Measuring the Temple in Revelation 11 – the Questions Arising

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey

Saint John Takes the Rod to Measure the Temple
From Wikimedia Commons

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:

In answer [to Titus] the men on the wall hurled insults at Caesar himself and at his father, and shouted that they cared nothing for death, but preferred it to slavery, as men should. . . . As for the Temple, God had a better one in the world itself; but this one too would be saved by Him who dwelt in it, and having Him on their side they would laugh at every threat not backed by deeds ; for the issue lay with God. Such were the retorts which they yelled, along with mere abuse. (Josephus, War, V. 460)


Their destruction was due to a false prophet who that very day had declared to the people in the City that God commanded them to go up into the Temple to receive the signs of their deliverance. A number of hireling prophets had been put up in recent days by the party chiefs to deceive the people by exhorting them to await help from God, and so reduce the number of deserters and buoy up with hope those who were above fear and anxiety. Man is readily persuaded in adversity : when the de­ceiver actually promises deliverance from the miseries that envelop him, then the sufferer becomes the willing slave of hope. So it was that the unhappy people were beguiled at that stage by cheats and false messengers of God . . . (Josephus, War, VI. 285)

In support of Wellhausen’s interpretation, David Aune offers six points:

(a) The abrupt introduction of the passage (the subject of the participle λέγων, “saying,” is unspecified; the usual visionary formulas such as “I saw” or “I heard” are absent).

(b) The command to the visionary to measure the temple is never actually carried out.

(c) Nothing is said about when or how the visionary could have access to the temple to carry out the task of measuring.

(d) The Jerusalem temple is mentioned only here in Revelation and otherwise is apparently of little or no concern to the author.

(e) Although the temple had been destroyed in A.D. 70, decades before the final composition of Revelation, nothing is said about that destruction, except that the outer court and the city will be overrun by the Gentiles.

(f) The promise that the sanctuary of the temple complex will not be profaned by the Gentiles contradicts the expectation in Daniel, which predicts that the entire (second) temple will be desecrated but not destroyed (Dan 8:11–14; 9:26–27 [see Collins, Daniel, 357]), reflecting the conquest of Jerusalem and the temple mount by Antioches Epiphanes in 167 B.C., and the expectation that the temple will be completely destroyed, found in the eschatological discourse of Jesus (Mark 13:2 = Matt 24:2 = Luke 21:6) and alluded to in other sayings of Jesus (Mark 14:58 = Matt 26:61; Mark 15:29 = Matt 27:40; Acts 6:14; cf. John 2:19).

These are some of the factors that motivated Wellhausen to propose that 11:1–2 was a fragment of a Zealot prophecy from the weeks before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, expressing the belief that the Romans would take the city and the temple court but would be unable to penetrate the inner parts of the temple, which were held by the Zealots themselves (Wellhausen, Skizzen 6:221–23; id., Analyse, 15). This proposal has been accepted by many other scholars . . . . 

Excerpt From: Dr. David Aune. “Revelation 6-16, Volume 52B.” Apple Books. (my formatting)

So what are Witulski’s objections to Wellhausen’s conclusion?

  1. Josephus’s narrative does not always correspond to historical reality, but even if in this instance his account of “false prophets” is true, it does not explain the existence of the kind of prophecy that we read about in Revelation 11:1-2.  There is nothing in Josephus to help us understand the idea of measuring the temple or the remarks about the outer court of the temple or the prophecy that the rest of Jerusalem would be trampled by the gentiles. Yes, Josephus does write of a false prophet calling upon his people to go to the temple and await signs from God, but that is hardly a clear parallel to the idea of measuring the sanctuary and leaving the outer court and city to the will of the gentiles.
  2. If the author of Revelation 11:1-2 was a Jewish zealot, we must wonder why the final author/redactor of Revelation passed on that prophecy that had evidently failed to come to pass. This problem remains whether the passage was written by a Jewish zealot who subsequently embraced Christianity or whether a Christian chose to incorporate that oracle into the final work.
  3. Another question arising is how one can explain why the author of Revelation inserted his own person into this prophecy if it was one originally penned by a zealot-prophet. The author conveys the image of a voice instructing him to personally measure the sanctuary.

(Witulski cites Weiss – see archive.org p. 129 — who cannot accept that someone in Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction would have time or interest in sitting down to write such a prophecy, but he does think that another person outside Jerusalem hearing of the dire situation was suddenly seized with a conviction that God would save the inner part of the temple and sat down to express his belief in writing. But the problems listed above, I think, still remain.)

But Witulski does not reject all of Wellhausen’s observations and related questions. Christian elements are not apparent in the passage. Should one therefore conclude that the passage should be read as some sort of symbolism?

Further, there is undeniably some overlap between what Josephus tells us about the concern for the temple when Jerusalem was under siege and the contents of Revelation 11. It is surely conceivable that the defenders of Jerusalem and the author of Rev 11:1-2 spoke of quite comparable historical situations.

But first, W. addresses the possibility that 11:1f should be read metaphorically.

