The Book of Revelation in Hadrian’s and Bar Kochba’s Time – Another Case

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by Neil Godfrey

Before Thomas Witulski’s 2012 book (link is to posts discussing W’s work) that identified the two witnesses of Revelation with figures in the Bar Kochba War there was Joseph Turmel’s 1938 publication, which made the same fundamental point but by a different route. You can read his case from the link in my Turmel page and/or you can read some key points in what follows here.

Turmel set out the two most commonly expressed options for the date of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) —

  1. from soon after the time of Nero’s death, say 69 CE
  2. the late first century around the time of Domitian

Turmel eliminates the first option because it lacks motivation: the idea of a returned Nero to destroy Rome was inspired by popular rumours in the wake of a Nero-imposter who, no later than February 69 CE, came not from the Euphrates River and was slain before he reached Rome; such a figure cannot explain the details we read in Revelation.

A second Nero-imposter did appear in the year 88, this time from beyond the Euphrates (as per Revelation). So the time of Domitian is more likely, but given that the popular anticipation of a return by Nero continued through to the time of Augustine, Revelation could also have been written a good while after Domitian.

Revelation depicts God’s vengeance befalling the planet as a result of the cries of the recently slain martyrs. (Whether those martyrs are Jewish or Christian remains open at this point.) There were three periods of mass martyrdoms:

  1. Nero’s purported persecutions (64 CE),
  2. the widespread massacres in Trajan’s time (ca 117 CE)
  3. and the Bar Kochba war of 132-135 CE.

Turmel has ruled out #1; he rules out #2 on the grounds that it did not take place in Palestine or Jerusalem — as indicated in Revelation; so that leaves #3.

Are the martyrs Christians?

No, concludes Turmel, because their blood is linked to the blood of the prophets before them. The martyrs belong to the prophets. They are the Judeans.

This conclusion is confirmed by the conclusion of Revelation where the New Jerusalem descends to the place where the old Jerusalem was once situated and the twelve gates bore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Yes, we also read that the foundation stones were twelve in number and that the names of the apostles were inscribed on them, but how could such a large city said to be a square shape have twelve bases? No, that detail is a later addition to try to Christianize a Jewish Apocalypse.

Turmel refers to the evidence we later find in Jewish writings to depict Bar Kochba as a self-proclaimed Messiah and his promoter, the rabbi Akiba, as comparable to Ezra or Moses. These two men led a revolt that lasted around three years (132-135), thus easily inviting a Danielic reference to 1260 days / three and a half years for the time of the two witnesses. Bar Kochba was famous for being able to literally perform the magician’s trick of breathing fire from his mouth. He had coins minted with the image of the temple beneath a purported star — suggesting that he had hastily built a new temple (the star was a reference to his name and the prophecy in Numbers).

Some of those details have been disputed (successfully, I think) in more recent publications. For example, the later idea that Bar Kochba claimed to be the messiah is not supported by the earlier evidence. But see the Witulski posts for details.

Turmel and Witulski otherwise have very different readings:

Turmel — Revelation is principally a Jewish work that was supplemented with Christianizing edits; the dragon who sweeps a third of the stars down from heaven is understood to be a Christian monster leading many Judeans astray, for example.

Witulski — Revelation is principally a Christian work that focussed primarily on Hadrian and his propagandist Polemo.

Both agree on identifying Bar Kochba as one of the two witnesses. (Witulski replaces Turmel’s Akiba with the high priest Elazar.)

What I liked about Turmel’s discussion was his explanation for the site of Jerusalem being called Sodom and Egypt: Hadrian had replaced the site with his new capital Aelia Capitolina (dedicated to Jupiter). That’s why a New Jerusalem was to descend and take its place.

What I find difficult to accept in Turmel’s discussion is that a Christian editor might leave untouched the original Jewish account of the two witnesses being taken up to heaven in the sight of all if he so hated them because of their persecutions of Christians. I think Witulski’s explanation that that image was a future projection at the time of writing is preferable. (W also sees the Christian author having anti-Pauline and pro-Jewish sympathies.)


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Neil Godfrey

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29 thoughts on “The Book of Revelation in Hadrian’s and Bar Kochba’s Time – Another Case”

  1. Your attitude seems antisemitic…how can the 2 [jewish ] witnesses be compared to other characters mentioned esp hadrian/trajan as persecutors of xtians……. which is obviously your take on Turmel ? Boy your early religious indoctrination really did a number.

