Apocalypse, from the verb apokalypto, to reveal, is the name given to the last book in the Bible. It is also called the Book of Revelation.
Although a Christian work, the Apocalypse belongs to a class of literature dealing with eschatological subjects and much in vogue among the Jews of the first century before, and after, Christ.
The author of the Apocalypse calls himself John. “John to the seven churches which are in Asia” (Apocalypse 1:4). And again, “I, John, your brother and your partner in tribulation . . . was in the island which called Patmos, for the word of God” (1:9).
The Seer does not further specify his personality. But from tradition we know that the Seer of the Apocalypse was John the Apostle the son of Zebedee, the Beloved Disciple of Jesus. At the end of the second century the Apocalypse was acknowledged by the historical representatives of the principal churches as the genuine work of John the Apostle.
In Asia, Melito, Bishop of Sardis, one of the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse, acknowledged the Revelation of John and wrote a commentary on it (Eusebius, Church History IV.26). In Gaul, Irenaeus firmly believes in its Divine and Apostolic authority (Against Heresies 5.30). In Africa, Tertullian frequently quotes Revelation without apparent misgivings as to its authenticity (Against Marcion III). In Italy, Bishop Hippolytus assigns it to the Apostle St. John, and the Muratorian Fragment (a document about the beginning of the third century) enumerates it along with the other canonical writings, adding, it is true, apocryphal Apocalypse of St. Peter, but with the clause, quam quidam ex nostris in ecclesia legi nolunt. The Vetus Itala, moreover, the standard Latin version in Italy and Africa during the third century, contained the Apocalypse. In Egypt, Clement and Origen believed without hesitation in its Joannine authorship. They were both scholars and men of critical judgment. Their opinion is all the more valuable as they had no sympathy with the millennial teaching of the book. They contented themselves with an allegorical interpretation of certain passages but never ventured to impugn its authority.
Approaching more closely the apostolic age we have the testimony of St. Justin Martyr, about the middle of the second century. From Eusebius (Church History IV.18.8), as well as from his dialogue with the Jew, Tryphon (c. 81), held in Ephesus, the residence of the apostle, we know that he admitted the authenticity of the Apocalypse. Another witness of about the same time is Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, a place not far from Ephesus. If he himself had not been a hearer of St. John, he certainly was personally acquainted with several of his disciples (Eusebius, Church History III.39). His evidence however is but indirect. Andreas, Bishop of Caesarea, in the prologue to his commentary on the Apocalypse, informs us that Papias admitted its inspired character. From the Apocalypse undoubtedly Papias derived his ideas of the millennium, on which account Eusebius decries his authority, declaring him to have been a man of limited understanding. The apostolic writings which are extant furnish no evidence for the authenticity of the book.
Arguments against its authenticity
The Alogi, about A.D. 200, a sect so called because of their rejection of the logos-doctrine, denied the authenticity of the Apocalypse, assigning it to Cerinthus (Epiphanius, LI, ff, 33; cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.11.9). Caius, a presbyter in Rome, of about the same time, holds a similar opinion. Eusebius quotes his words taken from his Disputation: “But Cerinthus by means of revelations which he pretended were written by a great Apostle falsely pretended to wonderful things, asserting that after the resurrection there would be an earthly kingdom” (Church History III.28). The most formidable antagonist of the authority of the Apocalypse is Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, disciple of Origen. He is not opposed to the supposition that Cerinthus is the writer of the Apocalypse. “For”, he says, “this is the doctrine of Cerinthus, that there will be an earthly reign of Christ, and as he was a lover of the body he dreamed that he would revel in the gratification of the sensual appetite”. He himself did not adopt the view that Cerinthus was the writer. He regarded the Apocalypse as the work of an inspired man but not of an Apostle (Eusebius, Church History VII.25). During the fourth and fifth centuries the tendency to exclude the Apocalypse from the list of sacred books continued to increase in the Syro-Palestinian churches. Eusebius expresses no definite opinion. He contents himself with the statement: “The Apocalypse is by some accepted among the canonical books but by others rejected” (Church History III.25). St. Cyril of Jerusalem does not name it among the canonical books (Catechesis IV.33-36); nor does it occur on the list of the Synod of Laodicea, or on that of Gregory of Nazianzus. Perhaps the most telling argument against the apostolic authorship of the book is its omission from the Peshito, the Syrian Vulgate. But although the authorities giving evidence against the authenticity of the Apocalypse deserve full consideration they cannot annul or impair the older and unanimous testimony of the churches. The opinion of its opponents, moreover, was not free from bias. From the manner in which Dionysius argued the question, it is evident that he thought the book dangerous as occasioning crude and sensual notions concerning the resurrection. In the West the Church persevered in its tradition of apostolic authorship. St. Jerome alone seemed to have been influenced by the doubts of the East.
