What is Armageddon? Revelation 16:16

 Revelation 16:16 Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

“Thus far there has been no satisfactory explanation of the name.” Joachim Jeremias, “Ἃρ Μαγεδών,” TDNT 1:468.

After the sixth bowl of God’s wrath has been poured out on the earth, the nations are deceived by demonic signs gather at a place called Armageddon. The word Armageddon has become part of western apocalyptic vocabulary, but books and films describing the “end of the world” as Armageddon do not reflect the use of the word in Revelation 16:16.

Satan attacks Jerusalem

John tells the reader the word Armageddon (Ἁρμαγεδών) is Hebrew or Aramaic (Ἑβραϊστί can mean either). The Hebrew, presumably, would be Har-Megiddo, or the Mount Megiddo. Megiddo is a well-known location in central Israel, bordering the broad Valley of Jezreel. The valley had been the site of numerous battles, from Egyptian battles in 1500 B.C. to a British conflict in 1917. Those who have visited Megiddo on an Israel tour might recall the lurid video in the visitor’s center suggesting this is the location of the “end of the world.”

But there is no Mount Megiddo. Megiddo was a city and occasionally a plain (2 Chron 35:22; Zech 12:11). Perhaps the Hebrew word could be A’r-Megiddo, the city of Megiddo, but this does not seem likely. John may not intend for Armageddon as a literal place name, but as a metaphor for the conflict between the forces of evil and the forces of God in a final battle.

It is tempting to understand Mount Megiddo as a reference to the Carmel range near Megiddo. The traditional site of Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal at Carmel overlooks the plain of Jezreel (1 Kings 18:16-45). Like the book Revelation, Elijah faces a challenge to the worship of the Lord from Ahab and Jezebel. Who is the God who is worthy of Israel’s worship? Elijah proves it is only the Lord, the God of Israel and not Baal when God sends fire from heaven to consume his sacrifice. The story has a three-year drought, famine, miraculous protect of God’s servant Elijah, and a climactic bloody slaughter of those who worship Baal.  Many of these resonate with the conflict between the kingdom of the Beast and the Lamb in Revelation.

Following a 1938 article by C. C. Torrey, Meredith Kline suggested the word should be read as har môʿēd, “Mount of Assembly.” If this is the case, then Revelation 16:16 would allude to Isaiah 14:13, one of the boasts of the king of Babylon is that he would ascend to heaven and set his throne on the high, “I will sit on the mount of assembly, I the far reaches of the north.” The Hebrew phrase בְּהַר־מוֹעֵ֖ד  (“on the mount of assembly”) is render as ἐν ὄρει ὑψηλῷ (“on the high mountain”) in the LXX. The Greek ὑψηλός refers to a high or lofty mountain, but also to arrogance or presumption (BrillDAG).

Kline points out Isaiah 14:13 has “the far reaches of the north” in parallel to the mount of assembly. The high mountain in the north (צָפוֹן, zaphon) is where the gods lived in Ugaritic mythology. Whatever real-world mountain this might refer to, in Isaiah 14 the king of Babylon is ultimately arrogant in his desire to set his throne in the place of the gods. Rather than sit in the place of the gods, the king of Babylon will be brought down to the pit (Isa 14:14).

Kline then connects Mount Zaphon (the abode of the gods in Canaanite mythology) with Mount Zion, the abode of God. Psalm 48:1 calls Mount Zion God’s holy mountain, “beautiful in elevation” and “in the far north (zaphon).” At least in this psalm, Zion is like Zaphon. But in many other texts Zion is God’s meeting place with his people.

Like the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14, Revelation 16:16 refers to the ultimate arrogant attempt to demand the worship God himself deserves. “Satan will make his last attempt to usurp Har Magedon” (p. 213). For Kline, “The typological Zion/Jerusalem provides the symbolic scenery for prophecies of the climactic conflict in the war of the ages” (p. 213). Kline supports this view by examining Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38-39.

I find Kline’s suggestion intriguing because the allusion to Isaiah 14 describes an arrogant king of Babylon who will demand to be worshiped as God. This is similar to the arrogant little horn in Daniel 7 as well as the willful king in Daniel 11. In the very next section of Revelation John describes Babylon as a whore drunk on the blood of the saints and the fall of Babylon dominates Revelation 17-19:10. However, it is difficult for me to move from Har Moed to Har Magedon.

The name of the mountain is obscure. Along with Jeremias, BDAG says the interpretation of the word is “beset with difficulties that have not yet been surmounted.” Robert Mounce agrees, the meaning of Armageddon is like the mystery of the name of the beast. There are many suggestions, but few are satisfying.

Whatever Armageddon refers to, the kingdom of the beast will gather for a final confrontation with the Lamb that was slain in order to finally show who is worthy of the worship of the nations.

Bibliography: Meredith G. Kline, “Har Magedon: The End of the Millennium” JETS 39 (1996): 207-223; C. C. Torrey, “Armageddon,” HTR 31 (1938): 237-248.

Book Notice: Max J. Lee, Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind

I recently received a review copy of Max J. Lee, Moral Transformation in Greco-Roman Philosophy of Mind: Mapping the Moral Milieu of the Apostle Paul and his Diaspora Jewish Contemporaries (WUNT/2 515; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020. xxxv+658 pp. Pb; €139,00; Link to Mohr Siebeck). Since this is a lengthy book, I thought I would do a book notice based on first impressions now, with a lengthy review when I am able to finish the book.

Max Lee, Moral TransformationLee’s goal is “to fill some important gaps in the cultural encyclopedia of knowledge which Paul and his Greco-Roman audience assumed each other knew but we modern need to reconstruct” (p. 567). For the most part, this encyclopedia of knowledge on the philosophy of mind is unfamiliar to the New Testament scholar.

Since understanding Paul’s thought in a Jewish context dominates intertextual studies, so Lee focuses on the Greco Roman environment. He therefore proposes to study models of moral transformation in Middle Platonism (part 1), Stoicism (part 2). A future volume will address Epicureanism and Diaspora Judaism. The justification for using these examples is the preserved the orthodoxy of their founders with some significant innovations and were influential in the first century. Certainly, Cynics and Neo-Pythagoreans were active in the first century, but since neither were interested in controlling passions, Lee sets them aside in this book.

What is philosophy of the mind? Ancient philosophy of the mind is the study of the soul and the ethical implications of what the soul is and how it functions. This differs from modern philosophy of the mind which is interested in how the mind and the body relate. Ancient philosophy of the mind asks whether passions can be controlled. If so, what forces impede moral transformation? Is character pre-determined at birth? Or is character developed over time through training and education?

