Reading Revelation’s martyrs in context

It is a well-worn (though often neglected!) principle of reading any text that ‘a text without a context is a pretext’—in other words, if you are going to read anything well, then you need to put it in its context, else you will be able to make it mean whatever you want. This is one of the four major principles I set out in my own study of How to Interpret the Bible.

Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich and Jason Maston (friends from doing their PhDs in Durham) have been producing a series of volumes on reading NT texts in context, and the volume on Revelation has just come out. It includes a great introduction:

The book of Revelation is like a magnificent theme park. Replete with visual and auditory stimuli and brimming with chaos and catastrophe, reading this work is a disorienting, multisensory experience that terrifies nearly as much as it clarifies. While the book often requires more careful study than many armchair theologians are prepared to invest, Revelation may well be, as Ian Paul promises, ‘the most remarkable text you will ever read.’

I include the full contents list below, grabbed from the Amazon preview; I think the book will become a standard work on Revelation at any level. This is the pre-publication draft of my chapter on the souls under the throne in Rev 6, read in the context of the martyrdom of the seven brothers in 2 Maccabees.

The Book of Revelation begins in chapter 1 with apocalyptic and prophetic elements set within an epistolary framework, communicating unambiguously that John is writing to particular people in a particular time and place. But the cosmic vision he has of Jesus in the second half of the chapter, as not only identified with God, but also as both the angelic messenger of God and priestly mediator between God and humanity, shows his message has transcendent significance. After recording the messages he hears for the assemblies of Jesus-followers in seven of the cities in Asia (Western Turkey), the vision report resumes as he enters the heavenly throne room in chapters 4 and 5 and he both sees and hears the worship of God and Jesus (now depicted as the slain but raised lamb) as without rival in all of creation. This sets the scene for the unsealing of the scroll, best understood as the will of God for the world, and the sequence of seven seals, with its images of death, destruction and judgement, represent for many readers the beginning of the truly apocalyptic section of the book—and is often the place where they stop reading.

Chapter 6 does indeed present some distinctively apocalyptic features. The most obvious is the explicit use of numerical structure. We have already seen the use of seven in spatial terms as the number of the cities addressed by the letter, which must have at least some symbolic significance, since there were many other cities with Christian communities in Asia at the time that John was writing. But now ‘seven’ is used with temporal, rather than spatial, significance, marking the sequence of events flowing from the breaking of each seal, and ending (as do the two other temporal sequences of seven trumpets and seven bowls) with an anticipation of The End, here a period of silence (8.1) which in rabbinic thinking was a sign of the end of all things. The sequence therefore corresponds to the idea of this world having seven ages, as a cosmic expression of the seven days of creation, culminating in a final Sabbath rest. Whilst the messages to the seven assemblies are structured as 3 + 4, marked by the switch in order of the two concluding exhortations (‘the one having ears/the one conquering’), the opening of the seals is structured as 4 + 3, as is the trumpeting of the trumpets in chapters 8 and 9 and (slightly less clearly) the pouring of the seven bowls in chapter 16.

The second apocalyptic feature is the cascade of vivid, emotive and archetypal imagery; the four horsemen are perhaps the most widely known image from the text, occurring frequently in film, political cartoon and cultural comment.[1]But, like all the images in Revelation, the vehicles of the metaphors (lamb, horsemen, beasts) are deployed without any explicit mention of the subjects of the metaphors (Jesus, natural disasters, empires), which makes them both vivid and ambiguous, able to be interpreted in a wide range of later contexts. Is the blazing mountain in Rev 8:8 a reference to the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, an anticipation of an ‘end times’ event, or an expression of the disasters that befall humanity in all ages?

Within this structured, vivid sequence, at the opening of the fifth seal of the scroll by the lamb, John is given a vision of the ‘souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained’ under the altar.

Parallel text: the martyrdom of the seven sons in 2 Maccabees 7

The four books with the title ‘Maccabees’ all relate to the crisis precipitated by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV ‘Epiphanes’ and his desecration of the temple by sacrificing pigs and erecting pagan statues in 167 BC. This provoked the revolt led by the Hasmonean priest-ruler Judas Maccabeus, and his reconsecration of the temple in 164 BC is still celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Judas’ appellation ‘Maccabeus’ is commonly understand to mean ‘hammer’, but it is also the acronym of the Exodus battle-cry of Moses and the people ‘Who is like you among the gods Yahweh?’ (Ex 15:11). Similar claims to exclusivity are found in the name of Michael (literally ‘Who is like God?’) in Rev 12:7 and the rival, parallel exclamation ‘Who is like the beast?’ in Rev 13:4.

