The Name of the Beast (Part 2) – Revelation 13:17-18

Leopard King?

In my last post I argued that the number of the beast was a hint at the name of the beast, but the clues to determining the meaning of the name are more or less lost to us. I said that it was best to conclude that John and his readers knew what the number meant and to whom it referred, but it is futile to try and determine who the future Anti-Christ might be.

But this does not really stop people from trying to “calculate the number” of political figures in order to determine if they are the beast or the Anti-Christ. Norman Cohn’s classic study Pursuit of the Millennium and Bernard McGinn’s AntiChrist provide ample evidence that Christians have been naming antichrists since the book of Revelation was first written. While the Pope (or the Roman Church in general) have been the most common targets, history has no lack of potential antichrists. Mohammed and Napoleon have been common picks, although Martin Luther and any number of Tsars have made the list as well.

A few year ago I read the fascinating book, Naming the Antichrist, by Robert Fuller. This is a history of what he calls “an American obsession” with determining who the Anti-Christ is (or will be). This is far from a recent phenomenon, no-budget YouTube videos are only the latest in a long string of conspiracy theories and failed predictions. During the American Revolution the Maryland Journal reported that the soldiers celebrated the declaration of independence from Britain by decapitating a statue of George the Third, labeling it “the image of the beast.” A tract appeared about the same time declaring that the Greek and Hebrew words “Royal Supremacy in Great Britain” could be calculated as 666. Fuller quotes Elijah Fish, a clergyman from Massachusetts, urging his fellow patriots to see the revolution through to the end. He said “although men or devils, earth or hell, Antichrist or the dragon rages, the people of God may still triumph in Christ, the captain of their salvation” (Fuller, 71-2).  The rhetoric sounds amazingly contemporary to me, swap the theater of war and it would go well on AM radio.

I suspect that the establishment of Israel in 1948 gave rise to a great deal of modern prophetic speculation. Hal Lindsey famously predicted the rapture for 1981 (or later, 1988) based on a generation from the return of Israel to the Land. If the Rapture / Tribulation is set to begin in 1981, then someone living in the 1970s has to be the antichrist. Some candidates were obvious: Ronald Wilson Reagan had three names of six letters and survived an assassination attempt. Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel and was assassinated (maybe he will be resurrected?) Jimmy Carter was a Christian world leader who forged peace in the Middle East, perhaps he will break that covenant in the future and demand worship. Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of the “bear to the north” and had a rather mysterious mark on his own head. In fact, if you were any sort of a political leader in the 70s, you were probably named as an antichrist by someone.

I suppose there is a psychological explanation for this over-fascination with the “end times” and the hope that we can name the leader of the great end-times rebellion before he appears. Since most of these calculations and predictions are the response of an oppressed minority (or at least they think of themselves that way), the tendency is to imagine that the world as rushing headlong to an explosion of evil of apocalyptic proportions. I do not see much difference between the Roman church and Luther vilifying each other in their Revelation commentaries and the sort of politically motivated preaching which declares the other party as led by the Anti-Christ himself.

In conclusion, despite John’s suggestion that we try and calculate the number of the name, “naming the antichrist”  does not seem to be possible nor is it particularly profitable.  Rather than draw people to the real Christ, the over-emphasis on declaring someone the personal agent of Satan drives people away from the gospel.

The Name of the Beast (Part 1) – Revelation 13:17-18

W is the 6th Hebrew Letter

If there is a single element of the book of Revelation which is universally known in contemporary culture it is the mark of the Beast, 666. Virtually everyone in western culture thinks that 666 is the “devil’s number” or that the triple-six is a pernicious sign to be avoided. Several times I have bought something and the price came up $6.66, and the clerk wanted to know if I wanted to buy a pack of gum so I could avoid that particular price. I used to buy a particular combination of coffee and snack at one of my favorite coffee shops which always rang up to $6.66. (I referred to it as the “Devil’s breakfast” and tasty it was!)

