The New Testament is a thoroughly apocalyptic set of documents. I made the point to my friend JR Rozko last night as we walked through Soho that our current narrative theologies place a great deal of emphasis on the story of Israel that culminates in Jesus, but the New Testament has much more to say about the continuation of the story after Jesus. Evangelical narrative theologies are constructed in such a way that they do not rock the theological boat too much. I think that is just inconsistent.
The question, however, is: How far into the future does the projected New Testament narrative reach? There is some willingness to concede that Jesus predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. Not many people would agree with me, however, that as the followers of Jesus took their message out into the Greek-Roman world, divine judgment on Rome and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the empire came into view as a second eschatological horizon.
Among those who would disagree are the friendly Preterists who stop by here from time to time. This post is a rough-and-ready response to their persistent objections to my view that a good part of New Testament eschatology has Rome in its sights and, in particular, that “Babylon the great”—the “great prostitute”—in Revelation 17-18 is Rome, not Jerusalem. It was also prompted, however, by the discovery that Peter Leithart agrees with the Preterists: “Here, Babylon is old Jerusalem, and as she collapses, drunk with the blood of the saints, and is infested with demons, a voice from heaven calls on Israel to leave.” Shame.
Revelation is obviously a difficult text to interpret. I offer some direct exegetical observations regarding the identity of the city which is called Babylon, but the main point I want to make here is that the Old Testament, extra-biblical Jewish literature, and Paul in particular in the New Testament all lead us to expect that the God of Israel will first judge his own people, then will judge the enemy of his people and establish his own rule over the nations.
That’s the story that the New Testament tells, and the “missional” relevance of the narrative-historical argument—this was our conversation last night—is that we need to do a much better job of telling our own story, in proper continuity with the New Testament narrative, but under very different conditions. But I digress.
The identification of Babylon the great with Jerusalem is not entirely implausible, but I think it’s very unlikely; and given both the Jewish background and the historical circumstances of the early churches in the Greek-Roman, it would have been remarkable if the fate of Rome had not been a matter of interest to such apocalyptically minded apostles as Paul and John the Seer.
1. There is a consistent pattern in the Old Testament of judgment on Israel followed by judgment on the over-bearing nation by which Israel was judged. Habakkuk is a good example. How will God judge injustice in Israel? He will send the Chaldeans—he has “ordained them as a judgment” (Hab. 1:12). But the Chaldeans are worse than Israel! How is that fair? God’s answer is that the Babylonians in turn will be judged: “Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them” (Hab. 2:8). There we have the argument of Revelation in a nutshell.
2. It is an integral part of Daniel’s “son of man” vision that the powerful kingdom that oppressed Israel would be judged and destroyed (Dan. 7:11), with dominion being given instead to the people of the saints of the Most High.
3. The conviction is repeatedly expressed in Jewish apocalyptic literature that YHWH would soon judge unrighteous Israel, deliver the righteous, and destroy the foreign aggressor—first Greece and later Rome. In the late first century text 4 Ezra Rome, depicted as an eagle, a fourth beast, is accused of having terrorised the world: “you have judged the earth, but not with truth”. This insolent behaviour has “come up before the Most High”, and judgment is pronounced:
Therefore you will surely disappear, you eagle, and your terrifying wings, and your most evil little wings, and your malicious heads, and your most evil talons, and your whole worthless body, so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved, and may hope for the judgment and mercy of him who made it. (4 Ezra 11:45-46)
4. The Qumran sectarians fervently believed that the Kittim, Rome, would be destroyed and that they themselves would have dominion in a radically changed post-Roman world.
5. Jesus said that when the Son of Man came, he would sit on his glorious throne and judge the nations according to how they had treated his disciples (Matt. 25:31-32). The function of the passage may be more rhetorical than strictly revelatory, but it at least shows that the nations were in the field of vision. Even for Jesus it was not all about Israel.
6. Paul believed that YHWH was no longer willing to overlook the idolatry of the Greeks. He told the men of Athens that God had fixed a day on which he would judge this pagan civilisation in righteousness “by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:30-31).
7. Paul wrote in Romans that the coming wrath or judgment of God against the Jews would be followed by wrath against the Greeks (Rom. 2:6-11). This is not a final judgment of humanity—a particular culture is in view.
8. The Thessalonians abandoned their idols to serve the living and true God, and to “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10). This is the wrath that was to come on the idolatrous pagan oikoumenē that Paul spoke about in Athens.
9. The pagan enemies of the persecuted Thessalonian believers will be judged “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:7–8). More to the point, the Caesar-like “man of lawlessness”, who “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God”, will be brought to nothing by the appearance of Jesus’ coming (2 Thess. 2:3-8). As in Daniel the appearance of the son of man is closely linked to the destruction of the blasphemous pagan opponent of God’s people.
