“Why bore people with long historical sketches, and not actually say much about the Book of Revelation itself?” A candid friend recently challenged me with a variant of this question.
In response, I will start by saying that the historical stuff does not bore me. In college, I was a history major. Personally, I enjoy doing the historical research and presenting what I learn. It’s fun for me. But I realize not everyone else wants to hear all the history. All the historical stuff might come across as unnecessary and irrelevant. I will try to make it seem more relevant.
A second response is this: A solid understand of Revelation really does require knowledge of what has happening when Revelation was first written and first heard, about 96AD. I do you no disservice by giving you information about evil Emperor Domitian. He sent John into exile. His policies resulted in the difficulties and the persecution loosed upon the seven churches in Roman Asia. Domitian instigated the historical circumstances behind the Book of Revelation.
A third and important response would be this: What happened then is going to happen again, albeit under different circumstances and with a different cast of characters. History does indeed rhyme. We are supposed to be on the lookout for someone like Domitian. We are supposed to be on the lookout for deceivers and imposters. Revelation speaks not just of the past, but also of the future. Revelation points to the past to show us what the future will hold.
Furthermore, sometimes tyrants and dictators do come along resembling Domitian. There are several on the world stage right now. They behave a lot like Emperor Domitian behaved. They make life difficult for the Christians under their dominion. They insist that Christians toe the party line and sing the party’s song — literally. It is happening right now. But if you do not know about Antiochus and Domitian, the significance of it will not register with you. So I do you no disservice by giving you historical information about Domitian. And I intend to tell you more about Antiochus Epiphanes in a future post.
Please stick with me. The temptation you will face is to think I am just an ignorant blowhard bent on rambling. Even if I take tangents and go directions that seem irrelevant, please stick with me. I am going somewhere with it. You will come away with a better sense of how to read both Revelation and history, including today’s current events. It is not irrelevant. Revelation is not irrelevant at all. Many of the prophecies of Revelation are playing out before our very eyes. And if we read Revelation carefully, we will recognize it. And we will be ready for what may come, if we just have an ear to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
That does not mean that everything I say will be one hundred percent right. No one can claim that. I may get some things wrong along the way. Revelation requires extensive interpretation. Interpreters sometimes make mistakes. But just because some interpreters mess up does not mean that the study of Revelation is only for crazies and quacks. Revelation actually belongs in the Bible. It is intended to be a blessing to the readers and the hearers. I urge you to listen to it. The Spirit is speaking to the churches through it. We ignore it at our own peril.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Mark Twain may or may not have said or written that. Hitherto, no one has been able to verify that the quote originated with Mark Twain. It has just been attributed to him. Maybe someday someone will find a letter or a scrap of writing in a library or an attic somewhere that verifies the quote did originate with Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. But whatever. Most of us do not need nor care to know the source of the quote. We just recognize that the quote itself is quite true. It is axiomatic. While history never does repeat itself exactly, it does often rhyme.
Not only is that observation of history axiomatic, it is also quite biblical. Much of the prophetic material in the Bible should be read on that very premise. What has happened before will someday be recapitulated in a slightly different way. If you grasp that, you will be able to make much better sense of prophecy throughout all of scripture. A particular prophecy will describe an immediate historical event, with at least one future event also in view, and sometimes more than one. I could give several examples of this characteristic of prophecy; but for the moment, please just humor the notion that it might be so.
Okay, since you insist, I’ll give you one example: Hosea 11:1 says “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” In context, that statement clearly refers to the people of Israel. In the Exodus, God had called them out of Egypt. God speaks of the people of Israel figuratively, as a son. But Matthew 2:15 takes the very same figurative statement and applies it literally to Jesus. So it kind of happened twice. What was true of Israel is also true of Jesus. Like Israel, Jesus himself was called out and brought out of Egypt. Sometimes prophetic history rhymes.
Over the last 48 hours, I spent hours doing my own online historical sleuthing. No, I was not trying to track down and verify Mark Twain’s alleged quote. Instead, I was trying to find out whether Emperor Domitian ever irrefutably and explicitly referred to himself as “Lord and God.” Yes, it really does matter whether Domitian made such a claim or not. It matters because if Domitian did so, his self-aggrandizement probably precipitated an existential crisis for first century Christians. Here’s the question, stated precisely: Were Christians persecuted and even martyred because they refused to call Emperor Domitian “Lord and God”?
