When I offered to post a comprehensive review of Writing With Scripture by Nathanael Vette the publisher sent me a copy and now I hope this first in a series of reviews will begin to do justice to all concerned and interested. I write primarily as a layman for interested lay readers.
Who is Nathanael Vette?
Nathanael Vette [NV] appears on the University of Edinburgh’s site as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant in the School of Divinity.
In the book’s Acknowledgements NV thanks Helen Bond for supervising the research that led to this book. Other names many readers of this blog will recognize and who are singled out for gratitude are Mark Goodacre (one of NV’s doctoral examiners), James McGrath (for feedback) and Chris Keith (editor of the series accepting Writing With Scripture for publication). There are other names, of course, but I have listed for context those I think to be most widely known among lay readers. NV also gives a special appreciation to the Issachar Fund “for their generous sponsorship”.
My postdoctoral fellowship at the School of Divinity is sponsored by the Issachar Fund for researching the themes of gratitude and loyalty in Christianity and Islam. My primary research is on the Gospel of Mark and how compositional practices in Second Temple Judaism can help explain the emergence of the Gospel form. (From NV’s profile)
Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark is divided into four chapters:
The Introduction sets out the two different ways in which Jewish Scriptures are found in the Gospel of Mark: some are explicitly quoted and interpreted or merely alluded to in order “to support an argument or interpret an event”; others we sense are somehow “hidden” insofar as they are “woven seamlessly into the narrative” and we are left wondering why the author wrote that way. Was the author attempting to indicate to readers that Jesus fulfilled the “prophecies” of the Jewish Scriptures? Were events fabricated from those Scriptures or were historical events interpreted through them? Or were the Scriptures borrowed for some other reason? The Introduction will be the focus of this post.
The second chapter sets out a literary context for the Gospel of Mark by examining how Jewish Scriptures are used, both explicitly and implicitly, in Second Temple literature: episodes in Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum (Book of Biblical Antiquities), the Genesis Apocryphon, 1 Maccabees, Judith and the Testament of Abraham. I found these to be some of the book’s most rewarding passages. Many readers have been made aware of scholarly studies comparing the Gospel of Mark with Greco-Roman literature (e.g. Homeric epics, Greek tragedy, Aesop, and others) so it is refreshing to be reminded of the Jewish literary context of the Gospel.
The third chapter zeroes in on several passages in the Gospel of Mark itself: those comparing Jesus with Elijah and then with Elisha, the resonances between the death of John the Baptist and the narrative of Esther, and of course the use of Scriptures throughout the Passion Narrative. How do the uses of the “Old Testament” compare in these passages with OT usages in the literature discussed in the preceding chapter? What can be reasonably concluded about the purpose of those usages as a result of the comparisons? NV argues that many of those Jewish scriptural allusions are found in the Gospel because they happened to be raw material the author found useful for fleshing out narrative scenes. In other words, we are in danger of reading too much into the Gospel if we seek to find a theological meaning behind many of the Scriptural allusions.
Finally, NV brings together the different ways in which we find Scripture used in the Gospel of Mark and what these can tell us about the influences and purposes of the narrative. The question that naturally arises is how much of what we read in the Gospel has been imaginatively invented by an author from OT passages and how much can qualify as historical reality? And how can we tell the difference? These questions are posed throughout the book in preparation for a final discussion and assessment at its end.
There have been two approaches to the scholarly work on the two witnesses: one search has attempted to find the models from Jewish traditions upon which the two witnesses are based; the other has focussed on identifying the figures “in reality”: are they historical persons who embody ancient prophetic characters, or are they two ancient prophets returned at the moment of crisis, or are they meant to be symbols?
The early Jewish templates
Enoch and Elijah come to mind on the basis that both are said to have ascended to heaven without first dying. There was apparently a widespread belief that one or both of them would return one day to complete the work they had begun before being taken to heaven. One has to wonder how such a model fits Rev 11:6 which reads much more like the works of Moses, though:
and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague . . .
Victorinus of Pettau wrote one of the earliest commentaries on Revelation in which he proposed that the models for the two witnesses were Elijah and Jeremiah. Victorinus relied upon a tradition that Jeremiah, like Elijah, had been translated to heaven without seeing death. W. notes, however, that the same kind of problem applies to Jeremiah: the two witnesses perform the works of Elijah (calling fire down from heaven and proclaiming the end to rainfall for an extended period) and Moses (turning waters to blood and striking the earth with plagues) — none of which can be related to anything we know of Jeremiah.
Since Elijah eliminated his enemies by calling down fire from heaven and punishing Israel with a drought, and Moses turned waters to blood and ordered plague after plague, most exegetes have settled on Elijah and Moses being the templates for the two witnesses. They perform the same miracles, after all. Christian tradition, according to the canonical gospels, further links Elijah and Moses at the time they appeared together at Christ’s transfiguration.
Nonetheless, the notion that Moses had ascended to heaven in the past as Elijah had done is “only very rarely attested in Jewish and Christian tradition, if at all.” (Witulski p. 9 – citing Aune)
Witulski concludes that while it cannot be denied that the author of Revelation used traditional material form Jewish and Christian sources, his interest was not to equate the two witnesses with those traditional figures but only to use traditional motifs to shape a particular profile for them.
In Revelation 12 the character of the narrator-visionary, John, is exposed to two visions in heaven: one of a woman clothed with the sun, moon and the twelve constellations who is about to give birth to a child; the other of a dragon, a war in heaven (against the one clothed in the heavenly bodies of the sun, moon and constellations?) and the fall of that dragon to earth.
