Tyrants have played a special role in the spiritual history of Judaism and Christianity. In stories about evil tyrants, Jews and Christians alike have found messages about faith and about the superior power of good when faced with evil. In both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, we find tyrants first stimulating announcements about the old world order's imminent demise and then apocalyptic visions of the messiah ushering in a new millennium with good triumphing over evil. The Old and New Testaments, then, have provided a lens with which to view tyrants, both old and new.
Tyrants have often been cast as a type of antichrist due to their evil acts toward followers of God. This was the case with Assur, Amalech, and Holofernes, who brutalized the Israelites. It was also the case with Abimilech (Judges 8-9), the son of Gideon, who led the killings of his 70 brothers. Added to this list is Doeg Idumaneus, who slaughtered 85 priests by order of King Saul (1 Samuel 22:7-23). In Exodus 1:15-22, on hearing that an infant had been born who would one day take away his glory, the Pharaoh of Egypt ordered his men to kill the male children of the Hebrew slaves-thereby securing him a special place on the long list of Old Testament tyrants.
However, of all the Old Testament tyrants, Antiochus Ephiphanes (215-164 B.C.E.) may have been the worst. Antiochus Ephipanes has been regarded by many to be the antichrist who will battle with the coming Messiah. In 1 Maccabees, Antiochus attacks worship on the Sabbath by sacking the Golden Altar and holy cups and bowls. In 2 Maccabees 5:15-27, he has his men slaughter the grown men in the Judean wilderness and sells the women and children into slavery. Antiochus's contempt for the Jews extends into 2 Maccabees 6:1-11, when he issues an edict stating that Jews were to forsake the laws of their ancestors and of God, by calling their temple the Temple of Zeus. Antiochus then proceeds to fill the Holy Temple with statues of Zeus, Apollo, and other Greek gods. This led to the Maccabean revolt, which is still celebrated today in the festival of Chanukah.
The antichrist and evil tyrants are the most fascinating figures of Christian apocalypticism. In medieval times, the term antichrist was regularly applied to the evil tyrants of the New Testament. There have been numerous interpretations throughout the ages of who and what this figure of the antichrist might be. Since the Middle Ages, scholars have examined the New Testament, uncovering evil tyrants who persecuted Christians and Christ. These tyrants were opponents of God and his church. The Roman emperors Diocletian, Domitian, and Julian all persecuted the early Christians, and as a result, became types of antichrist.
The peculiar fascination with evil tyrants that led to the compilation of the antichrist figure is due to the horrific actions that these individuals inflicted on the righteous. King Herod is one of the most noteworthy, as he ruled the land of Judea in a corrupt and unholy manner. He was a man of great ability, albeit a madman, who was reviled as the king responsible for killing countless priests, courtiers, and families, and who had babies slaughtered in an attempt to murder the Christ child. In 40 B.C.E., Rome awarded Herod the crown of Israel, and as his first act of defiance to Jewish law, Herod ascended the Capitoline Hill in Rome to make an offering to the Roman gods. This breaks the first two commandments of Jewish law: Thou shalt have no other god but God, and Thou shalt not bow down to idols. Later, Herod defeated the Jewish forces in battle, and took his place on the throne of Israel as king. His first act as king was to put to death the old members of the regime and create a new aristocracy whose members were loyal to him. In the New Testament, only Nero may have outdone Herod. The interpretations of Nero (Roman emperor, 54-68 C.E.) are interesting, for they join the apocalyptic antichrist to an original pagan belief in the return of Nero. Christians identified Nero with the evil power that the Apostle Paul wrote about in 2 Thessalonians 2:7. Nero's persecutions of the Disciples, the church, and the people of Christ were seen as the work of the devil.
Nero became the worst tyrant of the Christian Bible and later, the full embodiment of the antichrist. The historian Tacitus reported that in the first century, rumors of Nero's return were common among the people of Achaia and Asia after his death. The historian Suentonius wrote that although there was much joy and celebration when Nero died, many expected him to return and destroy his enemies.
The tyrants who populate the Hebrew and Christian Bibles provide clear pictures of the sufferings inflicted on God's people. Yet, without these evil tyrants, there would be fewer moral lessons and fewer examples of the triumph of good over evil. Thus, the stories of tyrants have been about more than just suffering. They have been about the strength and faith of the early Jews and Christians, thus making them models for generations to come. In the end, then, the main message has been that if one has faith in God, good will triumph over evil.