Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science
Category: New Testament
Mostly straightforward but still some questions arise. Where does New Testament end and Church history and question of Christian origins, also certain roles of Marcion, begin? (Marcion’s argued influence on NT should be included here; also evidence of early readings found in Fathers like Tertullian.) Relevant manuscript discoveries and analysis belong here, including histories of their later copying.
Don’t look too hard to try to uncover hidden meanings in scriptural allusions in the Gospel of Mark. Those scriptural allusions may be “nothing more than” fillers to flesh out colourful story details. That’s the opening message of Nathanael Vette (NV) in his third and main chapter discussing five episodes in the Gospel of Mark.
The evangelist sometimes introduces Scripture explicitly to give readers a particular interpretation; other times Scripture is woven into the narrative more subtly. There is no consistent method in the use of Scripture.
The introductory message
Take the opening verses of the Gospel. It is not an exact quotation from any passage in the Old Testament.
To the contrary, the prologue shows an author primarily concerned with the immediate demands of their narrative, untroubled by the precise wording of their sources, and creative in their application of them. Mark is nourished by the language of scripture more than the substance of it. (NV, 111. My bolding in all quotations)
NV guides the reader through both the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Scriptures in order to explore not only how the author may have arrived at the purported Isaianic quotation but also how to identify the one being prophesied: Elijah or the Messiah? In Malachi’s following chapter (4:5) the prophet speaks of Elijah coming before the “Day of the Lord” while elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark we learn that John the Baptist is the “Elijah to come”, yet the “messenger” in the source texts is surely a more exalted figure than a prophet. Some readers will be surprised to see that NV concludes . . .
In the final analysis, the garbled citation of LXX Isa. 40:3 and LXX Exod. 23:20 (and possibly Mal. 3:1), which is misattributed to Isaiah, is, above all, a prophecy concerning the coming of the Lord. Any reference to Elijah, if intended, is secondary to this aim. (NV, 116)
Perhaps so. Yet do we not find other studies pointing out how the Gospel of Mark is rich in ambiguities and ironies? Might not we read here another instance of Markan ambiguity rather than feel obligated to choose one or another option?
This is the second post in my review of Nathanael Vette’s Writing With Scripture: Scripturalized Narrative in the Gospel of Mark. The series is being archived at Vette: Writing With Scripture. For a richer understanding of the creative literary world that gave rise to our Gospel I highly recommend reading these reviews of Vette’s work alongside an earlier series on Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity by Eva Mroczek: those posts are archived at Mroczek: Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity. While Mroczek explores the ways in which authors understood existing “scriptures” and the ways they felt justified in “rewriting” them, Nathanael Vette [NV] takes us into the close-up view of how authors of the era pieced together new stories from elements of existing ones. (Vette twice favourably cites the views of Eva Mroczek.)
Did the author of the Gospel of Mark create events in the life of Jesus by selecting and combining in new ways various passages and motifs from the Jewish Scriptures?
That Mark used the Jewish scriptures in this way depends in large part on whether this practice can be identified in other works from the period. If it can be shown across a diverse group of texts that the Jewish scriptures were regularly used to compose new narrative, then it would be appropriate to speak of scripturalized narrative as a stylistic feature of Second Temple literature. (NV, 29)
That Mark composed new stories out of scriptural elements will thus appear all the more likely if the practice can be observed elsewhere, and it is to this question the study will now turn. (NV, 31)
Here I will cover just one of the five Second Temple works that NV studies.
It makes sense to begin with having a clear idea on how to identify a “scriptural allusion or echo” in a passage, keeping in mind that the study is about more than explicitly interpreted passages and stories from (Jewish) Scripture. NV relies upon Dale Allison’s list of criteria as set out in The New Moses. Instead of repeating them here, here is the link to where I set them out, with discussion, and in comparison with other criteria for the same purpose: 3 criteria lists for literary borrowing.
NV begins with Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, or rather with three episodes from the LAB (its standard abbreviation). NV does not discuss the date of this work (Biblical Antiquities) but it is widely accepted as belonging to the Second Temple period. If you want to know why the LAB is dated to the first century see D. J. Harrington’s explanation in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Volume 2 at archive.org, p. 299; further, a more recent discussion appears in the German language thesis of Eckart Reinmuth, Pseudo-Philo und Lukas, also at archive.org, pp 17-26. (Both Harrington and Reinmuth are referenced in NV’s work although Reinmuth has unfortunately been overlooked from the author index.)