10. The three angels of Revelation 14:6-11 proclaim the “good news” of a coming judgment against “Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality”. It is accompanied by a call to all peoples to worship the Creator in much the same terms as Paul’s preaching to the Athenians (Rev. 14:7; cf. Acts 17:24-25). In other words, this judgment is against the background of a classic Jewish polemic against pagan idolatry. It is a judgment of pagan Rome.
11. Both 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, writing after AD 70, reflect on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans by implicitly comparing Rome with Babylon. For example: “But the king of Babylon will arise who has now destroyed Zion, And he will boast over the people, And he will speak great things in his heart in the presence of the Most High” (2 Bar. 67:7). Ezra depicts the impending destruction of Babylon, and condemns Asia for having shared “in the glamour of Babylon and the glory of her person; Asia has “imitated that hateful harlot in all her deeds and devices” (4 Ezra 15:43-48). The parallel with Revelation 18:9-10 is clear:
And the kings of the earth, who committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning. They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, “Alas! Alas! You great city, you mighty city, Babylon! For in a single hour your judgment has come.”
12. According to Sibylline Oracles book 5 (early second century) a “great star will come from heaven to the wondrous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a true people perished” (Sib. Or. 5:158-61). This is clearly a reference to Rome (cf. 5:149) and almost exactly the argument that we find in Revelation. A mighty angel throws a great millstone into the sea, saying “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more” (Rev. 18:21); and “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev. 18:24).
13. Peter most likely refers to Rome as “Babylon” (1 Pet. 5:13). Eusebius claimed that Peter “composed it in Rome itself, which… he himself indicates, referring to the city metaphorically as Babylon” (HE 2.15.2).
14. Conversely, there is no good precedent for identifying Jerusalem with Babylon in Jewish literature. If it is claimed that the Jews would not have applied the name “Babylon” to themselves, we only need to note the sectarian, anti-establishment character of much Jewish apocalyptic literature. The Qumran community, for example, had every reason to denounce Jerusalem as a modern Babylon.
15. It could be argued that in the Old Testament the metaphor of harlotry generally entails unfaithfulness to God or breach of the covenant. For example: “But you trusted in your beauty and played the whore because of your renown and lavished your whorings on any passerby; your beauty became his” (Ezek. 16:15). But in the Old Testament the unfaithfulness to YHWH is always apparent. Babylon the great is not depicted as an unfaithful wife who plays the whore. She is simply a prostitute. Nahum’s denunciation of Nineveh (“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) offers a close and obviously relevant parallel.
16. The woman is seated on seven heads, which are “seven mountains” (Rev. 17:9). There is no reason to think that John would have been unfamiliar with the traditional view that Rome was a city built on seven hills. The argument is sometimes made from 1 Enoch 24-25 that Jerusalem was also thought of as a city on seven mountains, but it’s not at all clear that these seven mountains, which surround another mountain identified as the place of the throne of God, represent Jerusalem. In fact, Enoch then goes from that place to the centre of the earth (remember the earth is flat!), where he sees a “holy mountain”. This is Jerusalem. Zion is always a singular mountain in biblical and Jewish thought.
17. It makes no sense to say that Jerusalem had “dominion over the kings of the earth” (Rev. 17:18) when the city had been under Roman occupation for the last hundred years and was about to be destroyed by Rome. The Jews certainly aspired to dominion over the nations, but that would come about only at the moment of eschatological crisis, not before.
18. Earlier in Revelation Jerusalem is called “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:8). This great city is not to be confused with the second great city in Revelation, which is symbolically called “Babylon”. The seven bowls of Revelation 16 are poured out on Rome from the God who is “King of the nations” (Rev. 15:3). The sixth bowl prepares the way for the Parthian kings to invade Rome. The seventh bowl results in the “great city… Babylon the great” being split into three parts.
19. The description of the fall of “Babylon the great” is pervaded with allusions to Old Testament oracles concerning Babylon and other Gentile cities. No obvious attempt is made to connect the narrative with Old Testament accounts of divine judgment against 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) corresponds to the oracle against Babylon in Isaiah 13:21: “But wild animals will lie down there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will dwell, and there wild goats will dance” (Is. 13:21). “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) echoes Jeremiah’s denunciation of Babylon: “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).
20. Ah, but why do the tens horns and beast “hate the prostitute” if the prostitute is Rome? Why will they “make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire” (Rev. 17:16)? Here’s what Aune says: “The ten horns (the nations allied with Rome) and the beast (a Roman emperor, presumably Nero) will turn on the city of Rome and destroy it. This prediction may reflect the rumor that Nero would return from the east with Parthian allies to conquer Rome.”1 It will have to do.
- 1D.E. Aune, Revelation 17–22 (1998), 957.