Who was Ahikar?

Also spelled Ahiqar, Ahikar is Tobit’s nephew (Tobit 1:21-22) and an example of a faithful Jew living in the Assyrian empire.

Tobit 1:21-22 (NRSV) But not forty days passed before two of Sennacherib’s sons killed him, and they fled to the mountains of Ararat, and his son Esar-haddon reigned after him. He appointed Ahikar, the son of my brother Hanael over all the accounts of his kingdom, and he had authority over the entire administration. 22 Ahikar interceded for me, and I returned to Nineveh. Now Ahikar was chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administration of the accounts under King Sennacherib of Assyria; so Esar-haddon reappointed him. He was my nephew and so a close relative.

Ahiqar is “one of the best-known and most widely disseminated tales in the ancient modern world” (Lindenberger, OTP 2:480). The text is quite old, probably dating from the fifth or sixth century B.C. Fragments appear in the Elephantine documents. The book likely had an influence on several Apocryphal books, such as Tobit 1:41 and was popular well into the Christian Era. The book was “still being copied in Arabic as late as the eighteenth century and in Syriac as late as the end of the nineteenth “(Lindenberger, 492).

By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92797982

Elephantine Papyrus of Ahiqar Photo Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)

While the book is wisdom literature, it may not be Hebrew wisdom literature, at least in its most basic form. The genre of Ahiqar is a “court tale,” so often a parallel is made to Daniel (Goldingay, Daniel, 6) and there are parallels to Esther (Ahiqar saved a man’s life then later that man has power over him) The value of the book for New Testament studies is primarily in the “sayings” section. There are many sayings which have parallels to Old Testament wisdom and therefore may be present in the New Testament as well. Likely as not the New Testament stands on the foundation of the Old rather than on a book like Ahiqar. The book does serve to show the sort of proverbial wisdom which was current in the centuries before Christ and an interesting study could be done tracing the trajectory from Old Testament wisdom to Ahiqar then to Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, then into Christian wisdom like material.

The plot of the book concerns the retirement of Ahiqar after the death of Sennacherib. Ahiqar requests that his adopted son Nadin take his role as advisor and scribe for the new king, Esarhaddon. Nadin spreads a rumor that Ahiqar has devised a “wicked plot” against Esarhaddon, so the king orders him killed. The guard sent to capture and execute Ahiqar was once involved in a court intrigue himself and Ahiqar spared his life. This guard proposes to kill a eunuch slave and tell people it was Ahiqar in order to spare his life. They do this, and Ahiqar hides himself while everyone thinks he is dead.

The story breaks off at that point, but Lindenberger summarizes the rest of the story as reconstructed from later versions: The king of Egypt contacts Esarhaddon and asks for the wisest man in Assyria to come and supervise the building of a temple between heaven and earth. No one can meet the challenge of the king’s riddles and Esarhaddon rues killing Ahiqar. The guard realizes the time is right, so he brings Ahiqar out of hiding and the king rejoices. After the king apologizes, Ahiqar asks to punish Nadin (which involves being chained up and beaten while Ahiqar lectures him.)

The Sayings of Ahiqar amount to several pages of proverbial wisdom. Many are nearly identical to Proverbs (line 82, for example, “spare the rod and spoil the child” cf. Prov. 23:13). Some are obscure and difficult to understand the point (line 117, there is no lion in the sea, therefore the sea-snake is called labbu, Akkadian for lion). Other proverbs invoke the name of various gods (Shamash the Sun-God, Baal Shamayn, “The Merciful” in line 107).

Several sayings can be describe as supporting the word of the king, as expected from someone who served the empire for many years. For example, “Quench not the word of a king; let it be a balm [for] your [hea]rt. A king’s word is gentle, but keener and more cutting than a double-edged dagger.”(100-101). “The k[ing]’s tongue is gentle, but it breaks a dragon’s ribs. It is like death, which is invisible” (105-106).

There are a few lines reminiscent of New Testament verses. Line 100, for example, describes the king’s word as sharper than a double-edged sword, compared to Hebrews 4:12, “the word of the Lord is sharper than a double-edged sword.” The parallel is superficial but may indicate the figure of speech was part of common in the first century. Other parallels are thematic, such as line 137 which condemns amassing great wealth, a common theme in the Old and New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10, for example). Line 171, “If a wicked man grasps the fringe of your garment, leave it in his hand” is similar to Matthew 5:40, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

Although Ahiqar has not left his mark on the literature of the Second Temple period quite like Daniel or Tobit, he is another example of a faithful Jewish exile who finds success serving a pagan king, is persecuted unfairly, yet God protects and prospers him.

Why are stories like Daniel, Esther, or Nehemiah so popular during this period? What do they have to say to the Hellenistic Jew living far from Jerusalem?

 

Bibliography: J. M. Lindenberger, “Ahiqar: A New Translation and Introduction,” ITP 2:479-507; James C. Vanderkam, “Ahikar/Ahiqar (Person),” ABD 1:113; Vanderkam, “Ahiqar, Book of,” ABD 1:119.

What is the Letter of Aristeas?

The book uses an epistle format to present Jewish faith as a rational religion worthy of the respect of the Hellenistic world. In addition, the Letter describes the apocryphal origin of the Septuagint. While there are a number of historical references in the book, these may very well be literary devices used to tell the story of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

The Letter of Aristeas

Majority opinion dates the book to 150-100 B.C., although it may be dated as late as the first century. Since the book demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Judaism it is undoubtedly the work of a Jewish writer, likely from Alexandria. The book is extremely valuable for the study of the New Testament since it has a great deal of information about Judaism in the century before Christ. Of primary importance is the detailed description of the temple service and the city of Jerusalem. The letter contains a description of temple service as it was performed a little more than a century before the Jesus. While the book is usually thought of as the “origin of the Septuagint,” it is far more important for what it says about first century B.C. Judaism both in theory (the banquet questions and answers) and in practice (temple worship).

The first eight lines introduce the work. Like Luke and Acts, Aristeas addresses his work to Philocrates, who is praised in the prologue for his scholarly mind and understanding. The purpose of the book is to relate the meeting Aristeas had with Eleazar and the circumstances through which Aristeas led a group of Jewish scholars to Alexandria for the purpose of translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

Lines 9-51 relate the decision of the king of Egypt to collect books from all over the world into a single library. The Jewish books, however, cannot be used since they are written in Hebrew. They need to be translated before they are suitable for the great library. The king frees the Jews living in Egypt from slavery and honors them greatly. A letter is written from the king to Eleazar the high priest in Jerusalem explaining to him the plan to translate the Hebrew Bible for the library. Eleazar responds positively to this invitation and Aristeas leads the delegation to Jerusalem to bring the translators to Egypt. Six men are selected from each of the twelve tribes, a total of seventy-two men in all.

