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Book Review: The Beast of Revelation by Kenneth Gentry

The following is my Book Review of: Kenneth L. Gentry, The Beast of Revelation.  Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 2002.


Introduction

Although Kenneth Gentry has amassed considerable evidence from historical sources in his attempt to argue for the preterist position, he rightly complains that church tradition has played too large of a role in the dating of the book of Revelation while the internal evidence often is not given its proper weight (4-5).  Although Gentry must assume an early date of Revelation for his position to carry any weight, he nevertheless organizes his book so that the internal evidence is given prominent importance.

The first half of his book is spent showing just how impressively the Roman Emperor Nero appears to satisfy all the prophecies of the Book of Revelation.  The second half of the book, however, is given to strengthening Gentry’s position by exploring the different types of evidences for an early date of Revelation—including external evidence. While giving internal evidence the loudest voice for the dating of Revelation, Gentry by no means marginalizes external evidence.  On the contrary, he gives a thorough look at the evidence used for a late date and engages late-date arguments with remarkable aptitude.

In this review I will attempt to mostly summarize Gentry’s reasoning, with words of appraisal more or less sprinkled throughout.  Because the material on the evidence for a late date is more complex and difficult to summarize, my comments about the second half of the book will be selective.  It is no wonder that the evidence and argumentation Gentry marshals for an early date and Neronic theory of the Beast has been compelling enough to cause those who still hold for future fulfillment of the prophecies of revelation to capitulate by granting an first century fulfillment of the majority of the events of Revelation—“though they attempted to argue for a double fulfillment of prophecies” (96).

The Neronic Theory: The Beast of Revelation

Gentry begins by listing all the biblical details about the beast in the book of Revelation (8-10).  The beast

1) has a number—666—which is “that of a man” (Rev 13:18)

2) is an evil man of debased character (Rev 13, 17, 18)

a) depicted as a compound of three wild carnivores (Rev 13:2)

b) wages war against the saints (Rev 13:7)

c) demands worship for himself (13:8, 12, 15)

d) arrogantly blasphemes God (13:5-6)

e) carries with him a despicable harlot (Rev 17:3-4) that is drunk on the blood of the saints (Rev 17:6; 18:24)

3) possesses “great authority” (Rev 13:2, 7)

4) is one of John’s contemporaries (Rev 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10)

5) is relevant to first century Christians (Rev 1:3-4, 11, 13:8)

Based on this criterion for identification of the beast, Gentry disagrees with Leon Morris that possibilities for identifying the beast are endless (10).  He calls the shift in imagery from identifying the beast as a kingdom in some places (Rev 13:1 cf. 17:10-11) and an individual in other places (Rev 13:8; 17:11) a shift between the “generic and the specific” and admits it is a frustrating aspect of the description of the beast: is it a kingdom or a man? (10).

Rather than picking between the two, Gentry identifies the beast “generically considered” as the Roman Empire, and the beast individually considered as a first century Roman Emperor: Nero Claudius Caesar (13).  The seven heads, which the book of Revelation interprets as the “seven mountains” (Rev 17:9) undoubtedly refers to the Rome, “the one city in history distinguished by and recognized for its seven mountains” (12).  What is more, “both secular and ecclesiastical history record that the first imperial persecution of Christianity began in this seven-hilled city under the emperor Nero Caesar in A.D. 64.” (12).

A brief historical survey of Nero’s life—without explicitly pressing any analogy to the beast of Revelation—leaves the reader half-way convinced before the book really gets into the details of argumentation (11-19).  If nothing else, the reader is convinced that Nero fits the description of an evil man of debased character.

He castrated the boy Sporus, tried to make a woman out of him, then he “married” him with the usual wedding ceremonies of the day (16); he covered himself in wild animal skins and attacked the private parts of men and women bound to stakes as a game; he murder his own mother (who was the one responsible for bringing him to power!) and ordered Seneca to commit suicide (which he did!); he divorced his wife to marry his mistress Poppaea; he banished Octavia to an island upon Poppaea’s orders and had him beheaded, then later kicked Poppaea to death while she was pregnant and ill; he exhausted the imperial treasures for “self-glorifying building projects and profligate living,” and falsely accused Roman nobles of various crimes in order to confiscate their estates; he is said by Suetonius to have “showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whomsoever he pleased on any pretext whatever”; he accused Christians of starting the fire that burnt Rome and persecuted them mercilessly; he neglected his rule of Rome for a two year visit to Greece to appear in their musical festival—because he vainly fancied himself as one of the world’s greatest musicians (16-17)!

