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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access September 9, 2021

Intimations of Revelation 19–21 in the Early North African Christian Communities

  • Martina Vercesi EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Theology


The purpose of this article is to provide a survey of the interpretation of Revelation 19–21 in the early North African Christian communities (II–III century). These chapters refer to one of the most controversial passages of John’s Apocalypse (the eschatological war, the millennial kingdom, and the descent of the New Jerusalem). After a brief methodological reflection, the article will investigate how these chapters were interpreted not only in the early Latin authors but also how this material was employed in martyrdom accounts as well. The study, in fact, will begin with the first Latin document of Christian literature, the Acta Martyrum Scilitanorum, followed by the corpus of Tertullian, the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, and the writings of Cyprian.

The purpose of this article is to offer an overview of the interpretation of chapters 19–21 of the Book of Revelation in the early North African Christian communities (II–III century).[1] In wider scholarship, attention to the interpretation of Revelation has mainly focused on individual works, above all the commentaries (the ones of Victorinus of Poetovio, Tyconius, Andrew of Caesarea, etc.), while fewer studies achieve a chronological or detailed examination of the reception of this book in the early Christian communities.[2] Along these lines, it is my intention to take steps in this direction, by analysing one of the most disputed passages in the whole book of Revelation[3] within the early Christian communities of Roman Africa. Thereby I aim to provide insights on the interpretation and exegesis of these chapters which could open further development in the study and comprehension of Revelation.

The motive in choosing Revelation 19–21 consists in its presentation of one of the highest eschatological climaxes; it describes the return of Christ and the eschatological war, the millennial kingdom, and the descent of the New Jerusalem. In contrast to the reluctant acceptance of Revelation in the eastern part of the Roman empire (which entails above all the question about chiliasm, referring to chapter 20), in the West Revelation played a significant role in the exegesis of many Latin authors.[4] In this perspective, this article aims to investigate how the first Christian communities of Roman Africa understood chapters 19–21 of John’s Apocalypse and their proposed exegesis.[5]

Before entering the core analytical section, a methodological excursus is necessary; in this study, not only exact quotations of Rev 19–21 will be considered, but also allusions that could be useful for understanding the impact of these chapters in the North African tradition.[6] This is particularly important if one considers the “nature” of the book of Revelation itself. As Bauckham stresses, “it should be clear that the images of Revelation are symbols with evocative power inviting imaginative participation in the book’s symbolic world […] the astonishingly meticulous composition of the book creates a complex network of literary cross-references, parallels, contrasts, which inform the meaning of the parts and the whole.”[7]

The first document to take into account is a martyrdom record which is extremely significant, given that it is the first evidence of the Latin Christian tradition. The Acta martyrum Scilitanorum [8] reports the trial that involved the Roman proconsul Vigellius Saturninus and a group of Christians,[9] which took place in Carthage on 17 July 180. In a brief dialogue, Saturninus tries to persuade the Christians to return to the Roman bona mens,[10] however, they bluntly refuse, professing the nomen Christianorum. In the final lines, the sentence of death is announced.

From the outset, the reader notes the contrast between Saturninus and Speratus (the spokesman of the martyrs), which draws attention to the act through which the Christians should provide evidence that they have returned to the mos maiorum: the oath to the Roman emperor.[11] The proconsul expresses the request with the following words: “If you begin to malign our sacred rites, I will not listen to you. But swear rather by the genius of our lord the emperor.”[12] Speratus’s reply, nevertheless, does not imply any repentance; on the contrary, it belies a strong contrast: “I do not recognize the imperial authority of this world. […] for I recognize my lord, the king of kings and the emperor of all nations.”[13]

Although the same title “emperor” (imperator) occurs, there is no doubt that the two men are referring to two distinct authorities; in the case of Vigellius, the reference is to the Roman emperor, whereas Speratus refers to God.[14] Besides, in Speratus’ answer, a reference to Rev 19:16 could be revealed. The last phrase, “the king of kings and the emperor of all nations” (regem regum et imperatorem omnium gentium), in fact, is a probable allusion to the description of Jesus found in Revelation 19:16: “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”[15] The first part is identical, while the second presents the same structure, that is, a title followed by a genitive. If an allusion to Revelation could be identified here,[16] one can hypothesise that the redactor of the text of the Acta knew the text of Revelation and chose the term imperatorem to stress the contrast between the Roman Emperor and the “real” one. Moreover, assuming an allusion to Rev 19:16, imperatorem would not refer generally to the Christian authority, but it would imply a specific role.