The Apocalypse compared with the Fourth Gospel
The relation between the Apocalypse and the Fourth Gospel has been discussed by authors, both ancient and modern. Some affirm and others deny their mutual resemblance.
The learned Alexandrine Bishop, Dionysius, drew up in his time a list of differences to which modern authors have had little to add. He begins by observing that whereas the Gospel is anonymous, the writer of the Apocalypse prefixes his name, John. He next points out how the characteristic terminology of the Fourth Gospel, so essential to the Joannine doctrine, is absent in the Apocalypse. The terms, “life”, “light”, “grace”, “truth”, do not occur in the latter. Nor did the crudeness of diction on the part of the Apocalypse escape him. The Greek of the Gospel he pronounces correct as to grammar, and he even gives its author credit for a certain elegance of style. But the language of the Apocalypse appeared to him barbarous and disfigured by solecisms. He, therefore inclines to ascribe the works to different authors (Church History VII.25).
The upholders of a common authorship reply that these differences may be accounted for by bearing in mind the peculiar nature and aim of each work. The Apocalypse contains visions and revelations. In conformity with other books of the same kind, e.g. the Book of Daniel, the Seer prefixed his name to his work. The Gospel on the other hand is written in the form of an historical record. In the Bible, works of that kind do not bear the signature of their authors. So also as regards the absence of Joannine terminology in the Apocalypse. The object of the Gospel is to prove that Jesus is the life and the light of the world, the fullness of truth and grace. But in the Apocalypse Jesus is the conqueror of Satan and his kingdom. The defects of grammar in the Apocalypse are conceded. Some of them are quite obvious. Let the reader but notice the habit of the author to add an apposition in the nominative to a word in an oblique case; e.g. 3:12; 14:12; 20:2. It further contains some Hebrew idioms: e.g. the Hebrew equivalent to erchomenos, “the one that is to come”, instead of esomenos, 1:8. But it should be borne in mind that when the Apostle first came to Ephesus he was, probably wholly ignorant of the Greek tongue.
The comparative purity and smoothness of diction in the Gospel may be adequately accounted for by the plausible conjecture that its literary composition was not the work of St. John but of one of his pupils. The defenders of the identity of authorship further appeal to the striking fact that in both works Jesus is called the Lamb and the Word. The idea of the lamb making atonement for sin by its blood is taken from Isaiah 53. Throughout the Apocalypse the portraiture of Jesus is that of the lamb. Through the shedding of its blood it has opened the book with seven seals and has triumphed over Satan. In the Gospel Jesus is pointed out by the Baptist as the “Lamb of God . . . him who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Some of the circumstances of His death resemble the rite observed in the eating of the paschal lamb, the symbol of redemption. His crucifixion takes place on the selfsame day on which the Passover was eaten (John 18:28). Whilst hanging on the cross, His executioners did not break the bones in His body, that the prophecy might be fulfilled: “no bone in it shall be broken” (John 19:36). The name Logos, “Word”, is quite peculiar to the Apocalypse, Gospel and first Epistle of St. John. The first sentence of the Gospel is, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The first epistle of St. John begins, “That which was from the beginning which we have heard . . . of the word of life”. So also in the Apocalypse, “And his name is called the Word of God” (19:13).
