SURVEY OF COMMENTATORS: J. S. RUSSELL
J. S. Russell wrote a lengthy book on the “Second Coming” in the 19th Century. I put the quotation marks because his interpretation of the Parousia/Second Coming of Christ is really a denial of the Second Coming in the usual meaning of that term. Russell considers the Parousia to be the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. This event was a judgment on the Hebrew nation. Practically every Scripture that is understood by many to refer to an event in future Russell considers a reference to the AD 70 event or related events. For example, he refers to the description in Revelation 20:11-15, which is sometimes called The Great White Throne Judgment, as “not the ‘end of the world’...[but] the end of the age, or termination of the Jewish dispensation.” (525) Thus, Russell believes that all of the Scriptures that have traditionally been assigned to the future events surrounding the Second Coming are really about events that ended the period when God dealt with the Hebrews as the unique people of God. Because they rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem and began to relate to the Gentile church as the people of God. This interpretation of New Testament prophecy is often referred to as the “Preterist” interpretation, and Russell probably should be considered the father of that school of interpretation.
Russell divides Revelation (other than the opening chapter) into seven visions plus an epilogue. Those visions are as follows (with chapter range in each case).
- The Messages to the Seven Churches, 2-3
- The Seven Seals, 4-8:1)
- The Seven Trumpets, 8:2-11
- The Seven Mystic Figures, 12-14
- The Seven Vials, 15-16
- The Harlot City, 17-20
- The Holy City, or the The Bride, 21-22:5
- The Epilogue, 22:6-22:21
This, I consider, as good an organization of the book of Revelation as I have seen. That conclusion reminds me that oftentimes an interpreter with whom I disagree can have some excellent insights. Russell is often a very astute interpreter. However, I disagree with most of his conclusions. I believe that he has magnified certain passages or verses in Scripture and allowed them to be the “lever” that drives all of his interpretation.
In his discussion of Revelation 17, he continues the interpretive paradigm that has shaped his entire understanding of New Testament prophecy. That paradigm is that the events of AD 70 are the key to understanding New Testament prophecy.
2. THE PAROUSIA AND THE JUDGMENT ON THE DAY OF THE LORD:
The big question for chapter 17 is what city is described as “Babylon the great”? He rejects Rome as the answer. “The very design of the the book [of Revelation] excludes...Rome…” (484) This design, he believes, is “the approaching Parousia and the accompanying judgment of the guilty nation.” (484) This judgment Russell equates with the Day of the Lord. He begins his book by surveying the book of Malachi and reminds us of the two-fold prediction in Malachi 4:5: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” It is two-fold in that it predicts the coming of Elijah and the coming of the Day of the Lord. Russell explains this Day of the Lord: “The allusion is to the judgment of the Jewish nation, when their city and temple were destroyed, and the entire fabric of the Mosaic polity was dissolved.” (4) He is referring to the events of AD 70. He reasons that, first, Elijah would come and, then, the Day of the Lord would come. Since John the Baptist is referred to as Elijah, then the Day of the Lord must be close in time to his coming. (4) Russell goes on to consider that Malachi describes John the Baptist as a forerunner of Jesus as the judge (contrasting to Isaiah’s description of the forerunner of the Savior). (5) He also considers Malachi 3:1-3 to describe Jesus as coming to judge the nation. (5) Thus, in the New Testament the Parousia, which is a Greek term often translated as “coming,” refers to that COMING OF JESUS TO JUDGE THE JEWISH NATION, AN EVENT THAT TOOK PLACE IN AD 70. This is the interpretative leverage that Russell employs throughout his book, including his study of Revelation.
Is this a legitimate interpretative scheme? I do not believe it is valid, though Russell has made some very important points concerning the judgment of the Hebrew nation. Some major objections that I have are as follows.
- Although the events of AD 70 can certainly be considered a judgment from God, they cannot be considered to constitute an eternal judgment. So, the description in Revelation 20:11-15 is obviously a final judgment and AD 70 does not compare.
- Other prophetic passages, such as the return of Christ that is described in Matthew 24:29-31 and in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, are descriptions of Christ’s PHYSICAL, BODILY return to earth and His powerful relationship to His people. The events of AD 70 cannot be stretched and twisted and molded to fit those descriptions.
- Although AD 70 events were a judgment of the Hebrew nation, it was NOT the end of the Old Testament dispensation. That event took place with the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. There was a transition period that could be stretched through the Day of Pentecost, but after that time, the people of God were equivalent to the church. (See, for example, Acts 2:47.)
