The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” have become a widely recognizable motif in American popular culture, even being featured on TV shows such as “Sleepy Hollow”. They are most commonly known by the names or titles of Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, but would more accurately be called Tyranny, War, Famine, and Plague.
Conquest is almost synonymous with War. To merit the distinction of being a separate Horseman, the first rider must represent something more distinct, something more than just a synonym of the designation of the second rider. Death is what Hades, the Greek god of the underworld where the dead go (the actual god of death is Thanatos), who follows after the fourth rider represents, and the sickly green horse of that rider reveals his true nature.
Speaking of the “Apocalypse”, though the word has come to be used to refer to a catastrophic event bordering on or actually being the end of the world (as in “zombie apocalypse”), it is really just the Greek word for “revelation” anglicized.
The Apocalypse in question is the Apocalypse of John the Divine, whom many mistakenly equate with Yohanon (John) bar Zebedi, the brother of James the Great and the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. Revelation, as it is more commonly known in America, almost didn’t make it into canon and remains outside the lectionary of all the Eastern churches. It was also not the only Christian “apocalypse”; the others included the Apocalypse of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, the Apocalypse of Thomas, the Apocalypse of Stephen, the First Apocalypse of James, and the Second Apocalypse of James.
There were scores, perhaps hundreds of apocalypses among the Jews of the Hellenistic period, but only one made it into the accepted canon, the Book of Daniel. Certain parts of that work as we have it were written in the 2nd century by the same author who composed 1 Maccabees.
Back to Revelation, aka the Apocalypse of John the Divine.
Written in the period straddling the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, this apocalypse presents numerous symbols as motifs which would have been instantly understood by the readers at the time but which are opaque to us in the 21st century without a bit of research. The Seven Seals, for example, represent the number of seals on a will under Roman law. The Two Witnesses, whom Christian writers variously identify as Elijah and either Enoch or Moses, represent the number of witnesses necessary in a Jewish court of law.
The Four Horsemen are another motif mirroring a counterpart in Judaism. In Jewish midrash, there are Four Craftsmen on the side of Yahweh and his people in the events that bring about the end of the old world and the birth of the new. These Four Craftsmen are Elijah, the Messiah ben Joseph, the Messiah ben David, and the Righteous Priest.
Elijah is, as always, the Forerunner. The Messiah ben Joseph is also called the Messiah ben Ephraim. The Messiah ben David is also called the Messiah ben Judah. The Righteous Priest is sometimes identified with Melchizedek and sometimes with Moses, and exists in some documents as the Messiah ben Levi or the Messiah ben Aaron and Israel.
The foretold function of each of these eschatological figures, or what designation a particular writer gave them, is not as important as the fact that these four figures would have immediately sprung to mind of a reader of John the Divine’s Apocalypse. So, if you have ever wondered why are there Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and not Five Horsemen or Seven Horsemen or Twelve Horsemen, now you know.
Jesus the Nazarene, incidentally, is at various places by different authors identified as three of these figures.
The genealogies in Matthew and Luke imply that Jesus was the Messiah ben David, and in the accounts of the entry into Jerusalem in Matthew and Mark the crowds refer to Jesus as (the Messiah) ben David; though, in contrast, Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the chapters following that account (Luke’s does not call him “Son of David”), Jesus denies that the Messiah is David’s son.
Almost without exception, the prophecies of the Tanakh/Old Testament he is reported to fulfill are prophecies, among them most notably the Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 and 53, that Judaism identifies with the Messiah ben Joseph.
In the anonymous work known as the Epistle of the Hebrews, Jesus is compared to the mystical Melchizedek, who is identified with the Righteous Priest/Messiah ben Levi/Messiah of Aaron and Israel.
The only figure of Jewish eschatology with whom no Christian writer has ever identified Jesus is the prophet Elijah. In Jewish midrash, Elijah has become the archangel Sandalphon while Enoch, the other Tanakh figure assumed into heaven, has become the archangel Metatron. In Qabbalah, the two archangels stand at either end of the Tree of Life made up of the ten visible and one hidden sefirot, Metatron at the Crown and Sandalphon at the Kingdom (or Shekhinah, “Presence”), the sefirah which emanates from Creation.
(NOTE: In each of the sefirot, the name of God assigned to a particular sefirah comes first, followed by the archangel of that sefirah, followed by the order of angels for that sefirah. For the invisible sefirah of Da'at, the divine name is Yahweh Elohim and the archangel is Uriel; the choir of angels for Da'at is Seraphim M'opheph, or “Flying Serpents”.)