    1. Well you’ve got me there. I have no idea how anything I wrote could be understood as I myself having any antisemitic notions in the slightest. I was simply trying to present the key points of the Turmel publication vis a vis Witulski. Perhaps you can be more explicit and direct me to what exactly I said that suggests any “antiemitism” on my part.

  2. James Tabor (UNC) has put on his blog a discussion “Can a Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation be Recovered”. In it, he shows how lightly references to Jesus rest in the text. He also shows how easily they can be excised without interrupting the flow of the text. That is, he questions whether Rev was originally a Jewish text with very light Christian editing performed later to transform it into a Christian text.

    1. Check out the Turmel page I linked in the post. Turmel makes the same argument. Look also at the accompanying file that demonstrates with colour coding what Turmel sees as the original Jewish apolcalypse with the Christian additions colour coded.

  3. When you will read specific chapters of Turmel from Histoire des dogmes (I hope that next saturday I can digitalize all them), I would be curious to know what is your view about:
    1) hopes in the restauration of the kingdom of Israel limited to the only Judaea, in the original kernel of the historical Paul as filtered by Turmel’s criticism
    2) traces of Gospel (and Acts) episodes justifying armed resistance and/or violence
    3) the interest about a book (Revelation) so strictly connected with the Zealot propaganda.
    4) the Turmelìs explanation of the enigmatic passage by Irenaeus about Jesus being crucified under Claudius

    1. I can comment on a couple of points. Some of those conclusions you list are built on the same circularity as his his Life of the Earthly Jesus — that is, the assumption that a text is based on historical sources when independent evidence suggests the contrary. So for instance, though there are serious scholarly discussions that argue for the regular hostility Paul faced in all the synagogues being a literary device based on the canonical gospel’s Jesus and the early chapters of Acts (pre-Paul), Turmel falls into the same trap as those who assume that there is historical tradition behind Acts life of Paul. This assumption is generally cemented by another confusion of a literary device for a historical literalness — the “we passages”.

      If we take the simplest explanation for Paul’s life in Acts, one supported by independent evidence, that it is sourced from other early Christian lives (Jesus and Peter), then Turmel’s case for Suetonius’s account of troubles in Rome around the year 50 has its support pulled from beneath it. There is no longer any need to interpret that passage in Suetonius as another instance of what we read about in Acts.

      Another instance: there are very many discussions that identify the theological motives for the embedding of OT passages in the gospels. They function as theological rubrics, not rationalizations of oral traditions from a historical event. Introducing a historical source behind them only introduces another hypothesis when there is no need to explain those OT passages by another hypothesis. Example, the two swords in Luke. There is no need to bring the hypothesis that that incident derives from some memory of rebel activity among the followers of Jesus. Once we do, though, we have to resort to other ad hoc rationalizations why only Luke mentions it.

      I have no problem with a suggestion that persons in Josephus influenced aspects of the gospel narratives — e.g. Jesus of Ananias, the various rebel leaders like Simon of Giora and Jesus of Shaffat, Josephus’s friend taken from the cross, etc. — and what I have been attempting to explore in various posts here is what happens when we adhere to the simplest and wholly explanatory hypothesis about their influence on the gospels without introducing, without supporting evidence, unnecessary assumptions about oral traditions and historicity behind the gospels. I think my approach is uncontroversial, even normative, in other fields of historical inquiry into sources. It only sounds “extreme” in biblical studies.

        1. It seems to me that you had conceded something of similar to the criterion of embarrassment when you have raised this question here :
          Were some Christians justifying armed resistance?

          1. I don’t know if that question of mine is the right or best answer to assessing the source or rationale for Luke introducing this scenario. I didn’t mean it rhetorically but as a genuinely open question.

  4. The conclusion of Turmel agrees with the scholar, Judith M. Ford (Yale U.) who wrote the Commentary on Revelation for the Anchor Bible Commentary (1974). She said that John the Baptist (or his followers) wrote the Book of Revelation, and her evidence was that from chapter 4 through 17, the words, “Jesus” and “Christ” never appear. That is impossible in the New Testament — fourteen consecutive chapters that omit those words! So, Ford opines that the “Lamb” in those texts refer to Jewish martyrs — just as Turmel opines.