What is moral transformation? In the context of first century C.E. Greco-Roman philosophy, ethical systems were interested in transforming the “common barbarian sick with vice into a leading citizen of the Roman empire, capable of virtue” (p. 5).  Lee will focus on the language of power in each philosophical school in order to understand how passions act as forces which must be mastered. Moral transformation is there for control of the passions. What are the sources for controlling the passions? This may come through education, training, or asceticism. What is the relationship of theology and ethics? Do the gods enable moral transformation? If so, how central is this divine aid?

All three philosophical systems agree the human mind or reason is the main power source for self-mastery. But only when the human mind has been properly trained by philosophy (p. 15). Although it is not the topic this book, Lee suggests Diaspora Judaism shares much in common with Greco-Roman philosophy,  although it places much more emphasis on the role of the divine. Self-control is not merely a human action; God actively intervenes in the transformation of the soul. Late in the book Lee suggests Diaspora Judaism falls somewhere between Middle Platonism and Middle Stoicism (about where he places Epicureanism, p. 522). Diaspora Judaism has a wider range than the other philosophical schools; we must await the next volume for the details.

The first two chapters of the book introduce methodology and the components of moral transformation. With this background in mind, Lee introduces “the Body-Beating Platonist” (part 2) and the “Superhumans Stoic” (part 3). Part three includes two chapters on neo-Stoics, a chapter on the Stoic self and a chapter on the Stoic god. The final section is a retrospect of the argument of the book and a prospect for further study.

The book includes with two appendices which are absolutely critical for the philosophy specialist to read before moving into the body of the monograph. The first appendix surveys the main sources for Middle Platonism; the second the main sources for Early, Middle and Late Stoicism. Since most of this literature is not well-known to New Testament scholars, these two appendices will help navigate the massive data contained in this book.

For Lee, the main value of this study is the demonstration of Paul’s method of engaging the pluralism of his day. However, this theological payoff is only hinted in the book. Setting aside his discussion of Enberg-Pedersen’s Paul and the Stoics (pp. 25-27), there are only fourteen references in Paul’s letters in the index (there are twenty-seven to Philippians on those pages alone). This is not a criticism; the book is an in-depth study of Greco-Roman philosophical thinking on moral transformation rather than on Paul’s use (or non-use) of this material.

Paul established a precedence for patristic figures in the second century as the apologists began to engage the philosophical world with the claims of the Gospel.  Paul’s strategy has great potential for how the church in our day can engage a complex pluralistic world with diverse ideas which challenge the gospel (p. 529). This “encyclopedia of knowledge” sets the stage for examining Paul’s appropriation of the language of philosophical discourse to exhort this Gentile churches.

I look forward to further work in this important monograph. Be sure to request your university or seminary library obtain a copy!

Max Lee blogs at Paul ReDux and is active on twitter as @ProfMaxLee.  Nijay Gupta interviewed Lee about the release of this book.

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

Book Review: Benjamin L. Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies

Merkle, Benjamin L. Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. x+236 pp.; Pb.  $25.99  Link to Lexham Press

In 1980 Daniel P. Fuller published Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (Eerdmans), which was in part based on his 1957 ThD dissertation on the hermeneutics of dispensationalism. The book was controversial for several reasons, but it began a discussion of whether there is a unity between the Old and New Testaments. Does God have a unified plan and a single people of God? Is that plan better described in terms of a single covenant, or a series of covenants? Fuller contrasted two popular systems of thought, dispensationalism and covenant theology, to answer these questions. He argued for more unity than discontinuity in God’s plan; dispensationalism did not fare well in the book, but covenant theology was not quite right either, in Fuller’s view.

Merkle, Discontinuity to ContinuityMuch has happened in the world of biblical theology in the last fifty years later. Both dispensationalism and covenant theology been in dialogue and have both developed and matured. Biblical theology has blossomed and there are dozens of studies which argue for a unified story of redemption from Genesis to Revelation. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture (Baker Academic, Second Edition 2014) is a popular presentation of the overarching story of Scripture, modifying N. T. Wright’s metaphor of a multi-act play. It is neither covenant theology nor dispensationalism, but both resonate with the plan of God revealed in a series of stages (covenants, dispensations).

In this new book on the hermeneutics of dispensationalism and covenant theology, Benjamin Merkle’s Discontinuity to Continuity cannot simply contrast the two systems. It would be wrong to cite the Scofield Reference Bible as the last word on dispensationalism; the book is now over 100 years old! It would be equally dishonest to cite Caspar Olevian or Johannes Cocceius as examples of current thinking in covenant theology. Merkle divides dispensationalism into three sections, classic, revised and progressive, representing the continuing refinement of the theological system. Covenant theology is also divided into three sections, although the three flavors of Covenant theology are less chronological.

After an introduction and overview of the theological systems of discontinuity and continuity, the next six chapters of the book move from discontinuity (Classic Dispensationalism) to continuity (Christian Reconstruction). Each chapter begins with a chart entitled “Taxonomy of Theological Systems,” with three dispensational variations on the left and three covenant variants on the right. It is perhaps instructive that there is an unlabeled spot for a middle position. Is this where progressive dispensationalism and covenantalism will meet in the future? Another unintended consequence of this arrangement the left side represents a pretribulational rapture and premillennialism, the central views move from historic premillennialism and amillennialism, to the right side represents postmillennialism.

In his three chapters on Dispensationalism, Merkle tracks the development of the system from the classic dispensationalism of the Scofield Reference Bible to the revisions of the SRB made by the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1960s (Revised Dispensationalism). Another important text for this period is Charles Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today (Moody, 1965; Moody dropped “today” in a second edition, 2007). For many dispensationalists, this is still the standard introduction. Beginning in the 1980s, dispensationalists used the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society to continue to refine dispensationalism, resulting in several books and essay collections using the term “Progressive Dispensationalism.” This new era in dispensational thinking was in dialogue with covenant theology and sought to bring dispensationalism into the mainstream of biblical theology.

Merkle treats three variations of covenant theology in three chapters. Because it is closest to Progressive Dispensationalist, Merkle treats Progressive Covenantalism before turning to Covenant theology proper. Progressive Covenantalism is recent and is represented by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant (Second Edition): A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2016) and Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker, Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (B&H 2016).