But there is nothing in Revelation that says this number is the devil’s number, or Satan’s address in Hell. It is not an unlucky number nor is someone cursed if they somehow accidentally ring up $6.66 at the local Taco Bell. (Actually, you might be cursed if you eat the food at Taco Bell, but that is another issue altogether!) The number does not refer to Satan at all, verse 18 says that 6 is the “number of man,” presumably because man was created on the sixth day. 666 refers to the name of the beast, either a person (the anti-Christ) or the kingdom of the beast described in the rest chapter 13.

What does is mean to “calculate the name”? There are no numbers in many ancient languages, so letters sometimes substituted as numbers. A=1, B=2, etc. There is a bit of graffiti found in Pompeii that reads “I love her whose number is 545.” Potentially one might convert their name to numbers in Greek, Hebrew or Latin and come up with a number. That number could be used as a cipher, or perhaps one might have a “lucky” number for a name. For example, my “number” in Latin is 152 (using just the letters which have values in Roman numerals). In Greek, I get 908. Neither is particularly interesting, but I suppose if I paid money to a numerologist, they could come up with something profound.

John invites the reader to figure this out, in fact, he almost baits us into trying to figure it out! Knowing that the name adds up to 666, to what might the name refer? In the early church there were several suggested names, including a Greek word meaning “to deny”, meaning that the name of the Beast was denial of the Lord.  It is possible to use the initials of the Roman emperors from Julius to Vespasian one gets 666, but you have to skip the minor emperors to make this work. The full Latin title used on coins of Domitian, the emperor at the time of John, allegedly adds up to 666. The most common suggestion is that the number 666 refers to Nero Caesar, but in a the Hebrew spelling of the name. Some writers see the number more generally, showing that it is one short of the perfect number, three times. “Failure upon failure upon failure.”

It may be best to conclude that John and his readers knew the clue that unlocked the mystery of the number and who it referred to, and that we are unable to figure it out with any certainty today.  Despite this, people are still fascinated with the name of the beast and try to figure out who he might be.  I will have more to say about this in part two of this post.

What does the number prophesy? Whatever the mark is, it represents a final declaration of loyalty, whether for God or against him. By accepting this name, you are declaring your loyalty to the beast and the empire of the beast.

The Hidden Messiah?

Last Supper - BreadThere is perhaps another hint of eschatology in the Last Supper. Craig Evans suggests that the broken piece of bread which Jesus distributes is the afikoman (ἀφικόμενος, אפיקומן, Wikipedia). At the beginning of the Seder, a small portion of bread is broken off, to be consumed at the end of the meal. The bread represented the whole of the Jewish people and the broken portion represented “what the Messiah will eat when he returns to celebrate with Israel.”(Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, 390).

This was first suggested by David Daube (He That Cometh), although D. B. Carmichael, (“David Daube on the Eucharist and the Passover Seder” 45–67)  finds additional support for this understanding of the bread in Melito of Sardis, a second century writer who creates a “Christian Haggadah.” Melito uses the term ἀφικόμενος twice with reference to Jesus as the coming Messiah.

If the breaking of the bread does reflect the afikoman tradition, then it explains how Jesus could say that bread somehow represented him and his body.  The bread already represented something, the Messiah. Jesus is making a claim that he is in fact the Messiah when he breaks the bread. This is how the disciples understood breaking of bread in Luke 24 as well.  If the breaking of bread was a messianic self–revelation then it would be strong evidence in favor of the Last Supper as a messianic banquet.

Unfortunately there is no solid evidence that this traditional use of the bread was current in the first century, so Evans suggestion may not be helpful in showing that the bread is an allusion to messianic themes.

The Last Supper and the Messianic Banquet

In Mark 14:25 Jesus states that he will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until he drinks it anew in the Kingdom of God. Since the emphasis is on drinking wine when the kingdom comes, this should be taken as an allusion to an eschatological banquet which celebrates the final victory.  Craig Blomberg states that the Last Supper was a “foreshadowing of the messianic banquet” and connects the event to Isa 25:6–9.  Similarly, Allison says “Jesus announces that he will feast at the messianic banquet.”  But what is there in this saying which implies a connection to the eschatological feast I described earlier in chapter 3?

