words : the animal has a name x = 666, but 666 is equal to the name of a man, both names are, as it was called, ίςόψηφα [=isopsephy]. Thus the γάρ in άριθμός γάρ ανθρώπου ἐστίν [=it is the number of a man] comes to its meaning: one should calculate the number of the beast to find the equivalent name of the man.

(Noch einmal die Zahl des Tieres in der Apokalypse, p. 240, own translation and bolding. Cited by Witulski, p. 183)

With that in mind, notice that Hadrian’s name amounts to the same number as Nero’s:

The interpretation of the number 666 (Rev 13:18) on Hadrian was already considered by D. Voelter, [In his book published in 1885: Die Entstehung der Apokalypse] who adds the letters of the written Hebrew and on coins documented  name Trajanus Hadrianus as 666: “Hadrian officially carries as emperor on coins and inscriptions the name Trajanus Hadrianus. If now these names are written in Hebrew and the individual letters are converted into the corresponding numerical value, then exactly the number 666 comes out:

Now another Hebrew name form for Trajan is

If one puts this name form together with the name אדרינום and sums up the numerical values 285 + 331, then one receives that other number 616 handed down by Irenaeus. 

So that would explain the comment by Irenaeus that some manuscripts claimed the number 616 instead of 666.

Thus, both the Hebrew-spelled name of the reigning emperor Hadrian and the Hebrew-spelled name of the figure of Nero redivus, קסר נתרן, can be calculated from the number 666, consistent with the isopsephic approach evidently underlying Rev 13:18. Thus, the apocalypticist implicitly identifies the currently reigning princeps Hadrian in Rev 13:18 with the figure of Nero redivivus and can at the same time prove to his addressees that in the figure of this emperor the expected Nero redivivus has truly appeared. (Die Johannesoffenbarung, p. 52 – translated)

Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007.

Revelation’s Second Beast, the False Prophet

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Polemon (Polemo)

Revelation 13:11 And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon.

Thomas Witulski identifies this other beast that arises from the earth with the sophist Antonius Polemon. We introduced him in the post on emperor worship and Revelation. We know about him today from his own writings, from his ancient biographer Philostratus and from various inscriptions in Smyrna and Pergamon. Polemon was the descendant of the last king of Pontus, Polemon II. He trained as a sophist and rhetorician in Smyrna, became a diplomatic envoy on behalf of Smyrna in Rome, taught rhetoric himself and sometimes acted as a court orator. His school for rhetoric attracted some fame for his city and youth from Asia, Europe and the islands crowded Smyrna to learn from him. He was made a guardian of temples and a priest of Bacchus (Dionysus) and made head of the running of the games in honour of “Hadrian Olympus”. He accompanied Hadrian on his journeys through Asia and appears to have acted as a highly valued and influential advisor to the emperor.

Revelation 13:12 It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.

The author of the apocalypse introduces him as a speaker in the service of the first beast. The classicist G. W. Bowersock wrote of Polemon’s renown:

Hadrian, another admirer of Polemo, extended that privilege [of free travel wherever he wished] to the sophist’s posterity and added others; his great-grandson, Hermocrates, is found fully equipped with privileges of all sorts. Hadrian’s relations with Polemo are well illustrated by the emperor’s own admission that his final statement on the affairs of the whole empire (a breviarium totius imperii, one supposes) was prepared with Polemo’s advice. Nor is this the only indication of Hadrian’s regard: his invitation to that sophist to deliver the oration at the consecration of the Olympieum at Athens was perhaps an embarrassing repudiation of the obvious person for the occasion, Herodes Atticus. Polemo’s enemies at Smyrna had once tried to compromise him by allegations that he was spending on himself funds transmitted by the emperor for the good of the city, but Hadrian replied firmly with a letter declaring that Polemo had rendered him an account of the moneys which he had given the city. Not that the great sophist did not spend extravagantly for his own ostentation. He could be seen travelling along the roads of Asia in a chariot with silver bridles and an elaborate entourage of pack-animals, horses, slaves, and dogs. But Philostratus rightly observed that such a display gave lustre to a city no less than a fine agora or a splendid array of buildings, ‘for not only does a city give a man renown, but a city itself acquires it from a man’. (Bowersock, 48)

