Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Seven Kings (17.9b–11)


And they are seven kings: the five are fallen, the one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must stay a little while. And the wild animal, which was and is not, is himself eighth and is from the seven, and he goes to destruction.


The ‘seven heads’ of the wild animal, while representing the seven hills of Rome, simultaneously represent ‘seven kings’. The form of the symbolism—that a monster’s appendages correspond to the components or rulers of a nation—is based on the Book of Daniel. The precision of a sequence of kings or events is found in other apocalypses, invariably allowing the reader to identify the approximate time when the author was writing his book. As a consequence, readers may also identify which ‘predictions’ in the apocalypse were written after-the-fact, and thus where the author’s legitimate attempts to predict the future begin to suddenly fail. In Daniel 11, this is during the rule of the ‘contemptible’ king of the north, easily identifiable through context as Antiochus Epiphanes. His actions known from other ancient sources are recognizable until Daniel 11.36, which abruptly drops in historical accuracy, allowing us to place the pseudonymous author around 165 or early 164 BCE. This book’s closest parallels are found in the apocalypses called 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, especially the former, which also reinterprets Daniel 7’s fourth monster as an eagle representing the Roman Empire; the eagle’s appendages correspond to the empire’s various ‘kings’ or emperors.

This chapter’s midrash on Daniel picks up from chapters 11, 12, and 13, which already gave us a glimpse into the historical events the author hinted at. It could be inferred from the symbolism in chapter 13 that the wild animal’s heads somehow symbolized Rome’s emperors, a suspicion confirmed in this chapter. The author also clarifies that the wild animal itself is an eighth king who ‘is from the seven’. Interpreters continue to debate which of the Roman emperors should be found in the ‘seven kings’. Should the count begin with Julius Caesar, as many contemporary sources did (including the immensely similar 4 Ezra), or with Augustus, as some other sources did? Should Galba, Otho, and Vitellius be excluded, due to the brevity of their reigns during the Year of the Four Emperors, or should they be included despite that brevity? Should the ‘seven kings’ be interpreted as a general symbol for any and all emperors, rather than a literal sequence of seven specific men? The author indicates that the sixth emperor was currently in power, but if he has specific emperors in mind then this detail may not be reliable for determining all their identities or when the author wrote. (For analogy, see Daniel 11, which was purportedly written during the rule of Cyrus II, when it was actually written later, during the time of Antiochus Epiphanes.)

The most important element in chapter 17, previously alluded to in chapter 13, is that of Nero Redux, a legend contemporary to the author. In the years after the death of Nero Caesar in 68 CE, some Nero imposters were reported. This fueled the emergence of a conspiracy theory in the later part of the century that Nero had not died, but had secretly escaped Rome for the east, from which he would eventually return to reclaim power over the empire. There were variations on the legend, several of which were picked up by apocalyptic authors, who would identify Nero by his murder of his mother or by his project to dig a canal at the Isthmus of Corinth. The details of the wild animal must be brought together from the two chapters for a complete picture.

  • The seven heads are seven kings
  • One of the seven heads is killed, but recovers
  • Five of the seven kings are fallen, the sixth currently is, the seventh will rule for a short time
  • The eighth king was and is not, and is himself one of the seven kings
  • The eighth king is himself the wild animal as a whole
  • The name of the wild animal is a man’s name, which can calculated from the number six hundred sixty six

The apocalypse 4 Ezra, contemporary with this book, appears to identify the final emperor prior to the arrival of the Anointed One with Domitian, Titus’ brother and successor. Domitian was identified as a sort of Nero Redux through a political smear campaign. Widespread opinion in the second century onward was that this book was written during the time of Domitian. The convergence of all the above information leads to an interpretation which is entirely intelligible in context of the late first century, and therefore something accessible to the original audience of the book. When approaching the wild animal in light of the Nero Redux legend, its symbolism clicks into place. The author was one of many apocalypticists who incorporated the Nero Redux legend into his eschatology. He believed Nero had died (or at least had appeared to die), but would return (to life) and seize control of the empire. He encoded Nero’s identity through gematria, providing his readers with the number six hundred sixty six and just enough clues which would allow them to decode it. The precise identities of the seven kings is less clear. While the author evidently had some individuals in mind, it cannot be ruled out that the number seven was intended primarily by its symbolic value. In this way, the five fallen would be all the preceding emperors, the sixth would be the current one (with that number conveniently playing along with the number six hundred sixty six), and the seventh ruling only ‘a little while’ conveying the imminence of the eschaton.

Still, if the author did have in mind seven specific Roman emperors, one plausible interpretation of his list may be as follows.

Five dead

  1. Augustus
  2. Tiberius
  3. Caligula
  4. Claudius
  5. Nero

Sixth currently rules

  1. Vespasian

Seventh will rule briefly

  1. Titus

Eighth was alive/ruling, is not now, and is from the seven

  1. Domitian

The author, in line with other such apocalypses, wrote partially after-the-fact. He seems to present himself as writing during the time of Vespasian, when he was actually writing during the time of Domitian, demonstrated by his knowledge that Titus’ time as emperor was going to be much shorter than the others included in the list. (This potential identification skips Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. The Sibylline Oracles, which contain similar ‘predictive’ lists of emperors, refers to the emperors via gematria. The list in Book 5 does include these three emperors but glosses over them in a single sentence, not identifying them with gematria. Book 8 excludes them entirely.) This would place the origin of the prophecy in the 80s or early 90s CE. This would be incongruent with an interpretation of chapter 11 which places the book before 70 CE, since a literal interpretation of the prophecy in that chapter would have the author expecting the temple to survive Rome’s siege of Jerusalem. Because the incorporation in this chapter of the Nero Redux legend—which emerged only years after 70 CE—is a near-certainty, this leaves two chief explanations. One is that the literal interpretation of chapter 11’s prediction is incorrect. The other is that the book was written over a range of time. Some parts, such as chapter 11, would have been written before 70 CE, while others were written after. These could have come from a single author, or from an editor unifying disparate material. Such a process would not be unusual, especially in the apocalyptic genre: 1 Enoch, Daniel, 4 Ezra, and the Sibylline Oracles are known examples of multiple authorship and/or being written over many years.


