Don Preston has been arguing at length in comments on an earlier post against the identification of “Babylon the great” with Rome (Rev. 14:6-11; 16:19; 17-18). One reason he gives for the view is that the great harlot, which is Babylon the great, is not to be identified with the beast on which she sits: “the woman (Babylon) is not the beast, the woman rides on the beast. Babylon sits on the seven hills. It is the seven hills that equal the beast”. He notes, in particular, that “the Beast turns on the woman and destroys her” (Rev. 17:16-17).
Rather, in his view, Babylon the great is Jerusalem. Revelation 17 describes a “partnership of persecution” whereby the Jews incited Rome to persecute Christians. He quotes Gentry: “The fact that the Harlot is seated on the seven headed beast (obviously representative of Rome) indicates, not identity with Rome, but alliance with Rome against Christianity.” Evidence that Jews poisoned the mind of Nero against the Christians in Rome is alluded to. But in the end, Rome turns against Jerusalem and destroys it.
It seems to me that there is a much simpler explanation for the distinction between the great prostitute and the beast, and I remain firmly of the view that “Babylon the great”, the “great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth” is the city of Rome.
If it appears a rather esoteric and irrelevant quarrel over a minor point of exegesis in one of the least illuminating parts of the New Testament, my contention would be that it is a critical piece in how the early church told its story as it moved into Europe and should be of considerable interest to us as we endeavour to tell our own story after Christendom.
A “beast with seven heads and ten horns” rises out of the sea in Revelation 13:1-2. It has the appearance of a leopard, but its feet are like the feet of a bear, and it has a lion’s mouth. The description echoes that of the four beasts that emerge from the sea in Daniel’s vision. Indeed, John’s beast appears to be constructed of details taken from each of Daniel’s monsters: the first was like a lion and had eagle’s wings, the second was like a bear, the third like a leopard with bird’s wings, and the fourth had ten horns and was “exceedingly strong” (Dan. 7:1-7). John says that those who do obeisance to the beast ask, “Who is like the beast, and who can wage war against it?”
The beast gains its authority from the dragon, which also is said to have “seven heads and ten horns” (Rev. 12:3). The dragon is “the devil and Satan”, but it clearly has a close relationship with the beast.
The beast, therefore, is a pagan kingdom of the same order as the four kingdoms which in Daniel’s vision are symbolically depicted as violent, hybrid creatures, which emerge from the sea and wreak havoc on the earth. Clearly in Revelation the kingdom is imperial Rome.
In context, Daniel’s fourth beast is the empire of the Greeks—there is even a reference to Alexander the Great in Daniel 11:3-4. The ten horns on its head are kings, and the small horn that grows up among them is Antiochus Epiphanes, whose efforts to suppress Jewish faith and practice sparked the Maccabean revolt. But—this is a crucial point to note—there is no city in Daniel’s vision.
Now to Revelation.
One of the seven angels with the seven bowls takes John into the wilderness to see “the judgment of the great prostitute who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality, and with the wine of whose sexual immorality the dwellers on earth have become drunk” (Rev. 17:1–2). John sees the woman “sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns” (Rev. 17:3).
The woman is a great cosmopolitan city, fabulously wealthy and powerful, a lure for the kings of the earth (Rev. 18:9), a centre of trade for the Mediterranean—you would not expect “sailors and all whose trade is on the sea” to be lamenting over the fall of Jerusalem (Rev. 18:17-19). The waters on which she sits are “peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Rev. 17:15).
The city is associated especially with sexual immorality (either literally or figuratively), and a leading charge against it is that it has corrupted the nations (Rev. 14:8; 17:4-6; 18:3). The condemnation of Nineveh in Nahum 3:4 provides an excellent model for this: “And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute (pornē in LXX)…, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms.”
So here we have the basis for the distinction between the woman and the beast. The beast is the historical kingdom or empire, existing over time, ruled by a series of kings. The woman is the city of Rome, the decadent, corrupted and corrupting heart of the empire, sustained by the ideology of Roman imperialism and the régime of the Caesars.
But what about the argument that the beast turns upon the woman and destroys her? Here’s the passage:
And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire, for God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled. (Rev 17:16–17)
Aune suggests: “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.”[fn]D.E. Aune, Revelation 17–22 (1998), 957.[/fn]
But John’s language does not necessarily point to external invasion. The thought may simply be that in the end the “kingdom”—the imperial régime—will ruin the city of Rome from within by its beastliness. The reference to burning the city with fire naturally evokes the conflagration supposedly instigated by Nero.