Book review: Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John

by Steven J. Friesen


If you are a serious student of Revelation, this is a book you must read. I don’t think there’s another book like it … yet. That Revelation’s warnings often relate directly to the Imperial Cult of the late first century has been understood for a long time, but this book tackles the topic head on, in scholarly fashion. Friesen relates what archaeology has discovered about Caesar worship in Asia Minor, Revelation’s target audience. Much can be gathered from the study of coins, temple ruins, and writings. The Caesars were often simulated into the worship of traditional Greek deities, and what we understand from archaeology about both the public and mystery rituals is detailed.

One conclusion Friesen draws is that the Imperial Cult was definitely founded upon Caesar Augustus and his accomplishments. Augustus was worshiped as Zeus, the high god of the Greeks. In my mind, at least, there can be little doubt that the first of the seven kings of Revelation is Augustus … not, as some preterists insist, Julius Caesar. Friesen also concludes that the Flavians, including Vespasian and Titus, were also highly honored in myth. This matches the findings and conclusions in my own book, Revelation: The Way it Happened.

Friesen’s book is in two parts: First, the study of the Imperial Cults, and then, how Revelation relates to that study in its direct opposition to Roman imperialism and the abomination of Caesar worship. Of particular interest to readers of Revelation, of course, is Nero Caesar, considered by most to be either the fifth or the sixth king of the seven (depending upon whether you begin counting with Augustus or Julius). Most studied scholars of Revelation agree that, at least on some level, John was surely writing about Nero as the Beast of the Sea.

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