As we come to the end of the series of judgments concluding with the seven bowls of God’s fury in Revelation 16, we notice another transition that occurs beginning with Chapter 12 of Revelation. The overall flow of the book of Revelation moves through successive images of Jesus Christ as prophet (Rev. 1-3), priest (Rev. 4-11), and messianic warrior King (Rev. 12-22). This new section beginning in chapter 12, introduces a ‘great sign’ in the sky who is described as “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” This chapter also uses imagery that would have reminded its first century readers of various ancient combat myths involving a dragon and a war in heaven. St. John borrows this imagery to depict the primordial angelic war in heaven between the Archangel Michael and the good angels, and the dragon, Satan, and the rebellious angels. The dragon and the rebellious angels are defeated and cast down from heaven (12:9). There is also a conflict between the dragon and the woman.
Using apocalyptic imagery, John notes that the woman is about to give birth to a son who is “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” (12:5) and that “the dragon stood before the woman . . . to devour her child when she gave birth” (12:4) but the child is “caught up to God and his throne” (12: 5). The dragon then pursues the woman who is rescued by God and taken into the desert in a type of New Exodus (12:14). Finally the dragon becomes angry with the woman and goes off “to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus” (12:17). The first part of this imagery, with a son destined to rule the nations, sounds like the woman is the Virgin Mary. The final imagery with mention of the woman’s offspring, “who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus” sounds like a reference to the Church. Catholic commentators have consistently argued that both meanings are true at the same time.
The Old Testament background to the ‘woman’ is the image of Israel as the ‘Daughter of Zion’ particularly in the book of Isaiah. In Isaiah 66 the prophet describes the nation of Zion through the metaphor of a woman about to give birth, “Before she is in labor, gives birth; Before her pangs come upon her, she delivers a male child” (Isaiah 66:7). The Old Testament imagery of the “Daughter of Zion” has three themes. The daughter of Zion is the spouse of Yahweh and by that title she becomes also the “Mother” of the people of God (“Mother-Zion”) and yet she is equally the “Virgin Israel.” While the entire nation can be seen as the daughter or spouse of Zion. Isaiah also makes a special promise in 7:14. St. Matthew quotes the Greek translation of this verse. “Behold, the virgin [Gk. parthenos] shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23). Mary is the messianic personification of the whole people of Israel as she becomes the new ‘’Daughter of Zion.” She is both a type of Israel, the literal mother of the Messiah and a type of the Church. The woman of Revelation 12 is both the Virgin Mary and Mary as a type of the Church.
The reference to her having a “crown of twelve stars on her head” (12:10) is also interesting. In our western understanding of royalty it is usually the wife of the king who is the queen. In the Old Testament it was the mother of the King as the Queen Mother who has importance as the giberah or Great Lady (1 Kings 2). Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary at the visitation, “And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43) may have implied this relationship. The description of Jesus as the one “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” (Revelation 12:5) is an echo of Psalm 2 which is a messianic kingship psalm.
In chapter 13 of Revelation, the heavenly battle takes on earthly implications as John contrasts the worship of Christ with the worship of the Beast. The Lamb of God shares the throne of God (5:6, 12, 13) and now the Beast as an antichrist figure shares the worship, authority (13:4) and throne of Satan (13:2). The imagery for this section is an echo of the Prophet Daniel in the Old Testament. Revelation 13:1-2 parallels the progressive ‘beasts’ described in Daniel 7:4-7. There are two successive beasts in Revelation 13. The background from Daniel suggests the first beast is the nation Rome, but more specifically the beast is most commonly interpreted to be the Emperor Nero as a type of Rome’s evil power. The first beast “whose mortal wound had been healed” (13:12) matches the widely known stories of Nero’s death by his own sword and then many contemporary legends of the-return-of-Nero in both Jewish and Pagan circles. During the reign of Domitian, a number of imposters arose in the East claiming to be Nero. The second beast is likely Domitian who was considered a second Nero by the Romans.
The most talked about verse in Revelation is surely Revelation 13:18 which invites the reader to “calculate the number of the beast” as “six hundred and sixty-six.” Although John has used numbers symbolically throughout Revelation, he is using a different technique here involving a mathematical use of the alphabet to spell a name. This was an extremely common practice both for the Jews and for the Greco-Roman world. Among the graffiti found at Pompeii, was one which read, “I love the girl whose number is 545.”
The sum of the letters in the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew letters is 666. It is also true that it is the sum of the Greek letters for the word ‘beast’ (therion). Some scholars have protested that there were several schemas for numbering in Hebrew and that Hebrew is an obscure language to the original readers of Revelation. It is possible that John merely meant “beast” but that other associations in this chapter (13:12) lead to the specific identification with Nero as the ultimate type of the ‘beast.’ Once again the overall theme of Revelation is the encouragement of the faithful in the midst of earthly persecution. We are called to oppose the worship of the beast in every age.
Scott McKellar is associate director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.