In my post today about Lee Harmon’s Revelation: The Way It Happened, I’ll be talking about Lee’s discussion about the two witnesses of Revelation 11. Who are the two witnesses? In Revelation 11:3-13, we read the following about them (and I will be using the KJV because it’s in the public domain):
3 And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth.
4 These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
5 And if any man will hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth, and devoureth their enemies: and if any man will hurt them, he must in this manner be killed.
6 These have power to shut heaven, that it rain not in the days of their prophecy: and have power over waters to turn them to blood, and to smite the earth with all plagues, as often as they will.
7 And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that ascendeth out of the bottomless pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them.
8 And their dead bodies shall lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified.
9 And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves.
10 And they that dwell upon the earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.
11 And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.
12 And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them.
13 And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand: and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven.
Lee’s extensive discussion about the two witnesses occurs on pages 113-121. I’ll use as my starting-point something that Lee says on page 121:
“Moses and Elijah, Peter and Paul, Ananus and Jesus—-how did these pairs get so tangled inside John’s swirling head? Undoubtedly, the original inspiration for the two witnesses of Revelation has been found in the Jewish priests, Ananus and Jesus. Yet for common first-century Christians, many of whom probably fled Jerusalem before any of this happened, it appears that the Christian heroes Peter and Paul reaped the greater benefits of the story, as the legends grew for both their miracle working and evangelical abilities. The tradition of their martyrdom under Nero became widespread in the late first century.”
I can’t say that I entirely understand what Lee is getting at here, but allow me to detail the similarities Lee highlights between the two witnesses and the various pairs that got “so tangled inside John’s swirling head”:
Moses and Elijah: The two witnesses are prophets and perform some of the miracles that Moses and Elijah did. Moses turned water into blood, and Elijah stopped the rain. Elijah, like the two witnesses, ascended to heaven. Moses could have, at least according to the Assumption of Moses.
Peter and Paul: Both performed miracles, like the two witnesses (though, as far as I know, there are no stories about Peter and Paul turning water into blood, or stopping the rain). The two witnesses are killed by the Beast, and there are stories about the martyrdom of Peter and Paul by the Roman emperor Nero, whom Lee contends was the Beast of Revelation 13. The two witnesses were left unburied for three-and-a-half days, and Lee refers to a statement by the sixth century figure John Mahalas that the corpses of Peter and Paul were left unburied. The two witnesses ascended to heaven, and there’s the notion that Peter and Paul ascended to heaven: Paul in II Corinthians 12:2, and Peter in the early second century Apocalypse of Peter. Plus, there’s I Clement’s statement that Peter after bearing witness was taken to “the well-deserved place of glory”, and Paul “to the holy place” (in whatever translation Lee is using). Lee also mentions the story in Acts 14 about Paul getting up after having been stoned and left for dead, as Lee sees a similarity between that and the two witnesses’ resurrection. Lee believes that the two witnesses are killed in Jerusalem, whereas Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. Lee speculates that, if John was referring to Peter and Paul when he was talking about the two witnesses, John could have moved their deaths to Jerusalem out of a conviction that prophets perish in Jerusalem.
Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala: These guys are priests who are mentioned by Josephus. They were around during the first century Jewish uprisings in Jerusalem against Rome. Josephus’ telling of their story is in Wars of the Jews Book 4. Lee, on page 120, notes a similarity between them and the two witnesses: “Curiously, just as [Revelation 11:]13 says, this earthquake did occur at the ‘very hour’ the Idumeans murdered, ridiculed, and left the two great priests, Ananus and Jesus, unburied in the streets of Jerusalem!”
Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala are significant in terms of Lee’s interpretation of the two witnesses. On page 203, Lee, thinking that the John who wrote Revelation was the John of Gischala who was a leader of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, says that Josephus depicts John of Gischala spying on Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala and passing on secrets to the rebellious Zealots. Lee says: “Josephus seems to blame John’s deception for the deaths of these two priests, but in reality, John pulled all stops to show his allegiance to them, even immortalizing them as the two great witnesses of Revelation.”
Revelation 11:9 says that “they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations” will see the dead bodies of the two witnesses. Lee interprets the phrase “every tribe and language and people and nation” as God’s people, since Revelation 5:9 uses that expression to refer to those whom God has purchased. God’s people are the Jews, according to Lee. Lee seems to argue in a couple of places that, at the time that Revelation was written, there was not a firm line separating Jews from Christians. Lee says on page 291: “A million Jews from all over the empire congregated in Jerusalem, where, in John’s mind, they beheld the death of the two witnesses (priests) and then suffered in the war against the beast.”