Rather than using historic examples of Covenant Theology, Merkle uses Meredith Kline, O. Palmer Robertson, and Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Baker 2006). Merkle uses Christian Reconstruction as representing the most continuity between the testaments. Representing by Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen and Gary North. Although this position is associated with Dominion theology, Merkle limits his summary and critique to only the issue of continuity.

One possible omission in Merkle’s taxonomy is Gerald McDermott. He edited a collection of essays, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (InterVarsity Press, 2016) and published a popular presentation of his ideas as Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (Brazos, 2017). McDermott rejects replacement theology and argues for a future fulfillment of promises to Israel without any form dispensationalism. I am not sure his views fit well into progressive dispensationalism or  covenantalism.

For each of the theological systems, Merkle gives a brief historical sketch and orientation to the chief representatives of the position. He then discusses the basic hermeneutic of each position. First, Merkle asks if the system has a literal or symbolic hermeneutic. Each position claims to use a grammatical-historical method and none would claim allegorizing the text is a legitimate approach. The key hermeneutical issue is the proper role of typology and how the Old Testament restoration processes are fulfilled. Merkle observes that dispensationalists dismiss (or minimize) typology while convent theology uses typology to explain how the Old Testament prophecy can be fulfilled in the church.

Under the heading of the relationship between the covenants, Merkle gives a short synopsis of how the position understands the covenants (or dispensations). For dispensationalism, this is the classic “seven dispensations,” for covenant theology this is the six biblical covenant (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and New Covenant). Next, Merkle examines whether the system sees the covenants as conditional or unconditional. He asked how the Old Testament saints were saved. Finally, he describes the approach of each system with respect to the application of the law in the present era. On one side, classic dispensationalism argues for no application, and Reconstructionism argues for the fullest application of the Law. Classic covenant theology uses a three-tiered view of the Law (moral, civil, and ceremonial), focusing primarily on the moral law as the continuity between Israel and the church. In practice, neither is completely consistent since classic dispensationalists find principles in the Law that can be applied today (especially for particular sins) and Reconstructionist do not advocate burning witches or stoning rebellious sons.

Under the relationship between Israel and the church, Merkle examines each position with respect to whether the church replaces, fulfills Israel, or is distinct from Israel. On one side classic dispensationalism makes a sharp distinction between the church and Israel and look for a future fulfilment of Old Testament restoration prophecies, covenant theology finds a typological fulfilment of Israel in the church, or in the more extreme form, the church is new Israel. This leads to a brief sketch at how each position deals with two key passages, Romans 11:26 (“all Israel will be saved”) and Galatians 6:16 (“the Israel of God”).  For more on Merkle’s view of Romans 11:26, see his contribution in Compton and Naselli, Three Views on Israel and the Church (Kregel 2019).

With respect to the kingdom of God, he examines how the position understands the kingdom of God. For classic dispensationalists, the kingdom is entirely in the future, for most of covenant theology the kingdom is typologically fulfilled in the Church, although Reconstructionism is postmillennial, so the kingdom is being built by the church. For the progressive forms in the middle of Merkle’s taxonomy, the kingdom is in some ways already present, but not yet fully present. This leads to a discussion of Jesus’s ministry. To what extent did Jesus “bring in the kingdom”? If the kingdom is still in some respect still future, how is the kingdom to be consummated? As Merkle observes, the already/not yet understanding has influenced progressive dispensationalists as well as most forms of covenant theology. George Ladd’s New Testament Theology has influenced many of the scholars in the middle of Merkle’s taxonomy.

Each chapter ends with a few pages of assessment. He points out the strengths of each system along with a few critiques. Merkle is fair in both his summary and critique of each of the systems. There are no straw-man arguments in the book. Merkle does not cite fringe representatives of positions. It would be easy to cite Darby or Bullinger as representatives of dispensationalism, or cherry pick some of the stranger ideas of Reconstructionism. He has chosen legitimate representatives of each position and presents their ideas as fairly as possible.

The last chapter is a helpful summary of the six theological systems covered in the book. Some readers may want to start with this chapter before reading the more detailed descriptions in chapters 2-7.

Something Merkle does not address in this book is the in-family animosity between the three types of dispensationalism and the three types of covenant theology. Any system self-identifying as “progressive” is asking for trouble from the classic form of the theology. There are many classic dispensationalists who look at recent developments as compromises and defections from “real dispensationalism.” Any progressive form of covenant theology (especially one that leans toward dispensationalism) will raise suspicions of straying too far from assured reformation truth. But as this book demonstrates, theological systems ought to continue to grow and develop.

Conclusion. Benjamin Merkle’s Discontinuity to Continuity is an excellent primer on the various forms of dispensationalism and covenant theology. The book would serve as a textbook for a university or seminary class on hermeneutics, but Merkle writes for anyone reader interest in how the present church relates to Israel and the Old Testament.

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

I Come Like a Thief! Revelation 16:15

Revelation 16:15 “Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.”

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Biblia Dudesch, 1522

This verse is a curiosity for several reasons. First, the verse appears to be Jesus’s own words. In Revelation 3:3 he warned the church at Sardis to wake up, otherwise he would come like a thief. Many English translations therefore put the verse in “red letters” like the letters to the seven churches.

Second, how is this verse related to the context? It interrupts the flow of thought: the nations are deceived by demons in verse 14 and assembled for battle, in verse 16 the location of the gathering of the nations is Armageddon. Because it seems like an interruption, many translations also put the verse in parenthesis (ESV, NRSV).

Third, this verse may be a hint of some editorial revisions of Revelation. David Aune suggests the verse is an interpolation, inserted into the text into the “second edition of Revelation” (2:896). In his view, a later editor added 1:3-14, the letters to the seven churches, this line and 22:5-21.

Jesus used the metaphor of a thief in the night in Matt 24:42-44 / Luke 12:39-40. Paul may allude to this teaching in 1 Thessalonians 5:2. In both cases the point of the metaphor is to encourage watchfulness. 2 Peter 3:10 also says the day of the Lord will come like a “thief in the night.” One main difference is the subject in the Gospels is the Son of Man, in Revelation the saying is in the first person, I am coming like a thief.” Unfortunately, this metaphor was co-opted as a warning to be ready for the rapture, but that was not the point of the metaphor in the New Testament. Watchfulness and readiness, yes, but because God’s great day of judgment is coming very soon, not the rapture of the church.