- The book of Hebrews is written, evidently, before AD 70, since it comments on Hebrew religious practices that would require the existence of the Temple. Hebrews is very pointed in declaring that a new means of relating to God has come to replace the “types and shadows” of the Old Covenant. (See Hebrews 8:5.) Hebrews does not picture this replacement as a judgment on the Hebrew people. Rather, the new thing that God has done (and continues to do) is described as a greater revelation of God.
- The most dramatic signal of the transition from the Old Testament situation to the the New Testament is when the veil in the Temple, which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, was torn in two just as Jesus died. (See Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45.) This was not a judgment upon God’s people, rather it was a signal of the costly grace of God toward all people. Whereas the message of the Tabernacle and Temple was that God, in His holiness, is separated from humanity, the message of the cross of Jesus is that Jesus has died that we might have access into the very presence of God. See also the “new and living way” in Hebrews 10:19-22.
- Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because it would not accept Him as the one who wanted to gather them as a hen does her chicks. He announced that Jerusalem’s “house is left to you desolate.” This was not a prediction of the coming calamity of AD 70. It was a statement of the spiritual bankruptcy of the Jews of Jesus’ day. (Matthew 23:37-38) Then, Jesus warns: “For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Matthew 23:39) This prediction of His coming is not a prediction of judgment such as occurred in AD 70. It is a prediction of His coming for His people. In Romans 11, Paul mourns over the spiritual condition of the Hebrews of his day, who had, by and large, rejected Jesus. But he also looks to a day when “all Israel will be saved…” (Romans 11:26) And, he implies, this acceptance of Jesus by the Hebrews will take place close to the Second Coming (see entire 11th chapter of Romans).
- So the Coming, or Parousia, of Jesus Christ did not take place in AD 70. God, no doubt, directed events in such a way that the Hebrew nation was judged severely and the foundation of their religion--the Temple worship--was taken from them. But, the Hebrew people have a future in Christ. And God has a great day coming, the future coming (Parousia) of Jesus Christ
3. THE IDENTITY OF “BABYLON” IN REVELATION 17
I have already indicated that Russell rejects Rome as represented by Babylon in Chapter 17. Rather, he believes Babylon is Jerusalem. He describes Revelation as “only the reproduction and expansion of our Lord’s prophecy on the Mount of Olives [Matthew 24], which is mainly occupied with the approaching judgment of Israel and Jerusalem…” (435) He also notes that Revelation contrasts two cities, the New Jerusalem and Babylon, which, he believes, is the “old Jerusalem.” (his italics) (435) He refers to Galatians 4:21-31, where Paul contrasts Jerusalem above with the present-day Jerusalem of his time. (435-436) And he refers to Hebrews 11:8-16, where a heavenly city is mentioned. (436) He concludes that “The real and proper antithesis...to the new Jerusalem is the old Jerusalem…[so] we conclude that Babylon is the symbolic name of the wicked and doomed city, the old Jerusalem, whose judgment is here predicted.” (436) He is correct to observe an antithesis between two cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem. But in other posts I have noted that other interpreters do not regard Babylon as Old Jerusalem, but, rather, a representation of antichrist empires. He notes that the term “the great city” is applied to Jerusalem in Revelation 11:8, so the same designation in Revelation 14:8, 16:19, and 17:18 should signal to us that Jerusalem is meant. (437) We should note that Russell is stretching things a bit. The following is the wording in each of these verses:
- 11:8 their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified
- 14:8 “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.”
- 16:19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath.
- 17:18 And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.
Note that in only one of these verses is Jerusalem directly implied; verse 11:8 carefully designates “the great city” as “where their Lord was crucified…” “Babylon” is not used as a name for this city. All three of the other verses are references to “Babylon.” The name is not used in 17:18, but it is in the context of chapter 17, in which one city is discussed throughout, and that city is called “Babylon the great” in verse 17:5.
Moreover, it is difficult to justify identifying “Babylon” with Jerusalem in Revelation. Chapters 17 and 18 both describe a city that has powerful, international influence politically, culturally, and economically. Moreover, Babylon is described in verse 17:9 as sitting on seven mountains (Rome is the city built on seven hills). Babylon is also described in 17:18 as having “dominion over the kings of the earth.” Rome certainly would qualify for such a role. Jerusalem never has had such prominence. Russell does his best to rebut these arguments. He says the “seven mountains” should not be taken literally, but that it indicates the city has “pre-eminence...in power or in privilege…” (491-492) This twiddles away a powerful image. He maintains that “kings of the earth” (verse 17:18) should be translated “kings of the land,” and refers to whatever ruling authorities were in Judea. (494) This renders verse 17:18 meaningless. Any prominent city in any particular country can be said to have dominion over the ruling authorities in that land. Thus, the verse serves no value in identifying Babylon. In fact, it is Russell’s attempt, which fails, to solve an interpretive sticking point.