Lines 52-82 is a detailed description of the furnishings the Temple in Jerusalem. The items described are fantastic and beautifully adorned with gold and jewels. Lines 83-120 describe Jerusalem and the area of the Temple in detail, including a wonderful description of the vestments of the priests and the process by which they lead in the sacrifices. “Everything is carried out with reverence and in a way worthy of the Great God” (95). All of the details given have an “eyewitness” quality about them, although we must take into account the probability of exaggeration and boasting on the part of our faithful Jewish author. The impression we have is of great wealth and artistic skill in the design of the Temple and the surrounding city.

Aristeas returns to the intended theme of the letter in line 120b, with a slight apology to Philocrates for the detailed diversion. Eleazar selected men for the translation committee who were of the most noble character and well educated in the study of the Law (120b-127). Aristeas questioned Eleazar with regard to these men and he receives a lengthy discussion of the rationality of the Jewish religion (lines 128-171). The bulk of this section concerns the food laws, which the author seems to think need a special explanation. Some animals are forbidden for good reason: mice pollute everything they touch. Weasels are unclean because they were though to give birth out of their mouths. Eleazar convinces Aristeas in each case of the truth of the Jewish religion, and he tells Philocrates he desired to impart to him the “solemnity and characteristic outlook of the Law.”

Eleazar makes appropriate sacrifices and sends seventy-two representatives with Aristeas to Alexandria (172-186). They arrive with gifts for the king and are settled into quarters and well provided for by the king. A huge banquet is prepared, and the men as seated in the order of their age (cf. Gen. 43:33, Joseph seats his brothers in order as well.) There is a long section (187-300) in which the king asks each man in turn some question (usually ethical, philosophical or political) and the man pauses for a moment then gives a brief yet wise answer. The king is impressed by each and increasingly demonstrates his approval of the answers.

Each night of the seven-day banquet the king asks ten men a question. Each of these questions and responses gives an insight into the thinking of Judaism just before the turn of the centuries. It would be interesting project to take each question and answer and search for parallels in the debates between Hillel and Shammai in order to determine how current these questions may have been in the first century. It would also be possible to take each answer and find parallel in the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Jesus and Paul. For example, there seems to be a running theme of self-control and self-sufficiency throughout the responses which find a parallel in the letters of Paul (Gal. 5:23, Phil 4:10-13, for example.)

After the king is satisfied with the worthiness of the translators, they are taken to an island where they would set about the work of translating (lines 301-321). This is the most famous part of the letter as it relates the legendary origins of the Septuagint and the abbreviation LXX for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Each of the translators sets about their work for seventy-two days. After the work is finished, the books are read and accepted by the Jews with applause and no one suggested any changes be made to the translations. The translation was read to the king and he marveled at the wisdom of the Lawgiver. The translators are rewarded and told that if they ever wanted to return to Egypt the king would receive them gladly.

Like the rest of the Letter of Aristeas, this idealized apocryphal story of the origin on the Greek Old Testament is an attempt to show the Hellenistic world the Jewish faith is worthy of respect. But is that really the purpose? Who would read and be convinced of the excellence of the Jewish faith about 100 B.C.? I think it is highly unlikely a Greek living in Alexandria, Egypt would read the Letter of Aristeas and be convinced Judaism was a worthy religion and contemplate converting.

I think this Letter is apologetics for insiders. Aristeas does not write to convert Greeks to Judaism, but rather to convince young Hellenistic Jews that their faith is worthy of respect and to encourage them to remain in the faith. The Jewish people do not need to be embarrassed about their Scripture or their Laws because they are rational, and they can be proud of their worship in the Jerusalem Temple. By way of analogy, most Christian apologetics is not read by atheists who are considering converting to Christianity; Christians read this literature in order to bolster their faith and remain Christians.

Is this a fair reading of Aristeas? Perhaps I am wrong and this is missionary literature rather than insider apologetics.

The Rider on the White Horse – Revelation 19:11-16

The Return of the KingVirtually everyone agrees this passage describes the triumphal return of Christ. But as David Aune notes, the imagery used is not derived from other early Christian traditions concerning the return of the Lord (Revelation, 3:1046). The description of the return of Jesus as conquering king are drawn from a wide variety of texts in the Old Testament and Second Temple literature. In fact, the rider on a white horse is the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom.

The rider is described in somewhat familiar terms to those who read apocalyptic literature. His eyes are like a fiery flame (v 12).  Eyes like flaming torches are associated with heavenly beings, as in Dan 10:6 (Theodotian LXX). He has many crowns (diadems) on his head (12). In the Greco-Roman world, multiple crowns is an indication of sovereignty over territories.

Just as the dragon had seven crowns and the kings to come had crowns, so the rider has many crowns, perhaps so many they are not counted. He wears a robe dipped in blood (13). Normally blood is associated with the atonement, but this is not the case here.  The blood is that of the enemies of God, and is likely an allusion to Is 63:1-3.

A sharp sword comes out of his mouth (15a). This is a reference to the power of his word (Rev 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21), but the image appears elsewhere in Jewish apocalyptic.

4QIsaiah Peshera 8-10 iii 15-19 (tr. García Martínez, Dead Sea Scrolls, 186): [He will destroy the land with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he will execute the evil] ? [The interpretation of the word concerns the shoot] of David which will sprout [in the final days, since with the breath of his lips he will execute] his enemies.

The rider has several names. First, he is named Faithful and True. These titles are used for Jesus in Revelation 1:5 and 3:14. Second, he has another name inscribed which he alone knows (12b). Divine beings sometimes had a secret name or were unwilling to give their true names. In Gen 32:29, for example, God does not give his name when asked. Third, his name is “the Word of God” (13b), reminiscent of John 1:1 where Jesus is called the Word. Finally, on his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed: King of kings and Lord of lords (16).

Mantiklos Apollo with inscription on its thigh

Mantiklos Apollo with inscription on its thigh

James Edwards has recently published several examples of writing on the thigh of statues. The article includes photographs of statues of Apollo found in Miletus (fifth century BCE) and Claros (sixth century BCE) with writing on Apollo’s thigh indicating who offered a sacrifice to Apollo. These two statues date centuries before Revelation was written, but there are literary references to inscribed statues in Cicero and Pausanias indicate the practice of inscribing a name to honor the donor was well-known. Since all but one of his examples are dedicated to Apollo, Edwards argues this is an allusion to the Apollo cult, something he argues appears in Revelation 12 (Edwards, 529-535). For Edwards, the name on the thigh is therefore a “divine rejoinder to the inscription on the forehead of the great harlot” (535).