Once the dragon has fallen to earth, we learn that the heavenly events were harbingers of events on earth: the woman in heaven is now seen on earth. The moment she gives birth the child is snatched away from the threatening dragon and taken to heaven. (Recall the book of Daniel: there we read that everything that happens on earth is anticipated in heaven; all earthly battles are first fought out in the skies by the heavenly representatives of the earthly powers.) The dragon then chases after the woman who has to flee into the wilderness for safety. The dragon accordingly changes its plans and turns back to attack the other children of the woman. These are said to keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.
Julius Wellhausen demonstrated the parallel visions in Revelation 12 with the following table:
The following argument is a paraphrase of Wellhausen’s Zur apokalyptischen Literatur.
On earth, the dragon is evidently the Roman empire. (This conclusion derives from a comparison with the information about the beast with seven heads and ten horns in chapters 13 and 17.) The woman appears to be Zion, the twelve-tribes of Israel, who gives birth to the messiah, the one whom Revelation declares will rule the nations with a “rod of iron”. But what kind of Messiah is this? Wellhausen writes,
But it is disputed whether Sion and the Messiah are Christian or Jewish terms here. The question is not already answered by the fact that the Revelation of John as a whole, in its present form, is a Christian book. For the last author used sources and possibly Jewish sources. (Wellhausen, 218 – translation)
The episode of the birth and immediate rapture of the child from earth is unlike any Jewish expectation of a messiah that we know of, but it is also clearly not a part of all we know of Christian views of the messiah, either.
Revelation 12 can hardly be interpreted in any way that allows for a growth of the child to manhood, his life and ministry on earth, nor of his death on earth. Revelation 12 clearly leads readers to understand that the child is snatched up to heaven the moment it is born. Note that in verse 4 the dragon is standing beside the woman waiting for the moment the child is born. There is no scope for the child to grow to adulthood on earth.
Many Christians have interpreted the woman of Revelation 12 as the church. But that view likewise brings insuperable difficulties with it. How can the messiah be the son of the church, one born through the church? The Christian church holds the Christ to be its head, not its child.
If we think of the woman as Israel, however, there is no problem with the idea of the messiah being born from that nation represented as a woman. Jesus was born of his mother Israel or more specifically, Judah.
Another difficulty with reading Revelation 12 as an orthodox Christian text is that it claims the primary enemy of the messiah is the Roman empire. Not the Jews, or any group among the Jews such as the Pharisees or Herodians. In Revelation 12 the only enemy of the messiah is Rome. The Jews are the (loving) mother of the messiah. But Rome is not depicted as the enemy of the messiah from the moment of his birth but even before his birth! How do we make sense of this from a Christian perspective?
Revelation 12 allows no room for a crucifixion of the messiah, certainly not on earth. The Jews are not enemies of the messiah in Revelation 12. Only the Romans are his enemy.
From all of this it follows that the flight of the woman into the wilderness cannot be an allusion to the flight of Christians from Jerusalem to Pella to escape the final destruction of Rome in 70 CE, nor can that flight of the woman in Revelation 12 be a reference to any part of the body of Christianity at any time. The flight to Pella of the Jewish Christians is said to have happened some near 70 years after the birth of the messiah. That time gap is not possible for Revelation 12’s account of the birth of the child and flight of the woman. The two are effectively simultaneous events.
The child is not the historical Messiah of the Christians, but an imagined one of the Jews. The vision consists of a Jewish prophecy. (220 – translation)
The author of Revelation 12 is drawing upon the time schedule of the book of Daniel to come to 1260 days. In Daniel we read of a persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes and the visionary of Revelation is expecting a similar time-table with the Roman oppressors.
The woman of Revelation 12 is the portion of the Jewish nation that escaped from the Roman army and continued to maintain their polity elsewhere. These were the Jews who fled from Jerusalem and thus escaped a deadly encounter with Roman forces. These Jews — many Pharisees and scribes opposed by the zealots — became the seed of a future Jewish cultural-religious (rabbinical) revival.
The Romans lost interest in pursuing those Jews and turned against those who remained in Jerusalem.
We know from the later chapters of Revelation that the messiah will come from heaven to crush the forces of evil and rule over all nations.
So why has the author of this chapter described the earthly birth of Jesus at all? What was the point?
Vischer already answered this aptly. There seems to be a compromise between two equal demands. On the one hand, according to the old conception, the Messiah must come forth from the people of Israel, on the other hand, according to Daniel, from heaven. This is rhymed by the assumption that he was born of the mother Sion shortly before the beginning of the three and a half years, but that he was caught up into heaven immediately after his birth and thus did not stay on earth during the time of need. (Wellhausen, 221 – translation)
An analogy can be found in Isaiah chapters 7 to 9: Immanuel (“God with us”) is born at the beginning of a critical time, then disappears from view for a while, and suddenly appears in full glory at the end. That’s Wellhausen’s comment, but he adds that obviously in Isaiah there is no contrast between heaven and earth as abodes for the Christ but that Isaiah does present the pattern of birth, disappearance and return at maturity at the moment of the final stage of the crisis.
I have been attempting to share with interested English speaking readers the German language publications of Professor Thomas Witulski’s thesis that the book of Revelation was most probably written in the early 130s, the time of emperor Hadrian.
