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 eleventh of twenty-six short reflections.
Yesterday I talked about the beast with ten horns and seven heads, the beast from the sea. There is another beast, but this one emerges from the earth. In chapter 13 we read:
11 Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
So what is going on here? Who or what is this beast from the earth?
The first thing to note is that it has horns like a lamb, although it talks like a dragon. The second beast is essentially a parody of Jesus as the lamb of God; it claims to be divine, but is not. This is similar and the reverse of what the gospels do, which is to use terms related to the imperial cult of emperor worship for Jesus, phrases such as such as ευαγγέλιον “good news”, παρουσία “coming” or “advent”, Υιός Θεού “Son of God”, βασιλεύς “king”, and so forth. When Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a humble donkey he is mocking the Romans who proudly enter on their horses. So the lamb, this second beast who comes from the earth, is the opposite of Christ – an anti-Christ, if you will.
And what about the number of the beast? This seems to refer to the first beast “who had been wounded by the sword and yet lived”. This may be a reference to the persistent idea that Nero died, but did not die, and would return to claim the Empire. There is a practice in Judaism called gemmatria, which involves assigning number values to letters in a word, phrase, or name, and then adding up the individual numbers to make a sum that is supposedly connected to whatever was originally spelled; this continues to be important in the Jewish wisdom known as Kabbalah. The good folks at Wikipedia have put together a helpful graph that suggests that the number of the beast, 666, represents Nero Caesar (see below).
The number of the beast shows up in some very ancient manuscripts as 616, so any gemmatria would have to account for that. The name Neron Caesar is transliterated into Hebrew. Hebrew does not always bother with vowels, and Neron might also just end Nero. Thus we get the Hebrew equivalent of Nron Qsr or Nro Qsr.
This suggests that John had his vision in the time of Nero, who appeared to kill himself by the sword. I suspect that the visions did not get written immediately, though. Thus the second beast comes, who treats its predecessors as deified beings worthy of worship. I suspect that the second beast represents the Flavian dynasty, and in particular, Vespasian and his son Titus who came after, who might be represented by the two horns. Titus only ruled two years and was succeeded by his younger brother Domitian, under whom Christians were persecuted, the first time since Nero did the same back in 66. So perhaps the horns, if they represent anything, are the two generations of the Flavians.
The mark of the beast may not be a mark, as such, but simply be the use of coins with Nero’s image on it (or that of any other emperor). If you do not “have the mark” – if you do not use coins – then buying and selling things would be difficult indeed.
This is all a bit confusing. Perhaps it was not all perfectly coherent in the mind of John the Divine. But it seems to me blindingly obvious that the Beast is the Roman Empire that he knew, and which had killed Jesus, and had exiled him to Patmos. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the third piece in this puzzle, and arguably the most transparent.