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Pattern Recognition in the Apocalypse

Chapter 6

The Four Horsemen

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The Four Horsemen


The symbolism is drawn from the Old Testament but modified to carry a radically new meaning. Zechariah had two visions, one of four chariots,  1    but both were sent out only to patrol the earth and to report on its peaceful condition; and the different colours of the horses correspond to the different winds or points of the compass (Zech.1.8-11, 6.1-8). But in John’s vision the four colours indicate a difference of commission and the emergence of each new rider betoken the release of a new disaster on earth: the victory of the gospel (a disaster for Judaism), the Herodian persecution, famine and the last horseman an intensification of all the previous. The heavenly voice which says, “come!” is not calling disasters into existence, rather the voice is declaring that nothing can now happen (not even the most fearsome evidence of man’s disobedience and its nemesis) which cannot be woven into the pattern of God’s gracious purpose. Because Christ now reigns from the cross onwards; even when the four horsemen ride out on their destructive missions they do so as emissaries of his redemptive love.


First Seal - White Horse


“And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. 2 And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer”.(Rev 6.1)


This seal represents the victorious course of the gospel by the rider on the white horse. Some commentators contend that as the other seals represent judgments against Israel, especially with the last horsemen acting as a kind of summary, or epitome of all the others (to kill by sword, famine, plague and wild beasts), the first seal must therefore be similar in character. Moreover a crown, ‘was given’ (edothe) to the rider, a word frequently associated with divine permission to carry out retributive judgments.  2    

Rev 6 Rev 19

- white horse

- white horse

- had a bow

- out of his mouth a sharp sword

- given a crown

- many crowns

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The cavalier on the white horse is the Lord Jesus Christ. That the cavalier is awarded a crown before he rides out may be constructed as a promise of victory: he went forth conquering and to conquer. Literally – conquering (overcoming) that he might conquer. This conveys a different meaning i.e., overcoming (his flesh) that he might conquer (his enemies) and compares favourably with the literal translation of Rev.5.5; conquered to open i.e., he overcame his flesh in order to open the book.


Gen 49 Ps 21 Ps 89 Rev


His bow abode in strength and the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty one (R.V.) of Jacob. [v.24]



The King shall joy in thy strength, O Lord [v.1] Thou shalt make ready thy bowstrings against the face of them [v.12]


Mine arm shall also strengthen him [v.21]

Thou hast scattered thine enemies with thine strong arm [v.10]

Who is a mighty one like unto thee, O Yah? [v.8 RV]


He that sat thereon had a bow [6.2]



Blessings of El Shaddy

(= blessing of children)




For thou hast made him most blessed forever [v.4]


His seed also will I make to endure forever



Tribe of Joseph sealed [7.8]


They shall be on the head of Joseph, And on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren [v.26]


Thou settest a crown of pure gold on his head [v.3]



A crown of gold was given him [v.2]


The bow and the crown are both featured in the blessing of Joseph  3     which stresses the blessing of children. Psalm 89, (a Hezekiah Psalm that contemplates the annulment of the covenant because the King is about to die without an heir) has similar themes. Psalm 21 is a coronation Psalm from the Davidic period.


The “judgement” against Judaism was the expansion of the Gospel and the inclusion of the Gentiles. Joseph – means, “add to me another son” this period sees the persecutions instigated by Saul of Tarsus who was converted on the road to Damascus. The apostle Paul (formerly Saul) was from the tribe of Benjamin (Philip.3.5) and just as his progenitor and namesake Saul had persecuted David in the morning of Israel’s history, so too Paul had persecuted Christ in the evening of Israel’s history (Acts 9.4).

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“Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf: In the morning he shall devour the prey, and at even he shall divide the spoil.”.(Gen 49.27)


“And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. 3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: 4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. ”(Acts 9.1-5)


This persecution was however for a purpose, the proclamation of the gospel to the gentiles was the outcome – God had, ‘added another son’

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Second Seal – Red horse


“And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. 4 And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.”(Rev 6.3-4)


The red horse (πυρρός purrhos) stands for Edom; the first time red is used in the OT (LXX Greek) is for the “red pottage” that Esau the father of the Edomites sold his birthright for in Gen 25.30. The Herodians were Edomites (Greek Idumean) by descent and their opposition to the gospel was prophesied by Malachi.  4     In the Hebrew the unpointed “Edom” and “Adam” are closely related.


The early church suffered under the Herodian dynasty. Herod the Great (reigned 37-4 BCE) sought to murder the messiah and slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem. Herod Antipater (reigned 4 BCE-39 CE) was involved in events that led to the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Herod Agrippa (reigned 41–44 CE) had James (the brother of John) murdered. This seal is specifically about the murder of James the brother of John at the Passover:


“Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. 2 And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. 3 And because he saw it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also. (Then were the days of unleavened bread.)”(Acts 12.1-3)


James and John had both been disciples of the Baptist who had condemned Herod Antipater for his adultery and James the son of Zebedee (brother of John) also condemned the Herod’s:


“Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. 3 Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. 4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”(James 4.2-4)

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The Epistle of James was written by James the brother of John and NOT by James the Just (brother of Jesus).  5     It reflects a time when the church had not yet split from the synagogue – the “parting of the ways” had not happened yet and therefore Christians were still a minority within the synagogue. This explains why James address them as “adulterers” and “murderers” after all, Jewish “Herod” supporters were promoting pseudo-Jews (Edomites)  6     who had killed the Baptist and killed Christ and who were now busy committing adultery. James was directing the same message as John the Baptist at the same “Herod family” (and their supporters) and paid the same ultimate price as the Baptist (beheaded). The gospel of Jesus “took peace way from the earth” (cf. Matt 10.34-39) and resulted in factional infighting and murder as the Jews sought to dominate and extinguish the primitive church.