Here are some points that I want to make in response to Lee’s arguments:
1. So who exactly are the two witnesses, according to Lee? Are they characters who are based on Moses and Elijah, Peter and Paul, and Ananus and Jesus, or can they actually be identified with Peter and Paul, or with Ananus and Jesus?
2. Like I said, as far as I know, there are no stories about Peter and Paul turning water into blood, or shutting up the heavens, which is what the two witnesses did. Perhaps one could argue that there could have been traditions like that, since there were a lot of miracle stories out there about these towering Christian figures, and so maybe there were other stories circulating that we do not know about. Perhaps. Come to think of it, maybe Peter and Paul could work out as the two witnesses, if we allow John some latitude as a writer (which John exercised if he put their deaths in Jerusalem, when their deaths actually occurred in Rome).
3. I have questions about associating the two witnesses with Ananus and Jesus son of Gamla:
a. As far as I know, Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala did not turn water into blood, shut up the heavens, or spit out fire from their mouths against their enemies. Perhaps one could argue that John associated them somehow with bloody water or famine that occurred during the rebellion, or that the fire from their mouths symbolized their preaching, or the disaster that came upon Jerusalem because many Jews did not heed them. Lee should have discussed this a bit more in his book.
b. I have not read Josephus as extensively as Lee has, but what I am finding in my perusal of Book 4 of Wars of the Jews, wikipedia (see here), and Lee’s book is that Ananus and Jesus were opponents of the Zealots, on some level. That’s why they were eventually killed. I think that Lee should have gone into more detail about why John would consider their message to be so righteous, especially since Lee also appears to argue that the martyrs in Revelation consist of some of the people who died while rising up against Rome. Is John in Revelation for the uprising against Rome that occurred in the late first century, or (like Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala, it appears) against it? (UPDATE: Sometime after writing this, I looked through Lee’s book again, and I also perused the speeches of Ananus and Jesus in Book 4 of Josephus’ Wars of the Jews. It appears that Ananus and Jesus’ concern was to protect the Temple from the Zealots. Does that mean that they were against any rebellion against Rome? I don’t know. Jesus son of Gamala in his speech seems to praise the value of liberty from the Romans. One could apparently be anti-Zealot and still support some sort of uprising against Rome. I still think that Lee should have gone into a little more detail about why John in Revelation would consider Ananus and Jesus’ message righteous, as well as their stance on the Romans. But the situation was more complex than I presented it here.)
c. According to this Josephus’ Antiquities 20.9.1, Ananus ordered the execution of James, the brother of Jesus. Would John portray Ananus as one of the two witnesses, after Ananus had done something like that?
d. Something that the Peter and Paul interpretation has going for it is that the Roman emperor Nero, the one Lee argues was the Beast, killed them, and Revelation 11 says that the Beast killed the two witnesses. But the Idumeans killed Ananus and Jesus. How would Lee explain that, especially since this narrates that the Idumeans were on the side of the Zealots, who were anti-Rome? That said, I don’t have thorough knowledge about what the Idumeans did during this conflict. (UPDATE: On page 40, Lee narrates that the Idumeans initially joined the Zealots, but “when the exhausted Idumeans finally realized that Ananus had not really been a traitor and they had been duped into helping the Zealots, they packed up and went home.” Still, the Romans were not the ones who killed Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala, whereas, according to Lee, Nero is the Beast, and the Beast in Revelation 11 is the one who kills the two witnesses. Perhaps one could argue that the two witnesses are based on Ananus and Jesus, on some level, but that there is not a perfect match between them.)
e. As far as I know, there are no legends that Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala got up and ascended to heaven three-and-a-half days after their deaths, which is what Revelation 11 says about the two witnesses. Lee speculates that John may have depicted the two witnesses as doing this “perhaps in competition with Josephus”, who ends Ananus and Jesus’ story with their shameful deaths (page 118). I can’t rule this out, entirely. This might work if you grant John some latitude as a writer: John was telling the story differently from Josephus. But, again I ask, what about the message of Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala did John like?
f. I have issues with how Lee goes from identifying “every tribe and language and people and nation” with God’s people, to arguing that those from around the world who saw the corpses of the two witnesses (and presumably mocked them) were Jews who beheld the death of Ananus and Jesus son of Gamala. God’s people are the good guys in the Book of Revelation. The ones who mocked the two witnesses at their death are bad guys. I have problems associating the two with each other. Moreover, while there are many scholars who would agree with Lee that there was not always a solid line separating Jews from Christians, I have a hard time interpreting the martyrs and God’s people in Revelation as anything other than Christian, since there seems to be so much in Revelation about their devotion to Jesus. I have my doubts that John in Revelation understood the martyrs and God’s people as non-Christian Jews. But perhaps there are angles that I am not looking at adequately.