Interpreting The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse In A Historical Context

The Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible is a controversial and influential book. It’s basic storyline, that of an apocalyptic end of the world, has persuaded men, women, children, and others into fearing God and believing unprecedented doom will occur if Christian beliefs aren’t followed. Ever since the first century, there have been individuals who proclaim the apocalypse is just around the corner; see below for a brief list. In today’s environment of Covid-19, natural disasters, nuclear weapon technology, and financial hardships, there is no shortage of doomsday leaders who believe the real time of the tribulation is now. But what if they are all wrong? What if the symbology used by John the Elder (the credited author of Revelations) has been taken literally when it should be metaphorical? In this blog I explore a possible interpretation that takes into account how the symbolism can be read in a historical context.

List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events

Predicted YearPerson/sDetails of Apocalypse
66–70Simon bar Giora, Jewish EssenesThe Jewish Essene sect of ascetics saw the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66–70 in Judea as the final end-time battle which would bring about the arrival of the Messiah.
365Hilary of PoitiersThis early French bishop announced the end of the world would happen during this year.
375–400Martin of ToursThis French bishop stated that the world would end before 400 AD, writing, “There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.”
847ThiotaThis Christian declared in 847 that the world would end that year, though later confessed the prediction was fraudulent and was publicly flogged.
1033Various ChristiansFollowing the failure of the prediction for 1 January 1000, some theorists proposed that the end would occur 1000 years after Jesus’ death, instead of his birth.
1346–1351Various EuropeansThe Black Death spreading across Europe was interpreted by many as the sign of the end of times.
1524London astrologersA group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London, based on calculations made the previous June. Twenty thousand Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.
For more predictions see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events

The standard interpretation of the Four Horsemen is: 

“The first horseman, a conqueror with a bow and crown, rides a white horse, which scholars sometimes interpret to symbolize Christ or the Antichrist; the second horseman is given a great sword and rides a red horse, symbolizing war and bloodshed; the third carries a balance scale, rides a black horse, and symbolizes famine; and the fourth horseman rides a pale horse and is identified as Death.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica

To me, this explanation is too simple; the descriptions of white, red, black, and pale horses beacons more investigation than the literal presentation of a Christ/Antichrist, war, famine, and death. In Did the White Horseman have a bow, bow, and bow? I demonstrate how interpretations of homophones can significantly alter the interpretation of Bible passages, further, I highlight that common, contemporary interpretations are not necessarily correct if translations issues, like punctuation, are not accounted for. As a continuation, a major flaw I perceive in many Bible interpretations is that the meaning of symbols are not viewed in relation to their historical significance and cultural context. But before delving into alternative ways of viewing the Four Horsemen, I’d like to do a little thought experiment.

Imagine: You are John the Elder, a citizen of Ephesus in approximately 96 CE. You have a spiritual experience in which prophetic visions are placed in your mind. Now imagine what language the Holy Spirit would use to communicate with you. Would you expect it to use a symbolic language that you understood? Or a symbolic language that you did not understand but people in the future might? To put it more crudely, if you spoke English, would you expect a spiritual being to communicate with you in English or a language you don’t know? Would you write down your vision using icons you did not understand? Or would you record the vision according to your own comprehension level?

Speaking in tongues aside, the chances are you’d receive a message from the Holy Spirit in a language you could comprehend, and you’d pass on your message in a manner that others could also comprehend. But also remember that you may be persecuted by Roman authorities for your beliefs, hence, you may want to disguise what you are saying so as it looks like it is not “Christian”. If only there were a symbolic code you could use …

Contrary to some theorists (like psychoanalysts) language and symbolic communication is not consistent over time or cultures. Pictures and symbols are a form of language, and just like any type of communication, these evolve over time. Human communication is in a constant flux that develops due to standard meanings being reused and blended with creative impulses that alter previous meanings. When changes to symbolic language is done deliberately, it can effectively make an “in” and an “out” group, that is those who understand the communication and those who do not … I can’t help but wonder if Early Christians who were afraid of persecution may have deliberately manipulated language and pre-existing symbols to avoid having their beliefs scrutinised?

When new words, phrases, or concepts get known and/or accepted by large groups of people they develop a cultural context. For example, if you were to tell someone in their eighties that you went to a party that was “totally sick”, they may give an empathetic response because they assumed that “totally sick” means the party was a disaster in which everyone became ill. In contrast, a younger person hearing about a “totally sick” party would understand that you had a great time (I touch upon the creativity of language more here.) Each generation alters or develops language usage in some way or another. Language has simple and complex interrelationships with the time, culture, and the audience in which it is spoken. 

