The Mark of the Beast: An Early Church Perspective
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Imagine for a moment that you were an early Christian. What might you think about the Mark of the Beast? The first mention of this mark is in Revelation 13:15-17, which reads:
“15 The second beast was empowered to give life to the image of the first beast so that it could speak, and could cause all those who did not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 He also caused everyone (small and great, rich and poor, free and slave) to obtain a mark on their right hand or on their forehead. 17 Thus no one was allowed to buy or sell things unless he bore the mark of the beast—that is, his name or his number” (Rev. 13:15-17, NET).
In modern times, there has been much speculation about the Mark of the Beast. Some connect it with a spiritual practice in the Bible. Others connect it with a physical item such as a microchip or barcode. A third group tries to merge these two concepts. In this article, we want to look at the early Church perspective on this subject. Perhaps it will provide some clarify to the mysterious Mark of the Beast.
Conflict Between Kingdoms
The beliefs of Jewish people and early Christians brought them into conflict with the Greco-Roman culture around them. In many ways, the two groups were opposites.
The Judeo-Christian mindset was and still is monotheistic. There is one God who is to be worshiped alone. This mindset is exclusive in that no other gods could be added. Jewish people and early Christians did not try to represent God with images, idols, or statues. There was only one Temple on earth, the one in Jerusalem (which was destroyed in 70 AD).
On the other hand, the Greco-Roman mindset was that of a polytheist. They worshiped many gods who had temples spread throughout the Mediterranean world. There were statues, images, and idols depicting their appearance. Furthermore, their mindset was inclusive. That is to say – they were open to including other gods in their worship.
The mindset of Jewish people and early Christians was an enigma to the Greco-Roman mind. Polytheists did not understand why monotheists were unable to add the Greco-Roman gods to their one God. For this reason, monotheists were sometimes labeled atheists because they denied or were without the traditional gods. Needless to say – this brought conflict.
In about the year 67 AD, the Jewish people were framed for starting a fire in the city of Antioch. When the accusation about burning the city came forth, the people went into a frenzy to punish Jewish people. The mob gathered in the local theater and demanded punishment. This echoes an incident about three years before when Nero accused Christians of setting fire to Rome.
A certain Jewish leader, ironically named Antiochus, initiated a test to see who was true to the traditional gods. He tried to require people to make a sacrifice to the traditional gods. Those who refused were viewed as only loyal to the one true God of Judaism and thus determined to be guilty of arson. They were put to death. Josephus described these events:
“As for Antiochus, he increased the rage they were in, and thought to give them a proof of his own conversion, and of his hatred of the Jewish customs, by sacrificing after the manner of the Greeks; he urged them also to compel the rest of the Jews to do the same, because they would by that means discover who they were that had plotted against them, since they would refuse to do so; and when the people of Antioch tried the experiment, some few complied, and those that would not were slain…” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 7.3.3).
Starting in at least the early second century, Christians were given this same test. The earliest historical reference of this occurrence is found in the famous letter of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan regarding the trials of Christians in a province of Asia Minor.
“…An anonymous information was laid before me containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances: I thought it proper, therefore, to discharge them…” (Letter 97)
In addition to the sacrifice-test, officials tried to coerce Christians to curse the name of Christ. Sometimes they were compelled to offer incense to the image of the emperor. Later, they were coerced into confessing that Caesar was their lord (to read more about this subject, click HERE).
The Mark of the Beast
To my knowledge, the first early Church writer to attempt to provide an explanation for the Mark of the Beast is Hippolytus. He wrote a work called “On Christ and Antichrist” in the early third century AD (about 200). In it, he said the following:
“By the beast, then, coming up out of the earth, he means the kingdom of Antichrist; and by the two horns he means him and the false prophet after him. And in speaking of the horns being ‘like a lamb’, he means that he will make himself like the Son of God, and set himself forward as king…Here the faith and the patience of the saints will appear, for he says: ‘And he will cause all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand or in their forehead; that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, the name of the beast, or the number of his name.’ For, being full of guile, and exalting himself against the servants of God, with the wish to afflict them and persecute them out of the world, because they give not glory to him, he will order incense-pans to be set up by all everywhere, that no man among the saints may be able to buy or sell without first sacrificing; for this is what is meant by the mark received upon the right hand. And the word — in their forehead — indicates that all are crowned, and put on a crown of fire, and not of life, but of death. For in this wise, too, did Antiochus Epiphanes the king of Syria, the descendant of Alexander of Macedon, devise measures against the Jews. He, too, in the exaltation of his heart, issued a decree in those times, that all should set up shrines before their doors, and sacrifice, and that they should march in procession to the honour of Dionysus, waving chaplets [wreath] of ivy; and that those who refused obedience should be put to death by strangulation and torture” (idem, section 49).
