Babylon the great: all intertextual roads lead to Rome

Read time: 12 minutes

I was provoked to write this over-long post by a comment dismissing the relevance of Nahum 3:4 for the interpretation of John’s description of the fall of Babylon the great in Revelation 18 as a “tenuous consideration”. I have spent too much time on this matter already and I don’t expect anyone to read the piece unless he or she has a strong interest in refuting may basic position—and even then maybe we’re all getting a bit bored with the topic. It’s just something I need to do…. Humour me.

Anyway, what I have done is set out what appear to be the obvious cross-references for the chapter. The proclamation of the fall of Babylon the great draws extensively on the Old Testament, and the point made here is that nearly all of the passages referenced speak not of God’s judgment on Jerusalem but of the fall or destruction of a powerful pagan city, typically for having defied the God of Israel. To my mind this strongly suggests that John thought he was describing the fall of the city of Rome.

I have not simply relied on the standard lists of cross-references, which may have been selected on the prior assumption that John’s Babylon was a cipher for Rome; I have tried to trace linguistic and imagistic echoes by other means. But the exercise has certainly not been exhaustive, and I may have missed important allusions that would affect the overall outcome.

It could be argued that John is naturally filling out the detail of his ironic portrayal of Jerusalem as decadent and corrupt Babylon. But this seems to me highly improbable, not least because there is no good literary, historical or theological reason not to take the metaphorical identification at face value. The consistent pattern in the Old Testament is that God judges Israel or Jerusalem and then judges the powerful nation that had been the instrument of divine judgment.

In other words, we should fully expect John’s apocalyptic narrative to culminate in judgment on the city (Babylon the great) and the kingdom (the beast) of Rome.

This line of argument can be backed up further by an observation that I made in The Coming of the Son of Man, which is that judgment sequences in the early part of Revelation (the seals and trumpets) allude to Old Testament accounts of judgment on Jerusalem, whereas the judgment sequence in the later part of the book (the seven bowls) alludes to accounts of divine judgment against foreign powers. If John is this careful in maintaining the intertextual distinction, it is presumably because he means to reproduce the Old Testament pattern.

Beale, apparently, argues that the the passage follows the account of the judgment of the “whore” Jerusalem in Ezekiel 16:22-35. But the points of connection between this passage and Revelation 18 are details common to both types of Old Testament judgment: Jerusalem is a harlot, Nineveh is a harlot; Jerusalem drinks the cup of God’s wrath, Babylon drinks the cup of God’s wrath. There is nothing like the degree of correspondence that we find between Revelation 18 and the various passages condemning foreign cities that emerge as we track the cross-references, to which we now turn.

Oh, but first, let me make the point again that this is not a merely trivial or arcane discussion. Both canonically and historically it addresses a critical narrative component in the self-understanding of the early church.

So now to the intertextual substance….

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! (Rev. 18:2)

We begin with a clear allusion to Isaiah’s “oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea”: 

Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the carved images of her gods he has shattered to the ground. (Is. 21:9)

In a passage to which we will return Jeremiah announces the overthrow of Babylon by the Medes in similar terms: “Suddenly Babylon has fallen and been broken; wail for her!” (Jer. 51:8). No such declarations are made about Jerusalem.

She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. (Rev. 18:2)

The imagery of a ruined city that becomes a dwelling place for demons and wild animals is applied to Babylon, Tyre, Edom and Nineveh in the Old Testament:

But wild animals will rest there, and the houses will be filled with noise; there sirens will rest, and there demons will dance. Donkey–centaurs will dwell there, and hedgehogs will build nests in their houses (Is. 13:21–22 LXX)

It shall be a habitation of sirens and a courtyard of ostriches. Demons shall meet with donkey–centaurs and call one to another; there donkey–centaurs shall repose, for they have found for themselves a place to rest. (Is. 34:13–14 LXX)

Therefore phantoms shall live in the islands, and daughters of Sirens shall inhabit her; she shall never again be inhabited forever. (Jer. 27:39 LXX)

…he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert. Herds shall lie down in her midst, all kinds of beasts; even the owl and the hedgehog shall lodge in her capitals… (Zeph. 2:13–14)

I could find only one passage where the imagery is applied to Jerusalem, and it is not as close as the preceding texts: “Is my heritage to me like a hyena’s lair? Are the birds of prey against her all around? Go, assemble all the wild beasts; bring them to devour” (Jer. 12:9). In this case, there are no demons and spirits, and the animals come to devour not to dwell.