James himself was killed with the sword (Acts 12.2). Clement of Alexandria has an impressive story, preserved by Eusebius in his church history (2.9), that the man who ‘led James to the Judgment–seat’ (betrayed him? Was chief witness against him?) was so impressed with the apostles’ bearing that he thereupon confessed belief in Christ and was condemned to the same fate. ‘On their way, he entreated James to be forgiven of him; and James, considering a little, replied: “Peace be unto thee”, and kissed him; and then both were beheaded at the same time. The rider on the red horse had come to take away peace on the earth but James, showing the spirit of Christ forgave his persecutor (Stephen cried for Saul’s forgiveness and Christ answered the prayer by converting Saul) and granted him peace. James did indeed drink from his Lord’s cup and suffer the same baptism! (Mtt.20.23)


How strange, and comforting that the apostle John should find himself recording a vision relating to the death of his brother James. The death of James was already an historic event when John received the RED HORSE vision on Patmos. This would have reassured the brethren that the witnessing, persecution and martyrdom of the saints was all part of the divine redemptive purpose - Herod and the Jews may kill and persecute, but God rules in the kingdom of men. The date of these events is precisely fixed by the death of Herod as being the spring of A.D.44.

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Third Seal – Black Horse


“And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. 6 And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.”(Rev 6.5-6)


This is a strange famine indeed, for it does not affect the oil or the wine. During the occasion of the famine in 1Kgs.17, Elijah produced the miracle of the constantly full cruse of oil, which would not fail, “until the Lord send rain upon the earth” (v.14). Later, in 2 Kgs.4.6 he produced a similar miracle for another widow, who was in danger of having her sons sold into bondage (cf. Judaism). The widows are obviously types of the Jews and Gentiles and the oil, is olive oil; “…pure olive oil beaten for the light to burn before the Lord continually.” (Lev.24.2)


This represents the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given for the enlightenment of the ecclesia. The ecclesia at Ephesus was warned that these gifts would be removed (lampstand) unless repentance was forthcoming, but at this juncture in time the oil would not fail. During his flight from the rebellion of Absalom David had been provided with a bottle of wine, “that such as be faint in the wilderness may drink” (2 Sam.16.2). This was the ‘new wine’ (Mk.2.22) of the covenant provided to sustain them in the wilderness wanderings.


Although there was a literal famine during this seal, the Holy Spirit and the breaking of bread would sustain the brethren. The famine conditions are severe; a quart of wheat will cost a day’s wages (a denarius). Agabus the prophet (Acts 11.27-30) warns of a famine throughout the Roman world, which the author of Acts links specifically with the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE and especially severe in 45-46 CE) a period we know from other sources to have been a troubled one.


As Bruce de Winter remarks; “The unearthing of epigraphic evidence relating to the experience of grain shortages has provided insights into a first century situation of civil unrest and benefaction which relates in revealing ways to the actions and motivations of characters in the book of Acts, and the conditions in which they find themselves”.  7     Eusebius Pamphilius   8    in his Church History has the following to say about the famine which took place in the reign of Claudius;

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1.Caius had held the power not quite four years,  9     when he was succeeded by the emperor Claudius. Under him the world was visited with a famine,   10     which writers that are entire strangers to our religion have recorded in their histories.  11     And thus the prediction of Agabus recorded in the Acts of the Apostles,   12    according to which the whole world was to be visited by a famine, received its fulfilment.


2.And Luke, in the Acts, after mentioning the famine in the time of Claudius, and stating that the brethren of Antioch, each according to his ability, sent to the brethren of Judea by the hands of Paul and Barnabas,  13     adds the following account(Acts 11.27-30); “And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. 28 And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29 Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: 30 Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul”.


Margaret Barker comments as follows; ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius and three quarts of barley for a denarius but do not harm the oil and the wine’ are probably the oracle of the Christian prophet Agabus who predicted the great famine in the reign of Claudius (Acts 11.28). The enigmatic words ‘Do not harm the oil and the wine’ were probably rather different in the original. ‘Harm’ here translates the Greek adikeo, but in the LXX, words from this root are used to translate the Hebrew ‘wl which means ‘to act unjustly or unrighteously’ as in Psalm 58.3, Psalm 71.4 or Ezekiel 28.15. The original was probably ‘Do not act unjustly in the matter of the oil and the wine’. Josephus records the original context:


When Claudius was emperor of the Romans and Ismael was our high priest, and when so great a famine was come upon us that one tenth of a measure of wheat was sold for four drachmae and when no less than seventy cori of flour were brought into the temple at the feast of unleavened bread ... not one of the priests was so hardy as to eat one crumb of it, even while so great a distress was upon the land; and this out of dread for the Law and of that wrath which God retains against acts of wickedness ... (Ant. 3.320-21)


‘Do not act unjustly in the matter of the oil and the wine’ was an exhortation to the priests to show similar restraint with regard to the other offerings brought to the temple. They were to act with righteousness. The great famine fulfilled the prophecy of the third seal.  14    


The third seal is also characterised by the Passover revolt under the Roman procurator Ventidius Cumanus (48-52 CE). Josephus informs us that on the day of the feast one of the Roman soldiers, “pulled back his garment and, cowering down after an indecent manner, turned his breech towards the Jews and spake such words as you might expect upon such a posture.” (Jos. Wars 2.12.1) As a consequence a riot ensued in which 10,000 were killed in the crush.

