This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the tenth of twenty-six short reflections.
What year is this?
When did John the Divine think he was writing about? The future, for the most part, yes, but whose future? His, only, the era around 90 to 100 CE, or ours, too, some 1900 years later?
The answer is that the visions refer not to his distant future, a future that we share with him, but rather to a future that was particular to his time and circumstances. In other words, in his visions he was seeing the end of the Roman Empire by the direct intervention of God. This is the consensus view of most mainstream scholars.
Why do they say that? The clues are all over the place. John references would have been very obvious to those who first read and heard Revelation. Revelation 13 describes a beast from the sea:
13 1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”
The beast is the Roman Empire. The explanation is given in chapter 17.
9 “This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, 10 of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while. 11 As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction. 12 And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast. 13 These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast
The seven heads correspond to the seven hills on which Rome was built, but also they represent the seven emperors:
- 1) Julius Caesar,
- 2) Caesar Augustus,
- 3) Caesar Tiberius Augustus,
- 4) Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (better known as Caligula),
- 5) Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus,
- 6) Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, and
- 7) Servius Galba Caesar Augustus.
The head that appeared to have received a death blow is Nero – after his suicide in 68 CE it was believed that he was in hiding in Parthia – and within twenty years of Nero’s death there were at least three imposters claiming to be Nero. As late as the time of Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century this belief was still held by some. The worship that is being offered to the beast is the worship offered to the Emperor; while initially downplayed in the Latin speaking western part of the Empire by the first emperors, by the time of Caligula and Claudius it was being encouraged in the Greek speaking eastern. Indeed, Caligula sought to set up his own image in the Temple precincts of Jerusalem. And, of course, the Empire was seemingly invincible – it had conquered all the civilized world, it seemed. Rather than explain it by their superior military tactics or ruthless administration, John sees their great power coming from the power given to it by the dragon mentioned in chapter 12.
I am not sure who the kings are that the ten horns represent. Perhaps they are a restatement of the number of emperors. Number Seven, Galba, did not last long – a little over eight months. Whereas all the previous emperors belonged to the Julio-Claudian family, Galba was a general of a noble family, and someone who took advantage of a rebellion in Gaul to take over the leadership of the Empire in June 68. The Praetorian guard overthrew him in favour of a more popular general, Otho in mid-January. The troops of Vitellius, a general on the important frontier of the Rhine, declared him Emperor, and Vitellius marched into Italy and defeated Otho, becoming Emperor in March. Meanwhile, in the eastern part of the Empire, a Roman general named Vespasian was putting down the Jewish Revolt in Jerusalem and Judea. His troops proclaimed him emperor, and with his allies he began to make his way towards Rome. Virellius, after losing a battle with one of the armies supporting Vespasian, tried to abdicate, but his own troops would not let him. Ultimately Vespasian’s armies gained control of Rome, Vitellius was found, and executed. 69 CE, as it was later known, was known as The Year of the Four Emperors.
This takes us up to ten emperors, which may be what the ten horns suggest:
- 8) Otho
- 9) Vitellius
- 10) Vespasian
Alternatively, perhaps John just saw a succession of emperors, some contending for power at the same time, generals whose troops proclaimed them emperor in a bid for power and wealth. This was an unsettled time, and not just for the Emperors and the people of Rome. While Vespasian went to Rome, his son Titus continued the reduction of the rebels in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, which by that time amounted to a siege at Jerusalem. When the walls were breached, the inhabitants were slaughtered, and the Temple was destroyed. As a Jew (or a Christian) this would have been a traumatic event, like having 9/11 take place at the Vatican. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, would have died. Was this the suffering that was to come before the Day of the Lord?
So perhaps John had his vision in 68 or 69 CE, around the Year of the Four Emperors and the conclusion of the Jewish Revolt, with the death of Nero and the chaos that followed. However, he may have taken some years to write the text, just as Julian of Norwich took some years to write down her Revelations of Divine Love. This may have given him time to develop and elaborate it. I will take up what may have been his elaboration tomorrow.