1 and 2 Maccabees are not in the Jewish or Protestant canon of Scripture, but are in the Apocrypha of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon. 3 and 4 Maccabees are later works with a more philosophical outlook which are usually considered to the part of the Old Testament pseudepigrapha. The four texts are connected though distinct. 1 Maccabees appear to be a translation into Greek from a Hebrew or Aramaic original, and is reminiscent of the ‘histories’ (‘Former Prophets’ in the Hebrew Bible) of the Old Testament, though without any of the miraculous elements. 2 Maccabees claims to be a summary of a five-volume work by ‘Jason of Cyrene’ (2 Macc 2:19, 23) and is written in koine (common) Greek[2]. It expands the events of the first seven chapters of 1 Maccabees, adding in the martyrdom of the rabbi Eleazar in chapter 6 followed by the martyrdom of the seven sons in chapter 7. The text is important in articulating some key theological ideas of Second Temple Judaism which are essential background to reading the New Testament, particularly the idea of bodily resurrection. 3 Maccabees appear to recount legendary material from the preceding period, whilst 4 Maccabees is a treatise on the virtue of pious reason over against passion, and includes extended reflections on the martyrdom of the seven sons in 4 Macc 8–12.

The account of the martyrdoms is detailed and gruesome, and came to be admired and emulated in mediaeval Christian devotions to martyred saints; it gives rise to the English term ‘macabre’.[3]

They were being tortured by the king with whips and thongs to force them to eat pork, contrary to the law. But one of them, speaking for all, said: ‘What do you expect to learn by interrogating us? Rather than break our ancestral laws we are prepared to die.’ In fury, the king ordered great pans and cauldrons to be heated. This was attended to without delay; meanwhile he gave orders that the spokesmans’ tongue should be cut out and that he should be scalped and mutilated before the eyes of his mother and six brothers. A wreck of a man, but still breathing, he was taken at the king’s direction to the fire and roasted in one of the pans. (2 Macc 7.1b–5a)

There are five things to note about the martyrdoms and the way they are described. The first is the proximate reason for the suffering of the brothers: their adherence to their ‘ancestral laws’ (2 Macc 7:2) which are the laws of the ‘King of the universe’ (verse 9). Faithfulness to God’s laws, and in particular the food laws, is worth suffering and dying for.

When the question was put to [the third brother], he at once showed his tongue and courageously held out his hands. ‘The God of heaven gave these to me, but his laws mean far more to me than they do…’ (2 Macc 7:10–11).

The importance of food laws as the point of testing loyalty lies behind controversies we find about the subject in the New Testament (Mark 7.17–23, Acts 10.9–16, Rom 14.17).

But, secondly, the explanation for their suffering goes beyond a simple question of loyal resistance to forces that might make them compromise. The oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes has been brought about (by God?) as a just punishment of the Jewish people for their sins. In the words of the seventh brother:

It is for our own sins that we are suffering, and, though to correct and discipline us our living Lord is angry for a brief time, yet he will be reconciled with his servants (2 Macc 7:32–33).

This theological interpretation of what is happening is in line with the theological shape of the Deuteronomistic history, beginning with the blessing and curses for obedience and disobedience in Deut 28, and ending with the destruction of Jerusalem and the people carried off to exile in 2 Kings 25. It also correlates with Jesus’ language in Luke 19:41–44, in which he anticipates (and Luke has now seen) the fall of Jerusalem as judgment on their refusal to recognise God’s presence in Jesus’ coming to the city.

Thirdly, the brothers’ death has further significance—not just coming as a result of the sin of the people, but in their faithfulness and suffering even atoning for these sins and in some sense satisfying and bringing to an end God’s anger.

May the Almighty’s anger, which has justly fallen on all our race, end with me and my brothers! (verse 38).

The importance of the death of these seven, and the faithfulness of their mother (whose cause of death in verse 41 is unexplained) is that, in some sense, they have died forthe people, an idea echoed in the words of Caiaphas about Jesus ‘better that one man die for the people…’ (John 11:50, 18:14).

All of this is (fourthly) framed in a quite explicit articulation of the hope of bodily resurrection for those who have kept faith. With his final breath, the second brother declares:

The King of the Universe will raise us up to everlasting life made new (verse 9).

The language here of ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal life’ is the same as what we find in the Fourth Gospel (John 3:15, 16, 36, 4:14, 36 and so on) but with an indication of life ‘made new’ which corresponds to the distinction between ‘this age’ and the ‘age to come’ (Matt 12:32, Mark 10:40, Luke 20:34–35). In the resurrection, the brothers’ bodies, now dismembered and disfigured, will be healed and restored (2 Macc 7:11) and the mother will receive her sons back (verse 29). However, in contrast to the universal resurrection described in Daniel 12:2 in which some rise to eternal life and other to judgement, the expectation is that Antiochus, as one of the wicked, will die and not be raised (2 Macc 7:14).

Finally, the hope of the brothers is that God will avenge them by raising up a leader who will punish Antiochus through violent opposition and warfare, and the following chapters narrate just that outcome. Martyrdom here is paired with a willingness to resist through combat; in chapter 8 the preparation for the conflict includes praying that God will ‘give ear to the blood that cried to him for vengeance’ (2 Macc 8:3). This contrasts both with Paul’s citation of Prov 25:21 in Rom 12:20 which leaves vengeance to God alone and not our action, and the ‘quietist’ response to the Antiochene crisis set out in the book of Daniel which was written at a similar time to 2 Maccabees.