Sibylline Oracles

3.63 Then Beliar will come from the Sebastenoi

3.191–193 It will stir up hatred. Every kind of deceit will be found among them until the seventh reign, when a king of Egypt, who will be of the Greeks by race, will rule.

4.119–124, 137–139 Then a great king will flee from Italy like a runaway slave unseen and unheard over the channel of the Euphrates, when he dares to incur a maternal curse for repulsive murder and many other things, confidently, with a wicked hand. When he runs away, beyond the Parthian land, many will bloody the ground for the throne of Rome. […] Then the strife of war being aroused will come to the west, and the fugitive from Rome will also come, brandishing a great spear, having crossed the Euphrates with many myriads.

5.28–34 One who has fifty as an initial will be commander, a terrible snake, breathing out grievous war, who one day will lay hands on his own family and slay them, and throw everything into confusion […] But even when he disappears he will be destructive. Then he will return declaring himself equal to God. But he will prove that he is not.

5.138–139, 143–144 a great king of great Rome, a godlike man from Italy […] He will flee from Babylon, a terrible and shameless prince whom all mortals and noble men despise.

5.363–367 A man who is a matricide will come from the ends of the earth in flight and devising penetrating schemes in his mind. He will destroy every land and conquer all and consider all things more wisely than all men. He will immediately seize the one because of whom he himself perished.

8.70–72 when the blazing matricidal exile returns from the ends of the earth he will give these things to all and award great wealth to Asia.

8.151–157 Alas for me, thrice-wretched one, when will I see that day, destructive indeed to you, Rome, and especially to all Latins? Celebrate, if you wish, the man of secret birth, riding a Trojan chariot from the land of Asia with the spirit of fire. But when he cuts through the isthmus glancing about, going against everyone, having crossed the sea, then dark blood will pursue the great beast.


7.17–18, 23–24 ‘As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever—for ever and ever. […] As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth that shall be different from all the other kingdoms; it shall devour the whole earth, and trample it down, and break it to pieces. As for the ten horns, out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise, and another shall arise after them. This one shall be different from the former ones, and shall put down three kings.’

8.20–23 ‘As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. The male goat is the king of Greece, and the great horn between its eyes is the first king. As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation, but not with his power. At the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue.’

11.2–4 ‘Now I will announce the truth to you. Three more kings shall arise in Persia. The fourth shall be far richer than all of them, and when he has become strong through his riches, he shall stir up all against the kingdom of Greece. Then a warrior king shall arise, who shall rule with great dominion and take action as he pleases. And while still rising in power, his kingdom shall be broken and divided towards the four winds of heaven, but not to his posterity, nor according to the dominion with which he ruled; for his kingdom shall be uprooted and go to others besides these.’

Dead Sea Scrolls

CD 8 The ‘serpents’ are the kings of the peoples and their wine is their ways. And the ‘head of asps’ is the chief of the kings of Greece who came to wreak vengeance upon them.

4 Ezra

12.11, 14, 22–23, 26–28 ‘The eagle that you saw coming up from the sea is the fourth kingdom that appeared in a vision to your brother Daniel. […] And twelve kings shall reign in it, one after another. But the second that is to reign shall hold sway for a longer time than any of the other twelve. […] As for your seeing three heads, this is the interpretation: In its last days the Most High will raise up three kings […] As for your seeing that the large head disappeared, one of the kings shall die in his bed, but in agonies. But as for the two who remained, the sword shall devour them. For the sword of one shall devour him who was with him; but he also shall fall by the sword in the last days.’

2 Baruch

39.5 ‘After that a fourth kingdom arises whose power is harsher and more evil than those which were before it.’

Ascension of Isaiah

4.2, 4, 7 Beliar will descend, the great angel, the king of this world, which he has ruled ever since it existed. He will descend from his firmament in the form of a man, a king of iniquity, a murderer of his mother […] This angel, Beliar, will come in the form of that king, and with him will come all the powers of this world, and they will obey him in every wish. […] And all men in the world will believe him.


Vespasian 25 It is also said that [Vespasian] once dreamed that he saw a balance with its beam on a level placed in the middle of the vestibule of the palace, in one pan of which stood Claudius and Nero and in the other himself and his sons.


Satire 4.37–38 In the days when Rome was slave of the bald Nero, when that last of the Flavians was mangling a dying world


Against Heresies 5.30.3 We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of anti-Anointed One. For if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision. For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian's reign.


Apology 5 Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect, making progress then especially at Rome. […] Domitian, too, a man of Nero's type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution

On the Pallium 4 But I must be silent, for fear, in case even they set up a muttering concerning some of your Caesars, equally lost to shame; for fear, in case a mandate have been given to canine constancy to point to a Caesar impurer than Physco, softer than Sardanapalus, and indeed a second Nero.

No comments:

Post a Comment