The Millennium in Greek and Roman Thought

As the history of this blog testifies, the interpretation of Revelation 20 has been a subject of ongoing interest to me. I first wrote about it as a premillennialist in a series of responses to Sam Storms, a classical amillennialist.  But after several years of continued investigation, I've slowly come to see the passage quite differently, and I've explored this alternative reading from various angles here, here, here, here, and here. I still resist the title "amillennialist," because it tends to suggest certain medieval associations to which I do not ascribe. But I do believe John's vision reflects an inaugurated eschatology of sorts, and you can see my reasoning for this in each of the posts linked above.

But I'd like to come at the passage from a different angle in this post. Most commentaries don't really look outside of the Old Testament and later Jewish parallels for the background of John's millennium, but I wonder if the main source may lie elsewhere. It's difficult for us to hear the same cultural resonances which the original audience would have heard loud and clear, how politically subversive the notion of a “thousand-year reign” must have been in that particular time and place. But in order to hear these resonances in John’s millennium, I suggest that we should look first to the Roman court poet Virgil, who for years had predicted a messianic deliverer before Caesar Augustus had succeeded in unifying the empire and pacifying most of the known world.

Virgil spoke in exalted language of a “golden age” of Roman rule, patterned after the primordial reign of Saturn in Greek mythology (Aeneid, 6.791-96). In the first century AD, with the dawn of the so-called Pax Romana and the unparalleled growth of the Caesar cult, only more poets and politicians followed with this tone of rhetoric, enthusiastic about the unbreakable might of Rome. Just as it was in the last century with Nazi Germany, propaganda announcing the Empire’s golden age of peace was rampant in the first century, especially in the regions most sympathetic to Rome like Asia Minor, where John received his vision of a different kingdom. Thus, when John sees the great beast and the false prophet thrown into the lake of fire, what he goes on to convey in his vision of the “millennium” is explicitly intended, in some respects at least, as the antitype to Rome’s tyrannous reign, the transfer of the kingdom from the beast to the saints of the most high.

In some respects, but by no means all. There are clearly other influences going into John's composite picture. In regards to the symbolic figure of "a thousand years," I suspect that Revelation is actually drawing from a contemporary Greco-Roman depiction of judgment in the afterlife. This might sound like a strange connection to the modern reader, but I'm confident that it would have come quite naturally to John's first-century audience, Greek and Latin speaking Gentiles in Asia Minor. In Book X of his Republic, Plato describes the transmigration of souls in Tartarus and Elysium as follows:

"He said that when his soul left the body he went on a journey with a great company, and that they came to a mysterious place at which there were two openings in the earth; they were near together, and over against them were two other openings in the heaven above. In the intermediate space there were judges seated, who commanded the just, after they had given judgment on them and had bound their sentences in front of them, to ascend by the heavenly way on the right hand; and in like manner the unjust were bidden by them to descend by the lower way on the left hand; these also bore the symbols of their deeds, but fastened on their backs. He drew near, and they told him that he was to be the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men, and they bade him hear and see all that was to be heard and seen in that place. Then he beheld and saw on one side the souls departing at either opening of heaven and earth when sentence had been given on them; and at the two other openings other souls, some ascending out of the earth dusty and worn with travel, some descending out of heaven clean and bright. And arriving ever and anon they seemed to have come from a long journey, and they went forth with gladness into the meadow, where they encamped as at a festival; and those who knew one another embraced and conversed, the souls which came from earth curiously enquiring about the things above, and the souls which came from heaven about the things beneath. And they told one another of what had happened by the way, those from below weeping and sorrowing at the remembrance of the things which they had endured and seen in their journey beneath the earth (now the journey lasted a thousand years), while those from above were describing heavenly delights and visions of inconceivable beauty. The Story, Glaucon, would take too long to tell; but the sum was this: --He said that for every wrong which they had done to any one they suffered tenfold; or once in a hundred years --such being reckoned to be the length of man's life, and the penalty being thus paid ten times in a thousand years. If, for example, there were any who had been the cause of many deaths, or had betrayed or enslaved cities or armies, or been guilty of any other evil behaviour, for each and all of their offences they received punishment ten times over, and the rewards of beneficence and justice and holiness were in the same proportion. I need hardly repeat what he said concerning young children dying almost as soon as they were born. Of piety and impiety to gods and parents, and of murderers, there were retributions other and greater far which he described."

Note the lines in bold, which sound particularly close to some of the descriptions in Revelation. Virgil describes a similar scene in Book VI of the Aeneid:

"Each man receives His ghostly portion in the world of dark; But thence to realms Elysian we go free, Where for a few these seats of bliss abide, Till time's long lapse a perfect orb fulfills, And takes all taint away, restoring so The pure, ethereal soul's first virgin fire. At last, when the millennial aeon strikes, God calls them forth to yon Lethaean stream, In numerous host, that thence, oblivious all, They may behold once more the vaulted sky, And willingly to shapes of flesh return."

Note that the "millennial aeon" is also called a "perfect orb" of time's long lapse, and that after this thousand-year period in Elysium the purged souls return once more to flesh. I find it very likely that all of this is typologically significant for Revelation 20, especially if the millennial reign there is concerned with the intermediate state of the faithful dead, as I've argued elsewhere. It makes a lot of sense to me that John would borrow from a contemporary Greco-Roman conception of postmortem judgment, as he does with so many other pagan myths (e.g. the Combat myth and the Nero Redivivus legend)--and yet, in classic apocalyptic form, that he would subvert it with a different vision altogether. The court is seated, as in Republic 10.614, but the sentence is ironically made against Rome and the power which stands behind it and for the very people which it oppressed, so that while the followers of Jesus spend a thousand years reigning in Elysium, the great enemy, Satan, spends a thousand years bound in Tartarus.