The interpretive trap that Russell is in results from his insisting on his Preterist notion that Revelation is really all about the events of AD 70. Chapter 17 undermines that notion, because it points to the importance of Babylon which cannot be identified with Jerusalem.
Russell discusses the designation of Babylon as a harlot, which “implies idolatry, i.e. spiritual adultery.” But Russell refers to Paul, who describes the Jews as guilty of sacrilege, and Hodge, who says the Jews profaned God because the Temple was a den of thieves. Moreover, he maintains that, in their rejection of the Messiah, they broke covenant with God. But, if I circle to Russell’s own admission, I maintain that the Jews were adulterers rather than harlots, although I must admit there is a narrow difference. But, if we look at the description of Babylon in chapter 17, it is a picture of outrageous immorality as well as religious sin, which is not a fair accusation against Jerusalem.
Finally, Russell states that Jerusalem qualifies as Babylon because she is the persecutor and murderer of the prophets and saints. One must admit that this argument holds, but, if one counts sheer numbers, Rome outstripped Jerusalem. In fact, Russell tries to describe Nero as a champion persecutor, and, in doing so, he undermines his own argument that Jerusalem is the harlot city.
4. THE SCARLET BEAST
Russell identifies the Beast of chapter 17 with the Beast of chapter 13:1-10. I believe that is a reasonable conclusion. He refers to his discussion of chapter 13 and to his conclusion that the Beast is Nero. His proof of this conclusion includes the following:
- He (Nero) was a “wild beast” who “disgraced humanity by his infamous cruelties and crimes.
- He believes that Paul’s description of being delivered out of the “mouth of the lion” is a reference to Nero.
- His coming out of the sea means he is foreign to Judea.
- The names of blasphemy on his heads refer to “assumption of the prerogatives of deity.”
- The “union of the characteristics of the four beasts (Revelation 13:2) in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7) indicates that the dominion of the beast embraces the kingdoms [of Daniel’s vision].”
- That one of his heads is wounded to death implies a violent end.
- As a Roman emperor, idolatrous worship would be directed toward him.
- “History tells us that Nero was the first of the emperors who persecuted Christians.”
- That persecution lasted “forty and two months,” according to Russell.
- Russell maintains that Nero “claimed and received...worship.”
- Russell explains the mortal wound that was healed (Revelation 13:3) by the following. First, “if it was healed it was not deadly…” “Nero died a violent death…[either by suicide or assassination].” (Thus, satisfying the “mortal wound.”) There was general belief “that he did not die.” (Thus satisfying the “healing” part. Russell does some gymnastics: “There is nothing improbable in the supposition that such a note of identity, embodying the general belief, might be employed [by John]...no other explanation supplies so reasonable and satisfactory a solution to the problem.” I interpret Russell to say: OK there was this idea floating around about Nero, so, if John uses that idea as a way of pointing to Nero, it works.)
- He uses the trick of transliterating Neron Kaisar (the Greek version) into Hebrew letters and, using their numeric equivalents, adding these up to get 666.
- He maintains that John had to resort to a code to avoid accusing the emperor of being the Antichrist or Beast.
There are several problems with Russell’s conclusions. One is with the date of writing of Revelation, but I shall not belabor that point. I just say that most believe it was written in the 90’s and not the 60’s or early 70’s. There are some points about Nero that certainly are true. They probably would be true of a number of other emperors. Here are some objections I have:
- Being “foreign to Judea” would apply to any emperor.
- Numerous emperors before and after were worshiped as divine. Ladd maintains that Nero “did not promote the emperor cult, and his role in the Sibylline Oracles lost the religious note that is the most important characteristic of the beast in the Revelation.” (Ladd, 234)
- Russell’s point about the combination of the beasts of Daniel 7 would apply to the Roman Empire at practically any time. Nero was not particularly effective as an emperor, so he would not intensify the power of the empire that is expressed in the composite of Daniel’s beast.