The answer is very probably yes. At very least, Domitian allowed people to refer to him as “Lord and God” and even established an empire-wide cultic system where it was very much encouraged, if not formally mandated. Under Domitian’s magistrates, the populace of the empire felt political and economic pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to their dear leader, to the genius of the emperor. And toward the end of Domitian’s tyrannical tenure, that meant people felt the compulsion to address him not just as “Lord,” but as both “Lord and God.” Domitian was called Dominus et Deus, Lord and God. No emperor before Domitian had ever allowed that, let alone encouraged it. Emperors were deified after they died, not while alive.
This is a crucially important point, precisely because it may well be the fulfillment of an intriguing Old Testament prophecy from the Book of Daniel. I believe and contend that Emperor Domitian fulfills that prophecy in Daniel 7:19-27. To establish this claim as historically sound, I need to throw out some names, dates, and data.
Somewhere I read that Eusebius said so. Eusebius says that Domitian “was the first to order himself to be called Lord and God.” But I could not find the quote anywhere. As noted in previous blog posts, Eusebius wrote the indispensable history of the early Church. In English, that history is called The History of the Church or Ecclesiastical History. Yesterday, I spent quite a bit of time trying to find where in Ecclesiastical History Eusebius says that Domitian referred to himself as “Lord and God.” Nothing. Initially, I came up empty. I was looking in the wrong place. I was perplexed. I knew that I had read or heard it somewhere.
However, even if I were to find the quote, Eusebius is not enough. I needed other historical sources. That was easy enough. Roman historians from that era did indeed say that Emperor Domitian was called “Lord and God.”Suetonius is a non-Christian historian who in his history called The Twelve Caesars says this of Domitian:
With equal arrogance, when he dictated the form of a letter to be used by his procurators, he began it thus: “Our lord and god commands so and so;” whence it became a rule that no one should style him otherwise either in writing or speaking.
This quote from Suetonius corroborated Eusebius, or at least what I thought I had heard of Eusebius. Suetonius’s quote might even be considered a smoking gun, a sure verification. Domitian definitely wanted to be addressed as Dominus et Deus. But wait, there’s more.
Though he had to flee for his life, Dio Chrysostum managed to escape the reach of the emperor’s magisterial minions and thus survived Domitian’s reign of terror. After Domitian’s assassination, here is what Dio Chrysostum had to say in his 45th Discourse:
Well, how I bore my exile, not succumbing to loss of friends or lack of means or physical infirmity; and, besides all this, bearing up under the hatred, not of this or that one among my equals or peers, as they are sometimes called, but rather of the most powerful, stern man, who was called by all Greeks and barbarians both master and god, but who was in reality an evil demon…
Notice that Dio Chrysostom here states that Domitian was called both master (or Lord) and god, but was in reality an evil demon. Suetonius also goes to great lengths to demonstrate Domitian’s diabolical tendencies. His contemporaries all said Domitian was sinister and evil.
And finally, I did find the quote from Eusebius. In addition to Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius also wrote an extensive chronology called Chronicon. Eusebius is precise in dating events in Chronicon, precisely because it is a chronology of events. Here is the much-anticipated, hard-to-locate information: During the 216th Olympiad Domitian was the first [Roman Emperor] to order himself to be called “Lord and God.” By our reckoning, this edict happened sometime around 90AD/CE.
Now go read Daniel 7:19-27 (included below). See if Emperor Domitian does not seem to be a prophetic fit.
Most scholars believe that the Book of Revelation was written near the time of Domitian’s assassination in September, 96AD/CE. If so, Revelation’s prophecies pick up precisely where Daniel’s prophecies end. To me, that is interesting indeed.
Her husband Clemens was executed, by order of the emperor. Flavia Domitilla herself was put on a ship and sent into exile. The emperor had her banished to one of the remote islands off the western coast. Previous emperors had done the same thing. They just shooed away embarrassing or disobedient female relatives. Insufficiently loyal male relatives were usually executed, since alive they were perpetual contenders for the purple. Regrettably, although kin, the males must serve as a mortal example to other wanna-be usurpers. They must die. The females were less of a threat, though. Undesirable female relatives like Domitilla were sometimes shown pity and spared death. Instead, they were simply sent away, shipped into exile. Perhaps someday, if sufficiently remorseful, Domitilla might be be granted clemency.