His wickedness was so great, his own subjects and military leaders rebelled against him, and when he heard they were going to put him to a cruel and shameful death, he rammed a sword through his own neck with the assistance of his secretary Epaphroditus (18).

In his chapter, “The Relevance of the Beast,” Gentry drives home the “strategic placement of the time references” (John carefully brackets Revelation with bold time references) and the “frequent repetition” of these time references (24).  In at least eleven verses John warns his audience of the nearness of the events prophesied in the book (Rev 1:1, 3; 2:16; 3:10-11; 6:17; 10:6; 22:6, 7, 10, 12, 20).  John’s varied expression of the temporal references makes it difficult to doubt his meaning (24-25).  These temporal references parallel the temporal references in the other New Testament books (Mt 23:36; 24:34; 26:64; Mk 9:1; Acts 2:16-20, 40; Rom 13:11, 12; 16:20; 1 Cor 7:26, 29-31; Col 3:6; 1 Thess 2:16; Heb 10:25, 37; Jm 5:8, 9; 1 Pt 4:5, 7).  A helpful comparison with Daniel shows that while Daniel seals his prophetic work because its events were far off in the distant future, John, on the other hand, was commanded not to seal his work on account of the nearness of the time (Dan 12:4; Rev 22:10).

Interpretations that understand John’s warning that “the time is near” (Rev 1:3) to be telling his persecuted audience that “when help comes it will come with swiftness—even though it may not come until two or three thousand years later” (e.g. Walvoord and Ice) or “the events are always imminent—though the readers and their great, great grandchildren may never experience them” (e.g. Mounce and Johnson) or “God will send help soon—according to the way the Eternal God measures time” (e.g. Swete and Morris) would be tantamount to a cruel mocking of the circumstances of the churches to which John wrote (27-28).  Gentry believes that these approaches are “destroyed by the very fact that John repeats and varies his terms” for temporal proximity (27).  He also reminds his readers that Revelation functions as an “occasional epistle” to first century Christians (28).

In light of the temporal references in Revelation (not to mention the obvious references to first century entities), why would anyone have trouble understanding the prophecies of Revelation to be fulfilled in the first century A.D.?  The most obvious answer is this: the temporal references also apparently apply to the second coming of Jesus Christ, which does not appear to have occurred: “Behold, He is coming with the clouds and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him” (Rev 1:7); “I am coming quickly” (Rev 3:11).

This leads less conservative handlers of the biblical revelation to conclude that John’s expectancy—like that of the early church in general—was simply mistaken, much like religious enthusiasts throughout Church history that expected Christ to return in a certain year during their lifetime (26).  This seems to force those who believe in the doctrine of inspiration to find some other way to interpret the temporal references like Walvoord, Ice, Mounce, Johnson, Swete, Morris, and many others have done.  However, Gentry offers a much easier and viable alternative: rather than mustering up strained interpretations of the temporal references, Gentry’s approach is to understand the language about Christ’s “coming” on the clouds from the vantage point of apocalyptic symbolism (28-29).

This cloud-coming of Christ in judgment reminds us of Old Testament cloud-comings of God in judgment upon ancient historical people and nations (Pss. 18:7-15; 104:3; Isa. 19:1; Joel 2:1, 2; Hab. 1:2ff.; Zeph. 1:14, 15).  For example, Isaiah 19:1 speaks of an historical, Old Testament judgment upon Egypt: “The oracle concerning Egypt.  Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud, and is about to come to Egypt; the idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence, and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them” (29).