The first series surveyed the reasons for identifying the two beasts of revelation, the one from the sea and the other from the land, with Hadrian and his propagandist Polemon. We saw the case for interpreting Hadrian as a Nero redivivus and the relevance of the number 666. The same series took an overview of how Hadrian’s program of an intensified focus on emperor worship in Asia Minor along with his own unprecedented identification with Zeus himself, and the requirement of all homes to contain shrines to the emperor, explained the situations facing the seven churches addressed in the opening chapters of Revelation. (I may still add to this series with further discussion of the evidence for Hadrian’s impact on Asia Minor.)
The second series covered the four horsemen of the apocalypse and their relation to events preceding Hadrian: the two-stage conquests of Trajan; the bloodbath that covered much of the eastern Mediterranean as a result of the Jewish (probably messianic) uprisings; the effects of these rebellions on the food supply in Asia Minor; and the merciless suppression of those rebellions by the Romans.
This third series is based on a third book by Witulski, Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation [= Rev 11 and the Bar Kokhba Uprising: a contemporary interpretation]. Those who read German are excused from reading these coming posts and turning instead to the book made available on archive.org.
One of the darkest parts of Revelation
Ulrich Müller wrote in his commentary:
Das 11. Kapitel gehört zu den dunkelsten Stücken der Offb. = Chapter 11 is one of the darkest parts of Rev. (Müller, 205)
André Feuillet wrote an article for New Testament Studies,
Le chapitre xi de l’Apocalypse est un des passages les plus discutés de ce livre, célèbre entre tous par son obscurité. = Chapter xi of the Apocalypse is one of the most discussed passages of this book, famous among all for its obscurity. (Feuillet, 183)
Pierre Prigent in his commentary:
The majority of commentators start their explanation of Rev 11 by admitting they encounter in this passage (and in chapt. 12) the greatest difficulties in the entire book. (Prigent, 337)
If hitherto the passage has been so dark, Witulski asks:
Can the text of Rev 11:1f, 3-13 . . . possibly be illuminated in a new and hitherto completely unknown way by dating of the writing of Rev to the time of Emperor Hadrian? (Witulski, 1 – translation)
Go and measure the temple
I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, with its worshipers. But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months. — Rev 11:1-2
Since Julius Wellhausen (Analyse der Offenbarung Johannis — how can a 1907 book not be available online!*) many interpreters of Revelation 11 have agreed that the prophecy should be read as set in the last days of the Jewish War that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. The prophecy was penned by a zealous Jew who had hoped that though the Roman armies were besieging Jerusalem there was still an expectation that God would intervene and protect the inner sanctuary of his temple. (Wellhausen pointed out that the passage has no characteristics of a Christian or Christ-related proclamation.) After all, do we not read in the account of Josephus that many Jewish defenders clung to the belief that divine deliverance was sure and imminent: Continue reading “Measuring the Temple in Revelation 11 – the Questions Arising”
Another work by a French scholar (I have posted on quite a few* on this blog), and one that I am regretting not having engaged with sooner, is Simeon The Just: The Forgotten Author Of The Hebrew Bible. Author: Bernard Barc. The Preface to the book is online so I am confident in being permitted to repost it here, in translation, with attribution. It may pique your interest in knowing more about Barc’s thesis. I expect to be posting more as I continue to read and translate it. I see Barc passed away only last year. I have had the book since 2019 and am only now catching up with it so I am sorry I left it too late to take the opportunity to correspond with him.
Who is the author of the Torah, or at least its final editor? In 2000, Bernard Barc published Les arpenteurs du temps. Essai sur l’histoire religieuse de la Judée à l’époque hellénistique (The Surveyors of Time. Essay on the religious history of Judea in the Hellenistic period), published by the Zebre Press in Lausanne. Biblical research was then marked by the theory of Reichsautorization that had appeared in Germany in the 1980s: several historians, such as Ehrard Blum and Peter Frei, developed the idea that the letter of Artaxerxes I (465-424) quoted in Ezra-Nehemiah 7:11-28 was one of several testimonies to the policy of the Persian Empire to guarantee the recognition and obligation of local rights by the authorities of the empire; such a policy implied the writing down of local laws, which then took their place in Persian law; the final redaction of the Torah, which can be symbolized by the name of Ezra, should be understood in the light of this policy of Persian imperial authorization. Bernard Barc was against this perspective: the final redaction of the Torah is much later; it must be related to the high priest Simon, son of Onias II, whom the author of Sirach praises at length in chapter 50 of his book and whose activity is situated in the years 220-195 approximately. In the eyes of Bernard Barc, this Simon is none other than Simeon the Just … , whose extreme attention to the Torah is recalled at the beginning of the Pirkevot. Bernard Barc’s book has sometimes been criticized as being too much about numerology, whereas it simply takes seriously the rules of gematria in Jewish tradition. It has also been seen as the approach of a specialist in gnostic texts projecting an esoteric way of thinking onto the Bible. It is true that Bernard Barc is the editor of some of the Nag Hammadi treatises and that he has contributed to the training of several of the Quebec copyists. But he is also a first-rate Hebraist, recruited by the French University in 1967 to teach biblical Hebrew; he was of great help to me when I was editing the volume of Numbers for the collection “La Bible d’Alexandrie”, published in 1994.
