The Beast of Revelation Identified
By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry
I frequently give weekend seminars on Revelation that are of five or six hours duration. A couple of years ago I was conducting a well–advertised seminar in a church outside of Atlanta, Georgia. On the first night of the conference the church was delighted to see several first–time visitors who had come to study Revelation. The visitors did not come back for any of the following sessions. I had greatly disappointed the eager attendees by locating Revelation’s activity in the first century. The same thing happened a little later when I gave the seminar in Opelousas, Louisiana. For some reason, Christians delight in the prospect of hearing that the horrible judgments are fast approaching our own generation!
I think a credible and compelling case can be made for an ancient political figure as the Beast of Revelation. I believe the Beast was none other than Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Perhaps you know him better by his adoptive name: Nero Claudius Caesar. Let us consider the case for such an identity.
The first step in identifying the Beast is to consider:
When interpreting any book of the Bible, it is important to ascertain the audience to which it was originally directed. The evangelical hermeneutic is known as the grammatical–historical method of interpretation. The concern of the evangelical interpreter is to understand the grammar of a passage in light of its historic context. Consequently, the recognition of an audience and its original situation is quite important. This is especially true when a specific message is given to them about their own situation. Such is the case in Revelation.
There are at least three audience factors in Revelation that emphasize the original recipients and their circumstances. These provide us the circumstantial evidence that will eventually lead us to the identity of the Beast. When these are combined with the matter of the expectation of Revelation (which I will deal with in a moment), the case for identifying the Beast can proceed easily on the basis of sound hermeneutical principle. Let us consider these three audience factors.
First, in Revelation we have clear evidence that John is writing to particular, historic, individual churches that existed in his day. Revelation 1:4 provides a common salutation: “John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace [be] unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come.” In verse 11 he specifically names the seven churches to whom he speaks: “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” We know these names to be those of historical cities containing literal churches existing in the first century.
In the entirety of chapters 2 and 3 these seven specific churches are addressed with individual exhortations and warnings. Interestingly, a number of the historical, geographical, and political allusions contained in the letters show that John did, in fact, have in view the specific churches addressed. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Revelation, states: “the letters are to real churches, all the more so since each of the messages has relevance to what we know of conditions in the city named.”
Second, we learn that John wrote to those churches in order to be understood. The first sentence of John’s prophecy has become the title of the entire work. And from that title we are clearly told that his work was to be a “revelation.” The Greek word for “revelation” is apokalupsis, which means an “opening up, uncovering.” John intended his book to be an opening up of divine truth for his original audience. He wrote to reveal, not to conceal truth.
Furthermore, in Revelation 1:3 we read: “Blessed [is] he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein.” The members of the churches to whom Revelation was addressed are expected to read, understand, and keep the directives in Revelation. John’s message (ultimately from Christ, Rev. 1:1) calls upon each church to give careful, spiritual attention to his words: “He that has an ear, let him hear” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22). How could they understand and watch for events centuries distant?
Third, in Revelation John notes that he along with the seven churches have already entered “the tribulation” (Rev. 1:9 a): “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in the tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” John and the seven churches all are in “the tribulation” together, as he writes. In Revelation 2, 3 there are allusions to greater problems currently brewing on the world seen. For example, John speaks of “the hour of trial which is about to come upon the whole world” (Rev. 3:10).
In addition, John’s Revelation shows a deep concern with the expectant cry of the martyrs of the tribulation he and they were enduring. He speaks of a divine promise of their soon vindication. Revelation 6:9-11: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with aloud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they [were], should be fulfilled.”
Clearly John is writing to particular historical churches about their current grave circumstances. The original audience factor cannot be overlooked. This leads us to consider Revelation’s:
It is terribly important that the interpreter of Revelation begin at the first verses of the book and let them lead him to the proper interpretive approach. The truth of the matter is: John specifically states that the prophecies of Revelation would begin coming to pass within a very short period of time. He dogmatically states that the events of Revelation were “shortly to take place “and that “the time is near.” And as if to insure that we not miss the point (which many commentators have!) he emphasized this truth in a variety of ways. Let us briefly note his contemporary expectation.
First, we should note that he carefully varies his manner of expression, as if to avoid any potential confusion as to his meaning. A brief survey of the three leading terms he employs will be helpful in ascertaining his meaning.
