(Rev. 11:3-12) Who are the two witnesses?

While many interpretations have been offered for the identity of the two witnesses,[1] there are two primary interpretations of this passage: literal and symbolic. Should we view these two witnesses as future, historical people? Or should we interpret them in a symbolic fashion to refer to the witnessing of the church?

The language between this section (“I will grant my authority to my two witnesses” vv.3) seems to be similar to the previous section about the Temple and the holy city (“It has been given to the nations” v.2b). Therefore, our understanding of this section is closely linked with our understanding of the literalness of the Temple and the holy city (c.f. Rev. 11:1). Let’s consider both perspectives:

LITERAL INTERPRETATION: Moses and Elijah? Two similar prophets?

Advocates of a more literal interpretation see these two witnesses in a straightforward way. Some argue that these witnesses are, in fact, Moses and Elijah. They offer a number of arguments of this view:

First, both Moses and Elijah were taken bodily into heaven. Elijah went directly into heaven and never died (2 Kings 2:11). While the Pentateuch states that Moses was buried in Moab, no one knew his specific burial place (Deut. 34:6). According to the NT, Michael—the archangel—confiscated the body of Moses into heaven (Jude 1:9). Why would God care about Moses’ dead body, unless he had a future purpose for it? At the Mount of Transfiguration, both Moses and Elijah bodily appeared to Christ and the disciples (Mt. 17:3).

Second, these two figures appear to be human. They have bodies (v.8), they have feet (v.11), and they are placed in a tomb at death (v.9). These two witnesses wear sackcloth, which was the garb of prophets (v.3). In 2 Kings 1:8, Isaiah 20:2, and Zechariah 13:4, we see that this is the usually clothing of a real prophet.

Third, the OT predicted that Elijah would return before the end of human history. Malachi predicted that Elijah will appear before “the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5-6; c.f. 3:1-3). Jesus also said that “Elijah is coming and will restore all things” (Mt. 17:11). Jesus said that John the Baptist was a partial fulfillment of this prophecy, but this was contingent on whether they would receive it (Mt. 11:14). Of course, in his omniscience, God knew that they would reject him. Therefore, John the Baptist denied that he was the fulfillment of these passages about Elijah (Jn. 1:21)—even though he did come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17). Dispensationalist interpreters do not believe that Elijah’s coming is necessary, but are inclined to believe this. Dwight Pentecost writes, “The fact that John could have fulfilled it, even though he was not personally Elijah, seems to indicate that Elijah need not come personally to fulfill the prophecies. During the period preceding the second advent, and prior to the outpouring of judgments upon the earth, there will be a ministry by one in the spirit and power of Elijah, which will fulfill this prophecy.”[2] Therefore, this could be an “Elijah-like” figure, if not Elijah himself.

Fourth, the language of causing a draught and turning the rivers into blood seems to fit with Elijah and Moses (v.6). Elijah prayed to cause a draught in Israel (1 Kings 17:1), and Moses turned the Nile into blood (Ex. 7:17). The language of “every plague” seems to fit with the plagues of the Exodus as well.

Fifth, Jewish tradition taught that Moses and Elijah would return at the end of human history. Johnson writes, “On the other hand, Jewish tradition taught that Moses and Elijah would return, and this view is followed by a number of Christian interpreters. According to Jochanan ben Zakkai (first century a.d.), God said to Moses, ‘If I send the prophet Elijah, you must both come together.’”[3]

SYMBOLIC INTERPRETATION: The witness of the Church? The witness of the Law and Prophets?

Those who advocate a more symbolic interpretation argue that these two witnesses could be symbolic for the church’s witness in general, rather than two literal men. Others argue that perhaps these two witnesses are actually symbolic for the Law and the Prophets of the OT (Jn. 5:45). In support of a more symbolic interpretation, they make a number of observations:

First, the beast makes war on the two witnesses (v.7). This seems strange for just two individuals. Of course, more literal interpreters point out that God was supernaturally protecting these two individuals at this time (v.5), and they have supernatural control over the weather patterns (v.6). Therefore, it takes an actual war to destroy these two.

Second, the two witnesses also are called “lamps” and “olive trees” (v.4)—not just witnesses. Advocates of a symbolic interpretation argue that there are multiple symbols and metaphors used for these two individuals. Why should we interpret the “witnesses” as literal, if we think the language of “lamps” and “olive trees” is symbolic? They also argue that Revelation 1:20 identifies the seven “lampstands” as the church.

However, the lamps are also identified with the Holy Spirit (Rev. 4:5), Christ, (Rev. 21:23), and God (Rev. 22:5). Therefore, this symbolism is not necessarily straightforward. Moreover, this imagery of “lamps,” “olive trees,” and “witnesses” is drawn directly from Zechariah 4. There, Zechariah sees seven lamps and two olive trees (vv.2-3). The angel interprets this vision for Zechariah, saying that these are “two anointed ones” (v.14). That is, Zechariah interpreted these two olive trees as two literal people.

Third, all people on Earth are able to see the dead witnesses (v.9). If only two witnesses are in view, symbolic interpreters ask how it is possible for the entire world to see them? Osborne writes, “In 11:9–13 the whole world sees the defeat and resurrection of the witnesses, and in a first-century setting that means they are found throughout the world.”[4] However, advocates of a more literal reading argue that this speaks of a futuristic setting. Today, with the Internet, television, and satellite technology, we see no difficulty with the entire world seeing these two dead bodies.

[1] Enoch and Elijah, Jeremiah and Elijah, James the bishop of Jerusalem and the apostle John, two Christian prophets martyred by Titus, Peter and Paul martyred by Nero, two individual prophets modeled after Joshua and Zerubbabel, the two olive trees of Zech. 4:1–2, linked with the priestly Messiah (Aaron) and the lay Messiah (Israel) of Qumran. See Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 417.

[2] Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things to Come: a Study in Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie, 1964. 313.

[3] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (504). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[4] Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 418.