In my commentary on the Book of Revelation, I assume without much discussion that references to ‘Babylon’ are in the first instance (for John and his readers) allusions to the power of Rome and the imperial system. Someone commented to me that I don’t give much space to debating this, or considering the other main possibility, that it is in fact an allusion to Jerusalem, thus highlighting the twin pressures experienced by John’s first readers from both imperial culture and an antipathetic Jewish community. The reason I didn’t give space to this is that the ‘Rome’ position is taken by the vast majority of commentators, and that the reasons for the ‘Jerusalem’ position are not at all persuasive in my view.
But Peter Leithart’s ITC commentary, rather surprisingly, does take the ‘Jerusalem’ position (whose previously best known exponent was Kenneth Gentry), so it is worth rehearsing some of the key issues in the discussion.
The term ‘Babylon’ occurs in six places. The first is in a characteristic anticipation of what is to be expounded more fully later:
A second angel followed and said, “‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries.” (Rev 14.8)
It is worth noting here that Babylon has global significance, from the reference to ‘all nations’, and is depicted by John as a particular centre of idolatry, which I think is what the ‘adulteries’ must be referring to, drawing on the OT use of the sexual metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness.
The second reference comes at the end of the sequence of bowls in chapter 16:
The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. (Rev 16.19)
Here, Babylon is identified with ‘the great city’ which is destroyed, creating a parallel with Rev 11.13 (to which we shall return), The judgement of Babylon is actually a very close parallel to the sin of Babylon mentioned in 14.8, though English translations disguise this: the ‘wine of the fury of her adultery’ is met with the ‘wine of the fury of his wrath’ and this parallel is an important expression of the justice of God’s judgements, for which God is praised in Rev 16.7 and in chapter 18.
The third occurrence introduces the vision and long narrative explanation of the woman on the beast in the desert in chapter 17:
This title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY. BABYLON THE GREAT. THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. (Rev 17.5)
Once again we find the association between ‘Babylon’ and ‘great’, and the indication of global significance (‘of the earth’).
The final three mentions come in chapter 18, in the extended ‘funeral dirge’ and mourning of the three groups of the kings of the earth, the merchants, and the sea captains, grieved at their loss when Babylon is destroyed. The first use of the name is by the angel who announces the destruction in Rev 18.2; the angel’s ‘mighty voice’ signifies universal hearing of the message, and the reason for the fall parallels and expands the earlier anticipation from Rev 14.8, adding ‘the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries’. The following command from the angel to God’s people to ‘come out of her’ links to Jeremiah’s call (Jer 51.45) to leave the historical place of exile as it faced God’s judgement and destruction.
The next mention comes in the declaration of woe by the kings of the earth (Rev 18.10), and this is paralleled by a similar refrain by the merchants and by the sea captains, though both of these simply refer to ‘the great city’:
“Woe! Woe to you, great city, dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!” (Rev 18.16)
‘Woe! Woe to you, great city, where all who had ships on the sea became rich through her wealth! In one hour she has been brought to ruin!’ (Rev 18.19)
Babylon is thus depicted as a global power, one that prospered particularly through maritime trade, having client kings (‘kings of the earth’) who worked in partnership, and whose trade led to the widespread prosperity of merchants. The repeated mention of pearls is also notable, and the vision of the great prostitute adorned with pearls and precious stones in chapter 17 is a literary counterpoint to the description of the bride of the lamb, the holy city, built with precious stones and having pearly gates.
If these were the only references to consider, then I don’t think there would be any debate. The only cosmic, trading, sea-faring power that accrued enormous wealth to itself is Rome, and this fits with many other themes, ideas and images in the text. But the waters are muddied and the situation slight confused by the one other mention of the ‘great city’, in Rev 11.8.
Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.
This verse is notable as containing the only explicit reference to Jesus’ crucifixion, and it illustrates the fate of ‘two witnesses’ (a duel personification of the people of God exercising the ministry of Moses and Elijah in their faithful testimony). And, so the argument goes, this ‘great city’ was clearly Jerusalem, so this must give us the identity of Babylon.
But there are numerous problems with this argument. The first is in this text itself. Within the biblical tradition, Sodom was a by-word not only for sexual immorality, but also for its violence, injustice, arrogance, neglect of the poor and idolatry (Gen. 19:1–25; Isa. 1:9–10; Jer. 23:14; Ezek. 16:46–50) and as a supreme example of judgement, including the judgement that the city of Babylon would face (Isa. 13:19; Jer. 50:40). Egypt is consistently assumed to be the enemy of God, and is frequently the unreliable ally who should not be trusted for national salvation in preference to the call to trust in God (Isa. 31:1). Rome/Babylon is identified with Sodom and Egypt ‘figuratively’, though the word pneumatikos can mean ‘symbolically’ or (perhaps better) ‘spiritually’, that is, by the insight of the Spirit who identifies what the spiritual or theological reality is. Although Jerusalem was the physical location of Jesus’ crucifixion, the cultural location was that of Roman rule and collusion by the Jewish leaders with Roman authority, and crucifixion was a Roman (rather than Jewish) punishment. So (I would argue) it was in the great city’s orbit that his death occurred.
And identifying Babylon as Jerusalem makes little sense of chapter 18, which draws extensively on Ezekiel’s critique of Tyre (in Ezekiel 27), along with other OT images of those who are oppose both to Jerusalem and the people of God.
In Leithart’s commentary, it seems to me that this identification really pushes our reading of the text out of shape. The ‘trinity’ of dragon, beast from the sea and beast from the land, which are in most commentators identified as Satan, Roman imperial power (which has come across the sea to Turkey) and local religion which has supported the imperial cult in this eastern part of the empire (as evidenced by archaeology), becomes Satan, Rome and the Jews. of course, there is precedent in John’s gospel for identification of ‘the Jews’ with the devil (John 8.44), and there is strongly antipathetic language of this sort earlier on in Revelation (‘the synagogue of Satan’ Rev 3.9) which corresponds with some of the tensions in the region that we know of from other sources. But Rev 13 talks of the beast from the land ‘exercising all the authority of the first beast’ (v 12) and performing signs which we know occurred in the local cults (on ventriloquism and moving statues, listen to Radio 4’s In Our Time on automata) and these don’t really make any sense in relation to the role of Jews in the region.
This theory also pushes Leithart into seeing the 144,000 in Rev 7 as a different group from those ‘from every tribe, language, people and nation’, whereas a better reading, paying attention to the dynamic of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ in the text, as well as John’s wider theological concerns, sees them as identified. At every point, John uses this kind of OT language of the first covenant to describe the people of God who are followers of the lamb, just as Paul sees gentile believers as now incorporated into the ‘Israel’ of God.
Throughout Revelation, images and ideas from Roman imperial practice, mythology and propaganda are subverted by their integration with ideas from the (Jewish) Old Testament; identifying Judaism as the second enemy within the text makes little sense of this dynamic.
The other strange thing which Leithart’s proposal does is force his hand on the dating of the text. If Babylon is Jerusalem, then the destruction of Babylon must be the fall of Jerusalem in 70 at the end of the first Jewish war. Like other ‘preterists’ (who believe that all of Revelation is referring to things that have passed in history), Leithart dates the text very specifically to the time just before this fall. And he does so (p 27) with this logic: Revelation is a text of crisis; we must therefore look for a crisis to find its date; what greater crisis can there be than the fall of Jerusalem? But this logic has a fundamental flaw: writers of texts do not survey all of history in this way in order to ‘choose’ at which point to write their text! Besides, it is not clear that Revelation is reflecting a crisis so much as creating one; the messages to the assemblies in the seven cities contain plenty of rebukes to complacency, and are not the kind of thing you would write to people who are already in crisis.
In fact, the evidence for dating is very mixed, with some clues pointing to an earlier date, and others to a later date. Bu there are some external details worth noting which do appear to support a later date of writing. Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 60, and the message to the assembly there seems to assume that it is prosperous and well established, which could hardly be the case if John was writing in the late 60s. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, says (Philippians11) that the church in Smyrna did not exist in the time of Paul which would imply a later date for Revelation. And Epiphanius, writing much later (in his Panarion), notes that it was believed there was no Christian community in Thyatira until late in the first century. This external evidence must be set aside to support an early date—and in fact the argument connecting ‘early date’ and ‘Babylon is Jerusalem’ is entirely circular.
It is worth noting that, even if Babylon does primarily refer to Rome for John’s first readers, that does not exhaust the poetic surplus of meaning in the text, and Leithart is very good at pointing that out. I have explored elsewhere why this is at a literary level, because of the particular nature of the metaphors that John deploys. (For an example, see the illustration above from Luther’s Bible of Babylon wearing a papal tiara.)
But identifying Babylon with Jerusalem does not fit the details of the text, does not take proper account of historical issues we find in the text, and ultimately depends on circular reasoning about the dating of the text. It pushes our reading of the book out of shape—and is rightly rejected by the vast majority of commentators.
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