As part of his response to the disciples’ question about the signs of his return, Jesus says to be alert and awake, like someone who knows when a thief will break into their house. There are two main ideas in this saying. First, the disciples are to “stay awake” or “remain alert” (γρηγορέω), the first part of Revelation 16:15. Second, the disciples are to be prepared (ἕτοιμος), the second part of 16:15. Ironically, in the garden on the night to his arrest, Jesus told Peter, James and John stay alert (γρηγορέω) while he prayer (Matt 26:41 / Mark 14:34) yet they fell asleep. Perhaps it is not a coincidence a young follower of Jesus is sleeping when Jesus was arrested and “ran away naked” (Mark 14:51).

The second part of the verse is a beatitude: blessed is the one is stays away and dressed. Like the thief in the night saying, remaining awake and prepared is found in the Gospels and Paul’s letters as a warning to be prepared for the return of Christ. In Revelation 3:18 Jesus warning the Laodiceans to dress properly themselves in order to be prepared for the soon return of the Lord. They thought they were dressed in fine clothing but they actually shamefully naked. In Revelation 6:11 the souls under the altar were given white robes; in 7:9, 13 the 144,000 are also given white robes.

If they are not awake and dressed, then they are “going about naked” and their shamefulness (ἀσχημοσύνη) will be seen. Aside from the general embarrassment of being caught naked, the word refers to a shameless act or anything which leads to disgrace.  In the Old Testament, “uncovering nakedness” is used in the context of God’s judgment on Babylon. Speaking to the “virgin daughter of Babylon,” the Lord says, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your disgrace (ἀσχημοσύνη) shall be seen” (Isa 47:3, cf., Lam 1:8). The Lord covering one’s nakedness is a sign of his provision for his people (Ezek 16:8; Hos 2:11).

The ultimate conflict between God Almighty and the kingdom of the beast demands watchfulness and preparation. But this is not an instruction to hoard food, guns, and toilet paper out of fear of the government. For John, this is a spiritual battle. The spirit of deception has gone out into the world already (1 John 4:1-3) and demands the follower of Jesus remain awake, alert, and prepared at all times.

What are the Three Evil Spirits in Revelation 16:13-14?

Revelation 16:13-14 contains one of the stranger images in the whole book: three evil spirits come out of the mouth of the dragon, beast, and false prophet. These three demons look like frogs and perform miracles and gather the kings of the whole world for battle on the great day of God Almighty. What are these “demon frogs”?

Demons as Frogs in Revelation

Between the sixth and seventh seal and trumpet there was a lengthy interlude. Many commentaries consider Revelation 16:13-16 to be an interlude between the sixth and seventh bowls. Following Robert Mounce, Robert Thomas disagrees. He considers these verses as a “topical commentary” on the sixth seal explaining why the kings of the earth gathered in Armageddon (2:263).

There is one additional problem in verse 13. The verb “coming out” (ESV) is not in verse 13. “Out of the mouth of” appears three times, but John has omitted the verb so most translations supply “coming out.” Emerged or even “breathed out” are possibilities as well.

This is the first time this satanic trinity is mentioned together explicitly for the first time although all three appear separately in Revelation 13, and they will appear again in 19:20 and 20:10. The dragon was identified as Satan in Revelation 12:9. The beast is the government lead by a parody of Jesus, the antichrist (the beast from the sea, Rev 13:1-10). The false prophet is the religious support for the kingdom of the beast, doing miracles like an anti-Holy Spirit (the beast from the earth, Rev 13:11-18).  David Aune draws attention to similar passage in 1 John 4:1-3 (see this post on 1 John 4:1 and deceptive miracles). John says some spirits are false prophets (4:1) and the spirit that does not confess Jesus came in the flesh is the spirit of antichrist (4:3).

Why “like a frog”? There is nothing quite like this in Second Temple literature. Josephus describes a Jewish exorcist who “put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils” (Ant. 8.47). This fits well with the frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, beast and false prophet, but there is nothing in other literature describing demons “like frogs.”

There are several possibilities for the image of a frog in Revelation 16:13. First, these are unclean spirits, so the image of a frog may have been prompted the fact frogs are unclean (see Leviticus 11:10). Second, Beale suggests the image was chosen “partly because of their characteristic croaking, which is loud but meaningless” (revelation 832). Third, since there are many other allusions to the Exodus in this chapter, John may be alluding the plague of frogs (Exod 8:2-11). Finally, perhaps all that is meant this adverbial phrase is the spirits “leapt like frogs out of their mouths.” Since the verb is missing, the adverb is not modifying anything. In either case, the demons do not look like frogs (despite medieval illustrations of this scene or weird online Christian digital art).

These unclean spirits do miracles deceive the kings of the earth to gather for a final battle against God Almighty. John uses the title pantokrater, (παντοκράτωρ), a title used to describe Roman emperors. Although it refers to Trajan, see this post for the combination of pantokrater, earth and sea at Pergamum. These demons set up the ultimate confrontation between the one who claims to be all mighty and the God who is the All Mighty.

Book Review: D. Clint Burnett, Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions

Burnett, D. Clint. Studying the New Testament through Inscriptions. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Academic, 2020. xxvii+218 pp.; Hb.  $23.99  Link to Hendrickson Academic

In his conclusion to this new book on using ancient inscriptions to shed light on the New Testament, Burnett acknowledges his debt to Adolf Deissmann. Deissmann was one of the first to use inscriptions and papyri in his popular book, Light from The Ancient Near East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Greco-Roman World (Hodder & Stoughton, 1910). Deissmann visited Asia Minor in 1906 and immediately began a series of lectures which resulted in this book. The book appears frequently in the latest edition of Bauer (BDAG), abbreviated as LO for the German edition (Licht vom Osten) or LAE for the English translation. In the introduction to his mammoth A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, A. T. Robertson said “Deissmann is the pioneer in this field and is still the leader in it. It is hard to overestimate the debt of modern New Testament scholarship to his work” (Roberson, p. x).

As with most books written one hundred years ago, Deissmann’s Light from the Ancient Near East needs an update. To a large extent this was a goal of the New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity series (ten volumes, published by Eerdmans, 1981-2012). Initially edited by G. H. R. Horsley of Macquarie University, each volume surveyed obscure journals for publications of inscriptions and papyri of interest to New Testament scholars for a given period of time. Volume one covered journals published in 1976, volume ten covered 1988-1992. Each volume provided a summary articles with helpful transcriptions and translations of the important parts of the original journal article. For many scholars this was the best way to access this data is very hard to find in even the best research libraries. These books are a goldmine of new “light from the Ancient Near East.” Like Deissmann’s book, NewDocs appears in BDAG frequently.