Witulski writes in Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian, p. 228,

Moreover, it is quite likely that Polemon, in his festive speech on the occasion of the consecration of the sanctuary of the Zeus Olympus in Athens, to some extent as a replica of Hadrian’s favour, possibly also previously coordinated with the latter, called for altars dedicated to Hadrian Olympus to be erected in private homes in the cities and areas around the Aegean. Numerous evidences can be cited for these altars in the provinces of Achaea, Macedonia, Thracia, and especially Asia. (my own machine assisted translations of all Witulski quotes)

In Kaiserkult in Kleinasien, Witulski explained in a little more detail the reason for concluding that household altars were ordered in association with the occasion of the inauguration of the Athenian temple to Zeus Olympus: pp. 130ff

With reason, it is to be noted that the consecration of the Athenian sanctuary of Zeus Olympus and the associated foundation of the institution of the Panhellenion also led to altars524 being erected in private houses525 to the reigning emperor Hadrian in the Greek-influenced east of the imperium Romanum. The geographical focus of the erection of these altars was obviously in the Greek motherland and in the western Asia Minor, i.e. in the Roman province of Asia.526 It is remarkable that the inscriptions carved on each of these altars have essentially the same wording: The reigning emperor Hadrian is given the title ‘Ολύμπιος [=Olympos] and worshipped as σωτήρ καί κτίστης [=Saviour Founder]. The regularity of the form of the altar inscriptions, expressed in the parallelism of wording and phrasing, and the large number of altars erected “imply the official nature of the occasion on which the altars were dedicated to Hadrian Olympios, Savior, and Founder“. In view of the Ολύμπιος title attached to Hadrian in these inscriptions, it is difficult to deny a connection between the content of the corresponding altars and the statues of the emperor erected in the temenos of the Athenian sanctuary of the Ζευς ‘Ολύμπιος, on the bases of which the Όλύμπιος title is also found within the imperial titulature. Therefore, the occasion that led to the erection of the house altars dedicated to Hadrian can be assumed to be the consecration of the Ζεύς Όλύμπιος sanctuary in Athens or an event closely related to this consecration, such as the founding of the institution of the Πανελλήνιον [=Panhellenion].

Anna Benjamin in 1963 documented as many as 269 altars to Hadrian in Greece-Asia so no doubt that number has increased since. The maps below identifying the sites where these altars have been found are copied from Benjamin’s article:

It is worth going beyond Witulski’s own words and reading what Benjamin herself had to say about the worship of Hadrian in this region (pp 58-60): Continue reading “Revelation’s Second Beast, the False Prophet”


Emperor Hadrian as Revelation’s Beast from the Sea

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Zeus Meilichios (See below for the relationship of the serpent to the worship of Hadrian)

We have seen how emperor worship directed towards Hadrian in Greece and the Roman province of Asia surpassed anything before known: Emperor Worship and the Book of Revelation. The “advent” and “presence” of an emperor, a divine figure, meant salvation for all in the region. As Horace wrote of Augustus:

Great guardian of the race of Romulus
Bom when the gods were being good to us,
You have been absent now
Too long. You pledged your word
(The august Fathers heard)
To swift home-coming. Honour, then, that vow.

Restore, kind leader, to your countrymen
The light they lack. For, like the sunshine when
It’s springtime, where your face
Lights on the people, there
The weather turns to fair
And the day travels with a happier pace.

, , , ,

When Caesar’s here the ox plods safe and sound;
Ceres and gentle Plenty feed the ground
With fruitfulness; across
The uninfested seas
Men speed with bird-like ease;
Honesty is afraid of its own loss;

No immoralities contaminate
Domestic faith, for custom and the State
Have purged the taint of sin;
Proud wives in children trace
The true inherited face;
Crime hears the tread of Justice closing in.

Who fears the swarms that Germany brings forth
From her rough loins ? Let Scythians in the north,
Or Parthians rearm,
Or the wild tribes of Spain
Rally to war again,
We sleep as long as Caesar’s safe from harm.

