The Destruction of the Sea in Revelation 21:1 in Light of Roman Imperial Ideology

In this paper I will argue that the appropriate background for understanding the destruction of the sea in Revelation 21:1 is the Roman imperial theology that proclaimed Caesar’s divine rule over the sea. I will show how this ideology was expressed through remaining material evidence, including a network of harbor temples dedicated to Caesar’s worship (in Caesarea Maritima, Alexandria, and Leptis Magna, among others), numismatics (e.g., RIC I, Augustus 256; RIC I, Augustus 271; RIC II, Vespasian 285; RIC II, Titus 249), inscriptions (e.g., IvP 2.381; IvP 2.397), and surviving images of the emperors (such as those recovered at the imperial temple in Aphrodisias). These sources indicate an empire-wide program, but surviving material evidence indicates clearly that imperial claims to divine sovereignty over the sea were familiar in Roman Asia specifically. After thoroughly exploring this background, I will argue that the destruction of the sea in Revelation 21:1 should be read in a similar way to certain Jewish apocalyptic passages that equate the destruction of the sea with Roman imperial power and sovereignty over the sea (e.g., Sib. Or. 5.158–160; Sib. Or. 5.434–446; 4Q169 on Nah 1.4) or otherwise condemn Roman claims to divine sovereignty over the sea (2 Macc 9:8; Pss. Sol. 2.29). My work is primarily based upon primary sources, but it does incorporate the findings of a number of key secondary sources, including Nelson Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, and Steven Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John.

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