The definitive interpretation of Revelation

In my devil class, we read Daniel and Revelation in a short period, attempting to get at the apocalyptic mindset that produced our familiar figure of the devil. I’ve written previously about my theory that Antiochus Epiphanes’ brief but horrifying reign provided a key impetus for the development of the idea of a spiritual/political power that was not simply God’s unwitting tool (though he also remained that), but consciously fought against God’s purposes. The emergence of such a figure, who broke the Deuteronomistic pattern by punishing the Jews precisely for being righteous and faithful to the Law, could only mean the impending end of the world order that the Deuteronomistic paradigm had rendered intelligible — and produced the demand for a radically new world order in which the problem of evil would no longer be a problem.

Daniel’s strategy for presenting his view (for the sake of economy, let’s not get into the weeds of parsing out sources, etc.) consists in giving an account of world history up to his time (the Maccabean period), an account that is symbolic but more or less transparent when you know what he’s talking about — for instance, the various beasts are empires, the “little horn” is Antiochus, etc. The author brings us up to the situation in which he’s writing/redacting/whatever, but then in chapter 11, he gives us a prediction that didn’t come true (Antiochus is supposed to mount one last offensive against Northern Africa before ushering in the Last Judgment).

The visions in Revelation are much more difficult to “map onto” any particular history and seem to generate a kind of collage effect. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the core prediction is the ignominous fall of Rome, centered around Nero as an Antiochus-like figure. But the stakes have been decisively raised. Daniel presents Antiochus as carrying out more or less normal conquering activities, etc., but Revelation presents Nero as miraculously rising from the dead and bringing with him a supernaturally gifted propagandist/chief of staff type of figure (the false prophet). He is to that extent quite literally an anti-Christ with his own anti-John the Baptist, and there’s even the same ambiguity as to whether the Beast just is the Devil or is a separate figure, etc.

Now the author is pretty clear that there will be seven emperors before Nero rises from the dead, and depending on whether you include Julius in the count, Nero is either fifth or sixth in the dynasty. The problem is that immediately following Nero, you get the “year of four emperors,” which messes with the author’s tidy scheme. Hence I conclude that he was writing during Nero’s reign and that he mostly skips out on Daniel’s past history to make his vision more radically future-oriented — i.e., all the bowls of wrath, horns, plagues, etc., are envisioned as taking place either as a precursor to the resurrected Nero’s reign or as accompaying it (here I don’t think we can say for sure). In fact, insofar as he has a past history, it is compressed into the past history of the Christian community itself, represented mainly by the letters to the churches.

(The one thing that it’s hard to account for is the thousand-year reign, after which the devil must be let loose for a little while longer. I note, though, that the devil doesn’t do any actual damage on this last campaign — instead, he is immediately defeated. Hence I theorize that this sequence fits into the general scheme of God allowing someone to continue in sin so that they can be punished more thoroughly, i.e., it represents a kind of “surplus resentment.”)

2 thoughts on “The definitive interpretation of Revelation

  1. I don’t have time to offer a long response, so I’ll just say: this sounds good. I also think that going into the weeds to parse out sources in Daniel only strengthens your case. The parts of Daniel 7 that refer to Antiochus (the “little horn” that attacks heaven) and that later were taken to refer to the devil seem to be later additions. That is, the first version of Daniel 7 re-wrote Daniel 2 for the uncertain era when the Greek armies were about to destroy the Persian empire, and it was probably written by diaspora Jews working for the Persians (and thus the Greeks were a destabilizing force). It doesn’t refer to the temple or the land of Israel, like chapters 8-12 do, so it probably originated in diaspora. But then this text was updated by those writing in Jerusalem during Antiochus IV, and those additions sparked 8-12. So Antiochus IV is really the mediator between proto-apocalypse and full-blown apocalypse. Hope that makes sense.

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