Last Supper - BouveretFirst, the description of the meal is laced with allusions to shared meals in the Mosaic and New Covenant passages. For example, Gundry suggests Jesus is blending Exod 24:8, Isa 53:12, and Jer 31:31.  The “blood of the covenant” in Exod 24:8 is followed by a meal on Sinai in which Moses, Aaron and the seventy elders eat and drink before God. This meal at the establishment of the first covenant is the foundation on which the meal at the establishment of the new Covenant is built in Isa 25:6–8. As I have already observed, rather than a meal restricted to only the leaders of Israel at Sinai, the eschatological banquet includes all people at Zion.

Second, Jesus clearly alludes to the new covenant text (Jer 31:33). Jeremiah 31 combines both an eschatological meal and a marriage metaphor to describe the restoration of Israel’s relationship with her God at the end of the Exile. That a covenant was ratified with the blood of a sacrifice is commonplace in the Hebrew Bible, but of primary importance is the sacrifice which accompanied the first covenant in Exod 24:8. Dunn includes the Last Supper in his section on “heavenly banquet.” (Jesus Remembered, 427). Vincent Taylor sees the meal as eschatological and describes verse 25 as an allusion to the messianic banquet: Jesus’ “messianic consciousness is manifest” (Mark, 547). C. S. Mann describes the section as “thoroughly Jewish” and contains an allusion to the messianic banquet (Isa 25:6–8) (Mark, 580). Robert Gundry thinks this saying is a prediction that Jesus will return to “transform the Passover meal into the messianic banquet.” (Mark, 843).

Third, the messianic banquet text in 1QSa sheds some light on the Last Supper as an anticipation of the eschatological meal. As I argued in chapter 6, 1QSa was initially thought to describe a Eucharist–like meal, although this has been (rightly) abandoned for the most part in recent scholarship. However, there are still remarkable comparisons and contrasts between the two meals. The participants in the meal in 1QSa are seated according to their rank, with the Messiah of Israel at their head. After the Messiah blesses the food, they drink new wine and eat the first–fruits of the bread. At the last supper Jesus eats with his twelve disciples, a number invoking the twelve tribes of a reconstituted Israel. Jesus indeed blesses the bread and wine, although there is no reference to sharing these among the participants at Qumran. The meal at Qumran was to celebrate the coming of the Messiah, so also here in the Last Supper. Jesus declares to his disciples that the New Covenant in imminent and that he will not drink wine again until he drinks it “new” in the Kingdom of God. Like the Qumran community, Jesus’ celebration of Passover is an anticipation of the coming eschatological age.

In summary, the Last Supper is an anticipation of the messianic banquet. As such, it is an intertextual blending of several traditions beginning with the covenant meal in Exod 24 and the restoration of the marriage of Israel and her God in Jer 31. Because discussion of the Last Supper is usually laden with theological questions about later Christian practice, the Jewish eschatological implications can be overlooked. Jesus finally reveals himself as the one who will initiate the New Covenant and restore Israel to her rightful place.

Are there other eschatological overtones to the Last Supper (either from the Passover or the Prophets) that might illuminate the meaning of this important meal?

The Parable of the Ten Virgins

oil-lampThis parable in Matthew 25 is an interesting example for parable study since it is often dismissed as a creation of the later church to explain the long-delay of the return of the Lord. The parable is an allegory created by Matthew to explain why Jesus did not return as quickly as anticipated. For example, Eta Linnemann said that this parable “is certainly a creation of the early Church. A Christian prophet or teacher unknown to us uttered it in the name and spirit of Jesus.” (Parables, 126).

I would rather read this parable in the context of the other parables in Matthew 24-25, as well as the whole of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple his final week.  The parable was intended to use common typology for Israel’s relationship with God found in the Hebrew Bible. For example, the relationship of God and Israel is pictured in the Old Testament as a marital relationship (Isa 54:4-6, 62:4-5, Ezek 16, Hosea).

If we follow Blomberg’s method for interpreting parables, then the bridegroom is the central character, the two sets of bridesmaids are the contrasting characters. This would imply strongly that the bridegroom is God / Jesus, since in most of these sorts of parables God is in that central position. The ten virgins or bridesmaids would then refer to the followers of Jesus who are waiting for his return. Five are prepared for a long interim, the other five are not.

But other elements are not intended to be typological at all. For example, the oil is sometimes equated to good works, or the merchants with the Church. (If you want to be ready for the return of Jesus, go and do good works in the Church?)  This is very “preachable,” but I am not at all convinced that was Jesus’ original point.

What makes the bridesmaids “wise” or “foolish”? It cannot be that they fell asleep since both the wise and foolish get drowsy and fall asleep. The delay was so long that normal life had to go on. The issue is that the foolish five are unprepared for the long wait. The type of lamp they used would need to be refueled when the groom arrived. By preparing themselves, the five wise bridesmaids are allowed to join the groom and enter into the wedding feast.

But what about the unprepared virgins? Why are they judged harshly? The shutting of the door is an indication of final judgment: there is no longer any way for them to get into the kingdom, they have missed out. The groom’s response to their please is that he does not know them.

The groom’s response is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 7:23 and is a rabbinical formula used to dismiss a student. The implication is that they had the same opportunity to be ready, and that since they were not ready at the right time, they will have no part in the kingdom. They remain outside, in the dark. The fact is, they were always in the dark and only thought that they would enter into the Wedding Feast.

This is yet another example in Jesus’ teaching of a shocking reversal. Those who think that they ought to be in the kingdom do not get in, they remain on the outside.  I think that the context supports this reading – what else do you seen in Jesus’ final week that supports this conclusion?  Who should we identify as the “wise” and “foolish” in the immediate context of the parable?

Watch out for False Messiahs!

At the very beginning of the Olivet Discourse, Jesus warns his disciples to watch out for people who will appear claiming to be the Messiah (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ χριστός) (Matt 24:2-5). Similarly, in Matt 24:10-13 he warns against pseudo-prophets (ψευδοπροφῆται) and in 24:23-28 both false messiahs and false prophets (ψευδόχριστοι καὶ ψευδοπροφῆται). In each case, these false prophets/messiahs will cause people to wander (πλανάω), a verb usually denoting deception. It is used often for Israel’s “going astray” in the LXX (Deut 4:19; Isa 17:11, for example). In Jer 23:32 the people of Israel are led astray by “those who prophesy lying dreams” and these false-prophet’s “lies and recklessness.”

Not the MessiahIn the literature of the Second Temple Period, false prophets are associated with the eschatological age. In the post-Maccabean text Testament of Judah 21:9, “Like a whirlwind shall be the false prophets: They shall harass the righteous.” Following this prediction Judah says “each other and conflicts will persist in Israel…until the salvation of Israel comes, until the coming of the God of righteousness, so that Jacob may enjoy tranquility and peace, as well as all the nations” (22:1-2).

Qumran community had experience with false teachers and prophets, although most of these refer to the Temple aristocracy from whom they had separated. For example, in a commentary on Isaiah 9:13-16, the prophet, the Teacher of Lies is “the tail” cut off by the Lord in judgment, and “[Those who lead this people lead (them) astray, and those who are led by him are swa]llowed up.” In the Apocryphon of Moses (4Q375 Col. i:4), false prophets were to be punished harshly: “However, the prophet who rises up to preach [apostasy] to you, [to make] you [tu]rn away from God, shall die.” The Temple Scroll also warns of false prophets who will try and turn the community from the Lord.

The Temple Scroll (11Q19) Col. liv:8-13 If among you there arises a prophet or a dreamer of dreams and gives you a sign or an omen, and the sign {and} /or/ the omen comes to you about which he spoke to you saying: “Let us go and worship other gods whom you do not know” do not listen to the word of that prophet or of that dreamer of dreams because I am putting you to the test, in order to know whether you love YHWH, the God of your fathers, with all your heart and all your soul.