Second thought experiment: If John the Elder had been given a literal vision of armageddon that was supposed to happen in our time then he would have had to describe cars, computers, electricity, and several other things that he would not have a point of reference to in his lifetime. Hence, it stands to reason that John’s recording of prophecies is embedded with symbolic communication appropriate to his language and his culture. Moreover, his vision is not literal, it is metaphorical; an allegory of concepts and feelings. I would even argue that it is not even about the end of the world, rather, it depicts a cosmic cycles; rebirths or some form of evolutionary stages. In comparison, consider real childbirth. If one were to metaphorically describe labour, especially a difficult labour, then it could be said to be a time of great pain and bloodshed in which the woman’s appetite is gone, her limbs and pelvis are torn in different directions, and there is a battle between internal forces and external forces. Birth is the death of life in the womb. So too the Book of Revelations may be describing great changes to humanity that are allegorical to war, famine, battle, and death. 

To decode the symbols of the Four Horseman further, we need to consider the Ephesus culture. Ephesus is located in modern day Turkey and it has a long history. In about the sixth century BCE it came under Greek influence and was a hub for cults that worshipped the Goddess Artemis. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great consolidated the Hellenisation of the region. By John the Elder’s time, Ephesus was a Roman province, however, Latin had not yet developed into a scholarly language, hence, Revelations was written in Greek (as was most of the New Testament). Pretty much all New Testament writers had an understanding of Greek and Jewish traditions, albeit, they may have favoured one over the other and their products were original to some degree. (See commentary on Justin Martyr.

Now to cut to the chase of the symbolism of the Four Horsemen; horses in Ancient times were a symbol of the intellect. To a contemporary mind this may not make sense; books, degrees, and computers may be considered better symbols of intelligence but in the eras we’re talking about, before the first century, books, formal qualifications, and computers weren’t invented yet. To a person of antiquity, horses were a valuable possession, they enabled travel and freedom, were needed on farms and to go into battle, they could be trained to do all sorts of tasks and tricks, and horses were loyal companions. Given all these considerations, it is understandable that horses became a symbol for intelligence. Homer’s depiction of the Trojan horse that enabled victory in the battle of Troy is a good example of how the concepts of intellect, strategy, resourcefulness, and success, were linked to horses in the pre-Christian era. 

Nowadays we think of the intellect in terms of cognitive brain functions that occur in the prefrontal cortex, in antiquity, the intellect was considered to be more of a spiritual principle. Spiritual forces were perceived to be everywhere and these could and would impact individuals. For instance, in Ancient Greece, it’s unlikely that a person would be described as a genius, rather, if a person displayed strong intellectual qualities then the external force of a “genii” may be given credit for working through them. A genii was like a guardian angel, higher self, or daimon that floated around trying to give people ideas; it was believed possible that if an idea from a genii was not accepted by one person, then the genii would move onto someone else. Basically, what we view as internalised higher order thinking, our Mediterranean ancestors perceived as external messages from spiritual realms.

Recognising the Four Horsemen as being aspects of an intelligent spiritual force is only the first step. The next is to understand that horses were also cosmological symbols. Hence, each horseman may be interpreted as representing a cosmic element. Helios riding his four-horsed chariot immediately comes to my mind.

Helios the Sun God riding is chariot with four horses. Image source: Theoi Project

In Ancient Greek theology, Helios’ four horses symbolise earth, water, air, and fire. Could it be that the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse are an appropriation or repurposing of the symbolism of Helios’ four horses? Maybe, however, the link may be broader. In Judaism Ezekiel’s chariot has four horses (Ezekiel 1:4-28), in the Greco-Roman era, Apollo had a four horse chariot, and some Early Christians depicted Saint Mark as the charioteer of four horses. The question, therefore, may be: Is there an ideological link between all these varied representations of horses with the classical elements?

The concepts of fire, air, water, and earth were definitely popular amongst philosophers, however, to say they all meant the same thing in every context is probably an overgeneralisation. Suffice to say, it is not farfetched to assume John the Elder knew this symbolic code; I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know about it. So how do the four elements link to the Four Horseman? Let’s first look at the colours. (Readers may want to review The Four Elements in Theology and Ancient Texts to get some background information about the framework.)

In Empedocles era, there is evidence to suggest that he and others associated black, white, yellow and red to water, fire, earth, and air. Coincidentally, the four horsemen described in the Book of Revelations have the same colours, albeit, yellow may be referred to as pale or green, depending on which translation of the Bible you look at. (Side note: the colours associated with each element and the differing of terminology to describe the pale or yellow element is consistent with The surprising pattern behind color names around the world.)

