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The Destruction of Pompeii and the New Testament Book of Revelation

The Destruction of Pompeii and the New Testament Book of Revelation

Nine years, almost to the day, after Roman legionaries destroyed God’s house in Jerusalem, God destroyed the luxurious watering holes of the Roman elite. Was this God’s revenge? That’s not exactly the question I want to raise, however. Rather, did anyone at the time see it that way? Did anyone connect the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E. with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70? Hershel Shanks, “The Destruction of Pompeii–God’s Revenge?”[1]

mount-vesuvius-eruption-pompeiiEditor Hershel Shanks raises a most provocative question in this 2010 feature cover article in Biblical Archaeology Review. Did Jews living in the Roman empire associate the sudden volcanic incineration of the Naples port city of Pompeii in 79 CE with God’s payback punishment upon Rome for destroying Jerusalem? As Shanks shows, there is good evidence that such is the case. He points to some amazing archaeological remains, such as a charcoal graffiti that seems to reference “Sodom and Gomorrah,” as well as a Christian apocalyptic text, book 4 of the Sibylline Oracles, that parallels the two events and refers to the latter as “the wrath of the heavenly God.”

photo-1I have become convinced there is much more. In 2010 I spent several months studying the archaeological records related to ancient Pompeii, including significant time at the site working with Simcha Jacobovici and his research team who were filming his international television special, “Vesuvius and the Fear of God.” The film documents some of the major discoveries we made including some “behind-the-scenes” interviews with several Italian experts and curators who presented evidence that had never appeared on camera before. I came away convinced, based on the material/archaeological evidence, that Jews as well as Jewish and non-Jewish Christians understood Pompeii’s destruction as divine retribution. The thesis of the film is a bold one–not only that Jews and Christians saw the destruction of Pompeii as a sign of God’s apocalyptic wrath but that the utter destruction of the city served as a huge boon to the spread of Christianity in the Roman world:

Long ignored archaeological evidence – found beneath the ashes of Pompeii and Herculaneum – seems to suggest that what put the fear of God into pagan Romans was not Jesus, Peter or Paul. It now seems that the event most responsible for Christianity’s conquest of the Roman Empire was…the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

The film is an impressive piece of work and you can watch it free of charge, courtesy of here.

IMG_0914 2

Overlooking the ruins today, ashes removed and Vesuvius in the background

However, in the course of my own textual research I made another discovery–one that was new for me at least. I became convinced that chapter 18 of the New Testament book of Revelation is an eyewitness account, very much parallel to that of Pliny the Younger, of the August 79 CE destruction of Pompeii–but understood by the writer as signaling the fall of Babylon the Great–namely, the demise of the Roman Empire itself! Most scholars agree that the prophecies of the book of Revelation can be dated variously  from the end of the reign of Nero through the Flavians (68-80s CE). The author of chapter 18 of Revelation provides us with a poetic oracle against the “great city” pictured as a “whore” riding the seven-headed beast of the Roman Empire–drunk with the blood of the martyrs and the saints. Her destruction comes with fire–in one hour–while those in ships watch her burning from afar, lamenting the loss of her wealth and the splendor of her trade and commerce. The Naples/Pompeii port was the gateway to ancient Rome. As such its destruction signaled that of the expected apocalyptic FALL of Rome itself–both as a city and an empire.

Whore BabylonHere is a translation (Revised Standard Version) of the oracle itself without commentary. I think my readers will agree that one could hardly imagine a more accurate description of the destruction of Pompeii/Rome down to its every detail:

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with his splendor. And he called out with a mighty voice,

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul and hateful bird;
For all nations have drunkthe wine of her impure passion,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness.”

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,

“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
Render to her as she herself has rendered,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed.
As she glorified herself and played the wanton,
so give her a like measure of torment and mourning.
Since in her heart she says, ‘A queen I sit,
I am no widow, mourning I shall never see,’
so shall her plagues come in a single day,
pestilence and mourning and famine,
and she shall be burned with fire;
for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and were wanton with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning; 10 they will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say,

“Alas! alas! thou great city,
thou mighty city, Babylon!
In one hour has thy judgment come.”

11 And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, 12 cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble,13 cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls.

14 “The fruit for which thy soul longed has gone from thee,
and all thy dainties and thy splendor are lost to thee, never to be found again!”

15 The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from her, will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud,

16 “Alas, alas, for the great city
that was clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet,
bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls!
17 In one hour all this wealth has been laid waste.”

And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off18 and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning,

“What city was like the great city?”

19 And they threw dust on their heads, as they wept and mourned, crying out,

“Alas, alas, for the great city
where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth!
In one hour she has been laid waste.
20 Rejoice over her, O heaven,
O saints and apostles and prophets,
for God has given judgment for you against her!”