For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her… (Rev. 18:3)

Babylon was a golden cup in the LORD’s hand, making all the earth drunken; the nations drank of her wine; therefore the nations went mad. (Jer. 51:7)

And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms. (Nah. 3:4)

I’ll come back to Nahum at the end.

…and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living (Rev. 18:3)

It is said of Tyre: “When your wares came from the seas, you satisfied many peoples; with your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth” (Ezek. 27:33; cf. Is. 23:8).

Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities (Rev. 18:4–5)

The call to God’s people to leave the city is paralleled in Old Testament texts that have reference to Babylon, with the further detail in Jeremiah 51:9 that Babylon’s judgment has reached up to heaven. It is, of course, Egypt, not Jerusalem, that is subjected to plagues.

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea… (Is. 48:20)

Flee from the midst of Babylon, and go out of the land of the Chaldeans (Jer. 50:8)

Forsake her, and let us go each to his own country, for her judgment has reached up to heaven and has been lifted up even to the skies. (Jer. 51:9)

…in her heart she says, ‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’ (Rev. 18:7)

It is pagan cities that are given “hubris soliloquies” in which they boast of their status and power. Jerusalem does not speak in this fashion—in fact, the topos effectively precludes any reference to Jerusalem.

Sit in silence, and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans; for you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms. (Is. 47:5)

This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, “I am, and there is no one else.” What a desolation she has become, a lair for wild beasts! Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes his fist. (Zeph. 2:15)

The figure is replicated in a passage condemning Rome in Sibylline Oracles:

But you have said, I am unique, and none will bring ruin on me. But now God whose Being is for ever will destroy you and all of thine, and there will be no token of you in that land, as of old when the Mighty God found for you your honor. (Sib. Or. 5:173–176)

Pay her back as she herself has paid back others, and repay her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed. (Rev. 18:6)

The idea that a city should be paid back for what it has done to others is characteristically associated with Babylon, which is paid back primarily for what it has done to Jerusalem. This also precludes a reference to Jerusalem. In Jeremiah 16:18 we have the idea that Israel will be repaid doubly for its iniquity and sin, but this is not repayment for what was done to others. Only pagan cities are paid back for what they have done to others.

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! (Ps. 137:8)

For this is the vengeance of the LORD: take vengeance on her; do to her as she has done. (Jer. 50:15)

Repay her according to her deeds; do to her according to all that she has done. For she has proudly defied the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. (Jer. 50:29)

I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done in Zion, declares the LORD. (Jer. 51:24)

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo anymore (Rev. 18:11)

Merchants from nations hissed at you; you have become destruction, and you shall no more exist forever. (Ezek. 27:36)

And all shipmasters and seafaring men, sailors and all whose trade is on the sea, stood far off and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning, “What city was like the great city?” (Rev. 18:17-18)

The language here appears to have been drawn from Ezekiel’s lament over the fall of Tyre. In both passages, notice, people associated with trade on the sea watch the catastrophe from a distance and ask a question about what the city is like. The dependence is blatant.

At the sound of the cry of your pilots the countryside shakes, and down from their ships come all who handle the oar. The mariners and all the pilots of the sea stand on the land and shout aloud over you and cry out bitterly…. In their wailing they raise a lamentation for you and lament over you: ‘Who is like Tyre, like one destroyed in the midst of the sea?’ (Ezek. 27:28-30, 32)

The city is judged because the Prince of Tyre had made the archetypal boast of the blasphemous pagan ruler: “I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas” (Ezek. 28:1). Israel’s king is never accused of such an error.

