The Book of Revelation is the Jurassic Park of biblical interpretation. Two thousand years after it was written it can still startle the living daylights out of a casual reader—or even a lifelong student of the book.
I got ambushed in 1989 when I taught my first course on Revelation in Montevideo, Uruguay. My students engaged John's apocalypse with such intensity that the fearsome Beast of Revelation 13 seemed to snarl out from the pages of our Bibles. Our strategy for sneaking up on the Beast was different from most popular readings of Revelation. Instead of reading Revelation primarily to predict events in the modern world, we followed an approach familiar to evangelicals for most books of the Bible: we tried to relate Revelation to circumstances of the author's own time. We wanted to explore the Beast's first-century habitat before stalking it in the twentieth century.
Making our way through a jungle of history books and ancient texts, we found footprints of the Beast all over the first-century world. The trail of evidence took us through a library of ancient Jewish apocalyptic books, most not in our Bibles. We learned that Beast in those writings typically was a nasty nickname for a great political power (see Daniel 7, for example). We noted further that the Beast of Revelation has seven heads—which are seven mountains on which a whore called Babylon is seated (Rev. 17:9).
With that clue, the trail was hot: ancient pagan writers such as Virgil called Rome the City of Seven Hills. And Jews, after their failed revolt of A.D. 6670, called Rome Babylon because it destroyed the temple in Jerusalem just as the real Babylon did in 587 B.C. We had located John's Beast, and it was the Roman Empire that had turned blasphemous ...