For my blog post today on Lee Harmon’s Revelation: The Way It Happened, I will focus on Lee’s argument that the Jewish rebel John of Gischala was the John who wrote the Book of Revelation, and that this John had Josephus in mind when he was talking about the false prophet in Revelation 13:11-16. This will be my last formal post about Lee’s book, but I may refer to it in future posts.
According to Lee, John in Revelation 13 regarded Josephus as the false prophet because Josephus willfully contributed to Rome’s victory when there was a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem in the first century C.E. Moreover, as I talked about a couple posts ago, Josephus held that the Roman Vespasian was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. According to Lee, John had this in mind when he portrayed the second beast (the false prophet) supporting the first beast. When John says that the false prophet would do wonders and cause fire to come down from heaven, Lee interprets that in light of “the magical practices of the imperial cult”, which Josephus upheld by contributing to Rome’s triumph over Jerusalem (page 168). When John criticizes Balaam in Revelation 2:14, Lee believes that this is John responding to Josephus’ claim that Vespasian was the fulfillment of Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17—-that a star would come from Jacob, and a scepter would arise from Israel.
Lee’s discussion about the false prophet was actually my favorite part of this book. I struggled with what he was saying about the two witnesses, Daniel 9, and all those Jesuses, as interesting as those discussions were. But I got goose-bumps when he was interpreting the false prophet of Revelation 13 as Josephus. He looked like he was on to something.
But do I agree? I don’t know. One could perhaps argue that the second beast (the false prophet) of Revelation 13 was far more powerful, grandiose, and influential on a worldwide scale than Josephus ever was. That would be a good point, but that by itself does not convince me that Lee is incorrect to argue that the second beast represented Josephus. John could have seen the events surrounding the Jewish rebellion in 70 C.E. in exaggerated terms because it was important to him. John of Gischala had just fought against the Romans, and Josephus was a factor behind the Jews’ loss to them. It wouldn’t surprise me that he would portray Josephus as a significant figure among the forces of evil!
It’s the whole Balaam issue that perplexes me, somewhat. For one, the Book of Revelation mentions Balaam within the context of the letter to the church in Pergamum, which is in Asia Minor. Revelation 2:14 states (in the KJV): “But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.” I don’t see what this has to do with Josephus’ application of Balaam’s prophecy to Vespasian. Rather, it seems to relate to what is going on at Pergamum, not Jerusalem. I think that Lee should have brought Pergamum more into the picture in his discussion of Balaam, even if Lee wanted to argue that John’s reference to Balaam was somehow related to Josephus’ use of Balaam’s prophecy to bolster the idolatrous Roman empire. Incidentally, while Asia Minor does play a significant role in Lee’s book (since the Christian character Samuel is pressured there to honor idols in order to make the contacts that he needs for business), Lee does not talk much about the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor.
Second, Lee seems to present Josephus as depicting Balaam positively, while John depicts Balaam negatively. But Josephus himself depicts Balaam negatively in Antiquities 4. And Josephus’ portrayal is similar to that of John: Balaam contributed to the Israelites’ idolatry and their sleeping with Midianite women. At the same time, John (within Lee’s scenario) may not have encountered Josephus’ negative portrayal of Balaam in Antiquities 4. Lee seems to portray John as one who is familiar with Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, which Josephus wrote prior to Antiquities. Antiquities may not have been written when John was interacting with Josephus’ work.
I’d like to close this post by tossing out some things that I found interesting in my research, and you may find them helpful, too, if you ever want to read Lee’s book.
2. Lee says that John of Gischala ignored the Sabbath and Jewish dietary laws. Lee may be implying that this could be an indicator that John was a follower of Jesus, who himself was arguably liberal on Sabbath observance and dietary laws. I could not find anything about John of Gischala’s ignoring the Sabbath, but the passage in which Josephus accuses John of disobeying the dietary laws is Wars of the Jews 7:264, which states (in William Whiston’s translation): “for the food was unlawful that was set upon his table, and he rejected those purifications that the law of his country had ordained; so that it was no longer a wonder if he, who was so mad in his impiety toward God, did not observe any rules of gentleness and common affection toward men.”
But it seems to me that, according to Josephus, John of Gischala appealed to the law when it was convenient for him. John of Gischala warned the Zealots that their abolition of the law and law-courts could incur the wrath of the people (Wars of the Jews 4.223). (See this article, which maintains that the Zealots were arguably undermining the law.) John dissuaded the Roman Titus from entering Gischala on the Sabbath, providing John with an opportunity to escape at night (Wars of the Jews 4.102-104). And John made lots of money selling kosher oil to Jews, so they wouldn’t have to use Greek oil (Life 1.74-75). Did John have an ideological reason for disobeying the law? Or was John simply an impious person who exploited the law whenever he could for his own advantage? Or was John truly impious or anti-law, at the outset? Lee himself does not buy all of Josephus’ bad-PR about John of Gischala. On page 203, Lee says that Josephus accused John of plundering the Temple, and yet Josephus also says that the Romans found vast treasures in the Temple when they took it over. The treasures were still there when the Romans came, in short! Could Josephus have been incorrect on John’s approach to the Torah?
3. Others have argued that John of Gischala is significant to interpreting New Testament eschatology. This article, for example, argues that John of Gischala was the man of sin in II Thessalonians 2:3-4! That’s different from what Lee argues!
I’d like to thank Lee for sending me a copy of his book on Revelation. It’s definitely worth the read!