In Jesus the Bridegroom, I suggested Isaiah 49:14-26 adapted elements of Lamentations and Jeremiah 2 into a complaint song. In Isa 49:14 Lady Zion complains that her husband has forsaken her. The Lord protests, however, stating that he has in no way forgotten his bride. The Lord cannot forget his bride Zion because her name is “inscribed on his palms.”

While the vocabulary is different, “inscribing on the arm” is an indication of love in Song 8:6. Fox sees a parallel between Song 8:6 and the Cairo Love Songs (COS 1.150) in which a young man expresses his desire to always be near his beloved: “If only I were her little seal–ring, the keeper of her finger! I would see her love each and every day.”  As Marvin Pope suggests, anatomical descriptions in poetry are quite flexible. An “arm wearing a ring” in Song 8:6 should likely be understood as a hand.

But there is considerable difference between a mark or symbol on one’s hand and a name inscribed on one’s thigh. However, in the context of the final chapters of Revelation, the rider on the white horse is coming to the wedding banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19:6-8). In Isaiah 49:18, the Lord swears an oath that Zion will adorn herself as a bride once again as her children return to Jerusalem. These verses are likely an allusion to Jeremiah 2:32, “can a girl forget her ornaments?”

I suggest, therefore, that the name on the thigh is part of the marriage imagery present in Revelation 19-22 and draws on the rich imagery of Israel’s marriage relationship with God in the Hebrew Bible. As in Isaiah 49, God has not forsaken his bride Israel and is now returning to rescue her from her oppressors.

The rider has come in order to judge in righteousness (11b).  That the messiah will be God’s righteous judge is a theme of several texts in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 98, 72:2, 96:13, Isa 11:4). He will wage war in righteousness (11b) and smites the nations with the sharp sword (15a).  He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (15b). That the Messiah will be something of a true shepherd is common in the Hebrew Bible (Ps 2:9) as well as Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25.

Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25 See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.  Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; To shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth; At his warning the nations will flee from his presence; and he will condemn sinners by the thoughts of their hearts.

John describes this judgment as treading “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” This is yet another familiar metaphor for the anger of God in Revelation and the est of the prophets. John has already used this metaphor in Rev 14:19.

The Rider on the White horse therefore represents the culmination Jewish expectations for a restoration of the kingdom. God intervenes in history by means of a mighty warrior who renders justice. He will punish the enemies of Israel, destroying them utterly. But he will also vindicate those who have suffered on behalf of their testimony for Jesus: they are raised to new life in Rev 20.

 

Bibliography: James R. Edwards, “The Rider on the White Horse, the Thigh Inscription, and Apollo: Revelation 19:16,” JBL 137.2 (2018): 519-536.Long, Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels (Pickwick, 2013).

 

 

 

 

Three Woes against Babylon – Revelation 18:9-20

Revelation 18:9-20 contains a series of three “woes” against the great city, Babylon. As with the Great Prostitute in Revelation 17, this city is the Roman Empire. Chapter 18 focuses on the economic allure of the Empire.

Roman trade Vessel

What is a woe? The word translated woe (“alas” in the ESV) is οὐαί, a transliteration of the Hebrew הוֹי, אוֹי. The word is an “interjection denoting pain or displeasure…hardship or distress” (BDAG) and it is used on the Old Testament frequently to introduce impending judgment (Zeph 3:1; Nahum 3:1). The repeated phrase “woe, woe, the great city” may evoke Revelation 11:8; the two witnesses lie dead in “the street of the great city.” In that context, the “great city” is Jerusalem (where their Lord was crucified), which is also called Sodom and Egypt. But the great city in chapter 18 is Babylon, a cipher for Rome and the Roman empire.

Revelation 18:9-20 can be divided by the phrase “Woe, woe” and a statement about Babylon, or by the three sets of mourners (kings vv. 9-10; merchants, vv. 11-17a; and seafarers, vv 17b-19; Fanning, Revelation, 456). The difference between a merchant and a sea merchant is less clear in Greek than in English. The word translated merchant (ἔμπορος) is often used for “one who travels by ship for business reasons” (BDAG) and is sometimes used for a passenger on a ship (BrillDAG). Think of this term as a wholesaler who imports goods from distant lands (by sea).

In the first woe, the kings of the earth weep and moan when the see the prostitute (Babylon/Rome) in flames (18:9-14). This whole section uses common language associated with a funeral. Weeping (v. 9, 15, 19, using synonyms κλαίω and πενθέω) is commonly associated with death. To moan (κόπτω) refers to beating one’s chest in response to a tragic event, such as a death (Gen 23:2, Abraham mourns when Sarah died). In verse 19 the sea merchants throw dust on their heads, another common sign of mourning.

Is it possible Revelation 18 describes the great prostitute as “burned alive”? Babylon is descried several times as tortured and the reaction of the kings and merchants is terror at her torture (18:15). The great prostitute of Babylon is now described as a corpse, consumed by a funeral pyre, and her partners in adultery stand at a distance, horrified by her shocking death.

Fiery judgment is standard prophetic language in the OT, for example, Jeremiah 34:21 anticipates the burning of Jerusalem; Isaiah 34:10 describes a fire that will never be quenched. Other apocalyptic literature anticipates the fiery end of the city of Rome (Sib. Or. 2.15-19; 3.52-54; 5.158-161).

Sib. Or. 2.15–19 Then indeed the tenth generation of men will also appear after these things, when the earth-shaking lightning-giver will break the glory of idols and shake the people of seven-hilled Rome. Great wealth will perish, burned in a great fire by the flame of Hephaestus.

Sib. Or. 3.52–54 Three will destroy Rome with piteous fate. All men will perish in their own dwellings when the fiery cataract flows from heaven.

Sib. Or. 5.158–161 …a great star will come from heaven to the wondrous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a true people perished.

It is possible the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is in the background here, although it may be the case Genesis 18 is the prototype for all fiery judgments in the Old Testament and literature of the Second Temple period. In Genesis18:28 Abraham observes the dense smoke of the fiery destruction of the two cities “like smoke from a furnace.” Although there is no reference in Genesis to Abraham mourning over the destruction of the cities, he did intercede on their behalf earlier in the story.

All three categories, kings, merchants and sea farers “stand far off” (v. 10, 15, 17). The kings and merchants are “in fear of her torment (βασανισμός).” This specific word was used in Revelation 9:5b (the locust tormented people for five months) and several times in Revelation 18.

