“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.