Josephus on Signs; Giants from the Abyss

I started Lee Harmon’s Revelation: The Way It Happened.  Some months ago, I read and blogged through the sequel to this book: Lee Harmon’s John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened.  See here for my posts on that.  And see here for Lee’s excellent blog, The Dubious Disciple.  I’d like to thank Lee for sending me a copy of Revelation: The Way It Happened.

I’m going to play by ear how I blog through this book.  I do want to cover the broad themes of Lee’s book, but I’ll probably blog about tidbits here and there that interest me.  If that ends up overlapping with the broad themes, that will be good.  If it does not adequately do so, then I’ll write a post about Lee’s book that is more comprehensive.

Here are two tidbits for today:

1.  On pages 53-54, Lee says the following about the first century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus:

“In discussing the signs of the times, Josephus describes a light shining in the Temple, as well as a star like a sword, pointing to Jerusalem (probably Halley’s comment in 66, which many Jews understood as foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem).  At one point, a heifer being led to sacrifice gives birth to a lamb in the midst of the Temple.  It is Josephus who first relates the story of the voice from the Holy of Holies saying, ‘We are departing.’  But he implies that the common perception that the ‘Day of the Lord’ has arrived misinterprets these signs.”

The idea that Josephus believed in those kinds of supernatural phenomena somewhat surprised me, for I assumed that Josephus was a fairly level-headed historian.  I learned in a class, after all, that Josephus often sought ways to rationalize away certain miracles in the Bible!  But it turns out that Josephus does talk about the signs that Lee is discussing, and much more, in Wars of the Jews, Book 6, Chapter 5.

Josephus is criticizing Jewish figures of the late first century C.E. who were holding out hope that God would deliver the Jews from the Romans.  Josephus’ point was that there were signs that Jerusalem would be destroyed.  Josephus also applied to the Roman Vespasian the ancient oracle that someone from Israel would rule the earth, noting that Vespasian was made the emperor when he was in Judea.  Earlier in his book, Lee argues that John the Revelator had Vespasian in mind when he was writing about the first horseman of Revelation 6:2—-who looks so much like the conquering Jesus, yet most likely was not that.  According to Lee, John probably regarded Vespasian as a false Messiah because Vespasian was considered by some to be the prophesied Messiah, plus Vespasian, like Jesus, performed miracles (see my posts here, here, and here).

I don’t know a whole lot about Josephus’ eschatological views.  But he does appear to be applying to Vespasian some Messianic prophecy.  One question I have is: Why did Josephus believe that God willed the destruction of Jerusalem?  Put differently, what, according to Josephus, did Jerusalem do that so offended God?  The New Testament says that Israel rejected Jesus.  Within rabbinic literature is the idea that Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Jewish infighting.  What was Josephus’ view?

2.  On page 89, Lee is discussing Revelation 9, in which weird scorpions are coming out of the abyss amidst smoke to afflict human beings.  Lee cites Cassius Dio, a second-third century C.E. author who wrote a vast history of Rome.  In Cassius Dio 66.23.1, we read (in this translation): “Thus day was turned into night and light into darkness. Some thought that the Giants were rising again in revolt (for at this time also many of their forms could be discerned in the smoke and, moreover, a sound as of trumpets was heard), while others believed that the whole universe was being resolved into chaos or fire.”  The context for this passage is Cassius Dio’s discussion of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy, which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The wikipedia article on Mount Vesuvius says that it erupted in 79 C.E.  That is when Lee dates the Book of Revelation.  For Lee, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is significant in understanding a number of the cataclysmic events in the Book of Revelation.  Lee says that John could have seen the eruption from Patmos, yet Lee speculates that John may have been closer to the event (though Revelation 1:9 says John was on Patmos).  Lee also argues against the eruption occurring on a Tuesday, thereby allowing it to have happened on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day, which was the day that John was in the spirit (Revelation 1:10).  In terms of the importance of Mount Vesuvius to understanding the Book of Revelation, I think that Lee is on to something, even if John happened to be viewing the event from Patmos on a Tuesday.  As far as I know, John doesn’t say that he viewed the entire vision on the Lord’s day.

Who were the giants whom Dio Cassius was talking about?  As far as I can see, Dio Cassius does not say.  But this article refers to giants who tried to overthrow Zeus, and some of them had feet that were serpents.  Giants are different from scorpions, right?  Yeah, but I still think that Lee and others who have interpreted Revelation 9 in light of the giants in Dio Cassius are on to something.  In both, you have rebellious figures coming out of the abyss in smoke.  Lee brings up other considerations in his discussion of Revelation 9, such as the idea that Nero—-the oppressive Roman emperor who died in 68 C.E.—-would lead Parthians from the east in an attack on Rome (see here).  Does not Revelation 16:12 refer to the kings of the east?  And Lee interprets the Apollyon of Revelation 9:11, the king of the Abyss, in light of the portrayal of Nero as Apollo.  For Lee, John’s point was that demonic forces would be instigating Parthia’s hordes, led by Nero.  Again, Lee and others who hold this particular interpretation are probably on to something!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Josephus on Signs; Giants from the Abyss

  1. I enjoy reading both Josephus and the book of Revelation. Aspects of both are somewhat mysterious. You have added some thoughts that I had not encountered before. Thanks!


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    My pleasure, Tim. And, while I know you already read a lot of blogs, you may want to take a look at Lee’s. I find his book reviews to be succinct, yet they manage to effectively capture the essence of the books!


  3. Thanks James,

    I was able to review Lee’s blog today and subscribed. Thanks!


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    I’m glad you liked it, Tim!


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