We cannot pinpoint precise details of how Scriptures were used in the narrative constructions of LAB since the surviving texts are Latin translations that do no more than leave hints of Hebrew and Greek source texts. Nonetheless, the narratives we have clearly indicate two levels of scriptural sourcing:
a narrative in the LAB can be based primarily on a story we read in, say, the Pentateuch: that is, a retelling of the career of Israel from the time of the twelve spies being sent into Canaan through Korah’s rebellion and Balaam’s prophecies and concluding with the death of Moses;
that same narrative can be supplemented by events and speeches from other, usually comparable, episodes: so sayings and incidents from Genesis, Joshua and 1 Chronicles can be introduced into the main narrative to enrich it with new detail.
Hence, we read in LAB 17:
Then was the lineage of the priests of God declared by the choosing of a tribe, and it was said unto Moses: Take throughout every tribe one rod and put them in the tabernacle, and then shall the rod of him to whomsoever my glory shall speak, flourish, and I will take away the murmuring from my people. 2. And Moses did so and set 12 rods, and the rod of Aaron came out, and put forth blossom and yielded seed of almonds. 3. And this likeness which was born there was like unto the work which Israel wrought while he was in Mesopotamia with Laban the Syrian, when he took rods of almond, and put them at the gathering of waters, and the cattle came to drink and were divided among the peeled rods, and brought forth [kids] white and speckled and parti-coloured.
That’s quite straightforward. But what is of interest to us is when this author (who was once mistaken for Philo) creates new episodes from the raw materials of Scripture.
NV itemizes several examples. One that he does not elaborate on did catch my attention because it stood out from the others as the creation not only of a new event but of a new character.
The figure of Aod the Midianite magician (LAB 34) is based on Moses’ description of the false prophet (Deut. 13:1-4) among other passages. (NV, 37)
I followed up the references and present here a table to demonstrate how this new person is moulded from Scripture.
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder,and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,”you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.
And in that time there arose a certain Aod from the sanctuaries of Midian, and this man was a magician, and he said to Israel, “Why do you pay attention to your Law? Come, I will show you something other than your Law.” And the people said, “What will you show us that our Law does not have?” And he said to the people, “Have you ever seen the sun by night?” And they said, “No.” And he said, “Whenever you wish, I will show it to you in order that you may know that our gods have power and do not deceive those who serve them.” And they said, “Show it. “And he went away and worked with his magic tricks and gave orders to the angels who were in charge of magicians, for he had been sacrificing to them for a long time. Because in that time before they were condemned, magic was revealed by angels and they would have destroyed the age without measure; and because they had transgressed, it happened that the angels did not have the power; and when they were judged, then the power was not given over to others. And they do these things by means of those men, the magicians who minister to men, until the age without measure comes. And then by the art of magic he showed to the people the sun by night. And the people were amazed and said, “Behold how much the gods of the Midianites can do, and we did not know it.” And God wished to test if Israel would remain in its wicked deeds, and he let them be, and their work was successful. And the people of Israel were deceived and began to serve the gods of the Midianites. And God said, “I will deliver them into the hands of the Midianites, because they have been deceived by them.” And he delivered them into their hands, and the Midianites began to reduce Israel to slavery.
Okay, maybe Aod doesn’t earn top marks for creative ingenuity but it is a sign of a new individual being “born”, is it not? Perhaps you will be more impressed with an angelic figure named Nathaniel when we come to the discussion of Jair below.