    1. Just to complete the record, Ford summarizes her reasons for the John the Baptist link on page 50

      Chs. 4-11 contain the revelation given not to John the evangelist after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, but to John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus before his public ministry. The Gospel of John 1: 15-34 states that the Baptist received a revelation from God about “He that cometh,” whom we traditionally call the Messiah. God told John, “When you see the Spirit descend and rest on someone, he is the one who is to baptize with a holy Spirit”; John 1 :33, AB. There are four themes which in all the NT are unique to Revelation and to the sections of the Gospels which concern John the Baptist:

      the Lamb (of God),

      the title “He that cometh,”

      the concept of baptism by fire,

      and the direct application of the figure of the bridegroom to Jesus.

      Other Baptist affinities with Revelation are: the wrath of God, tree as a metaphor for leaders of the people, the interest in the liturgy (the Baptist’s father was a priest and the Baptist’s vision occurred in the sanctuary), and the idea of the adulterous generation. All these themes are amplified in Revelation. Further, it must be remembered that Jesus spoke very highly of the prophetical office of John the Baptist (Matt 11). Could it be that this part of Revelation contains what was then revealed to John committed to writing by a disciple? (my formatting)

      Turmel has other explanations for the Lamb image appearing in both the Gospel of John (which is the only place all four of Ford’s themes appear) and Revelation. (Link is to the page that includes a link to his discussion of Revelation.) He also views the Lamb in the original Jewish version of the Apocalypse as Bar Kochba, whom he believed to be considered the messiah in his time.

  5. Turmel on the link Jesus/Claudius as referred by Irenaeus. The implication is that the historical Jesus was involved in the revolt of Judas the Galilean, or even he would be Judas himself.

    1. Turmel acknowledges that his proposal is “conjecture” and it is based in large part on the coincidence of dates. But meaningless coincidences do happen in real life. It’s possible, as are many conjectures, but that’s not enough for a foundation for historical reconstruction.

      There is a core difficulty with any hypothesis that sees a historical report behind the Jesus in our gospel narratives: The core difficulty is to explain the evidence so thoroughly set out by Larry Hurtado that points to Jesus being worshiped as a divinity from the beginning, not only eventually after a time of creating more and more elaborate ideas about him.

      There is another core difficulty, in my view — as I wrote in another comment recently: Historical figures have a life of their own and hagiographers attach mythical etc trappings to that life, but the Gospel of Mark is mythical and midrashic narrative right through to the central core. I don’t see any room for a historical figure in any of the narrated elements.

      If Jesus had been Judas the Galilean or part of that movement, how to we get around the above difficulties that such a proposal would seem to raise?

      1. Hi Neil, to the cost of sounding repetitive, I invite you to read the chapters from Turmel’s Histoire des dogmes (I am sending to you), in particular his continue insistence that a common motive in the original Paul, in some Gospel passages and in Acts (and Revelation) is that the earliest Christians wanted the Judaea free. Not the empire of the world, but merely the Judaea. This argument (1), added to the fact (2) that ‘Satan’ in Paul is a nickname for Roman authorities in the original Paul (cfr Epitre aux Philippiens, p. 34), that (3) the mysticism (with relative high christology), according to Turmel and pace even Larry Hurtado, is a late (Marcionite) addition, seems to be better explained by the original preaching justifying armed resistance.
        Turmel points out that the words of the demon in Mark 1.24 (“What do you want with us, Jesus Nazarene? Have you come to destroy us?”) is not different basically from the sense of John 11:48: “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”.

        But then again, the strong argument is that, if one assume the evolution of the Pauline epistles as reconstructed by Turmel (i.e. short notes by Paul >> marcionite interpolations >> catholic interpolations), then one cannot more assume, with Hurtado, that Jesus is an archangelic deity from the day zero. A martyr vindicated by god yes, but not an angel. Do you agree that there is a great difference between a risen martyr and an angel “quasi deo” ?

        1. I am outside Australia at the moment and away from my processing/ocr’ing equipment but I’ll certainly look at the files when I return in a week or so from now.

          I have been reminded of snippets of Turmel’s argument across different publications just lately and so far my question still stands: If Jesus had been an earthly revolutionary then how does one explain bestowing on such a figure divine status? What evolutionary progress is to be postulated between the first records of this revolutionary and the Marcionite divine additions?

          I’m not closing my mind to the possibility — but I have not heard explanations that are little better than “the witnesses thought they saw a miracle”.

