THE ANTICHRIST: A Historical Puzzle by Professor L. Michael White
apocalypticism explained
the book of revelation
the antichrist
pictorial chronology
a roundtable
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White is Professor of Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, and served as historical consultant for FRONTLINE 's program "Apocalypse!"
It often comes as a great surprise to people to discover that "the Antichrist" does not appear in the Book of Revelation at all. In fact, it's nowhere else in the Bible or in other apocalyptic literature except in a few passages in two of the Johannine Epistles. So the key questions are these: Where did it come from? And how does it come to be so central to the way the story of Revelation is interpreted in later centuries, all the way down to the present?


Most apocalyptic literature tends to portray the history of the world as a cosmic conflict between God and some evil force, usually called Satan. It's important to note, therefore, that the extremely influential legend of how Satan was an angel in Heaven who rebelled against God and was cast out only arises with the writing of I Enoch, in ca. 225 BCE. This work of Jewish apocalyptic transforms older Near Eastern combat myths into the scheme for this dualistic battle between God (good) and Satan (evil).

This scheme is seen in the Book of Revelation, particularly in the central vision (called the "portents in heaven") found in chapters 12-13. There it describes Satan as the ancient dragon who had tried to consume the offspring of the cosmic woman, a kind of celestial Eve or Mary.

12:1 A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3 another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. Then 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

7 And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world -- he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
(Rev. 12.1-9)

Following this the dragon (Satan) proceeds to make war on the offspring of the woman, i.e., the saints, on earth (Rev. 12.11-17). This is the cosmic conflict of which the author of Revelation depicts the Christians as being in the middle.

Then in Revelation 13 we discover that the dragon (Satan) has two henchmen, referred to as two "beasts," one who comes from the sea (Rev. 13.1-10) and one who comes from the land (Rev. 13.13-17). The "beast from the sea" is said to have received his power directly from Satan, while the "beast from the land" is the one who makes people worship the "beast from the sea."

13:12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. ...14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is 666.
(Rev. 13.13-17)

In the context of Revelation, the "beast from the sea" clearly refers to the Roman emperor, probably Domitian, who ruled from 81-96 CE. The "beast from the land," then, most likely refers to a chief administrator of Roman rule in Ephesus and Asia Minor, i.e., the "henchman" of the Emperor. This is probably the provincial governor (or proconsul) who would have overseen the political and religious operations of the area from his capital in Ephesus.
Another possibility would be the High Priest of the Provincial Imperial Cult, who would have been a leading citizen from one of the main cities. The imperial cult in Ephesus was set up by Domitian in 89 CE, and this may be the crucial event that sparks the reaction of the author. Hence, the "mark" refers to an imperial slogan or seal used on official documents and commercial contracts.

"666" is most likely a reference either to Nero or Domitian or to some imperial title or slogan known at Ephesus. From other contemporary apocalyptic sources we know that they used numerology in this way. For example, among the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls was found just such a numerical calculation based on the name of Nero using Hebrew letters. It is difficult to know precisely what combination of letters was intended to total 666 in Revelation, but several suggestions have been made that fit. It might have been a reference to Nero or to Domitian. There was also a rumor current in Asia Minor at that time that Nero had come back to life as Domitian. So, it remains unclear. Another problem is that Roman coins and inscriptions almost always employ abbreviated forms of names and titles for Emperors. So it is quite possible that the slogan was somethng like that, and the abbreviations would have only been understood by people from the local contexts. What was the mark, then? It probably was a form of imperial propaganda, closely aligned with the imperial cult, which was used in commercial contracts and affidavits. Or it might have been the images and inscriptions on the money itself, that to the author of Revelation symbolized collusion with the "beast."


The actual term "Antichrist" occurs in five times in the New Testament and once in early Christian literature of the 2nd century CE. Most of the New Testament occurrences appear in 1 John (2.18, 2.22, 4.3), with one in 2 John 7:

18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. 20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. 21 I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. 22 Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist--he denies the Father and the Son.
1 John 2.18- 2.22

2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
1 John 4.2-4.3

7 Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.
2 John 7.

In both texts, the reference is clearly to Christians who bring a different doctrine of Christ, especially one that says that Jesus was never "in the flesh." In neither case does it refer to a celestial embodiment of evil or an equivalent of Satan.

This is also how the term is used in the writing of Polycarp of Smyrna, a well-known Christian bishop from Asia Minor who was prominent not long after the time of Revelation. Tradition even holds that he was even a disciple of John the Presbyter, one of the "Johns" who possibly authored Revelation. In his letter to Christians at Philippi (ca. 115-125 CE) Polycarp basically quotes the same usage as found in 1 John 4.3: "For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist .. and is of the devil" (Polycarp, To the Philippians 7.1). So it is still the case in the second century CE that the term refers to human adversaries who bring a heretical doctrine, although it is noteworthy that by Polycarp's time such heretics are being linked with Satan.


There are probably two distinct lines by which this terminology eventually makes its way into the orbit of the way the story of Revelation came to be understood.

First is the namesake of John. Simple as this may seem, it is probably the case that elements from the different writings in the New Testament having the name "John" on them were read into one another. Thus the adversarial figures from 1 John and 2 John were erroneously equated with the adversaries (the two beasts) of Revelation 13. But it is important to note that most New Testament scholars would agree that these works were all by at least three different "Johns" -- one who wrote the Gospel and probably 1 John (traditionally the apostle himself), a second who wrote 2 & 3 John (whose real name is not given), and the third, the author of Revelation (traditionally known as John the Elder).

Second is the growing idea that arose near the beginning of the second century that there would be an adversary of Christ who would come in the last days before Jesus' return. This idea is most clearly expressed in the New Testament in 2 Thessalonians 2.1-12:

1 As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? 6 And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, 10 and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, 12 so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.

This adversary is called "the lawless one," a deceiver expected to disrupt Christian belief near the time of Jesus' eschatological return. According to this passage, his appearance is one of the "sure signs" that the second coming of Jesus is near and that believers had better be on guard.

While this letter is internally attributed to Paul, many scholars think it was written later, probably near the end of the first century. It reflects something of an emerging crisis of confidence among some Christians of that day (at least in Paul's churches) regarding the eschaton. This crisis was likely precipitated in large measure by the disastrous outcome of the revolt against Rome. Their concern might have gone something like this: "Well, if that wasn't the final battle, as we first thought, when is it coming?" Probably more than any single idea, this is the one that comes closest to the "antichrist" figure of later apocalyptic interpretation.

Gradually, over time, these various lines converged. The "lawless one" of 2 Thessalonians came to be equated with the "beast" of Revelation and labeled with the title "Antichrist" from the Johannine epistles. Throughout the early Middle Ages, popular Christian preaching continued to repeat and reinforce these ideas. Most of these preachers were poorly educated and knew little of the actual circumstances of the New Testament period. Their handbook for sermon preparation was something known as "glosses," that is, copies of the Biblical text with marginal commentaries on individual passages and ideas. It was in these glosses of the early Middle Ages (7th to 11th centuries) that passages in Revelation came to receive some legendary additions, including the Antichrist terminology and a story to go with it. The commentators of the glosses even spoke of the birth of this Antichrist figure. He was often depicted as being Jewish, or as having a Jewish mother who was impregnated by Satan himself. These texts were often illustrated with lurid depictions of these ideas. It was from this popular tradition that much of the later Antichrist myth was born, and with it some of the most deeply ingrained and virulent elements of antisemitism in the western tradition. By the time we get to Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Joachim of Fiore (11323-1202) these images had been firmly entrenched in the imagination.

More on the Antichrist.

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