Though you are probably already aware of it, I just wanted to let you know that there seem to be two typos in the guide to Daniel and Revelation, on pages 36 and 47. On page 36 in the second paragraph the second sentence says “in some cases it can so destructive.” On page 47 in the chart on the ancient empires under “Little Horn” it says “Seleucid emperor… 175-64 BC.” Then on page 49 it says that he ruled from 175-164 BC. Just making you aware in case you weren’t, but otherwise this was an excellent guide.
Thanks very much for catching these typos. P. 36 should read, “In come cases it can be so destructive . . .” And the correct dates for the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes are 175-164 BC. I have contacted the publisher and these changes will be made in the next printing.
I’m glad you enjoyed the guide. If you have any questions about its content, or about anything in any of the other guides, please feel free to post them to this blog and I’ll try to answer them. Thank you.
In response, I insisted that The Books of the Bible, which takes out the chapter and verse numbers and presents the biblical books in their natural literary forms, actually makes a great “study Bible” as well. That’s how this series of study guides could be created to be used with it (although the guides can be used with any version of the Bible, as this post explains.)
I also promised to share a real-life experience that illustrated what “studying the Bible without chapters and verses” looks like, as related in my book After Chapters and Verses. Here’s the story.
I was recently part of a Bible study group that was going through the book of Daniel. When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar had made a statue ninety feet high out of gold. Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand why he’d done this.
One note suggested that using gold for a huge statue was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire. A note in another Bible observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling. But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar had made this statue out of gold.
They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the previous week. They remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue. Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay. Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and then another, in the years to come.
In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar had created a statue entirely out of gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God. He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God had sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced. And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead. No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!
Our group wouldn’t have found such satisfying answers to its questions, and we’d have missed an essential dynamic within the book, if we’d simply “read the study notes” and moved on. We got a much greater insight into the passage when we understood how it functioned within the book of Daniel.
But we haven’t been trained to study the Bible this way. We haven’t been taught that we need to read first in order to be able to study afterwards. In fact, we haven’t been encouraged to “read” at all, not in a continuous way. We’ve more often been asked to consider isolated parts of larger works (“chapters” or “verses”) without being shown how they fit within a whole book and how we can appreciate the meaning they have there. We’ve been encouraged to try to understand them instead by looking at other isolated biblical passages in series of cross-references, or by consulting the notes in our Bibles, study guides and commentaries, or asking our pastors, teachers and group leaders.
In other words, our definition of “studying the Bible” has been moving back and forth between the text and explanatory resources. This approach to Bible “study” isn’t effective. The units it engages typically aren’t the structurally and thematically meaningful ones within a book. Even when they are, we don’t appreciate the meaning they receive from their place within the book as a whole. This kind of studying can easily devolve into a running commentary on interesting or puzzling features of an ill-defined stretch of text. It depends on people having an implicit trust in the knowledge and trustworthiness of group leaders and the authors of notes and guides.
We really need to adopt a new definition of what it means to “study the Bible”: considering the natural parts of a biblical book to recognize how they work within the book as a whole. This means that studying has to be the second step in a process whose first step is reading.
It also means that the best “study Bible” is one like The Books of the Bible that first makes a great “reading Bible.”
The identity of the 144,000 who have their “Father’s name written on their foreheads” is one of the great puzzles in the book of Revelation. Because these people are said to be “from all the tribes of Israel,” they are often understood to be Israelites of some kind. But there’s a very good reason to believe that they are not exclusively Israelites, but rather a different group that includes some Israelites.
The list of the tribes of Israel in the description of the 144,000 in Revelation is different from any other such list in the Bible in two significant ways:
(1) the names are different and
(2) the order is different.
Elsewhere in the Bible, these names are typically listed in one of two ways. When they are being presented as the sons of Jacob, they are listed by birthright, according to the seniority of his wives and concubines and the birth order of their sons:
Sons of Leah
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun. Sons of Rachel
Joseph, Benjamin Sons of Bilhah
Dan, Naphtali Sons of Zilpah
On the other hand, when the names represent the tribes of Israel, that is, territorial and civic entities, Levi is not listed because his descendants became temple servants and were not assigned any territory. To get back to a total of twelve, Ephraim and Manasseh are listed in place of their father Joseph. When the names represent the tribes, they are often listed in geographic order, roughly from south to north.