Clint Burnett’s new book on studying the New Testament through inscriptions is something like a “New Deissmann,” or maybe better, “Deissmann for the people.” Burnett says he shares Deissmann’s dream “that one day more New Testament students who use inscriptions in their interpretation of his documents and the historical reconstructions of early Christianity” (p. 165). The goal of the book is to make inscriptions accessible to students and pastors and offer guidance for using inscriptions in interpretation.

The first chapter is an introduction to the study of inscriptions. Burnett begins with a basic definition, literally writing on something, whether it is on stone, bronze, floors, walls, tiles or lead sheets. This definition is broad enough to encompass both official monuments set up by civil authorities and graffiti scratched on a wall. After a short explanation of how inscriptions were made, Burnett surveys a wide range of types of inscriptions, both public and private. This section is illustrated with black and white photographs mostly provided by the author. Since most readers are not able to travel to museums or archaeological sites to photograph inscriptions, Burnett gives an overview of the publication of inscriptions beginning in the nineteenth century. These epigraphic corpora continue to expand, and many are now published online. Wise students can find the older, out of print epigraphic corpora at archive.org. For example, here is a link to Sylloge inscriptionum Graecarum edited by Wilhelm Dittenberger. This section includes a helpful chart of sigla found in these collections of inscriptions.

Following this introductory chapter, Burnett offers five illustrations of the use of inscriptions for interpreting particular passages in the New Testament. First, Burnett examines inscriptions from the southern Levant in order to text consensus view that the development of “Jesus as Lord” language by early Christians recognized Jesus’s lordship as royal, messianic but not exclusively divine (ch. 2).

Burnett examines the translations differences in 1 Corinthians, “Devour” or “Go Ahead with” the Lord’s Banquet (ch. 3). The verb προλαμβάνω in 1 Corinthians 11:21 is usually translated “each one goes ahead with his own meal.” Based on an inscription cited in Moulton and Milligan from the Asclepieum at Epidaurus (Syll 804), Bruce Winter has suggested the verb ought to be translated as “eat” or “devour.” This suggestion appears in commentaries by Conzelmann, Thiselton, and Hays and several monographs on the Lord’s Supper. Burnett gives the Greek text of the inscription with a translation and compares the use of προλαμβάνω cited by Moulton and Milligan with several other inscriptions. He concludes the most probably translation is “go ahead with.” He argues this point by examining the usual seating arrangements at a Greco-Roman banquet. These arrangements contributed to social divisions in the church. Only about nine people could eat in the “main room,” so it is possible those invited to eat at the best tables went ahead with their meal and gave no regard to those gathered elsewhere to share meals.

In chapter 4, Burnett deals with imperial loyalty oaths and Caesar’s decrees in the background of early Christianity in Thessalonica. Interpreters of 1 Thessalonians often suggest Roman imperial loyalty oaths run counter to language found in 1 Thessalonians. Pagans (and probably Christians) would find Paul’s preaching treasonous, explaining the ongoing trouble for Christians in Thessalonica. Acts 17 indicates Paul was charged with “opposing Caesar’s decrees” (Acts 17:7). The problem, Burnett argues, is this reconstruction “overlooks the content, occasion, and contextual nature of the actual imperial loyalty oaths” (p. 101). Burnett examines a number of these loyalty oaths and concludes “opposing Caesar’s decrees” refers to imperial letters granting Thessalonica free city status in the Roman empire.

Chapter five draws together inscriptions with describe the activities of women in order to illustrate references in the New Testament to benefactresses, deaconesses, and pverseers in the Philippian Church. There is clear evidence that wealthy women gained prominence by becoming patrons of both official and unofficial cults. Burnett then suggests Lydia, Eudoia and Syntyche served in leadership roles in the Philippian church. This is not to say they exercised the authority of later ecclesiastical offices, but since so little is known about the structure of Pauline churches, there is “good reason to believe some wealthy women in the Philippian church attained leadership positions in the mid-first century CE” (p. 139). There is an assumption, however, that the Philippian church “patterned leadership after official and non-official cults in the city” (p. 136). Since Paul’s initial contact in Philippi was Lydia at a Jewish place of prayer, is it more likely the earliest leadership was patterned after the synagogue? This does not detract from Burnett’s point, wealthy women played significant roles in leadership in the mid-first century.

In chapter 6 Burnett surveys inscriptions which use numbers for names as background for interpreting Revelation 13, the number of the beast.  Most commentaries on Revelation cite the same graffiti from Pompei, “I love the one whose number is 545.” Burnett collects twenty-three examples of name-calculations from Mylasa (1), Pompei (4), Stabae (2), Smyrna (6), Ephesus (8), Messania (1) and Catania (1). These examples appear in full in an appendix to this chapter. Many use a form of φιλω with a relative pronoun, ἀριθμός and the number.  It may be surprising that so many declared their love by writing anonymously in a wall! The eight examples from Ephesus were found in Terrace House 2, indicating even the elite wrote on walls. In any event, Burnett argues this data favors the conclusion that “the practice of name calculation was geared toward a group of insiders” who produced the calculation (p. 160). For Burnett, John provided all the background required for his audience to grasp that the beast’s name was Nero Caesar.

This chapter on the use of numbers for names raises a potential omission in the book. A chapter on the importance of graffiti in the Greco-Roman world would have been an excellent addition to the book. Burnett includes graffiti here and there in the book, but graffiti looks through a different sort of window into the ancient world than an official inscription placed by civil authorities. I have spent time browsing through Graffiti from the Basilica in the Agora of Smyrna (Roger Bagnall, et al, 2016) and often thought this material represents what the common person thought about more than the beautiful inscriptions found along the streets in Ephesus.

There are three very useful appendices to the book. First, Burnett gives an overview of important printed collections of inscriptions. Second, he offers some instructions for using online search engines to navigate collections of inscriptions. Third, he has a handy guide to abbreviations used in inscriptions for titles and other common Latin words. For example, SC is used for senatus consultum, “by senatorial decree.” On graves it is common to see HSE (hic situs/sita est, “here he/she lies”) or DM (Dis Manibus, “to the deceased spirits”). This includes abbreviations for the most common Roman names (L for Lucius; M for Marcus), Greek numbers (including letters unfamiliar to most students of New Testament Greek). I would certainly purchase a laminate card with this information to take with me while leading tours. I sometimes use the app Emperors by Dan Weiner for abbreviations in imperial titles (often you can date an inscription or coin precisely with this tool).