Hippolytus understood that the Mark of the Beast was connected to forced sacrifice. One had to use their hands to sacrifice and/or offer incense to other gods. He then stated that the mark on your forehead referred to a wreath that was sometimes placed upon the heads of the one offering the sacrifice.
To bolster his position, Hippolytus referenced the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. In about 168 BC, this Antiochus coerced the Jewish people to surrender their beliefs and then accept the Greek religion. His troops tried to force them to sacrifice and wear wreath crowns made from ivy. Those who did not were tortured or put to death. He viewed Antiochus Epiphanes reign of terror as a past event which foreshadowed the Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast (To read more about Antiochus Epiphanes, CLICK HERE).
Hippolytus’ view on the Mark of the Beast finds corroboration in an inscription and papyri. The concept that officials promoted or mandated sacrifice and the wearing of a wreath is found in these ancient sources. We will look at some of them.
The first that we will discuss dates to the time of Augustus. On an inscription dating to about 2 AD, we learn that Augustus’ son Gaius was engaged in an intense battle which almost claimed his life. He escaped and eventually won a victory over the enemy. To commemorate this event, the governor of Achaia required people to wear wreaths and make sacrifices (SEG 23.206).
On the accession of Nero to be Emperor in 54 AD, a proclamation was made that people should wear garlands and offer sacrifices of oxen to thank the gods. It is not clear if this edict was regional or for the entire empire; it was found on a papyrus in Egypt. We have an excerpt below:
“The Caesar who was owed to his ancestors…the good genius of the world and source of all blessings, Nero Caesar, has been proclaimed. Therefore ought we all wearing garlands and with sacrifices of oxen to give thanks to all the gods. The 1st year of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the 21st of the month Neus Sebastus [November 17]” (Hunt and Edgar, pp 138-139).
Upon the accession of the Emperor Hadrian in 117, the people of Egypt were required to pray to the gods and wear wreaths for 10 days (P.Oxy. 55.3781). When Pertinax became emperor for a short time in 193, all the people in Alexandria and other parts of Egypt were required to publicly assemble to make sacrifice, offer prayers, and wear garlands for fifteen days (this event was near the time of Hippolytus). We have an excerpt from this decree below:
“It is fitting that you, O Alexandrians, holding festival for the most fortunate accession of our lord the Emperor Publius Helvius Pertinax the Augustus, head of the sacred senate, father of his country, and of Publius Helvius Pertinax his son, and of Flavia Titiana Augusta (Pertinax’s wife), should in full assembly make sacrifices and prayers on behalf of his lasting empire and of all his house and wear garlands for fifteen days beginning from to-day…” (Hunt and Edgar, pp 110-113).
Any situation that required prayers and sacrifices to the Greco-Roman gods would instantly create conflict between polytheists and Christians. It was (and is) against the Christian religion to perform such actions. These historical references provide more background to the persecution of Christians in the second century.
The second Christian writer who ascribed specific meaning to the Mark of the Beast was Cyprian. He lived during two times of intense persecution – the reigns of Decius and Valerian. He was martyred during the latter’s reign.
In 249, the Roman Emperor Decius forced everyone in the Empire to declare that from birth they had only sacrificed to the gods of Rome. Moreover, people were forced to be present at a sacrifice and eat some of it. They then had to sign a certificate called a libellus or certificate which confirmed these details.
