Notes on Revelation 17
Cecil N. Wright

            1. Identification of the Beast: The Beast of Chapter 17 is the same as the first Beast of Chapter 13, symbolizing the Roman empire: (a) both having seven heads and ten horns, and names of blasphemy (13:1; 17:3); (b) one having a head smitten unto death but whose death stroke was healed (13:3), and the other, described in terms of one of its heads, "was, and is not, and shall come" (17:8,11); (c) one coming up out of the sea and given authority to continue "forty and two months" (13:1,5), and the other, described again in terms of one of the heads, was to "come up out of the abyss, and to go into perdition" (17:8) – neither continuing indefinitely.

            Each appears to be an allusion to the Nero-redivivus myth, which would be known by John and his readers though not believed by them – except figuratively, or symbolically. Nero was the first Roman emperor to persecute Christians as such, and Dominian, soon to become emperor, would be the second – Nero incarnate as it were, or Nero personified. (And, by way of extension, the application would likely include all succeeding persecuting emperors – but who would not continue indefinitely.)

            2. The seven heads of the beast (17:9-11). "The seven heads" = "seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth" = "seven kings" – "the five are fallen, the one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a little while." The Beast, as represented by one of its heads, "was. And is not [at the time John wrote], is himself also an eighth, and is of the seven; and he goeth unto perdition." ("Goeth unto perdition" = goeth into destruction = meaning he [and likely his kind] would not continue indefinitely.)

            With the seven heads understood as seven successive emperors of the Roman Empire, beginning with Augustus, we have the following:

            1. Augustus (31 B.C. - A.D. 14).

            2. Tiberius (A.D. 14-37).

            3. Caligula (A.D. 37-41).

            4. Claudius (A.D. 41-54).

            5. Nero (A.D. 54-68). – "THE FIVE ARE FALLEN."


            Galba [June 68 to January 69 A.D., just over six months], Otho [January to April 69A.D., 95 days of just over three months], and Vitellius [April to December 69 A.D. or approximately eight months] – rivals and contenders for the throne and reigning a total of only eighteen months during a period of chaos and civil war following the suicide of Nero – hence, likely not counted.)

            6. Vespasian (A.D. 69-79). – "THE ONE IS" when John writes.

            7. Titus (A.D. 79-81). – "NOT YET COME," to continue briefly.

            8. DOMITION (A.D. 81-96) – "AN EIGHTH, AND OF THE SEVEN" – a reincarnation, as it were, of Nero.

            Juvenal, a Roman satirical poet (A.D. 60-140, writing mostly about A.D. 100-128), spoke of Rome under Domitian as "enslaved to the bald-headed Nero" (Domitian is said to have been Bald). Tertullian (A.D. 160-230) called Domition "a man of Nero’s type of cruelty," and a "sub-Nero," a verdict which Eusebius (A.D. 269-339), the "father" of church history, repeated. (See William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Volume, Revised Edition, p. 141.)

            3. Further Observations. If the foregoing interpretation is correct, it makes Chapter 17 to have been written during the reign of Vespasian, out of sequence with and several years earlier than the rest of the text if the Revelation was seen "in the reign of Domitian" per the tradition recorded by Irenaeus (A.D. 125-202). And that is precisely what some believe to have been the case. In fact, Barclay goes so far as to say "we know in fact John wrote under Domitian" (Ibid.) – though he does not say how we know.

            Admitting that the foregoing interpretation, with which he agrees, makes it look as if John wrote in the reign of Vespasian, he offers two possibilities to explain otherwise. "John may have written this particular vision years before in the time of Vespasian, lived to see it come terribly true and incorporated it in his final draft of the Revelation. Or he may have written it all in the reign of Domitian, and, projected himself back into the time of Vespasian to trace in retrospect the terrible lines that history had taken." (Ibid.) It is the later that he considers the "likeliest explanation" (Ibid.), p.146).

            But, if John should have been banished earlier than during the reign of Domitian and as far back as the latter part of the reign of Vespasian, he could have received and written all of the Revelation then and not have written Chapter 17 either out of sequence and prior to the rest or in retrospect by a numbers of years, regardless of when he was able to get it published. And Barclay himself provides testimony elsewhere to such an earlier banishment as a matter of fact.

            He quotes Jerome approvingly, who wrote probably in the late 300s, or two centuries later as follows: "In the fourteenth year after the persecution of Nero, John was banished to the island of Patmos, and there wrote the Revelation … Upon the death of Domitian, and upon the repeal of his acts by the senate, because of their excessive cruelty, he returned to Ephesus, when Nerva was emperor." (William Barclay, Introduction," The Revelation of John, Volume I, Revised Edition, 1976, p.14.) Nero’s persecution of Christians was in A.D. 64, and the fourteenth year afterward would not have been later than A.D. 78, next to the last year of Vespasian’s reign. That would have John’s exile to have been over a period of 18 years – A.D. 78-96 –from the latter part of Vespesian’s reign, through the brief reign of Titus, and throughout the reign of Domitian.

            G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, 1966, pp.21-22, cites evidence of two types of banishment: (a) deportatio in insulum, a penalty which involved confiscation of property and loss of civil rights; and(b) relegatio in insulum, which involves loss of neither property or rights. Only an emperor could pronounce the sentence of deportatio, but a provincial governor could sentence a man to relegatio, provided he had a suitable island within his jurisdiction (Digest, xlviii. 22. 6-7). And Caird states "Tertullian [A.D. 160-230]. Who was a lawyer and can be trusted to use legal terms accurately, tell us this was the sentence John had incurred: ‘Ioannes … in insulum relegatur’ (De Praescript. Haer.36)."

            So, though Vespeaian himself "attempted nothing to our prejudice," according to the Christian historian Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter XVII), John could nevertheless have been banished by local authorities during his reign. And Tertullian says in effect that he was banished by such – by the provincial governor – though in all probability it was at the instigation of the emperor cult of the pagan priesthood. Emperor worship was already being promoted in the province of Asia, and Christians were likewise being persecuted there (as attested by the Book of Revelation itself). John was given the Revelation to let them know that things would get worse still, and for quite some time, but that their cause would eventually triumph – in the Roman empire (this much through Chapter 19). And, of course, the Revelation was intended to provide strong motivation for perseverance in loyalty to Christ at the risk of even physical life itself, with assurance of superabundant reward in the life to come (cf. 2:7,10-11, 17; 3:5,12; etc.,etc.). And that the Revelation was received near the end of Vespasian’s reign seems a strong possibility.


            NOTE: This is a supplement to, not a substitute for, Notes on Revelation 17:1 - 19:21, designed to deal more coherently and systematically with the identity of the Beast of Chapter 17 and its seven heads, and with when Revelation is most likely to have been written. Its content is not set forth as the last word on the subject, but as the latest considerations of the author of these notes—for whatever they may be worth.