I wrote in the previous post that certain New Testament scholarship comes across as trying to establish the historicity of this or that detail in the Gospels by relying upon a naive reading of the text and concluding that if we cannot trace the event to some other literary influence then, by default, it is “probably historical”. (One could add to that method the default assumption that the same is true of a miracle if one can rationalize a naturalistic origin for the tale and there is no clear literary borrowing.) I won’t discuss all the problems with that sort of default reasoning (I have posted many times on historical methods, both the flawed and the flawless) but want to focus on just one passage in Paul’s writings that has been used as evidence that the authors of the Gospels often drew upon oral traditions that were repeated and mingled with scriptures in the course of their retelling. Here is what I wrote a day or so ago offering my problem with Mark Goodacre’s claim that Paul’s discussion of the eucharist is possible evidence for such pre-gospel (“scripturalized”) oral traditions:
Goodacre attempts, in part, to justify how “scripturalization” worked by reference to Paul’s message to the Corinthians about the “tradition” he received on the institution of the eucharist:
I Cor. 11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Which came first? Historical event or biblical precedent? Crossan’s answer is clear: ‘In the beginning was passion prophecy, not passion narrative’. But what if Paul gives us the best clue by placing tradition alongside the scriptures, seeing one interacting with the other, uniting event with precedent? If history and scripture were from the first in conversation with one another, perhaps the best answer to the question is to say, with a celebration of its ambiguity and an investment in its dual meaning, In the beginning was the Word. (p. 51 – my bolding)
But “tradition” is not what we see in Paul’s words. Paul speaks of what he received from the Lord, not from others. (Many attempt to find a way to argue that Paul meant that he received the “tradition” from other persons but that’s not what we read in his letter to the Corinthians.) Another item missing from Paul’s discussion is “Scripture”. So the passage does not combine tradition and Scripture and accordingly fails as a support for Goodacre’s explanation of how scripturalization worked as far as I can see.
What I want to add here is that all the other surviving evidence that we have for early Christian thought tells us that the “tradition” supposedly passed on by Paul was unknown to anyone else — at least until (if we rely solely on hard evidence and not hypothetical models of transmission) late in the second century.
The first letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians does not confirm such a tradition. But we can simply respond that this letter’s silence on the words used by Jesus tells us that there was no disagreement with what Paul wrote long before.
But another document, one dated by some as early as the first century, is the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” or Didache and we should compare what it says about the “tradition” that some assume was passed on by Paul from the other apostles:
9.1 Concerning the thanksgiving give thanks thus: 9.2 First, concerning the cup: “We give thanks to you, our Father, For the holy vine of David your servant which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever”. 9.3 And concerning the fragment: “We give thanks to you, our Father, For the life and knowledge, which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant”. But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs”. 10.1 After you have had your fill, give thanks thus: 10.2 We give thanks to you holy Father for your holy Name which you have made to dwell in our hearts and for the knowledge, faith and immortality which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever. 10.3 You Lord almighty have created everything for the sake of your Name; you have given human beings food and drink to partake with enjoyment so that they might give thanks; but to us you have given the grace of spiritual food and drink and of eternal life through Jesus your servant. 10.4 Above all we give you thanks because you are mighty. To you be glory for ever. 10.5 Remember Lord your Church, to preserve it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love. And, sanctified, gather it from the four winds into your kingdom which you have prepared for it. Because yours is the power and the glory for ever. ..
Clearly that is not what Paul passed on to the Corinthians.
Then we come to Justin Martyr of the mid second century. Surely by now we will see clear evidence of this “tradition” stamped with apostolic authority, but here is what Justin wrote:
And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn. (First Apology 66)
That’s not the “tradition” passed on by Paul. Cassells wrote quite correctly of these words of Justin:
This passage, it will be remembered, occurs in an elaborate apology for Christianity addressed to the Roman emperors, and here Justin is giving an account of the most solemn sacrament of his religion. Here, if ever, we might reasonably expect accuracy and care, and Justin, in fact, carefully indicates the source of the quotation he is going to make. . . . Justin distinctly states that the Apostles in these Memoirs have “thus” (ούτως) transmitted what was enjoined on us by Jesus, and then gives the precise quotation . . . (Cassells, p. 320)
And again in his Dialogue with Trypho we find a thought far removed from anything in Paul’s address to the Corinthians:
“Ye shall see the King with glory, and your eyes shall look far off. Your soul shall pursue diligently the fear of the Lord. Where is the scribe? where are the counsellors? where is he that numbers those who are nourished,–the small and great people? with whom they did not take counsel, nor knew the depth of the voices, so that they heard not. The people who are become depreciated, and there is no understanding in him who hears.’ Now it is evident, that in this prophecy [allusion is made] to the bread which our Christ gave us to eat, in remembrance of His being made flesh for the sake of His believers, for whom also He suffered; and to the cup which He gave us to drink, in remembrance of His own blood, with giving of thanks. And this prophecy proves that we shall behold this very King with glory. (ch 70)
If Justin is truly reporting the tradition passed on by the apostles, then we have a problem if we think Paul meant to say that he passed on the tradition from the apostles. When Paul writes that he received his knowledge “from the Lord”, then perhaps he did not mean “from the apostles” after all. Perhaps he was introducing something new that was not part of the “tradition” circulating, supposedly, among the other apostles.