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Fourth Seal – Pale Horse


“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. 8 And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”(Rev 6.7-8)


The language of this passage links inter-textually with Ezek.14.21; “For thus says the Lord God: “How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, famine, evil beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and animal’”. Ezekiel pronounced divine judgments against the land and in particular Jerusalem; the same judgments prophesied by Moses in Lev.26.25-26 --- sword, famine and pestilence is a trio of divine judgment that is directed at Israel in scripture (and no one else).  15     This trio is now expanded with “beasts of the earth” – note the plural “beasts”- in the first century the “beast” was the Roman Empire in the early second century the “beast” (of the earth) was a two-horned lamb. The plural “beasts” indicates continuity with Daniel’s beast-empires. The fourth seal summarises the previous seals and intensifies their judgments. Thus God’s wrath is already seen in the fourth seal—well in advance of the sixth and seventh seals.


The rider of the fourth horse who has the name “Death and Hell” is a personification of the angel of death who is called the destroyer in Rev 9.11.  16     The colour of the horse is χλωρός, chloros (from which chlorophyll is derived) being the greenish pallor of a decaying corpse or diseased flesh.  17     The pale hue is reminiscent of Jer. 30.4-6 where, “all faces are turned into paleness” (ἴκτερον, ikteron) which carries the meaning of jaundice or paleness.  18     Jacob was not saved out of his time of trouble and Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon in 586 BCE, the pattern was set to repeat in 70 CE.


This whole period is defined by, “[…] robbings, rapings and insurrections of the bolder sort… over the whole country.’ (Jos.Wars.2.12.5) During the procuratorship of Antonius Felix (52-60 CE) we have the incident of the Egyptian false prophet who gathered 30,000 people on the Mount of Olives and attempted to expel the Romans by force. This was followed by a band of robbers and insurrectionists who, ‘filled all Judea with their madness and thus the flame was every day more blown up, till it came to direct war’.

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As if this was not bad enough, trouble erupted between the Syrian Greeks and the Jews of Caesarea. The Galilee region was a hotbed of trouble, this was originally the domain of Herod, tetrarch of Galilee – the Romans adopting the term tetrarch from Philip of Macedon, a term meaning a fourth part (power was given over a fourth part of the earth). Later the term was applied to minor dignitaries.


This was also a period of terrorism in which assassins known as sicarri killed prominent people in broad daylight (Jos. Wars. book 2. – read chpt.13). The background to all this civil unrest was the famine that still continued to affect the population until 53-54. Famine is always the precursor to civil unrest and plague. Nero’s reign (54-68) also began during this period (52-59), setting the scene for the horrors to come.

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Fifth Seal –Slain under the altar


“ And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: 10 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? 11 And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellow-servants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled.”(Rev 6.9-11)


“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps.116.15).This period is characterised by the Nero persecution, the death of Paul   19     (64 CE?) and the death of Peter (66 CE?). The persecutors of the ecclesia are called “inhabitants of the earth,” in contrast with those whose citizenship is in heaven. More specifically, the “inhabitants of the earth” refers to the Jews. It was the Jews who caused Paul’s arrest and even the Nero persecution had its roots in Jewish antagonism, for Nero’s wife   20     was a convert to Judaism. The altar is the altar of burnt offering in the heavenly sanctuary.


The incense altar is found in the trumpets (Rev 8.3). Martyrdom of the saints is connected with self–sacrifice in order to “complete that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ” (Col.1.24).


It was during this period that James the Just (the brother of Jesus) was murdered. Margaret Barker says; “When James the Righteous was martyred in 62 CE, Eusebius records that he was stoned and clubbed to death in the temple court. The presence of James the Righteous was believed to protect Jerusalem from the wrath, and so his death left the city in danger as another seal was opened (see pp. 192—4). James was buried where he died, ‘on the spot, by the holy of holies, and his headstone is still there by the holy of holies’ (History 2.23). If James was interred at that spot, he was almost literally under the great altar, which stood in the court of the priests, by the holy of holies”.  21     Christians were blamed for the fire of Rome; Robinson   22     describes the persecution as follows;

But we must return to the evidence of Tacitus, which is important enough to be set out in full. After giving a graphic and detailed description of the ravages of the fire and the immediate relief operations for the temporary re-housing of some hundreds of thousands of homeless (Ann. 15.38-41), he proceeds (15.421.) to describe the rebuilding of the capital to a carefully thought-out plan with built-in fire precautions for the future, together with the construction by Nero of a palace for himself of unrivalled magnificence, the celebrated Domus Aurea. [Described by Suetonius, Nero 31.] Then, in 15.44, he goes on: So far, the precautions taken were suggestedContinued˃

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by human prudence: now means were sought for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the sea-shore, where water was drawn for sprinkling the temple and image of the goddess. Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state. But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts' skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed, were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man.