- Although Nero persecuted Christians, Claudius, before him, expelled the Jews from Rome because of their “continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus…” (Suetonius, 176) “Chrestus” is probably a reference to Christ. Exactly why the Jews were expelled is not clear: was it because the Jews were making trouble because of the Christians or because the Romans wanted to get rid of Christians, which they regarded as a Jewish sect, and just kicked all the Jews out? At any rate, there was some problems for Christians before Nero. (See Bruce, 235 and 250)
- The comments of F. F. Bruce in his book on Paul give a very different perspective on the emperor and possible relationships with the Antichrist. I consider Bruce a neutral observer in eschatology. If he is anything, he is probably a Preterist, but not a disciple of Russell. Bruce’s comments on II Thessalonians 2 give a very different understanding of Nero. First, he refers to the Emperor Gaius (Caligula), “who took his divinity very seriously…” Caligula ordered that “his statue should be set up in the Jerusalem temple.” This order was later rescinded, but it puts Nero in a different light. Bruce summarizes II Thessalonians 2: “The day will come, says Paul, when another potentate will actually do what Gaius planned to do: he will not merely erect his image but occupy a throne personally in the temple, claiming to be the manifestation of the supreme god...but when he is at the height of his power he will be...destroyed by the parousia of Christ…[This person is] the ‘man of lawlessness’...The...hidden power of anarchy...was already at work…[but it is] checked...but one day this restraint would be removed, and then ‘the man of lawlessness’ would make his debut...It is...probable that the restraint was...imperial law and order, embodied by the emperor...Paul was thinking...of his own experience of Roman justice…” So Paul described the emperor (who was Nero at the time) and his subordinates as “ministers of God” (Romans 13:6), and he was willing to appeal to the emperor when he was arrested by the Jerusalem authorities. (See Acts 25:9-11. Nero was also emperor at that time.) (Bruce, 232-234)
- Russell refers to Revelation 13:3 as a clue to the Beast’s identity as Nero. The first sentence of this verse is translated (ESV): “One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed.” All of the translations use similar wording, although several add “I saw…” which is not in the Greek. The conjunction “hos” is translated “as” or “as though” or “seemed” in these translations. However, a possible meaning of the word is “when.” So, a possible translation is: “When one of his heads was mortally wounded, his mortal wound was healed.” The translations interpret the conjunction to cast doubt on the wound: “seemed” to have a mortal wound. This contradicts the next clause, which says that the mortal wound (it uses a different word for “wound”) was healed. If there is an element doubt, it would be the survival, not the nature of the wound: “His head, having been wounded so badly he was going to die, but the mortal wound was healed.” Note then that this caused the “whole world” to marvel. This scenario does not reflect the life and death of Nero nor the myth of his revival. He really did die of his wounds. The myth was that he did not die but slinked off somewhere and would come back to take over Rome (not to burn down Jerusalem). Revelation 13:3 does not point to Nero at all.
- The following is Morris’ take on Nero as the solution to 666: “The possibilities are almost endless. In modern times the most favoured solution is ‘Nero Caesar’ (if the final letter be omitted to give the equivalent of the Latin spelling of the name, the total is 616, the variant reading [that is, some manuscripts have “616” rather than “666”]). But to get this result we must use the Greek form of the Latin name, transliterated into Hebrew characters, and with a variant spelling at that (the vowel letter y has to be omitted from qysr). This solution has its attractions, but no-one has shown why a Hebrew name with an unusual spelling should be employed in a Greek writing. It is also to be borne in mind that in the ancient world when Nero was a considerable figure...this solution was never thought of.” (Morris, 174)
- Finally, since Nero died two years before the destruction of Jerusalem, he does not seem relevant to the events of AD 70. I may be off a bit, but I think that, although Nero displayed all sorts gross immoralities, his personal behavior would not have a heavy impact on events in Judea.
- Finally, the description of the woman and the beast in Revelation 17:3 is “a woman sitting on a scarlet beast…” It is next to impossible to fit Nero and Jerusalem into this picture. The woman is sitting on the beast, which implies two things: close proximity and domination. In what way was Jerusalem closely linked to Nero? In what way could Jerusalem dominate Nero? I cannot see that sort of a connection.
5. THE SECOND BEAST (OFTEN CALLED THE FALSE PROPHET):
Russell’s commentary on Romans 13 includes his interpretation of what he calls “the second wild beast.” (Russell, 465ff) Often this beast is called the “False Prophet” from the designation in Revelation 19:20. From the description in Revelation 13:11-18, Russell draws conclusions that fit into his general scheme of interpretation. The following are his interpretations:
- This beast rises from the “earth” (13:11), which Russell believes is better translated “land.” Therefore, it is from Judea.