Just as this cloud-coming imagery is employed when God used the armies of the ancient empires to bring his judicial judgment upon whatever people he desired in the Old Testament, including Israel, so John, operating within the Jewish tradition, employs similar language to prophesy judicial judgment upon “those who pierced him” (Rev 1:7).  Who are those who pierced him?  “The New Testament emphatically points to first century Israel as responsible for crucifying Christ (John 19:6, 15; Acts 2:22-23, 36; 3:13-15; 5:30; 7:52; 1 Thess 2:14-15)” (29).  What is more, Jesus also warned the Jewish leaders that they would witness this coming judgment (Mt 26:64 cf. 23:31-36; 24:30, 34).  Not only did the Jewish War with Rome bring about the slaughter of 1.1 million Jews according to Josephus, but historians record “the utter devastation of Jerusalem, the final destruction of the temple and the conclusive cessation of the sacrificial system … [which was] a unifying national symbol” (30).

God’s using Rome to execute his punishment on the Jews reminds us of the devastation God brought upon Israel by means of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, but “the covenantal significance of the temple’s demise stands as the most dramatic outcome of the war” (31).  It brought an end to Torah-keeping Judaism because without the temple keeping the details of Torah is impossible (31).  “The loss of the temple was an unrepeatable loss, for it has never been rebuilt … any Jewish calamity after A.D. 70 would pale in comparison to the redemptive-historical significance of the loss of the temple” (31).  Because the prophecies of the Beast are entwined with the prophecies of soon-to-come judgment of the Jewish nation—which was fulfilled in 70 A.D. when Rome sacked Jerusalem—the Beast must be a first century figure.  “To assert that the Beast is any contemporary figure existing in our own time (or in our future) absolutely misses John’s entire point” (32).

As satisfying as Gentry’s hermeneutics are compared to those whose interpretations do not do the temporal references justice, his arguments for the number of the Beast are even more satisfying and fascinating.  He does not regard the number 666 as an uncertain mysterious riddle, but a number that John expected his contemporaries to understand (Rev 13:18).  The practice of cryptogram—using the double function of alphabets to assign a given name a numerical value—was a common phenomenon in Ancient cultures.  “Archaeologists have discovered many illustrations of cryptograms as graffiti on ancient city walls” (38).

For example, the Greek inscription “I love her whose number is 545” was found in an excavation at Pompeii (38).  Thereby, “the name of the lover is concealed; the beloved will know it when she recognizes her name in the sum of the numerical value of the 3 letters” (40).  More relevant to our topic, “anti-Nero cryptograms were already circulating when John wrote Revelation” (40).  Consulting the Babylonian Talmud and other ancient Rabbinic writings shows that the practice of cryptogram was also used by Jewish Rabbis.  “The ancient Christian sibylline Oracles has Jesus’  name as equivalent to ‘888’ and makes use of number values to indicate initials of various Roman emperors, including Nero” (40).

John’s reducing the name of the Beast (“the number of a man”) to the numerical value of the letters of his name, then, was a common practice of his day—not our own.  “Several scholars of the nineteenth century—Fritzsche, Holtzmann, Benary, Hitzig and Reuss—each stumbled independently upon the name Nero Caesar almost simultaneously” (42).  The spelling of Nero’s name as it is found in Hebrew spellings in archeological finds turns out to yield exactly the number 666 (42).  Giving even more confirmation is the fact that a significant number of manuscript variants have 616 rather than 666.  Such a variant is not easily dismissed as a copyist error, but is widely believed to have been intentional.  Gentry reasons:

When Revelation began circulating among those less acquainted with Hebrew, a well-meaning copyist 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 common Latin spelling.  This conjecture satisfactorily explains the rationale for the divergence: so that the non-Hebrew might more readily discern the identity of the Beast. Even late-date advocate Donald Guthrie, who rejects the Nero theory, grants that this variant gives the designation Nero “a distinct advantage.”  As renowned Greek scholar Bruce Metzger says: “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters (nrwn qsr) is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar (nrw qsr) is equivalent to 616.”  Such a possibility offers a remarkable confirmation of the designation of Nero (43).

One of the major objections to this view of the mark of the Beast is the silence of the early church fathers (44).  But Gentry points out that Irenaeus admits ignorance on the matter rather than proposing an alternative designation for the cryptogram (44-45).  Arguments from silence are the weakest kind (45).  After exploring several arguments against the Nero theory, Gentry concludes: “Only with great difficulty may we discount the many ways in which Nero fits the expectations of Revelation.  [Nero] is the only first-century historical figure that can possibly fulfill all of the requirements.”

