The fall of the kingdom of the beast
Revelation, or the Apocalypse of John, is one of the most complex works in the New Testament. Before addressing the present passage it will be useful, particularly for contextual purposes, to briefly introduce the text as a whole. Most scholars agree that we can know little about the author, except that he was accepted by those he wrote to as a Jewish-Christian prophet. Revelation begins with a certain “John” on the island of Patmos in the Aegean, writing to the “Seven Churches of Asia.” What follows is a description of prophetic visions, leading up to the return of Jesus Christ. The text as we now have it is generally dated to 81-96 CE, while the emperor Domitian was in power (see Loren Stuckenbruck, “Revelation,” p. 1535-1536). However, some argue for composition under Vespasian (69-79 CE) (see Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John, p. 3). Several decades ago, J. Massyngberde Ford argued that chapters 4-11 were likely written by John the Baptist, and later on supplemented with extra Christian material (Revelation, p. 3-4), and there is still an argument for the text having been composed and redacted over a long period of time. Composition under Domitian still remains the most likely scenario (for a list of the supporting factors, see Ben Witherington, Revelation, p. 3-4).
Revelation does not often quote directly from the Hebrew Bible, but heavily alludes to and echoes the Scriptures. In particular, Daniel, Ezekiel, Psalms, and Isaiah are clearly sources of influence (on this topic, see Steve Moyise, The Old Testament). The once popular view was that the text was written to offer encouragement to persecuted Christians at the hands of Domitian (see Philip A. Harland, “Honouring the Emperor,” and for an analysis of Suetonius, Domitian XIII.2, from which the argument for persecution was developed, see Stephen J. Friesen, Imperial Cults, p. 147-148). However, recently this understanding has been mostly abandoned, as Domitian is no longer viewed as a tyrant imposing the imperial cult, and it is no longer believed that under this emperor there was any kind of systematic persecution of Christians across the empire (see Mark Stephens, Annihilation Or Renewal p. 143-145, and Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation, esp. p. 171-172, who argues that the tyrannical image of Domitian is misleading, and partly due to his presentation by senatorial writers such as Tacitus and Suetonius, whom he was regularly at odds with). Consequently, it is generally now thought that Revelation stems from intra-community conflict among the Christians of Asia Minor, arguing over how much, if at all, they should continue to be a part of wider Greco-Roman society. Essentially, Revelation speaks against those wishing to accommodate with wider society, and “reveals” it as evil, demonic, and the recipient of divine wrath and punishment.
In chapter 13 of Revelation, the author has alluded to Rome’s dominion as an evil, blasphemous beast, forcing all the people of earth to worship its image (clearly referencing the imperial cult) and bear its “mark” (χάραγμα) (seemingly referencing in part the emperor’s image on coins and the imperial stamp on official documentation). While arguments continue to be made for the author having in mind specific emperors (Nero and/or Domitian), a more holistic reading of the text suggests that one should interpret this imagery not in reference to isolated episodes of Roman rule (i.e. a particular emperor’s reign or period of Christian persecution), but in a more general sense, where Roman authority as a whole is understood to be an oppressive force totally in opposition to God’s kingdom – Rome is essentially the antichrist. Drawing heavily on images and ideology from the Hebrew Bible and contemporary Jewish apocalyptic literature, this passage narrates dramatically the fall of the beast’s kingdom and the punishment God will enact upon it for its sins. This is the author’s hopeful vision of Rome’s demise, and the ultimate triumph of God’s people.
Rome’s destruction comes in the form of plagues, drawing of course on those of Egypt in Exodus, issued by seven angels (or “messengers”) of God who each pour a bowl of his wrath upon the earth. The first plague of sores is visited upon those who worship the beast’s image (i.e. participate in the imperial cult) or bear its mark. If, as explained above, the mark denotes the stamp on coins and documentation, then this verse also potentially visualises the downfall of Roman trade and commerce (verse 2), but this possibility must be qualified by the understanding that while commerce resulting from the Pax Romana (Roman peace) was important, for the majority of the population economy stemmed from local agriculture. Next, the sea, rivers, and fountains all become tainted with blood (verses 4 and 5), and the sun scorches the inhabitants of the earth (verse 8). Significantly, the fifth angel specifically targets the beast on his throne (the Roman emperor), throwing his kingdom into darkness (verse 10). This juxtaposes with the opening of the fifth seal (one of seven which secure the scroll containing John’s vision) in Revelation 6:9, which specifically targets the faithful martyrs slain for God’s cause. They are given white robes and told to wait just a little while longer in order for their blood to be avenged. Here in 16:10, God’s judgement of the head of a system which Revelation’s author felt to be oppressing God’s people symbolises the onset of this retribution.
