Before Thomas Witulski informs readers of the details of events in the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian and how they enable a contemporary interpretation of Revelation 13 he analyses the meanings of different parts of the chapter itself. I cannot possibly cover every detail of his exegesis (especially the grammar and usage of certain Greek words) but will try to cover the main highlights. Keep in mind that these highlights are only preparatory to a discussion of the historical events Witulski identifies as the real subject of the apocalypse.
Revelation 13 introduces two beasts that act as representatives of a dragon who, having failed to destroy the “woman who brought forth the manchild” in chapter 12, turns his wrath on Christians.
And I saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy.
2 And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority.
3 And I saw that one of his heads was, as it were, wounded to death, and his deadly wound was healed. And all the world wondered after the beast.
4 And they worshiped the dragon which gave power unto the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like unto the beast? Who is able to make war with him?”
The dragon gives incomparable power and rule to a beast. People show cultic-religious reverence to that beast because of its overwhelming power and possibly also because one of its heads (or the beast itself) was miraculously revived. Readers are probably meant to think of Nero since we know that long after Nero’s death we encounter evidence of hopes (especially in the eastern regions of the Roman empire) that Nero would eventually return and take back his imperial power. (Notice at the same time the antitheses that our author sets up between both beasts and the Christ as the slain but revived lamb.)
The word for “worship”, προσκύνησις, denoted the kissing of a hand along with other bodily gestures that were long reserved only for deities in the western part of the Mediterranean, but after Alexander’s conquests of the east, it came to be offered to human rulers in Greece and finally, Rome. It is also significant that the author describes this worship of the beast in the same context as he has described the heavenly worship of God.
The power of the beast is so great that we read not of its defeating enemies, but of no one even daring to go to war against it.
11 And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spoke as a dragon.
12 And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him; and he causeth the earth and them that dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.
The second beast appears alongside the first beast. It is the first beast that gives authority to the second so that the second beast acts with the permission of the first. Specifically, the second beast appears in public as a propagandist of the first beast and initiates the public worship of that first beast.
The First Beast
5 And there was given unto him a mouth, speaking great things and blasphemies, and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months.
6 And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God to blaspheme His name, and His tabernacle, and them that dwell in Heaven.
7 And it was given unto him to make war with the saints and to overcome them; and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.
The first beast speaks as God himself. (The Greek construction makes this interpretation evident.) The word translated “blasphemies” does not here mean uttering curses against God but, rather, making claims for oneself that should be made only of God. Claiming to be the saviour of the human race and presenting oneself as divine are blasphemies.
Some have interpreted the above passage as meaning that the beast undertook a world-wide persecution of Christians. Against that view is the notable absence of any reference to the deaths of the saints here:
[T]here is no mention here of the death of the saints. This suggests that the eventual death of the saints (Rev 13:15b) has not been or will not be caused, at least directly, by the first beast in the eyes of the apocalypticist. This, in turn, makes the assumption probable that he did not want the remarks of Rev 13:7a to refer to a persecution ordered by the reigning Roman emperor as the embodiment of the first beast, within which the first beast would then have to be directly and immediately associated with the death of the steadfast saints. It seems more likely that the apocalypticist, in writing Rev 13:7a, had in mind a greater number of privately initiated trials against Christians, given the intensification of cultic-religious worship of the first beast, at the end of which was the death of the faithful saints. In this sense, the first beast waged war against the saints and managed to defeat them. (Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian, p. 151, own translation and bolding in all quotations of Witulski)
Then there appears to be an accidental slip of the pen:
8 And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the Book of Life of the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world.
— Note: “him” is grammatically incorrect. It should be the neuter “it” referring to the beast.
In this verse the author has let his visionary metaphor of the beast slip for a moment and spoken of a single human being (“him”) instead of “it”, meaning the beast.
The beast here is an individual person, not a collective organization or entity as some have attempted to argue. Note that the beast takes his place on a throne; the implied reference to Nero is another indication that an individual person is in mind. The chapter opens with a collective image of an empire (compare its imagery of empires taken from Daniel 7) but soon sharpens the focus in on an individual who represents that empire.
9 If any man have an ear, let him hear:
10 He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity. He that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.
Here the author returns to the same kind of admonition to his readers that he repeated in his respective messages to the seven churches in the opening chapters. Once again Witulski sees evidence that organized state persecution against Christians is not part of the plot. Otherwise, he notes, it is not likely that “captivity” or prison would be an option facing Christians. Organized attempts to wipe out Christianity would mean the only alternative facing the loyal Christian would be death.