But from here we can branch out into many questions about the integrity of Paul’s writings as we have them, their date, their influence, when and on whom, and so forth. The point I wish to underscore is that the 1 Cor 11:23-26 is problematic if we try to use it as evidence for pre-gospel authoritative apostolic oral tradition.
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”
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 18.104.22.168). 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
In Thyatira the woman Jezebel, a “so-called prophetess”, teaches the same message that was identified as the “doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans” in the church at Pergamon: sexual immorality and the worship of idols. If we accept Thomas Witulski’s [W.] analysis (see The Doctrine of Balaam and the Nicolaitans) it follows that the same pressures arising from unprecedented innovations in emperor worship in the Roman province of Asia lie behind the “false teachings” in Thyatira.
Revelation 2:20 . . . . thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, who calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce My servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
21 And I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not.
22 Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds.
23 And I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He that searcheth the reins and hearts; and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.
24 But unto you I say, and unto the rest in Thyatira, as many as have not this doctrine and who have not known the depths of Satan (as they say) I will put upon you no other burden.
Jezebel was infamous for introducing the worship of pagan deities, in particular Baal, to Israel: 1 Kings 16:31-34; 21:25-26; 2 Kings 9:22; Josephus Ant. VIII 316-318. As we saw in the post on the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans, fornication is a metaphor for being enticed into participation in the cult meals and festivities of deities other than the “true God”.
The “depths of Satan” surely here means the teaching that it is permissible to participate in idolatrous feasts and to eat things sacrificed to idols. Through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we can understand the likely reasoning. Idols are nothing and since there is only one God there can be no harm in participating in feasts prepared for “make-believe” gods. The “as they say” phrase may be an ironic dig at their claim to have grasped “the depths of God” (cf. 1 Cor 2:10) or, as others have suggested, it may be the label given by the faithful members to their wayward brethren.
I have not yet covered the details of the evidence that the inhabitants of the Roman province of Asia were required to set up altars dedicated to Hadrian in their houses (usually near the entrances) and would like to do so soon. Meanwhile, W. argues that this requirement explains the situations that are implied in the respective letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3.
Since W. has identified Satan with Zeus (see the Throne of Satan post) it follows that Zeus probably held a significant place in the teaching of “Jezebel”. Recall that the emperor Hadrian was even assimilatedinto Zeus in this new level of emperor-worship in the Greek world. The remains of two of these household shrines have been recovered from the ruins of ancient Thyatira: see TAM V 908 and 909: they translate as “Emperor Hadrian, Divine Olympios [= the title of Zeus], saviour and founder”.
To get some idea of how these household shrines came into play:
The involvement of the whole community was also expressed by the regulation that householders should sacrifice on altars outside their houses as the procession passed. This practice, which was followed in the Hellenistic period for cults both of gods and of rulers, may also be detected in the imperial cult. Long series of small imperial altars have been found at Athens, Sparta, Miletus, Mytilene and Pergamum. In any given city the series of altars is relatively uniform in its dedication, but diverse in its actual details of design and execution, and this is only explicable on the assumption that the city passed a decree instructing all citizens to provide their own altars. (Price, p. 112)
Now that Pergamon and Thyatira have been reviewed, I’ll briefly touch on the other five churches:
Ephesus (2:1-7): they were once confronted by the “false” apostles and rejected their teachings so that they can be said to hate the idea of yielding to pressure to participate in the worship of Zeus/Hadrian.
Smyrna (2:8-11): they experience slander of those who claim falsely to be Jews. Smyrna was the city of Hadrian’s close friend and advisor, Polemon, who appears to have been responsible for winning the unusual honour of Smyrna hosting a second cult centre for the worship of the emperor. Without going into details in this post, I can say for now that the evidence indicates that the pressure to be awarded this second imperial cult establishment (it required new constructions and priests and related services) came from the community itself, not from the emperor. There is also an inscription boasting of a special gift by the Jewish community of 1000 denarii for a palm grove to go with the new temple. If Jews were part of the community’s enthusiasm to establish this second cult centre for Hadrian one can begin to imagine how they might have responded to those in their ranks who did not approve. Were the “faithful” in Smyrna being slandered, denounced, as disloyal to the emperor?