The drying up of the Euphrates in verse 12, which gives way to kings from the east may allude to the Persian ruler Cyrus’s crossing of the same drained river on the way to conquering Babylon (Herodotus, Histories I.191), and/or might imply that Rome’s defeat will see it become subject to invasion (J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, p. 262). Focus turns to eschatological battle in verses 13 and 14, however, with the rulers of the earth fighting alongside demons who have led them astray against the Lord. Verse 15 is peculiar, but possibly the most logical explanation is that it alludes to the officers on duty at the temple who were punished for falling asleep more than once by having their clothes burnt. The implication is perhaps that now the final battle is at hand, the vigilance of God’s people is imperative (this was suggested many years ago by Philip Carrington, The Meaning of Revelation, p. 265). The final angel is given the task of heralding the proclamation from God’s heavenly temple that the task has been completed (verse 17), which is followed by cosmic chaos reminiscent of typical Jewish-Christian apocalyptic imagery (see, for example, Matthew 24:3-31; Luke 21:7-28).
The “great city” of verse 19 is not Rome, but Jerusalem. This is indicated by the juxtapositioning of the “great city” with “the cities of the gentiles,” implying that the first is not a gentile city. The same phrase appears earlier in Revelation 11:8, and recalls Zechariah 14, which also speaks of the day when the nations will gather against Jerusalem. The comparison of Rome and Babylon draws on imagery that was deeply embedded in Jewish consciousness. The idolatry and impudence shown by Babylon had become a powerful symbol of opposition to God’s people (see Jean-Pierre Ruiz, Ezekiel in the Apocalypse, p. 386). In 587 BCE, Babylon had destroyed the Jewish temple (as the Romans would also do in 70 CE), and a series of empires forced themselves on the Jews in the subsequent centuries, with the Romans taking Jerusalem in 63 BCE. As outlined by Nelson Kraybill, Jewish feeling about this painful history of oppression can be seen in numerous laments, hymns of grief, prayers for divine retribution, and stories of resilience in writings such as Psalms 44; 68:1-2, 21-23; 74; 79; 137:1-9; 4 Ezra 3:28-36; 1 Maccabees 1-2; and Daniel 1-6, to name a few examples (see Kraybill, Imperial Cult, p. 142-152). Babylon remained a powerful model, and Revelation shares a cultural milieu which also gave birth to Jewish apocalyptic literature where Babylon becomes a synonym for Rome. For instance, 4 Ezra 3:2 laments the destruction of the temple and the wealth of Babylon (Rome), and 2 Baruch 36:7-9 describes a vision in which Rome is a malicious cedar tree ruling over a forest with despicable displays of power. The author visualises an eventual defeat of Rome when the emperor will be taken to Mount Zion and executed at a trial before the anointed (2 Baruch 40:1-2). Similarly for the author of Revelation, then, the parallels between Rome and Babylon made it ripe for polemic, and just as Isaiah 21:9 imagines Babylon’s gods broken on the ground, we can imagine Revelation’s author wishing the same fate for the imperial cult of “the beast.”
The concept of the “Future of Rome” is vital for understanding this text. Even before the composition of Revelation there were authors who discussed the possibility of Rome’s end and what a future without it could hold. For instance, Polybius, Histories XXXVIII.21-22, discusses the unpredictability of Fortune when narrating the fall of Carthage. According to Polybius, Scipio laments that he fears the same misfortune will one day befall his own country… Polybius also discusses the cyclic nature of empires more generally, which rise and fall in turn (see Histories I.2, where he sets out his aims), as does Dionysus of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities I.2-6). Dionysus, a Greek historian living in Augustan Rome is ambiguous, as while he praises the astonishing achievements of Rome’s dominion and expanse, reading between the lines one can glean the impression that Rome will one day fall as previous empires have. Additionally, the speech of King Agrippa related by Josephus, War II.342-404, in which King Agrippa attempts to persuade the Jews to abandon their desire to go to war with Rome, argues that while the power of the Roman empire is impressive (having quashed many formidable peoples), it was made possible only by God (II.390). The implication, then, is that were Rome’s divine assistance to cease, so too might its dominion.
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