In chapters four through seven, Gentry shows how Nero, the Beast specifically considered, sufficiently and uniquely fulfills the depictions of the character, war, worship of the Beast, and how the Roman Empire of the first century, generically considered, fulfills the depiction of the death and revival of the Beast.  Gentry shows how Nero more than qualifies to fulfill the expectation of the character depicted of the beast in the book of Revelation.  Nero was of such a beastly nature, he was given the nickname “beast” by a pagan writer Apollonius (53).  The Sibylline Oracles refer to Nero as “a destructive beast” and “the great beast” (53).  Corresponding to Revelation’s imagery of the Beast as one who is given “power to make ware against the saints” (Rev 13:7) for forty-two months (Rev 13:5), Nero removed Christianity from the protected status of religio licita and began the first Roman imperial persecution of Christians, setting a legal precedent that undoubtedly influenced future persecutions of Christians by other Roman emperors (62-63).

What is more, a cacophony of historians witness that Nero’s assault on Christians was arguably the most severe, consisting of “public butcheries frequently recurring on a colossal scale” (65-66).  As if this were not enough, the Neronic persecutions lasted from the latter part of Novermber in A.D. 64 to June A.D. 68—exactly the length of time (but for a few days) the writer of the apocalypse of Revelation prophecies!  In contrast with this, the Domitianic “persecution” is scarcely even documented—not even mentioned by a single secular historian of the era (69). Corresponding to the imagery of the worship of the Beast (Rev 13:4), Nero received and demanded worship while still alive—a practice even bolder than the imperial cult of emperor worship that was a familiar feature of Rome’s imperial history which allowed for emperors to be worshiped only after they were dead (81-82).  “Nero himself actually demanded such worship in a way unsurpassed by any previous emperor, except, perhaps, for Caligula” (84).

The manner of Nero’s death—suicide by sword—corresponds to the prophecy of Revelation 13:10 (89-90).  The chaos that ensued after Nero’s death corresponds to the mortal sword wound inflicted on the head as a wound that should have been fatal to the Beast generically considered in Revelation 13:3-4 (91).  With the death of Nero, “the Julio-Claudian line of emperors perished from the earth,” and the civil wars that followed were of such great ferocity and of such dramatic proportions that they almost destroyed the empire (92).  However, what might have been the death blow of the Roman empire was rescued when the Flavian family firmly established a new royal line (95).  This unexpected bounce back was enough to add to the Roman prestige.  “The relevant verses in Revelation reflect the death and revivification of the Beast, that is, the earth-shaking historical events of the late 60s wherein Rome died (A.D. 68), as it were, and returned again to life (A.D. 69).

The seven heads of the Beast represent seven kings, and the Beast is herein considered generically as the Roman Empire with its line of emperors: “Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while.  The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king.  He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction” (Rev 17:9-11).  Because “the beast” imagery in this passage represents the Roman Empire—not an individual Emperor—the eighth king refers “to the revival of the Empire itself under one [Vespasian] who is outside of the originally specified seven kings. … In addition, the number eight appears to be the number of resurrection” in first century Jewish thought because “the eighth day is the beginning of a new week” (97).

The Dating of Revelation: Internal and External Evidence

In the second half of his book, Gentry focuses on the dating of Revelation.  He underscores its importance for interpretation.  The early date outlook views Revelation as having been written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—Gentry opts for sometime between A.D. 64 (after the Neronic persecutions broke out) to early 67 A.D. (just prior to Rome’s attack against the Jews known as the Jewish Wars).  “The position one takes on this issue has a great bearing on the interpretive possibilities available” (106).  Gentry’s basic argument is that the early date allows for Revelation to contain the appropriate level of relevance to its immediate audience while the late date lends the prophecies of Revelation to “be opened to an endless series of speculative scenarios, which could be extrapolated into the indefinite future” and minimizing original audience relevance (110-111).