  6. If you assume, with the mythicist Patrick Boistier, that Turmel was basically correct about the three redactions in Paul, minus only a detail:

    Le curé Turmel croyait à l’historicité du personnage de Saul/Paul des Actes des Apotres. Nous avons vu ce qu’il fallait penser de cet écrit. Pour moi, Paul est un anonyme dont l’action se situe après l’an 70 (probablement aux environs de l’an 100)
    (Jésus, anatomie d’un mythe, p. 232, note 1)

    …even so, the problem is only transposed but not resolved: we would have a ‘Paul’ writing short notes after the 70 but without yet a high christology (the latter was a marcionite product), which would be enough to make historical (and recent) the Jesus of the original ‘Paul’.

    In short, Hurtado’s Paul and Turmel’s Paul are mutually exclusive. Turmel’s position about Paul makes more credibile his assumption of the historicity of Jesus than Hurtado’s position about Paul (which really justifies Carrier’s position) does.

  7. It seems that in Luke the agony of Jesus on the Gethsemani is based on a midrash from the wrestling between Jakob and the Angel of YHWH in Genesis, only with a difference: the Angel in question is interpreted as the Angel of Esahu (i.e. Jacob is wrestling really against Esahu, cfr the Prayer of Joseph) and since Esahu == Rome, therefore Jacob, and by midrashical extension Jesus, is wrestling really with Rome.

    This makes me wonder: are two swords in Luke two since one is for Jesus, the other for Satan (=Rome)? At any case the midrashical allusion to the wrestling Jakob/Angel behind the wrestling Jesus/Satan is sufficient to prove that a war would be going to happen between two opposed powers, a war that has to be interpreted, according to the intentions of the author (but we don’t know, based on this only detail, if he is lying us) as a cosmic war, not as a real war against the Romans.

    I see that the agony episode is found also in Mark, hence I wonder if really what Luke (or Marcion) is doing here is to make explicit what was found in nuce in Mark, where though there is not an angel before Jesus but, shortly after, only Judas.

  8. Does not Luke’s angel “strengthen” Jesus (Luke 22:43) rather than contend with him? Further, Ehrman’s case for the inauthenticity of the passage seems very strong to me. His conclusion:

    The story of Jesus praying in yet greater agony, being strengthened by an angel from heaven , and sweating great drops as if of blood , did not originate with the author of the Gospel of Luke. It was inserted into the Third Gospel some time in the early second century (prior to Justin) as part of the anti-docetic polemic of the orthodox Christian church. (Orthodox Corruption, 194)

    Ehrman’s discussion demonstrates that Luke was contradicting Mark’s “agony” image of Jesus in Gethsemane, depicting a Jesus always calm, at peace, in control.

    1. You are correct (the episode is indeed missing in *Ev), but even so Robert Hayward (Interpretations of the Name Israel, Oxford 2005) makes a good case for Luke 23:43 being a midrash from Genesis 32,23-32 LXX. In particular, “his sweat was like drops of blood” (and not as blood tout court) means that a wrestling is in course. Hayward quotes in p. 59 Harl who pointed out the ambiguity between the Hebrew bible and the LXX about the wrestling being between Jacob and an angel against God, or between Jacob and an angel of God. A text known as Prayer of Joseph takes the radical position that Jacob was wrestling against Uriel the angel of Esau:
      “And when I was coming up from Syrian Mesopotamia, Uriel, the angel of God, came forth and said that ‘I [Jacob-Israel] had descended to earth and I had tabernacled among men and that I had been called by the name of Jacob.’ He envied me and fought with me and wrestled with me saying that his name and the name that is before every angel was to be above mine. 6I told him his name and what rank he held among the sons of God. ‘Are you not Uriel, the eighth after me? and I, Israel, the archangel of the power of the Lord and the chief captain among the sons of God? Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God?’ And I called upon my God by the inextinguishable name.”

      By wrestling with the angel of Esau, Jacob “was ultimately victorious over the heavenly representative of Esau, who stands for the power of the Roman Empire. […] That victory itself, indeed, was anticipated in Jacob’s victory over Esau’s angel, and his consequent reception of the name Israel” (ibid., p. 258). This resembles closely the name above any other name of the hymn to Philippians.

      Hence the intriguing possibility is that, even as anti-docetic passage, Luke 23:43 may throw light on the enigmatic agony of Jesus in the Gethsemane, as a wrestling not against himself, but against demonic powers symbolizing ultimately Rome.

