Exegesis on Revelation 17: the great whore and the beast
The little known Victorinus was bishop of Pettau in Upper Pannonia (modern day Slovenia) in 303 CE, just a year before his death the following year, likely in the persecution under Diocletian. Prior to becoming a bishop, Cassiodorus claims that Victorinus was a trained rhetorician (Institutions I.5.3). It seems that he was likely a Greek by birth, as Jerome tells us in his On Illustrious Men 74 that Victorinus was less familiar with Latin than with Greek, and as a result his Latin compositions (including the present text) are “noble in thought” but “inferior in style.” Most of Victorinus’s writings are exegetical, including commentaries on numerous books of the Hebrew Bible in addition to Matthew’s Gospel and the present commentary on Revelation. However, Jerome also mentions an anti-heretical treatise. None of his works survive to us except for the commentary on Revelation and his treatise On the Creation of the World. Johannes Quasten points out that rather than giving running commentaries, the evidence from the Commentary on the Apocalypse suggests that he preferred to deal simply with specific passages (see Cassiodorus, Institutions I.9.2; Quasten, Patrology, p. 413). It seems that Victorinus was heavily influenced by his contemporary, Origen, and adopted a similar method of allegorical interpretation to him in much of his exegesis. Victorinus’s reliance on Origen is something attested by Jerome, who in fact cites Victorinus’s opinions on occasion in his own exegetical writings, but ultimately critiques his association with Chiliastic (or Millenarianist) ideology – the belief that prior to the apocalypse, there would be a 1000 year golden-age of Christ (see Claudio Moreschini, Early Christian Greek and Latin Literature, p. 397). Eventually, Victorinus was condemned by the so-called Decretum Gelasium: de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis (Gelasian Decree: Of Books to be Received and Not to be Received), a list of apocryphal works, erroneously understood as the work of Pope Gelasius I, who lived towards the end of the fifth century, but thought to be of later date (Quasten, Patrology, p. 413).
By way of a very brief overview, in his Commentary on the Apocalypse Victorinus understood the seven churches addressed in Revelation as representative of seven types of Christians, and the seven seals of Revelation 5-8 as a prophecy of the Gospel’s dissipation across the world. He believed that the second coming of Christ and the subsequent apocalypse would be foreshadowed by wars, famine, and persecution of the church. The crowned rider of the four horsemen, who is seated on the white horse (Revelation 6:1-8), is viewed by Victorinus as the church advancing forward in its triumph over paganism, while the red, black, and pale horses are understood as representations of the wars, famines, and destructions apparent in the time of the antichrist. The seven-headed red dragon of Revelation 12 is interpreted as the Roman empire, which itself brings about the antichrist in the end times. The antichrist appears from the great battle in heaven, and is expelled to earth where he dominates after the three and a half years of the prophet Elijah’s preaching. Elijah and Jeremiah are understood to be the first and second angels mentioned in Revelation 14, and bear witness to the time before the second coming of Christ. The leopard beast in Revelation 13 is then interpreted as the antichrist’s kingdom.
We now come to Victorinus’s interpretation of Revelation 17, the subject of the extract cited above. In the form of a vision of one of the angels who poured God’s wrath upon the earth in Revelation 16, chapter 17 speaks of the final judgement of the “great whore” of Babylon (also understood by Victorinus in his exegesis to be Sodom, with both sinful cities being effectively merged; see verse 8 above), who is drunk on the blood of the martyrs and the image of the murderous devil. In his exegesis on Revelation 17:1-6, Victorinus specifically highlights the decrees (decretum) of the Roman senate as being totally contrary to the “true faith,” drawing a contrast between Roman law and the will of God. Indeed, Victorinus writes in the aftermath of Decius’s edict requiring universal sacrifice from all inhabitants of the empire, which saw numerous Christian martyrs who refused to perform the sacrifice (on which see the commentaries on Papyrus Rylands 12 and 112a). The vivid description of this woman and the beast on which she sits is one of the most well-known images in Revelation, and frequently interpreted as a representation of Rome and her sins, a line of argument which Victorinus continues here.
The motif of a whore/harlot to depict a wicked city is very common in the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic books. For instance, Nahum describes Nineveh as a whore (Nahum 3:4), and Isaiah also speaks this way of Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:21). As Victorinus explains above, verse 3 of Revelation 17 sees the whore dressed in scarlet and purple (the colour worn by Roman senators, which we could perhaps connect here with the previous sentence condemning the senate and its decrees), riding a scarlet beast. The colours that the whore wears of course signify in one sense high social status and wealth. Scarlet was an expensive colour, and denoted a certain degree of honour (see Matthew 27:28 where a scarlet robe is placed on Jesus prior to his crucifixion as a form of mockery at his supposed claims to kingship). However, in this instance, it is used in quite the opposite manner, as an image for sinfulness (see Isaiah 1:18 and 1 Clement 8:4, where sins are described as like scarlet; see also Leviticus 16 for the tradition of the scapegoat, which was sent out into the desert symbolically carrying the sins of Israel on the Day of Atonement). Like the beast from the sea in Revelation 13, the scarlet beast of this passage has seven heads, ten horns (see verses 9 and 11 of Victorinus’s exegesis), and spouts blasphemous names. The seven heads of the beast are initially described in verse 9 as seven mountains or hills, which Victorinus takes to be the seven hills of Rome. As Victorinus explains in verse 10, the seven heads of the beast also represent seven kings (it is worth noting that the term “king”—βασιλεύς, basileus in Greek—is often used to refer to the Roman emperor (for another New Testament example, see 1 Peter 2:17). The precise meaning of the beast’s horns and heads in the text of Revelation itself have proved to be difficult to understand, and have been variously interpreted by scholars. Generally, most see the likelihood of various Roman emperors being alluded to. However, in Victorinus’s view it is quite clear. For him, one must understand the kings in relation to the time that he believes the text to have been written, during which period reigned the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) (this is also a very common view among modern scholars – for a discussion, see the introduction to the commentary on Revelation 17). Before Domitian reigned his brother Titus, as well as Vespasian, Otho, Vitellius, and Galba. These latter five are those whom Revelation describes to have fallen. The seventh ruler who has not yet come is understood to be Nerva, who only reigned for two years (96-98 CE).