[Tr. J. Jackson, Loeb Classical Library, 1937. For assessments of the passage by classical scholars, cf. B. W. Henderson, The Life and Principate of the Emperor Nero, 1903, 237-53. 434-49; H. Furneaux, The Annals of Tacitus II, Oxford 1907, 416-27.]




Be sober be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. (1 Peter 5.8)

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The souls under the altar is an allusion to the old covenant ritual of pouring   23     out the blood at the foot of the altar (Lev.1.5, 3.8, 4.25), the reason being that, “the life (nephesh = soul) is in the blood” (Lev.17.11). These martyrs had been “slain for the word of God and the testimony (witness) which they held”. Several commentators, including H.A.W., point out that the souls are under the altar because at some time in the past they have been offered upon it. This view equates the martyrs with the saints of the old covenant, such as Abel, whose blood cries from the ground (Gen.4.10). H.A.W. quotes Matt.23.34-35 to show that from the blood of Abel (in Genesis – the first book in the Hebrew Bible) to Zacharias (2 Chron.24.20-21 – last book in the Hebrew Bible) refers to all the martyrs under the old covenant. The point that requires emphasis here is that all the blood-shed from the foundation of the world would be required from this generation (Lk.11.50). They were encouraged to fill up the measure of their fathers (Mtt.23.32) and they did! The Old Testament saints could not be made perfect until their numbers had been complemented by their New Testament counterparts (Heb.11. 39-40).They were told that they should, “rest for a little season (cf. Daniel 12.13; “..thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of days”). Once again there is every indication that it would only be a short time before their prayer for vengeance would be answered. Is this then a vindictive prayer for personal vengeance? God forbid! They have gone to their death in the confidence that God’s word, attested in the life and death of Jesus, is the ultimate truth; but unless in the end tyranny and other forms of wickedness meet with retribution, that faith is an illusion. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord” and it requires faith to leave matters of justice in the hands of the righteous judge (Deut.32.35, Rom.12.19).


The martyrs had been condemned in a human court of law, and that decision stands against them unless it can be reversed in a higher court. But the heavenly judge cannot declare them to be in the right without at the same time declaring their persecutors to be in the wrong and passing sentence against them. Justice must not only be done; it must seen to be done. The souls under the altar had to wait until their fellow-servants (Gentile Christians) and their brethren (Jewish Christians) which should be killed (even) as they were, should be fulfilled. The living and the dead share the solidarity of the same faith, metaphorically they are not dead at all, for our God is a God of the living not of the dead! Though John writes here about the dead, he does so in the interest of the living, for whom the question of the martyrs’ faith is a question of supreme moment, because they are experiencing the same tribulations. The cry, “How long?” had echoed down centuries of oppression (Ps. 6.3, 13.1; 35.17, 74.9; 79:5, 80.4, 89.46, 90.13, 94.3, Isa. 6.11, Jer. 47.6, Hab.1.2, Zech. 1.2). The cry is particularly pertinent to these fellow-servants and brethren for they are also facing martyrdom.

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Was their cry (prayer) answered? The answer was two-fold; (1) The giving of the book of Revelation in c. 65; (2) The vindication of the martyrs by the destruction of Jerusalem. The parallel between the first century and the future is instructive: During the first century witnessing the cry, “how long” goes forth. They are given the book of Revelation and martyred – their death is followed by a great earthquake (sixth seal).The future witnessing echoes the same cry, “how long?” they are given a little book (10.8), are also killed, and their death is followed by a great earthquake (11.13). “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?” (Luke 8.1-7)

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Sixth seal – great earthquake


“ And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; 13 And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. 14 And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. 15 And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; 16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb: 17 For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?”(Rev 6.12-17)

fig tree cursed

“And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away”. (Matt. 21.19)


The inter-texts for Revelation 6.12-17 is discussed in the digression “Dating Matters”  24     suffice to say that Isaiah 34 (a prophecy about Edom) is used because the Edomite (Idumean) Herod the Great built the temple.


The sixth seal concerns the “wrath of the Lamb” and the, “great day of their (R.V.) wrath”. This is the day of vengeance, in accordance with the prayers of the saints in the previous seal, who ask to be avenged (justified). At the commencement of his ministry Jesus had refused to proclaim the day of vengeance, for he “closed the scroll and gave it back to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were upon him” (Lk.4.20).

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The Lamb breaks all the seals and opens the scroll. The penultimate seal to be opened, is the great day of wrath, it describes the fall of Jerusalem and the end of temple worship – a cataclysmic event in Jewish cultic history. As one scroll is about to be opened, another is about to be closed; for “heaven and earth was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up”. Just as the Lord had closed the scroll in the synagogue, even so now, he again closes the scroll of the Law.


Jesus had warned them in the Olivet prophecy: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt.24.35). Although that whole dispensation would disappear, Christ’s words would still have a future application. This indicates that “heaven and earth” will pass away again, sometime in the future, when it will be replaced with, “a new heaven and earth” (Rev 21.1).


The sixth seal describes the end of an epoch, the closure of the Mosaic dispensation, it is fitting that we receive a vision of the 144,000 sealed at this juncture. The 144,000 sealed are in answer to the question, “who is able to stand?”   25     Indeed, this was terrible, but deserved retribution; for what will the Lord of the vineyard do? “He will miserably destroy those wicked men and let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons” (Mtt.21.41 and this sentence came from their own mouths!) Jesus pronounced that – “there shall be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people” (Lk.21.23).