The merchants of the earth mourn because of the loss of income (18:10-13). The merchants have become wealthy from their economic relationship with Babylon/Rome. For John, this is sharing in the wages of the prostitute. In verse 15 the merchants are terrified by the prostitute’s torture, here their mourning is motivated by their loss of income. When Babylon/Rome falls, there is no one left to buy their cargo.

This list of trade goods is limited to luxury items, some of which come from as far away as Arabia (frankincense), Egypt (fine flour). East Africa (cinnamon) and India (ivory; spices). This cargo list may allude to Ezekiel 27:12-25. This is a taunt-song against the king of Tyre. That chapter describes the far-flung trade of Tyre and the dreadful end of their trading empire. Like Babylon in Isaiah 14, the prince of Tyre is described in Ezekiel 28 as utterly arrogant, thinking of himself as god because of his widespread trade.

Based on the letters to the seven churches, it appears that some early Christians in Asia Minor adapted themselves to the imperial cult or to participation in banquets at local temples. Revelation compares any compromise with the imperial cult with being intoxicated and committing adultery with the mother of all prostitutes. Some early Christian readers of Revelation separated the economic prosperity they enjoyed as a result of Rome’s widespread trade from participation in the imperial cult. But here in Revelation 17-18, everyone who thrived from Rome’s economic power will weep and mourn in the empire is finally judged.

Come Out of Babylon! Revelation 18:4-8

Yet another voice from heaven calls God’s people out of Babylon. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah called on Israel to flee Babylon; John is using language from both prophets to call for another exodus out of Babylon.

In a clear allusion to the original Exodus, Isaiah 52:11 tells the people to depart from Babylon. They are not to go out in haste because God himself will lead them and also be their “rear guard.” Since Revelation has frequently alluded to the ten plagues to describe the ongoing judgment of the kingdom of the beast, it should be no surprise John picks up on the language of the Exodus to call his people to flee Babylon. Revelation 18:4 and Isaiah 52:12 both use the aorist imperative ἐξέλθατε, “come out.”

Bob Marley ExodusJeremiah 50:8-10 calls on Israel to flee Babylon because God is stirring up the nations to plunder her. Rather than the Exodus, Jeremiah is looking forward to the fall of Babylon when nations from the north (Persia and the Medes) plunder the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah 51:6-10 is clearly in the background of Revelation 18:4-8. Jeremiah describes Babylon as a fallen and broken woman. Like Revelation 18:5, her judgment has “reached up to heaven” (51:9).

If Babylon refers to Rome in Revelation 17-18, some scholars suggest Revelation 18 is a call for Christians to leave the literal city of Rome (perhaps in anticipation of persecution). However, just as the call to “come out of Babylon” in Isaiah and Jeremiah referred to leaving the Babylonian empire in general, John’s intention is for God’s people to leave the Roman Empire. This cannot mean leave Rome and go to another place, since there is no other place to go! As David Aune says, this is a “the summons to flee from the city is used symbolically, with the city referring to the demonic social and political power structure that constituted the Roman empire” (Revelation, 3:991).

The reason they are to “come out” is so that they do not share in her sins, her since are “piled up to heaven” and God remembers her crimes. After the exile, Ezra confessed guilt “as high as the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). If they share in her sins, they will also share in the plagues which punish those sins.

Babylon’s judgment will repay her double for what she has done, a clear allusion to Jeremiah 50:29 (cf. 51:24). The Lord will give her a double portion of punishment to drink, as much torture and grief as she gave herself luxury

In Revelation 18:4-8 God’s people are called to separate from the social structure of the Roman world. This is a radical calling that is consistent with the rest of Revelation. In the Seven Letters believers are called to live different from prevailing culture, later they resist the power of the beast and refuse to take the mark of the beast even though this results in their death.

This is perhaps the most challenging portion of Revelation for Christians living in various cultures and times in history. How should Christians “come out of Babylon” today? How do we refuse the “demonic social and political power structure” and not take part in the sins of contemporary culture?  As 2 Corinthians 6:17 says, God’s people are called to be separate from the world, “touching no unclean thing.” This is not just talking about clear, ugly sins, but also participation in a political and social structure that is objectively evil.

In the context of Revelation, there are people claim to be Christians who do not separate from the world and do in fact “touch unclean things,” Jezebel (2:20) and Balaam (2:14), the Nicolaitans (2:6, 15) and those who worship the beast and take his number. These are Christians who think they are serving God while they participate in the imperial cult and all that comes along with that. Although the details are different, it is clear many Christians today have little trouble supporting and participating in modern demonic social and political power structures.

 

A Lament for Fallen Babylon – Revelation 18:1-3

 After an angel explains the image of the great prostitute, John sees another angel coming down from heaven to announce that Babylon has fallen.

Fall of Babylon, Angers Tapestry

This angel has great authority and “the earth was made bright with his glory.” Normally only God is described as glorious, this is the only time in Revelation the word is applied to an angelic being. Aune (3:985) suggests an allusion to Ezekiel 43:2, “the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory.” The wording in the LXX is considerably different even if there is a similar theme.

The angel announces Babylon has fallen (18:2-3). The angel’s announcement repeats the phrase “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” from Revelation 14:8. Most scholars consider this a clear allusion to Isaiah 21:9, John considers the fall of ancient Babylon as a model for the impending fall of Rome.

But is the Babylon of Revelation 18 the same as the great prostitute in Revelation 17? Although the consensus view both Revelation 17 and 18 refer to, some commentators think Revelation 18 refers to Jerusalem. Iain Provan, for example, rejects common view that the chapter condemns Roman economic exploitation and argues the chapter condemns religious idolatry of Jerusalem, consistent with the many allusions to the Old Testament in the chapter. Following Massyngberde Ford, he cites the 1Q Pesher to Habakkuk from Qumran. In this text, Babylon’s economic oppression of the nations in Habakkuk 2:8a is applied to the “last priests in Jerusalem”:

1QpHab Col. ix:3 Since you pillaged many peoples all the 4 rest of the nations will pillage you». Blank Its interpretation concerns the last priests of Jerusalem, 5 who will accumulate riches and loot from plundering the nations. 6 However, in the last days their riches and their loot will be given into the hands 7 of the army of the Kittim. (trans. Martı́nez and Tigchelaar).

1QpHab Col. xii:6  And as for what he says: Hab 2:17 «Owing to the blood 7 of the city and the violence (done to) the country». Its interpretation: the city is Jerusalem 8 in which the /Wicked/ Priest performed repulsive acts and defiled 9 the Sanctuary of God.

These two examples do in fact apply the destruction of Babylon to impending judgment on the corrupt priesthood currently in charge of the Temple when the commentary was written. But everything in Habakkuk is interpreted as a condemnation of the Wicked Priest.

