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

Part I: A Tale of Two Cities (continued)

New Jerusalem 21:9–22:9

Just as the vision of Babylon is anchored in the critiques of cities found in the Hebrew Bible, so too the vision of New Jerusalem is drawn from Jewish scripture, primarily Trito–Isaiah. John uses various literary motifs to construct his New Jerusalem narrative, including those of a new creation, paradise, pilgrimage of the nations, and a restitution of Jerusalem and covenant (see e.g. Ezekiel 37; 47; Zechariah 8; Psalm 46; Sirach 15; and Tob. 13:16), weaving them all together to create a unifying literary unit and endowing it with a novel meaning: this New Jerusalem signifies the faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ, not a physical city like the historical Jerusalem.[1]

Not everyone, however, agrees with this interpretation of New Jerusalem, instead seeing it as an actual physical city.[2] Barbara Rossing has put forth a detailed study on the two cities, reading Revelation as an example of deliberative rhetoric that employs the two-women topos to present New Jerusalem as an alternative to Babylon, tracing the literary imagery of Revelation to the Hebrew Bible and Greco-Roman wisdom traditions. She views New Jerusalem as a physical city rather and that it is not restricted solely to the faithful witnesses of Christ.[3] This interpretation, however, would seem to go against the description of the nations bringing their glory into the city only after they have obtained their clean robes—which according to Rev. 19:8 represent “the righteous deeds of the saints”—and are from there on out separated from the unclean (Rev. 21:24–27; 22:14–15).

Contra to Rossing and others, New Jerusalem is symbolic of God’s people, not an actual residence for them, and the identification of New Jerusalem as the Christian community is made clear in how the promises to the ekklēsiai in Revelation 2–3 are realized in the literary unit on New Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22.[4]

Revelation 2-3

Revelation 21-22

“tree of life” (2:7) “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit” (22:2, 14)
“will not be harmed by the second death” (2:11) “[for those who do not conquer receive] the second death” (21:8)
“a new name” (2:17) “[God’s] name will be on their foreheads” (22:4)
“authority over the nations” (2:26) “they will reign forever and ever” (22:5)
“clothed … in white robes … will not blot your name out of the book of life” (3:5) “nothing unclean will enter [New Jerusalem] … but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (21:27)
“a pillar in the temple of my God … and the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem” (3:12) “the holy city, the New Jerusalem … the foundations of the wall of the city” (21:2, 19)
“give a place with me on my throne” (3:21) “they will reign forever and ever” (22:5)

What this means is that Christ connects New Jerusalem to whoever overcomes (Rev. 3:12), meaning that the readers should identify New Jerusalem as being “personal rather than topographical.”[5] This identification is made more unambiguous later when John sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2), followed soon thereafter with the angelus interpretus telling John, “I will show you the bride, the wide of the lamb” (Rev. 21:9), yet what John sees is a city, New Jerusalem, descending out of the heavens (Rev. 21:10).

Similar to Babylon, New Jerusalem is a city containing magnificent wealth. Yet the wealth of this city is not of the same nature as that of Babylon. Instead of the economic exploitation of Babylon, New Jerusalem is a place of economic justice, where the wealth is contained in the elements of city that are shared by all its citizens: the gates of pearl, the streets of gold, and the pillars and walls comprised of precious gems. New Jerusalem contains springs of living water flowing freely from the throne of God and has open inviting gates. One could perhaps go so far as to say that New Jerusalem is a free economy of grace, where wealth is freely obtained and voluntary given; it is a “gift economy” where “water, fruit, and medicine . . . are offered to everyone in New Jerusalem, even to those with no money.”[6]

A particularly conspicuous economic contrast between Babylon and New Jerusalem is the disappearance of the sea (Rev. 13:1; 21:1). There are several interpretations as to the significance of this detail, most of which refer back to another instance in which the “sea” is mentioned in Revelation. A common interpretation of the sea is in terms of mythological chaos traditions,[7] where the Hebrew creation myth has the ordering of chaos (represented by the sea), though this is not the sole or even necessarily the primary thought underlying John’s perception of the sea. A key function of the sea in Revelation is that it facilitates Babylon’s commerce,[8] a function that is specifically selected for destruction in Rev. 8:9 and 18:11–17, with Babylon’s destruction depicted in terms of a “great millstone” being thrown into the sea (Rev. 18:21). No more sea, no more maritime trade.


In this portrayal of the new heavens and earth without any seas—with the only water being the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1) in New Jerusalem—John envisions an alternative economy to that of Babylon, one where exploitative trade in commodities is supplanted by one in which the water of life is given “as a gift” (Rev. 22:17). Thus, John issues an imperative to the reader to “come out” of Babylon and to “come” into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 18:4; 22:17). This is the “rhetorical key” to the vision of Babylon.[9] This exhortation to “come out” is not intended geographically as if the faithful should pack up and leave Rome, Ephesus, or one of the other cities in Asia Minor. Instead, the imperative concerns the discerning of the nature of one’s environment and to divorce oneself from any imperialistic spirit of that environment to be found in the economic, political, and religious spheres.[10] The reader is issued a command to enter through the open gates into the alternative city of New Jerusalem which provides an alternative social reality to that of Babylon.


[1] For a seminal article arguing this point, see Robert H. Gundry, “The New Jerusalem: People as Place, Not Place for People”, Novum Testamentum 29 (1987), pp. 254–64.

[2] For a survey of views on New Jerusalem, see Barbara R. Rossing, The Choice Between Two Cities: Whore, Bride, and Empire in the Apocalypse (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), pp. 1–16.

[3] Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 12 opts not to see the bride of Christ as the saints, and it is this breaking of the saints/bride link that leads to a physical interpretation of the New Jerusalem.

[4] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “The Eschatology and Composition of the Apocalypse”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30 (1968), pp. 537–69 has posited a chiastic structure to Revelation with the New Jerusalem being the corresponding item to the letters to the seven churches.

[5] Gundry, “The New Jerusalem”, p. 256.

[6] Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 152.

[7] David Aune, Revelation 17–22 (Word Biblical Commentary, 52C; Dallas, TX: Word Books, 2002), p. 1119.

[8] Jonathan Moo, “The Sea that is No More: Rev. 21:1 and the Function of Sea Imagery in the Apocalypse of John”, Novum Testamentum 51 (2009), pp. 148–67 (esp. pp. 159–60).

[9] Rossing, Choice Between Two Cities, p. 12.

[10] Cf. Aune, Revelation 17–22, p. 991.

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