Josephus and Revelation 6:5-6 (Wheat, Barley, Oil, and Wine)


Several days ago I presented nine case studies showing parallels between “The Wars of the Jews” by Josephus and the Book of Revelation. We noted that John wrote Revelation before the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 AD, and that Josephus wrote “The Wars of the Jews” in 75 AD.

One person who listened to my presentation (Jeff Good) later pointed out two different parallels between Revelation 6:5-6 and “The Wars of the Jews.” I’d like to discuss that double parallel in this post.

When He opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come and see.’ And I looked, and behold, a black horse, and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four living creatures saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine’” (Rev. 6:5-6).

This description of the third seal is clearly about famine conditions, and it references a time when a quart of wheat or three quarts of barley would cost as much as the average worker earned in a day (a denarius). Consider this description by Josephus of the famine which took place around May 70 AD during the Roman siege of Jerusalem:

“Many there were indeed who sold what they had for one measure; it was of wheat, if they were of the richer sort; but of barley, if they were poorer. When these had so done, they shut themselves up in the inmost rooms of their houses, and ate the corn they had gotten; some did it without grinding it, by reason of the extremity of the want they were in, and others baked bread of it, according as necessity and fear dictated to them: a table was nowhere laid for a distinct meal, but they snatched the bread out of the fire, half-baked, and ate it very hastily” (Wars 5.10.2).

So both John and Josephus spoke of the great difficulty that people had, during the famine of 70 AD, just to obtain wheat and barley. They had to spend a day’s wage, or sell all that they had, just to obtain one measure. Notice that both John and Josephus singled out these same two food items.

As another listener, Chad Kennow, pointed out, by July 70 AD the famine conditions in Jerusalem became so bad that a mother cooked and ate her own child. Her name was Mary of Bethezub, and her story is recorded in Wars 6.3.4. This fulfilled what Deuteronomy 28:53, 56-57 said would happen to a perverse generation (Deut. 32:20) during a siege in Israel’s latter days (Deut. 31:29).

Josephus also described a sacrilegious act involving oil and wine. It was carried out by one of the Zealot leaders, John Levi of Gischala:

“But as for John, when he could no longer plunder the people, he betook himself to sacrilege, and melted down many of the sacred utensils, which had been given to the temple; as also many of those vessels which were necessary for such as ministered about holy things, the caldrons, the dishes, and the tables; nay, he did not abstain from those pouring vessels that were sent them by Augustus and his wife; for the Roman emperors did ever both honor and adorn this temple; whereas this man, who was a Jew, seized upon what were the donations of foreigners, and said to those that were with him, that it was proper for them to use Divine things, while they were fighting for the Divinity, without fear, and that such whose warfare is for the temple should live of the temple; on which account he emptied the vessels of that sacred wine and oil, which the priests kept to be poured on the burnt-offerings, and which lay in the inner court of the temple, and distributed it among the multitude, who, in their anointing themselves and drinking, used [each of them] above an hin of them” (Wars 5.13.6).

So one of the four living creatures in John’s vision said, “Do not harm the oil and the wine,” and Josephus recorded how a Zealot leader abused the “sacred wine and oil” used by the priests for their work in the temple.

In summary, here is a simple chart showing these two parallels between Josephus and Revelation 6:5-6.

John (Revelation)

Josephus (The Wars of the Jews)

“A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius…” (Revelation 6:6). “Many there were indeed who sold what they had for one measure; it was of wheat, if they were of the richer sort; but of barley, if they were poorer…” (Wars 5.10.2).
“…and do not harm the oil and the wine…” (Revelation 6:6). “…he betook himself to sacrilege… he emptied the vessels of that sacred wine and oil…” (Wars 5.13.6).

Ten Case Studies So Far

With this new case study on Revelation 6:5-6 added (#3 below), here’s an updated chart comparing Josephus and the Book of Revelation:

Case Study  Reference by John  Reference by Josephus  Approximate Date(s)
 #1  Revelation 6:4
 (2nd Seal)
Civil War: Wars 4.3.2
Sword: Wars 2.18.34.4.3,

4.5.35.8.1, and 5.10.1.
August 66 AD;
Feb./ March 68 AD;

May 70 AD
#2  Revelation 6:5-6

 (3rd Seal)

Wars 5.10.2

Wars 5.13.6

May 70 AD
 #3  Revelation 6:15-16
 (6th Seal)
Wars 6.7.3 August 70 AD
 #4  Revelation 8:7-9
 (1st and 2nd Trumpets)
Wars 3.4.1
Wars 3.9.3
Wars 3.10.9
March – August 67 AD
 #5  Revelation 9:13-16
 (6th Trumpet)
Wars 4.4.2 February 68 AD
 #6  Revelation 11:7-13
 (6th Trumpet)
Wars 4.4.5
Wars 4.5.1-2
February 68 AD
 #7  Revelation 16:3-6
 (2nd and 3rd Bowls)
Wars 4.7.5-6 April-May 68 AD
 #8  Revelation 16:19
 (7th Bowl)
Cities of the nations fell:
Wars 3 (Galilee)
Wars 4.7 (Perea)
Wars 4.9 (Idumea & Judea)
Jerusalem divided:
Wars 5.1.1 and 5.1.4
(67 AD)
(Spring 68 AD)
Mid-68 AD – 69 ADDecember  69 AD
 #9  Revelation 16:21
 (7th Bowl)
Wars 5.6.3 May 70 AD
 #10  Revelation 17:12-17 Wars 2.20.3-4 Dec. 66 AD – Aug. 70 AD

The other nine case studies can be seen in this post.

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