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Question about the term δράκων in passages such as Revelation 12:3 and Revelation 13:4 and Revelation 16:13.

(I am not asking about the symbolic meaning of whom or what the Dragon represented, as that can be seen in answers to other questions such as What type of "dragon" is implied by the seven headed serpent of revelation?.)

According to LSJ - Ancient Greek dictionaries one of the literal meanings of the word δράκων is "snake". But in most translations this word in Revelation is, for some reason, not translated as "snake" but as "dragon" which to us is a rather different beast.

In our time, the term "dragon" is heavily loaded with imagery of a fire-breathing (even magical) creature which may not have been the case during the first century, except maybe in China.

Did Apostle John's use of the term δράκων imply anything supernatural or magical to the contemporary readers or what kind of an image did that term give them?

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    Liddell & Scott (1854 Special American Edition, from hard copy and not online) : a dragon ; Homer describes it as a creature of huge size, coiled like a snake, of blood-red colour, or shot with many changing tints. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 5, 2023 at 19:07

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There are significant differences between different eras of Greek language. Classical Greek especially can occasionally lead the student of biblical (koine) Greek down the garden path and into a cul-de-sac. Lots of questions about examples of that have already been answered on this site, so I will not go into that. Sticking just to the Greek used in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, it will be seen that there are nuances of meanings for every description of the dragon in that book. Yet given that the great adversary of God in the book of Revelation is the one, same entity working unseen in and through agencies he has raised up to wrest control of God's creation from him, there is enough detail in the book of Revelation to answer this question from the three texts you cite, especially as you ask what the apostle John and first century Christians would understand.

You ask if the Apostle John's use of the term δράκων [implied] anything supernatural and the answer to that is a straight 'yes' because the whole of Revelation was about supernatural, invisible entities, powers and battles going on in the unseen realms. But 'magic' has nothing to do with that last book of the Bible, neither has pagan superstitions.

Consider the significance of δράκων (drakon) appearing 13 times in the New Testament, but never outside of the book of Revelation. It is written eight times by John in Revelation chapter 12 alone. He is spoken of as 'great red dragon' once, 'great dragon' once, and 'dragon' six times - all within chapter 12 alone. This is where the arch-enemy of God appears, for the first time. Seven more times in that one chapter he further appears: as 'serpent' twice, as 'old serpent' once, as 'accuser' once, as 'devil' twice, and as 'satan' once.

Chapter 12 directed John, the Christians alive at the end of the first century who read this, and all Christians thereafter till this very day, as to how this invisible spirit is to be identified and viewed. He remains hidden in John's writing until the vision of the heavenly woman about to give birth in the mid-heavens to a male child causes his appearance as a symbolic great, red dragon, wanting to destroy the male child at the moment of birth. John and Christians then would have not had a shadow of doubt but that this indicated what had happened invisibly in the spiritual realms when the one appointed to rule the nations with an iron rod appeared as per Psalm 2 - "the seed of the woman" as per Genesis 3:15. Here is commentary on this dragon as detailed in chapter 12:

"That this monstrous dragon cannot be seen, takes nothing from the symbolism. This is what comes to light at the birth of the one appointed of God to rule the nations with a rod of iron. At the nativity of the King of kings to whom the crown rights of all the nations pertain, the heir who is to rule the world, the adversary is galvanized into such rapacity that no figure could be more suited to portray him than a 'great red dragon'.

Never before. But at last, with the birth of the chosen and elect heir, the hitherto unbroken sway of the adversary, in contention for world dominion, not only is contested, it is downright denied and challenged root and branch. This brings out the dragon...

Christ is come to take it from him, for the adversary obtained it by subtlety, rebellion, and wickedness, but God had chosen his Anointed, appointing to him the crown rights of world dominion. I say, this brings out the dragon." The Revelation of Jesus Christ, pp 292-3, John Metcalfe

All Christians should be so familiar with all the prophecies in the Bible about the battle between God as his invisible arch-enemy, that when the final, epic prophecies John wrote down are given, all the pieces should fall into place. It should all make sense, especially with other descriptions, like 'serpent' 'accuser' 'devil' and 'satan' applying equally to this symbolic dragon.