Exegesis of Rev 6.9–11

The catastrophes unleashed with the breaking of the first four seals have an ambiguous status in relation to the sovereignty of God. On the one hand, they are released at the instigation of Jesus-as-lamb, but the four horsemen mediate the catastrophes, and they in turn are called forth by one of the four living creatures around the throne. In contrast to the direct sovereignty of God expressed in 2 Maccabees, the action of God in bringing disaster seems here to be at least qualified or in some sense mediated. God’s first unmediated action in Revelation is to ‘wipe every tear from their eyes’ (Rev 7:17, 21:4). The catalogue of conquest, violent warfare, famine and food shortages, and early death and disease represented by the horsemen are experiences with which John’s readers would have been very familiar—as have many later generations.[4]

Opening the fifth seal does not lead to further action, but allows John a vision of the ‘souls who had been slain’. The term ‘soul’ might suggest a non-bodily existence, so it is unclear in what sense John can ‘see’ them. But the term ‘slain’ links them with the image of the lamb ‘standing as slain’ (Rev 5:6); where the martyrs of 2 Maccabees receive suffering at the hand of God (justly) punishing his people, here the martyrs share the suffering that their Lord himself has experienced. Although John sees these souls ‘under the altar’, there is no suggestion that their suffering has atoning value, since the heavenly temple has only one altar, for the offering of incense (see Rev 8:3), whereas the earthly temple which it parallels has two, one for incense and one for sacrifice. It is the slaying of the lamb which alone has atoning power, his blood ‘purchasing’ his people for God (5:9); it is as though the throne of God itself has become the altar of atoning sacrifice.

The brothers were killed for their devotion to the law, but the martyrs here suffer because of the ‘word of God and the testimony they had’. The ‘word of God’ appears to refer to the message about Jesus, not least because at one point it is given as his title (19:13), and is twice paired with the ‘testimony of Jesus’ (1:2, 9) which in turn is linked with the prophetic word of the Spirit (19:10).[5]‘Testimony’ and ‘witness’ both translate the same word in Greek, from which our word ‘martyr’ derives, and it is a key theological idea in the book. Jesus is described as the ‘faithful and true witness’ (1:5, 3:14) and his name occurs 14 times in the text, the product of 2 (the biblical number of witness; see Deut 17:6, 19:5) and 7 (the number of completeness). The word for ‘saints’,  referring to God’s people, also occurs 14 times, indicating that those following Jesus are called to be faithful witnesses to the point of death as he was. The parallel is made explicit in Rev 12:11:

They triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.

Indeed, the ‘word of God and the testimony of Jesus’ is identified by John as the reason for the ‘tribulation’ that he himself was suffering along with his brothers and sisters to whom he writes (1:9). In this sense, the martyrs under the altar are archetypal of what it means to be a follower of the lamb.

The idea that these martyrs are suffering because of the sins of the people of God is entirely absent; the cause is the opposition of ‘the inhabitants of the earth’, a term used ten times to designate those who follow the beast and receive his mark (13:8) contrasted with the heaven-dwelling followers of the lamb. God’s final judgment will be against all who have ‘shed the blood of [his] people’ (16:6; compare 17:6, 18:24). But God’s just judgement is postponed ‘a little time’ during which the devil vents his fury (12:12) and God’s people must patiently endure (1:9). Revelation here follows the quietist ethic in the face of oppression articulated in Daniel.

The ‘white robes’ signify purity in the presence of God (4:4) granted by means of the atoning death of Jesus as the slain lamb (7:14). Though bodily resurrection is not mentioned in this episode, it looms large on the eschatological horizon of the narrative as a whole (20:12–13).


The depiction of martyrs in Revelation clearly shares a number of assumptions with the account in 2 Maccabees—the virtue of suffering at the hands of an evil oppressor, the justice of the sovereign God, and the certainty of judgement. But at key points, Revelation offers a radically different theological understanding. God’s judgement will come after eschatological delay, and will be effected by God alone and not by military or political action. Atonement is achieved by the suffering of Jesus alone, yet the suffering of his people follows his example of patient endurance. Their response to evil oppression is therefore not to take up arms in resistance, but to continue in their faithful testimony as they look to The End when God will make all things new (Rev 21:5).

[1] The publicity posters for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now (1979) feature a sequence of four US Army helicopters as an echo of the four horsemen.

[2] That the text was composed in Greek is clear from the regular references to the characters’ ‘native language’ (ie Aramaic or Hebrew) eg in 2 Macc 7:21.

[3] From the Latin term, Machabaeorum chorea meaning Dance of the Maccabees.

[4] It is sobering to realise that the Black Death of the 14thcentury killed one third of Europe’s population, and that the Spanish flu of 1918–19 infected one third of the world’s population. Freedom from such experiences is a relatively rare phenomenon in human history.

[5] The speech of Jesus and the speech of the Spirit are closely identified throughout Revelation, not least in the seven messages in chapters 2 and 3, where the proclamation of Jesus is each time offered as ‘what the Spirit is saying to the assemblies’.

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