In Revelation, Levi and Joseph are both on the list, suggesting that the sons of Jacob are in view. However, Manasseh also appears on the list, even though all of his descendants are already included in Joseph—this is a redundancy. And Dan, for some reason, is missing. So we have one tribe too many and one tribe too few. And the order isn’t even close to being correct either by birthright or geography.
So what’s going on here? As I’ve argued in this article, I believe that here in Revelation we have a “portrayal of the church as the new Israel in the names and order of the tribes.” That is, the names are presented in such a way as to show that the community of Jesus’ followers is the continuation of the people of God flowing out of the community of ancient Israel.
Specifically, in the portrayal of the 144,000:
• Judah comes first because Jesus was from that tribe as the Messianic heir to David’s throne. He is the “lion of the tribe of Judah.”
• Reuben comes next representing believing Israelites, the “firstborn” who belong to God.
• Then come four names representing the tribes descended from Jacob’s concubines, who come last by birth order, but in the community of Jesus’ followers, “the last shall be first.” These names represent the Gentiles, who at the time of the book’s writing are actually coming to faith ahead of the Israelites.
• However, one of the four names, Manasseh, is a replacement for Dan. The tribe of Dan was the first to fall into idolatry and the first to be carried off into exile. This represents the danger of apostasy in general (one of the main concerns of Revelation), and perhaps also how Judas Iscariot fell away and was replaced by Matthias.
• The remaining sons of Jacob’s full wives make up the last six names on the list, expressing the expectation that ultimately “all Israel will be saved.”
The 144,000, in other words, represent the community of all who believe in Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile. They are a symbolic representation of the reality that is described more literally immediately afterwards, the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”
This is another of the places where the book of Revelation is creatively adapting an image from the First Testament to speak to New Testament realities, in this case the continuity between the covenant communities of both testaments; they are one people of God. This same theme is encountered in other places in Revelation as well, such as when the new Jerusalem is seen to have “the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” on its gates and “the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” on its foundations, or when the human community around the throne of God is represented as 24 elders, depicting the first and new covenant communities, 12 being the covenant number in the book. But in this case the continuity of the covenants is symbolized by 12 x 12 (144) rather than 12 + 12 (24). The symbol is intensified by multiplication by 10 x 10 x 10 (1,000), representing the totality of those who belong to the community.
Q. If The Books of the Bible is supposed to show the “natural literary outlines” of the biblical books, why doesn’t it highlight the “seven sevens” that structure the book of Revelation?
It’s true that many interpreters do see a pattern of seven sevens in the book of Revelation. While the details can differ, the basic outline is usually something like this:
• seven letters
• seven seals
• seven trumpets
• seven signs
• seven bowls
• seven great enemies defeated
• seven last things
It’s also true that the letters, seals, trumpets, and bowls organize the episodes in their specific parts of the book. For example, we don’t hear about John being told all at once to sit down and write seven letters. Rather, he’s told at the start of each one, “Write to this church,” and we hear the content of that letter before he’s told to write the next one. Similarly, the events following the opening of each seal are narrated before the next seal is opened. And so forth.
It would certainly be elegant if we could show that a pattern like this structures every part of Revelation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
For one thing, only four of these “sevens” are actually named specifically in the text: the churches, seals, trumpets, and bowls. The other supposed series of “sevens” are not named or identified as such in the text, suggesting that no such further series are being used as intentional structuring devices.
And are they really even “sevens”? Of the so-called “seven signs,” for example, only five are introduced by vision formulas:
– “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun.”
– “Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon.”
– “And I saw a beast coming out of the sea.”
– “Then I saw another beast.”
– “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb.”
Interpreters sometimes identify two other “mystical figures” as “signs” in this part of the book, the woman’s child and Michael the angel. But these are actually characters in the ongoing narrative who are not presented as the focus of a given vision the way the others are. (Remember, the question is whether the elements in a given “seven” structure a series of episodes.) Besides, if the child and the angel count as “signs,” then why not count similar characters in the narrative as well, such as the earth, which helps the child, or the 144,000 who follow the Lamb?
As for “seven great enemies defeated,” it is true that after the seven bowls, Revelation describes the defeat and destruction of several enemies. These are named, interestingly, in the reverse order of their original appearance in the book, suggesting some possible structural significance: Babylon, the beast, the false prophet, the dragon, death, and hell. But the depiction of the sequential destruction of these enemies does not supply the structural outline for this section in Revelation. Rather, almost all of the section is about the destruction of Babylon; the destruction of all the other enemies is narrated more briefly at the end.