In the book that he is giving today, Bernard Barc broadens his scope to include the whole of the Hebrew Bible, of which Simeon the Just is, in his eyes, the forgotten author. By this he means that nothing is left to chance in the writing of the Bible, neither the division into books, nor the division into sections, open or closed, nor the use of words, none of which is superfluous, nor their occurrence in the order of the text, nor the spelling itself, whose variations are significant. The letter is therefore fundamental. And literal reading is essential, according to the rules that Bernard Barc sets out, for example when he explains the algorithm of biblical letters. But this literal reading of the Bible of Simeon that Bernard Barc engages in has nothing to do with the literal reading of the Antiochian school of the fourth to fifth centuries or with the historical-literal reading of the Bible that has been imposed in the scholarly world since the Renaissance: it is not a question of reasoning in terms of history and historical context, but of unfolding the meaning of the text as one goes along in its reading. As a result, sometimes the literal meaning that emerges is joined with what we would call the hidden or allegorical meaning. In fact, Simeon has a project, which can be defined in two sentences: first, history unfolds according to a divine plan conceived by the Most High God and implemented by his two hypostases, Elohim and YHWH; second, the design of the Most High is manifested in creation by numbers and letter-numbers organised according to an algorithm, in particular the perfect solar year of 364 + 1 days. As a result, Simeon obeys writing constraints, which Bernard Barc summarises perfectly in §108, and which he clarifies as his work progresses. 65 tables help the reader to visualise Bernard Barc’s deconstruction of Simeon’s project.
To read such a book with profit, one must get rid of our usual ways of approaching the Bible. You have to accept that Simeon functions somewhat like the great rhetoricians of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries or the Oulipo, illustrated by Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews or Jacques Roubaud, among others. Simeon’s Bible is not an ordinary work of history, which investigates the past and recounts it in order to make it understandable. The past corresponds to God’s plan, which unfolds in history and which is accounted for by means of a limited number of rules of writing. Many biblical scholars will not agree to follow Bernard Barc, whose approach is too new to be immediately convincing. But even for these recalcitrant readers, there will be a good use of the book. Thus, for example, Table 15 in §93 on the explicit dates of the Bible will not fail to provoke reflection for a long time to come; why, indeed, these dates and not others? In § 216, Table 55 on a chronology of Universal History will impress even the most sceptical of readers.
I read these fascinating and abundant pages, but sometimes difficult to follow (especially § 134-141), with my questions as a specialist of the Greek Bible of the Septuagint and as a historian of the canon. In § 58, Bernard Barc suggests that the LXX was translated, not in Alexandria, but in Leontopolis, in the city of the Oniades refugees in Egypt. This is an idea that has never been put forward before. Some Septuagint scholars have argued that a rival version of the LXX, but not the LXX itself, originated in Leontopolis. Others have located the making of the Isaiah translation, and that book alone, in that city. But locating the LXX in Leontopolis and dating it to the middle of the second century contradicts all the ancient sources, which are unanimous about Alexandria and which place the translation in relation to Ptolemy Lagos or Ptolemy Philadelphus, at the beginning of the second century BC. Around 220, Demetrios the Chronographer seems to quote the text of the LXX. However, it is easy to understand why Bernard Barc favours a low date for the LXX: it allows us to attribute a central role to Simeon. But can we not imagine that Simeon is the heir of textual traditions prior to him, and of which the LXX is in certain cases the witness? Let us take the example of the five books of the Torah. In § 126-127 and 234, Bernard Barc draws attention to the fact that Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but not Deuteronomy, begin with the letter waw, which means “and”; it is clear that, literally, Exodus is added to Genesis; Leviticus, to Exodus; and Numbers, to Leviticus; and that Deuteronomy is not. However, the LXX offers a notable difference from the Hebrew Massoretic text: Exodus does not begin with ‘and’, kai in Greek. Where the Hebrew text offers two sets, namely the first four books and Deuteronomy, the LXX has three: Genesis, Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, Deuteronomy. However, the Samaritan Hebrew text and the Syriac Peshitta, normally translated from the Hebrew, offer the same text as the LXX. One must therefore ask whether the LXX, the Samaritan and the Peshitta do not attest the existence of a Hebrew text prior to that of Simeon, in which the story of the creation of the world and the patriarchs was set apart from the story of Moses and the Hebrews in the desert; by adding the waw at the beginning of Exodus, Simeon would have unified these two stories; however, in both cases, Deuteronomy would have constituted a specific whole, probably because the speaker is no longer God, but Moses.
I submitted to Bernard Barc the thoughts I have just outlined. He expressed his disagreement with me, with strong arguments that I summarize in a few sentences. According to him, it is not possible for Simeon to have introduced the complex arithmological architecture of which he is the inventor into a pre-existing Hebrew text. Indeed, if Simeon’s work had consisted in refining a Hebrew text at his disposal, it would have to have already presented, with a few details, the genealogical organisation of the biblical story and the names of the characters. There would thus have existed before Simeon a text that strangely resembled that of Simeon! One can only be sensitive to this argument, while recalling that the question of the historical character of Simeon the Just is delicate, since Flavius Josephus makes him the son of Onias I and thus places him at the beginning of the third century (Jewish Antiquities XII 43). It is true that the consensus of contemporary historians rejects this testimony and that they are practically unanimous in seeing in Simeon the Just the son of Onias II, as does Bernard Barc. But what can be suggested is this: Simeon could be the last link in a line of high priests who would have worked in the same direction for a century.