This exhortation suggests that the addressees of the Apocalypse will have to suffer reprisals from their environment in their Christianity. However, that Rev 13:10 is to be interpreted in the sense of a comprehensive state persecution against Christians cannot be proven on the basis of the text. Rather, the fact that the apocalypticist here also concedes the possibility of imprisonment speaks against the assumption of a state-ordered persecution action, which would certainly have resulted exclusively in the death of the persecuted Christians. (p. 158)
The Second Beast — and the Speaking Image
The first beast came from the sea. The second is from the land. Witulski cites several commentaries that identify the land in question as the mainland of Asia Minor, the Roman province of Asia.
Again, a single person is depicted by this beast, too. (This beast is pictured as speaking as an individual.) At first sight he appears as a peaceful figure for the Christians (he looks in part like a lamb) but his words soon enough show him to be their enemy. His great oratorical skills persuade “the inhabitants of the earth” to make a cult statue for the first beast.
Actually, this “cult statue” in verse 14 is a “distributive singular” — meaning that this verse refers to multiple statues among the worshipers. Cult statues of the time were usually officially commissioned and exact copies were authorized by special decree in different regions of the province. But the description in this chapter allows for a second stage of action by this beast so that in verse 15 we read of a particular image appearing to come to life. How could that be possible?
15 And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak
Never underestimate the ingenuity of ancient priests. Here is an extract from an article by Steven Scherrer:
An excellent example of the cultic use of an image that could both move and speak in such a way that worshipers were awestruck is the oracle shrine of the second-century cultist, Alexander of Abonuteichos, immortalized in Lucian’s essay Alexander the False Prophet. When read in conjunction with Lucian’s essay, Rev 13:13-15 seems close to having found its historical context. According to Lucian, Alexander used a tremendous amount of liturgical technology in his oracle temple. He fashioned an image of Asclepius, that is, “a serpent’s head of linen, which had something of a human look, was all painted up, and appeared very lifelike. It would open and close its mouth by means of horsehairs, and a forked black tongue like a snake’s, also controlled by horsehairs, would dart out” (Alex. 12).8 In the dimly lit showing room (Alex. 16) Alexander’s performance was apparently quite convincing, giving the impression that his image was alive. He even displayed the body and tail of a real serpent, which seemed to be that of the artificial head.
Lucian, a master skeptic, tells us that the whole thing was very well executed and extremely convincing:
Really the trick stood in need of a Democritus, or even Epicurus himself … or someone else with a mind as firm as adamant toward such matters, so as to disbelieve and guess the truth-one who, if he could not discover how it went, would at all events be convinced beforehand that though the method escaped him, it was nevertheless all sham and could not possibly happen. . .
The technology was apparently available, therefore, to someone like Alexander for use in a cult, a technology that could be very effectively used to make quite an impression on the worshipers.
Alexander went even further. He was also able to make his image speak and even give out oracles to the amazement of the people! Here is Lucian’s account:
As he wished to astonish the crowd still more, he promised to produce the god talking-delivering oracles in person without a prophet. It was no difficult matter for him to fasten crane’s windpipes together and pass them through the head, which he had so fashioned as to be lifelike. Then he answered the questions through someone else, who spoke into the tube from the outside, so that the voice issued from his canvas Asclepius.
Such oracles he called autophones . . . .
This is a rather close parallel to Rev 13:15. The obvious difference is that Lucian rationalized his account, telling us it was all mere trickery, whereas John apparently believes the wonders are real but that Satan is behind them. (Signs and Wonders, pp. 601f)
There were moving statues, too:
Not only are talking images not unknown in antiquity, but even moving images, such as the serpent head made by Alexander of Abonuteichos, are attested, and at times used in a cultic way. One extraordinary example of a mechanically moving image is mentioned by the second-century B.C. Greek writer Callixenus of Rhodes, in the fourth book of On Alexandria, quoted in Athenaeus Deipnosophistae. Callixenus is describing a great procession near Daphne (5.194C) in Egypt, organized by Ptolemy Philadelphus (308-246 B.C.), in which a colossal statue of Dionysus’s nurse, Nysa, is carried. Here is Callixenus’s description of this statue:
[Then] came a four-wheeled cart twelve feet wide and drawn by sixty men, in which was seated an image of Nysa, twelve feet high; she had on a yellow tunic with gold spangles …. Moreover, this image could rise up automatically without anyone putting his hands to it, and after pouring a libation of milk from a gold saucer it would sit down again . . . . (Deipnosophistae 5.198F). (Signs and Wonders, p. 603)
Technologies existed even to make it appear that fire flashing through the air and lightning could be called upon by persons with special powers. (I provide links to the full article at the end of this post.)
