The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Destruction of Jerusalem
Updated: Apr 23
In my last blog, I put forward evidence that the apocalypse envisioned by the Apostle John in the book of Revelation may have been seen and written down earlier than is often claimed. I suggested (as have others) that it was seen and written not in the 90s CE but in the 60s, under the reign of the Emperor Nero before his death in 68 CE. If this is the case, then we should consider that many parts of the Apocalyptic vision might be of the most catastrophic event in the Judeo-Christian culture at the time—the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This blog is the first in a series to explore what aspects of the Apocalypse seem to have uncanny parallels in that destruction and the years leading up to it.
One of the most iconic images coming out Revelation that our western culture frequently references is the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. The horses have colors and meanings assigned to them, but the latter are not specific enough to point to exact events in history. Rather, they seem to indicate events that happen often in history. Let’s examine each of them and see if there could be parallels drawn to the events in the years between the vision and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
The first horse is white and its rider is intent on conquest.
“I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” Revelation 6:2 NIV
It is not said whether this horse represents forces of good or evil. But it has a bow and arrow and is given a crown, the latter indicating that sovereignty over a land is being obtained. In 66 CE the Jewish zealots led a full-scale revolt against Rome (The First Jewish Revolt) and drove the Romans out of all of Judea, allowing greater Judea to be a sovereign state again for the first time in over a century. The victory came after the Romans retreated from a siege of Jerusalem and were ambushed at the Battle of Beth Horon, where over 6,000 Romans soldiers were killed. The Romans had failed to secure the high ground as a contingency plan for retreating, and the rebels took advantage, raining down arrows on those caught in the valley. Josephus (who was nearby at the time) recorded the ambush:
“Now the Jews did not so much press upon the Romans when they were in large open spaces, but rather when they were penned up in their descent through narrow valleys. Then did some of the rebels get in front of them and hindered the Romans from getting out of the ravine; and other rebels pushed the Romans from behind down into the valley, upon which a multitude of rebels spread out above the neck of the passage, blanketing the Romans with their arrows. " The Jewish Wars 2:547
The second horse is red and its rider is intent on War.
“Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.”
Revelation 6:4 NIV
This horseman is often called War, and not only initiates war himself with his sword but gets people to attack each other. Rome did not waste much time seeking payback after their embarrassing defeat at Beth Horon. In 67 CE General Vespasian was sent by Nero to crush the rebellion. He started with his two legions in Galilee (where Josephus had been put in charge and was captured) and slowly afterward mopped up rebels in towns all across Galilee' Samaria and Judea.
Two main Jewish-rebel leaders emerged from this conflict—John of Gischala, from Galilee, and Simon bar Giora, the victor from Beth Horon. John nearly took over Jerusalem in 68 CE, at which time Simon assaulted Idumea to the south and rallied thousands behind him. The moderateJewish leaders in Jerusalem finally let Simon and his forces into Jerusalem to try and restrain John’s brutality, but the result was a stalemate, with the two sides fighting each other inside the city for over a year. Vespasian decided to wait it out and let the two sides kill and weaken each other as much as possible before launching a siege on Jerusalem.
The third horse is black and its rider brings famine.
“I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider as holding a pair of scales. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, ‘two pounds of wheat or six pounds of barley for a days wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!” Revelation 6:5b-6 NIV
Although the passage does not specifically say famine, the scales and the price and concern for food has led all experts to agree that shortages of food are what is being symbolized here. The two rebel factions that set up battling for control of Jerusalem in 69 CE essentially divided the city in two and fought each other for several months. Finally in early 70 CE, to try to get the other side to capitulate, the one side burned the other’s food supply. The other side then retaliated and burned their food supply. Then within weeks the Roman legions showed up at the walls. So not only was there a shortage of food, but Jews from all over the country had been fleeing in front of the legions to take shelter behind the city walls. And it was Passover weekend, a feast that attracted multitudes anyway, so the city was overflowing with people. The result was a severe famine during the several month-long siege.
The fourth horse is pale in color, and its rider is named Death.
“And I looked, and behold I saw a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” Revelation 6:8 NIV
The result of the food shortage during the siege was catastrophic. Josephus estimated that along with the zealots who died fighting, over one million Jews died during the siege. One gate keeper alone had counted over 115,000 corpses leaving over the two and half months of the siege. The same man reported later to Titus that over 600,000 dead of the poor had been taken out altogether. He also reported many others were laid up in heaps in houses where the doors were then locked. After the siege was broken many more thousands of corpses were discovered beneath the city in Solomon’s quarry.
Many scholars have scoffed at this death toll, saying Josephus was exaggerating, for Jerusalem was a city of only a few tens of thousands. But again, the circumstances were that Jews from all over Judea had fled to the city over the last two years seeking refuge, and that Passover brought even more. The city was accustomed to its population swelling every year during Passover. Therefore, one million people trapped there is not out of the question. This was the worst loss of life to visit the Jews until the holocaust of the 20th century.
Many interpretations have been made of the four horses of the apocalypse. No one can prove one is correct and another not. But one must admit the parallels to the events of 66-70 CE are remarkable. In the next blog I will discuss how the Beast of Revelation and the Antichrist can be connected to the destruction of Jerusalem.