The Seven Kings of Revelation 17
The description of the woman and the beast upon which she sits in 17:7–14 is one of the most difficult passages in the book of Revelation. As John marvels at the vision, an angel says, “I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her” (v. 7). The angel tells John that the beast he saw “was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction” (v. 8a). The angel then says to John, “This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while. As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction” (vv. 9–11).
This text is important not only in the context of John’s vision, but also because it is potentially relevant to the question of the date of the book.[i] We will put off discussion of verse 8a until we get to verse 11. In verse 9, the angel says that the seven heads “are seven mountains on which the woman is seated.” The reference to Rome as the city built on seven hills was widely used during the first century.[ii] It would have been familiar to John’s audience. There is no reason, then, to suppose that John meant anything other than Rome by the use of this description.[iii]
In verse 10, the angel tells John that the seven heads also symbolize seven kings, “five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while.” The identity of these “kings” has been the source of endless debate. Part of the difficulty is due to the unwillingness of some commentators to even consider the possibility that the book was written prior to A.D. 70. Some grant that the solution would be much simpler had John written the book earlier, but they do not consider an early date to be plausible.[iv] If an early date for the book is not ruled out automatically, it is possible to make much more sense out of this obscure text.
The “seven heads” of the beast are seven kings. If the beast is the Roman Empire, then it would seem clear that the seven kings are seven emperors of Rome. The difficulty arises when we attempt to figure out which seven emperors John has in mind. Part of the problem concerns the starting point. The Roman author Suetonius began his list of emperors with Julius Caesar. Tacitus, on the other hand, appears to have considered Augustus the first Roman emperor.[v] If we begin with Julius and count consecutively, then the five kings who have fallen would be Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, and Claudius. The sixth king, the one who is, would then be Nero. This interpretation is quite possible, and it would place the date of the writing of Revelation sometime in the latter part of Nero’s reign (i.e., A.D. 64–68).[vi]
The difficulty with this interpretation arises when we attempt to identify the seventh and eighth king. The emperor who followed Nero was Galba, and he did reign a very little while (June 68 to January 69). But he was followed by Otho (January to April 69), and it is difficult to see how Otho could fit the description in 17:11 – “the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.” Wilson has suggested the possibility of beginning the count of emperors with Augustus.[vii] This would make the sixth king Galba, and the seventh would then be Otho. Unfortunately, the same problem arises in connection with the eighth king because it is very difficult to see how Vitellius (April to December 69) would fit the description of the eighth king.
Because of the difficulties involved with identifying the kings as emperors, some have suggested that the seven kings should be understood as seven kingdoms. The five that have fallen are Egypt, Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Persia, and Greece. The one that is, the sixth kingdom, is Rome. Dispensationalists who take this approach tend to see the seventh kingdom as a revived Roman empire and see the eighth kingdom as the kingdom of the Antichrist.[viii] Non-dispensationalists take a different approach. Kistemaker, for example, says that the seventh kingdom is a “collective title for all antichristian governments between the fall of Rome and the final empire of antichrist.”[ix] The text of Revelation, however, appears to identify the beast itself, rather than one of its seven heads, as the Roman Empire. The heads, then, are more likely the emperors.
A final suggestion that must be considered understands the seven kings as seven emperors, but it omits the brief reigns of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. Is there any justification for such a move? Suetonius includes all three in his Lives of the Caesars, but he does refer to these three as rebels.[x] There is then some warrant for excluding these three from our reckoning. If we follow Tacitus and begin the count with Augustus, and if we exclude the three “rebel” emperors, the five kings who have fallen would be Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The sixth king, the one who is, would be Vespasian (A.D. 69–79).[xi] The seventh king, the one who “has not yet come, and when he does come he must remain only a little while” would be Vespasian’s son Titus, who reigned briefly from A.D. 79–81.