In this regard, Gregory Beale’s “The Origin of the Title ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ in Revelation 17.14” points out that the closest expression of “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Bασιλεὺς βασιλέων καὶ κύριος κυρίων) found in the Old Testament is Dan 4:37 LXX (“He is the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords and the King of the Kings”[17]), claiming that:

The Christological title of Rev 17:14 has its origin in the divine title of Dan 4.37 (LXX). By the application of this title to Christ, the author may view God’s sovereign humbling of the King of Babylon in Dan 4 as a typological prophecy of Christ’s sovereign defeat of the end-time foe who is closely associated with eschatological Babylon. No doubt, the use of this divine title from Daniel is merely another way in which the author of Revelation expresses the absolute deity and kingship of the messianic Lamb.[18]

If one looks at the occurrences in Revelation of this phrase, it can be noted that this title is present in two significant contexts; the first one (17:14) is the anticipation of the victory of the Lamb over the kings of the earth, while the second one (19:16) is found in the description of the eschatological Christ prepared for the final battle. If we do recognise an allusion to Revelation here, Speratus’s statement not only points to what was considered by Christians to be the ultimate authority, but it also marked the fact that this authority remained under the assumption that Jesus was approaching the final battle, which manifested the final cosmic overturning at the end of the days.

The Acta briefly analysed shows an allusion to Rev 19:16, highlighting the author’s prospective aim to contrapose the Roman empire and the realm of God, which is accessible through the sacrifice of martyrdom, as in the last words of this text which said: “Today we are martyrs in heaven.”[19] These words recall one of the first treatises of Tertullian, Ad Martyras, in which the author talks about the heavenly rewards accomplished through the act of martyrdom: “You are about to pass through a noble struggle, in which the living God acts the part of superintendent, in which the Holy spirit is your trainer, in which the prize is an eternal crown of angelic essence, citizenship in the heavens, glory everlasting.”[20] Tertullian is conveniently, the next author under investigation. Two aspects of his theology need to be mentioned before looking at the occurrences of Revelation 19–21 within his corpus.[21] The first one, which Pelikan has already stressed, is the huge impact of eschatological thought in Tertullian’s corpus;[22] this author shares the eschatological hope of the second coming of Christ and expresses the conviction that the end of time was imminent.[23] In addition, the eschatological dimension of Tertullian’s thought is also related to two influences: millenarianism[24] and the so-called “New Prophecy.”[25]

The weight of these traditions is still discussed in the scholarly debate, and regarding the influence of Montanism it became customary to classify the works of this author as “pre-” and “post-Montanist” according to the date of his conversion (207/208),[26] which seems though too rigid for an analysis about the reception of Scripture (Revelation in this case); the eschatological motif, in fact, is present since the beginning of Tertullian’s literary production. Furthermore, the influence of millenarianism can be attributed to Revelation; the description of the millennium and the reign of the saints stem from there as the analysis of the passages will show.[27]

The belief in God’s kingdom, which will be fully manifested at the end of days, is mentioned in two passages. In the last chapter of De spectaculis, written between 197 and 202,[28] Tertullian narrates the overturning of human fate. While Romans enjoy the shows which are forbidden for Christians while on the earth, Christians themselves will enjoy the real spectacle when the kingdom of God will come. The description combines elements taken from Revelation 19–21:[29] the resurrection of saints (20:4.6), and the New Jerusalem coming from heaven (21:2.10).

But what a spectacle is already at hand – the return of the Lord, now no object of doubt, now exalted, now triumphant! What exultation will that be of the angels, what glory that of the saints as they rise again! What the reign of the righteous thereafter! What a city, the New Jerusalem![30]

Some years later, in the third book of the treatise Adversus Marcionem,[31] Tertullian talks again about the kingdom promised by God:

But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem, let down from heaven, which the apostle also calls our mother from above; and, while declaring that our politeuma, or citizenship, is in heaven, he predicates of it that it is really a city in heaven. This both Ezekiel had knowledge of and the Apostle John beheld. And the word of the new prophecy which is a part of our belief, attests how it foretold that there would be for a sign a picture of this very city exhibited.[32]

Furthermore, it is worth outlining that in the passage of Adv. Marc. Tertullian quotes his sources, mentioning Revelation. In my opinion, both passages recall the series of events of Revelation and express the eschatological end awaited by Christians.[33]

Another significant interesting passage is found in the treatise De carnis resurrectione, dated to the years 211–213.[34] In chapter 25, the author refers explicitly to Revelation with the expression “In the Revelation of John”:

In the Revelation of John, again, the order of these times is spread out to view, which the souls of the martyrs are taught to wait for beneath the altar, whilst they earnestly pray to be avenged and judged: (taught, I say, to wait), in order that the world may first drink to the dregs the plagues that await it out of the vials of the angels, and that the city of fornication may receive from the ten kings its deserved doom, and that the beast Antichrist with his false prophet may wage war on the Church of God; and that, after the casting of the devil into the bottomless pit for a while,[35] the blessed prerogative of the first resurrection may be ordained from the thrones; and then again, after the consignment of him to the fire, that the judgment of the final and universal resurrection may be determined out of the books.[36]

Numerous are the passages from Revelation alluded to in this brief section: the souls of the martyrs under the altar asking for God’s revenge (6:9–11), the reference to the plagues (15:7; 16:1; 17:1), Babylon destined to perish (17:12), the beast with the antichrist which moves war against the church (19:19–20), the devil put into the pit before the first resurrection (20:2–5),[37] and, lastly, the final judgment (20:9.14). Tertullian amalgamates various passages from Revelation; the future resurrection of the body claimed in this treatise finds the scriptural reference precisely in John’s Apocalypse, which provides the author the series of events that, from the martyrs’ request for revenge, culminates to the first resurrection and the final judgment.[38]

The last passage worth mentioning is taken from Scorpiace,[39] a reflection on martyrdom, where Tertullian again mixes elements derived from Revelation:

Then to every conqueror the Spirit promises now the three of life, and exemption from the second death;[40] now the hidden manna with the stone of glistering whiteness, and the name unknown (to every man save him that receiveth it); now power to rule with a rod of iron, and the brightness of the morning star; now the being clothed in white raiment, and not having the name blotted out of the book of life, and being made in the temple of God a pillar with the inscription on it of the name of God and of the Lord, and of the heavenly Jerusalem; now a sitting with the Lord on his throne, which once was persistently refused to the sons of Zebedee.[41]

The description of the future glory of martyrs contains several allusions to Revelation: the winner will gain the tree of life and the absolution from the second death (2:7), the name unknown (2:17), the book of life (3:5), the New Jerusalem (3:12; 21:2), which will occur as a reward.[42] In the subsequent passage, Tertullian goes on with another reference to John’s Apocalypse quoting verses 6:9–11, where the martyrs under the altar ask for revenge. The references to Revelation here were useful to provide support to Christians during the persecution and show them the heavenly rewards. As it has been stressed: “In the expectation and hope of the martyrs the eschatological fulfilment is anticipated.”[43] Tertullian, in fact, after these scriptural references underlines that: “Who, pray, are these so blessed conquerors, but martyrs in the strict sense of the word? For indeed theirs are the victories whose also are the fights; theirs, however, are the fights whose also is the blood.”[44]

Chapters 19–21 seem to find an authoritative role in Tertullian’s writings; starting from De spectaculis, Revelation is employed to shape the eschatological picture of the last events both for martyrs and all Christians. Tertullian quotes and alludes to the Apocalypse of John to announce what will happen at the end of the days. Moreover, Revelation is a source to support martyrs during the persecution (Scorpiace). A literal interpretation of the Apocalypse could also be retrieved in the production of Tertullian; as seen in Adversus Marcionem, the author expresses the belief in a terrestrial kingdom of a thousand years, using the same passages to portray the final events in contraposition to the Roman shows (De spectaculis). Finally, a literal interpretation is also present in the hope of the resurrection of the body (De carnis resurrectione).

References to Revelation 19–21 are found in another martyrdom account: The Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis. This document reports the events of a group of martyrs who, after being imprisoned, were condemned ad bestias in the amphitheatre in Carthage during the shows celebrating the birthday of Geta, the son of the regent Emperor, on 7 March 203.[45] This Passio gathered three different voices; two martyrs narrate first-person accounts of their experience (Vibia Perpetua, ch. 3–10, a woman from noble origin and Saturus, ch. 11–3, the catechumen), and the external editor who composes the introduction (1–2) and provides the narration of the martyrdom (14–21).

This Passio retains a rich imaginary derived from the book of Revelation, and a few citations can be recognized.[46] The world of John’s Apocalypse is reflected, especially, in the visions of the martyrs. The first vision narrated is the one of Perpetua, who dreams about a ladder going up to heaven, whose sides present iron weapons. On its base, Perpetua sees a dragon which possibly recalled that of John’s Apocalypse:

And beneath this ladder there lay a serpent of wondrous size, who set traps for the climbers and frightened them into not climbing.[47]