Babylon will become a “dwelling place for demons” (18:2). In Isaiah 13:21-22 the prophet describes the fall of Babylon and the utter desolation of the city. “Howling animals” will live in the city. The noun (אֹחַ) refers to “howling desert animals” (HALOT). The Septuagint translated this as “divine beings (demons?) will dance there” (καὶ δαιμόνια ἐκεῖ ὀρχήσονται, LES2), or “there goat-demons will dance” (NRSV). Jeremiah 51:37 describes Babylon as a heap of ruins and a haunt of jackals. The ESV’s “haunt” translates φυλακή, most often a literal prison in the New Testament. But in Revelation, the word is used to refer to “the nether world or its place of punishment” (BDAG), as in 20:7.

Desolate cities are frequently described as a place where wild animals live. Jeremiah 9:10-12 for example, Jerusalem will be a heap of ruins and a lair of jackals. Many texts associate the presence of jackals and owls with demons: “all the spirits of the ravaging angels and the bastard spirits, demons, Lilith, owls and [jackals …]” (4Q510 Frag. 1:5). In Zephaniah 2:13 Nineveh is desolated and “the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals” and “a lair for wild beasts” (2:15).

The kings of the earth committed adultery with Babylon through economic exploitation (18:3). Revelation 18:11-13 will pick up the economic oppressive of the merchants. In this verse, the merchants have “grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” As Richard Bauckham says, it is a mistake to think John condemns Rome “only because of the imperial cult and the persecution of Christians. Rather, this issue serves to bring to the surface evils which were deeply rooted in the whole system of Roman power” (“The Economic Critique of Rome,” 58).

I do not think there is a sharp separation between economic exploitation and the imperial cult in Revelation. Even in Revelation 13, those who do not have the mark of the beast cannot participate in economic activity. Those who “buy or sell” includes local merchants in every city in Asia Minor as much as merchants who imports goods from across the seas to sell at a high profit in Rome.

 

Bibliography: Richard Bauckham, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18,” in Images of Empire, (ed. Loveday Alexander, JSOTSup 122; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991); Alan J. Beagley, The Sitz im Leben of the Apocalypse with Particular Reference to the Role of the Church’s Enemies (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1987); Iain Provan, “Foul Spirits, Fornication and Finance: Revelation 18 from an Old Testament Perspective.” JSNT 64 (1996) 81-100.

Tony Burke, ed. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2: More Noncanonical Scriptures

Burke, Tony, ed. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2: More Noncanonical Scriptures. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 655 pp. Hb; $75.   Link to Eerdmans

In the introduction to the second volume of New Testament Apocrypha, Tony Burke observes the number of documents that can be called “Christian Apocrypha” is quite high. In 1992 Clavis apocryphorum Novi Testameni listed 346 texts, but there were omissions and new discoveries increase that number. This volume includes twenty-nine translations of non-canonical Christian writings with introductions and notes.

More New Testament ApocryphaPrior to the first volume in this series the standard collection of Christian noncanonical Christian literature was The New Testament Apocrypha edited by M. R. James in 1924, updated as Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha (Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings; Vol. 2: Writings Relating to the Apostles Apocalypses). This volume collected many the major noncanonical works, including some Gnostic literature. New Testament Apocrypha volume 2 continues the project of collecting texts not already found in Schneemelcher.

The introduction for each document in the collection begins with a summary of the contents followed by a list of available manuscripts, versions and editions. Most introductions have a few paragraphs on genre and structure as well as original language, date and provenance. Some introductions place the document into a historical context or comment on potential literary sources. Finally, each introduction includes translation notes and bibliography.

Part one gathers gospels and related traditions of New Testament figures. Traditionally any document concerning Jesus, or the plot of the gospels is called a “gospel.” The titles given to these new apocryphal stories resist that temptation. Thankfully, The Adoration of the Magi is not given the title, “The Gospel of the Magi.”

  • The Adoration of the Magi, Adam Carter Bremer-McCollum
  • The Rebellion of Dimas, Mark G. Bilby
  • A Homily on the Life of Jesus and His Love for the Apostles, Timothy Pettipiece
  • A Homily on the Passion and Resurrection, by Pseudo-Evodius, Dylan M. Burns
  • The Book of Bartholomew, Christian H. Bull and Alexandros Tsakos
  • The Healing of Tiberius, Zbigniew Izydorczyk
  • The Legend of the Holy Rood Tree, Stephen C. E. Hopkins
  • The Story of Joseph of Arimathea, Bradley N. Rice
  • A Homily on the Building of the First Church of the Virgin, Paul C. Dilley
  • The Life of Judas, Brandon W. Hawk and Mari Mamyan
  • The Life of Mary Magdalene, Christine Luckritz-Marquis

There are several highlights here. The Adoration of the Magi is only extant in a form of Old Turkic known as Old Uyghur, discovered in Turfan, brought to Berlin, moved to Moscow after World War II and subsequently lost. A clear copy was made of the four pages which make up this short story. The infant Jesus speaks to the magi when they offer their gifts and breaks off a chunk of stone from his cradle “like breaking off bread” and gives it to them. The stone is too heavy for them to carry, and their horse is unable to carried either. The manage to throw the stone in a well, and a great sign appeared in the sky. They realize the stone was a jewel. but they were not worthy. At this point, an angel appears, and they do not return to King Herod. The text breaks off after Herod kills the priest Zechariah (cf. Prot. James 23-24) and realizes the Magi have left.

There are two accounts of intriguing persons in the Gospels, The Life of Judas and The Life of Mary Magdalene. The Life of Judas is a medieval Latin text, although also extant in Greek and Armenian. Translations of the Latin and Armenian texts appear in this volume. Judas’s father was warned in a dream his son would eventually kill him, so when Judas was born, his father pierced the child’s legs and threw him in some bushes. He was rescued by some shepherds and raised by a woman named Scariot. As an adult Judas served king Herod, and when to a field to gather fruit for the king. Judas kills owner of the field in order to take his fruit, naturally this is Judas’s father. Herod protects him from revenge and the king counsels him to marry the dead man’s wife. So Judas killed his father and marries his mother. His mother sees the scars on his legs and realizes Judas is her son, both realize they have committed a great wickedness.

The Life of Mary Magdalene is a Byzantine text which describes Mary as a beautiful, wealthy woman prior to meeting Jesus rather than a prostitute. According to this tale, she is the woman was troubled by seven demons until Jesus cast them out. She is the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet in Luke 7:38 and the first witness to the resurrection (John 20). After the ascension, Mary travels to Rome and accuses Pilate before the Emperor. Pilate is summoned to Rome, interrogated and jailed. While in jail outside of Rome, the emperor was hunting. He shot an arrow at a deer, missed, and struck Pilate in the heart. Mary then makes an evangelistic trip to Marseille, converts the town of idolaters and establishes a church there. She died in Ephesus, but her remains were transferred by Leo VI to Constantinople to the Monastery of Holy Lazarus.

