Are the "two witnesses" of Revelation 11 to be understood as two literal individuals, or do they represent something else, like the "beast", "lamb", "dragon", "harlot", etc? I used to be convinced that Revelation 11:3-13 painted a more or less photographic picture about two literal men who would emerge at the end of the age just prior to Christ's return, but this reading has been heavily challenged by several points from the text of Revelation 11 itself and its surrounding context. The prominent themes and allusions within this passage have given me a whole new lens through which to understand both the identity of the "two witnesses" and the prominent place this text holds within the overarching narrative of the Apocalypse. Below are listed some of the reasons for not taking the "two witnesses" as two literal individuals, as well as some positive comments on what I believe they do represent and what implications this has on the overall theology of Revelation. Obviously this ties to a broader hermeneutical question of how we should read Revelation as a whole, not to mention apocalyptic literature in general (on which, see this post); but I just want to stick with this passage for now.
The two witnesses are introduced in v. 3 in a very abrupt way ("...and I will give power to my two witnesses"), as if the reader should already know who/what they represent from the prior context of the narrative. Looking at that prior context in light of the explanation given in v. 4, that they are "the two lampstands standing before the Lord of the earth", would seem to point toward their being identified with the faithful saints to whom Revelation was addressed, the churches who are the "lampstands" (1:12, 20). In 4:5 the Holy Spirit is seen as "seven lamps of fire", alluding to Zechariah 4 (cf. also Rev 5:6), which ties the identification of the seven churches as "lampstands" directly to that passage by the way the narrative reuses that image. Thus, when 11:4 explains that the two witnesses are "the two lampstands", it is likely that the intention is for the reader to pick up on the way that image has been used already earlier in the book, making the link explicit by quoting again from Zechariah 4.
Structurally speaking, this scene stands parallel to that of chapter 7, inasmuch as that scene comes in between the 6th and 7th seals and this scene comes in between the 6th and 7th trumpets. In chapter 7, the overarching theme was the protection and vindication of the saints in the midst of God's judgment, and likewise that is the overarching theme here, with the measuring of the "temple" in vv. 1-2 (which makes a more interesting link with ch. 7 by its allusion to Ezekiel) as well as the protection (v. 5) and vindication (vv. 11-13) of the "two witnesses" over their enemies.
The way in which the two witnesses stand in the tradition of Elijah (alluding specifically to the episode with the prophets of Baal) points to the role which the saints hold throughout the rest of the book, as "witnesses" of Jesus standing against the idolatry and paganism of the "beast" and the "harlot" (e.g. 2:13-14; 12:17; 19:11; 20:4).
Very interestingly, when v. 5 says that fire proceeds "out of their mouth", it does not speak of the "two witnesses" as having two (plural) mouths, but rather one (collective singular) "mouth". This could be purely coincidental, but then vv. 8-9 speak of "their dead body", twice using the collective singular "body" instead of the plural "bodies".
The "plagues" which the two witnesses are said to have "power" to release in v. 6 are parallel to the judgments of the trumpets and bowls, following the threefold pattern of the "heavens", the "waters", and the "earth" in the first four of each. The Exodus motif is present here as it is in both of those judgment sequences as well, which suggests that the passages themselves are parallel in some way. Since it's the prayers of the saints which release all three series of judgments in the larger narrative of Revelation (e.g. 5:8; 6:9-11; 8:3-6), this further strengthens the hypothesis that the two witnesses, which are seen here standing in the place of Moses as the "executioners of divine judgment" in the New Exodus, represent the whole New Covenant people of God. Hence the reason why all the saints are pictured singing the "song of Moses" after being vindicated over the "beast" in 15:2-4 (cf. Ex 15).