The Lord found no figs on the tree and cursed it (Matt.21:19-20) he had sought fruit on the tree for three years and finding none, ordered it cut down. The vinedresser begged his Lord for one last chance; “Lord let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit well; but if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down” (Lk.13.6-9).The fig tree in the sixth seal was already withered and dry and its immature fruit ready to drop. “Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” For if they do these things (i.e. arrest and crucify Christ) when the tree is green, what shall be done when it is dry?” (Lk.23.28-31) These words were spoken by Christ to the ‘daughters of Jerusalem on his way to the cross, in so doing he paraphrased Hosea 10:8, which he repeats in Revelation 6:14-15: “…every mountain and island were moved out of their places….to the mountains and rocks fall on us, and hide us…”

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The metaphor of the most stable features of the world, such as mountains, islands, coastlands, “shaken” and “moved” occurs in the context of divine theophany or divine judgment (Judg.5.5, Ps.18.7 [LXX 17.7], 46.2-3, Isa.5.25, 54.10, 64.1, Jer.4.24, Ezk.26.18, 38.20, Mic.1.4, Nah.1.5, Hab.1.6, Zech. 14.4). This shaking is referred to in Hebrews; “And this word, yet once more signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain” (Heb.12.27). The mountain represents the temple mount (Mtt.21.21 – this passage also mentions the fig tree) and the island represents Masada, Herod’s fortress, which rocky prominence was isolated like an island in a sea of sand. This fortress in the Negev desert was the last bastion of Jewish resistance, where nearly a thousand Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. The etymology of the word Masada probably comes from the Hebrew word foundation, but this house was built on a foundation of sand; “...and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell, and great was the fall of that house” (Matt.7.27). Isaiah reflects the terror of these judgments and confirms that this is a judgement against Judah and Jerusalem (Isa.2.1);

Rev 6.16 Isa 2.19

from the presence of

from the presence of

the one seated on the throne

the fear of the Lord

and from the wrath

and from the glory

of the Lamb

of his might

shaken of a mighty wind (v.14)

to shake terribly the earth


“The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day’’ (Isa.2:11). Isaiah 34.1-5 also forms part of the woven Revelation context:


Isa 34 Rev 6

The host of heaven dissolve

heaven and earth shall pass away

The heavens rolled up like a scroll

heaven rolled up like a scroll

All their host shall fall down

the stars of heaven fall to earth

As leaves fall from the fig tree

fig tree, casting unripe figs

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The History of the Jewish War


The great earthquake covers the seven-year period of the Jewish war, starting in 66½ CE when Roman soldiers looted Jerusalem and it was consequently seized by Zealots. The Romans sent reinforcements from Syria who were defeated by the Zealots. In the meantime the Jews began fighting amongst themselves, there being three different factions within Jerusalem. In 67 CE Vespasian who was Nero’s general landed at Antioch and received the submission of the Jews of Sepphoris. The Jewish garrison of Jodepath was massacred after a two month siege, and by the end of 67 the Romans had overcome Jewish resistance in Galilee. In 68 a revolt broke out in Italy against Nero, who committed suicide. Civil war raged in Rome as one military leader after another tried to gain control of the city and the Empire.  26     Vespasian suspended the siege against Jerusalem and withdrew. This was seen by the Jews as divine intervention – the city was invincible. Huge numbers of Jewish pilgrims came up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover - the first century Christians, however, heeded the Lord’s warning (Matt.24.15-21) and fled Jerusalem, for they knew that no deliverance would be forthcoming – the siege was about to start in earnest. Vespasian was proclaimed emperor at Alexandria then left for Rome to restore order, leaving his son Titus in charge of the siege. The horrors now began in earnest, with the population of Jerusalem swollen for the Passover. Titus arrived a few days before the feast in 70. As the siege wore on, the horrors of famine, and even cannibalism, were added to the dangers of the war. The vicious internal fighting amongst the Jews caused them to burn the city’s store of grain, stockpiled to withstand the siege. Joseph’s comments; “Yet did God avenge himself upon them, in a manner agreeable to justice” and “the Romans slew some of them, some they carried captives, and others they made search for underground, and when they found where they were, they broke up the ground and slew all they met with.” (Jos.Wars.6.9.4) They were indeed hiding in the labyrinth of tunnels under the Temple; the temple mount literally fell on them (‘to the mountains fall on us! Cover us!’). Archaeologists have recently found the bones of people who had taken refuge in water tunnels beneath the streets and had been sealed up there by the Romans. Even though the Romans met no further opposition when they did enter the upper city three weeks later, they engaged in wholesale slaughter, rape and looting. In April 73CE the last Jewish resistance was crushed by the Romans.

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Masada was the last island of resistance and was surrounded by the Romans. The prominence upon which the fortress is built even looks like an island stranded in a sea of sand; “And every mountain (Mt Zion) and island (Masada) was moved out of their places (Rev.6.14). At Masada the last defenders killed themselves (after first killing their wives and their children) death being preferable to slavery. Masada, the first Roman garrison to be captured by the Zealots in 66 was the last to fall – seven years later on the day after Passover. (Jos.Wars.10.9.1.).


Gentry  27    describes the situation as follows;“The evidence for the awfulness of the destruction is not based solely upon documentary testimony from Josephus, but it is also well-evidenced archaeologically:


The recent excavations have provided striking evidence of Titus’s destruction. . . .In the destruction of these buildings, walls were razed, paving stones torn up, and the drain clogged with material firmly dated to the last part of the century by the pottery. In the drain were human skulls and other bones, washed down from the ruined city higher up the slope.


