NOTE: I HAVE REVISED SLIGHTLY MY ORIGINAL POST. I MISTAKENLY PUT RIST IN THE "HISTORICIST" CATEGORY. I REVISED THIS BY LABELING HIM A "PRETERIST" TOWARD THE END OF THE POST. This post begins a survey of the commentaries on Revelation 17. The first is Martin Rist in The Interpreter’s Bible, a 12-volume set of commentaries published in 1957 by Abingdon Press (a Methodist publisher). It is what I would call moderately liberal. It used the “higher criticism” techniques of that day and relied on the critics who have dominated Biblical interpretation in the 20th century.
COMMENTARY FROM RIST:
Organization of his comments: Rist inserts into his commentary a title at the beginning of chapter 17. It is his Roman numeral 9 (IX) in his breakdown of the book. The title for IX is “Seven Visions of the Fall of ‘Babylon’ or Rome (17:1-19:10).” (Rist, 488) This organization I would tend to agree with except for the extent. Chapter 17 is definitely a new topic after the description of the seven bowls of wrath in chapters 15 and 16. Chapter 18 is obviously a look at the judgment of the great Prostitute (see 17:1) from another perspective than the perspective of chapter 17. Chapter 19:1-5 continues the account but from a heavenly perspective. However, 19:6-10, it seems to me, begins a new subject and really is a preface to the following passage, 19:10-21.
The second criticism that I would make is that Rist backs himself into a corner by entitling the material “seven visions.” This forces him to cut up the material arbitrarily. Moreover, it does not reflect the organization of the text, which does not present a series of seven visions. Chapter 17 is presented as a single vision, which is followed by the vision of chapter 18, and that is followed by the vision of 19:1-5.
Rist’s first subdivision: “A. First Vision: The Harlot, Babylon the Great (17:1-6a)” (Rist, 488).
His introduction (Rist, 488-489): He goes into a brief history of the “cult of Roma.” Roma is “the deified personification of Rome.” This cult began in Italian and Greek cities who were allied with Rome. “The citizens of these [cities] recognized a divine element in the increasingly significant city of Rome, which they...worshiped as the goddess Roma.” This cult became associated with the emperors, and temples were found throughout the Empire to the emperors as well as to Roma. He speculates that such a temple in Pergamum was the “Satan’s throne” that is referred to in Revelation 2:13. One of the doctrines of this religion was the concept eternal Rome (Roma aeterna). Rist believes that this “political dogma,” of worship of Roma and the emperors and belief in the eternity of Rome is significant in interpretation of chapter 17. “Evidently,” he writes, “the harlot is not only Rome and the empire, but Dea Roma herself, who with the emperors, the seven-headed beast, is accorded divine worship. Moreover, although she is considered eternal by her deluded subjects and their leaders, actually like the beast she is temporal and is soon to be destroyed.”
Commentary on 17:1-6a (489-492):
Rist’s interpretation of the Prostitute (which he calls “harlot”) flows out of the background that he lays in the history of the cult of Roma. Rome, the city and its empire as well as the goddess together constitute the harlot because they have enticed the nations into idolatry, which Rist believes is what is meant by “fornication” (“sexual immorality” in ESV). He cites, among other references, Nahum 3:4, which describes Nineveh as a prostitute, and Isaiah 1:21, which calls Jerusalem a whore. He notes that the Prostitute sits on many waters, which was true of Babylon (but not Rome), “the prototype of Rome.”
Rist considers that John is building a dramatic contrast as he describes the wicked city of Rome and later, Revelation 21:9ff, describes the bride of Christ as a beautiful city, the New Jerusalem.
In these pictures of the Beast and the Prostitute, John is preaching a “compelling message...dramatically warning those who might be seduced into worshiping the state and its ruler.”
Commentary on 17:6b-18: Rist includes all of this material as the “second vision.” Since it covers a great deal of material, I shall divide it up. My divisions may be arbitrary in some cases.
He believes that the “Nero redivivus expectation” is an important reference point for understanding the Beast. [“Redivivus” is a Latin word that means “brought to life again.” Thus the myth or expectation was that Nero would be brought to life again.] The description--“was and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition”--refers to “Nero redivivus.” The “beast like the demonic Nero had died, but is to return to life.” But Rist is ambiguous about whether, indeed, Nero was to be the Beast or Antichrist.
He is, however, convinced that the “Nero redivivus myth” is an important background to Revelation. He mentions the “mortal wound that has been healed” as a “definite reference” to this myth. (Rist, 363)
As he deals with 17:9a, Rist considers that verse 17:8 is “clear” and corresponds to 13:1-10. He indicates that he is somewhat puzzled by what follows. The fact that he devotes a great deal of space to verse 17:10-11 reflects his wrestling with that material. He quickly deals with 17:9b: the seven hills “clearly [mean] Rome.”
“These two verses are among the most obscure in Revelation.” The “general sense” is that the seven heads refer to Roman emperors. “The difficulty centers...in discovering which seven emperors are meant, and the precise relationship of Nero redivivus to the group.”
He believes that the “four-headed leopard of Dan. 7:6” helps in understanding the seven-headed beast. Rist believes the leopard represent Persia and the heads represents certain kings of Persia. He then interprets Daniel 7:7-8 as representing the “Greco-Syrian kingdom, one of the divisions of Alexander’s empire…” The ten horns represent kings, which he finds difficult to identify.