It's a really common suggestion, in light of the language of vv. 5-6, that the two witnesses actually are Moses and Elijah themselves. But what isn't commonly recognized is that both of the witnesses are described as having the power of Moses and Elijah in those verses, not one having the power of Elijah and one having the power of Moses. So it's unlikely that the scene is portraying the two witnesses as actually being Moses and Elijah resurrected or anything like that, but rather those verses are portraying the two witnesses as standing in the same narrative tradition as both Moses and Elijah, who fought against paganism and idolatry and were vindicated over their oppressors. And since (as we have seen) all the faithful saints are pictured standing in that tradition throughout the rest of the book, this again strengthens the claim that the "two witnesses" are a symbol for the people of God as prophetic witnesses of Jesus.
When v. 7 introduces the two witnesses' great adversary, the "beast", who will "make war against them, overcome them, and kill them", it does so by quoting directly from Daniel 7:21, which speaks of the "little horn" of the fourth kingdom "making war against the saints, and prevailing against them". This very same text is quoted later in Revelation 13, when the identity of the "beast", and not that of the "two witnesses", is being explained: "It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them."
Some scholars note a possible allusion to Ps 79:1-3 in v. 9, in which the nations defiled the temple and Jerusalem and "poured out their [the saints'] blood... all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them." The language and pattern of the psalm fits Rev 11:1-10 quite well. While that connection may not be explicitly intended, however, it is virtually certain that v. 11 carries a direct allusion to the valley of dry bones in Ezek 37, particularly to v. 10: "breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet." In Ezekiel's vision, Israel in exile is likened to a valley filled with the dry bones of the dead. Their return from exile is pictured as a resurrection: God "breathes life" into the dry bones/Israel (a phrase alluding to the creation of Adam in Gen 2:7, "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life"), and they are restored to their homeland. In Revelation, of course, there is a reversal of roles in which the Jew-plus-Gentile family of God occupies the place of Israel, as the "kingdom of priests" who are "redeemed" in the New Exodus, while the nation of Israel itself, because of its refusal to accept God's offer of peace in Christ, stands in the place of the pagan nations (e.g. "spiritually called Sodom and Egypt", "those who say they are Jews but are not", etc).
All of these points, from the text of Revelation 11 itself and from the surrounding context of the book, presently lead me to the conclusion that the "two witnesses" are a symbol for the corporate church, which is pictured throughout Revelation standing in that same role as prophetic witnesses of Jesus.
Of course, many simply can't get around the description of the two witness as individuals, and see this as proof that the passage must be interpreted literally ("how can the church lie dead in the street of the city for three and a half days?"). But this simply misses the way that metaphors are used so extensively in Revelation. I believe that the beast from the sea, the beast from the land, the woman with the garland of stars around her head, and the harlot who rides on the beast all represent whole companies more than single individuals, even though they too, just like the two witnesses, are described as individuals. Thus I see no reason why the two witnesses should not represent more than two individuals as well.
One final point worth noting, though--one with great theological relevance for the message of Revelation as a whole--is the close correlation between 11:11-12 and 20:4-6. As we have already seen, the vision of Daniel 7 stands behind the text in chapter 11, where the "beast" is first introduced into the cast of characters in Revelation as the one who makes war against the people of God and overcomes them for a time. In 11:12, after lying dead for three-and-a-half days, the "two witnesses" are vindicated over the beast by rising from the dead and ascending on a cloud into heaven. The "three-and-a-half days" carry the double significance of alluding to Dan 7:25 while at the same time patterning the suffering of the saints after the cross of Christ, continuing the theme of 11:8 ("...where also their Lord was crucified"), and their resurrection and exaltation continue that theme by alluding to Dan 7:13, where the "son of man" is escorted into the presence of the Ancient of Days and entrusted with the world dominion which previously belonged to the "beast" (coincidentally, this explains why the kingdom is declared as having come, right after this event, in 11:15-19).