Even more dramatic were the finds in Site N, the area in which the fine street of Herod Agrippa was uncovered. Reference has already been made to the collapse of the staircase leading east from the street (p. 165). The tumble of stones was remarkable even for Jerusalem where tumbles of stones are a phenomenon all too common in excavations. The magnitude of the disaster perhaps made a special impact owing to the excellence of the destroyed buildings as shown by the magnificently-dressed stones, and the period of the collapse was very precisely pin-pointed by the discovery at its base of a hoard of coins of the First Revolt, hidden by defenders who could not recover them before the city was overwhelmed by Titus. Even more indicative of the complete desolation of this area that had formed part of the city of Herod Agrippa was the state of the ruins. . . . It was two centuries or more before human activity began once more to make its mark in the whole area of ancient Jerusalem.  28     Of Titus’s final siege, it can be asserted that “the ensuing slaughter and destruction were terrible.”   29     The land after the war was devastated; the Roman troops settled in as a policing presence: “When Titus departed after his capture of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the city was in ruins, and the Xth Legion Fretensis was left to control the ruins.”  30     Consequently, upon     Continued  ˃

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the A.D. 95-96 hypothesis, there would be no need for the angels protectively to seal Christians from the devastation: it already would have occurred.


After Titus’s final five-month siege, however, the city was totally destroyed, the Temple was dismantled, and all fell under Roman control. Josephus, a witness to the tragedy and the author of the only surviving contemporary eyewitness account of Jerusalem’s fall, writes:“and now the Romans set fire to the extreme parts of the city, and burnt them down, and entirely demolished its walls.”   31    


Later he reports that as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury, (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other such work to be done), Caesar gave orders that they should not demolish the entire city and temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as were of the greatest eminency; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and which the Roman valour had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall, it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.  32     This corroborates Kenyon’s remarks, already cited: “The recent excavations have provided striking evidence of Titus’s destruction. . . .In the destruction of these buildings, walls were razed, paving stones torn up, and the drain clogged with material firmly dated to the last part of the century by the pottery.”   33    


When the sack of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was completed, Titus left the Xth legion Frentensis to watch over the ruins. Its headquarters were on the site of Herod’s palace on the western ridge, where the three towers of the palace and a part of the west wall were left standing to form part of the defences of the legionary headquarters, which continued there until A.D. 200. . . .some Jews continued to live in Jerusalem, but the tragic difference was that there was no longer a Temple in which the full ceremonial of the worship of Yahweh could be carried out.  34     Reicke writes of the aftermath:


Under the emperors of the Julio-Claudian house, the Holy Land had been a procuratorship and temple territory. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70, its population had been reduced, but the country was by no means dejudaized. It did, however, lose its relative independence and autarchy; it remained the land of the Jews only ethnically, not politically. Palestine was in fact treated as an imperial province and, for the first time during the Roman period, expropriated. Important sites were claimed as Roman colonies for soldiers and veterans, including Caesarea, the newly-founded Flavia Neapolis near Shechem, Emmaus, and the environs of Jerusalem. Caesarea remained the official residence; the governor, however, was no longer a procurator but the general of the Tenth Legion (called “Fretimis”), whose soldiers were quartered after the war mostly in the vicinity of Jerusalem, in partat Qumran.  35    


History records that after the Jewish War there was a “permanent presence of a legion defiling the holy city with military standards which were objects of cult, and . . . [an] accompanying civilian settlement containing pagan shrines as well as baths, shops and other amenities. .”   36     All of this fits well with a pre-A.D.70 situation.

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"Barker says   37     “The most detailed interpretations of prophecy — the sixth seal and the sixth trumpet — depict events in the mid-60s: Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome in 64 CE and Gessius Florus’ reign of terror in Palestine in 66 CE and [p.270]; Josephus described how the famine was at its most acute in the days immediately before the temple was burned: ‘Necessity drove the victims to gnaw anything and objects which even the filthiest of brute beasts would reject they condescended to collect and eat: thus in the end they abstained not from belts and shoes and stripped off and chewed the very leather of their bucklers. Others devoured tufts of withered grass’ (War 6.197-98). One woman ate her own child and [p.254]; Fifty days after the Omer had been brought to the temple, the new wheat was offered. In the summer of 70 CE, the Romans completed the earthworks around the city at about this time (War 5.466), and the fighting became more desperate. All hope of escape was gone; there was famine in the city, the streets and squares full of corpses which their families had not the strength to bury (War 5.511-15). Some 600,000 were flung from the ramparts into the ravines around the city (War 5.569). At this time of acute famine, the new corn arrived for the Roman troops and was shown to the starving people in the city to weaken their resolve (War 5.520) and [p.251]; Excited watchmen saw the huge stones being hurled into the city and believed they were the supernatural hail which announced the coming of the LORD. They called out ‘The Son is coming’ (War 5.2 72). During the critical weeks of the siege, several prominent people had taken advantage of the Roman offer to leave the city, and John the beloved disciple was probably one of them”.

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Portents of Destruction


“Behold, he shall come up as clouds, and his chariots shall be as the whirlwind” (Jer.4.13) “For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.” (Isa. 66.15, cf. 19.1) Jesus - “there will be terrors and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21.11)


The Roman historian Tacitus (115 CE) recorded the following:


“Prodigies had occurred, but their expiation by the offering of victims or solemn vows is held to be unlawful by a nation which is the slave of superstition and the enemy of true beliefs. In the sky appeared a vision of armies in conflict, of glittering armour. A sudden lightning flash from the clouds lit up the Temple. The doors of the holy place abruptly opened, a superhuman voice was heard to declare that the gods were leaving it, and in the same instant came the rushing tumult of their departure. Few people placed a sinister interpretation upon this. The majority were convinced that the ancient scriptures of their priests alluded to the present as the very time when the Orient would triumph and from Judaea would go forth men destined to rule the world.” (Histories, Book 5, v. 13).


The Jewish Historian Josephus (75 CE) recorded the following:


“Besides these [signs], a few days after that feast, on the one- and-twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared; I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armour were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence”” (Jewish Wars, VI-V-3). “A supernatural apparition was seen, too amazing to be believed. What I am now to relate would, I imagine, be dismissed as imaginary, had this not been vouched for by eyewitnesses, then followed by subsequent disasters that deserved to be thus signalized. For before sunset chariots were seen in the air over the whole country, and armed battalions speeding through the clouds and encircling the cities” (Rendered in Chilton).




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Conclusion and Summary


In her preface to Revelation Barker  38     writes; “The book is unique among New Testament texts insofar as a date and place of origin are recorded in tradition. The book itself claims to have been written on Patmos, and Irenaeus, writing about 180 CE, says it was seen by John at the end of the reign of Domitian. The internal evidence of the book, however, seems incompatible with both of these. Although few have questioned that it came from Patmos and was sent to Asia Minor, scholars long ago recognized that the cryptic allusions to contemporary events pointed not to the reign of Domitian but to 68-70 CE and that the ‘John’ of the Book of Revelation wrote a very different Greek from the ‘John’ of the Fourth Gospel.


At the end of the nineteenth century, the great New Testament scholars such as Westcott, Lightfoot and Hort gave weight to the internal evidence and favoured the earlier date. In the twentieth century, although there was no new evidence, there was a new fashion and so Charles, who published his great commentary in 1920, favoured the external tradition and accepted the later date”.


It is difficult to understand how interpreters can reach any other conclusion other than the realization of the seals in the first century.  The evidence for an early date of Revelation is overwhelming and a Domitian persecution pales to insignificance by comparison.  39     An interpreter’s greatest nemesis is confirmation bias and continuous historic approaches lack self-awareness.   The seals can be summarised as follows:

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Seal Event Feast Ref.

White Horse

(31-38 CE)


Conquering gospel

Controversies with Judaism and persecution

Conversion of Saul, preaching to the Gentiles

Passover crucifixion and resurrection of the Lamb (31)

Acts 1-10

Red Horse

(38-45 CE)


Edomite persecution 

Herod kills James, Peter arrested at Passover (44)  40    

Acts 12

Epistle of James

Black Horse

(45-52 CE)

Claudian Famine

Passover riots when Roman Soldier Exposes Himself (50)


Acts 11.27-30

Jos. Ant. 20.5.3, 106 Jos. War 2.12.1, 224

Pale Horse

(52-59 CE)


Sword, famine, plague and wild beasts

Period of the procurators Ventidius Cumanus and Antonius Felix –

Sedition, robbery, terrorism, famine, start of Nero’s reign.

Egyptian false prophet (c.55) leads wilderness Exodus (at Passover?)

Acts 21.38



Slain under

the altar

(59-66 CE)


Nero persecution – death of Apostles, Saints cry, ‘How Long?’

Answer: It will shortly come to pass. (Rev 1.1 the book of Revelation given)


Passover Protest against Florus –start of Jewish war (66).

James the Just murdered (62) Portents of disaster at Passover 66

1 Peter 5.8-13

2 Peter 3

Jos. War 2.14.3, 280

History 2.23

Jos. War 6.5.3, 290-296

Great Earthquake

(66-73 CE)


Jewish war - dissolution of the Jewish state –

end of the Mosaic dispensation. Rome also judged in 69.

Jerusalem besieged at Passover (70).

Rebels at Masada Raid En-Gedi on Passover 68. Masada falls day after Passover (73)

Jos. War 5.3.1, 98-105

Jos. War 4.7.2, 402

Jos. War 7.9.1

Heb. 12.25-29



What had begun at Passover with the Lamb opening the first seal was now finished 42 years later on the day after Passover. The wave offering (144,000) is about to be presented. The fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE is a recurrent pattern that repeats in the trumpet section (and again in the future) even the five month siege is repeated (cf. Rev 9.5,10 see trumpets section for exegesis).

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  • Josephus, Christian Classics Ethereal library:Access here
  • Mentions of the Passover in Josephus:Access here
  • Horrific famine seizes Jerusalem during siege (5.420-445) Mass crucifixions 5.446-451(500 a day):Access here


Appendix: Chronology of the Jewish War, 66-70


The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus offers a consistent chronology of the Jewish War that started in 66 and culminated in the destruction of the temple in 70. However, there is a problem. He uses the Macedonian names for the months, but does not say what he means. There are three possibilities:


  • He uses the normal Macedonian calendar, which we can corroborate with the calendar of Tyre or Antioch;
  • He uses Macedonian names for the Julian months of the Roman calendar (e.g., 1Panemus = 1 July);
  • He uses the Babylonian-Judaean lunar calendar (e.g., Artemisius = Iyar).