The first of these terms to appear in Revelation is the Greek word tachos, translated “shortly.” John is explaining the purpose of his writing in Revelation 1:1, which reads: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show to His bond–servants, the things which must shortly [tachos] take place; and He sent and communicated it by His angel to His bond–servant John.” The Arndt–Gingrich Greek lexicon lists the following meanings under the tachos entry: “speed,” “at once,” “without delay,” “soon,” “in a short time,” “shortly.”
If you look up Revelation 1:1 in any modern translation you will find that the idea clearly exhibited is that of the very near occurrence of the events of Revelation. This term also occurs in Revelation 2:16, 3:11, 22:6, 7, 12, 20. Even a cursory reading of these verses unavoidably leads to the conclusion that John expected these things to happen “shortly” or “soon.”
Another term John uses is eggus, which means “near” (Rev. 1:3, 22:10). In Revelation 1:3 we read: “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heeds the things which are written in it; for the time is near (eggus).” When used of spatial relationships it means: “near,” “close to,” “close by.” This term literally means “at hand.” According to Arndt–Gingrich, when used of temporal relationships it signifies: “near,” “soon.” Its import in our context is clearly that of temporal nearness. The events bracketed by these statements were expected, by the apostle John, to begin taking place at any moment. They were near!
The final term we will note is mello, which means “about to” (Rev. 1:19, 3:10). When found in both of the verb forms appearing in Revelation 1:19 and Revelation 3:10, this term means “be on the point of, be about to.” A number of Bible translations confuse the matter when they translate the word properly in Revelation 3:10 but improperly in Revelation 1:19. According to Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, Revelation 1:19 reads: “Write the things that thou hast seen, and the things that are, and the things that are about to come (mello) after these things.” The leading interlinear versions of the New Testament concur.
Second, John emphasizes his anticipation of the soon occurrence of his prophecy by strategic placement of these time references. He places his boldest time statements in both the introduction and conclusion to Revelation. It is remarkable that so many recent commentators have missed it literally coming and going! The statement of expectancy is found three times in the first chapter twice in the first three verses: Revelation 1:1, 3, 19.
The same idea is found four times in his concluding remarks: Revelation 22:6, 7, 12, 20. It is as if John carefully bracketed the entire work to avoid any confusion. It is important to note that these statements occur in the more historical and didactic sections of Revelation, before and after the major dramatic–symbolic visions. These didactic expectations set temporal parameters around the events in the dramatic visionary sections. These temporal parameters anchor Revelation’s events in the first century.
Third, his temporal expectation receives frequent repetition. His expectation appears seven times in the opening and closing sections of Revelation, and at least three times in the letters to the Seven Churches (Rev. 2:16, 3:10, 11). According to the unambiguous statement of the text, the events were “about to come.” John was telling the seven historical churches (Rev. 1:4, 11, 22:16) in his era to expect the events of his prophecy at any moment. He repeats the point time and again for emphasis. With the particularity of the audience emphasized in conjunction with his message of the imminent expectation of occurrence of the events, we are ready to point out the exegetical proof that Nero is the dreaded Beast of Revelation.
The Seven Heads of the Beast
Most commentators agree that the Beast imagery in Revelation shifts between the generic and the specific. This is important to grasp: sometimes the Beast represents a kingdom, sometimes a particular, individual leader of that kingdom.
At some places the one Beast has seven heads, which are seven kings collectively considered. In Revelation 13:1 John notes that he “saw a beast coming up out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads”. Revelation 17:10 specifically notes that the seven heads represent “seven kings.” Thus, the Beast is generically portrayed as a kingdom.
But in the very same contexts the Beast is spoken of as an individual, as one of the heads, as a particular part of the generic whole. John urges his readers to “calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man” (Rev. 13:18). In Revelation 17:11 the interpretive angel tells John and his readers “the beast which was and is not, is himself also an eighth, and is one of the seven.” This feature is recognized by most commentators of various schools of interpretation, including even dispensationalists.
Let us now turn to consider this seven–headed Beast. In Revelation 17 a vision of the seven–headed Beast is recorded. Regarding this vision we read in verses 9 and 10: “Here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth. And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.”
Most New Testament scholars recognize that the seven mountains represent the famous seven hills of Rome. The seven hills of Rome are mentioned time and again by both ancient pagan and Christian writers.
John wrote to be understood: “Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 1:3). In fact, he specifically points out here that the wise one will understand: “And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth” (Rev. 17:9). The referent is beyond doubt: Rome is alluded to in this vision of the seven–headed Beast. The original recipients of Revelation lived under the rule of Rome, which was universally distinguished by its seven hills. How could the recipients, living in the seven historical churches of Asia Minor and under Roman imperial rule, understand John’s vision as anything other than this geographical feature?
