The Red Horse of the Apocalypse and Its Rider

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by Neil Godfrey


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 horse that was red; and power was given to him that sat thereon 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.

(Revelation 6:2-8)

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 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.

Here is how Cassius Dio recorded the violence:

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.

The evidence is sparse so I am setting out here what W. argues and what I read in related works. The following is from E. Mary Smallwood‘s history of the Jews in the Roman Empire and is worth reading for what we can learn from the archaeological evidence: Continue reading “The Red Horse of the Apocalypse and Its Rider”

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