The author is commanded to measure the inner sanctuary but to exclude the outer court. That area is to be desecrated by the gentiles along with the rest of the city. There can be no doubt that the destruction at the hands of the gentiles refers to a literal, earthly reality, a historical event. It surely follows, then, that the measuring of the inner court should also apply to an earthly situation and not to a heavenly or symbolic place. The focus is on the literal temple in Jerusalem.

Again, W refers to Aune’s cogent reasons for rejecting the symbolic interpretation. I quote Aune in full:

Symbolic Significance of Rev 11:1–2.

(a) The symbolic interpretation of vv 1–2 most widely held among modern interpreters is that the temple of God is not a literal building but, together with the altar and the worshipers, represents the Christian community who worship God, while the court outside the temple and the holy city refer to the outer life of the Church, the vulnerability of the people of God to suffering and death (Behm, 58; Allo, 130; Lohse, 64; Sweet, 182; Mounce, 220; Beagley, Apocalypse, 61; Boring, 143; Bauckham, “Conversion,” 272; id., Theology, 127). This interpretation is based in part on the frequent use of the temple as a symbol for the Church in early Christian literature (1 Cor 3:16–17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19–22; 1 Pet 2:5; Ign. Eph. 9:1; 15:3 [here the individual Christian is a temple of God]; Magn. 7:2; Barn. 4:11; 6:15; 16:10; cf. Ign. Phld. 7:2 and 2 Clem. 9:3, where Christians are urged to keep their flesh as the temple of God). A corollary of this view frequently expressed by those who hold it is “that the protection symbolized by measuring does not mean security against physical suffering and death; rather it assures support in and through suffering and death and protection from spiritual danger (Loisy, 205; Caird, 132; Mounce, 219; Sweet, 182; Harrington, 119; Boring, 143–44).

(b) A second symbolic interpretation is that the protective measuring of the temple, altar, and worshipers symbolizes the preservation of Christians, the true worshipers of God, while the conquest of the outer court and the holy city represents the rejection and punishment of unbelieving Judaism (Swete, 132–33; Feuillet, NTS 4 [1957–58] 187–88; McNicol, ResQ 22 [1979] 193–202; Beagley, Apocalypse, 62–63; close to the view of Andreas of Caesarea, who thought that the temple represented Christians who offered true sacrifice to God while the outer court represented the unbelieving synagogue of Gentiles and Jews [Comm. in Apoc. ad 11:2–3; J. Schmid, Studien 1/1:111–12]). Early Jewish sources understand the destruction of the temple as the punishment of Judaism for disobedience (Apoc. Abr. 27.5–7; 2 Apoc. Bar. 1:3–4; Paral. Jer. 1:8; 4:7–8; Sib. Or. 3.273–79; T. Levi 10:3; T. Judah 23:1–3).

(c) A third view is that the temple, altar, and worshipers refer to the Jewish remnant, while the outer court and the holy refer to Israel, which will be given up to the Gentiles for the punishment of the sins of the Jews (Beckwith, 588–90; M. Rissi, Future, 16, 64–65; id., “Das Judenproblem im Lichte der Johannesapokalypse,” TZ 13 [1957] 241–59).

(d) Finally, a fourth view is that the temple, altar, and worshipers refer to that which was fundamental and essential in Judaism “while the outer court and the holy city refer to all that was external and expendable in Judaism (Eichhorn 2:51–53; Stuart, 2:214).”

Excerpt From: Dr. David Aune. “Revelation 6-16, Volume 52B.” Apple Books. (my formatting)

W’s response?

The fact alone that several different approaches to the symbolic or allegorical interpretation of the Apocalyptist’s remarks in Rev. 11:1f. have developed in research makes the questionability of such interpretations within the framework of the historical-critical view of this passage and also of the Apocalypse as a whole clear. More details will have to be found in the detailed discussion to follow. (Witulski, 6f – my formatting)

And there I shall leave it for now. But before taking up W’s discussion of what scholarship has had to say about the two witnesses I will post what Julius Wellhausen had to say about measuring of the temple in conjunction with chapter 12’s narrative of the woman giving birth to a child who is snatched up to heaven before she has to flee to the wilderness from the Romans.

  • if anyone can access a copy of Wellhausen’s Analyse online I would greatly appreciate it being shared with me.

Aune, David E. Revelation 6-16. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 52B. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2017.

Feuillet, André. “Essai D’Interpretation Du Chapitre Xi De L’apocalypse.” New Testament Studies 4, no. 3 (April 1958): 183–200. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500011589.

Josephus, Flavius. The Jewish War. Edited by Betty Radice and Robert Baldick. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Penguin Classics. Penguin, 1959. https://archive.org/details/jewishwar00flav/mode/2up

Müller, Ulrich B. Die Offenbarung des Johannes. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1995.

Prigent, Pierre. Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John. Translated by Wendy Pradels. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.

Witulski, Thomas. Apk 11 und der Bar Kokhba-Aufstand : eine zeitgeschichtliche Interpretation. Tübingen : Mohr Siebeck, 2012. http://archive.org/details/apk11undderbarko0000witu.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “Measuring the Temple in Revelation 11 – the Questions Arising”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading