The Revelation, and Predicting the Past

For many people who read the Bible, the Book of Revelation is the most confusing thing they come across. Visions of angels and monsters and plagues... it can leave the reader scratching their head. However, the Revelation is just one book from the genre we call ‘apocalypse’. Specifically, it comes from a subset focused on eschatology, the ‘end times’.

Here’s what I wrote in my last post:

Many eschatological apocalypses were written during a time of crisis that the author believed would immediately be followed by the eschaton. The author would write in the name of a hero living centuries earlier (Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, etc.) and pretend to ‘predict’ the historical events that led up to the time of the crisis, before then attempting to predict the aftermath of that crisis. In every one of these cases, the author’s knowledge of the ancient past would be sketchy and incomplete; their accuracy would increase as their ‘predictions’ moved forward in time. When they approach their present, their accuracy would be at its height, but the moment the author began to predict the outcome of the crisis, their accuracy would freefall.

This practice of ‘predicting’ events already past is called vaticinium ex eventu, which roughly means ‘prophecy after-the-fact’.

Prophecy After-the-Fact

The reason these apocalypses included after-the-fact prophecy was to legitimize their genuine attempts at predicting what came next. Readers would be led to believe that, because the ‘ancient’ author had correctly ‘predicted’ everything up to the present time when the crisis had begun, they could trust that the ‘ancient’ author would also be able to correctly predict how the crisis would conclude.

Daniel ‘predicted’ the rise and fall of the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek kingdoms. The author living during the Maccabean Revolt, attempted to then predict the conclusion to the Greek kingdom: Antiochus Epiphanes would be divinely slain, and the dead would be raised for a climactic judgment. He even claimed it would all be fulfilled within 1290 days. When this prediction initially failed, a redactor added the revised date of 1335 days.1

Fourth Ezra ‘predicted’ the rise of the Roman Empire through its first twelve emperors. The author, living during the time of Domitian, attempted to predict the fall of Rome: the messiah would appear and destroy the empire, then set up a divine kingdom for four centuries, which would be followed by the judgment. When his prediction failed, a (much later) redactor labored to insert several more emperors into the sequence.2

Both 4 Ezra and Daniel ‘predict’ the historical events leading up to their respective times of crisis, and once each book arrives at the author’s present day, their predictions plummet in accuracy. We see the same pattern in 1 Enoch 85-90 (called the ‘Animal Apocalypse’) and 93.1-10, 91.11-17 (the ‘Apocalypse of Weeks’).

Because the function of these texts is to predict the outcome of the respective authors’ current crises, each book accidentally reveals to us when the authors were actually making their predictions. Daniel shows intimate knowledge of Antiochus Epiphanes actions and the Maccabean Revolt, but the author does not know the Revolt’s outcome; we can pin down the book’s origin to about 167-165 BC. In the case of 1 Enoch’s Animal Apocalypse and Apocalypse of Weeks, we only get a general sense that each was written sometime during or after the Maccabean Revolt (164 BC), but before the Roman Empire conquered Israel (63 BC). Fourth Ezra thinks the Roman Empire will be overthrown during or after the rule of the twelfth emperor; between the author’s estimate that he was writing thirty years after Jerusalem fell (AD 70), and his identification of Augustus as the second emperor, this would place him late in the rule of Domitian, about AD 90-95.

The Revelation Follows Suit

The Revelation is often thought to be a revolutionary prophecy by those unaware of the apocalyptic genre, but it’s not a unique book. For the author to follow the conventions of a genre well-known in his time tells us the Revelation was intended, from its very inception, to be a written work.3 This sounds obvious, but what I mean is: The book is not the author’s improvised recording of unexpected visions, writing down exactly what he saw while he was in the process of seeing it. Instead, the author deliberately, carefully lifted his choice of words and symbols from across the Hebrew Bible.

The Revelation does purposely throw off two conventions found in nearly all other apocalypses. First, contrary to the norm of pretending to be an ancient hero, the author freely admits he is living through the very crisis his prophecies are concerned with (1.9). Second, because the author does not pretend to be an ancient hero, he doesn’t claim his prophecies have been ‘sealed’ for centuries on end. He actually says the exact opposite: the time of fulfillment is so close, he has been forbidden to seal away his prophecy (1.1,3; 22.6,10).

