1.2. NERO THE JEW – THE ANTICHRIST
Early Christians agreed that the fourth beast from Daniel’s visions refers to the Roman Empire, that the Whore of Babylon from Revelation refers to Rome and that the final events of the world were taking place in front of their eyes. The main problem was the identification of the Antichrist.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Irenaeus of Gaul and Hippolytus of Rome elaborated so well the image of the Antichrist that their conclusions became eschatological landmarks for the entire Christianity. Nowhere in Revelation is the name “Antichrist” mentioned but, as in Daniel, the entities with negative connotation are symbolized through beasts. Irenaeus advanced the idea that the Beast 666 from Revelation 13 is one and the same with the “abomination of desolation” described by Jesus in the gospels (Matthew 24:15), named by the apostles the “Antichrist,” the “son of perdition,” the “man of sin” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), and by Daniel a “king of fierce countenance” (Daniel 8:23).59 Furthermore, Irenaeus speculated that the ten horns from Daniel 7:7 are one and the same with the ten horns from Revelation 17:12-13: “And the ten horns that thou sawest are ten kings, who have received no kingdom as yet; but they receive authority as kings, with the beast, for one hour. These have one mind, and they give their power and authority unto the beast.” Hence, in the light of Daniel 7:24 (“And as for the ten horns, out of this kingdom shall ten kings arise: and another shall arise after them”) he concluded that the entire Roman Empire would fall apart and it would be divided into ten kingdoms: “In a still clearer light has John, in the Apocalypse, indicated to the Lord’s disciples what shall happen in the last times, and concerning the ten kings who shall then arise, among whom the empire which now rules [the earth] shall be partitioned.”60
Irenaeus believed that the “little horn” from Daniel is a symbol of the kingdom of the Antichrist, which was going to rise after the ten kingdoms. The time of domination of the “little horn” – “a time and times and half a time” (Daniel 7:25)61 – was interpreted as a symbol for a period of three years and a half, an imitation of Christ’s work. The reign of Antichrist would precede and would be ended by Parousia. The stone “cut out without hands” was seen as a symbol for the Second Coming and the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom: “And in the days of those kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall the sovereignty thereof be left to another people; but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever” (Daniel 2:44).
Given the fact that the “little horn” is a symbol of the Antichrist’s reign, it follows that the “stone” and the “horn” are symbols for two diametrically opposed kingdoms that cannot occur at the same time. The first is the work of the devil, while the second is the work of God. In Daniel’s visions they seem to exist in parallel, simultaneously. But for Irenaeus this thing was impossible; instead, he believed that the “stone” and the “horn” only seem to have a simultaneous existence because the Antichrist was going to have a very short reign. In comparison to the four empires (beasts), which had a lifespan of tens or hundreds of years, the kingdom of the Antichrist was expected to prevail for only three years and a half.
If the Whore of Babylon was Rome and the fourth beast from Daniel was the Roman Empire, then, according to the apocalyptic scenario, the Antichrist, thought to be a man, had to appear somehow from outside of Rome and yet from within the area of influence of the Roman Empire.