My remarks on the history of the canon have less impact on the theses put forward by Bernard Barc. He takes the perspective of the tripartite canon, Law, Prophets and Writings, which he nowhere discusses. Yet the oldest canonical reality we reach when reading the Bible itself is either the Law or the Law and Prophets. The latter designation does not refer to two sub-corpuses, on the one hand the Law, on the other the Prophets: in 4 Maccabees 18:10-19, the Law and the Prophets include not only Genesis, Numbers and Deuteronomy, but also Isaiah, Ezekiel, Psalms, Proverbs and Daniel; in the Gospel of John 12:34 and 15:25, under the mention of the Law is actually introduced a quotation from the Psalms. We are therefore dealing, not with a bipartite Bible, but with a bi-defined or bi-referenced Bible. This bi-defined Bible is that of the tannaim, who use the expression “the Law and the Prophets”. The tripartite Bible appears only in the 200s with the amoraim, who speak of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings. The texts that canon historians cite in support of the existence of the tripartite canon from the Maccabean period only prove that the expression “the Law and the Prophets” was felt to be inappropriate to account for books that are neither of the legal nor of the prophetic kind. So what is Simeon’s canon? Is it not the one designated by the Law and the Prophets? One may wonder whether the expression “the height of the double” in Sirach 50:2, which Bernard Barc comments on in § 64-68 and in which he sees the two tablets of the Law, could not designate the bi-referential canon, the Law and the Prophets.
Bernard Barc’s book is sure to raise further questions and discussions. We have not finished remembering this great forgotten man: Simeon the Just.
Gilles Dorival Professor Emeritus at the University of Aix-Marseille Honorary member of the University Institute of France (chair “Hellenistic Judaism and Ancient Christianity”)
The translation is by DeepL.
The introductory chapter offers a quite new viewpoint on why Genesis, for example, contains side by side, sometimes interwoven, stories that singly appear to be in opposition to each other. The particular focus is on the story of the Flood and Noah: two gods appear, one Yahweh, the other Elohim; different commands are given, two of each kind and seven of each kind, and so forth. I have a few other works to post about first but will return to Bernard Barc before too long.
In the Lives of the Prophets, a Jewish work from as early as the first century that has been supplemented with Christian additions, we read of the death of Isaiah:
The image captured the imaginations of medieval manuscript decorators:
There remains the problem, of which the reader must by now be thoroughly aware, of how a saint and, for that matter, a Jewish prophet, came to be imagined as having died by the extraordinary process of being sawed in two. Even granted that the Middle Ages liked its tales of martyrdom gory and sensational, one cannot help but feel that to saw a man in two is not only cruel, but also unusual and impractical. Other motives besides a preference for the excessive seem required to explain the choice of an instrument of torture which is almost without parallel in the long catalogue of Christian and Jewish suffering. — Bernheimer, 21
And I looked, and behold a pale green/blue horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. — Revelation 6:8
Here we have two figures, one named Death and another, following, named Hades. The two of them, together, have power over the fourth part of the earth. I bypass here the bulk of Thomas Witulski’s discussion about the authenticity of the received text and other passages in which “Death and Hades” appear and jump to his conclusion:
. . . [T]he view has prevailed in ancient historical research that the uprising of the Jews in Egypt and North Africa was ultimately put down by the collaboration of two Roman commanders; on the one hand, the governor of the province of Aegyptus, Μ. Rutilius Lupus, and on the other hand, the praefectus classis Q. Marcius Turbo. (W. 192)
If we accept the view that the four horsemen represent historical persons, that the first horseman was the emperor Trajan, that the second horseman signified the Jewish messianic uprisings, and that the third represented an Asian governor attempting to regulate the consequences of that uprising, then we may think it necessarily follows that the fourth horseman named Death along with another named Hades represent the two Roman commanders appointed to suppress that Jewish rebellion.
The colour of the horse is χλωρός (chloros). The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon gives its meaning as greenish-yellow, pale, green. Various commentaries denote its meaning as the colour of death, of a pale blue corpse. The word appears in Homer’s epics when persons are faced with the “pale horror” of imminent death. Another Greek author wrote of facing imminent death so that he turned “paler than grass in autumn”.
The two riders are given power over a quarter of the earth. That does not mean that they killed a quarter of the earth but that they were given that portion of the earth in which to exercise their power.
On the phrase “to kill with the sword”, David E. Aune in Revelation 6–16 notes
“To kill with the sword” sounds like a parody of the Roman ius gladii, “law of the sword,” i.e., the power to punish individual criminals (Digest 2.1.3; A. Berger, Roman Law, 529). (403)
And when He had opened the third seal, I heard the third living being say, “Come and see!” And I beheld, and lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard something like a voice from among the four living creatures saying, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine!” — Revelation 6:5-6
A pair of balances in his hand
Many commentators interpret the image of scales and the weighing of grain as a representation of famine that often follows in the destruction of croplands during a time of warfare. Two Old Testament verses are commonly referenced:
Leviticus 26:26When I afflict you with famine of bread, then ten women shall bake your loaves in one oven, and they shall render your loaves by weight; and ye shall eat, and not be satisfied. (LXX)
Ezekiel 4:16-17And he said to me, Son of man, behold, I break the support of bread in Jerusalem: and they shall eat bread by weight and in want; and shall drink water by measure, and in a state of ruin: that they may want bread and water; and a man and his brother shall be brought to ruin, and they shall pine away in their iniquities. (LXX)
Thomas Witulski (whose arguments for a Hadrianic date for the book of Revelation I have been outlining) identifies the following problems with attempting to link those verses in Leviticus and Ezekiel with the third horseman of the apocalypse:
— the term for “scales” or “balances” does not appear in either Lev 26 or Ez 4;
— Lev 26 and Ez 4 speak of “bread” but “bread” is not the subject of Revelation 6:5-6;
— the scales are used to measure by weight, but what follows is not a weight measure but a volume measure; the scales are therefore not directly related to what follows – and in the words of Aune (Rev 6-16, 396), “the presence of the scales is not illuminated by what follows”;
— as we saw in the vision of the first horseman, the bow is mentioned without the accompanying reference to arrows, thus suggesting that the bow was introduced as a symbol rather than a weapon to be used, so here, scales are mentioned without the expected accompanying reference to weights. It follows that the scales, like the sword, are a symbol rather than a tool for use;
— no Old Testament reference to scales speaks of them being held in one hand as we find in Revelation 6:5.