And yet...

‘This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated; also, they are seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain for only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.’

—Revelation 17.9-11

This passage functions in the Revelation exactly the same way Dan 11 and 4 Ezra 11-12 function in those books. It ‘predicts’ a definite number of kings, and claims the eschaton will arrive during the rule of the final king. Although the author has freely admitted he was living through the crisis he was writing about, but he does not throw vaticinium ex eventu away. He has merely adapted it to his needs.

The prophet sees a monster with seven heads, with a woman seated on the monster. The woman he calls ‘Babylon’, a known cipher for Rome. The monster’s seven heads symbolize seven hills: these are the seven hills of Rome. And the seven heads also symbolize seven kings: these are Rome’s emperors. Five are already dead. The sixth rules right now. The seventh will rule only briefly. An eighth will come from the seven and the beast itself is this eighth. Then the beast will be destroyed by the messiah (17.12-14), which the author envisions taking place after Babylon is destroyed (19.11-21).

Revelation 17’s List of Kings

Less favored interpretations are that the seven kings equate to seven quasi-mythological kings of Rome (beginning with Romulus himself), unknown future kings, or taking the ‘kings’ to be whole kingdoms (Egypt, Assyria, etc.). The preferred idea of scholars across the board is to take the seven kings as referring to the Roman emperors, but to take their number as a symbol for the ‘totality’ of Roman power without having specific emperors in mind.4

The Revelation’s numerological symbolism is clearly intended, but I don’t think it is the full extent of what the author wanted to say. The closest parallels to Rev 17’s list of kings are the previously mentioned Dan 11, 4 Ezra 11-12, and 1 Enoch’s Animal Apocalypse. In each case, specific historical referents are behind the symbolism. I think the author of Rev 17 probably did have specific Roman emperors in mind, and his overall symbolism can help us narrow down a possible solution.

At minimum, for the author to call Rome by the cipher ‘Babylon’ requires the book to have been written after AD 70. This was when Rome destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. Because Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem and its temple centuries earlier (allegedly on the same day), apocalyptic Judeans began to call Rome ‘Babylon’.

Rev 13.3,14 and 17.8 strongly hint the author borrowed from the Nero Redux legend. Nero, who died in AD 68, was thought by many to still be alive and in hiding. Several imposters claimed to be him in the following years, and the legend was embellished over the years. This legend, of course, only emerged after the AD 68 death of Nero, so we’re quite some time after that. Rev 13.16-18 describes the mark of the beast as ‘the name of a man’, which is to be calculated as six hundred sixty-six, ‘the number of his name’. This perfectly describes gematria, the practice of calculating the numerical value of people’s names. It is widely agreed ‘Nero Caesar’ equals six hundred sixty-six when written in Hebrew. (See more here.) The beast ‘was and is not and is to come’, alludes to Nero’s death, and his eventual return, a twist on Nero Redux. That the beast is ‘an eighth’ which ‘belongs to the seven’ is the prediction of one of the five dead emperors returning to life: Nero Redivivus.

There are some difficulties to interact with.

First, while modern scholarship leaps on the technicality that Julius was never ‘emperor’, ancients regularly included him in their lists as the first ruler of the Roman Empire. Josephus and 4 Ezra plainly identify Augustus as the second ruler of Rome. The Sibylline Oracles and Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars each begin their list of Rome’s emperors with Julius. However, there do seem to be other ancients who considered Augustus to be the beginning of Rome’s empire. Tacitus’ Annals glides over Julius Caesar in its introduction, saying it was Augustus who ‘subjected [the world] to empire under the title of “Prince”’. Virgil also quickly passes over Julius to hail Augustus as the true beginning of the Roman Empire.