And as in ch. 11, Dan 7 stands behind the text in several places in ch. 20, where a similar story of vindication is being told after the "beast" is thrown into the lake of fire. Most notably, in 20:4, a courtroom is seated (specifically echoing Dan 7:9-10) and a judgment is made in favor of the faithful saints who were killed by the beast for their witness to Jesus. And as in 11:12, where the vindication of the "two witnesses" is described in resurrection language, so here the martyred saints "come to life" and "reign with Christ". What was described with resurrection language in ch. 11 is actually given the title "the first resurrection" in ch. 20. There is a lot more that could be said about this passage, and of course 20:4-6 is one of the most enigmatic bits of Revelation, but for our present purposes it is enough to note the more than striking parallel between it and 11:11-12. And the point here is that this parallel, taken together with all the points above, again strengthens the hypothesis that the "two witnesses" represent the people of God who carry the testimony of Jesus, who are protected in tribulation, who are then seemingly defeated, and who are finally vindicated in the sight of all their enemies.
From this vantage point we can now begin to see the massive contribution which chapter 11 gives to the overall message of Revelation, a challenging theological message far beyond merely forecasting the fate of two prophets in the end times.
Based on the fact that v. 6 explicitly links the martyrdom of the visionary "two witnesses" with the death of "their Lord," in keeping with the prevalent imitatio Christi theme of the rest of the NT, the most significant point for the reader to grasp is that their suffering and vindication is intentionally patterned after the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in line with this theme, the "three and a half days" of vv. 9-11 is very likely an allusion to the three days and three nights of Christ's predicted death, only with the added significance of drawing out the implicit "tribulation" motif (or as it's called in much scholarship, the "messianic woes") in that prediction through an allusion to Dan. 7:25. There are a few points to make here:
1) 1 Kings 18:1 tells us that the drought which Elijah brought upon Israel was only three years, but later Jewish tradition symbolically represented this as three and a half years in order to link it with the apocalyptic image of Dan 7, 9 and 12 (cf. Luke 4:25; James 5:17). Jesus, of course, looked to Israel's three and a half year tribulation under Antiochus Epiphones as a template for the great national trial that he saw soon over the horizon, which, though it was close to the same time-frame, cannot be added up to precisely the same length.
2) Jesus saw his own death in representative terms as carrying the judgment which the nation deserved but which he, of course, did not. He believed, in other words, that he was called to walk through and take upon himself (solo) the "great trial" which he predicted would come upon Israel (corporately) for their unfaithfulness, all in the hopes that through his vindication they would turn from their present course and follow him. This is the whole reason why each of the synoptic writers tell the story of the crucifixion against the backdrop of the olivet discourse.
3) But when we read the predictions of Jesus' impending death in the gospel accounts (e.g. Mark 10:45; Matt 17:22-23) and ask what passages from the OT furnished his worldview and supplied the driving sense of vocation that led him to the cross (since he often said it had to happen that way "according to the scriptures"), the passage which shines through most clearly is Dan 7, in which the saints (i.e. "son of man") are given into the hands of the wicked (i.e. "beast", "little horn") before a judgment is made in their favor and the kingdoms of the world are finally given to them. The "son of man", Jesus was saying, must be given over into the hands of the wicked before he can be raised up and given the kingdom, just as Daniel foretold.
4) Dan 7 is one of the main passages standing behind the text of Rev 11, coloring the ministry, death and exaltation of the two witnesses. By this time, though, it was commonplace to read Dan 7 in messianic terms (e.g 4 Ezra 12:10-35), and since the early church believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the representative of Israel, it was only natural for them to understand Jesus as the "son of man" (given, of course, the fact that Dan 7 formed the bedrock of Jesus' own self-understanding).
What's remarkable about Rev 11, then, in the historical context in which it was written, is that it pictures the saints/"two witnesses" walking in Jesus' shoes as the "son of man", and carrying that same representative role on behalf of Israel, in the hopes that through their suffering and vindication a remnant would turn, see, and be saved. As Osbourne says in summary in his commentary on Revelation, "the death and resurrection of the two witnesses parallels the death and resurrection of Christ and symbolizes the call to every Christian: 'victory through suffering'. The very symbol of imitatio Christi in Jesus' teaching is a willingness to 'take up the cross' and die for Christ if necessary... All persecution for his sake is a victory for the believer... Their suffering in reality is their triumph, and God will use that suffering to bring people to himself." This, in my estimation, is the main message of Rev 11:3-13.