      1. A suggestive passage in Hayward:

        He is faced with a mighty adversary, and against this foe an angel from heaven appears to him, giving him strength just as, on one reading of LXX, a supernatural being fought alongside Jacob in his wrestling bout against his adversary. Jesus, too, is in a wrestling bout with his foe: he prays, but the struggle is fierce and prolonged, his profuse sweat a witness to this. On this interpretation, what the angel grants to Jesus is not power to pray more earnestly, as many suppose, but power to fight. To put matters in other words, he is seen to be ‘on the side of the angels’. The victory over his adversary, the powers of darkness, is assured: by having the angel strengthen … Jesus, Luke alludes to Jacob’s victory and the prize for that victory, the celebrated name Israel which signifies one who is strong, or strengthens himself (LXX Gen. 32: 25 ….) with God and like the angels of God (LXX Deut. 32: 43) against the enemies of God. After the night has passed, Jacob met his brother and enemy Esau; that meeting, following the events of the previous night, passed off without incident, despite Jacob’s fears of the preceding day. After the night in Gethsemane, Jesus goes to Calvary, meeting his death according to Luke with equanimity—saying to the thief: ‘Today thou shalt be with me in paradise’ (23: 43); expiring with the words: ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’ (23: 46) defeating the powers of darkness and rising with the sun ‘at early dawn’ (24: 1) to new life as Israel, the one who has been strong and has strengthened himself with God. (324f – my bolding)

        Odd that Hayward does not (at least in the section I read) point to a fuller account of that “one reading of the LXX”. Are you/anyone able to direct me to the reading that Hayward has in mind here?

        1. The Greek of LXX Gen. 32:25, which states that the being wrestled μετʼ αὐτοῦ, might be more naturally understood to mean that the “angel” wrestled in company with Jacob, against some unspecified and unnamed foe. The original Hebrew of that verse might also be read in this way. It would seem, then, that the author of Luke 22:43-4 could properly have taken Gen. 32:25 to mean that an “angel” had fought alongside Jacob in the face of a common, unnamed enemy. In terms of Luke’s account of the Passion, there can be little doubt what that common enemy might be: it is the power of evil, the forces of the devil represented by the darkness. (p. 323)

          1. Context is always the primary consideration for the meaning of any part of a text. Prima facie it reads as nonsense that Jacob should have someone suddenly helping in a physical fight when there is nothing in the context that otherwise suggests that Jacob was engaged in a struggle with anyone or anything. The natural reading is that “with” means in this context that the one Jacob had a fight with was “the man/angel/god”.

            To shift gears and enter our own language for a moment, if I told you I had a fight today WITH my boss/wife/neighbour, I would think you were a bit daft if you then asked me, “Oh, and who were you and your boss/wife/neighbour fighting together?”

            Is there any evidence in any of the Jewish literature, BCE or CE, where an author has interpreted Gen 32:25 in the sense of with meaning a supportive collaboration against a third party?

  9. I have my reasons for supporting a Hadrianic date for Revelation.

    Here’s the thing though, if I were an Atheist what I know about the history of the Seven Cities housing the Seven Churches would have been considering a theory of Revelation being a 2nd Century BC text written by Jews living through the end of Attalid Pergamun that was simply co-opted by Christian later. All seven cities were part of that Kingdom and Philadelphia was founded by it.

  10. What about Revelation being written even later with the intend of being perceived as written in the time of Hadrian?

    If one looks at Vespasian as a sort of Reboot of the Imperial Succession then Hadrian was the 6th and Antonius Pius the 7th, but then after that there is no sole Emperor for awhile.

    The Martyrdom of Polycarp works as the time of trouble foretold for Smyrna.

    The Antonine Plague, the War with Parthia, Alexander The False Prophecy having his puppet false god, all things that make the 160s match the picture Revelation is actually painting.

    Then there’s Avidius Cassius, Grandson of a Governor of Asia during the reign of Hadrian, who himself descended from Herodians, Hasmoneans, Seleucids, Augustus Caesar and multiple Gaius Cassius Longinus. He rather then the actual Emperors could have been intended as the Eight King.

    Even the Two Witnesses as Bar Kochba and Akiva could still fit given how arguably chronologically displaced chapter 11 is.

    1. What would be the point of doing that? It is much simpler to accept the evidence that it was from Hadrian’s time — especially given the evidence that Justin Martyr knew of the book.

      1. Justin doesn’t actually refer to a Book, just the vague concept that there was a Prophecy from a guy named John about a Thousand Year reign in Jerusalem. The Book could have been written later to elaborate on that.

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