These interpretations of Daniel by Rist are contradicted by other interpreters. ESVSB and NIVSB both identify the leopard of Daniel 7:6 as Alexander’s empire and the four heads as the divisions that came out of that empire. The fourth beast of Daniel 7:7-8 is identified as the Roman Empire by the study Bibles, and the “little horn” is said by ESVSB possiby to refer to the Antichrist.
Rist’s interpretation of these passages in Daniel, I believe, partly come from his concurrence with many scholars that Daniel was written long after the time of Babylonian captivity and the ascendance of the Persian empire, contrary to the internal evidence. But, because the interpreters refuse to ascribe any prophetic power to the book, they refuse to see a prediction of the rise of the Roman Empire in these passages of Daniel.
Rist also cites an apocryphal work, II Esdras. It contains a vision of an eagle with three heads and twelve wings along with eight smaller wings. These various components are interpreted as representing Roman emperors and other leaders.
Rist believes that these precedents are a “background” that make interpretation of the present passage easier. (How these make it any easier for him is not clear.) He believes Revelation 17:11 is easier than the preceding verse, because, for him, it identifies “the beast with the emperor Nero, who had died and yet was expected to return to life.” However, Rist sees a “discrepancy” because, he says, the seventh emperor of verse 10 is also the beast of verse 11, but that there is to be a delay in the appearance of this “beast.” This, he believes contradicts the “assurances” in Revelation that the end is “to come very soon.” His reasoning and comments on these verses are not very clear and seem to reveal Rist’s confusion on the whole matter.
He goes through the attempt to account for seven emperors that many interpreters do. He asks some pertinent questions, including the following.
- Start with Julius or Augustus?
- Omit the three brief reigns?
One solution is to introduce a theory that “this passage was originally a Jewish oracle written about AD 70...against Vespasian…” Thus Titus would be the seventh king, and Nero, returned to life, would be the eighth. He says the theory goes on to claim that John updated the Jewish oracle and made Domitian the sixth king and that Nero would replace him and be the “Neronic Antichrist.”
Another theory (which Rist indicates is his own) is that the “five kings” of 17:10-11 are only the emperors who died and were “apotheosized [elevate to the rank of god] by the [Roman] senate.” Thus the five are Julius, Augustus, Claudius, Vespacian, and Titus. He completes his theory as follows: “If this is true, Domitian, who demanded worship while living, would be the sixth and ruling emperor, while the seventh and last, the Neronic Antichrist, who at the same time might be considered reincarnated in the person of Domitian, was still to come.”
He throws out one more idea, similar to my interpretation. This is that the five unidentified emperors are simply a group of five representing all the past emperors. The sixth is Domitian, the current emperor. The seventh would be “the Antichrist who is to come…”
Rist speculates that the 10 kings are “the Parthian satraps” from the Nero redivivus myth, which Rist often refers to as though John relies heavily on it. He also considers that the kings are “among the kings from the East” who will be gathered at Armageddon (see 16:12-16).
Rist does not give much attention to these verses. He explains verse 17:16, the destruction of the Prostitute, by citing the Sibylline oracle. It describes how Nero will invade the empire and “destroy the realm he once ruled.”
He comments on verse 17:17 that “the dualism of Revelation is toned down in this passage.” He is referring to the fact that the kings, in their destruction of the Prostitute, “have been carrying out God’s own purpose.” He also notes that the “Antichrist...has been the agent of God in this punishment of Rome.” Thus, Revelation considers that God’s purposes are accomplished, even through the actions of evil people as well as the devil. This is a different theology than a dualism that understands God and the devil in a constant battle, with the outcome uncertain. Whether such a dualism is truly found in Revelation could be debated.
He comments on verse 17:18:
“The original readers...hardly needed to be told that this woman...is the...personification of Rome…”
Rist is a knowledgeable scholar who labors intensively with Revelation. He comes from the school of higher criticism that seeks to explain Scripture totally from a rational standpoint. By this I mean he gives no credence to inspiration, and so he must look for reference points that reflect possible precedents in other ancient literature. Along the same lines, he uses the preterist and not the futurist interpretation, to a degree. Many preterists simply understand New Testament prophetic scripture to be presenting events--especially the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70--as though they are future from the author’s perspective, when, in fact, the author has already witnessed these events. This is not Rist’s approach. He believes that John wrote in 90’s during Domitian’s reign. He believes that John was predicting an antichrist emperor would appear in a few years and destroy Rome.
I believe that a futurist perspective is a better approach to Revelation. By futurist, I mean that the bulk of the predictions in Revelation are predictions of events that are yet to come. I believe this for many reasons, which I hope to develop eventually, but not in this post. I also believe that Revelation is reporting a series of visions that John really experienced. He may have had considerable knowledge and background that is reflected in the book, but the visions were real for him and he faithfully wrote them down for our benefit as well as for the benefit of the church of his day.
Barker, Kenneth L, ed. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
Crossway. The ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway, 2008. (Kindle edition)Rist, Martin. The Interpreter’s Bible. Nolan Harmon, ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1957.