The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11 – part A

Creative Commons License

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

by Neil Godfrey


We continue following Thomas Witulski’s case for dating the book of Revelation in the time of emperor Hadrian and the Bar Kochba war. Before attempting to place the events of chapter 11 (the measuring of the temple and the two witnesses) in a historical context W undertakes to closely examine the text in order to be clear about what it does and does not say.

Revelation 11:3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.”

4 These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks, standing before the God of the earth.

5 And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth and devoureth their enemies; and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.

6 These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy, and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.

7 And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them and kill them.

8 And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.

9 And they of the people and kindreds, and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and a half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves.

10 And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another, because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.

11 But after three days and a half, the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fellupon them that saw them.

12 And they heard a great voice from Heaven, saying unto them, “Come up hither!” And they ascended up to Heaven in a cloud, and their enemies beheld them.

13 And that same hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth part of the city fell; and in the earthquake were slain seven thousand men, and the remnant were seized with fear, and gave glory to the God of Heaven. (KJ21)

The time allotted to the two witnesses is the same as the time the gentiles are to tread down the holy city. (Recall the previous post.) It seems reasonable to conclude that the two witnesses are active during the time of Jerusalem being fully occupied (including the temple area) by the gentiles.

Well known to the readers

The two witnesses are introduced with the definite article τοῖς “which suggests that they were known as eschatological figures or ciphers to both the apocalyptist and his audience or readers” (W, 45, translation):

As well-known figures (the article τοῖς is not missing in any manuscript) the two witnesses are introduced here without any mention of them in the Apok so far. (Haugg, 13f – translation)

The time specification of verse 2 “for forty-two months” corresponds to that of verse 3 “1260 days”. The two witnesses are introduced as a definite quantity with a definite article. Apparently, the author presupposes that the reader understands him, which means that he alludes to a familiar idea. (Müller, 208f – translation)

However, the apocalyptist does not name them even though it appears they are well-known to his readers. By avoiding a clear identification the author appears to be allowing himself room to reinterpret their role. The references to Jerusalem in the opening verses of this chapter and again in verse 8 (W will make his case that “where also our Lord was crucified” is original to the text and not an interpolation) indicate that the two witnesses will appear in the area around Jerusalem, certainly in Palestine.

But whose witnesses?

Another detail that is left unexplained is the identity of who is commissioning them. Whose witnesses are they? We read in verse 3 of “my two witnesses” and it is easy to assume that they are God’s or Christ’s witnesses but that idea is not supported by the surrounding text. In chapter 10 and the opening of chapter 11 neither God nor Christ appears explicitly as an acting figure. I am skipping over W’s discussions of the problems that arise if one assumes the voice in 10:4 and 10:8 is the voice of God or Christ. W points out how clear the author is when he identifies a voice as coming from God and concludes in relation to 11:3 that the author is deliberately vague about who is in charge of the two witnesses.

In W’s view the apocalyptist deliberately wanted to conceal the identity of the one who commissions the two witnesses.

Notice, further, that the two witnesses are said to stand “as olive trees and lampstands before the Lord of the earth” and to lie in the marketplace of the city “where our Lord was crucified”: the way these passages are introduced makes it “seem basically impossible” that the same Lord is the one who is speaking and commissioning the two witnesses.

It follows that the two witnesses are commissioned and equipped by a lesser authority in the heavenly hierarchy than the one calling the author for his task.

On the basis of this and also on the basis of the textual context of Apk 10f. therefore, the angels speaking and acting explicitly for the last time in Apk 10:9-10 or else the unknown speakers from Apk 10:11 or 11:1 seem most likely to come into question as those on whose behalf the two μάρτυρες [witnesses] will act. This is obviously intended to give the listeners or readers of the Apk – and this consequence suggests itself – the impression that the two witnesses were or will be equipped and commissioned neither by God nor by Christ for their witness ministry, but, in contrast to the apocalyptist himself, by less important and subordinate figures in the heavenly hierarchy. In this way, the apocalyptist may have intended to distinguish the witness service of the two μάρτυρες, at least implicitly, from his own activity and to classify it as of lesser importance. (W, 49 – translation)

Dressed in sackcloth but what is the message?

Another curiosity is that our author did not inform us about the message of these two witnesses. What is it that they were “prophesying”? We are not told. The only clue may be in their clothing. Presumably sackcloth was meant to convey the necessity to repent — but we are not told.

It is remarkable in this context, however, that in the immediate context of Rev 11:3ff. no further details are given about the content of the proclamation of the witnesses; apparently, if at all, their clothing seems to be “the only clue to the nature of their message”, which in research sometimes leads to the assumption that the apocalyptist was not interested in informing the recipients of his work in more detail about the message of the two witnesses, but only in describing their actions and deeds. (W, 50 – translation)

The two witnesses are said to “prophesy” (11:3) and their message is a “witness” (11:7). To find out what their message was W turns back to chapter 10 where the stage for these events is set out. In 10:7 we read

but that in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as He hath declared to His servants the prophets. (KJ21)

These prophets (W argues) are inclusive of all of God’s prophets from the Old Testament times to the time of the author. They are not only Christian prophets but also the Jewish ones and they spoke of the end of human kingdoms and the restoration of God’s rule. In W’s view, this is the message that the two witnesses were likely proclaiming. But at the same time the author is more focused on their hostile actions than on their words. (W has a lengthy discussion of what various commentators have had to say about the meaning of “witnesses” and “prophesying” throughout Revelation that is too involved to detail here. His conclusions are all I am dwelling on.)

W finds room for three different (but not mutually exclusive) interpretations:

  • The author deliberately chose to limit himself to an account of the deeds of the witnesses when describing their “prophetic activity”;
  • The author could assume that it was immediately clear to his readers what the testimony of the two witnesses consisted of;
  • The author considered their witness to be less a “speech event” than something about their actions, actions that brought suffering and torments to their enemies.

If these three aspects, which are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary, are considered together and linked with the Apocalyptist’s statements in Rev 10:6f., then the content of the μαρτυρία [witness/testimony] of the two witnesses suggests that they wanted to bring about a fundamental change in the existing political, social and societal conditions with their actions, a development that the beast rising from the abyss set out to prevent. (W, 66 – translation)

In the next post I will continue with W’s view of significance of the two witnesses being identified as two olive trees and two candlesticks.

Haugg, Donatus. Die zwei zeugen : eine exegetische studie über Apok II, 1-13. Münster i.W. : Aschendorff, 1936. http://archive.org/details/diezweizeugenein0000haug.

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

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!

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