All of those first century Christians would know enough of pagan ideas about Bel, and Dagon etc (gods of Old Testament times) so as to shun everything those polytheistic pagans taught about dragons and serpents. Why would Christians of today seek to do the exact opposite and delve into pagan literature about this?

In the New Testament the Greek ὄφις (ophis) means a snake/serpent. In 2 Corinthians 11:3, Christians knew that it was the serpent that beguiled Eve through its cunning, but they also knew that the spiritual seed of the woman would crush that spiritual serpent in its head - destroying it. That was what guided their beliefs about the serpent. They would not be beguiled by pagan legends or beliefs. The five times ὄφις (ophis) occurred in Revelation, would confirm all of that to them.

The Revelation would build up their faith that satan's wrath against them would only be permitted by God for so long, then God would cast him and his legions into eternal judgment, but for their eternal deliverance. That would be the 'image' that the book of Revelation would give them as to the unseen adversary, out to destroy the people of God, and to usurp the Kingdom of God. Chapter 12 of Revelation would give them a 'picture' of that triumph secured with God snatching the male child up to his throne, so that the dragon was defeated at that instant. Then he was cast down, confined to the Earth, with the next steps detailed, leading to final judgment for all rebels against God. The comfort that would give John and all other Christians would be immense, as it should equally comfort Christians today.

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Here is a synopsis of the helpful material in BDAG which quotes numerous sources in contemporary and classical literature concerning the word and imagery of δράκων (drakon).

  • In Homeric literature (both Homer and those contemporaries) who wrote about him, the δράκων is often synonymous with ὄφις (ophis = snake/serpent)
  • In early rabbinic literature, δράκων (drakon) is a loan word from Homeric literature with the same meaning
  • In Rev 12:9 these two are connected and used as a sobriquet for the Devil and Satan.
  • In Damascus, Vita Isadori (V-VI AD list 5) 67 the δράκων (drakon) is a great seven-headed monster comparable to Apollon
  • In Rhode, Psyche = ER, Psyche-List 6, 4 127ffthe description of the frightful δράκων (drakon) that guards the golden fleece
  • Also the Hydra according to Alcaeus nine-headed serpent; according to Simonides a fifty-headed serpent

There is much more in BDAG but this provides a sample showing that the δράκων (drakon) was a regular mythical beast/serpent in Greek literature. [A similar analysis would show that many other images in Revelation have a similar origin.]

I would also add that the word and image in Revelation would also remind the first century reader of the following:

  • the serpent of Gen 3
  • the δράκων (drakon) of the apocryphal book, "Bel and the Dragon" in the Septuagint.

δράκων (drakon) occurs 13 times in the book of Revelation: Rev 12:3, 4, 7, 9, 13, 16, 17, 13:2, 4, 11, 16:13, 20:2.

Here is some of Albert Barnes' comments on Rev 12:3 and the surrounding mythology of the δράκων (drakon) sperpent:

See a full account of the ideas that prevailed in ancient times respecting the dragon, in Bochart, Hieroz. lib. iii. cap. xiv., vol. ii. pp. 428-440. There was much that was fabulous respecting this monster, and many notions were attached to the dragon which did not exist in reality, and which were ascribed to it by the imagination at a time when natural history was little understood. The characteristics ascribed to the dragon, according to Bochart, are, that it was distinguished:

(a) for its vast size;

(b) that it had something like a beard or dew-lap;

(c) that it had three rows of teeth;

(d) that its color was black, red, yellow, or ashy;

(e) that it had a wide mouth;

(f) that in its breathing it not only drew in the air, but also birds that were flying over it; and,

(g) that its hiss was terrible.

