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):

As the Beast represents the Roman empire impersonated in its emperors, it is clear that the seven kings, symbolized by the Beast’s seven heads, are meant to represent, whether historically or symbolically, the Roman rulers from the beginning to the end. . . . 

According to any interpretation which conforms strictly to the requirements of the context, it is a clearly determined point in our passage, that the king denominated the sixth is reigning at the time of the utterance of V. 10. But by no method of reckoning is it possible to assign an emperor reigning near the end of the century a place as the sixth in the chronological order of the Roman rulers. Nor has any theory of an incorporated earlier oracle been proposed which can claim general assent. We are brought then inevitably to the question whether the current methods of identifying the seven emperors do not proceed on a wrong supposition. It will be helpful in considering that question to notice what the author’s purpose is in the mention of the number of the kings, and how this same purpose has been met in other apocalyptic writings. Throughout the ages the cry of God’s people, yearning in their persecutions at the hands of a world power for the deliverer of the great day of the Lord, had been, ‘ When cometh the end? ‘ And it was the office of the apocalyptic prophet to encourage the sufferers and to show that the last days were not far off. The time was fixed in the counsel of God, but the world must first run its destined course. The aeon of the present order came to be conceived as divided into stereotyped periods, certain definite numbers of ages, world-empires, reigns, etc., which must be fulfilled; and intimations were frequently given of the number yet remaining before the end should be reached. . . . The favorite numbers in such world-divisions were 4, 7, 10, and 12. . . . . And so with our Apocalypse the sixth reign in the series of 7 reigns which make up the history of the last world-kingdom is present; there remains only one more before the end of the present world-kingdom and the coming of Antichrist. The one purpose of all the apocalyptists in these numbers and computations is to declare the nearness of the end. What kings have preceded is for the Apocalyptist’s message to his readers unimportant; it is enough for them to know that only one is to follow before the end of the then present world kingdom is reached.

Now, it is important to determine whether these enumerations of world periods, kingdoms, sovereigns, etc., as presented in apocalyptic writings, are intended to conform closely with actual history, or whether they are not schemes adjusted to traditional numbers, and designed to give a certain definiteness to eschatological predictions. A very slight examination will show that the apocalyptists are not historians, and that their schedules of numbers, in which they represent the course of the world, do not appear to be derived from history, but rather to be adopted from familiar numerical symbols to which history is made to conform. Neither the apocalyptists nor their readers were interested in a careful tabulation of a remote past; their interest lay in their own age and the future to which it was leading. . . .

Now the exact parallelism between these eschatological computations and the reckoning of seven kings in our chapt. suggests that the same usage is adopted here. We have here the same schematic representation of a succession of periods, i.e. reigns, of which the one then present is shown to be near the end of the existing aeon. The choice of 7 as a symbol of completeness, which to a remarkable degree dominates our Apocalypse . . . , would, even if an invention of the author, be only conformable to the general usage of the book; but the idea of 7 world-periods and 7 rulers is found, if not in Jewish literature, yet in Babylonian, Persian, and Greek tradition. There is also in our passage the same difficulty as in the other apocalypses in identifying the typical number with that of history; an arbitrary reckoning or an artificial explanation must be resorted to in order to bring the statement into conformity with the date of the book. It is moreover doubtful whether an apocalyptist and a Jew of the provinces would be nicely thoughtful to follow the exact succession of Roman rulers, or in speaking of the Roman state as a God-opposing power would have been careful to distinguish between the empire, beginning with Caesar or Augustus, and the form of government preceding it. A striking illustration of an apocalyptist’s subordination of historical accuracy to a dramatic purpose is seen in the errors of Ap. Bar. 1:1, 6:1, which were committed in face of the knowledge of the facts of the O. T. history which the author shows . . . . . In view of these considerations we are brought to the conclusion that the number seven here is purely symbolical, that the Apocalyptist means to represent the Roman power as a historic whole

Kiddle and Ross (350-351):

None of these attempts is convincing. . . . His point of view, like that of his readers, was not likely to have had much in common with that of a Roman historian. It seems in every way unlikely that John should have had to pause and ask himself whether his readers would really understand that he was beginning his count of seven Emperors from Augustus or from Julius Caesar (as many did) ; or that he should tolerate an uncertainty as to whether his readers would agree with him that three men who had in fact occupied the Imperial throne were unworthy to be accounted Emperors. The fact is that those who seek in the reference to seven kings a list of seven individual monarchs must admit that the text is enigmatic beyond hope, and that a mere approximation to intelligibility is to be reached only by the arbitrary mutilation of the text, or the performance of extraordinary mental gymnastics. . . . .

No, the number seven has here its symbolical force—as always in Revelation. It is used to convey the complete number of the Emperors—just as the seven churches represent the complete number of Christian communities ; just as the multifarious plagues of the End are neatly arranged in series of seven, to indicate that they will be complete. John tells us in his statement five have fallen that the line of Emperors was nearing its end. The time was at hand when Antichrist would appear : the king who is yet to arrive is only to stay a little while. . . . [W]e shall insist that in their present form his words admit of no exact historical reference : verse 10 is a general statement, and John’s readers can have had no temptation to read it as anything else.

In the opening paragraph of the Aune quotation above, I have linked directly to many of the cited pages so anyone interested can read similar conclusions from other scholars. For another also online, see Beale, 869. One more that I don’t think is available online, Harrington, Revelation (Sacra Pagina Series), p. 172:

This calls for a mind with wisdom, lit. “here is the mind that has wisdom”: Note the similar phrase in 13:18. Here, too, the point is not to find a key to a puzzle but, rather, to discern the true character of Babylon/Rome.

seven hills. . . seven kings: The city on the seven hills was a traditional description of Rome. The “kings” are Roman emperors. The historical emperors are as follows: Julius Caesar (d. 44 B.C.E.), Augustus (31 B.C.E.-14 C.E.), Tiberius (14-37). Gaius (37-41), Claudius (41-54), Nero (54-68), Galba, Otho, Vitellius (68-69), Vespasian (69-79), Titus (79-81), Domitian (81-96), Nerva (96-98), Trajan (98-117). We have no way of knowing how John handles the list. Does he begin with Julius Caesar, or with Augustus? Would he have ignored the three rival claimants of 68-69? More to the point is that the number seven is symbolic; John is not concerned with the exact number of emperors who ruled after Nero. He seeks to emphasize that the last monstrous emperor will emerge very soon.

Dies wiederum legt die Annahme nahe, daß die durch das in Apk 17,9 wiederkehrende ώδε angezeigte Aktualität der nun folgenden Deutung der zuvor dargestellten Vision30 sich weniger auf die Identität des ersten θηρίον, des achten βασιλεύς, bezieht als vielmehr auf dessen in Apk 17,8.10f durchgefuhrte Identifikation mit der Gestalt des Nero redux bzw. redivivus.31 

30 Vgl. hierzu Günther, Nah- und Enderwartungshorizont, 107 mit Berufung auf Weiß, Apk, 20f: „Das wiederkehrende ώδε richtet sich an den gegenwärtigen Adressaten, der hier und jetzt die Zeichen der Zeit verstehen soll“.

31 In diese Richtung denkt etwa Weiß, Apk, 22, der mit Blick auf Apk 13,18 formuliert: „Die Entdeckung, die hier zu machen ist, lautet nicht: das Tier ist Domitian oder Nero, sondern: dieser Nero oder dieser Domitian, oder wer sonst die Christen verfolgt, das ist der Antichrist“.  — Witulski, p. 329 

What the reader is meant to understand is that the beast figure is the revived Nero, the Anti-Christ at the time of the end. That is the identification that wisdom reveals.

Witulski next undertakes to address the question of whether the author was actually writing at the time of the sixth head or whether he was writing in the time of “the eighth” but pretended to be writing earlier, at the time of the sixth king/emperor. Several pages of engagement with scholars who have argued that “John” was writing at the time of the sixth head follow.

In short, W. argues that there is ample evidence in Revelation to demonstrate that the author was in fact writing at the time “of the end”, at the time of his “last beast/head” who was identified as Nero redivivus by the common number value (isopsephy) of their names (666). But in chapter 17 he attempted to write as if from the past and thus “predicting” what was to come — vaticinium ex eventu.  The usual reason for this device is, of course, to substantiate the credibility of the prophetic work. The question of whether Revelation really was written at “the time of the sixth” was raised in a comment earlier but I am finding W’s discussion of the question to be so lengthy, detailed, and dealing with several arguments to the contrary, that a complete coverage of all his arguments in a single post is simply beyond me. Perhaps it would be better to post on specific arguments/objections as/if they arise.

One point W makes that I consider vital to any interpretation is that “the correct and complete name of a Roman emperor was not established until his ‘enthronement'” (p. 337, translation). If that is the case and if the author knew the identity of the final head/king then he evidently had to be writing vaticinium ex eventu when he said “one is” at the time of the sixth head.

I hope soon to return to W’s train of thought that followed on from his discussion of Hadrian and Polemon as the two beasts of Revelation 13. That means a look back at the experiences of the seven churches in the opening chapters from the perspective of the events in the Roman province of Asia during the time of Hadrian. (Eventually, we will even get to the two witnesses of Revelation 12. But that’s a while away.)

Till then, here are a few more seven-headed beasts from ancient literature as listed by David Aune in the second volume of his commentary on Revelation:

Psalm 74:14 speaks of a many-headed Leviathan.

Odes of Solomon 22:5 “the dragon with seven heads”

Ugarit text:

“If thou [Baal] smite Lotan [Leviathan],
the serpent slant,
Destroy the serpent tortuous,
Shalyat of the seven heads.”

Another Canaanite reference:

Verily, I have muzzled the dragon, muzzled him
and smitten the slippery serpent
the tyrant with seven heads.

Mesopotamian and Greek myths also have their multi-headed beasts.

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

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “The 7 Kings of Revelation 17 — part 3”

  1. I’m no expert, but for the little it’s worth, I’m convinced. The more interesting question in my mind is why secular scholars have gone along for so long with the early dates propounded by Christian apologists. Are they just triangulating, i.e. looking for a safe middle path that earns them the fewest enemies?

  2. Good stuff Neil, appreciate the clarity of the summaries of the argument. It makes good sense that if #8 head is identified as Hadrian based on the same 666 number as the number of Nero, then the #6 head which the text represents itself as the timing of its writing, cannot be correct. The text is written in the time of #8 and only fictitiously pretending to be written in the time of #6. 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.

    1. #7 reigns only “for a short time”…

      Because he’s Vespasian. “Ruling” in Israel for only 2 years, before the really bad guy, Titus, does the most despicable thing, Destroying Herusalem. Revelation is Jewish, not Roman history. So “ruling” means impacting Israel. Why would a Jewish author care what happens in Rome? Josephus calls Titus king while only a General in Israel, after Vespasian left. ( “many of whom did not know that the king was in any danger…” Whiston note – “Titus is here called “a king” and Caesar by Josephus even while he was no more than the emperor’s son and general of the Roman army, and his father Vespasian was still alive…”

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