The book includes a twenty-six-page bibliography and indices for modern authors, subjects and ancient sources. The book includes a rich collection of resources in the footnotes. Students should mine these footnotes for important secondary literature on inscriptions.

I have two important observations about what this book is not. First, this is not a manual for how to read an actual inscription. Although it will help a student who wants to transcribe, translate and interpret an inscription (perhaps from a photograph taken on a visit to Ephesus), that is not the intention of the book. Burnett does offer advice on using collections of already transcribed and translated inscriptions.

Second, the book is focused solely on reading inscriptions to shed light on the New Testament. Inscriptions are important for understanding the whole of the Greco-Roman world, but Burnett’s focus is on using this material to unknot a particular exegetical problem in the translation of the New Testament or to illustrate some cultural practice to better understand the early church. Although readers outside the world of biblical studies may benefit from this book, it is clearly targeted at a Christian audience.

Conclusion. This is an excellent introduction to the study of inscriptions with the specific goal of shedding light on the New Testament. For most New Testament scholars (including teachers and pastors), this book demonstrates the importance of understanding the historical and cultural context of the New Testament. He illustrates the value of studying inscriptions with five specific examples, but these examples can be multiplied many times over.

Burnett blogs on inscriptions and the New Testament (his personal blog) and he hosts a podcast, Bibl·e·pigraphy. He is active on twitter and occasionally posts inscriptions of interest to New Testament students, follow him: @DClintBurnett1.

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

The  Bowls of God’s Wrath – Revelation 16:1-12

In Revelation 16:1 John hears a loud voice coming from the temple commanding the angels to our out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth. In rapid succession the angels pour out God’s wrath on the kingdom of the beast. The sixth bowl allows the nations to gather at Armageddon and the seventh bowl announces, “it is done!”

Revelation 16 Bowls of God's Wrath

What is a “bowl of wrath? The word is phiale (φιάλη) and refers to a variety of containers including funeral urns, shallow cups used for drinking or pouring libations, or smaller containers for perfumes and ointments (BrillDAG). The KJV translated the word as “vial”; Middle English spelled the word phial, following the Greek closely. This translation is not wrong, but it is outdated. In modern English the “vial” word refers to something like a test-tube; this Greek word refers to a flat bowl or cup used in a religious ceremony.

David Aune cites Varro De lingua Latina 5.122, “it is this kind of cup that the magistrate uses in sacrificing to the gods, when he gives wine to the god” (2:879). Josephus says there were “two vials full of frankincense” in the Tabernacle (Ant. 3.143). In Testament of Solomon 16:7 the word is used as part of an exorcism ritual, “I ordered him to be cast into a broad, flat bowl, and ten receptacles of seawater to be poured over (it).”

These bowls are “poured out” (ἐκχέω), a word associated with spilling blood in battle, although it is used for the blood of Jesus in the New Testament. Since the bowls come from the sanctuary the background is likely pouring out a libation on an altar. For example, in Sirach 50:15, the high priest Simon “he held out his hand for the cup  and poured a drink offering of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the king of all” (NRSV).

In LXX Jeremiah 7:20 and Lamentations 2:4, 4:11 God will pour out his wrath on Jerusalem, in 10:25, 14:16 his wrath is poured out on the nations.

The bowls were first introduced in 15:7, the seven angels come from the sanctuary with golden bowls of the wrath of God.” These are the final judgments specifically target the kingdom of the beast and his followers. Like the seals and trumpets earlier in Revelation, as each angel pours a small shallow bowl, a plague occurs on earth.

The First Bowl: A Painful Sore (16:2). This judgment falls only those who have the mark of the beast and worship his image (Rev 13:4; 13:14-16). The ugly and painful sores are similar to the Egyptian plague in Exodus 9:9-11. These are more than just blemishes, the noun ἕλκος refers to ulcers or abscesses that need to be cut out or amputated (BrillDAG). The word is modified by two words both meaning something like bad or evil. Translations try to capture this in various ways, the ESV has “harmful and painful”; the NIV has “ugly, festering sores”; the NRSV has “a foul and painful sore”; BDAG suggests “a foul and vile sore.”

The Second Bowl: The Sea Turns to Blood (16:3). Similar to the second trumpet or the plague on the Nile (Exodus 7:20-21; Ps 78:44; 105:29), this judgment destroys all of the life in the sea, turning it to “blood as a corpse.” When Judas Maccabees captures Caspin, the slaughter is so great that “the adjoining lake, a quarter of a mile wide, appeared to be running over with blood” (NRSV).

The Third Bowl: Rivers to Blood (16:4-7). Similar to the first plague on Egypt (Exod 7:14-19) and the third trumpet, the third bowl destroys fresh water. In the fourth Sibylline Oracle freshwater turning to blood is included as a sign of war, “the great Euphrates is flooded with blood” (4.61).

After the water is destroyed, the “angel in charge of the waters” praises God for his just judgements. Is there an angel “in charge of waters?” In 1 Enoch 61:10 the writer lists a series of angles, including “the other forces on earth (and) over the water.” On the other hand, the angel may be the one who poured out the third bowl.

The reason given for turning all the waters into blood is the government of the beast has been spilling the blood of the people of God. It is a just judgment that those who have spilled blood will now be given blood to drink.

Sib. Or. 3.311–313 you will be filled with blood, as you yourself formerly poured out the blood of good men and righteous men, whose blood even now cries out to high heaven.

The Fourth Bowl: The Sun Scorches (16:8-9). Unlike the previous bowls, this angel pours out his bowl on the sun. The fourth bowl is the reverse of the fourth trumpet and the ninth plague (Exod 10:21-23), but instead of reducing the power of the sun, the power of the sun is increased, causing the people of the earth to be scorched with an intense heat. The verb (καυματίζω) is usually used for plants scorched by a hot sun (Matt 13:6). Rather than repent, the curse God (βλασφημέω) and refuse to give him glory.

The Fifth Bowl: Darkness on the Beast (16:10-11). While the fourth bowl increase the heat, the sixth plunges the throne of the beast into total darkness. Darkness is a common theme in Hebrew prophets and apocalyptic literature.

Amos 8:9 “And on that day,” declares the Lord GOD, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.”

Sib. Or. 5.346–350 The imperishable flames of the sun itself will no longer be, nor will the shining light of the moon be anymore in the last time, when God assumes command. Everything will be blackened, there will be darkness throughout the earth, and blind men, evil wild beasts, and woe.

Assumption of Moses 10.5 The sun will not give light. And in darkness the horns of the moon will flee. Yea, they will be broken in pieces.

In response to this unnatural darkness, people will gnaw their tongues in anguish and continue to curse God. Although it is not exactly the same language, in Matthew 22:13 the man who is expelled from the wedding banquet goes into the “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” as are the foolish, unprepared women who are left in the darkness outside the wedding banquet. In the parable of the net, the bad fish are thrown into a fiery furnace where there will be “will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (cf. Matt 8:11-12).

The Sixth Bowl: Euphrates Dries Up (16:12). Similar to the sixth trumpet, the river Euphrates is dried up when the sixth bowl is turned. This “prepares the way for kings from the east,” presumably to gather at Armageddon. The Romans were deeply concerned about the Parthians on their eastern border and the Euphrates formed a natural defense (Aune calls an “irrational Roman fear of the Parthians,” 2:891-93). There are several references in the Old Testament to God drying rivers, see Isaiah 50:2 for example. But this drying of the river Euphrates may allude to the Exodus, the Red Sea dried up and allowed Israel to escape Egypt. In any case, it is unimaginable the Euphrates would dry up.

God’s Wrath is Completed – Revelation 15:1-8

In Revelation 15:1 John sees another great and marvelous sign, seven angels with the seven last plagues. They are the last plagues because God’s wrath has been completed. Revelation 15-16 alludes to the book of Exodus to describe God’s final wrath on the kingdom of the beast.

Seven Bowls of God's Wrath

Although God’s wrath is often associated with Israel’s rebellion, the prophets associate God’s wrath to eschatological events. For example, in Zephaniah 1:15 the final judgment will be a day of wrath, distress, anguish, and ruin. On that day the Lord will sweep everything away like chaff (2:2) and make a sudden end to all who live on the earth (1:18).

The wrath of God has been completed or accomplished (aorist passive of τελέω). The wrath of God is mentioned in several key passages in the book.  In Revelation 6:16-17 the great day of the wrath of the Lamb “has come” and in 11:18 God’s wrath came, judged the dead and rewarded God’s servants. Those who have worshiped the beast will drink the wine of God’s wrath (14:10) and the harvest of the earth was described as grapes in the “winepress of God’s fury” (14:19). The seven bowls introduced in 15:17 and describe in chapter 16 are called “bowls full of the wrath of God” and Babylon the Great will drink the wine of God’s wrath (16:19; 19:15).

After seeing the great and wondrous sign, John sees those who have been victorious over the beast worshiping the Lamb (Rev 15:2-4). This worship scene has elements from Revelation 4-5, now familiar scenes of heavenly worship.  John sees worshipers with harps beside a sea of glass mingled with fire.

The worshipers are the ones who are conquered the beast, its image and the number of his name. Although the text does not say they have been killed, that they are worshiping in a heavenly seem implies they have refused to worship the image of the beast or take his number.  Like the souls under the altar in Revelation 6:9-11 and the 144,000 in 14:1-5, they have been killed by the beast and are now worshiping the Lamb.

The song they are singing is identified as the “Song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb.” The Song of Moses is found in Exodus 15:1-18, Deuteronomy 31:30-32:43 and Psalm 90. The problem is the Song of Moses in Revelation 15 has no literary relationship between the song of Moses in the Old Testament.  Perhaps what follows is only the Song of the Lamb and the reader is assumed to know what the song of Moses is.

The context of the original song is important: God rescued his people out of Egypt, he overcame the Egyptians and their gods. There are obvious connections between the following judgments and plagues in Exodus. God is working again to preserve his people by sending plagues on their enemies.

The seven angels are given “bowls filled with the wrath of God” (Rev 15:5-8). The angels come out of the open “the sanctuary of the tent.” This is another allusion to Exodus. The tent of meeting was the place where Moses spoke face to face with the Lord. Temples with open doors were considered a “bad sign” in the ancient world.  David Aune lists several sources indicating a temple door opening by itself was a sign of God’s wrath (2:878). Like angels in Daniel, these angels are dressed in white with a gold sash.

When the four living creatures given these angels the bowls of God’s wrath, the whole sanctuary is filled with the smoke of the glory of God (15:8). This is another allusion to Exodus: when the ark was installed in the Tabernacle the tent was filled with a cloud, representing the glory of God (Exodus 40:34-35).

Book Notice: Aaron W. White, The Prophets Agree: The Function of the Book of the Twelve Prophets in Acts

Aaron White The Prophets AgreeHere is a new book that combines two of my interests, the book of Acts and the use of Scripture in the New Testament: Aaron W. White, The Prophets Agree: The Function of the Book of the Twelve Prophets in Acts (Biblical Interpretation Series 184; Brill, 2020). White completed his PhD at Bristol University under the supervision of John Nolland. He currently serves as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in South Charleston, Ohio.

White has previously published an article on this issue, “‘The Creative Use of Amos by the Author of Acts’ Reexamined: The Lukan Appropriation of LXX-Amos in Acts and What it Tells Us About Luke,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 46.2 (2016).

The title of the book alludes to James’ enigmatic used of Amos 9 at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:15-17), although Acts 15 is only one of the four quotations from the Minor Prophets in Acts. He devotes a chapter to each citation:

  • “I Will Pour out My Spirit”: Jesus the Lord and the Lukan Reading of LXX-Joel 3:1–5 in Acts 2
  • “Forty Years”: The Divided People of God and the Lukan Reading of LXX-Amos 5:25–27 in Acts 7:42–43
  • “I Am Doing a Work”: The Gentiles as God’s People and the Lukan Reading of LXX-Habakkuk 1:5 in Acts 13
  • “All the Gentiles Who Are Called”: Sending the Gentile Mission and the Lukan Reading of LXX-Amos 9:11–12 in Acts 15

White compares Luke’s use of the minor prophet to an example from Second Temple Period literature. For example, Testament of Judah 24 alludes to Joel 3:1–5 in a messianic context. The Damascus Document: CD-A 7:13–8:1 alludes to Amos 5:25–27. For Habakkuk 1:5 in Acts 13, White 1.16–2.10 examines 1QpHab 1.16–2.10. For the perplexing use of Amos 9:11, White turns to 4Q Florilegium.