Sardis (3:1-6): only a few members in this church had not “stained their garments”. Sardis became a member of the Panhellenion — the primary function of the Panhellenion being emperor-worship — in 132 CE. The image of “staining” is another metaphor for idolatry:
Whereas the majority of the people in the church at Sardis had compromised by not bearing witness to their faith, there were still a few who had been faithful in the task. The fact that they had “not stained their garments,” as had the rest, reveals that the manner in which most of the Sardian Christians were suppressing their witness was by assuming a low profile in idolatrous contexts of the pagan culture in which they had daily interaction. That a context of idolatry is in mind is apparent from the use of μολύνω (“stain”), which is used elsewhere of the threat of being “stained” with the pollution of idolatry: cf. 14:4 with 14:6–9, where “those not stained with women” is a metaphor of abstinence from sexual immorality, which most likely refers to believers’ separation from idolatrous involvement (Ethiopic and Bohairic have “did not defile their garments with a woman” in 3:4, which explicitly identifies this verse with 14:4). “Fornicate” (πορνεύω) is used in similar metaphorical manner in 2:14, 20–21 (cf. likewise 1 Cor. 8:7 and μολυσμός [“defilement”] in 2 Cor. 7:1 [cf. 6:1418]; Isa. 65:4 LXX uses μολύνω of defilement from idols). (Beale, 276)
Philadelphia (3:7-13): As with Smyrna, they were faced with “false Jews”.
Laodicea (3:14-21): The author finds nothing to praise in Laodicea. They apparently had become indistinguishable from the world around them as a result of thinking they were rich in being able both to worship God and to safely participate in idolatrous festivals or ceremonies.
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Carlisle, Cumbria: Eerdmans, 1998.
Price, S. R. F. Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Revised ed. Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007.
In the preceding post I copied extracts from Demetrios Kritsotakis’s thesis Hadrian and the Greek East that illustrated the unprecedented level to which the Roman emperor Hadrian was exalted as a divinity — all in the context of Thomas Witulski’s thesis that the Book of Revelation is best dated to the time of Hadrian (117-138 CE). Here I continue quoting Kritsotakis (and works he cites) insofar as they arguably support the interpretation that Hadrian best represents the principal “beast” figure in Revelation.
Who can make war with the beast?
Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? (Rev 13:4)
Hadrian followed a non-expansion policy and his reign was marked by a general lack of major military conflicts, apart from the Second Roman-Jewish War.
The peace policy was further strengthened by the erection of permanent fortifications along the empire’s borders, such as the British Wall and the fortifications along the Rhine frontier. (pp 1f)
Hadrian abandoned his predecessor Trajan’s newly conquered territories of Mesopotamia, Armenia and Assyria, an unpopular decision with many Roman senators, but he “made up” for those withdrawals by establishing secure and clearly visible boundaries and introducing an era of “peace and prosperity”:
However, Hadrian insisted on holding the Empire within its limits, on the one hand by ceasing further expansion, on the other by marking the limits of the Empire. Beginning in 121, a continuous palisade was to mark the empire’s limits on the Rhine frontier. Besides its military value, to the barbarians it marked off the Empire more clearly than ever before. In Britain he began, in 122, the great Wall and in North Africa he organized the southern frontier of the Empire. (p. 32)
After he was declared emperor in 117 . . . the strengthening of the empire’s frontiers became a priority for Hadrian. Accordingly, during his first trip from 121 to 125 Hadrian paid special attention to the borders of the empire. It was in this period that he inaugurated the construction of the British wall (122) as well as of a palisade on the Rhine frontier (121), and there is evidence that he attempted to construct a similar border in Northern Africa153. To further secure the borders of the empire, Hadrian improved military discipline by example. According to Dio, the emperor so trained and disciplined the army both by his example and his precepts that even in Dio’s own days “the methods then introduced by him (Hadrian) are the soldier’s law of campaigning.”
153 . . . A passage in [Historia Augusta] may allude to it. The author claims that “in many regions where the barbarians are [held] back not by rivers but by artificial barriers, Hadrian shut them off by means of high stakes planted deep in the ground and fastened together in the manner of a palisade” (pp. 68f.)
Another allusion to Hadrian’s domination of the world, this time emphasizing his military skills, is found on a silver denarius from Rome. The obverse depicts a laureate bust of Hadrian while another image of the emperor is seen on the reverse. Here the emperor is presented bare-headed, in military dress, holding a rudder on a globe in his right hand and a spear reversed in his left. The image of the emperor who seems to rest rather than being in preparation for a battle, and the symbol of leadership, the rudder, resting on the globe, speak of his rule over the world, achieved by military skill. (140)