Is ‘Babylon’ Rome or Jerusalem?

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:


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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2 thoughts on “Is ‘Babylon’ Rome or Jerusalem?

  1. The undoubted weight of association of ‘the great city’ with the Rome of the 7 hills (further confirmed by 1 Peter) leaves the question of how the great city can also be ‘where their Lord was crucified’.

    Is it textual emendation that makes no sense? (But in that case why the further inclusion of Sodom and Egypt, suggesting multiple identity?) Is it referring to the broad sweep of Roman rule? Is it referring to some spiritual identity of geographically disparate places? Was Jesus actually crucified in Rome? We need to be told.

    Requires lateral thinking. The procedure of puzzling over the 2 witnesses’ identity seems not to point uniformly to one pairing. On the other hand it suggests *at different points* far more different pairings than would be possible from an author who was intending to indicate only one pairing. This last sentence I find almost irrefutable.

    But we then *add* to that that the author himself confesses (right here, nowhere else) a plural location. He names 4 locations. This is a separate point.

    A third point. Lots of the main characters in this book have multiple identities or manifestations. Within this particular book, that should therefore be treated as par for the course, whether or not we can at once say why.

    Then there is the 4th point of neat para division. When we note that the narrative shifts neatly para by para from the normal great city of Rome (where Christian martyrs are killed in a cosmopolitan city) to Jerusalem ‘where their Lord was crucified’, then it looks like John is splicing 2 events deliberately. Perhaps the move straight from Rome to Jerusalem would be far too jarring, so he does a ‘get from Rome to Jerusalem in 3 easy moves’. More likely, however, he is just continuing his general fourfold-identity mandate. There would be 4 locations anyway, but it is not surprising that he does not juxtapose Rome with Jerusalem. Elsewhere in Rev. the 2 are opposites. He assigns Rome the fates that actually befell Jerusalem (horses up to their necks, talent-weight boulders, a city split in 3). So what makes him make Jerusalem (the beloved city which he cannot bear to name, resorting to periphrasis) participate in the nature and identity of the great city? The heinous behaviour to the 2 high priests (probably of his own family – see Bauckham) whose bodies were left to lie in the streets. In alternate paras, however, the talk is of the Christian martyrdom of the pairing of Peter and Paul in Rome around the same Purim 68 (at the time of Nero’s return to the capital) – and he points up the spiritual connection between the 2 events, whose simultaneity at his chosen midpoint of the 7 years he does not see as a coincidence.

    Returning to our 3rd point, the multiple identities assigned to main characters seem (far too often for coincidence) to number precisely 4. That is not the sort of thing that just happens. The most common occurrence would be for characters in a book to have one name or identity, or at most 2. Even in ch12 we get dragon-serpent-devil-satan, though at present I am not sure how to match these up with the angel of the abyss (Abaddon/Apollyon) nor the star (Wormwood) -and he does assign other numbers to the demonic, like 8 which may signify overweening, overreaching, pride. The similarity of ‘Apollyon’ to ‘Apollo’ may perhaps be part of the anti-Apollo/anti-emperor invective.

    Of course, the gospel did go all over the province of Asia in the time of Paul. It is highly doubtful that a central coastal location like Smyrna could have been missed out. Maybe Polycarp’s own church did not begin in Paul’s lifetime, but maybe in Smyrna there was by 70 at least a few believers, a church. He has little to say to Smyrna, and what he does say does not suggest a long history. This is after Paul’s death, and in John the Elder’s time the gospel may have gone out far and wide. Epiphanius is not the most reliable and did live a long time later, though preserves important information.

    Second beast – I don’t think that there is anywhere where more than one statue is referred to. The widely-famous colossus statue (after which the Colosseum was named) was of Nero in the guise of Apollo, of course, whereas Vespasian was derided by prophet John as not being a kosher prophet despite his Alexandrian healings which had given him his reputation. It could be a Delphi image, one of the multiple Apollo images in the book: Vespasian being the mouthpiece (that is what false prophets like the Pythia do) but Nero redivivus talking through him.

  2. It would be odd to equate Babylon the Harlot with Jerusalem seeing that the final climax to Revelation is the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a Bride representing sexual purity.
    I suppose some problems depend on how the book is interpreted overall. Is it a book for the first 2 centuries or a book with a spiritual message for Christians until Christ returns? The metaphors (or allegories) have a relevance to the first readers in being grounded in figures of speech which they understood then, such as Roman power on 7 hills (although I am sure they didn’t believe in dragons!) But if the spiritual meaning is extracted it becomes a book of inspiration for the ages. Hendriksen is very helpful in unpacking this.
    Christ (and his church/bride) have 5 enemies: the dragon (Satan), the beast from the sea (secular and political power), the beast from the land (the power of false religion), Babylon (the world as a seducing power which ensnares through sin and the flesh) and the people with the mark of the beast (ordinary people who persecute the church).
    Of all those, it seems to me that today Babylon is the one power which is most effective in robbing the church of its spiritual power and purity. When did any of us last hear a reference to ‘the world’ as it is denounced in the New Testament. We hear plenty about ‘God so loved the world’ interpreted in an affirming way whilst ignoring all other references to the dangers inherent in the ‘kosmos’ by Jesus, Paul, John and James. Babylon is characterised by the sexual metaphor to emphasise its corrupting power and James does this too in his stark assessment: ‘Adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God! (Jam 4.4). The degree to which the church tragically becomes indistinguishable from the world is a sign of its seduction by Babylon.

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