At the time of the apostles there was a constant tension between Jews, Christians and the Romans. Both the Jews and the Romans saw Christianity as a dangerous sect, which denies the spiritual superiority of the Jewish people and the political authority of Rome. And both parties tried to exterminate it. On the other side of the barricade, the virulent statement of Ignatius of Antioch, the disciple of John the Apostle, reveals that the early Christians blamed the Jews because they did not accept Christ and killed him:
If any one denies the cross, and is ashamed of the passion, let him be to thee as the adversary himself. “Though he gives all his goods to feed the poor, though he remove mountains, though he give his body to be burned,” let him be regarded by thee as abominable. If any one makes light of the law or the prophets, which Christ fulfilled at His coming, let him be to thee as antichrist. If any one says that the Lord is a mere man, he is a Jew, a murderer of Christ.62
Judaism refused to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah and preferred to wait for another Messiah. Hence, Christians believed that the expected Jewish Messiah is in fact the Antichrist and the Jews turned into the people of the devil. In the light of Christ’s prophecies, Irenaeus was convinced that the Antichrist would rebuild the Holy Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70: “When therefore ye see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (Matthew 24:15). Hippolytus, the disciple of Irenaeus and one of the most prolific early writers, related the destruction of the Temple with the crucifixion of Jesus:
and for what reason, was the temple made desolate? Was it on account of that ancient fabrication of the calf? Was it on account of the idolatry of the people? Was it for the blood of the prophets? Was it for the adultery and fornication of Israel? By no means, he says; for in all these transgressions they always found pardon open to them, and benignity; but it was because they killed the Son of their Benefactor, for He is coeternal with the Father.63
The image of the Jewish Antichrist was also supported by the prophecies of the Old Testament, which seem to clearly point toward the tribe of Dan: “The snorting of his horses is heard from Dan: at the sound of the neighing of his strong ones the whole land trembleth; for they are come, and have devoured the land and all that is in it; the city and those that dwell therein”(Jeremiah 8:16).
In Revelation 7 and 14 a number of 144,000 Jews are sealed as the people of God at the end of times. The Christian theologians believed that these are Jews who would oppose the Antichrist by converting to Christ’s religion. The 144,000 are composed of 12,000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, but the tribe of Dan is excluded from the divine sealing, being replaced with the tribe of Manasseh:
And in like manner also we find it written regarding Antichrist. For Moses speaks thus: “Dan is a lion’s whelp, and he shall leap from Bashan.” [Deuteronomy 33:22] ... “Dan,” he says, “is a lion’s whelp;” and in naming the tribe of Dan, he declared clearly the tribe from which Antichrist is destined to spring. For as Christ springs from the tribe of Judah, so Antichrist is to spring from the tribe of Dan. And that the case stands thus, we see also from the words of Jacob: “Let Dan be a serpent, lying upon the ground, biting the horse’s heel.” [Genesis 49:17] What, then, is meant by the serpent but Antichrist, that deceiver who is mentioned in Genesis, [Genesis 3:1] who deceived Eve and supplanted Adam (... Adam’s heel) [Genesis 3:15]?64
Hippolytus believed that the Roman Empire would disintegrate into ten kingdoms, and the eleventh would be the kingdom of the Jews: “And under this [horn] was signified none other than Antichrist, who is also himself to raise the kingdom of the Jews.”65 The reestablishment of the Jewish state would be followed by the advent of the Antichrist, his adulation by the Jews and the beginning of a military campaign for conquering the world:
He says that three horns are plucked up by the root by him, viz., the three kings of Egypt, and Libya, and Ethiopia, whom he cuts off in the array of battle. And he, after gaining terrible power over all, being nevertheless a tyrant, shall stir up tribulation and persecution against men, exalting himself against them.66
This aspect can also be correlated with the fact that at the time Palestine was the scene of a multitude of Jewish messianic and prophetic manifestations. Hippolytus mentions only Simon Magus. Given the fact that the apocalyptic texts speak about false prophets and false teachings that would appear at the end of time to stir up confusion, heretics such as Montanus were perceived as the allies of the devil. This line of thought caused rivers of blood during the Middle Ages. According to the prophecies, the Antichrist will imitate Christ in most aspects, including the doctrinal system:
Christ is a king, so Antichrist is also a king. The Saviour was manifested as a lamb; so he too, in like manner, will appear as a lamb, though within he is a wolf. The Saviour came into the world in the circumcision, and he will come in the same manner. The Lord sent apostles among all the nations, and he in like manner will send false apostles. ... The Saviour appeared in the form of man, and he too will come in the form of a man. The Saviour raised up and showed His holy flesh like a temple, and he will raise a temple of stone in Jerusalem.67
The three years and a half of the Antichrist imitate Christ’s work. Likewise, the deadly wound of the beast from Revelation 13:3, which miraculously heals and convinces the world to worship the beast, is an antithetical analogy to the miracle of the Resurrection. As Christ’s resurrection is the foundation of Christianity, a similar miracle will sit as foundation for the religion of the Antichrist.