Part two collects apocryphal Acts and related traditions. Traditionally Apocryphal Acts books are stories about the apostles or the apostolic circle.

  • The Acts of Nereus and Achilleus, Richard I. Pervo
  • The Act of Peter in Azotus, Cambry G. Pardee
  • The Exhortation of Peter, J. Edward Walters
  • The Travels of Peter, J. Edward Walters
  • The History of Philip, Robert A. Kitchen
  • The Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin, Jonathan Holste and Janet E. Spittler

The Acts of Peter in Azotus describes Peter’s encounter with the devil and a group of demons in Azotus, a location mentioned in Acts 8:40 in association with Philip the Evangelist. The devil appears as an archangel, but Peter sees through the disguise. The devil makes the sign of the cross and cries of to Christ. The devil confess is who he is in each of the seven demons introduce themselves. They are the demons of deception, sexual immorality, falsehood, adultery, avarice, and slander. The seventh is not associated with the vice, Syracuse is Peter and humans in general of sin. Peter binds the devil in the demons for seven days, during which time there was no sin on earth.

The most unusual story is The Acts of Thomas and His Wonderworking Skin. The story concerns the apostle Thomas is missionary work in India and provides two stories that are not found in the longer Acts of Thomas. The Greek text was originally edited by M. R. James in 1897 from a single British library manuscript.  In1903 three additional manuscripts were discovered. The text is also extended Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and church Slavonic. The translation published in this volume is from Tamilia, first appearing in 1903. Peter and Matthew accompany Thomas to India, where they speak to a man named Olbanus who is looking to buy a slave. Jesus suddenly appears and sells Thomas as a slave and he is eventually put to work building a palace for the king of India. He preaches the gospel to his master’s wife Arsinoë and she becomes a believer and destroys her idols. The devil enters the heart of husband Leucius and he tortures Thomas and flays him. Arsinoë is so upset by this she dies, but Thomas takes his skin, lays it over her dead body and she rises from the dead. His skin is involved in several other miracles before the Lord glues the skin back on Thomas’s body and he ascends to heaven to be gathered to the other apostles, Mary and Paul.

There is only one example of an epistle in part three of the volume, The Epistle of Pelagia, translated by Slavomír Čéplö. As Burke comments in the introduction to the volume, this is an epistle in name only since it was associated with the Acts of Paul when it was first published in 1904. The Epistle of Pelagia alludes to Thecla and includes the story of Paul baptizing a lion (ch. 2). This lion appears in chapter 6 when Paul is sent to the arena. After Paul and the lion pray and worship together, they are released. Pelagia is a daughter of a king who converts after hearing Paul’s preaching, divorces her husband and narrowly avoids martyrdom.

Part four follows the traditional practice of calling anything with Revelation-like visions an “apocalypse.”

  • The Dialogue of the Revealer and John, Philip Tite
  • 1 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, Rick Brannan
  • 2 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, Rebecca Draughon, Jeannie Sellick, and Janet E. Spittler
  • 3 Apocryphal Apocalypse of John, Chance Bonar, Tony Burke, and Slavomír Čéplö
  • The Questions of James to John, Katherine Gibbons
  • The Mysteries of John, Hugo Lundhaug and Lloyd Abercrombie
  • The Investiture of the Archangel Michael, Hugo Lundhaug
  • Appendix: John of Parallos, Homily Against Heretical Books, Christian H. Bull and Lance Jenott
  • The Investiture of the Archangel Gabriel, Lance Jenott
  • The Apocalypse of Thomas, Matthias Geigenfeind

Some of these are very brief: The Dialogue of the Revealer and John is barely two pages with extensive notes (but with twenty pages of introduction). Both second and third Apocryphal Apocalypse of John are presented to parallel columns comparing two often divergent traditions. For the third Apocryphal Apocalypse of John a third translation of the Church Slavonic version is included. In all three Apocryphal Apocalypse of John there is less apocalyptic that expected, they are mostly questions and answers on church life and practice.

In The Mysteries of John, John is taken from the Mount of Olives on a heavenly journey hosted by a cherub. John asks questions about what he sees *(the Garden of Eden, etc.) and the cherub gives an explanation. The book covers such diverse topics as agriculture and stars, to why humans have fingernails.

The Apocalypse of Thomas is known from Latin texts in three forms (long, short and abbreviated). Matthias Geigenfeind suggests the text may have developed in the context of Priscillian, an ascetic bishop from Avila (380-385). The longer form of the book includes thinly veiled predictions such as “Suddenly, near the last time a king will arise, a lover of the law. He will not rule for long. He will leave two sons. The first is named after the first letter, the second after the eighth. And the first will die before the second.” A footnote suggestions “Likely the king and his two sons are Theodosius I and the princes Arcadius and Honorius.” The text has a series of apocalyptic signs over eight days, culminating in the rapture-like deliverance of the elect: “Then that angel will be revealed who has power over the holy angels, and all the angels will go forth with him, sitting upon chariots of the clouds of my holy Father, rejoicing and flying in the air under heaven to deliver the elect who have believed in me.”

Finally, part five is entitled “Apostolic Orders,” a new category of New Testament Apocrypha. In his introduction to his new translation of The Teaching of the Apostles, Witold Witakowski suggests the work is apocryphal since it has a narrative framework based on biblical characters. The apostles gather in the upper room and lay out twenty-seven disciplinary and liturgical rules. Following these rules is a sketch of the spread of the Gospel and a list of locations the apostles and others traveled to preach. This list includes non-biblical characters like Addai who evangelized Edessa as well as biblical names such as Priscilla and Aquila, who received the writings of Luke the evangelist and followed Luke until his death. The twenty-seven canons decree Sunday worship as well as Wednesday services and prayers at the ninth hour on Friday. Presbyters are like Aaron’s priesthood and deacons are like the Levites. They declare the birth of Jesus should be celebrated on January 6, a forty day fast before the passion, and a feast for the ascension fifty days after the resurrection.

Conclusion.  As Burke observes in his introduction to the volume, Christian apocrypha provides an insight into the diversity of early Christian beliefs. Some of this literature is Christian interpretation of canonical documents, some seek to associate current practice with the earliest apostolic community. This second volume of “More Noncanonical Scriptures” is a window into how the early church developed both in practice and in theology. New Testament Apocrypha series will continue to serve scholarship for years to come. I look forward to volume 3!