And they threw dust on their heads as they wept and mourned… (Rev. 18:19)

This is a further detail taken from the lament over Tyre: “They cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes…” (Ezek. 27:30).

Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her! (Rev. 18:20)

The motif of rejoicing over the fall of a city which had caused the death of God’s people is found in Jeremiah with reference to Babylon:

Then the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, shall sing for joy over Babylon, for the destroyers shall come against them out of the north, declares the LORD. Babylon must fall for the slain of Israel, just as for Babylon have fallen the slain of all the earth. (Jer. 51:48–49)

This passage also accounts for the reference to the blood of “all who have been slain on earth” at the end of the chapter. Yes, the statement about the death of the prophets and saints is like Jesus’ saying about Jerusalem (Lk. 13:34), but “saints” most naturally applies to the churches in Rome (cf. Rom. 1:7), and the allusion to Jeremiah 51:48-49 makes it clear that imperial Babylon/Rome will also be held accountable for the violence done to other nations.

Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more…” (Rev. 18:21)

When you finish reading this book, tie a stone to it and cast it into the midst of the Euphrates, and say, ‘Thus shall Babylon sink, to rise no more, because of the disaster that I am bringing upon her…’ (Jer. 51:63–64)

…and the sound of harpists and musicians, of flute players and trumpeters, will be heard in you no more… (Rev. 18:22)

Ezekiel says of Tyre: “And he shall disband the multitude of your musicians, and the voice of your harps shall be heard no longer” (Ezek. 26:13 LXX; cf. Is. 14:11).

…and the sound of the mill will be heard in you no more, and the light of a lamp will shine in you no more, and the voice of bridegroom and bride will be heard in you no more (Rev. 18:22–23)

This is, I think, the only section of the description of the fall of Babylon the great that clearly derives from an account of judgment against Jerusalem:

Moreover, I will banish from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones and the light of the lamp. (Jer. 25:10)

A bit of a fly in the ointment. Make of it what you will. One explanation may be that it reflects the “pay her back as she herself has paid back others” theme (Rev. 18:6): Rome will suffer the desolation that it afflicted on Jerusalem. This is exactly the point of the painful Psalm 137:

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137:8–9)

…your merchants (emporoi) were the great ones of the earth (Rev. 18:23)

Isaiah says of Tyre that its “traders (emporoi) are glorious, rulers of the earth” (Is. 23:8 LXX). Nothing like this is ever said of Jerusalem’s traders and merchants.

…and all nations were deceived by your sorcery (pharmakeiai). (Rev. 18:23; cf. 14:8; 17:2)

The importance of Nahum’s description of Nineveh as a prostitute has been mentioned already: “Beautiful and gratifying prostitute, manipulator of potions (pharmakōn), she who barters nations through her whoredom and tribes through her potions (pharmakois)” (Nah. 3:4 LXX).

In an oracle against Babylon already cited Isaiah says that widowhood will come upon the city in its “witchcraft” (pharmakeia).

To repeat a point which appears  consistently to have fallen on deaf ears, John’s great harlot conforms precisely to the harlot which is Nineveh, not to the admittedly more common Old Testament description of Israel or Jerusalem as a harlot. Why? Because like the harlot Nineveh Babylon the great is not first an unfaithful wife. The motif of Israel as the unfaithful wife who spurns her first husband, YHWH, and goes whoring after other gods is entirely missing from the descriptions of Babylon the great. She is just a prostitute. Both pagan cities deceive the nations with their pharmakeia.

That all looks pretty cut-and-dried to me, but perhaps I’m overlooking something.

