For several months millions around the globe have been focused on a particular solar-lunar-stellar-planetary configuration of the constellation Virgo that appeared in the sky on September 23, 2017, see my post, “What Is Going to Happen on September 23, 2017–A Prediction of My Own!” Expectations ranged from the secret Rapture, the beginnings of the Great Tribulation, to a collision with a mysterious non-existent Planet X called Nibiru (after Zecharia Sitchin’s fantasy). From all accounts, Saturday passed, and things moved along “normally” on this side of planet earth–with the latest controversial tweets of President Trump, the aftermath of the recent hurricanes and earthquakes, and a heated up debate on the U.S. health care plans. Those were the stories that filled the Sunday news talk shows and so far as I heard, not a word about any apocalypse.
Maybe we need a “time out” from wild and hysterical apocalyptic predictions and a hard historical look at Revelation 12, the chapter in the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, that was the focus of all the recent unfounded speculation.
I have argued, with many of my academic colleagues, that the book of Revelation, as we now have it in Greek, is an original Jewish “apocalypse” that has been recast by followers of Jesus in a more “Judeo-Christian” garb, with several editorial stages dating to the reigns of Nero (54-68 CE) through Domitian (81-96 CE). See my posts, “Can a Pre-Christian Version of the Book of Revelation be Recovered?” and “The Destruction of Pompeii and the New Testament Book of Revelation.”
The foci of chapters 12 and 13 in particular, with the Woman who bears the messianic child; the Seven-headed/ten horned Dragon, the Seven-headed/ten horned Beast, and the Two-horned Lamb-like Beast, are clearly understood in the context of the Roman emperor Nero’s reign. More broadly these images and ideas are embedded in a series of Jewish traditions and interpretations of the visions of the book of Daniel, dating from the 2nd century BCE through the 1st century CE, see my article, “Ancient Jewish and Early Christian Millennialism” published in the Oxford Handbook Millennialism (ed. Wessinger).
Given this historical background I think we can sort out a few of these images fairly clearly. There are two “portents” or signs in Revelation 12–neither of which should be taken as some configuration of the Greco-Roman zodiac constellations. First the Woman, and second the Dragon.
The Dragon is explicitly identified as “the Devil and Satan” (verse 9), who is thrown to the earth with only a short time left, to persecute the woman and her “offspring.” It is this Dragon that subsequently “possesses” the Beast–clearly the military/political system that persecutes God’s people (Rev 13:1-4). When the book of Revelation was written, in all of its layers and editorial stages, this was obviously the Roman Empire.
The Woman, with the crown of Twelve Stars and the Sun at her head, the moon under her feet, is obviously faithful Zion, or the people of Israel–the “mother” of the Messiah who is born (compare Isaiah 66:7-9). The messianic child, destined to rule the nations, is taken up to heaven to escape the Dragon or Satan, understood in the version we have to clearly be Jesus. These are not astrological signs or configurations but apocalyptic characters, just as the dream of Joseph of his rule over his brothers was about future events not astrological signs (Genesis 37:9).
For followers of Jesus, who began to see their own messianic community as a renewed “Israel,” the woman’s flight into the wilderness for three and a half years, was a reference to their own persecuted community. It is possible that there is a connection here with the tradition that the followers of Jesus fled the city of Jerusalem in 66 CE, four years before its destruction by the Romans in the year 70 CE, see my articles on the flight to Pella in trans-Jordan and its identification as a “Jesus hideout” in the Gospel of John.
For a general overview of this historical interpretation of the book of Revelation in its wider contexts see my article “Why 2K? The Biblical Roots of Millennialism.” Nero can be reliably identified as the second “Beast” of Revelation 13:11-18 by his number 666 (or 616 in some manuscripts). In Hebrew, each of the 22 letters of the alphabet has a numerical value. A code called gematria, developed in Jewish apocalyptic and mystical circles, draws connections between two otherwise unrelated words based on the total numerical value of the letters in each word.
Nero’s name or title in Hebrew looks like this: נרון קסר or NRON QSR transliterated), meaning Nero Caesar. Taking the value of the Hebrew letters, N=50, R=200, O=6, N=50, Q=100, S=60,R=200, one comes up with the sum of 666. To make this identification of the beast with Nero even more convincing, it should be noted that some Greek manuscripts of Revelation give the number 616 rather than 666—probably due to an alternative spelling of Nero as NRO rather than NRON (666 minus the final N [=50] gives 616).
This 666 number seems also reflected in Nero’s name written in Greek as well as a similar system of gematria was also used based on the Greek alphabet. For example, a bit of graffiti at Pompeii reads, “I love her whose number is 545” (letters phi-mu-epsilon in Greek, probably someone’s initials). If we write Nero’s title in Greek, it looks like this:—νερων καεσαρ or NERON CAESAR. The value of the Greek letters totals 1,332, which seems to lack significance—until one realizes that 1,332 is in fact 666 times 2. The author of Revelation is apparently signaling to the astute reader that Nero is the model of the Antichrist; since he has come and gone, however, a second “Nero” is to come—in his mind, very possibly the emperor Domitian—who will also persecute Christians. It is probably not coincidental that the Roman numerals—I (1), V (5), X (10), L (50), C (100), D (500)—also add up to 666! Rome and its most wicked emperors seem to be stamped all over these beasts of Revelation 13. In contrast, it was certainly not lost on early Christians that the gematria for the name and title “Jesus Christ” in Greek—IESOUS—adds up to 888, which in this system of thought signifies something beyond seven, or completion.
If one wants to really understand Revelation 12 it must be put back into the last decades of the 1st century CE during the terror filled reigns of Nero, and later Domitian, with the murder of James the brother of Jesus in the year 63 CE, the subsequent slaughter of Christians in Rome, including Paul and Peter, in 64 CE, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Domitian was seen as a “resurrection” of the Beast whose deadly wound was “healed,” and his reign inspired the final editing of the book of Revelation as we have it today.