- He has only two horns, so he is a ruler over a limited area. (13:11)
- He exercises the authority of the first beast(13:120, so he is “the official representative and delegate of Nero in Judea.”
- Therefore, he “can be no other than the Roman procurator or governor of Judea.” Russell concludes that the man who fits this best, not only because of the time element but also because of his evil, is Gessius Florus.
- Russell believes that Florus’ “Draconic oppression...goaded the unhappy Jews into rebellion.”
- Russell admits that the “traits most difficult to verify [of Florus, as he was described by Josephus] are “the compulsory enforcement of homage to the emperor’s statue and the assumption of miraculous pretensions.” These are actually the activities that are most vividly portrayed in Revelation 13:12-15.
The truth is that Russell makes a very weak case for his identification of the “second wild beast” with Gessius Florus. I reply to the points above as follows.
- The conjecture that “land” rather than “earth” is meant in 13:11 is very possible. This, however, could be an argument that this beast is a Hebrew rather than a Roman who is assigned as procurator.
- The two horns Russell interprets to be a symbol of his limited power, and this could be correct. It is a very general observation that does not give much helpful information.
- From these two limited observations, Russell leaps to the conclusion that this person must be a Roman procurator over Judea. But this depends on the conclusion that the Roman emperor is the first beast.
- He further identifies the procurator to be one appointed by Nero. That conclusion depends on the conclusion that Nero is the first beast.
- Finally, he concludes that Gessius Florus was mean enough to qualify as the second beast.
There are certainly some problems with this conclusion. The dates of Florus’ procuratorship are (according to Wikipedia) AD 64-66, so that his leadership ended four years before the destruction of Jerusalem. This is not necessarily a decisive point, because the Jewish rebellion was getting started about that time. In fact, Josephus, in The Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews, describes a situation in Judea that was deteriorating for years. The factors leading to the disintegration and finally to war--as Josephus describes matters--included
- Poor administration by a whole series of Roman procurators from AD 52-66 or later, including Felix, Festus, Albinus, and Florus. In no case does Josephus describe emperor worship as being enforced by these administrators. Rather, their failure to control the “robbers” and various “prophets” and other instigators led to chaos and misery. (Antiquities, book 20)
- Florus is not described by Josephus as perpetuating religious deception on the Jews. Rather, he is described as seeking to “augment their calamities [in terms of lawless chaos, cruelty, and economic hardship] in order to induce them into rebellion” to detract Nero’s attention from his [Florus’] own administrative failure to focus on the Jewish rebellion. (Wars, book 2)
- “Robbers”: exactly what is meant is not clear, but they seemed to be similar to gangs of 20th and 21st century America. (Antiquities, book 20)
- “Syrians,” who lived especially in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, harassed the Jews of that city to the point of warfare. (Antiquities, book 20)
- Various “deceivers” and “prophets” who recruited large groups of followers and incited rebellion. The “nation began to grow mad with this distemper” of radical religion. (Antiquities, book 18)
Note that it was not a false religion imposed by the Procurators, but, rather, a radical Judaism that became the issue that helped instigate the Jewish War that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Procurators were dishonest, ineffective, and cruel, but Josephus does not portray them as shoving emperor worship down the Jew’s throats.
There is one instance in which pagan worship was an issue. The case was complex, but my best understanding of Josephus is as follows: In Caesarea, pagan sacrifices were being made right next door to the synagogue. The Jews bribed Florus to help their cause of getting rid of this sacrilege, but he broke his bargain and this inflamed the anger of the Jews. Note that there is no stretch of interpretation that can make the description of the activity of the second beast in Revelation 13 fit these events. (Wars, book 2)
In fact I cannot find anything in Josephus that can “match up” with Revelation 13:11ff. I believe that Russell’s case for this second beast is even weaker than his case for Nero.
J. S. Russell consistently interprets every prophetic Scripture in the New Testament to accord with his Preterist scheme. Some of his points are argued quite ably, and some, not so well. I do not believe his identity of Nero and Florus with the beasts of Revelation 13 and 17 nor of Jerusalem with Babylon are valid.
Bruce, F. F. Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1977.
Crossway. The ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway, 2008. (Kindle edition)
Josephus. The Works of Josephus. William B. Whiston, trans. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publ., 1987.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.
Morris, Leon. The Revelation of St. John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, vol. 20. R. V. G. Tasker, gen. ed. Grand Rapids: William
B. Eerdmans, 1980.
Russell, J. S. The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming. Internet PDF version.
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Robert Graves, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.
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