Occasionally, also, feet and wings were attributed to the dragon, and sometimes a lofty crest. The dragon, according to Bochart, was supposed to inhabit waste places and solitudes (compare the notes on Isaiah 13:22), and it became, therefore, an object of great terror. It is probable that the original of this was a huge serpent, and that all the other circumstances were added by the imagination. The prevailing ideas in regard to it, however, should be borne in mind, in order to see the force and propriety of the use of the word by John. Two special characteristics are stated by John in the general description of the dragon: one is, its red color; the other, that it was great. In regard to the former, as above mentioned, the dragon was supposed to be black, red, yellow, or ashy. See the authorities referred to in Bochart, ut sup., pp. 435, 436. There was doubtless a reason why the one seen by John should be represented as red. As to the other characteristic - great - the idea is that it was a huge monster, and this would properly refer to some mighty, terrible power which would be properly symbolized by such a monster.

Having seven heads - It was not unusual to attribute many heads to monsters, especially to fabulous monsters, and these greatly increased the terror of the animal. "Thus Cerberus usually has three heads assigned to him; but Hesiod (Theog. 312) assigns him fifty, and Horace (Ode II. 13, 34) one hundred. So the Hydra of the Lake Lerna, killed by Hercules, had fifty heads (Virgil, Aen. vi. 576); and in Kiddushim, fol. 29, 2, rabbi Achse is said to have seen a demon like a dragon with seven heads" (Prof. Stuart, in loco). The seven heads would somehow denote power, or seats of power. Such a number of heads increase the terribleness, and, as it were, the vitality of the monster. What is here represented would be as terrible and formidable as such a monster; or such a monster would appropriately represent what was designed to be symbolized here. The number seven may be used here "as a perfect number," or merely to heighten the terror of the image; but it is more natural to suppose that there would be something in what is here represented which would lay the foundation for the use of this number. There would be something either in the origin of the power; or in the union of various powers now combined in the one represented by the dragon; or in the seat of the power, which this would properly symbolize. Compare the notes on Daniel 7:6.

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    Intertextuality is the key to understanding δράκων in biblical texts. The literature on this is voluminous; John J. Collins (Apocalypticism) and David E. Aune WBC Revelation vol2 p682f. Jan 5, 2023 at 22:48
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    @C.StirlingBartholomew - agreed - my miniscule survey above is only a tiny sampler.
    – Dottard
    Jan 6, 2023 at 0:51
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Two things come to mind in particular.

The first is in Revelation 12, the story of the Woman and the Dragon is heavy with astronomical imagery. And sure enough if you look at the constellations (which have been relatively the same over thousands of years) we have serpens, draco, hydra or the prototypical ancient scorpio. If you look at ancient imagery of these constellations, they are very serpent/snake-like.

The second is that it is very clear that John expected his readers to be familiar with texts of the old testament. So it's not surprising to find consistency with the imagery from the old testament which depicted the dragon as a sea monster. Based on other descriptions like 'coiling' and 'writhing' and 'twisting', this brings to mind more snake-like imagery, as you would see in Norse(World Serpent) or eastern mythologies.

I don't think this takes away from other Greek depictions of multi-headed hydras and monsters and that either imagery is likely valid as Revelation really is sort of the 'culmination' and 'connecting' of a lot of various ideas and imagery together to form a bigger picture. Other religious symbols like the Ouroboros have also been depicted as both more modern-typical draconic icons or strictly snake-like depictions too. I think it has more to do with the time of translation, or the indication that this isn't just a snake, but the infamous serpent of the ancient literature.

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In harmony with the previous comments, We might add that the dragons mentioned were overwhelmingly viewed as representing aspects of pagan or false worship. The various references to a dragon/serpent spoken of in the Bible describe the diabolical intentions of these loathsome beasts and is always portrayed as an enemy of God. It wages war with those who endeavor to obey God, it assaults Jesus, it rejects God's sovereignty and battles with Michael in heaven eventually being anhilated. Thus the imagery found in the Bible, pagan sources and other literature known at the time of John's vision would certainly bring to mind an evil hateful gross, diabolocal opponant of the True God and seems to refer to the various means and methods of Satan's viscious opposition to the rightful Universal Rulership of God and his means to destroy the works of the Devil. 1 Jo 3:8

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