This effort was part of a campaign to revive dedication to the traditional gods and to commemorate the 1,000-year anniversary of Rome’s founding. There has been papyri evidence of such a decree. For instance, 46 libelli from the reign of Decius have been found in Egypt.
Like in previous examples, this situation was problematic for Christians. Unfortunately, many Christians fell away and signed these certificates; they were labeled the lapsi because they were viewed as having lapsed from the faith. This falling away sparked a crisis in Christianity, which we will cover another time.
Leaders such as Cyprian thought that the world was ending and events in the book of Revelation were coming to pass. Cyprian expressed these thoughts in a letter to a Christian named Fortunatus. We have a quote from this treatise below:
“1. You have desired, beloved Fortunatus that, l since the burden of persecutions and afflictions is lying heavy upon us, and in the ending and completion of the world the hateful time of Antichrist is already beginning to draw near, I would collect from the sacred Scriptures some exhortations for preparing and strengthening the minds of the brethren, whereby I might animate the soldiers of Christ for the heavenly and spiritual contest…”
“3. What is God’s threatening against those who sacrifice to idols? In Exodus: ‘He that sacrifices unto any gods but the Lord only, shall be rooted out’ (Exodus 22:20)…” Cyprian then quotes a series of verses which mention the worship of idols/other gods (Deut. 32:17, Isaiah 2:8-9, Isaiah 57:6, Jeremiah 7:6)…“In the Apocalypse too: ‘If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead or in his hand, he shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in the cup of His wrath, and shall be punished with fire and brimstone before the eyes of the holy angels, and before the eyes of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torments shall ascend for ever and ever: and they shall have no rest day or night, whosoever worship the beast and his image’” (Rev. 14:9-11)…”
“12…In the Apocalypse also He says the same thing: ‘And I saw’, says 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…” (Treatise 11.1, 3, 12).
Cyprian understood the Mark of the Beast to be fulfilled in the edicts of sacrifice, such as what he experienced in the time of Decius. Those who were slain for refusing to comply with these edicts would be brought back to life in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4-6). As aforementioned, Cyprian was martyred for not conforming with the decree.
Hippolytus and Cyprian provide concrete applications for the Mark of the Beast in the early Church. Early Christians understood the Mark of the Beast to be connected to edicts which forced sacrifices to other gods. As discussed in this article, there is corroborating evidence to confirm that these events and edicts existed.
The textual evidence of Revelation is congruent with the interpretation of these early Church writers. In Revelation 13:11-18, the Mark of the Beast is connected to idolatry and the worship of other gods. The mention of the mark with the worship of the beast and its image is also mentioned in Rev. 14:9-11, 16:2, 19:20, and Rev. 20:4.
In conclusion, ancient peoples were sometimes required to worship other gods which involved the worship of images, the use of their hands, and sometimes a sign on their forehead. Christians who held to their faith refused to comply and thus could be punished in a number of ways, including death. Early Christians interpreted these events to be the Mark of the Beast. This interpretation is congruent with the textual evidence of Revelation 13 and the historical circumstances of their time.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Cyprian. Treatise, 11.1, 3, 12. Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886. pp 496-506.
Hippolytus, On Christ and Antichrist, 49. Translated by J.H. MacMahon. Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886. p 214.
Hunt, A.S. and Edgar, C.C., trans. Select Papyri in Five Volumes. Non-Literary Papyri Public Documents. vol. 2. Harvard University Press, 1963. pp 110-113, 138-139.
Josephus. Wars of the Jews, 7.3.3. Whiston’s Translation revised by Rev. A.R. Shilleto, Vol. 5, London: George Bell and Sons, York Street, 1889. pp 130-131.
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Oxyrhynchus Papyri 55.3781. Accessed via https://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oxy;55;3781. Last Accessed 9 May 2022.
Pliny the Younger. Letters 97, 98. Translated by Melmoth. Revised by Rev. F. C. T. Bosanquet, London: George Bell and Sons, 1905. pp 393-397.
Rives, J. B. “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire.” The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 89, 1999, pp. 135–54, https://doi.org/10.2307/300738. Accessed 15 April 2022.
SEG. Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum. Vol. 23. 1968. no. 206, pp 76-77.