“… thrown down with violence, and will be found no more…”

This is still the sticking point for me, the thing that keeps me from buying your view of Rome as Babylon in Revelation, though I am deeply appreciative of your work and your approach to the NT. (“The Future of the People of God” rescued me from the theological reading of my Calvinist tradition and made Romans come alive for me in a new way. So thank you.)

Here’s my problem: Alaric may have “thrown down” Rome “with violence”, but it certainly was not the case that it was “found no more.” Its nickname is the “Eternal City”, after all. As such, it is not a good candidate for a city that Scripture denounces as about to suffer the terrible fate of Tyre (razed completely by Alexander the Great) or Nineveh (which Xenophon’s men tramped over without realizing it was there, under the sand) or Babylon (similarly buried). For this sort of thing has never happened to Rome.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, was indeed torn down, plowed under, and renamed Aelia Capitolina. The Jews were banned from entering it. And all this happened, not in an already Christianized Roman Empire, but in the reign of Hadrian in the early 2nd century. Since this followed two fierce wars of Jewish rebellion against Rome, everyone understood that this represented wrath upon the Jews. By contrast, by the time Rome suffered anything even slightly resembling Revelation’s words (“thrown down with violence”), it was the capital of a Christian Empire. And in this context, its sack was interpreted as a judgment on Christianity by the pagan gods of Rome, so that Augustine had to write The City of God to refute that idea. This is not exactly a convincing fulfillment of a prophecy of the “Babylon” as a vindication of the followers of Jesus that were persecuted by her.

We might try to save the “Babylon=Rome” theory by saying that the judgment took the form of conversion rather than military disaster. But this seems to me very forced. At the very least, we should have a public prophetic announcement like the one Jonah recorded for us when Nineveh escaped God’s wrath by repentance.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 01/27/2016 - 18:46 | Permalink

This is a great concatenation of texts, and in its own way weightily impressive. There is a precedent for imagery of judgment on pagan Babylon being associated with Jerusalem, however. The imagery in Matthew 24:29 draws from that applied to Babylon in Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4.

Jerusalem is also described in Revelation 11:8 as “the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt”. There is some role-reversal going on in Revelation 11, in which Jerusalem/Israel, once the not so innocent victim of oppression, becomes oppressor of the people of God as much as the Gentile nations.

I’ve personally no doubt that Rome is in view as Babylon in Revelation. I don’t however think that Revelation is entirely that kind of 1st century predictive prophecy, and that much of the imagery is intended to be provocative rather than definitive in its meaning. The debate is as important as the meaning.

This also raises the question of whether there is a greater Babylon than 1st century Rome in view in Revelation. It is not in doubt to me that the prophecy as a whole brought encouragement to 1st century believers experiencing persecution from both Jerusalem (national Israel) and Rome. It’s also the kind of prophecy, in my opinion, that can and does speak to all ages, and to the end of the ages.

This will no doubt bring down on my head the wrath of both yourself, Andrew, and the preterists who contend for their interpretation of Babylon as Jerusalem.

@peter wilkinson:

I wouldn’t say that the Isaiah passages have had no influence on Matthew’s language, but it could be argued that Joel is more relevant anyway. Jonah has the shaking of the heavens, and the passage played a central role in Peter’s explanation of the Pentecost event. 

The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. (Joel 2:10)

And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:30–32)

It is perhaps significant that when John clearly does speak of Jerusalem in terms of other places, he highlights the fact that he is speaking figuratively or prophetically (pneumatikōs).

It’s also the kind of prophecy, in my opinion, that can and does speak to all ages, and to the end of the ages.

That’s undoubtedly true, but was that in any real sense part of John’s intention? He certainly goes to a lot of trouble to cast it as a climactic and decisive event—followed immediately by the imprisonment of Satan and the resurrection of the martyrs. And then it’s just a thousand years of history.

So it depends where we want to put the hermeneutical weight—on the author or on the reader.

@Andrew Perriman:

Or the text, or all three, inspired by the Holy Spirit (fourth person in the partnership).