As we have seen, the other attempts to understand the seven kings as seven emperors faced their biggest challenge in identifying the eighth king in a way that made sense. If Vespasian is identified as the sixth king, and Titus as the seventh, the eighth would be Domitian, who reigned from A.D. 81–96. Can the description of the eighth king in 17:11 be legitimately understood as a reference to Domitian? It is possible. Of the eighth king, John writes, “As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to destruction.” This is where the history of the Roman emperors is informative. When Vespasian was named the emperor in December 69, he was preoccupied in Egypt for approximately six months before he was able to come to Rome. During the first six months of his reign, his son Domitian ruled in his place, accepting the title of Caesar and all the authority of the throne.[xii]
Supposing John wrote during Vespasian’s reign in the summer of A.D. 70, just after Domitian’s temporary time on the throne ended and several months before the destruction of Jerusalem, then the five kings who have fallen would be Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The one who is would be Vespasian. The other who has not yet come and must remain only a little while would be Titus. The eighth would be Domitian. Domitian, then, could be described as one who “was,” in the sense that he had already reigned as “Caesar” in his father’s stead for a short time. He could be described as one who “is not,” in the sense that he has now vacated the throne upon the arrival of his father Vespasian. He could be described as “an eighth,” in the sense that he will be the eighth emperor. He could be described as one who “belongs to the seven,” in the sense that he ruled in the place of the sixth emperor and is also the son of the same emperor. The strongest objection to this interpretation is that it requires excluding Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. But all of the suggested interpretations face difficulties. Of the possible interpretations, the two most plausible appear to be this one that sees Vespasian as the sixth king or the one that understands Nero to be the sixth king.[xiii] In either case, the text points to an early date of composition before the destruction of Jerusalem.
[i] J. Christian Wilson, “The Problem of the Domitianic Date of Revelation,” NTS 39 (1993), 599.
[ii] David Aune, Revelation 17–22, WBC 52C (Dallas: Word Books, 1998), 944. Robert Mounce notes uses of the description in Virgil, Martial, and Cicero (See his The Book of Revelation, Rev. ed. NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 315).
[iii] Contra Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005), 435–36, it is not a general description of “oppressive, secular government in its totality and at any period of world history…” This may be an application of the text, but it is not an interpretation of the author’s intended meaning. The reference to Rome is simply too specific and too clear.
[iv] E.g., Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 406; Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 618.
[v] See Wilson, “The Problem of the Domitianic Date,” 599.
[vi] Cf. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Tyler, TX: ICE, 1989).
[vii] Wilson, “The Problem of the Domitianic Date,” 599.
[viii] E.g., Mark L. Hitchcock, “A Critique of the Preterist View of Revelation 17:9–11 and Nero,” BSac 164, no. 4 (2007), 480.
[ix] Simon Kistemaker, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 472. Kistemaker also interprets the first five kingdoms differently. He identifies them as ancient Babylonia, Assyria, Neo-Babylonia, Medo-Persia, and Greco-Macedonia. But why move from literal historical referents (the first six kingdoms) to abstract referents (the seventh kingdom)? There does not seem to be a consistent reason for the hermeneutical change of direction in the middle of the prophecy.
[x] George R. Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, Rev. ed. NCB (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1978), 257.
[xi] Cf. R. H. Charles, The Revelation of St. John, 2 vols. ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1920), 2:69; Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, 257; Charles H. Giblin, The Book of Revelation, GNS 34 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1991), 165.
[xii] John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 249 (cf. Josephus, Jewish War, 4.11.4 § 654).
[xiii] There does not appear to be any plausible reading that results in Domitian being the sixth king, the one who “is” at the time John writes. All such readings require arbitrary selections of emperors with no historical or exegetical warrant. All such attempts to read Revelation 17:9–11 in a way that results in Domitian being the sixth king “make nonsense of the seer’s list and are merely examples of special pleading in an effort to arrive at a predetermined date for the composition of the Apocalypse, i.e. A.D. 95–6” (Albert A. Bell, Jr. “The Date of John’s Apocalypse: The Evidence of Some Roman Historians Reconsidered,” NTS 25 , 97).