And this would be only six enemies anyway. Gog and Magog need to be added to make seven, and they break up the general pattern. They are not mentioned earlier in the book, only briefly here, and they are introduced and destroyed in the middle of the reverse-order sequence, between the beast and the dragon. (For that matter, why do they count as only one enemy, when “death and hell,” which are always mentioned together, are counted as two?)
Finally, as for the “seven last things,” these are not listed or identified in the text, so interpreters need to pick and choose from among the many features of the closing visions to get a total of seven (for example: the new heaven, the new earth, the new Jerusalem; the river of life, the tree of life, the book of life; the throne of God). But even so, once again these elements do not structure the episodes in this part of the book.
So if we try to outline Revelation based on “sevens,” what we actually get are four explicit sevens and three other sections that cannot be organized consistently into a sevenfold arrangement. Besides, an outline of “seven sevens” is not able to encompass one of the key parts of the book: John’s vision (right after the letters) of the Lamb receiving honor from the creatures around the heavenly throne.
If, on the other hand, we take the phrase “in the Spirit” as our structural cue, as explained in the “Invitation to Revelation” in The Books of the Bible, and as developed in more detail in the Daniel-Revelation study guide, we find that this phrase appears explicitly at the start of four major sections, providing a comprehensive structure for the book and its contents.
Nevertheless, an outline based on “seven sevens” is to be commended in one regard: it reflects an attempt to recognize the literary-structural signals that the book of Revelation itself is sending, rather than to rely simply on traditional chapters and verses as guides. As a result, in several parts of the book such an outline yields a structural understanding very close to the one we have indicated in The Books of the Bible, at least in terms of the arrangement and progression of individual episodes.
This illustrates that much about the structures of the biblical books can be recognized implicitly, so that even interpreters who are committed to different outlines can end up in broad agreement at many points.
There certainly are many different explanations of what the number 666 means in the book of Revelation. So why should anyone believe that it means Nero Caesar, as I argue in this post, rather than something else? There’s actually an intriguing bit of historical evidence that the earliest readers of the book understood it the way I’ve suggested.
The question of the meaning of the number 666 arose from a comment on a post I wrote about secret codes in the Bible. This number represents a name and it comes from gematria, the practice in languages that use letters for numbers of adding up the total value of the letters in a word. Gematria is something like a code, but there’s an important difference.
As a rule, if you know how a code works, you can decipher anything written in that code. But in gematria, you need to know the likely subject of the code in order to imagine possible solutions and test their numerical totals.
It appears that early followers of Jesus understood the number of the beast in Revelation to indicate Nero Caesar (that is, to point to the imminent resumption of imperial persecution) because at least one early copyist seems to have known that this was the solution to the code, but couldn’t get the numbers to add up, and so wrote 616 instead, a number the copyist thought did work!
Here’s what likely happened. As Bruce Metzger suggests in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters is equivalent to 666, while the Latin form Nero Caesar is equivalent to 616.” (The difference is the Hebrew letter Nun, which has a value of 50.) Whatever copyist first introduced the change was thinking of Nero’s name in Latin rather than Greek, and so wrote in 616.
We don’t know when this variant reading first appeared, but it was quite early, since Irenaeus discusses it in Against Heresies, which he wrote around AD 180. He notes that 666, not 616, is the number “found in all the most approved and ancient copies” of the book of Revelation, and that “those men who saw John face to face” attest to it. So 616 was recognized early on as a change. But that’s the whole point: it’s a change that was made so early it was likely introduced by someone who knew what Revelation wanted to say and who was trying to get the numbers to add up.
The change in the text was copied into later manuscripts. The first written evidence we have of this reading is in an Egyptian papyrusfragment that dates to about AD 225-275. The reading 616 also appears in Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, compiled about 200 years later, which is one of the four major uncial manuscripts that are key resources for New Testament textual criticism.
This variant reading provides a vital clue that the interpretation of 666 as gematria for Nero(n) Caesar is correct. The implications are, as I say in my Daniel-Revelation study guide, that the meaning of this number “has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history. Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult.” The take-home message for us today is that we should be equally faithful in resisting anything that rivals our loyalty to Jesus. But “the number 666 isn’t a coded biblical prediction of some invisible, demonic means of social control in the end times.”