Time and place
The Seer himself testifies that the visions he is about to narrate were seen by him whilst in Patmos. “I John . . . was in the island which is called Patmos for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). Patmos is one of the group of small islands close to the coast of Asia Minor, about twelve geographical miles from Ephesus. Tradition, as Eusebius tells us, has handed down that John was banished to Patmos in the reign of Domitian for the sake of his testimony of God’s word (Church History III.18). He obviously refers to the passage “for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus” (1:9). It is true that the more probable meaning of this phrase is, “in order to hear the word of God”, etc., and not “banished because of the word of God”, etc., (cf. 1:2). But it was quite natural that the Seer should have regarded his banishment to Patmos as prearranged by Divine Providence that in the solitude of the island he might hear God’s word. The tradition recorded by Eusebius finds confirmation in the words of the Seer describing himself as “a brother and partaker in tribulation” (1:9). Irenaeus places the Seer’s exile in Patmos at the end of Domitian’s reign. “Paene sub nostro saeculo ad finem Domitiani imperii” (Against Heresies V.4). The Emperor Domitian reigned A.D. 81-96. In all matters of Joannine tradition Irenaeus deserves exceptional credit. His lifetime bordered upon the Apostolic age and his master, St. Polycarp, had been among the disciples of St. John. Eusebius, chronicling the statement of Irenaeus without any misgivings, adds as the year of the Seer’s exile the fourteenth of Domitian’s reign. St. Jerome also, without reserve or hesitation, follows the same tradition. “Quarto decimo anno, secundam post Neronem persecutionem movente Domitiano, in Patmos insulam relegatus, scripsit Apocalypsim” (Ex libro de Script. Eccl). Against the united testimony of these three witnesses of tradition the statement of Epiphanius placing the Seer’s banishment in the reign of Claudius, A.D. 41-54, appears exceedingly improbable (Haer., li, 12, 33).
The seven Churches
Title and description of the book (1:1-3)
The revelation made by Jesus the Messias to John.
Salutation prefatory to the seven Epistles, wishing the churches the grace and the peace of God and Jesus.
The vision of Jesus as the Son of Man (1:9-20)
The portrait is taken from Daniel 10 and Henoch 46. Cf. the phrases, “one like the son of man” (Apocalypse 1:13, Daniel 10:16 and 7:13); “girded with gold” (Apocalypse 1:13; Daniel 10:5); “eyes like flames of fire” (Apocalypse 1:14; Daniel 10:6); “a voice like that of a multitude” (Apocalypse 1:15; Daniel 10:6); “I fell down like one senseless” (Apocalypse 1:17; Daniel 10:9); “and he touched me” (Apocalypse 1:17, Daniel 10:18); “hair white like wool” (Apocalypse 1:14; Daniel 7:9; Henoch 46:1).
The epistles to the seven Churches (2:1-3:22)
The Churches are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The Epistles are short exhortations to the Christians to remain steadfast in their faith, to beware of false apostles and to abstain from fornication and from meat offered to idols.
The book with the seven seals
The vision of God enthroned upon the cherubim (chapters 4 and 5)
The throne is surrounded by twenty-four elders. In the right hand of God is a scroll sealed with seven seals. In the midst of the Cherubim and the elders the Seer beholds a lamb, “agnus tamquam occisus”, having on its throat the scar of the gash by which it was slain. The Seer weeps because no one either in heaven or on earth can break the seals. He is comforted on hearing that the lamb was worthy to do so because of the redemption it had wrought by its blood. The portrait of the throne is taken from Ezechiel 1. Compare in both accounts the description of the four beasts. They resemble a lion, an ox, a man, and an eagle. Their bodies are full of eyes (cf. Revelation 4:8; and Ezekiel 10:12). The twenty-four elders were probably suggested by the twenty-four courses of priests ministering in the Temple. The lamb slain for the sins of mankind is from Isaias 53.
The seven seals and the numbering of the saints (chapters 6 and 7)
At the opening of four seals, four horses appear. Their colour is white, black, red, and sallow, or green (chloros, piebald). They signify conquest, slaughter, dearth and death. The vision is taken from Zechariah 6:1-8. At the opening of the fifth seal the Seer beholds the martyrs that were slain and hears their prayers for the final triumph. At the opening of the sixth seal the predestined to glory are numbered and marked. The Seer beholds them divided into two classes. First, 144,000 Jews, 12,000 of every tribe. Then a numberless multitude chosen from all nations and tongues.