Domitilla had offended Uncle Domitian with her infidelity — not of the marital sort, but of the religious sort. Domitilla had withheld due devotion to the ancestral gods, the very gods who had made Rome so great. Like her husband, Domitilla refused to participate in the rites. She would no longer show devotion to Jupiter, Minerva, and the rest of the Roman pantheon. Though she be a near, dear relative of the emperor, Domitilla could not be exempted from punishment, neither her nor her husband. His disgraceful disloyalty to Roma and abhorrent infidelity to its gods meant deserved death, hers meant banishment.
But what about the children? Clemens and Domitilla had children. Emperor Domitian was by no means indifferent to their plight. At least two of Domitilla’s sons already had Domitian’s favor. He had deemed himself their godfather. The emperor himself had no living children. There was thus no heir apparent. Before their parents were even found guilty of treasonous infidelity, the boys had been adopted children by Uncle Emperor Domitian. He had embraced them, adopted them, and renamed them after his father and himself. The boys had been renamed Vespasian and Domitian. Emperor Domitian intended for one or both of the boys to take his place someday, to succeed him. At least one of the boys would someday wear the purple — provided they were loyal, faithful, and worthy, unlike their traitorous parents.
But Domitilla had an unlikely avenger named Stephanus. Stephanus had been one of Domitilla’s household servants until his services were suspect. Stephanus was accused of stealing from her. Thereafter, Stephanus went rogue and joined the rebellion. He somehow joined up with a group of court conspirators who were plotting to kill Uncle Emperor Domitian. Stephanus either volunteered himself or was designated to do the bloody deed. And do the deed he did. But he himself died in the doing.
Stephanus assassinated Uncle Emperor Domitian by stabbing him with a concealed dagger. But before he bled out and died, Domitian fought back and returned the favor.
At news of his death, the Roman Senate was elated. They despised Domitian. And that’s an understatement. Domitian had been a sadistic and vile emperor. He had killed many of them. He had terrorized the rest. Shortly after his death, the Senate damned his memory. Everything that ever glorified Domitian was to be undone, taken down, scratched out, demolished, or scrubbed. Domitian be damned, for all eternity. So it was written, and so it was done.
While all this court intrigue may be interesting to Ancient Roman history buffs, what does it have to do with the Bible? Does it have anything to do with the Book of Revelation?
Yes, it does indeed have something to do with Book of Revelation. Brother Eusebius, who wrote the indispensable history of the early Church, says that Domitian was Emperor when the Book of Revelation was written. And Eusebius is probably right about that. Domitian banished Domitilla because of her infidelity to the Roman pantheon. Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church claim that Domitilla was actually a Christian convert and a martyr. Historians generally concur that Domitilla was a convert to Christianity. It seems very likely. If so, Domitilla was exiled because of her steadfast testimony for Christ, just like John, the author of Revelation. Both of them were exiled by decree of Domitian for their faith.
But wait, there’s more — I would like to suggest the possibility that Emperor Domitian is even prophesied in the Old Testament. Domitian seems to fit the depiction of the arrogant eleventh king in Daniel 7:19-28. Domitian was the eleventh emperor of Rome. And Domitian did enact policies that resulted in the prosecution and persecution of Jews and Christians.
Further explanation of what exactly Domitian did needs to wait for another blog post, though.
As a take away, realize that God was in control and at work through everything that occurred in those dark days. As a parent, I imagine the anxiety that Clemens and Domitilla must have felt when they were separated from their children by the Roman authorities. Clemens and Domitilla would have been sorely tempted to play along with Domitian’s demands. But they were steadfast. Otherwise, Clemens would have been spared and Domitilla would have stayed home. And we might never have heard of either of them.
Up front, a recommendation: If you’re reading this, I hereby suggest you listen to the audio version. Then you can hear all my pronunciation mistakes and my attempted corrections.