The image of scales being held in hand appears frequently in Roman imperial coinage from the later part of the first century and throughout the second. The goddess Aequitas represents equal justice, equal decisions made in comparable cases, and stands for Roman jurisprudence in general or more specifically to the person entrusted to administer justice.
Something like a voice in the midst of the living creatures
We come now to the red horse and its rider. The first thing W [=Thomas Witulski] brings to his readers’ notice is the different manner in which this second horse is depicted:
And I saw, and behold,a white horse, and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him, and he went forth conquering and to conquer. . . .
And there went out another horsethat was red; and powerwas given to him that satthereon to take peace from the earth, that they should kill one another; and there was given unto him a great sword. . . .
And I beheld, and lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living beings say, “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine!” . . .
And I looked, and behold, a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over a fourth part of the earth to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.
The red horse is introduced as “another horse” as if in juxtaposition to the first horse. There is no separate “seeing and beholding” of the red horse. Is the appearance of the red horse meant to be subsumed beneath the “seeing and beholding” of the white horse? The red horse makes its appearance — unlike introductions of the other horses — as it “went out”. But “went out” from where? We are not told. The rider of the red horse is not presented as a subject or direct object but indirectly, in the dative case, as one to whom power to take away peace is given.
We saw the rider of the white horse conquering and conquering again. Following that scenario we come to a “fiery red” horse and its rider having the power to pull the world into a spiral of violence.
Returning to the apparent source for the idea of the red horse, Zechariah 1 and 6, we find that the red horse is identified with the angel of the Jews or Yahweh. After speaking about the sins of the Jews, the prophet writes:
Zechariah 1:8 I saw by night, and behold, a man mounted upon a red horse, and he stood among the myrtle trees that were in a ravine; and behind him were there red horses, speckled, and white.
9 Then said I, “O my lord, what are these?” And the angel that talked with me said unto me, “I will show thee what these be.”
10 And the man that stood among the myrtle trees answered and said, “These are they whom the Lord hath sent to walk to and fro throughout the earth.”
11 And they answered the angel of the Lord who stood among the myrtle trees, and said, “We have walked to and fro throughout the earth, and behold, all the earth sitteth still and is at rest.”
12 Then the angel of the Lord answered and said, “O Lord of hosts, how long wilt Thou not have mercy on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah . . .
Back to Revelation and “the power to take peace from the earth, that they should kill one another…”. Bolded highlighting is my own in all quotations:
The function of the cavalier in taking peace from the earth is portrayed as a universal phenomenon, perhaps as a conscious reversal of the Roman achievement of pax Romana, “Roman peace,” by Augustus. — Aune, 395
It denotes . . . the arising of general internal bloody turmoil, the breakdown of internal peace. — Lohmeyer, 58 (translation)
The fire-red colour of the horse points to its effect (cf. 12,3). His mission is to take peace from the earth. What is obviously meant is a civil war in which people kill each other. Civil wars are not infrequently accompanied by war. It is enough here to recall the mutual skirmishes among Jewish groups during the Jewish War (66-70 AD). However, there is no specific event in mind here (Beckwith 519). It is important that the passive voice twice emphasises that the rider acts in dependence on and in authority of God. — Giesen, 176f (translation)
The phrase “slay one another” well could suggest civil strife and not persecution, as many commentators affirm. — Beale, 379
And what of the sword that is, contrary to normal expectation, mentioned last:
. . . in the OT already there is mention of an eschatological sword with which Yahweh will strike the Leviathan (Isa 27:1) or Edom (Isa 3:4—5). Later, in the apocalypses of Late Judaism, we find this same sword in the hands of the sons of Israel who finally extract vengeance from their enemies (7 Enoch 90:19,34; 91:12). The image can, however, denote divine instigation which drives the unfaithful to kill each other, cf. 1 Enoch 88:2. — Prigent, 268
Aune sees the sword not as a literally used weapon but as a symbol of authority or power:
. . . “He was given a large sword.” In this phrase the sword is the symbol of the authority given to the cavalier expressed elliptically in v 4a: . . . “he was given [the power] to remove peace from the earth”; i.e., the interpretation precedes the symbol. . . . “to bear the sword” (Rom 13:4), is a metaphor for the power over life and death possessed by governing authorities (see Philostratus Vitae Soph. 1.532, . . . “they needed a judge with a sword”). Roman emperors carried a dagger or sword as an emblem of office (Tacitus Hist. 3.68 [pugio]; Suetonius Galba 11; Dio Cassius 42.27 [ξίφος]; Ulpian Digest 22.214.171.124). The ius gladii, “right of the sword,” in cases of capital punishment was a symbol of imperium exclusively exercised by the emperor in Rome but delegated to provincial officials (A. Berger, Roman Law, 529). Wearing a sword was also the right of only the highest military officials during the Roman Republic (Dio Cassius 42.27.2), and during the Empire a sword was worn exclusively by the emperor (Mommsen, Römisches Saatsrecht 1:433–35; 2:806). “That this cavalier was given a sword, therefore, indicates the authority and power with which he was temporarily entrusted by God . . . . The sword was a typical weapon used by ancient cavalry in warfare. One would have expected that the sword would be mentioned before the anticipated slaughter of v 4b is described. This is another instance of the author’s use of hysteron-proteron, “last-first,” i.e., the reversal of the logical order of events, a literary device used frequently in Revelation (3:3, 17; 5:5; 10:4, 9; 20:4–5, 12–13; 22:14). Unlike the description of the first cavalier, who is said to have “ridden away” . . . , nothing in this text suggests that the cavalier executed his task.” — Aune, 396
From all this it follows, to copy W’s words:
From all this it follows: The figure of the second ‘apocalyptic horseman’ is presented as a figure who appears as an autocrat and initiates a civil war within the borders of the imperium Romanum. Against the background of the explanations in Zech 1.8, the motif of the ἵππος πυρρός [= ‘bright red horse’] seems to mark its rider as belonging to the people of Israel or the Jews. — Witulski, 152 (translation)
Is it significant that the only other horse rider said to wield a sword is the Messiah: Revelation 19:11-16? If so, and if we accept that rider of the white horse was an imperial substitute for the messianic conqueror, we may be led to think that the rider on the red horse points to the bloodshed throughout Cyrenecia, Egypt, Cyprus, Mesopotamia (and possibly the regions around Judea) that was occasioned, it would seem, by messianic Jews. These uprisings followed in the wake of Trajan’s conquests.
Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put a certain Andreas at their head, and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing; many they sawed in two, from the head downwards; others they gave to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. In all two hundred and twenty thousand persons perished. In Egypt, too, they perpetrated many similar outrages, and in Cyprus, under the leadership of a certain Artemion. There, also, two hundred and forty thousand perished, and for this reason no Jew may set foot on that island, but even if one of them is driven upon its shores by a storm he is put to death. Among others who subdued the Jews was Lusius, who was sent by Trajan. — (Roman History, 32:1-3)
Later Eusebius wrote of the same event with reference to what he read in Greek histories:
When the emperor was about to enter his eighteenth year another rebellion broke out and destroyed vast numbers of Jews. In Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in Cyrene as well, as if inflamed by some terrible spirit of revolt they rushed into a faction fight against their Greek fellow-citizens, raised the temperature to fever heat, and in the following summer started a full-scale war, Lupus being at that time governor of all Egypt. From the first encounter they emerged victorious. But the Greeks fled to Alexandria, where they killed or captured the Jews in the city. But though deprived of their aid, the Jews of Cyrene went on plundering the territory of Egypt and ravaging the various districts, led by Lucuas. Against them the emperor sent Marcius Turbo with land and sea forces, including a contingent of cavalry. He pursued the war against them relentlessly in a long series of battles, destroying many thousands of Jews, not only those from Cyrene but others who had come from Egypt to assist Lucuas their king.
The emperor, suspecting that the Jews in Mesopotamia also would attack the people there, instructed Lusius Quietus to clear them out of the province. Lusius deployed his forces and slaughtered great numbers of the people there – a success for which the emperor appointed him governor of Judaea. These events were recorded in similar terms by the Greek authors who wrote histories of the same period. (Ecclesiastical History, IV, 2, 1-5)
These two accounts indicate that the death toll among all races, not only the Jews, was horrific. Prominent individuals are named: Andreas by Cassius Dio and Lucuas by Eusebius.
It may seem unusual to think of any of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” as representatives of individual persons. Nonetheless, that is the perspective advanced by Thomas Witulski as we saw in the post on The White Horseman of the Apocalypse. The argument was that the rider of the white horse was a coded reference to a historical figure: one who carried a bow, was given a crown, and who went forth conquering and to conquer yet further. Before presenting W’s interpretation of the rider of the red horse let’s back up a little and understand some of the justification for these “historical-personal” identifications.
In each of the four visions revealed by the breaking of the first four seals, there is a clear demarcation between the horse and its rider and the action to be performed by the rider. In each of the four visions we have the same pattern:
the horse appears
the colour of the horse is given
the rider is described
the effects of some action by the rider are related
Note that each of the four effects is brought about by its respective rider and some detail related to that rider: the first carries a bow, the second a sword, and so forth. It is widely acknowledged that the four horses in Revelation 6 are inspired by the model of the four horses, or groups of horses, in Zechariah 1 and 6. In those passages the horses alone are sufficient to represent the meaning to be discerned. So why does our author of Revelation introduce distinctive riders on each of his horses? Such a focus on each of the riders may suggest that the author has something other in mind than a general calamity being symbolized by each of the coloured horses.
Commentators have noted also the relationship between these horses, or at least the first one, to other imagery in Revelation. The Messiah rider of the white horse in Revelation 19 is introduced in the same way as the horses and their riders in Revelation 6:
Revelation 19:11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords.
Indeed, the first rider on the white horse to emerge from the first seal carries several reminders of the Christ figure in other sections of Revelation and Zechariah:
In Revelation 5:5 we read that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah has (like the first horseman) “conquered”.
In Revelation 19 we read (as we did of the first horseman) of a white horse, its rider, including a weapon, and his action of conquering.
In Revelation 19 we read of the rider with “many crowns”, a contrast to the first horseman with one crown.
In Zechariah 9:13f and Revelation 14:14 we find the imagery of the bow and sword related to the Messiah who slays his enemies.
The vision of the horses in Zechariah 6 is followed by a commission to the messianic high priest Joshua.
More explication can be added and W does add much more as he engages with various commentaries addressing the apparent relationships between Revelation and Zechariah and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The point is clear: at least the first horseman can easily be understood as an individual-to-individual match to the Messiah figure.