But the vision causes John to wonder in quiet confusion. There is a difficulty involved. And that difficulty is that the seven heads have a double reference. We learn further that the seven heads also have a political referent: “And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space” (Rev. 17:10).
It is surely no accident that Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish contemporary of John, clearly points out that Julius Caesar was the first emperor of Rome and that he was followed in succession by Augustus, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, and, sixthly, Nero (Antiquities, books 18 and 19). The matter is confirmed just a little later in the writings of Roman historians: Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars and Dio Cassius, Roman History 5.
The text of Revelation says that of the seven kings “five have fallen.” These emperors are dead, when John writes. But the verse goes on to say “one is.” That is, the sixth one is then reigning even as John wrote. That would be Nero Caesar, who assumed imperial power upon the death of the fifth emperor, Claudius, in October, A.D. 54. Nero remained emperor until his suicide in A.D. 68, a period of over thirteen years.
John continues: “The other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.” As the Roman Civil Wars broke out in rebellion against Nero, Nero committed suicide on June 8, A.D. 68. John informs us that the seventh king was “not yet come.” That would be Galba, who assumed power upon Nero’s death in June, A.D. 68. But he was only to continue a “short space.” As a matter of historical fact, his reign lasted but six months — until January 15, A.D. 69. He was one of the quick succession of emperorsin the famous era called by historians: “the year of the four emperors.”
Now some evangelical commentators, such as John Walvoord, would attempt to circumvent this political evidence by pointing out difficulties. His evidence is two–fold: (1) Our text is taken from a highly figurative vision. (2) It is introduced by a call for “the mind which has wisdom,” which seems to indicate the difficulty of the interpretation.
This, however, is twisting the text to say what it does not say. It is true that upon seeing the symbolic vision itself, John was in fact perplexed and confused: he “wondered with great wonder” (Rev. 17:1, 7a). But in response to his confusion, an interpretive angel appears with the express promise that he would show John the proper understanding (Rev. 17:7): “Why do you wonder? I shall tell you the mystery.” Revelation 17:9 and 10 is the explication of the vision. It is not given to make the matter more difficult! The inherent difficulty requiring wisdom lay in the fact that the seven heads had a double referent: geographical and political. The angel functions here much like the angel in Revelation 7:13, 14 to interpret the prophetic vision. His presence to John was to clearup John’s confusion, not to increase it.
Thus, we see that while John wrote, the sixth emperor was ruling from the Seven Hilled City. This is surely Nero, the sixth emperor of Rome. Galba, the short–lived seventh emperor, was looming in the near future. And there is more evidence.
The Beast Out of the Sea
Nero and Nero alone fits the bill as the specific or personal expression of the Beast. This vile character fulfills all the requirements of the principles derived from the very text of Revelation itself. Those principles are particularly abundant in Revelation 13. Notice:
First, in Revelation 13:18 the number of the Beast is the number of “a man” and that number is “666.” Now the usefulness of this number lies in the fact that in ancient days alphabets served a two–fold purpose. Letters functioned, of course, as phonetic symbols. As such, they functioned just as our modern alphabet. But in ancient times letters also served as numerals, in that theArabic numbering system was a later development of history.
A Hebrew spelling of Nero Caesar’s name was Nrwn Qsr.
It has been documented by archaeological finds that a first century Hebrew spelling of Nero’s name provides us with precisely the value of 666. Is it not remarkable that this most relevant emperor has a name that fits precisely the required sum? Is this sheer historical accident? But there is more.
Second, the textual variant. If you consult a Bible with marginal references you may notice something of interest regarding Revelation 13:18. Your reference may say something to the effect: “Some manuscripts read 616.” The fact is that the number 666 in some ancient manuscripts of Scripture is actually changed to 616. But why? Was it changed accidentally, or on purpose?
The difference surely is no accident of sight made by an early copiest. The numbers 666 and 616 are not even similar in appearance in the original Greek—whether spelled out in words or written out as numerals. As textual scholars agree, it must be intentional.