The dragon here evoked that of chapters 12 and 20 of the book of Revelation, which represent the eschatological enemy.[48] In addition, it is worth noticing that Perpetua, in order to climb the ladder, treads upon its head (calcavi illi caput [49]), which is a reminiscence of Genesis 3:15. This vision shares meaningful similarities to the following incident in chapter 10, where Perpetua dreams about a fight with an Egyptian. Perpetua is victorious over him by repeating the same action she did with the dragon: calcavi illi caput. [50] This repetition is not accidental since the Egyptian represents the dragon who is the enemy.[51] In this vision, one can clearly see Perpetua imagining her martyrdom, which could be considered the transposition of the final battle narrated in Revelation 19–21.[52] This association is also made explicit at the end of the account, when the woman states: “And I understood that I would not go to the beasts but would fight against the devil. But I knew that victory would be mine.”[53] Likewise, the connection between the serpent of Genesis and the dragon of the Apocalypse stresses the martyrdom as the conclusion of the world (beginning with Genesis and ending in Revelation).

The other allusions of John’s Apocalypse are found in chapters 11 and 12, which present the vision of Saturus,[54] who dreams about the martyrs after they experience death in the arena. Four angels take the souls and bring them into paradise (11). Then, Perpetua and Saturus stand in front of a marvellous palace made in light:

And we came near a place, whose walls seemed to have been built out of light. And before the door of that place stood four angels, who clothed those who entered in white robes.[55]

The light of the palace seems to recall the light of the New Jerusalem as it is described in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation.[56] Further, this vision presents many traits taken from Revelation as Mazzucco has highlighted:[57] for example, Perpetua and Saturus worn “white robes” (stolas candidas), as in the first vision of Perpetua (4,8), which obviously recalls the robe of the martyrs. Heffernan also clarifies that in the expression “with his hands he stroked our faces” (de manu sua traiecit nobis in faciem) remembers the act of God who will wipe away tears (Rev 7:17 which has a parallel in verse 21:4).[58]

In this document, the use of the book of Revelation is manifested in the visions of the martyrs; thus, chapters 19–21 offered the martyrs the chance to foresee what will happen once they sacrifice themselves in the arena.[59] In this regard, it is worth observing another detail of the Passio. In chapter 17, the day before the show in the arena, the martyrs would gather for the last meal (cenam ultimam) and Saturus says to the people who were observing them: “Is tomorrow not enough for you? Why do you gladly see what you hate? Today friends, tomorrow enemies. Nevertheless, take a close look at our faces, that you might recognize us when the day comes.”[60] Saturus reminds the crowd that the judgment that Christians will endure in the arena will be overturned when the Christians themselves will be precisely the ones who will judge at the end of the days.[61] The roles that were overturned recall what we have already seen in the Acta Martyrum Scilitanorum and Tertullian (De spectaculis 30);[62] what is happening now on earth will ultimately be overthrown on the last day.[63]

The last author considered is one of the most important Latin writers of North African Christianity: Cyprian, elected bishop of Carthage in 249.[64] Cyprian lived under very harsh times for his community; he had to deal with the Decian persecution (250), which carried the problem of the lapsi, the schism in 251, and the plague of 252–4. He died as a martyr in 258, and the account of his interrogation and his death was then recalled by the deacon Pontius and transmitted to us as the Acta Cypriani. The difficulties experienced surely had an influence on Cyprian’s Weltanschauung. He shares, in fact, the Stoic view of the senectus mundi [65] and the fact the end was fast approaching (De mortalitate 25).[66]

In his study, Gallicet claims that, although the quotations of the book of Revelation employed by Cyprian are numerous, their use does not concern eschatological issues but rather general teachings for Christians.[67] This is the case for example with some passages of Rev 19–21 used in the treatise Ad Quirinum which is a florilegium of scriptural quotations.[68] Meiser, however, has highlighted those allusions/quotations from John’s Apocalypse conserve some eschatological traits, for example, in connection with the fate of martyrs.[69] In this regard, it is worth analysing a passage of Ad Fortunatum (de exhortation martyrii). This work, written in the year 257,[70] aims to offer a scriptural guide that could help Christians during the difficult period of persecution. In chapter 12, at the end of the treatise, Cyprian describes the rewards gained through martyrdom:

In the Apocalypse also he says the same thing: “And I saw,” said he, “the souls of them that were slain for the name of Jesus and the word of God.” And when he had placed those who were slain in the first place, he added, saying: “And whosoever had not worshipped the image of the beast, neither had received his mark upon their forehead or in their hand”; all these he joins together, as seen by him at one time in the same place, and says “And they lived and reigned with Christ.” He says that all live and reign with Christ, not only who have been slain; but even whosoever, standing in firmness of the faith and in the fear of God, have not worshipped the image of the beast, and have not consented to his deadly and sacrilegious edicts.[71]

In this passage, Cyprian cites Rev 20:4, but a few things need to be highlighted here. First of all, Cyprian uses the Latin verb occisorum to render the Greek term πεπελεκισμένων. It is noteworthy that Cyprian uses this verb not only for verse 20:4 but also for 6:9 (Ad Quirinum III,16, De lapsis 18, De bono patientiae 21). The Greek text used two different verbs related to the martyrs. In the case of verse 6:9, in fact, there is the verb ἐσφαγμένων derived from σφάζω, which means “slay, slaughter,”[72] whereas in the case of 20:4 there is πεπελεκισμένων, derived from πελεκίζω which means “cut off with an axe, behead.”[73] On the one hand, it is possible that Cyprian decided to simplify the text (or maybe his version of the Bible retains this variant reading[74]); on the other hand, he may simply have wanted to establish a robust correspondence between the two verses and thus between the people described there; the martyrs who will participate in the Kingdom of God are, in fact, precisely those of verse 6:9.

In chapter 21 of the treatise De bono patientiae, Cyprian writes that Christians should await the day of vengeance, using the words of Revelation 6:9–11:

And when he had opened, says he, the fifth seal, I saw under the altar of God the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for their testimony; and they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?[75]

Martyrs had to wait “until the number of their fellow-servants and brethren is fulfilled, who afterwards shall be slain after their example” which could mean their fate in the millenarian kingdom of 20:4–6. As stressed by Eugenio Corsini, in fact, the millennial kingdom is a follow-up of what has been said in the fifth seal.[76] The idea of the promised kingdom is also reflected in another treatise, De dominica oratione, a comment on the Lord’s Prayer, dated to the years 251–252:[77]

Through the mercy of God we have been spiritually remade and so, when we are reborn, let us imitate what we are destined to become. For since, in the Kingdom, we shall have the day alone, without the interruption of the night, let us keep nocturnal vigil as though in the light. And since we shall pray constantly and give thanks to God, let us not cease here likewise to pray and to give thanks.[78]

In this context, it seems that Cyprian retains the imagery of the Apocalypse to refer to the kingdom awaited by the Christians, in which there will not be the night. The expression, in fact, recalls Rev 21:23–5.[79]

Although Gallicet stressed that Cyprian does not use Revelation as a prophecy of the last events,[80] I think it is worth outlining that, as far as chapters 19–21 are concerned, the Christological employment finds a place in the treatise Ad Quirinum, whereas in the other treatises, Cyprian employs these chapters in an eschatological sense. In the context of martyrs’ rewards (Ad Fortunatum), and to picture the last events in the other two cases, in De bono patientiae, the quotation of Revelation is inserted in a chapter where the author stresses the importance to wait for the judgment and the day of vengeance.[81] And finally, in De dominica oratione, at the very end of the treatise, Cyprian’s exhortation to pray opens the perspective of the future; the chance to foresee the Kingdom. As Hamman argues: “From here we repeat our eternity role. Vigilance gives prayer its eschatological dimension.”[82]

In conclusion, my analysis of the reception of chapters 19–21 of the book of Revelation has emphasised how these chapters recurred in the early Christian Latin authors describing the last events. Moreover, I think it is possible to say that John’s Apocalypse was authoritative in these communities and there is also a continuity for the fact that all documents analysed present quotations and/or allusions in two contexts: overall, Tertullian, the martyrs in the Passio Perpetuae and Cyprian articulate a similar description of the end of times using images and symbols taken from John’s Apocalypse, and, specifically, Revelation recur to sustain martyrs during persecution.

Hence, the importance of that theme in martyrdom literature should be noted, although in this kind of document, more allusions rather than quotations are found.[83] In particular, Revelation gives the martyrs the occasion to interpret their painful reality in view of the eschatological reward. Habermehl rightly observes and concludes concerning the vision of Saturus: “Saturus’ face demonstrated how God’s promise to the martyrs is fulfilled; as already assured in Revelation (6:9; 20:4), right after death, martyrs enter heaven.”[84]

This brief analysis on the early interpretation of Rev 19–21 in North African Christian communities opens additional reflections as stressed in the introduction. Particularly, the authoritative place seen in the North African Christian communities could be a starting point for the comparison to other communities’ reception of these chapters and their interpretation. Moreover, the path traced here should be expanded with the examination of later authors to fully understand how the exegesis of these chapters found a place in North African Christianity.

  1. Funding information: This publication has been financed by Carlsberg Foundation, grant number CF19-0832.

  2. Conflict of interest: Author states no conflict of interest.


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Received: 2021-05-14
Revised: 2021-07-08
Accepted: 2021-07-26
Published Online: 2021-09-09

© 2021 Martina Vercesi, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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