This is the man, this is him, whom you so often hear promised you, Augustus Caesar, son of the Deified, who will make a Golden Age again in the fields where Saturn once reigned, and extend the empire beyond the Libyans and the Indians (to a land that lies outside the zodiac’s belt, beyond the sun’s ecliptic and the year’s, where sky-carrying Atlas turns the sphere, inset with gleaming stars, on his shoulders): Even now the Caspian realms, and Maeotian earth, tremble at divine prophecies of his coming, and the restless mouths of the seven-branched Nile are troubled. Truly, Hercules never crossed so much of the earth, though he shot the bronze-footed Arcadian deer, brought peace to the woods of Erymanthus, made Lerna tremble at his bow: nor did Bacchus, who steers his chariot, in triumph, with reins made of vines, guiding his tigers down from Nysa’s high peak. Do we really hesitate still to extend our power by our actions, and does fear prevent us settling the Italian lands?

—Virgil, The Aeneid 6.791-807 (A.S. Kline translation)

The next problem arises in the emperors Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, who all ruled between Nero and Vespasian. While they are included in both 4 Ezra and the Sibylline Oracles, could the Revelation’s author have justified skipping them? Some regarded their rule as an ‘insurrection’ (Suetonius, Vespasian 1.1). Perhaps the author of Revelation saw these three emperors as illegitimate, and so dispensed with them to arrive at his numeric symbolism of seven.5 Precedent for this can be found in Dan 11, where, without a thought, the author skipped nine Persian kings for thematic reasons (namely, jumping from the Persian Xerxes’ invasion of Greece to the Greek Alexander’s invasion of Persia).

Piecing our information together, the solution to Rev 17’s series of emperors might be: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero (five dead), Vespasian (the sixth rules), and Titus (the seventh who will rule a short time).

If these are the emperors the author had in mind, there are two points in favor of these identifications. One is that Titus did rule ‘only a little while’ as the seventh emperor is said to; Titus ruled only two years. The other is this would make Domitian the eighth king, and Domitian was regarded as a sort of second Nero (Juvenal, Satire 4.37-38; Martial, Epigrams 11.33.1-3; Pliny the Younger, Panegyricus 53.4).

Christians of the second century remembered Domitian as ‘a man of Nero’s type of cruelty’ (Tertullian, Apology 5.4). Domitian had a Roman aristocrat executed for ‘atheism’ (denial of the state gods, probably from practicing Judaism; cf. Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14), and stories of Domitian persecuting Christians endured for centuries (Eusebius, Church History 3.17-20). Recent years have cast doubt on whether Domitian was truly as bad as ancient writers claimed, but they bear out that his reputation for tyranny was widespread, and this bled over into Judean and Christian apocalypticism.

Conclusion

We can see the author’s time period, his historical context, and the way he used (and altered) the usual tropes found in apocalypses. Though the author appears to place himself as writing during the rule of Vespasian, the content of his ‘predictions’ identify his actual time as during Domitian’s era, considering his knowledge of Titus’ brief rule.

This is not as extreme as the author of Daniel pretending to write four centuries earlier than he did, nor as the author of 4 Ezra feigning to write seven centuries earlier. The Revelation places itself under an earlier emperor, rather than an earlier empire. This allowed the author to admit he was a (relative) contemporary to the crisis his readers were experiencing, while also allowing him to ‘predict’ events now past to lend credibility to his actual predictions for the future.

Daniel’s author thought the end would come during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.

The Revelation’s author thought it would come during the time of Domitian.


1 John Collins, Daniel, 400-401.

2 Lorenzo DiTommaso, ‘Dating the Eagle Vision of 4 Ezra: A New Look at an Old Theory’, JSP 20, 3-38.

3 Leonard Thompson, The Book of Revelation, 18ff.

4 David Aune, Revelation 17-22, 945; Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 317; Craig Keener, Revelation, 409.

5 Henry Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John, 217; Stephen Smalley, Thunder and Love: John’s Revelation and John’s Commentary, 46-48. Swete writes, ‘It is, however, more than doubtful whether a writer living under the Flavian Emperors would reckon Galba, Otho, or Vitellius among the Augusti.’ Smalley points to Suetonius’ ‘dismissive’ tone when writing of these three, and how Josephus only remarks on them as the background to Vespasian’s rise to power.