Searching Pagan Mythology

Perhaps the most perplexing view is that the meaning for symbols in the book of Revelation is to be found within the pagan mythology of the reader’s day. This is akin to saying we are to find the jewels of God laying in the bottom of a secular trash can!

Fiorenza says the symbols have a special communicative function in addressing the social world of the original readers, thus opening up a new symbolic world for them. It is our task to uncover that symbolic world.1

A major breakthrough in the scholarly study of Revelation was the recognition of the source and character of its images and narrative patterns. These were not composed freely by the author to comment on the current situation; in other words, they are not primarily allegories invented to comment on current affairs. Further, these images and narrative patterns were not simply borrowed from the “Old Testament” and cannot be understood fully in terms of such borrowing. They can be understood appropriately and in depth only in the context of [Ancient Near East] and Greco-Roman myth.2

What is all the more amazing is the tendency of some to understand the symbols of the book in light of pagan myth despite clear parallels to OT passages:3

Not only are we urged to look to secular sources for important meaning, but secular sources for which today we only have fragmentary evidence as to their original contents at the time of John’s writing. If we are dependent upon cultural writings which are mostly lost to history for a complete understanding of Scripture, than what can be said of the self-claims of Scripture as being sufficient?

As has been recognized by some, this supposed dependence upon pagan mythology is largely an a priori assumption and has not been clearly demonstrated. Commenting on the unlikelihood of crowns representing a victor (rather than a royal ruler) in the Apocalypse, Trench observes: “nowhere else in the Apocalypse is there found a single image drawn from the range of heathen antiquity. The Book moves exclusively in the circle of Jewish imagery.”4 In regard to the various and ingenious explanations for the “white stone” of Rev. Rev. 2:17+, Trench observes:

All these explanations, and others which it would be tedious to enumerate, even if they were more satisfactory, and they appear to me most unsatisfactory, are affected with the same fatal weakness, namely, that they are borrowed from heathen antiquity, while this Book moves exclusively within the circle of sacred, that is, of Jewish, imagery and symbols, nor is the explanation of its symbols in any case to be sought beyond this circle.5

Even some who have devoted immense effort and time in an attempt to understand the dependence of material within the book of Revelation upon the social setting of the day candidly admit the tentative nature of their case.6

We concur with Unger: “The importation of mythological identifications with pagan deities or astrological lore . . . is not only futile but sacrilegious.”7


1 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 15.

2 Adela Yarbro Collins, “Book of Revelation,” in David Noel Freeman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1996, c1992), 5:704.

3 “John painted verbal pictures in such a way as to ring bells in the minds of his readers, many of whom were former pagans and would have been familiar with some of these myths; he did so partly to put his readers’ mythological background into biblical perspective. John can utilize even legends in order to conduct polemics against the ungodly world that formulates the myths. For example, the ‘seven heads’ in Rev. Rev. 12:3+ appears to come not from the OT, but from cosmological traditions depicting the seven-headed sea monster Lotan.”—Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 18.

4 Richard Chenevix Trench, Commentary on the Epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1861), 110.

5 Ibid., 129-130.

6 “The strength of the whole case is in the whole argument. Many parts are acknowledged to be tentative, if only because the fragmentary nature of the evidence precludes a false dogmatism. . . . The fragmentary state of the evidence in fact needs to be strongly emphasized.”—Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 7. “The objection may be raised that the whole thesis of this book proceeds from the assumptions about the local applicability which may simply not be true. It may be said that a caution in the particular is here combined with an unjustified overconfidence about the legitimacy of the whole undertaking.”—Ibid., 22.

7 Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002), Dan. 8:10.