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

Part I: A Tale of Two Cities (continued)

The City of Babylon in Revelation 17:1–19:10

There are several interpretations of who Babylon represents in the reception history of Revelation. The interpretation of Babylon as Rome has been a popular one throughout the centuries, with the Reformation era adding the twist that Babylon also represents the Papacy located in Rome.[1] A popular understanding nowadays, this one in evangelical Christianity, is that Babylon represents the actual city of the future eschatological Antichrist, with some even positing that it will be a rebuilt city of Babylon in Mesopotamia by the river Euphrates (in modern day Iraq).[2] A more recent reading contends that Babylon is in fact the first-century city of Jerusalem.[3] It is generally agreed upon, however, by most commentators, exegetes, and theologians—and it is the position taken by myself—that Babylon does indeed represent the city of Rome and the Roman Empire.[4]

Before John depicts Babylon as a city, he portrays her as a female prostitute in Revelation 17. The metaphor of prostitution is drawn from the Hebrew Bible where it signifies deviation from faithfulness to Yahweh by adapting to the powers that surrounded them in various ways, such as idolatrous practices, exploitative economics, and making treaties with other nations rather than relying upon Yahweh. This depiction of Babylon as a prostitute “clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls” (Rev. 17:4) is connected to the cargo list in Rev. 18:12–13, 16, indicating that John’s critique of Babylon is intended not as physical prostitution but as a metaphor critical of Babylon’s trade and economy. This is further supported by the connection of several passages in the Hebrew Bible where Jerusalem and other cities are likened to prostitutes (e.g. Jer. 2:20–3:20; 51; Ezekiel 16; 23; Hosea 2; and Nah. 3:1–7). These allusions show that while John’s usage of the prostitution metaphor certainly does not preclude an association between Babylon and the idolatrous practices of Rome (such as the imperial cult), it is also underlining Babylon’s economic transgressions.[5]

Further support for the highlighting of the economic system of Babylon is in the description of her destruction: Babylon will be destroyed due to her prostitution with the nations, prostitution with the kings, and the seduction of the merchants with wealth. Each of these reflects the social, political, and economic power of Babylon respectively. Additionally, note the dirge that the kings, merchants, and sailors pronounce due to the loss of Babylon’s trade in cargo: the Greek text (NA28) spends 51 words on the “kings” (Rev. 18:9–10), 161 words for the “merchants” (vv. 11–17a), and 72 words on “all shipmasters and seafarers, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea” (vv. 18:17b–19).[6] To situate the mercantile class in the middle and allot to them the majority of the lament conveys that commerce is a key issue in John’s depiction of Babylon.

The domineering economic prowess of Babylon is a key feature of her portrayal in Revelation, both in the illustrations of Babylon as woman and Babylon as city. Babylon is the place where the wealth accrues to the wealthy elite and the merchants facilitate this transfer of wealth. The economic system of Rome favors indulgence for the wealthy, rather than basic sustenance for the poor masses (Rev. 6:6). The wealth of Babylon is inextricably tied up with exploitation which enriches those at the top and those who provide the means of trade (Rev. 18:3), leading to the commodification of everything, from luxurious items down to the very basics of life, even human beings (Rev. 18:13). While much of the cargo list in Rev. 18:12–13 can rightly be labeled as representative of Rome’s more luxurious imports, some of the commodities are everyday commonplace items (e.g. flour, wheat). What this indicates is that Babylon imports not just lavish goods, but everything; and this is the quintessence of an imperial economy.

Footnotes

[1] For a survey of the patristic literature, see G. Biguzzi, “Is the Babylon of Revelation Rome or Jerusalem”, Biblica 87 (2006), pp. 371–86 (pp. 373–74).

[2] See C.H. Dyer, “The Identity of Babylon in Revelation 17–18, Part 2”, Bibliotheca Sacra 144 (1987), pp. 433–49.

[3] See J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia: The New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming (orig. pub. 1887; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), pp. 482–504, 563–69; Kenneth L. Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (Bethesda, MD: International Scholars Publishers: 1989), pp. 94–95, 240–41; and J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation (Anchor Bible, 38; Garden City, MI: Doubleday & Company, 1975), pp. 286–89. For a recent examination of whether Babylon represents Rome or Jerusalem, see Biguzzi, “Rome or Jerusalem”, pp. 371–86.

[4] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), p. 179; G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John (orig. pub. 1966; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), p. 214. Barbara R. Rossing, The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride, and Empire in the Apocalypse (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), p. 6 and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 89 both observe that the majority of scholars read Babylon as a critique of Rome and its imperial oppression, with the latter also noting that this position is congruent with the branding of Rome as Babylon in other Jewish and Christian literature, providing these examples: 4 Ez. 3:1–2, 28–31; 2 Bar. 10:1–3; 11:1; 67:7; Sib. Or. 5:143, 159. And, of course, 1 Pet. 5:13.

[5] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation (The New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 86 says that “‘Babylon the Great’ is the entire corrupt economic-religious system.” Furthermore, Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 83 has gone so far to say that “the primary topic” of Revelation is the “contrasting political economies represented by Babylon and New Jerusalem.”

[6] For thorough analyses on the dirge of Revelation 18, see Richard Bauckham, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18”, in L. Alexander (ed), Images of Empire (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), pp. 47–90; Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993), pp. 338-83; and J. Nelson Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplements, 132; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996).

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