The seventh seal (chapters 8 and 9)
After the interval of about half an hour, the seventh seal is broken; seven angels issue forth, each one holding a trumpet. The sounding of the first four trumpets causes a partial destruction of the elements of nature. One-third of the earth is burned, as also one-third of the trees and all the grass. One-third of the sea becomes blood (cf. Exodus 7:17). One-third of the rivers is turned into water of wormwood. One-third of the sun, moon, and stars is obscured, causing one-third of the day to be dark (cf. Exodus 10:21). At the sounding of the fifth trumpet locusts ascend from the abyss. Their work is to torment men for five months, They are specially charged not to touch the grass. Their shape is that of horses (Joel 2:4) their teeth like those of lions (Joel 1:6), their hair like the hair of women. They have the tails of scorpions where with to chastise man. The command over them is held by the Angel of the Abyss, named Abaddon, the destroyer. At the sound of the sixth trumpet the four angels chained at the Euphrates are let loose. They lead forth an army of horsemen. By the fire which the horses spit out and by their tails which are like serpents, one-third of mankind is killed. After the sixth trumpet there are two digressions. (1) The angel standing on the land and the sea. He swears that at the sound of the seventh trumpet the mystery will be completed. He hands to the Seer a little book. When eaten by him it is found sweet to taste, but bitter when once devoured. Taken from Ezekiel 2:8 and 3:3. (2) The contamination of the court of the Temple by the heathens. It lasts three and a half years. Taken from Daniel 7:25; 9:27; 12:7-11. During that time two witnesses are sent to preach in Jerusalem. They are the two olive-trees foretold by Zechariah 4:3-11. At the end of their mission they are slain by the beast. They are raised to life after three and a half days (= years). The seventh trumpet is now sounded, the nations are judged and the kingdom of Christ is established.
The divine drama
First act (chapters 12-14)
The lamb, the woman, and her seed; and opposed to them, the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the land. The main idea is taken from Genesis 3:15. “I will put enmities between thee (the serpent) and the woman, and thy seed and her seed”. The woman is arrayed in heavenly splendour; a crown of twelve stars on her head and the sun and the moon under her feet (cf. Genesis 37:9-10). She is in travail. Her first-born is destined to rule all the nation (Psalm 2:8, 9). She herself, and her other seed, are persecuted for three and a half years by the great dragon who tries to kill them. The great dragon is Satan (Genesis 3:1). He is cast out of heaven. With his tail he drags after him one-third of the stars. Taken from Daniel 8:10. The fallen stars are the fallen angels. The beast from the sea is in great part taken from Daniel’s description of the four beasts. It arises from the sea (Daniel 7:3); has seven heads marked all over with blasphemies. It had also ten horns, like the fourth beast of Daniel (7:7); it resembled a leopard, the third beast of Daniel (7:6), it had feet like a bear, the second beast of Daniel (7:5); and teeth like a lion, the first beast of Daniel (7:4). The great dragon gives full power unto the beast, whereupon all the world worship it (viz. those whose names are not contained in the book of the lamb). The followers of the beast have its mark on their head and hand. The beast from the land has two horns like a ram. Its power lies in its art of deceiving by means of tokens and miracles. Throughout the remainder of the book it is called the false prophet. Its office is to assist the beast from the sea, and to induce men to adore its image. The first act of the drama concludes with a promise of victory over the beast by the lamb of God.
Second act (chapters 15-16)
The seven vials. They are the seven plagues preceding the destruction of the great city, Babylon. They were for the greater part suggested by the Egyptian plagues. The first vial is poured out on the earth. Men and beasts are smitten with ulcers (Exodus 9:9-10). The second and third vial upon the seas and rivers. They become blood (Exodus 7:17-21). The fourth vial upon the sun. It burns men to death. The fifth vial upon the throne of the beast. It causes great darkness (Exodus 10:11-29). The sixth vial upon the Euphrates. Its waters are dried up and form a passage for the kings of the East (Exodus 14). The seventh upon the air. Storm and earthquake destroy Babylon.
Third act (chapters 17-18)
The great harlot. She is seated upon the scarlet beast with the seven heads and ten horns. She is robed in scarlet and decked with gold. On her head is written: Mystery, Babylon the great. The kings of the earth commit fornication with her. But the day of her visitation has come. She is made a desolate place, the habitation of unclean animals (Leviticus 13:21-22). Her fall is lamented by the rulers and merchants of the earth.
