Babylon and New Jerusalem: A Polemic against Hybridity (Part I)

Long before the Christian movement became the religio licita of the Roman Empire, the book of Revelation confronted the violent pax Romana, the idolatrous imperial cult, and the exploitative economic system of Rome. Today, however, Revelation is used by many readers to construct eschatological timetables of nuclear war and to sell books about the coming divine destruction of the Earth, yet what Revelation really unveils are the systems of domination that exist in our world, the freedom to be found in Christ, and the realization of the love of God in humility and non-power.

This series of blog posts will proceed on the following two fronts: (i) the spotlight will be placed on Revelation’s two conflicting illustrations of polis—Babylon and New Jerusalem—in order to show how Revelation unveils the economic injustice of Babylon, calling the recipients of the letter out of this illusory system and into the alternative of New Jerusalem; and (ii) in order to draw out what John is attempting to convey with these visions of polis, postcolonial theory will be employed to show that John uses the Babylon–New Jerusalem symbolism to reinforce his polemic against the apparent hybridity that has occurred in the ekklēsiai of Asia Minor. Revelation provides us with a prophetic critique of empire and economic imperialism, calling us to choose between the ways of Babylon and New Jerusalem, not in an eschatological future, but in the historical present.

Part I: A Tale of Two Cities

A key truth that John aims to impart to his audience is that there are two rival realities: Babylon and New Jerusalem. While these two cities are presented in a temporal sequence with New Jerusalem succeeding Babylon, this is not to indicate an actual chronological sequence in time, but is rather to assign a decisive prominence to New Jerusalem and a renunciation of Babylon. Literary features of the two visions set the cities in contrast. First, both cities are personified as feminine figures—a “prostitute” and a “bride”—in the standard depiction of city personifications in Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman literature.[1] Second, both visions are introduced by an angel of the seven bowls, the angelus interpretus, who takes John “in the spirit” to a location where the city can be seen (Rev. 17:3; 21:10). And third, both cities are introduced by the same construction found nowhere else in Revelation (with the addition of one phrase in the introduction to New Jerusalem that is shown below in square parentheses):

Καὶ ἦλθεν εἷς ἐκ τῶν ἑπτὰ ἀγγέλων τῶν ἐχόντων τὰς ἑπτὰ φιάλας [τῶν γεμόντων τῶν πληγῶν τῶν ἐσχάτων] καὶ ἐλάλησεν μετ᾿ ἐμοῦ λέγων· δεῦρο, δείζω σοι

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you…” (Rev. 17:1)

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls [full of the seven last plagues] came and said to me, “Come, I will show you…” (Rev. 21:9)

Additionally, both literary units finish with three similar features: First is the declaration of the vision’s veracity (“these are the true words of God”, Rev. 19:9; “these words are faithful and true”, Rev. 22:6); second is the pronouncement of a blessing (“blessed are the ones called to the wedding feast of the lamb”, Rev. 19:9; “blessed is the one keeping the words of prophecy of this scroll”, Rev. 22:7); and third, each unit concludes with a very similar account of John trying to worship the angel, with John falling at the angel’s feet and the angel decrying such behavior telling him to “worship God” (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9). It is clear that the two literary units were composed in such a way in order to promote a clear contrast between the two cities.

Footnotes

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), says that “whoring and fornication” function “as metaphors for idolatry”, with the use of feminine figures being “part and parcel of the prophetic apocalyptic tradition” (p. 14), and that the feminine imagery is “conventional language” used to describe cities because “then, as today, cities and countries were grammatically construed as feminine” (p. 95). Barbara Rossing, “River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem: An Eschatological Vision for Earth’s Future”, in Rosemary Ruether and Dieter Hessel (eds), Christianity and Ecology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 205–24 (p. 209) says that the language of the woman being “desolate” and “naked” are descriptors of an urban landscape, not a female body, and that “its primary polemic is political and economic, not gendered.” Other interesting studies that examine the prostitution imagery of Babylon from a feminist postcolonial perspective include Jean K. Kim, “‘Uncovering Her Wickedness’: An Inter(Con) Textual Reading of Revelation 17 From a Postcolonial Feminist Perspective”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 21 (1999): 61–81; and Shanell T. Smith, The Woman Babylon and the Marks of Empire: Reading Revelation with a Postcolonial Womanist Hermeneutics of Ambiveilence (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014).

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