|Alan Garrow Didache
the problem page
Revelation was written at a time when Nero, an infamous persecutor of Christians, had died but was expected by some to return to recapture his empire. This context provides, I believe, compelling reasons for seeing the Beast whose number is 666 as Nero, rather than the Roman Empire more generally. The following 10 minute video makes this case:
If the First Beast, who comes from the sea (Rev 13.1-10) is Nero, then this has very awkward implications for the common assumption that the Second Beast (the Land Beast/False Prophet) is the agent of the Imperial Cult. Put bluntly, it is plainly incredible that a sitting emperor (the head that 'is living' even while the beast 'is not' cf. Rev 17) could have sought to promote, let alone enforce, the worship of a figure whose sole aim would have been to recapture, through violence, that sitting emperor's throne. So, if the Second Beast is not the agent of the Imperial Cult, who could it be? Who might have seen a returning Nero as someone worth worshipping - and forcing others to worship?
'For much of the population of the eastern provinces of the empire, it seems (especially from Dio Chrysostom's comment [written in Asia Minor, probably at the end of the first century, "Even now everyone wishes he were alive, and most believe that he is" (Drat. 21.10)]) that Nero's return was not merely the object of expectation but an object of eager hope. The philhellene emperor, friendly to the Parthians, had acquired the mythic image of a messianic saviour figure, who would wreak the vengeance of the east on the west and re-establish the rule of the east‘. Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, pp. 449-500 (emphasis added)
The answer is nationalists. For those fed up with the present regime, and who looked back with fondness to a previous age (dominated by Greek, rather than Roman, culture) a returning Nero would have represented the only credible (even if actually entirely fanciful) hope of a return to 'the way things ought to be'.
The question then becomes, why might the hopes of some delusional nationalists have been of particular concern to John? The only credible answer is that members of this group were also members of his churches. So - what is the evidence that John was having to battle Christian, or pseudo-Christian, Nero supporters? Two features of the Land-Beast point in this direction. First it has two horns 'like a Lamb' (13.11). This suggests that it looks like 'the Lamb' even while actually be an agent of the Dragon (13.11). Second, it is also described as 'The False Prophet' (16.13; 19.20). Very occasionally Christian texts describe an 'outsider' prophet as a false prophet but in the vast majority of cases this term refers to those who claim to be Christian but who are nevertheless deemed false. And - what is the evidence that John was having to battle such false-prophet Nero supporters in his churches? Evidence for this is provided by the attention John gives to those he names 'Jezebel' and 'Balaam' in the Seven Messages. Balaam, a prophet, is specifically charged with leading Israel into false religion (2.14). Jezebel, explicitly described as someone who 'calls herself a prophetess' (2.20), also leads members of her church into false religion (2.20). These two figures, Jezebel especially, appear to have loomed large on John's horizon - the message to Thyatira, which is longer than the others despite the relative insignificance of the town in question, stands at the focal point of the sequence of Seven Messages.
If John really means us to identify Jezebel and Balaam with the Land-Beast/False-Prophet, then it is reasonable to ask: how could these individuals have controlled trade (13.17) or enabled the execution of those who refused to worship Nero (13.15)? The answer to the first question is simpler than the second - because of the importance of trade guilds:
‘[Thyatira’s] most obvious peculiarity was then its unusually large number of influential trade-guilds ...Their prominence in Thyatira is quite exceptional.'
To trade it would have been necessary to belong to a trade guild, and those who belonged to such guilds would have been bound to participate in guild feasts. If these feasts were somehow bound up with expressions of hopefiul allegiance to the returning 'divine' Nero, then Christians who refused to eat at these feasts would have been excluded from trade. Being prevented from trading is, however, not the same as being sentenced to death. Nevertheless, if the rhetoric of these false prophets included the expectation that, when Nero returns, all who refuse to worship him will be killed, then the threat of execution would then have been obvious for any faithful Christian determined never to worship a false god.
When the First Beast is seen as Nero, and the Land-Beast/False-Prophet is seen a Jezebel + Balaam, the message of Revelation is clear: no matter the supposed benefits for economic wealth and political power, allegiance to pseudo-deities who promise whatever it takes to win our support, leads to ultimate destruction. The crown of life will only be received by those who remain faithful in their exclusive allegiance to Christ.
Alan Garrow is Vicar of St Peter's Harrogate and a member of SCIBS at the University of Sheffield.