Fourth act (chapters 19-20)
The victory over the beast and the great dragon. A knight appears mounted on a white horse. His name is “The word of God”. He defeats the beast and the false prophet. They are cast alive in the pool of fire. Their defeat is followed by the first resurrection and the reign of Christ for a thousand years. The martyrs rise to life and partake with Christ in glory and happiness. During these thousand years the great dragon is held in chains. At their completion he is once more set at large to torment the earth. He deceives the nations Gog and Magog. These two names are taken from Ezekiel 28 and 39, where however Gog is the king of Magog. At last he also is cast for all eternity in the pool of fire. Hereupon the general judgement and the resurrection take place.
Fifth act (chapters 21-22)
The new Jerusalem (cf. Ezechiel 40-48). God dwells in the midst of His saints who enjoy complete happiness. The new Jerusalem is the spouse of the lamb. The names of the Twelve Tribes and the Twelve Apostles are written on its gates. God and the lamb are the sanctuary in this new city.
Epilogue (verses 18-21)
The prophecy of the book is soon to be fulfilled. The Seer warns the reader not to add anything to it or take away from it under pain of forfeiting his share in the heavenly city.
Purpose of the book
From this cursory perusal of the book, it is evident that the Seer was influenced by the prophecies of Daniel more than by any other book. Daniel was written with the object of comforting the Jews under the cruel persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes. The Seer in the Apocalypse had a similar purpose. The Christians were fiercely persecuted in the reign of Domitian. The danger of apostasy was great. False prophets went about, trying to seduce the people to conform to the heathen practices and to take part in the Caesar-worship. The Seer urges his Christians to remain true to their faith and to bear their troubles with fortitude. He encourages them with the promise of an ample and speedy reward. He assures them that Christ’s triumphant coming is at hand. Both in the beginning and at the end of his book the Seer is most emphatic in telling his people that the hour of victory is nigh. He begins, saying: “Blessed is he that . . . keepeth those things which are written in it; for the time is at hand” (1:3). He closes his visions with the pathetic words: “He that giveth testimony of these things saith, Surely I come quickly: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus”. With the coming of Christ the woes of the Christians will be avenged. Their oppressors will be given up to the judgment and the everlasting torments. The martyrs that have fallen will be raised to life, that they may share the pleasures of Christ’s kingdom, the millennium. Yet this is but a prelude to the everlasting beatitude which follows after the general resurrection. It is an article of faith that Christ will return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. But the time of His second advent is unknown. “But of that day and hour no one knoweth, no, not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). It would appear, and is so held by many that the Christians of the Apostolic age expected that Christ would return during their own lifetime or generation. This seems to be the more obvious meaning of several passages both in the Epistles and Gospels (cf. John 21:21-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The Christians of Asia Minor and the Seer with them, appear to have shared this fallacious expectation. Their mistaken hope, however, did not affect the soundness of their belief in the essential part of the dogma. Their views of a millennial period of corporal happiness were equally erroneous. The Church has wholly cast aside the doctrine of a millennium previous to the resurrection. St. Augustine has perhaps more than any one else helped to free the Church from all crude fancies as regards its pleasures. He explained the millennium allegorically and applied it to the Church of Christ on earth. With the foundation of the Church the millennium began. The first resurrection is the spiritual resurrection of the soul from sin (City of God XX). Thus the number 1,000 is to be taken indefinitely.
Structure of the book and its literary composition
The subject-matter of the Apocalypse required a threefold division.
The first part comprises the seven exhortatory letters.
The leading idea in the second part is the wisdom of Christ. It is symbolized by the book with seven seals. In it are written the eternal decrees of God touching the end of the world, and the final victory of good over evil. No one except Jesus, the lamb slain for the sins of the world, is worthy to break the seals and read its contents.
The third part describes the power of Christ over Satan and his kingdom. The lamb defeats the dragon and the beast. This idea is developed in a drama of five acts. In five successive scenes we see before us the struggle, the fall of Babylon the harlot, the victory, and final beatitude.