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The Fall of the Great Prostitute – Revelation 17:15-18

Revelation 17:15-18 interprets the phrase “many waters” from 17:1. The great prostitute was seated on the waters indicates she rules over the nations.

Great Whore of Babylon

Waters are a common metaphor for the nations in apocalyptic literature. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah describe the coming armies of the Assyrians (Isaiah 8:6-8) the Babylonians (Jeremiah 47:2), David Aune points out a similar interpretation of Nahum 1:4, the Lord roars and the seas dry up. In 4Q Nahum Pesher (4Q169 Frags. 1–2:3) the sea refers to the Kittim, the Romans. God roars “to car[ry out] judgment against them and to eliminate them from the face of [the earth.]” In the third Sibylline Oracle, “Beliar will come from the Sebastēnoi and he will raise up the height of mountains, he will raise up the sea” (Sib. Or. 3.63–64), referring to the armies of Rome.

The woman sits on many waters, upon the beast, and upon seven hills (17:1, 3, 9) and in 18:7 the prostitute boasts she “sits as a queen.”  The word here is the common verb κάθημαι. In Revelation, either God or the Lamb is seated on the throne (4:2, 3, 9, 10; 5:1, 7, 13; 6:16; 7:10, 15; 19:4, 20:11, 21:5) and three times the word is used for the “son of man” seated on a cloud. The word therefore has a connotation of authority, the one who is “seated” has some sort of authority associated with their location (Schneider, TDNT 3:441-42). The “one on the throne” is sovereign because he is enthroned in Heaven, as is the Lamb since he too is seated on the heavenly throne. The elders have some rulership since they also sit on thrones around the throne of God (4:4) The dead who are raised after the final judgment are seated on thrones and are given authority (20:4).  This future enthronement is promised 3:21 where those who overcome are promised “the right” to sit on the Father’s throne.

In the light of these observations, “seated” in Revelation 17 is an “anti-enthronement” of the great prostitute. She claims to be the queen of the word (18:7) therefore she is “enthroned” on many waters, on the “beast”, and on seven hills.  If the authority comes from where one is seated, there is a clear contrast between God’s sovereignty, enthroned in heaven, and the prostitute’s authority, seated on earth.

The readers of Revelation know who is really enthroned above creation, but on earth the great prostitute appears sovereign. Her authority, however, is derived from the beast (the location of her enthronement). The beast in turn received his authority from the dragon (13:4) who we know to be Satan himself (12:9). Chapter 17-18 forms a culmination of the enthronement theme as Satan’s representative is clearly seen for what she is, a drunken whore who makes the nations mad with her wine.

The ten horns from 17:3 are kings or nations allied with the Beast (17:12). But now both the ten kings and the beast “will hate the prostitute. It is possible rumor this is another allusion to the Return of Nero myth, this time coming from the east with Parthian armies to conquer Rome (Aune, 3:957).

The ten kings will make the great prostitute “desolate and naked and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire.” Aune sees this as an allusion to Ezekiel 23:26-29, those who survive the fall of Jerusalem will be treated like a prostitute, stripped naked and driven through the streets (cf. Jer 13:26-27; Ezek 16:37-38; Hosea 2:5, 12; Nahum 2). Beale, on the other hand, argues this text alludes to Isaiah 23 (Revelation 850). Although the trade of Tyre is described as the wages of a prostitute (23:18), Tyre is not personified as prostitute. Julia Myers O’Brien argues Tyre is not punished for her promiscuity, but rather the wages of her prostitution is dedicated to the Lord, in Nahum (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 69.

Beale suggests “eating flesh” is an allusion to Elijah’s prediction dogs would eat the flesh of Jezebel (2 Kings 9:36). The Baal worship promoted by Jezebel was as much economic as idolatrous and Revelation has already used the name Jezebel to describe a prophetess who likely promoted Christian participation in Roman cultic activity (perhaps for economic reasons). Like the fall of the great prostitute, Jezebel’s grisly death was “according to the word of the Lord” (Revelation, 883-84).

The eighth Sibylline Oracle predicts the destruction of Rome by fire when Nero returns from the end of the earth (Sib. Or. 8.68–72). Although this apocalyptic text is later than Revelation, the immediately preceding section in the Oracle is a warning against greed and the following section describes Rome as the “luxurious one.” Like Revelation 18, Rome’s opulence and economic oppressive will result in her destruction; she will be “utterly ravaged.”

Sib. Or. 8.37–41 One day, proud Rome, there will come upon you from above an equal heavenly affliction, and you will first bend the neck and be razed to the ground, and fire will consume you, altogether laid low on your floors, and wealth will perish and wolves and foxes will dwell in your foundations.

Sib. Or. 8.128–130 You will be utterly ravaged and destroyed for what you did. Groaning in panic, you will give until you have repaid all, and you will be a triumph-spectacle to the world and a reproach of all.

This rebellion against the great prostitute was prompted God. God “put it into their hearts” is a “Semitic idiom” (See Neh 2:12; 7:5, for example; Aune 3:958).  They have one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast. These infinitive clauses explain what God has prompted the nations to do.

The fall of Babylon / Rome results in great economic loss for the empire (Rev 18). Although the Roman imperial cult is certainly in the background of Revelation 17, it is important to not separation religious duty from political loyalty and economic prosperity. The reason people worshiped the goddess Roma, the empire and its emperors was to ensure their own continued peace and prosperity. Political loyalty, religion and economic prosperity were as incestuously intertwined in the Roman world as they are in our own.

Who are the Kings in Revelation 17?

John is greatly astonished by the great prostitute. The angel who showed him the woman riding the scarlet beast (17:3) explains some of the elements of the vision. Like the meaning of the mark of the beast, the identity of the beast’s seven heads and kings “calls for wisdom” (17:9, cf., 13:18). And like the meaning of the mark of the beast, there are many suggestions for who these seven kings are.

The great prostitute riding the beast

The phrase translated “greatly amazed” (θαυμάζω…θαῦμα μέγα) in the NRSV could have the sense of “greatly disturbed,” the context determines θαυμάζω is used in a good or bad sense (BDAG). Some scholars consider this phrase reflect a Hebrew phrase (NewDocs 5, 35). The LXX uses θαυμάζω with the sense of “appalled” (Lev 26:32, translating שׁמם, “to shudder, be appalled”). What John sees in 17:2-6a is shocking and he needs the angel to explain the terrifying vision. In 17:8 the nations will “marvel” at the scarlet beast, although this still could be read as “were appalled” when they saw the beast. Although this might be overinterpreting the text, perhaps the point is John is appalled by the great prostitute drink on the blood of the saints, but the world is amazed and worships her and the beast she rides.