A strong and most reasonable case may be made for the following probability. John, a Jew, used a Hebrew spelling of Nero’s name in order to arrive at the figure 666. But when Revelation began circulating among those less acquainted with Hebrew, a well–meaning copiest who knew the meaning of 666 might have intended to make its deciphering easier by altering it to 616. It surely is no mere coincidence that 616 is the numerical value of “Nero Caesar,” when spelled in Hebrew by transliterating it from its more widely familiar Latin spelling.
Such a conjecture would satisfactorily explain the rationale for the divergence: so that the non–Hebrew mind might more readily discern the identity of the Beast. Such a possibility offers are markable confirmation of the designation of Nero.
Third, the beastly image. In Revelation 13 the one behind the 666 riddle is specifically designated a “Beast.” The Greek word for“beast” is often used of the wild, carnivorous animals employed in the cruel Roman arenas. Because of its natural association, theterm is often quite aptly used figuratively of persons with “a’bestial’ nature, beast, monster.”
Not only is the word “Beast” employed by John in this passage,but he even symbolically represents this fearsome being withhorrible, beastly imagery. This Beast is a compound of such feared and destructive carnivores such as the leopard, bear, and lion.
Now it is almost universally agreed that Nero was one who was possessed of a “bestial nature.” Nero was even feared and hated by his own countrymen. His bestial cruelty is evidenced in the writings of the Roman historian Suetonius (A.D. 70–160), who speaks of Nero’s “cruelty of disposition” evidencing itself at an early age. He documents Nero’s evil and states: “neither discrimination or moderation [were employed] in putting to death whosoever he pleased on any pretext whatever.” Suetonius notes that Nero“compelled four hundred senators and six hundred Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena.” He enjoyed homosexual rape and torture. He ruthlessly killed his parents, brother, wife, aunt, and many others close to him and of high station in Rome.
Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 56–117) spoke of Nero’s “cruel nature” that “put to death so many innocent men.” Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) described Nero as “the destroyer of the human race” and “the poison of the world.” Roman satirist Juvenal (A.D. 60–140) speaks of “Nero’s cruel and bloody tyranny.“Elsewhere he calls Nero a “cruel tyrant.”
Nero so affected the imagination that the pagan writer Apollinius of Tyana, a contemporary of Nero, specifically mentions that Nero was called a “beast”: “In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many, many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs.... And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mother, but Nero has gorged himself on this diet.”
Fourth, the war with the saints. The Beast is said to “make war with the saints and to overcome them” (Rev. 13:7). In fact, he is said to conduct such blasphemous warfare for a specific period of time: 42 months (Rev. 13:5).
The Neronic persecution, which was initiated by Nero in A.D.64, was the first ever Roman assault on Christianity. Two of his most famous victims are the apostles Peter and Paul.
As Church father Eusebius notes: “Nero was the first of the emperors who showed himself an enemy of the divine religion.“Sulpicius Severus concurs: “He first attempted to abolish the name of Christian.” In his Annals Roman historian Tacitus points to those who were persecuted as “those who... were vulgarly called Christians.”
Roman historian Suetonius concurs, for in a list of the few “positive” contributions of Nero as emperor, he includes the fact that Nero persecuted Christians: “During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made:.... Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”
Noted church historian J. L. von Mosheim wrote of Nero’s persecution: “Foremost in the rank of those emperors, on whom the church looks back with horror as her persecutors, stands Nero, a prince whose conduct towards the Christians admits of no palliation, but was to the last degree unprincipled and inhuman. The dreadful persecution which took place by order of this tyrant, commenced at Rome about the middle of November, in the year of our Lord 64.... This dreadful persecution ceased but with the death of Nero. The empire, it is well known, was not delivered from the tyranny of this monster until the year 68, when he put an end to his own life.” (L. von Mosheim, Historical Commentaries, I:138,139).
Nero died on June 8, A.D. 68, 42 months later, but for a few days. It was only then that the Neronic persecution formally ended, as Rome’s attention was turned to the eruption of its own civil war.
Fifth, the death of the Beast. Nero Caesar fits the entire bill for the personal manifestation of the Beast in Revelation. The Beast not only slays by the sword, but ultimately is to die of a sword wound: “He that leadeth into captivity shall go into captivity: he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints” (Rev.13:10).
That Nero did in fact kill by the sword is well–attested fact.Paul, for example, is said to have died under Nero by decapitation by means of the sword. Tertullian credits “Nero’s cruel sword” as providing the martyr’s blood as seed for the church. He urges his Roman readers to “Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect.”