The Mark of the Beast
16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand or in their foreheads,
17 that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark or the name of the beast or the number of his name.
The word for “mark” (χάραγμα) also indicated the stamped images on coins. It is possible that this passage refers to a change in state-imperial coinage policy in the province of Asia that we will describe in another post. For now, we need only note that these verses quite possibly describe the wearing of coins inserted into jewellery as rings or headbands. It was indeed a custom to wear a ring or hair ornament bearing a coin with the “mark” of the king or emperor in order to demonstrate one’s reverence for him. Witulski cites evidence for this practice in the Greek and Roman worlds.
Another explanation of the passage could be that a tattoo or branding was in the mind of the author. Once again, we have evidence of worshipers expressing their devotion to a god by searing those sorts of marks into their bodies. Plutarch writes of one king having an ivy leaf imprinted on his skin as a sign of devotion to the god Dionysus.
In the Graeco-Roman world χαράσσειν and derivatives are used for sacral branding in the Egyptian cult of Dionysus. The Ptolemies traced their line back to this god and promoted his cult. Remarkable details have been preserved concerning king Ptolemy IV Philopator. From various texts it appears that he was accustomed to have himself and others branded with religious symbols: the lily, the kettle-drum, and the ivy are mentioned. (Ysebaert, quoted by Witulski, p. 173)
Herodotus refers to slaves having themselves branded with marks sacred to the god Heracles. Philo is another source for this religious branding or tattooing.
This evidence shows that the practice of signing with a tattoo or a branding symbolizing a deity, which is supposed to testify that those so marked are consecrated to the corresponding deity or have submitted to its protection, was widespread in Greco-Roman antiquity. . . . Therefore, a priori it does not seem impossible that the apocalypticist refers to such a practice in Rev 13:16 and consequently wants to express in this verse that the second beast advocates that all people have such a tattoo or brand, which symbolizes the first beast, imprinted on their right hand or forehead. According to this interpretation, the apocalypticist would then want to state with his remarks in Rev 13:17 that only those can buy and sell, that is, engage in trade, who bear this tattoo or brand on their right hand or on their forehead. (p. 175)
The Number of the Beast
18 Here is wisdom: Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.
It would take too much time and space and complex discussions to cover all that Witulski’ writes about the number and his responses to different types of interpretations in the literature. So I will cut to the chase and the conclusion that Witulski found was first published by P. Corssen in 1902:
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)
In Rev 13, the apocalypticist describes the eschatological appearance of two beasts, two individuals directly or indirectly empowered and equipped by the figure of dragon described in Rev 12.
First, as the first beast, the person of a Roman emperor identified with the figure of Nero redux or redivivus is depicted, followed by a second beast, apparently acting in time and place together with this emperor, who proves to be a propagandist and promoter of his religious-cultic worship and is characterized by an obviously significant gift of speech. While the first beast blasphemes God and the inhabitants of heaven and defeats the saints in a war, the second beast, as part of its propaganda in favor of the first beast, effects signs and wonders, with which it entreats “those dwelling on the earth” and specifically calls upon them to erect a cult statue to the first beast which must then be worshipped.
Furthermore, the second beast obliges people to give or have made for themselves a “mark” with the name or number of the name of the first beast, which is obviously also of considerable importance in commercial contexts. The addressees of the Revelation are encouraged in the face of this religious propaganda to faithfulness, steadfastness and passive resistance, which they should persevere and not give up even in the face of possibly imminent prison terms or even their impending death.
At the end of Rev 13, they receive a coded reference to the identity of the first beast, i.e., the corresponding Roman emperor. This clue proves that this beast is the expected Nero redux or redivivus, since the number 666, . . . represents both the name of the eschatological figure of Nero redux or redivivus and the person of the Roman emperor in office at the time the Apocalypse was written. (pp. 190f – my formatting)
Corssen, P. “Noch einmal die Zahl des Tieres in der Apokalypse.” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Älteren Kirche 3, no. Jahresband (January 1, 1902): 238–46.
Scherrer, Steven J. “Signs and Wonders in the Imperial Cult: A New Look at a Roman Religious Institution in the Light of Rev 13:13-15.” Journal of Biblical Literature 103, no. 4 (1984): 599–610. https://doi.org/10.2307/3260470; https://sci-hub.se/10.2307/3260470; https://www.jstor.org/stable/3260470
Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007. pp. 143-191
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!