In response to my last post about secret codes in the Bible, a reader commented that the number 666 in the book of Revelation is also an encrypted word. That’s quite true. Let me summarize here what I say about this in my Daniel-Revelation study guide.
In many ancient languages, letters were used to represent numbers. (One example of this is the “Roman numerals” we know today: Super Bowl XLVI means Super Bowl 46.) Words and names in such languages had a total value, the sum of the values of their individual letters. This total value could be used as a kind of symbolic code in place of the word. (This practice is known as gematria.) For example, as I discuss in an earlier post, the value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name adds up to 130, and in tribute to him, 130 proverbs were placed in the collection that was created under his patronage.
As I’ve show in another post, apocalypses like Revelation evoke the symbolic significance numbers. 666 suggests having pretensions to divinity or perfection, but falling short of it, since it’s symbolized in the book by the number 7. But whose name adds up to this total, revealing the hollowness of his pretensions to divinity?
To answer this question, we need to understand the book of Revelation in light of the first-century events that occasioned its writing. The book was written to warn followers of Jesus, who had experienced persecution under Nero, that persecution would resume under the current emperor, Domitian. So they needed to be faithful unto death in order to win the crown of life. When the book is understood this way, its figure of a “beast” is recognized to be a depiction of Domitian as if he were Nero come back to life.
The number 666 is part of this depiction. John writes that understanding this code “calls for wisdom,” meaning that the puzzle has a trick to it. The secret is, even though John is writing his book in Greek, the numerical values will be those of Hebrew letters. As many scholars have recognized, the consonants of “Neron Caesar” in Hebrew add up to 666. Tagging Domitian with the name (or in this case, the number) of Nero is like drawing a Hitler mustache on a leader’s picture today. Domitian thinks he’s “lord and God” (as he proclaims on his coins), but he’s really just another evil emperor.
So the meaning of the “number of the beast,” 666, has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history. Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult. But evil rulers in other places and times may also revive the tyrannical spirit of Nero, and they’ll have to be resisted with suffering and endurance. That is the significance of the number 666 for all who live after the time of the book of Revelation.
For some historical evidence that the earliest Christians understood 666 to mean “Nero Caesar,” see this post.
For the significance of the number 144,000, see this post.
Q. In your Daniel-Revelation guide, you say that taking the “mark of the beast” in Revelation could have originally meant using or wearing Roman coins that gave the emperor Domitian the titles “lord and god.” But you also say that this historical background is “only a starting point for understanding the symbol,” and that it “shouldn’t limit its meaning” (p. 107). Doesn’t this leave the door open for the speculation and foolish debate that often arise over this topic?
I agree that it’s unfortunate when a lot of time, energy, and emotion are spent trying to figure out what one thing the “mark of the beast” must correspond to. We don’t need to do this.
The symbol did mean something specific and definite at the time when the book of Revelation was written. I’ve suggested one likely possibility in the study guide, Domitian’s coins, which “would be held in the right hand for transactions” and which “were sometimes also worn in a band on the forehead.” This would explain John’s statement that everyone was forced “to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark.”
The Jews were already sensitive enough to the blasphemous and idolatrous depictions of emperors on Roman coins that these coins were not allowed in the Jerusalem temple. That’s why there were money-changers there. (Unfortunately they cheated the people who needed to convert their Roman currency; that’s why Jesus overturned their tables, for making his Father’s house a “den of thieves.”) And so it’s quite reasonable that John in Revelation would express a similar sensitivity to the way emperor worship was being advanced insidiously through the necessities of economic life. This is a respected interpretation among New Testament scholars.
But I also say in the guide that in the books of Daniel and Revelation, events in the near future and the far distant future may be simultaneously envisioned, “as a definitive crisis in the life of God’s people evokes the ultimate crisis at the end of this age” (p. 122). So there may well be something in the final conflict between good and evil at the end of history that closely approximates the “mark of the beast” as it was experienced in John’s time—some form of coercion to participate in a godless system, upon threat of being excluded from buying and selling.
But the best way to be prepared for such a challenge, if we ever have to face it, is to recognize even now that fallen cultures will always try to get their people’s allegiance at the expense of their allegiance to God. Followers of Jesus need to be perpetually aware of this danger and resist it.
Ultimately, what represents a present-day manifestation of the “mark of the beast” (coercion to join a godless system) will vary in different places and times. And so rather than engaging in speculation and debate about a unique meaning for the symbol, believers need to be spiritually alert and uncompromising in every situation.