The first horseman appears in some way to be a counterpart to the Messiah who also rides a white horse, wears many crowns, and conquers with his sword (or sickle as in ch. 14). In other words, there is a person to person correlation between the two images. And if the first rider is interpreted this way, and the other riders are described with the same patterns, then it is reasonable to interpret each of them as signifying some personal figure as well.
Such, in brief, are the main points of W’s case for identifying the riders of Revelation’s four horsemen with persons related to significant historical events preoccupying the mind of the author.
Next, we’ll follow this approach in assessing W’s contemporary person-historical interpretation of the red horse.
Witulski, Thomas. Die Vier Apokalyptischen Reiter Apk 6,1-8: Ein Versuch Ihrer Zeitgeschichtlichen (neu-)interpretation. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.
If the book of Revelation is to be dated to the time of Hadrian (specifically to the late 120s or early 130s) how might the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” be understood?
Some commentaries propose that the white horse represents the preaching of the gospel. The difficulty with this interpretation is that the first rider emerges from the same place as the other horsemen who bring calamities to the world. Should we not expect the white horseman also to be a harbinger of death and suffering?
Revelation 6:1 And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying as with a voice of thunder, Come. 2 And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and he that sat thereon had a bow; and there was given unto him a crown: and he came forth conquering, and to conquer.
There is a considerable amount of evidence in ancient Greco-Roman literature linking “white horses” not only with military conquest, imperial power and rulership but also with extending the prestige acquired from those conquests to the level of equality with the divine, especially with the chief god of the Greco-Roman pantheon, Zeus/Jupiter.
The Roman historian Livy wrote at a time when the Republic of Rome was in crisis and a new age of “emperors” was dawning. Notice the nervous alarm with which he addresses the idea of a past Roman hero using white horses in his Triumphal march through Rome:
The return of Camillus drew greater crowds than had ever been seen on such an occasion in the past, people of all ranks in society pouring through the city gates to meet him; and the official celebration of his Triumph left in its splendour all previous ones in the shade. Riding into Rome in a chariot drawn by white horses he was the cynosure of every eye – and indeed in doing so he was felt to be guilty of a certain anti-republican arrogance, and even of impiety. Might there not be sin, people wondered, in giving a man those dazzling steeds and thus making him equal with Jupiter or the God of the Sun? It was this disquieting thought that rendered the celebration, for all its magnificence, not wholly acceptable. — Livy, V, 23
A later historian, Suetonius, wrote of the advent of Augustus to the world:
On the day Augustus was born, when the conspiracy of Catiline was being discussed in the senate house and Octavius stayed away until late because his wife was in labour, Publius Nigidius, hearing why he was delayed, when informed of the hour of the birth, asserted (as is generally known) that the master of the world was born. When Octavius, who was leading an army through remote regions of Thrace, sought guidance concerning his son at some barbarian rituals in the grove of Father Liber, the same prediction was made by the priests, for so great a flame had leapt up when they poured wine on the altar, that it passed beyond the peak of the temple roof and right up to the sky, a portent which had only previously occurred when Alexander the Great offered sacrifice at that altar. And on the very next night thereafter, he dreamed he saw his son of greater than mortal size with a thunderbolt and sceptre and emblems of Jupiter Best and Greatest and a radiate crown, on a chariot decorated with laurel drawn by twelve horses of astonishing whiteness. — Suetonius, Augustus, 94
By the time of Julius Caesar it was evidently the custom to allow white horses for a conqueror’s Triumph:
For they had voted that sacrifices should be offered for his [Julius Caesar’s] victory during forty days, and had granted him permission to ride, in the triumph already voted him, in a chariot drawn by white horses. — Cassius Dio, Roman History, XLIII, 14,3
Greek and Roman historians described a focus on white horses in Persian royal processions in a similar way:
Then came ten of the sacred horses, known as Nisaean, in magnificent harness, followed by the holy chariot of Zeus drawn by eight white horses, with a charioteer on foot behind him holding the reins – for no mortal man may mount into that chariot’s seat. — Herodotus, Histories, 7, 40
Next after the bulls came horses, a sacrifice for the Sun ; and after them came a chariot sacred to Zeus; it was drawn by white horses with a yoke of gold and wreathed with garlands ; and next, for the Sun, a chariot drawn by white horses and wreathed with garlands like the other. After that came a third chariot with horses covered with purple trappings, and behind it followed men carrying fire on a great altar. – Xenophon, Cyropedia, VIII, 3, 12
Then came the chariot consecrated to Jupiter, drawn by white horses, followed by a horse of extraordinary size, which the Persians called ‘the Sun’s horse’. — Rufus, History of Alexander, 3, 11
Then did the Sons of Zeus, my brethren twain, Flashing on white steeds come to war with thee. — Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis, 1153-1154
We read of other instances where white horses are associated with raw imperial power without any pronounced religious connotation:
. . . in the middle is Rhesos the king, son of Eïoneus. His are the most beautiful horses I have beheld and the most magnificent; they are whiter than snow, they run like the wind . . . Homer, Iliad, X, 435-37
Hard by, his white steeds to his Thracian car Are tethered : clear they gleam athwart the dark As gleams the white wing of a river-swan. — Euripides, Rhesus, 616-618
[King Turnus] called for his horses and joyfully watched their restive excitement. These horses had been given to Pilumnus by Orithyia herself – a proud possession, for they could outmatch snow in their white brilliance and the winds in their speed. — Virgil, Aeneid, XII, 82-84