At first sight, it seems that Josephus used all systems but preferred the Roman one (which suggests that he had access to a Roman military source), except for the period before the legions arrived in Judaea and for Jewish liturgical dates. This looks like a plausible solution, but is in fact too simple, because it implies that the killing of the emperor Vitellius (20 December 69) was recorded by the Romans before it actually happened. See the following comparison table from Barbara Levick, Vespasian (1999 London), 40-42; with some some modifications made by Jona Lendering (with commentary) online [cited Aug. 2009] Access here  Preferred dates bold - certain dates underlined - religious festivals italics.

66 CE Ref.






JW, 2.284


19 May

-18 Jun


15 May-12 Jun

Beginning of rebellion

JW, 2.315

16 Artemisius

3 Jun

16 May

31 May

Unrest in Jerusalem

JW, 2.430

15 Lous

3 Sep

15 Aug

27 Aug

Antonia attacked

JW, 2.440

6 Gorpaeus

24 Sep

6 Sep

15 Sep

Palace besieged

JW, 2.515

15-23 Tishri


20-28 Sep

Festival of Tabernacles; Cestius in Lydda

JW, 2.528

30 Hyperberetaeus

16 Nov

20 Oct

9 Nov

XII Fulminata attacks

JW, 2.555

8 Dius

25 Nov

8 Nov

15 Nov

XII Fulminata defeated

67 CE Ref.






JW, 3.142

17 Artemisius

4 Jun

17 May

21 May

Roman advance-guard at Jotapata


21 Artemisius

8 Jun

21 May

24 May

Josephus at Jotapata

JW, 3.145

22 Artemisius

9 Jun

22 May

25 May

Vespasian arrives at Jotapata

JW, 3.282

20 Daesius

6 Jul

20 Jun

21 Jun

Roman attack repulsed

JW, 3.306

25 Daesius

13 Jul

25 Jun

26 Jun

Fall of Japha

JW, 3.315

28 Daesius

15 Jul

27 Jun

28 Jun

Fall of Gerizim

JW, 3.316

1 Panemus

20 Jul

1 Jul

2 Jul

Fall of Jotapata

JW, 3.409

4 Panemus

23 July

4 July

5 Jul

Vespasian at Ptolemais

JW, 3.542

8 Gorpaeus

26 Sep

8 Sep

6 Sep

Fall of Tarichaeae

JW, 4.69, 83

23 Hyperberetaeus

9 Nov

23 Oct

21 Oct

Fall of Gamala

68 CE Ref.






JW, 4.413

4 Dystrus

21 Mar

4 Mar

26 Feb

Fall of Gadara

JW, 4.449

2 Daesius

20 Jun

2 Jun

24 May

Vespasian at Corea

JW, 4.450

3 Daesius

21 Jun

3 Jun

25 May

Vespasian at Jericho

69 CE Ref.






JW, 4.550

5 Daesius

23 Jun

5 Jun

13 Jun

Vespasian invades Judaea

JW, 4.577


18 Apr


18 May


12 Apr-10 May

Simon in Jerusalem

Tac., Hist. 2.79



3 Jul


Vespasian proclaimed emperor

JW, 4.654

3 Apellaeus

20 Dec

3 Dec

8 Dec

Death of  Vitellius

70 CE Ref.






JW, 5.99

14 Xanthicus

1 May

14 Apr

14 Apr

Passover; John enters temple

JW, 5.133, 567

14 Xanthicus

1 May

14 Apr

14 Apr

Titus encamps against Psephinus

JW, 5.302

7 Artemisius

25 May

7 May

7 May

First wall taken

JW, 5.466

12 Artemisius

30 May

12 May

12 May

Siege works building


29 Artemisius

15 Jun

29 May

29 May

Works finished

JW, 6.22

1 Panemus

20 Jul

1 July

28 Jun

Jewish rally

JW, 6.67

3 Panemus

22 Jul

3 July

30 Jun

Antonia attacked

JW, 6.68

5 Panemus

24 Jul

5 July

2 Jul

Antonia falls

JW, 6.94

17 Panemus

5 Aug

17 Jul

14 Jul

End of daily sacrifice

JW, 6.166

24 Panemus

12 Aug

24 Jul

21 Jul

Romans fire portico

JW, 6.177

27 Panemus

15 Aug

27 Jul

24 Jul

Western portico burns

JW, 6.220

8 Lous

27 Aug

8 Aug

4 Aug

Earthworks complete

JW, 6.236

9 Lous

28 Aug

9 Aug

5 Aug

Roman council of war

JW, 6.250

10 Lous

29 Aug

10 Aug

6 Aug

Temple burns

JW, 6.374

20 Lous

8 Sep

20 Aug

16 Aug

Siege of upper city

JW, 6.392

7 Gorpaeus

25 Sep

7 Sep

1 Sep

Upper city attacked

JW, 6.407

8 Gorpaeus

26 Sep

8 Sep

2 Sep

Fall of Jerusalem

74 CE Ref.






JW, 7.401

15 Xanthicus

3 May

15 Apr

31 Mar

Fall of Masada


* Flavius Josephus does not mention the year in which Masada fell. Most scholars have assumed 73, but archaeologists have discovered coins of that year on top of the rock. Therefore 74 is more plausible, although 73 cannot be ruled out.