Likewise, history records for us that Nero took his own life by sword. Roman historian Suetonius writes in Nero (ch. 49): “Then with the help of his secretary, Epaphroditus, he stabbed himself in the throat.” The evidence is strong and well–grounded in historical fact: Nero Caesar was the personal expression of the Beast of Revelation. But one important question remains: what about the Beast’s death–wound and his subsequent resurrection? Let us now consider John’s revelation of:
The Beast Arising from the Dead
We read in Revelation 13:3 “And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.” As I set forth the proper interpretation, it will be necessary to remember that John allows some shifting in his imagery of the Beast. The Beast is generically portrayed as a kingdom and specifically designated as one of thekings of that kingdom. We should note that it is one of the heads which received a death blow: “And I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed” (Rev. 13:3). We saw earlier that Nero Caesar is the “head” which is in view here.
Understanding the matters we have discussed up until now takes us a long way toward resolving the interpretive issue before us.The mortal sword wound to one of the heads is a wound that should have been fatal to the Beast, generically considered. This explains why that after the wound was healed and the Beast continued alive “the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast” (Rev.13:3 b). The seven–headed Beast seems indestructible, for the cry goes up: “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him? (Rev. 13:4 b).
Now how does all of this imagery have anything to do with Rome and Nero Caesar?
At this point we need to reflect upon a most significant series of historical events of the A.D. 60s. A perfectly reasonable and historical explanation of the revived Beast lies before the interpreter. Here is where so many faddish interpretations of Revelation go wrong. They forget the original audience relevance factor and, consequently, overlook the history of the era.
When Nero committed suicide on June 8, A.D. 68, two major inter–related historical situations presented themselves to the world. Both carried with them catastrophic consequences.
First, with the death of Nero, the Julio–Claudian line of emperors perished from the earth. In other words, the Roman Empire’s founding family vanished from rule. The blood line that had given birth to, extended, stabilized, brought prosperity to, and had received worship from the Roman Empire was suddenly cut off forever. In superstitious, pagan fashion Suetonius notes that “many portents” foreshadowed the tragedy that was to be, i.e. that “the race of the Caesars ended with Nero.” This was a grave and serious matter to the Roman Empire.
Second, catastrophe upon catastrophe followed the death of Nero and the extinction of the Julian line. Immediately, the Roman Empire was hurled into civil wars of horrible ferocity and dramatic proportions. In fact, the civil wars almost destroyed the empire, seriously threatening to reduce “eternal Rome” to rubble.
The peril Rome faced and the upheaval that shook the empire were well–known in that era. As Josephus notes of these Roman civil wars: “I have omitted to give an exact account of them, because they are well known by all, and they are described by a great number of Greek and Roman authors.”
These civil wars would, to all appearance, strike the citizens, subjects, neighbors, and enemies of the vast empire—Christian and pagan alike—as being the very death throes of Rome,the Beast generically considered. Indeed, in Tacitus’s estimationit very nearly was so: “This was the condition of the Roman state when Serius Galba, chosen consul for the second time, and his colleague Titus Vinius entered upon the year that was to be for Galba his last and for the state almost the end.”
Before the world’s startled eyes, the seven–headed Beast (Rome) was toppling to its death as its sixth head (Nero) was mortally wounded with the sword. As Suetonius viewed the long months immediately following Nero’s death, the empire “for a longtime had been unsettled, and as it were, drifting, through the usurpation and violent death of three emperors.”
But what eventually occurred at the end of these death throes? The rest of Suetonius’s quotation begun above informs us that: “The empire, which for a long time had been unsettled and, as it were,drifting through the usurpation and violent death of three emperors, was at last taken in hand given stability by the Flavian family.” Josephus sets forth this view of things when he writes: “So upon this confirmation of Vespasian’s entire government, which was now settled, and upon the unexpected deliverance of the public affairs of the Romans from ruin, Vespasian turned his thoughts to what remained unsubdued in Judea.” Thus, after a time of grievous civil wars, the Empire was revived by the ascending of Vespasian to the purple.
The verses in Revelation regarding the death and revivification of the Beast may properly be understood as prophesying the earth–shaking historical events of the late A.D.60s era. Rome died, as it were, and returned again to life. In light of John’s original audience (Rev. 1:4,11), his call for their careful consideration (Rev. 1:3, 13:9), and his contemporary expectation (Rev. 1:1, 3), we must wonder why commentators project themselves into the distant future seeking some other fulfillment of these events. All the evidence heretofore dovetails nicely with this revivification factor.