The broad consensus about the theme of Revelation strengthens Gentry’s argument because the theme is the soon “coming” of Christ, which was intended to comfort the first century churches undergoing persecution (116-117).  Comforting the early church by prophesying a soon coming of Christ against “those who pierced him” makes little sense if such a “coming” lie millennia away and would in no way alter the situation of the early church.  “Only a pre-A.D. 70 date fits the circumstances” (127).  Furthermore, the “tribes of the earth” who “morn” at this coming refer to the Jewish tribes because the Greek word translated “earth” is better translated “land,” in which case the theme verse of Revelation would read:

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him [i.e. the Jews: John 19:6, 15; Acts 2:22-23, 36; 3:13-15; 5:30; 7:52; 1 Thess 2:14-15] ; and all the tribes of the land will mourn over Him. –Revelation 1:7

When the word “the land” occurs with the definite article and without any modifiers in the Bible it signifies the Promise Land—namely, Israel (120-121).  Couple this with Jesus’ seven woe’s and warnings that to the Jewish leaders, saying “upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth … All this will come upon this generation. … Look, your house [i.e. the temple] is left to you desolate” (Mt 23:35-36, 38).  The Christians, then, who had experienced persecution from the Jews and imperial Rome, would be comforted by the prophecies of Revelation that assured them of the coming destruction of both the Jews (Rev 1:7)            and the Beast [Nero] (13:10; 17:11) “must soon take place” (Rev 1:1).  In light of this, any understanding of these prophecies that anticipate their fulfillment over two millenniums beyond the persecuted Christians to whom John wrote to comfort is hard to understand.

The theme of Revelation, then, and the very reasons for being written, are internal evidence in favor of a pre-A.D. 70 date.  In the book of Revelation, the “sixth king” is the one who “now is” (i.e. is presently reigning).  If Gentry’s interpretation is correct, then, this would have to refer to Nero.  It just so happens, that Nero was the sixth ruler of the Roman Empire (139).  But there is yet more.  “Historically the next ruler of the Empire reigned only briefly. … The next ruler to appear after Nero was Galba, who reigned only seven months. … By almost any standard, Galba’s brief rule of seven months was a ‘little while’—Nero’s immediately preceding rule had exceeded thirteen years” (139).  Although some object that Nero was actually the fifth ruler of the Roman Empire on the grounds that Julius Caesar was technically not an emperor and that John is talking about “kings” and not emperors, the audience of John’s day—including Roman and Jewish historians—unanimously understood Julius Caesar to be the first of the line of Emperors, and the ancient writers had the tendency to call the emperors “kings” (141-42).

The most compelling evidence against the early date is a statement by the early church father Irenaeus:

We will not, however, incur the risk of pronouncing positively as to the name of Antichrist; for if it were necessary that his name should be distinctly revealed in this present time, it would have been announced by him who beheld the apocalyptic vision.  For that was seen no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign.

“The late-date advocate argues that this serves as compelling evidence that John ‘saw’ the Revelation ‘at the end of the reign of Domitian’” who ruled after, not before A.D. 70 (205).  However, several problems with this argument are apparent upon closer examination.  Among such problems, and arguably the most serious challenge for late date advocates is this:  the understanding of the words “that was seen” is disputed because it could be translated “it was seen” also, in which case it would refer to John himself, not the apocalyptic revelation which John saw (206).  “Either one will work grammatically,” but this puts Irenaeus’ statement as evidence for a late date in serious doubt, for it must assume a disputable translation (206).

Conclusion

The sheer amount of specific ways Nero seems to fit the prophetic imagery of Revelation—his character, his being the sixth emperor of Rome, his death by sword, his number, his being relevant to the situation of the original audience, his ability to fit the time limitations of the prophecies, his extreme vanity and demand to be worshipped, his establishing the first and most severe official imperial persecution of Christians, his coming from the city of “seven hills,” his reigning just before the civil wars of Rome that threatened the empire’s power, his affiliation with the power entity that destroyed Jerusalem and the temple that ceased Torah based Judaism—is historically verifiable evidence that hits the reader like a river that no man can cross” (18).

Never in my life have I read or heard more persuasive argumentation for the interpretation of the Book of Revelation than in Gentry’s book.  Although some of the pieces of Gentry’s position are less persuasive, his approach as a whole makes more sense of the internal and external evidence while providing satisfying confidence about the biblical prophetic imagery.

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