Moreover, verse 11 speaks of an eighth figure which for Victorinus represents the emperor Nero, who reigned before any of the other seven rulers previously mentioned (54-68 CE). The rest of Victorinus’s musings on Revelation 17 are then concerned with explaining Nero’s function in the onset of the end times, seemingly buying into a popular interpretation of Revelation that is still upheld by some modern scholars; namely, that the “eighth” king is Nero redivivus, returned from the depths of the abyss (i.e. death) and yet ultimately destined to be sent back there. The popular Nero redivivus myth hoped or feared that he would return from the dead (see, for example, Sibylline Oracles 5:488-490; 8:92 and Dio Chrysostom, Discourse XXI On Beauty 10). This is how J. Nelson Kraybill and Leonard Thompson understand the beast of Revelation 8 and 11, for instance (Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce, p. 162; Thompson, The Book of Revelation, p. 165-166). This makes sense not only in terms of one who has returned to reign, but also of one who gathers other kings against the whore (Rome) (see Revelation 12-13, 16-17), as it was believed that Nero would appear with armies of Medes and Persians (Parthians) to destroy Rome and other places (see Sibylline Oracles IV.119-123; 5.137-154, 361-372; VIII.151-158) (for a detailed discussion of the issue of Nero in Revelation, see Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, p. 384-452). Victorinus describes Nero’s death in verse 16, imagining him pursued by the Roman army sent by the senate, and eventually taking his own life (for Nero’s supposed suicide after being declared a public enemy, see Suetonius, Nero XLIX). This is not the end for Nero, however, as drawing on the assumptions of the abovementioned redivivus myth and the words of Daniel 11:37, Victorinus goes on to claim that he will subsequently be raised up again. Biblical support for the descent and re-ascent of Nero from death is taken from Ezekiel 31:4, although Victorinus attributes it to Isaiah. This, will be God’s doing, but should be understood in Victorinus’s mind as part of the divine plan for the second coming of Christ and the end of days. The resurrected Nero will be then sent as a king for the Jews (populus circumcisionis, the “people of the circumcision”) as he can only be understood as a king “in such a way as the Jews merited.” Interestingly, Victorinus argues that Nero can only seduce the Jews if he becomes “a judge/defender of the law,” thereby emphasising the importance of the law within the Jewish tradition, and imagining Nero as a representative of an important facet of Israel’s notion of kingship.
Also relevant to Victorinus’s interpretation, however, is a Nero tradition which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 56a. According to this, Rabbi Meir, one of the last tannaim, who lived in the second century CE, was a descendant of Nero, whom the text claims converted to Judaism. As the legend goes, Nero visited Jerusalem in 66 CE and shot arrows in four directions, all of which landed within the city. Nero then asked a passing boy to tell him a biblical verse which he had learned that day, to which he was given the response “I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel” (Ezekiel 25:14; in the Talmud, “Edom” is generally used to designate Rome, but Nero is portrayed in this tradition as not understanding this). Nero was disturbed by this, and thought that God wished the Temple of Jerusalem to be destroyed, and then to lay the blame on him (Nero) for having destroyed it. Nero panicked and fled, converting to Judaism, and stating that he believed God wished him to destroy the Temple and suffer the subsequent retribution. There is no evidence which backs up any aspect of this story. However, the connection between Nero and the Jews is something which Victorinus sees as absolutely central to the interpretation of Revelation 17. For Victorinus, Nero’s death is merely the beginning of his role in bringing the Jewish and Christian people under his authority, and therefore under the influence of the antichrist.
A possible interpolation of the Christian Ascension of Isaiah (the so-called Testament of Hezekiah), written perhaps towards the end of the first century CE, in which Isaiah prophesies the end of the world, also explains that the Antichrist (Beliar) will reveal himself as the incarnation of the dead emperor Nero, persuading some of Christ’s followers to follow him (IV.1-8). Closer to Victorinus’s time of writing, however, is the Christian writer Commodian (mid-third century CE), who in his Instructions XLI writes that when the antichrist appears “Nero shall be raised up from hell…Then the whore Babylon, being reduced to ashes, its embers shall thence advance to Jerusalem; and the Latin conqueror shall then say, I am Christ, whom you always pray to; and, indeed, the original ones who were deceived combine to praise him. He does many wonders, since his is the false prophet.” Like Victorinus, Commodian associates Nero with both the antichrist and the end times. However, for Victorinus, great emphasis is placed on the fact that it is not only Christians who are deceived by him, but Jews as well.
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