In the seventh Sibylline Oracle (late second century, possibly Christian), prior to the restoration of the world false prophets will attempt to persuade the righteous:

Sib. Or. 7.132–138 But they will endure extreme toil who, for gain, will prophesy base things, augmenting an evil time; who putting on the shaggy hides of sheep will falsely claim to be Hebrews, which is not their race. But speaking with words, making profit by woes, they will not change their life and will not persuade the righteous and those who propitiate God through the heart, most faithfully.

Jesus’ warning concerning false prophets and messiahs is therefore consistent with other warnings from before and after Jesus. But the presence of false teachers, prophets and even messianic pretenders is not an indication the end is near. What is important here is Jesus warning to not led astray by people who claim this war or that earthquake is a sign of the end, since they are not signs at all, but the normal course of life until tine final judgment happens.

There are quite a few ways to use this warning to evaluate contemporary preaching and teaching on the end times. I often agree with the general point a writer makes, but I become very skeptical with they “set dates” or claim an event somehow fulfills prophecy. How should we apply Jesus’ warning to “not be deceived” today?

Jesus and Jewish Eschatology

Jesus as MessiahIn Mark 13:4 (Matt 24:3, Luke 21:7) the disciples ask Jesus “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus had just predicted that at some point, the beautiful Temple would be destroyed, “not one stone would be left on another.” For many Jews living in the first century, the idea of an eschatological age that restored a kingdom to Israel was a very real hope. But there were a number of general expectations that went along with this idea of restoration. Each of the Synoptic Gospels includes a long teaching section after Jesus’ teaching in the Temple. It is remarkable how closely Jesus aligns with Jewish thinking about the coming age.

Persecution. The restoration of Israel would be accompanied by a time of intense testing. This period of persecution will separate the true Israel from the false. The capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians initiated a long sequence of conflict with pagan rulers which reached a climax during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. The struggles of the Maccabean period become a paradigm for future persecutions.

Messiah. A new David would appear in those days to establish the kingdom in Jerusalem just as the first David had done. This messiah will appear at the end of the persecution to rescue the righteous remnant from their suffering, in the same way that the Maccabees rose up against Antiochus IV Epiphanies and re-dedicated the temple. He will establish the throne of God in Jerusalem and judge both the righteous and the sinner.

Judgment. When God acts on behalf of Israel will sort out the “righteous” from the “sinner” and give justice to all. Everyone will receive what they deserve and will either enter into a restored kingdom or they will be cast out of that kingdom. This involves a judgment on those who have persecuted true Israel including Gentiles and corrupt Jews (at least in some texts.) The fate of the Gentiles runs from complete annihilation to conversion and inclusion in the new age.

Restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. The hope of the Old Testament prophets is for the restoration of the nation after the long period of punishment. A repeated theme in the prophets is of God’s desire to restore his people after a period of discipline. The period after the Maccabees fell far short of the ideal kingdom expected, causing a variety of reactions to Hasmonean rule. This is not the “end of the world” in the sense of a destruction of this universe, but rather a renewal of all things to the way God had intended it in the first place. The Jews of the first century would not be looking for the end of the world but rather a very much “this world” shalom of peace and prosperity. This restoration will be a resurrection of the nation based on Ezekiel 37 and may very well involve a real resurrection of those who lose their lives as martyrs will live again at the time of restoration.

The source of this hope of restoration of the kingdom is to be found first in the prophets of the Old Testament, but also in the massive literature post-dating the Hebrew Bible. The idea of restoration and the themes of Messiah and persecution are expanded and developed in this period by a variety of writers, each contributing to the messianic worldview of the first century.

That these expectations are present in the teaching of Jesus is clear, but the extent to which they are present is a problem. Did Jesus fully accept the messianic expectations of the intertestamental writings, or did he seek to correct and temper them with his own, ethical teachings?