If we go through the associated symbolism of each horseman one at a time we can see more clues:

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” 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 6:1-2 (NIV)

Key symbolic words that I can identify in these lines are thunder, white, and crown. These conjure inferences of concepts that relate to fire. The association of the White Horseman with the element of fire is strengthened in Revelation 19:11-16 when the rider is described as having eyes like a flame of fire. In Ancient Greek theology, fire is the highest on the hierarchy of elements. (The White Horseman’s “bow” is still open to interpretation.)

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 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 6:3-4 (NIV)

If the sequence of the hierarchy is to be followed, then the red horse symbolises air. Air in classical philosophies is the emotional and passionate part of the soul. It is given reverence, however, it is also sometimes described as being an element that causes strife. Amongst air’s good points, is that it is a life-supporting element on earth; if one does not have air in their body they will be dead. Thus, there is some correlation between the traditional qualities of air and the Red Horseman’s characteristics of taking away peace and producing death.

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds a of wheat for day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”

Revelation 6:5-6 (NIV)

The black horse may be interpreted as water. While the literal symbols of scales, wheat, barley, and wages, appear to to be a reference to earthly concerns of money and finances, if they are viewed in the context of being said by a voice among the four living creatures, it can be inferred that the symbols of earthly existence (i.e., food and money) are supported or balanced (i.e., the scales) by the element of water. The final line is a warning that support of the physical elements must not damage the oil or the wine; wine is a symbol for spirit, aka fire, and oil is a symbol for soul, aka air. Hence, water is an intermediate or transitional element. 

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.


Revelation 6:7-8 (NIV)

The most significant indication that the fourth horseman represents the element of earth is the term “Hades”. As explicitly told by Empedocles, Hades represents the earth in Ancient Greek theology. In Bible’s such as the King James Version, the pagan term of Hades is replaced by “Hell”, hence, some of the alignment between the theology of the elements and the horsemen is obscured. Just like the Homeric hymn to Demeter, Hades in Revelations is connected to death. The terms sword, famine, plague, and beasts, are not necessarily literal, but metaphorical of earthly experiences. The Early Christian concept of Hades is not identical to the Ancient Greek Hades, but it is a significant link that deserves acknowledgment.

The embedding of Ancient Greek theology into Christian doctrines has a long history. From Justin Martyr, to Augustine, and Aquinas, Christianity has always borrowed theology from other sources. In Is Aristotle Overrated? I hone in on the Greek influence, however, influence also came from Judaism, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and others.

Overall, there are many indicators that the Book of Revelations is a metaphorical story that appropriates or repurposes Ancient Greek theology. Read as an allegory, the Four Horsemen are not going to appear one after the other and signal the end of the world. According to my interpretation, John the Elder’s vision was as much a reflection on the development of human beings from a cosmological perspective as it is a prediction for the future.

Decoding the symbolism of the remaining three seals introduces some more complex theology that I’ll leave for another day. And to be honest, I have not perfected my interpretation of Revelations, but I hope that the insights I can provide promotes critical thinking that prevents people from falling for doomsday predictors who will one day join the Wikipedia list of false prophets.

Of all philosophies and theologies, I resonate with the concept of creativity being the most important. From imaginative applications of symbols and communication that involves creative language, to every moment of every day, human beings are creators, or as I’ve said before, creat[e]-ures made in the image of a Creative force that some call God. Ultimately, we all have the gift of Free Will to create a future of our choosing without fear that our destinies were pre-written in Ephesus, c.96CE.

References

Benson, J. L. (2000). Greek Color Theory and the Four Elements [full text, not including figures]. Scholarworks.umass.edu. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/art_jbgc/1

Biblical Ephesus. (2020). History of Ephesus – Biblical Ephesus. Biblical Ephesus. http://biblicalephesus.com/ephesus/history

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2019). Four horsemen of the Apocalypse | Christianity | Britannica. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/four-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. (2012). Genius | Roman religion. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/genius-Roman-religion

History.com Editors. (2018, August 21). Ephesus. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/ephesus

New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Book of Revelation – New World Encyclopedia. http://Www.newworldencyclopedia.org. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Book_of_Revelation

Revelation 6 KJV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/kjv/revelation/6.htm

Revelation 6 NIV. (n.d.). Biblehub.com. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://biblehub.com/niv/revelation/6.htm

Russell, J. R. (1997). The Four Elements and the Cross in Armenian Spirituality, with an Excursus on the Descent in Merkavah Mysticism. Jewish Studies Quarterly, 4(4), 357–379. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40753198

Theoi Project. (2017). Helius – Ancient Greek Vase Painting. http://Www.theoi.com. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/T17.1.htmlUniversity of Michigan. (n.d.). Horse. Umich.edu. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/H/horse.html

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