21 Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying,

“So shall Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence,
and shall be found no more;
22 and the sound of harpers and minstrels, of flute players and trumpeters,
shall be heard in thee no more;
and a craftsman of any craft
shall be found in thee no more;
and the sound of the millstone
shall be heard in thee no more;
23 and the light of a lamp
shall shine in thee no more;
and the voice of bridegroom and bride
shall be heard in thee no more;
for thy merchants were the great men of the earth,
and all nations were deceived by thy sorcery.
24 And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints,
and of all who have been slain on earth.”

  1. Shanks, Hershel. “The Destruction of Pompeii—God’s Revenge?.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Jul/Aug 2010, 60-67, 77. Available on-line to BAS Library members who have access to this and the entire archive of BAS for a modest annual fee: []



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Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs, Beans, or Pancakes?

Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs, Beans, or Pancakes?

According to our earliest source the one known as “John the Baptist,” (literally “John the Dipper”) followed a strict ascetic lifestyle reflected most prominently in his austere dress and diet:

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6; cf. Matthew 3:4).

We also read in a earlier source now embedded in Luke and Matthew, that John, in contrast to Jesus, came “neither eating nor drinking,” or “neither eating bread nor drinking wine.” Such phrases indicate the lifestyle of one who is strictly vegetarian, avoids even bread since it has to be processed from grain, and shuns all alcohol (Luke 7:33-34; Matthew 11:18-19).

The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus recounts the execution of John the Baptist at the desert fortress of Macherus by Herod Antipas in his work Jewish Antiquities, see the passage here.[1] According to Josephus, Herod’s main motivation was John’s great popularity with the crowds and the possibility that he could lead an insurrection. Mark gives an alternative account, namely that Herod had John beheaded at his birthday celebration, reluctantly, at the urging of his wife Herodias, following the famously provocative dance of her daughter Salome. Herodias was upset that John was openly condemning her marriage to Antipas as adulterous, since she had been originally married to his brother Philip (Mark 6:16-29).

Josephus describes him as “a good man who commanded the Jews to exercise virtue,” but does not specifically comment on his lifestyle in the Greek version of the Antiquitiesthat is our standard text. There is an Old Russian version of Josephus’s Antiquities, usually referred to as “Slavonic Josephus,” that describes John the Baptizer as living on “roots and fruits of the tree” and insists that he never touched bread, much less the flesh of a lamb, even at Passover.[2]

The most commonly held view of John’s diet, based on our text in Mark, is that he atelocusts, a migratory form of the grasshopper of the family Acrididae, still commonly consumed by desert peoples in Arabia. Others have suggested the word translated “locusts” refers to the beans of the carob tree, commonly called “St. John’s bread.” However, the Greek word translated “locusts,” (akris/ακρις) seems to clearly refer to a species of grasshopper. The problem is such eating of “flesh,” even if that of an insect, seems to contradict the sources that emphasize his ascetic vegetarian ideal. Paul, for example, refers to members of the Jesus movement who abstain from eating meat and drinking wine (Roman 14:1-4). We also have traditions that James, the brother of Jesus, practiced a strictly vegetarian lifestyle, which was also common among the Jewish Christian community that became known as the “Ebionites,” see my post here. Somehow “locusts” seem out of place.

A possible solution to this confusion about John’s desert diet is found in the fragments we have of the lost “Gospel of the Ebionites,” as quoted by the 4th-­century Christian writer Epiphanius. The Greek word for locusts is very similar to the Greek word for “honey cake” (enkris/εvκρις) that is used for the “manna” that the Israelites ate in the desert in the days of Moses. If this is the case then John would have eaten a cake of some type, made from a desert plant, similar to the “manna” that the ancient Israelites ate in the desert in the days of Moses. This “bread from heaven” is described as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:8). This kind of “pancake” baked in oil, and sweetened with honey, would then reflect and emulate the ideal holiness of the desert wanderings of Israel when the people had to look to God alone for “daily bread.”

Given ­John’s appearance, diet, and ascetic solitary life, one could not imagine a more counter-cultural figure. ­John’s cultural opposite was Herod Antipas, who eventually had him arrested and beheaded. Jesus had contrasted ­John’s lifestyle with those clothed in soft robes who live luxuriously in kings’ palaces (Luke 7:25). The reference to Herod and his ilk is unmistakable.

  1. The current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has a cover story on the archaeological work that has been done at Macherus and its possible connection to the John the Baptist story, as well as a story on what we know of Herod Antipas, see here. []
  2. See the texts in English here, as well as the translation and analysis of Thackeray in the appendix to the Loeb edition of Josephus []

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