The third part is not only the most important, but also the most successful from a literary point of view. The drama of the lamb contains several beautiful thoughts of lasting value. The lamb, symbolizing gentleness and purity, conquers the beast, the personification of lust and cruelty. The harlot signifies idolatry. The fornication which the rulers and the nations of the earth commit with her signifies the worship they pay to the images of Caesar and the tokens of his power. The second part is inferior in literary beauty. It contains much that is taken from the Old Testament, and it is full of extravagant imagery. The Seer shows a fanciful taste for all that is weird and grotesque. He delights in portraying locusts with hair like that of women and horses with tails like serpents. There are occasional passages revealing a sense of literary beauty. God removes the curtain of the firmament as a scribe rolls up his scrolls. The stars fall from the heavens like figs from the fig-tree shaken by the storm (6:12-14). On the whole, however the Seer shows more love for Oriental splendour than the appreciation of true beauty.
It would be alike wearisome and useless to enumerate even the more prominent applications made of the Apocalypse. Racial hatred and religious rancour have at all times found in its vision much suitable and gratifying matter. Such persons as Mohammed, the Pope, Napoleon, etc., have in turn been identified with the beast and the harlot. To the “reformers” particularly the Apocalypse was an inexhaustible quarry where to dig for invectives that they might hurl then against the Roman hierarchy. The seven hills of Rome, the scarlet robes of the cardinals, and the unfortunate abuses of the papal court made the application easy and tempting. Owing to the patient and strenuous research of scholars, the interpretation of the Apocalypse has been transferred to a field free from the odium theologicum. But then the meaning of the Seer is determined by the rules of common exegesis. Apart from the resurrection, the millennium, and the plagues preceding the final consummation, they see in his visions references to the leading events of his time. Their method of interpretation may be called historic as compared with the theological and political application of former ages. The key to the mysteries of the book they find in 17:8-14. For thus says the Seer: “Let here the mind that hath understanding give heed”.
The beast from the sea that had received plenitude of power from the dragon, or Satan, is the Roman Empire, or rather, Caesar, its supreme representative. The token of the beast with which its servants are marked is the image of the emperor on the coins of the realm. This seems to be the obvious meaning of the passage, that all business transactions, all buying and selling were impossible to them that had not the mark of the beast (Apocalypse 13:17). Against this interpretation it is objected that the Jews at the time of Christ had no scruple in handling money on which the image of Caesar was stamped (Matthew 22:15-22). But it should be borne in mind that the horror of the Jews for the imperial images was principally due to the policy of Caligula. He confiscated several of their synagogues, changing them into heathen temples by placing his statue in them. He even sought to erect an image of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant., XVIII, viii, 2).
The seven heads of the beast are seven emperors. Five of them the Seer says are fallen. They are Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The year of Nero’s death is A.D. 68. The Seer goes on to say “One is”, namely Vespasian, A.D. 70-79. He is the sixth emperor. The seventh, we are told by the Seer, “is not yet come. But when he comes his reign will be short”. Titus is meant, who reigned but two years (79-81). The eighth emperor is Domitian (81-96). Of him the Seer has something very peculiar to say. He is identified with the beast. He is described as the one that “was and is not and shall come up out of the bottomless pit” (17:8). In verse 11 it is added: “And the beast which was and is not: the same also is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into destruction”.
All this sounds like oracular language. But the clue to its solution is furnished by a popular belief largely spread at the time. The death of Nero had been witnessed by few. Chiefly in the East a notion had taken hold of the mind of the people that Nero was still alive. Gentiles, Jews, and Christians were under the illusion that he was hiding himself, and as was commonly thought, he had gone over to the Parthians, the most troublesome foes of the empire. From there they expected him to return at the head of a mighty army to avenge himself on his enemies. The existence of this fanciful belief is a well-attested historic fact. Tacitus speaks of it: “Achaia atque Asia falso exterrit velut Nero adventaret, vario super ejus exitu rumore eoque pluribus vivere eum fingentibus credentibusque” (Hist., II, 8). So also Dio Chrysostomus: kai nyn (about A.D. 100) eti pantes epithymousi zen oi de pleistoi kai oiontai (Orat., 21, 10; cf. Suetonius, “Vit. Caes.”; s.v. NERO and the SIBYLINE ORACLES). Thus the contemporaries of the Seer believed Nero to be alive and expected his return. The Seer either shared their belief or utilized it for his own purpose.