The book argues for the importance of reading the Twelve Prophets in unity when it is quoted in Acts and the integral role these citations play in the redemptive-historical plotline of Acts. White focuses on the place of the Minor Prophets in Acts asks what difference it makes to regard these four quotations as a singular contribution to Acts from a unified source.

I look forward to reading this book.

What is the Winepress of God’s Wrath? Revelation 14:17-20

When the last two angels appear in Revelation 14, they begin a final judgment on the earth. Is this the battle of Armageddon, the final judgment before God establishes his kingdom?

Blood flowing from the great winepress of God's wrath, no.55 from 'The Apocalypse of Angers', 1373-87 (tapestry)

Although there are a number of ways to understand the structure of Revelation, this is the final scene in a cycle of visions (Revelation 12-14). This conclusion foreshadows the final battle in in the book. In Revelation 16:16, all the nations of the world will gather at har-meggido, the mountain of Megiddo, or Armageddon. There are also similarities to the gore in the final battle described in 19:17-21.

The image of the great winepress of the wrath of God is drawn from Isaiah 63:1-6. In this disturbing passage, the Lord is clothed in a white robe stained with the blood of his enemies. When asked why his robes are stained, the Lord responds, “I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments and stained all my apparel.” In 63:6 the Lord says, “I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”

This is a disturbing, violent image for God. But the metaphor of Israel as a grape vine is common in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 5:1-7, for example, Israel is a vineyard planted and cultivated by the Lord, but it only yielded wild grapes; so the Lord destroys it (anticipating the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the exile).  In Joel 1:7 the Lord lays to waste his vine; in Lamentations 1:15 the virgin daughter of Judah is “trodden as in a winepress.”

There are a number of passages in the Old Testament describing God as a divine warrior, sometimes riding the storm and clouds like a chariot. For example, Psalm 18:7-15 describe the earth reeling at the appearance of the Lord riding on a cherub with the wings of the wind. In Psalm 104:1-4 God “makes the clouds his chariot” and he “rides on the wings of the wind.” Tremper Longman suggests Revelation uses this divine warrior motif to describe the Lamb’s eschatological victory. This is not surprising, Longman says, because “the Divine Warrior is the one to whom the apocalyptists looked forward with hope that he would intervene in history to judge their enemies, save them and establish himself as king” (300).

The winepress is “outside the city.” What city is this, Babylon or Jerusalem? For some interpreters, this must be Jerusalem since Revelation is about the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. But “outside the city” is simply where a vineyard and winepress would be located. Some commentators suggest an allusion to Jesus’s crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem.

The angel harvests the grapes and gathers them into the winepress of God’s wrath where the are trampled. The blood flowed “as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia,” or about 184 miles, the distance from Dan to Beersheba (a common measure of the promised land in the Old Testament). Is this chest deep blood intended to be a literal river or gore, or is this hyperbole?

Most commentaries consider this as hyperbole. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Revelation, NCC, 230) pointed out the number is a square of 40, which he states is the “number of judgment” (citing Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, although there are other examples of forty which are not related to judgment). Similarly, Robert Mounce sees this as a square of four (hinting at the four corners of the earth), and is therefore a symbol of the whole world (Mounce, Revelation, 283).

There are a few who see this as a literal river of blood. Robert Thomas points out the valley of Megiddo drains into the Jordan system, so a massive slaughter there would result in a river of blood (Thomas, Revelation, 2:224). Fanning states this should not be taken in any way as a literal five- or six-feet deep river of blood, but rather “the cataclysmic defeat and destruction of all enemies arrayed against [Christ] in that day will unimaginably vast” (Fanning, 400).

The image of hyperbolic amounts of blood and gore is not uncommon in apocalyptic literature. For example, in the third Sibylline Oracle “the plain will sweep to the sea with the blood of perishing men” (3.453-454). “Rocks will flow with blood and every torrent will fill the plain” (3.684-685) and “all the impious will bathe in blood. The earth itself will also drink of the blood of the dying; wild beasts will be sated with flesh” (3.695-697). Similar to the Great Supper of God in Revelation 19:17-18, the fifth Sibylline Oracle says “wild beasts will devour the table from all dwellings. Even birds will devour all mortals. The bloody ocean will be filled with flesh and blood of the senseless, from evil war” (5.470-473). Other examples of exaggerated gore in an apocalyptic context:

1 Enoch 100.3–4 The horse shall walk through the blood of sinners up to his chest; and the chariot shall sink down up to its top. 4 In those days, the angels shall descend into the secret places. They shall gather together into one place all those who gave aid to sin.

Sibylline Oracle 3.319-323 Woe to you, land of Gog and Magog, situated in the midst of Ethiopian rivers. How great an effusion of blood you will receive and you will be called a habitation of judgment among men and your dewy earth will drink black blood.

Even Josephus exaggerated the blood flowing through the streets of Jerusalem when Rome captured in the city in A.D. 70:

Josephus, Jewish War 6.406–407 Yet, while they pitied those who had thus perished, they had no similar feelings for the living, but, running everyone through who fell in their way, [407] they choked the alleys with corpses and deluged the whole city with blood, insomuch that many of the fires were extinguished by the gory stream. (LCL)

Although this section of 4 Ezra (sometimes called 6 Ezra) may influenced by Christian writings, a similar image of horses wading through blood is used:

4 Ezra 15.35–37 They shall clash against one another and shall pour out a heavy tempest on the earth, and their own tempest; and there shall be blood from the sword as high as a horse’s belly 36 and a man’s thigh and a camel’s hock. 37 And there shall be fear and great trembling on the earth; those who see that wrath shall be horror-stricken, and they shall be seized with trembling (NRSV).

The image of treading a winepress lends to the description of rivers of blood, since the crushing of extremely ripe grapes may very well look like a river of dark blood. The picture is not so much of blood flowing than the quantity and quality of the enemies of God that are under his judgment at the return of the Messiah.  The enemies of God are described as very ripe grapes, and there are so many of them that by treading them the land is filled with their juice.

Standing at the background of the gore-tradition is Ezekiel 39:17-21. The passage describes the invasion of Israel by Gog and Magog and the account of the bloody gore is similar to this passage and Revelation 19:17-18.  John also alludes to Ezekiel in Revelation 20:8, another epic final battle.

Bibliography: Tremper Longman III, “The Divine Warrior: The New Testament Use of an Old Testament Motif” WTJ 44 (1982): 290-307.