My wife frequently corrects my pronunciation of words. Admittedly, I do need it, since I am frequently messing up words. Even worse, I often revert to an erroneous pronunciation of a word after hearing the correct way to say it. In my defense, I just say it how it looks in print. They taught me to read using phonics, circa 1975-76. Nevertheless, although I am never a quick study, my wife patiently corrects and re-corrects my mispronunciations, as need be.
To misquote Shel Silverstein’s poem Smart, “She just closes her eyes and shakes her head, too proud of me to speak.”
Now I need to make a mispronunciation confession and correction. On May 11th I posted a blog entry entitled The Mark. If you happened to listen to the audio version, you were therein subjected to a repetitive and odious mispronunciation of the name Decius. Throughout, I kept saying DC-us, because that’s how it looks in print, thank you. But the correct pronunciation is actually Dee-schus or Day-schus. It’s something like the word delicious with the middle removed. My apologies, then, to Emperor Decius and everyone who may have suffered the trauma of listening through that unedited recording. So sorry.
The word quintessential serves as another sad example of my mispronunciation tendency. The right way to say the second syllable is “tuh” not “tee.” Invariably, I say “tee” — quin-TEE-sen-schull, because that’s how it looks. Simple phonics, but oh-so wrong. It’s “tuh” not “tee.”
May I introduce to you a couple more phonics-unfriendly Graeco-Roman names? One is Josephus, the other, Eusebius. Not Jo-sep-hus and Eww-seb-i-us, but Joe-C-Fuss and You CBS. If you don’t already know their names, you do now. These two rank way up there as very important historical historian dudes. In future posts, I will necessarily reference them. Both of them were historians who wrote shortly after the New Testament was written and circulated. Both of them wrote in Ancient Greek, but lived during the Roman era.
If you’re American, it might be helpful to think of Josephus as a Benedict Arnold. He switched sides to save his skin. Many of his people consider him a loathsome traitor, even now. During the Jewish rebellion against Rome, Josephus received a commission as a Jewish general. Galilee was his to defend. However, he failed miserably. In his final battle, General Josephus and forty of his men were cornered by the Romans in a cave. Rather than surrender, they decided to take turns killing each other. The last man was supposed to then commit suicide. Josephus was the last man standing. But he did not commit suicide. Instead, Josephus left the cave and surrendered to the Romans. He offered them his services. As low as that may have been, Josephus went on to become a first-rate historian. Most of what we know about the Jewish rebellion and Jewish history of that era comes directly from Flavius Josephus. He was an eyewitness to the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70AD. That’s all super-important stuff, if Revelation is an interest of yours. So please remember Josephus. I will refer to him on occasion.
Chronologically, Brother Eusebius comes not long after General Josephus. Eusebius was both a theologian and a historian of the early Church. Like Josephus, Eusebius fills in gaping historical chasms with crucially important accounts. A whole lot of what we know about the first several centuries of Christianity comes from Eusebius, and Eusebius alone. Without Eusebius’s writings, a lot of early Christian history would be formless and void. Significantly, Eusebius was also familiar with Josephus’s work. Eusebius accurately quotes Josephus, which makes Eusebius all the more credible as a historian. So please do remember Brother Eusebius. I will refer to him on occasion.
Two final historical connections ought to be made here. First, a quintessential character in the Book of Revelation is the Beast. The Beast is the second person of Revelation’s pseudo-trinity, and thus Christ’s direct diabolical opposite. General Josephus gives us information about an indisputable forerunner of the Beast. His name is Antiochus Epiphanes. He was a Seleucid Dynasty Monarch who desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and tried to stamp out Judaism.
Parenthetically, yes, I find his name hard to pronounce. A professor of mine once laughed aloud at my mispronunciation of Antiochus. Phonics — I am forever hooked on and thrown off by phonics.
A second connection I will make is to point out some additional Revelation-qualified beasties. Brother Eusebius gives us essential information about the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians. In so doing, these emperors behaved much like ferocious arena animals and so qualified as symbolic beasts. These beasties would especially be Nero, Domitian, and Decius.
Not everyone agrees with me that Antiochus, Nero, Domitian, and Decius are forerunners and prototypes of an ultimate end-times Beast. However, if they studied Church history, they probably would. I will try to convince you of the validity of my position in future posts.
Thank you for your patience with my atrocious mispronunciations, and please stay tuned.