The scarlet beast “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction” (ESV), a phrase repeated three times in this paragraph. This odd phrase is similar to Greek epitaphs, such as “I was not, I was born, I was, I am not; so much for that” (Aune, Revelation, 3:940). However, in the context of Revelation, God is described as “who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev 1:4, 8; 11:17; 16:5).

Is the scarlet beast the same as the great red dragon introduced in Revelation 12? The dragon is red (πυρρός); the beast in Revelation 17 is scarlet (κόκκινος). John identified the dragon as Satan (12:9; 20:2), but this scarlet beast is an empire ruled by kings. The dragon is one of the clear symbols in the book, so it does not seem to fit this scarlet beast.

Is the scarlet beast the same as the beast from the sea introduced in Revelation13? This seems more likely since there are a number of parallels between Revelation 13 and 17. Like the beast in 13:1, this scarlet beast the bottomless pit, or the Abyss (ἄβυσσος). In Revelation 11 the bottomless pit is the home of the demonic locust horde, ruled by Abaddon. It is possible this beast is the king of the Abyss, but it is more likely the Abyss and the Sea as parallel terms. This beast rises a last time to go to his destruction (ἀπώλεια), a word related to the name of the king of the Abyss, Apollyon (Rev 9:11).  All the inhabitants of earth who are not in the Lamb’s book of life are “astonished” at this beast. This is parallel to Revelation 13:3 when the beast from the sea is wounded and appears dead yet appears to come back to life. The “names written in the Lamb’s book of life” is repeated from Revelation 13:8.

Like the mark of the beast, the angel reveals the mystery of the woman and the beast she rides (17:7). The beast has seven heads and ten horns. The heads are the seven hills on which she sits but also seven kings. The horns are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom (17:12-14). The waters on which she sits are the great multitudes of the nations (17:15).

I have dealt with some of the details in an earlier post. The common view is the city on seven hills refers to Rome. In this example from Juvenal Rome is the city on seven hills and traders flock to the city by ship and coach (cf. Rev 18:9-10).

Juvenal, Satires 9.130 “Never fear: so long as these Seven Hills stand fast you’ll always have friends in the trade, they’ll still come flocking from near and far, by ship or by coach, these gentry who scratch their heads with one finger.”

The seven hills are a problem for expositors who interpret the city as Jerusalem since the city is not built on seven hills. Despite attempts to identify seven hills (the lists vary), I know of no ancient source that describes Jerusalem as a city on seven hills.

For many expositors, the seven hills refer to Rome and the kings are a series of kings in Roman history. The trouble is where to start the sequence and who to include in the series. Aune offers nine variations, some beginning as early as Julius Caesar and others terminating as late as Nevra. Some of the schemes include Galba, Otho, and Vitellus, others omit these three minor emperors who rule briefly in the year between Nero’s death and Vespasian’s ascension to the throne.

Greg Beale, on the other hand, takes the mountains as symbolic of strength in Apocalyptic literature and the number seven as referring to completeness (cf. Aune 3:948). For Beale, this text does not refer to seven kings in any sequence but rather the mountains and kings “represent the oppressive power of world government throughout the ages” (Beale, Revelation 889).

It is also possible to focus on the sixth king as John’s main interest and ignore the first five. It is this sixth king who is well known to the readers (Nero or Domitian, depending on the date of the book). A final king will come soon but will only remain a short time. Bauckham pointed out the odd wording of seven kings, then an eighth is a “‘graded numerical saying,’ which uses two consecutive numbers as parallels” (cited in Aune, 3:950). Smalley suggested the “eighth king” is probably Domitian as Nero redivivus (Thunder and Love, 135-36).

This seems hopelessly complicated. But the point of the vision is not far from Daniel’s visions of empires in Daniel 2, 7 and 11. The kingdom of man will not stand long, nor will God allow the final kingdom to continue to persecute his people. Babylon is about to fall!

The Final Visions: Revelation 17-22

The final chapters of Revelation are another seven-element cycle serving as the climax to the book. Chapter 16 ended with the nations gathering at Armageddon and the announcement from the heavenly temple that “it is done.” God has remembered Babylon the great and the stage is set for the final judgment of the kingdom of the beast. Like Daniel 7, the kingdom of Babylon and the nations will finally be replaced by God’s kingdom.

Denarius, Roma, four horsemen

Roma on a denarius struck in Rome 116-115 BCE, with four horses on the reverse

Using the phrase “and I saw” or “and I heard,” the final seven units of Revelation can be outlined as follows:

  • 17:1-18 – The Great Whore and the Scarlet Beast
  • 18:1-24 – The Fall of Babylon the Great
  • 19:1-10 – Worship over God’s Just Judgment
  • 19:11-21 – The Final Victory over Babylon
  • 20:1-10 – The Thousand Year Reign
  • 20:11-15 – The Great White Throne Judgment
  • 21:1-22:5 – The New Heavens and New Earth

There are several unique features in Revelation 17. First, angelic guides are common in apocalyptic, but they are usually used differently in Revelation. In other apocalyptic (Ezekiel 37, Daniel 8, Zechariah 1-6), someone has a vision, then asks questions (“what does that mean?”), and the angelic guide gives an explanation. In the rest of Revelation angels are usually part of the vision, but in chapter 17 the angel is an apocalyptic host. John is shown the judgement of the prostitute and then then angel gives John an explanation of the vision. This explanation identifies key symbolic elements, some of which are clear, but others are still obscure. Like Daniel 8 or Daniel 10-12, the angel’s explanation often generates more questions than answers (for the modern reader).

Second, the image described in Revelation 17:1-6 is picture rather than an action. In other visions, John sees something happening. But the image of the prostitute is like a description of a painting or fresco. David Aune therefore suggests this is a specialized form of apocalyptic vision known as an ekphrasis, a literary description of a work of art (Revelation, 3:919). There is an old saying, “a picture paints a thousand words.” Think of an ekphrasis is the thousand words. What is John seeing? As I have said in another post, John is seeing some form of imperial propaganda, whether a coin depicting the goddess Roma or some statue or frieze showing the goddess sitting on the seven hills of Rome.

Third, Revelation 17:1-19:10 finally makes the identity of the enemy clear: Babylon is Rome. Just as Babylon was the great evil empire oppressing God’s people in Daniel, now Rome is the ultimate anti-God empire oppressing God’s people. The book has been hinting at the identity of the beast and the kingdom of the beast in chapters 12-16, now in chapters 17-19 it becomes clear John calls Rome a great prostitute drink on the blood of the saints.