Nero had made a name for himself by his cruelty and licentiousness. The Christians in particular had reason to dread him. Under him the first persecution took place. The second occurred under Domitian. But unlike the previous one, it was not confined to Italy, but spread throughout the provinces. Many Christians were put to death, many were banished (Eusebius, Church History III.17-19). In this way the Seer was led to regard Domitian as a second Nero, “Nero redivivus”. Hence he described him as “the one that was, that is not, and that is to return”. Hence also he counts him as the eighth and at the same time makes him one of the preceding seven, viz. the fifth, Nero. The identification of the two emperors suggested itself all the more readily since even pagan authors called Domitian a second Nero (calvus Nero, Juvenal. IV, 38). The popular belief concerning Nero’s death and return seems to be referred to also in the passage (13:3): “And I saw one of its heads as it were slain to death: and its death’s wound was healed”.
The ten horns are commonly explained as the vassal rulers under the supremacy of Rome. They are described as kings (basileis), here to be taken in a wider sense, that they are not real kings, but received power to rule with the beast. Their power, moreover, is but for one hour, signifying its short duration and instability (17:17). The Seer has marked the beast with the number 666. His purpose was that by this number people may know it. He that has understanding, let him count the number of the beast. For it is the number of a man: and his number is six hundred and sixty-six. A human number, i.e. intelligible by the common rules of investigation. We have here an instance of Jewish gematria. Its object is to conceal a name by substituting for it a cipher of equal numerical value to the letters composing it. For a long time interpreters tried to decipher the number 666 by means of the Greek alphabet, e.g. Irenæus, Against Heresies V.33. Their efforts have yielded no satisfactory result. Better success has been obtained by using the Hebrew alphabet. Many scholars have come to the conclusion that Nero is meant. For when the name “Nero Caesar” is spelled with Hebrew letters, it yields the cipher 666.
The second beast, that from the land, the pseudoprophet whose office was to assist the beast from the sea, probably signifies the work of seduction carried on by apostate Christians. They endeavoured to make their fellow Christians adopt the heathen practices and submit themselves to the cultus of the Caesar. They are not unlikely the Nicolaitans of the seven Epistles. For they are there compared to Balaam and Jezabel seducing the Israelites to idolatry and fornication. The woman in travail is a personification of the synagogue or the church. Her first-born is Christ, her other seed is the community of the faithful.
In this interpretation, of which we have given a summary, there are two difficulties:
In the enumeration of the emperors three are passed over, viz. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. But this omission may be explained by the shortness of their reigns. Each one of the three reigned but a few months.
Tradition assigns the Apocalypse to the reign of Domitian. But according to the computation given above, the Seer himself assigns his work to the reign of Vespasian. For if this computation be correct, Vespasian is the emperor whom he designates as “the one that is”. To this objection, however, it may be answered that it was the custom of apocalyptic writers, e.g., of Daniel, Enoch, and the Sibylline books, to cast their visions into the form of prophecies and give them the appearance of being the work of an earlier date. No literary fraud was thereby intended. It was merely a peculiar style of writing adopted as suiting their subject. The Seer of the Apocalypse follows this practice. Though actually banished to Patmos in the reign of Domitian, after the destruction of Jerusalem, he wrote as if he had been there and seen his visions in the reign of Vespasian when the temple perhaps yet existed. Cf. 2:1-2.
We cannot conclude without mentioning the theory advanced by the German scholar Vischer. He holds the Apocalypse to have been originally a purely Jewish composition, and to have been changed into a Christian work by the insertion of those sections that deal with Christian subjects. From a doctrinal point of view, we think, it cannot be objected to. There are other instances where inspired writers have availed themselves of non-canonical literature. Intrinsically considered it is not improbable. The Apocalypse abounds in passages which bear no specific Christian character but, on the contrary, show a decidedly Jewish complexion. Yet on the whole the theory is but a conjecture.
- Christian Van den Biesen. “Apocalypse”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 28 August 2015. Web. 29 April 2017. <>