. . . . (Michie translation, Odes of Horace, Book 4, 5)

As Pliny wrote of Trajan’s return:

20. Now did the longing wishes of Rome recall you, and the more fond affection, you bore your Countrey, oversway’d that love, you had shewn your Souldiers. So that now you return, yet with so strict a Discipline, with so little of forrage, plunder or other abuse, as if you came from a regular peace, rather than from a tumultuous War: And, though it seem too trifling to add to your commendation, I cannot but observe, that no Father, no Husband fear’d the injurious effects of your return. . . . . There was no grievance in the pressing of Carriages, no nicety in the taking up of lodgings, no trouble in the catering of dainties for your entertainment. . . .

22. How long hop’d, how wish’d for was that day when at your return you past in publick through the City? Nay the very manner of your solemn March how gratefull, how obliging? . . . . No age, no infirmity, no different Sex was debar’d from the common benefit of glutting their eyes on that welcome and unusual sight. Children were taught to know you, young men pointed, old men admir’d, and even those, whose sickness had confin’d ’em to their beds, or chambers, contrary to the advice of their cautious Physicians, came forth, and seem’d confident, that the bare influence of so blest an object would complete their recovery. Some were content now to dye, since they had liv’d to see, what they had so long prayed for: Others were the more eager to have their lives prolong’d as knowing it would be some comfort to live under the Protection of so excellent a Government. Women thought it now some joy to be made Mothers, since they saw to what Prince they brought forth Subjects, and what a long prospect of happiness was thereby entail’d on their Children. The tops of houses were all cover’d with spectatours, who climb’d and hung over at that venturous rate, as if they were just falling, yet for crouds of company below were not likely to come to the ground. The streets were throng’d on either side, and scarce a narrow lane left for your passage. The multitude from all quarters discharg’d loud peals of joy, and thundred from every part in shouts and acclamations: While this rejoycing at your return, being as universal, as the benefits of it, grew still greater, as you march’d farther, and advanc’d along with every step you made. (From https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A55147.0001.001/1:5?rgn=div1;view=fulltext)

The presence of the emperor was the only decisive requisite for security, material prosperity, even rightly restored nature, the rule of morality and ethics in public and private life, proper reverence for the gods, justice and peace (paraphrased from Witulski, Kaiserkult in Kleinasien, p. 163). To translate the words of Jean Beaujeu in Religion romaine (p. 203) quoted by Witulski in Kaiserkult (p. 138)

The official institution of the double cult of Hadrian-Zeus Olympios (Panhellenios) in Greece [und mutatis mutandis also in Western Asia minor], considered within its framework, constitutes a creation as powerful and calculated as that of the cult of Rome and Venus in Rome; unexpected, but part of a long tradition, original, but composed of pre-existing elements, the formula, launched with great festivities and monetary orchestration, aims in both cases to provoke a psychological shock, to shake up routine, to increase confidence, euphoria, creative energy, by opening the doors to a new era, by promising and arousing prosperity and solidarity. 

Hadrian did not merely “pass through” Asia.

This reconstruction [of Hadrian’s three journeys through Asia] proves first of all that Hadrian travelled the province of Asia – like the entire Roman Empire – far more intensively than any of his predecessors. In addition, the intention of Hadrian’s three stays in the province of Asia must be fundamentally distinguished from that of Vespasian’s and Trajan’s stays there: while the latter two merely visited the province of Asia in transit, for Hadrian the focus of interest was on the Asian cities themselves, their welfare and the internal stabilisation of the imperium Romanum that this welfare provided. (Kaiserkult, p. 155, own translation in all quotations of Witulski.)

When Hadrian did depart he left reminders of his abiding presence in the coinage stamped as reminders of his “adventus” (compare the Greek “parousia”) and “praesentia”.

Recall that Hadrian’s cult was, unlike those of his predecessors, tentacled throughout the cities of the province with organized intent as part of the new institution of the Panhellenion. His temple was for the worship of Hadrian alone without being coupled with the greater Zeus and his altars were to be set up in every private home.

Hadrian was propagated as a universal saviour throughout the entire Roman province of Asia and far beyond by 132 AD (Kaisekult, 169)

The Revelation of John

It is against the above background that Thomas Witulski dates Revelation between ca 132 and 135 CE. Continue reading “Emperor Hadrian as Revelation’s Beast from the Sea”