Irenaeus and Hippolytus made no nomination for the role of Antichrist; they proved only that he was going to be a Jew. But, in the context of the Roman persecutions, it was extremely tempting to search for the Antichrist among the Roman emperors, the most powerful men in the known world. And of all the emperors, Nero received the most special “reception.”
Nero’s persecutions against Christians and Jews had been legendary cruel. Even the Romans themselves were horrified by his savagery. In the year 68 the Senate repudiated him and condemned him to death, but Nero preferred instead to cut his throat. The end of Nero was a cause for celebration in Roman society, statues and monuments associated with the emperor being immediately vandalized. Nevertheless, even after the death of the emperor Roman society had reasons to fear. During his lifetime astrologers foretold Nero that he would have to leave Rome for a throne in the East, and in his final days Nero spoke about a plan to flee to Parthia. The historian Suetonius writes that only five people actually saw the emperor’s body and Nero’s funeral was not accompanied by the usual rituals.68 This lack of closure gave rise to speculations: it was not known if he was really dead. In this confusing context a strange Roman legend came into being: the legend of Nero redivivus (“Nero resurrected”). Rumors said that he had managed to flee to Parthia, where he was gathering a numerous army in order to return and punish Rome for banishing him. And, to make matters worse, this legend triggered a couple of rebellions led by people who even claimed to be the returned Nero.69
For the Christian world Nero represented the apogee of the adversity against the religion of Christ. Even though the subsequent emperors continued the persecutions initiated by this evil emperor, none of them did it with such intensity. Hence, the Christian exegetes fused the image of the Jewish Antichrist with the legend of Nero redivivus. Nero who returns to destroy Rome became the Antichrist (or the Beast 666) who destroys the Whore of Babylon (Revelation 17:16). In Ascensio Isaiae, a Christian pseudepigraphic text from the beginning of the 2nd century, the so-called apocalyptic revelations describe the Roman persecution of Christians while Nero, called “Beliar,” is depicted as the biblical Antichrist:
these are the days of the completion of the world. After it is consummated, Beliar the great ruler, the king of the world, will descend, who hath ruled it since it came into being; yea, he will descend from his firmament in the likeness of a man, a lawless king, the slayer of his mother:70 who himself (even) this king will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted. Of the Twelve one will be delivered into his hands.71 This ruler in the form of that king will come and there will come with him all the powers of this world. ... he will do and speak like the Beloved and he will say: “I am God and before me there hath been none.” And all the people in the world will believe him. ... And he will set up his image before him in every city. And he shall bear sway three years and seven months and twenty-seven days. ... the Lord will come with his angels and ... He will drag Beliar into Gehenna and also his armies.72
Oracula Sibyllina, a collection of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic verses written in Greek sometime between the 2nd and the 4th century, labeled Nero as corrupter, snake, matricide, powerful king, wicked king, destroyer, who had the sign of the number 50 (N = 50 in Greek), who ran beyond Euphrates and was expected to return to destroy Rome:73
And one whose mark is fifty shall be lord,
A dreadful serpent breathing grievous war,
Who sometime stretching forth his hands shall make
An end of his own race and stir all things,
Then, making himself equal unto God,
Shall he return; but God will prove him naught.74
There is a strong similarity between the legend of Nero redivivus and the beast whose deadly wound is healed: “And [I saw] one of his heads as though it had been smitten unto death; and his death-stroke was healed: and the whole earth wondered after the beast” (Revelation 13:3). Parthia, the place where, according to the rumors, Nero had fled, was located in Asia in the Iranian plateau. But the Christian scholars had a different point of view: they believed that Nero had gone in the Jewish kingdom. Victorinus, bishop of Petabium, said that God revived Nero and sent him to become the king of the Jews and the Antichrist, and that he would soon return at the head of a Jewish army to destroy Rome:
“The seven heads are the seven hills, on which the woman sitteth.”] That is, the city of Rome. “And there are seven kings: five have fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he is come, he will be for a short time.”] The time must be understood in which the written Apocalypse was published, since reigned Caesar Domitian; but before him had been Titus his brother; and Vespasian, Otho, Vitellius, and Galba. These are the five who have fallen. One remains, under whom the Apocalypse was written – Domitian, to wit. “The other has not yet come,” speaks of Nerva; “and when he is come, he will be for a short time,” for he did not complete the period of two years. “And the beast which thou sawest is of the seven.”] Since before those kings Nero reigned. “And he is the eighth.”] He says only when this beast shall come, reckon it the eighth place, since in that is the completion. He added: – “And shall go into perdition.”] For that ten kings received royal power when he shall move from the east, he says. He shall be sent from the city of Rome with his armies. And Daniel sets forth the ten horns and the ten diadems. And that these are eradicated from the former ones – that is, that three of the principal leaders are killed by Antichrist; that the other seven give him honour and wisdom and power, of whom he says: – “These shall hate the whore, to wit, the city, and shall burn her flesh with fire.”] Now that one of the heads was, as it were, slain to death, and that the stroke of his death was directed, he speaks of Nero. For it is plain that when the cavalry sent by the senate was pursuing him, he himself cut his throat. Him therefore, when raised up, God will send as a worthy king, but worthy in such a way as the Jews merited.75
In the 3rd century the Christian poet Commodianus relied on the same idea when he said that “Nero shall be raised up from hell, Elias shall first come to seal the beloved ones”76 or “for us Nero has become Antichrist.”77
Around the year 398 Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, also believed that the beast from Revelation 11:7 refers to Nero, who would be revived by God to trouble the Church again. In his commentary on the Book of Daniel Jerome wrote that “there are many of our viewpoint who think that Domitius Nero was the Antichrist because of his outstanding savagery and depravity.”78 “Domitius” was Nero’s family name.
When he analyzed 2 Thessalonians 2:6-9, John Chrysostom spoke of Nero as “a sort of Antichrist”:
“For the mystery of lawlessness doth already work.” He speaks here of Nero, as if he were the type of Antichrist. ... “Only there is one that restraineth now, until he be taken out of the way,” that is, when the Roman Empire is taken out of the way, then he shall come. And naturally. For as long as the fear of this empire lasts, no one will willingly exalt himself, but when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavor to seize upon the government both of man and of God. For as the kingdoms before this were destroyed, for example, that of the Medes by the Babylonians, that of the Babylonians by the Persians, that of the Persians by the Macedonians, that of the Macedonians by the Romans: so will this also be by the Antichrist, and he by Christ.79
The Christian chronicler Sulpitius Severus also spoke about the belief that Nero had to be resurrected at the end of time:
It was accordingly believed that, even if he did put an end to himself with a sword, his wound was cured, and his life preserved, according to that which was written regarding him – “And his mortal wound was healed” – to be sent forth again near the end of the world, in order that he may practice the mystery of inequity.80
Amid the unrest within the Western Roman Empire, Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, announced in the year 365 that the end of the world is a matter of a couple of months.81 His disciple Martin, bishop of Tours, preached the advent of the Beast around the year 380. But for Martin the Beast was going to be different from Nero the resurrected:
Nero will rule in the Western portion of the world, after having subdued ten kings ... He also said that Antichrist, on the other hand, would first seize upon the empire of the East, having his seat and the capital of his kingdom at Jerusalem; while both the city and the temple would be restored by him. ... Nero was to be destroyed by Antichrist, and that the whole world, and all nations, were to be reduced under the power of Antichrist, until that impious one should be overthrown by the coming of Christ. He told us, too, that there is no doubt but that Antichrist, having been conceived by an evil spirit, was already born, and had, by this time, reached the years of boyhood, while he would assume power as soon as he reached the proper age. Now, this is the eighth year since we heard these words from his lips: you may conjuncture, then, how nearly about to happen are those things which are feared in the future.82
Even the number 666 (or 616) seems to be a reference to Nero. First of all, the Book of Revelation was written in Greek, and for the word “mark” (of the beast) from Revelation 13:17 the original text uses the Greek word ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)
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