Who is the Whore of Babylon?
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The service this morning included the pastor’s homily, which happened to be on Revelation,1 focusing on the 22nd chapter, the New Jerusalem. As you know already, Revelation has been given so many different interpretations, one has to wonder if we are all reading the same book?2 Though pastor concentrated on the paradise of New Creation, it got me thinking on a close, but slightly different subject, and this article refers primarily to the very different ‘Whore of Babylon’.

The ‘Harlot of Babylon’ is the female figure found in Revelation 17-18. If we were to desexualize the metaphor, in Victorian fashion, one could call her ‘the Idolatress’. But who is this idolatress? Three ancient books, at least, use ‘Babylon’ as a code-word for ‘Rome’.3. It has been quite popular since the Reformation to ascribe these prophecies to the Roman-Catholic Church, a rendering which I strongly disagree. If it is in reference to Rome, Peter would be using it the same way too, since 1 Peter 5:13 uses ‘Babylon’ as a kind of code-word too, but for what church is uncertain4

Of course, some people think that Babylon is the city of Babylon, in modern Iraq 5 These interpreters think that Babylon is the physical city of Babylon. But, ‘Babylon’ seems to refer to Jerusalem herself, for in Revelation 11:8 the ‘great city’ is where the Lord was crucified (cf. how ‘great city’ is applied to Babylon in Rev. 17:18.)6

Leithart tells us that Victorinus once pointed to Revelation 17:9 and said that as Rome was founded on seven hills, so we see seven hills here, that the Harlot of ‘Babylon’ sits upon. However, we can see this is Jerusalem; yet, Jerusalem speaks toward humanity as a whole. Jerusalem is a literal place, with literal happenings, but represents the human project that combines political aspiration with religious dream. Sin, like in the human heart, comes from the inside of the Jewish State, not just the outside.

You see, Leithart explains that Babylon is a literary figure for Jerusalem, for Israel herself.7 “‘Babylon’ is even dressed like one of Israel’s high priests, with a gilded, jeweled robe and an inscription on her forehead (Rev. 17).”8

The other nuance, the human project as a whole, is emphasized by Augustine, who properly genericized the harlot into the ‘city of man’ as the Roman Empire collapsed around him. And, in many ways he is right, for this represents partially in its literal sense the ‘human project’, the ‘the Babel project, that mankind has undertaken — to build towers to the sky, to use technology against God himself (much to their futility).

Babylon [from Babel] is interpreted confusion, Jerusalem vision of peace. . . . They are mingled, and from the very beginning of mankind mingled they run on unto the end of the world. . . . Two loves make up these two cities: love of God makes Jerusalem, love of the world makes Babylon.9

Yet ultimately, the New Jerusalem rises, and the city portrayed as a harlot is now the bride. 10 You see, this cannot be physical Babylon, because Jeremiah prophesied that literal Babylon would never rise again (still true to this day) Consider Jeremiah 50:1-23.

“The word that the LORD spoke against Babylon and against the land of the Chaldeans by Jeremiah the prophet. Declare among the nations, and publish, and set up a standard; publish, and do not conceal this: say, Babylon is taken…For out of the north there comes a nation against her, which will make her land desolate, and none shall dwell in it… Because of the wrath of the LORD it shall not be inhabited, but shall be wholly desolate: every one that goes by Babylon shall be astonished…”

Rome is the predominant power in the place and time Revelation was written, but the enemy is not described as a powerful, marauding, invading infidel, but as a former bride. You see, “The symbolism of spiritual adultery is not ordinarily used of heathen nations who know not God, but always of people who outwardly carry the name of God while actually worshiping and serving other gods.”11

(1) Consider all the places in the Old Testament that refer to Jerusalem or Israel’s harlotry. (Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:1–11; Ezekiel 16:1–43; Ezekiel 23, Galatians 4:25).

(2) Israel is warned about prostituting themselves with the nations (Exodus 34:15-16; Leviticus 17:7; 20:5-6).

(3) Jesus ascribes Jerusalem fault for killing the prophets in Matthew 23:34–37 and Luke 11:47–51 (Revelation 17:6 and 18:20-24 use almost the same phrase) and says, “it’s not possible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:33)

Moreover, the text invites the reader to think of this woman as ‘Jezebel’, Ahab’s wife.

(1) Jezebel spilled the blood of the prophets (1 Kings 18:3-4; 13) and was associated with sexual promiscuity (cf. Rev. 17:2; 18:3-9)

(2) Allusions to Elijah in other parts of Revelation for faithful believers (who of course opposed Jezebel), make the allusion here no surprise.

(3) “The fact that the flesh of ‘Babylon’ is devoured in 17:16 calls to mind the fate of the Israelite queen (1 Kings 21:23-24).

(4) “Jezebel is queen of Tyre, and Babylon’s luxury is described in terms drawn from Ezekiel’s condemnation of Tyre (Ezekiel 27-28).”12

Jezebel is obviously a monarch of Israel herself – northern Israel, but nonetheless distinctly linked with the Promised land, not Europe. Some, however, vehemently disagree that the ‘Whore of Babylon’ is Jersualem, providing substanive research against the opinion I have offered.13, And I’m sure this quite possibly throws a wrench into the eschatologies of those who have it all mapped out; but as follows are at least some notes as to why I think it must be Jerusalem.

Footnotes

  1. (One would do well to rememeber the different kinds of interpretations of Revelation at this point:  Idealist [Revelation represents pagan society regardless of the age], Futurist [these events will happens in physical places in the future], Historicist [that these events are fulfilled in church history], and Preterist [that these things happened and were fulfilled at the end of the New Testament era]. I think in many ways these readings can be quadrigized and harmonized [cf. ‘Quadrigizing Revelation’] 
  2. Yet the same a true of Jesus.
  3. 4 Ezra, Baruch, Sibylline Oracles
  4. Jerusalem here may read better too, as James Jordan writes, “At this point, I want to raise three difficulties connected with the chronology of the New Testament. The first is the testimony of the “Church Fathers.” Some of these indicate that Peter died in Rome, for instance, though the testimony is slim and often clearly untrustworthy…In 1 Peter 5:13 Peter says that he writes from “Babylon,” and this has almost always been taken as a reference to Rome, but it is far more likely a reference to Jerusalem. Indeed, Paul expressly tells us that Peter captained the ministry to Jewish converts (Galatians 2:8). We do see Peter travelling in Acts, and if he travelled to minister to Jews, it is more likely that he went to the real Babylon than to Rome, because there was a large Jewish community in the Persian empire. But it is still more likely that he was headquartered in Jerusalem. He turned the actual administration of the Church over to James, and continued as an advisor and apostle. James was not an apostle, but the presiding elder of the Jerusalem Church. The only time after Acts 12 that we meet Peter is in Acts 15, at the Jerusalem Council, over which James presided.”

    The second problem with New Testament history is the tendency of scholars to read the Roman persecutions back into the New Testament. Except for the book of Revelation, the New Testament does not picture Rome as the enemy, and even in Revelation, the Roman Beast is clearly secondary to the Babylonian Whore. Rather, it is the Jews who are the enemy. It is the unconverted Jews who repeatedly try to get the apostles arrested in the history recorded in Acts, and repeatedly we see the Roman officials intervene to protect the Church. The theology here is very important: When our ways please God, He will usually cause the state to protect us against heretics who try to destroy us. Again, it is the Jews and Judaizers who are the troublers of the Church in the writings of Paul and the other New Testament authors. Babylon in Revelation is Jerusalem. Once we see this clearly, a somewhat different picture of the history of the earliest Church emerges.

  5. Notice I did not say literally, for each of these interpretations is a literal interpretation, ‘according to the letter’ – what the letter means.
  6. “Note that Babylon rules the waters, as the Spirit hovered over the waters.”
  7. Helpful Articles by Leithart on Revelation
  8. Revelation 18 ends with: “in her was found the blood of the prophets and of saints and of all who had been slain on the land” (v. 24). From our twenty-first-century perch, that sounds like ancient Rome, but the description actually proves that Babylon is Jerusalem. When John wrote, the Romans had barely shed a drop of Christian blood. According to Jesus, Jerusalem is the city that kills prophets (Matt. 23:35). Literally, the city is first-century Jerusalem, but the city is called Babylon, equivalent to Babel. John prophesies the fall of an ancient world, but he also (secundum tropologiam) describes the fate of the “Babel project” that has fascinated humanity for millennia.”
  9. Exposition on Psalm 65
  10. The bridal imagery was picked up in the Gospel of John (John 2-5, 20-21: Wedding at Cana, the Samaritan Woman, The Pool of Siloam, and the Resurrection narrative), as well as the Revelation written by John.
  11. https://bible.org/seriespage/17-destruction-ecclesiastical-babylon
  12. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2016/11/jezebel-and-babylon/#xX8g3qaD1jZ7lB6w.99
  13. http://www.postost.net/lexicon/20-reasons-thinking-babylon-great-rome-not-jerusalem
News Reporter
From Madison, Wisconsin. B.A. Biblical Studies: Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. M.Div. Student at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario.