I have endeavored to demonstrate that advocates of the Jerusalem=harlot view have a strong case to offer… This view is certainly consistent with John’s stated theme: God’s great divorce of Israel and Christ’s judgment upon her.
Rome or Jerusalem? A Comparative Analysis of the Harlot Imagery in Revelation 17
By Chris Strevel
January 26, 2005
Statement of the Question
The purpose of this paper is to investigate the harlot imagery utilized by the apostle John in Revelation 17 and to determine as far as possible its historical referent. My purpose may be more narrowly defined. Through the judgment of the great harlot, was John referring to the destruction of the imperial city of Rome or of the city of Jerusalem? Though all schools of interpretation have wrestled with the identity of the harlot, the question is especially important for the preterist. Though many commentators are willing to recognize that John made use of these historical cities as his literary and historical background, they refuse to admit that it was his chief purpose to foresee the divine judgment upon them. Because preterists believe that John was writing to the seven churches in Asia concerning events that were to occur in their immediate lifetimes, they maintain that the cities and movements of that day were the primary referent of the majority of John’s prophecies. It is inappropriate, therefore, to continue searching for the harlot of Revelation 17. This prophetic symbol has been realized in one of these two historical cities.
The fact, however, that we are dealing with past history does not render the harlot identification less important to the preterist. For John commands his own and all succeeding generations of God’s people to read and keep his prophecy carefully (Rev. 1:3). In viewing the majority of Revelation’s prophecies as past history, preterists do not minimize the value of its message today. History is an important reminder of God’s faithfulness, reveals how God works in history to defeat his enemies and build his Church, and instills in the believer confidence that his labors are not in vain in the Lord (cf. Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11). Most importantly with respect to the book of Revelation, the fact that it is largely past history indicates that the “great tribulation” has already passed, that we are in the millennial reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1-6), and that all that stands between us and the glorious Second Coming of our Lord is the progressive, albeit sometimes painful, slow, and unobservable, victory of the Gospel over all men and nations (Rev. 19:11-16), the conversion of the Jews (Rom. 11), and a last futile attempt by a released Satan to revolt against Christ and his Church (Rev. 20:7-10).
The Roman Interpretation
Preterists are generally divided between two historical referents for the harlot of Revelation 17 and 18: the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Rome. The latter view is widely supported in preterist circles. It is based on the symbolic identification of Babylon with Rome, a regular designation in the literature of that era and one often encountered in the inspired and uninspired writings of the early church, John’s emphasis on the harlot’s worldwide influence, the immorality and emperor worship of first century Rome, and the moral implications of economic fornication with the harlot. Moses Stuart, author of the first American commentary on the book of Revelation, E.W. Hengstenberg, and F.W. Farrar were leading proponents of this view in the 19th century, and it has had many recent advocates including Isbon T. Beckwith, Wilfrid Harrington, Albertus Pieters, G.K. Beale, and Greg Bahnsen. In recent studies supporting a Roman identification of the harlot, the commercial or economic interpretation of Revelation 18 is viewed as providing strong support for this particular view. John was writing to warn the first century Christians against economic involvement with the harlot because of the spiritual pollution that would inevitably result. In his recent book on the subject, Klaybill has written, “These repeated references to socio-economic matters suggest that John saw participation in the imperial economy as an important discipleship issue for people who confessed Jesus as Lord….Only Rome fit the description in the first century, and John reinforces his point with other allusions.” Whether or not this interpretation is correct will depend primarily on a careful investigation of John’s language, organization, and use of Old Testament prophecies. Only after a careful analysis of these may we search for concrete historical realities.
The Jerusalem Interpretation
Strong evidence exists for the view that the harlot is the apostate city of Jerusalem. Milton Terry and James Stuart Russell were two leading advocates of this view in the 19th century. A resurgence of this view may be seen in the through the commentaries and writings of J. Massyngberde Ford, Cornelius Vanderwaal, Ken Gentry, and the late David Chilton. The initial strengths of this view are its conformity to the analogy of Scriptural in determining the significance of “harlot,” consistent application of John’s symbolism, and understanding of the significance of Jerusalem’s fall in A.D. 70 for redemptive history. Gentry summarizes the evidence for the Jerusalem=harlot interpretation.
Briefly, the evidence for the identifying of Jerusalem as the Harlot is based on the following: (1) Both are called ‘the great city’ (Rev. 14:8; 11:8). (2) The Harlot is filled with the blood of the saints (cp. Rev. 16:6; 17:6; 18:21,24; w/ Matt. 23:34-48; Luke 13:33; Acts 7:51,52). (3) Jerusalem had previously been called by pagan names quite compatible with the designation ‘Babylon’ (cp. Rev. 14:8 and 17:5 with 11:8). (4) Rome could not fornicate against God, for only Jerusalem was God’s wife (Rev. 17:2-5; cp. Isa. 1:20; Jere. 31:31). (5) There is an obvious contrast between the Harlot and the chaste bride (cp. Rev. 17:2-5 with Rev. 21:1ff.) that suggests a contrast with the Jerusalem below and the Jerusalem above (Rev. 21;2; cp. Gal. 4:24ff.; Heb. 12:18). (6) The fact that the Harlot is seated on the seven-headed Beast (obviously representative of Rome) indicates not identify with Rome, but alliance with Rome against Christianity (cp. Matt. 23:37ff.; John 19:16ff.; Acts 17:7).
It is my contention that a careful examination of the literary context, prophetic background and language of Revelation 17 supports the claim that the harlot is the apostate city of Jerusalem as the center of Jewish rebellion against Christ. Through his imagery John intends to paint a startling picture of the apostasy and impending judgment of God upon the old city of Jerusalem, a judgment that was realized in A.D. 70. I do not discount the many striking parallels that exist between John’s description of the harlot and the city of Rome. There are many aspects of the commercial interpretation of Revelation 18 that are extremely conducive to an identification of Rome as the harlot, and even if one does not conclude that the harlot is Rome, it remains true that spiritual defilement through participation in the imperial cult and its economic system was a legitimate concern in the early church. In the final analysis, the stated theme of Revelation, the analogy of Scripture, the symbolic and thematic unity of Revelation, and clear exegetical indicators force us to conclude that John is referring to the judgment of God against Jerusalem for her centuries of spiritual whoredom and covenant apostasy.
The primary textual field for this paper will be Revelation 17. It is here that the symbolism of the harlot is introduced and her identity established. Chapter 18 fully reveals her judgment, so brief attention will be given to the evidence for the Jerusalem identification of the harlot contained therein. However, this paper will primarily consider the evidence for the Jerusalem identify of the harlot provided in 17:1-8, 9, and 18. My method throughout this paper will be to establish the meaning of John’s language, identify the likely Old Testament sources of John’s imagery, and demonstrate how that imagery is applicable to the apostate city of Jerusalem. I will set forth the arguments for the Roman identification throughout the body of the paper and offer a brief critique, thereby demonstrating their strengths and weaknesses.
The Literary Context of Revelation 17
The Theme of Revelation
A proper investigation of chapter 17 requires an assessment of the theme and literary structure of the book. The theme of Revelation is found in 1:7. In good prophetic imagery, John announces that Christ is coming on the clouds. This is standard Old Testament symbolism for the coming of God in power and judgment, either upon pagan nations or his covenant-breaking people. Daniel lays the groundwork for the Messianic application of the imagery in 7:13. From that passage and subsequent revelation in the New Testament, we understand Daniel to be prophesying that upon his resurrection and ascension, the Mediator of the covenant, our Lord Jesus Christ, would ascend in great power and glory to the right hand of the Father, described as a “coming with the clouds of heaven,” there to receive his universal dominion and authority. In Matthew 24:30, Jesus applies the Danielic imagery of “coming on the clouds” to his coming in judgment upon apostate Israel. Before the high priest Jesus again utilizes this prophecy with respect to himself: “Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). This coming occurred in A.D. 70 and was itself the sign that the Lord Jesus was enthroned in heaven and his kingdom established over all. The great Hebraist of the Westminster Assembly, John Lightfoot, clearly takes this view of the passage and throughout his commentary on Matthew 24 identifies its fulfillment as Christ’s judgment upon the Jews in A.D. 70.
Then shall the Son of Man give a proof of himself, whom they would not before acknowledge: a proof, indeed, not in any visible figure, but in vengeance and judgment so visible, that all the tribes of the earth shall be forced to acknowledge him the avenger. The Jews would not know him: now they shall know him, whether they will or no, Isa. xxvi. 11. Many times they asked of him a sign: now a sign shall appear, that he is the true Messias, whom they despised, derived, and crucified, namely, his signal vengeance and fury, such as never any nation felt from the first foundation of the world.
Undoubtedly, Revelation 1:7 is echoing Jesus’ biting indictment against apostate Jerusalem and its religious leaders in Matthew 23 and 24. In 23:36 and 24:34 Jesus assures his immediate audience that they will see this judgment in their lifetimes. This coming is not, therefore, a reference to Christ’s Second Coming but to his coming in final judgment upon apostate Israel. This is perhaps the most important foundation for a correct interpretation of John’s theme in Revelation. He is outlining God’s divorce of apostate Israel. He is not prophesying of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the conclusion of world history, but rather of one historical coming of Christ in judgment. This interpretation is most consistent with the Old Testament usage of the phrase “coming on the clouds,” the parallel passage in Matthew 24 and 26, and the clear time indicator that that generation could expect to see the coming of Christ in judgment upon his enemies.
For further evidence that God’s judgment upon apostate Israel is indeed his primary theme, John then adds that as result of this coming, those who pierced him will see him. The ones who crucified the Lord will witness the terrible spectacle of his consuming judgment. All the tribes of the earth or more likely “land” will mourn because of him, language derived from Zechariah’s prophecy (12:10-14). The reference to the nation of Israel is unmistakable and is clearly supported by the Old Testament context. It should not be more broadly applied than that nation, unless one wants to include the Romans, who were the primary instruments of Jewish envy and unbelief (John 19:37). The New Testament assigns the primary blame for Christ’s crucifixion to the Jews, and they were, moreover, the Church’s primary persecutor during the three and one-half decades proceeding Christ’s ascension. The Jews who demanded the crucifixion of Jesus proudly rebuffed Pilate’s plea to release him by shouting, “His blood be upon us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). Revelation relates how that tragic self-maledictory oath was definitely fulfilled in Christ’s judgment upon Jerusalem by Rome in A.D. 70 for its covenant apostasy from the Messiah and war against his Church.
The Organizational Structure of Revelation
It would appear that the best internal indicator of John’s organizational structure is found in 1:19. “These words summarize roughly the contents of the Book.” Jesus instructed John to write “the things that have been, the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.” The book could then be divided in the following fashion: 1:1-20 is a reference to those things which are past, i.e., the revelation John saw of the resurrected Christ in all his power and glory, as well as John’s commission to write to the seven churches in Asia; chapters 2-3 concern those things which are, i.e., the current condition and needs of the seven churches in Asia to whom John is writing; and chapters 4 through the end of the book refer to the things which shall be, i.e., the judgment upon apostate Israel, the identification of Imperial Rome as the great beast of Revelation, and the victory of the Church over all her enemies, a victory that shall extend throughout the interadvental period and be consummated at the Second Coming of Christ that will occur at the conclusion of his millennial reign. This or a similar arrangement is likely correct, though John also utilizes the three seven-series of judgment as a leading organizational theme of the book.
An Overview of Revelation 6-16
Chapters 6-11 reveal the breaking of the seals of the great scroll that will reveal the final judgment of apostate Israel, the sealing of God’s people living in Palestine so as to protect them from the coming devastation, and the blowing of the seven trumpets announcing various judgments upon Israel. It would appear that chapter 12 is a brief interlude or possibly a transition in John’s presentation. After the victory of the child over the dragon and his ascension to heaven, a reference to Christ’s victory through his death, resurrection and enthronement at God’s right hand, Satan turns his angry attention to the Church on earth. However, she is preserved in the wilderness for a defined period of time, interestingly enough, a sequence closely paralleling the length of Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 66-70. At this point the dragon, Satan, raises up the Beast, the persecuting power of Imperial Rome, to continue apostate Jerusalem’s persecution of the Church. Chapter 13 reveals the identify of this beast, Nero and the emperor worship that serves as his engine of propaganda and subjugation.
In chapters 14-16, John resumes his discussion of the judgment of Israel by Rome. Though many commentators refer this section to God’s judgment on Rome, I do not agree. Several textual indicators reveal that this is John’s message in these chapters. The Lamb is standing upon Mt. Zion with those sealed or protected believers who will be delivered from the judgment upon Jerusalem (14:1-5), a clear reference to the earlier sealing of the 144,000 (ch. 7). John again mentions the “great city,” which he has already identified as Jerusalem (cp. 14:8; 16:19 with 11:8). The judgment is against the “vine,” surely a reference to Israel (14:17-20; cf. Ps. 80:8; Isa. 5:2; Jer. 2:21; 6:9; Ezek. 17:8; 19:10; Hos. 10:1). The judgment falls on the place where Jesus was crucified, i.e., outside the city (cp. 14:20 w/ John 19:20; Heb. 13:11-13). Revelation 16:17-20 is an additional description of Jerusalem under siege by the Romans. The division of the city into three parts may refer to the three warring factions that led to the internal destruction of Jerusalem, though it may be simply a symbolic description of the devastation of God’s judgment. The hail that fell from heaven strikingly parallels the Roman bombardment of Jerusalem that slew many in the city. It is also relevant to note that the judgment of “Babylon” was the result of God “remembering” her terrible sins. This too supports a Jerusalem referent for chapters 14-16. “Remember” is a covenant idea stressing that God calls to mind the many instances of Jerusalem’s covenant apostasy over the centuries and is now filling up “the cup of the winepress of his wrath” (16:20).
There is no contextual break between chapters 14-16 and 17. One of the angels who possessed the seven bowls of judgment upon Jerusalem explains the vision to John (17:1). Chapters 17 and 18 thus clarify and expound on the judgment of the seven bowls. This leaves little doubt that the harlot of chapters 17 and 18 is a symbolic reference to the great city, Jerusalem, that was judged in chapters 14-16. Keeping this in mind will enable us to place John’s descriptions of the harlot in their proper literary context. It will also help us realize that though a Roman referent for the harlot is attractive at some points, it cannot be sustained on the basis of the context, development, and organizational structure of John’s vision.
The Importance of Revelation’s Literary Context
The rehearsal of this information is critical for a proper analysis of the harlot imagery in chapter 17. The theme indicated by John in Revelation 1:7 must control our interpretation of the details, symbols, and characters in the book itself. Though John is writing to seven churches in Asia, his purpose is to prepare the people of God for the radical change that is about to occur in God’s covenantal dealings with the Church. The Jewish nation and its holy city Jerusalem will not take center stage any longer in God’s redemptive plan (cf. Matt. 21:43). Their apostasy reached its climax in the chilling murder of Jehovah’s Anointed. A new and heavenly city is now established, the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Even though they are living outside the geographical environment in which these events will occur, the judgment of apostate Jerusalem is an important fulfillment of the curses of which God warned Israel should she ever break God’s covenant. It also demonstrates God’s faithfulness to preserve his people in times of great social upheaval and redemptive changes and establishes a standard of how King Jesus will deal with all his enemies throughout the new covenant era. John’s visions undoubtedly aided those early Christians to understand the purpose and nature of the Roman imperial power. For though Rome is not John’s primary focus in the book any more than it was Jesus’ in the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, it will play a key role in the execution of God’s judgment against Jerusalem. They will also become the chief persecuting power of the Church once Jerusalem is destroyed. As Terry has written,
Finally, we may well discard any views which carry our thoughts far away from that great metropolis, the fall of which was the sign of the end of the old dispensation and the complete introduction of Christianity. Rome is but incidentally connected with this, and figures only as one of the agents operating with other forces at the time. This revelation is not primarily concerned with the fall of the Roman empire as such, but only as it rises and passes from view as an instrument used by the Almighty to accomplish what his own wisdom and counsel determined to have done.
The Harlot Imagery of Revelation 17
The Old Testament Background of “Harlot”
In 17:2 John begins to reveal the judgment of the great harlot, th~v po>rnhv th~v mega>lhv. It is impossible to read John’s description without being reminded of the Old Testament prophets. Even advocates of the Rome=harlot identification admit this, though they proceed to affirm that John is freely adapting the image to pagan Rome. “St. John has made a new and wholly realistic application of the figure to the Graeco-Roman world.” We regularly find the prophets utilizing the image of a harlot to depict Israel’s faithless, covenant breaking ways. In two instances the term is applied to non-Israelite nations, Tyre and Nineveh (Isa. 23:15; Nah. 3:1-7). While these two instances allow us to consider a non-Jewish referent for the harlot in Revelation 17, John’s context and description weaken the hypothesis.
Ford discusses the significance of the non-Israelite usage of “harlot” in the prophets. The term was used with respect to Tyre because of its close historical identification with Israel, especially Hiram’s involvement with Solomon’s temple building. In dealing with the Nineveh identification as a harlot, Ford utilizes Qumranian textual variants that apply the judgments contained therein to Jerusalem rather than to Nineveh (4QpNah). Of course, the presupposition and weakness of Ford’s “Nineveh” hypothesis are her identification of John the Baptist as the author of Revelation. She surmises that John was heavily influenced by Essenic groups and thus would follow their interpretations of Old Testament books. It seems more likely that Nahum referred to Nineveh as a harlot because she too had once been exposed to the preaching of the gospel through the ministry of Jonah. It is stated explicitly that the Ninevites repented and believed Jonah’s message (cf. Matt. 12:41). This would certainly be more consistent with the Bible’s application of the symbol of a “harlot” to those cities and nations that knowingly turn away from Jehovah and his covenant.
Morris has suggested that since pornhv signifies “fornication,” John cannot be referring to Jerusalem. “Adulteress” would be more fitting. Accordingly, John is speaking of a secular power not a religious one. “She stands for civilized man apart from God, man in organized but godless community.” This sort of approach to identifying the harlot is insufficient, for a consultation with the LXX reveals that pornhv is the word the prophets most often used to speak of Israel as a harlot. Actually, Morris’ observation provides strong evidence for the identification of Jerusalem as the harlot. Pornhv is the standard Old Testament word the prophets used to depict Judah and Israel as covenant breaking nations. In the Old Testament, Israel’s depiction as a harlot was strong, sexual language by which God described Israel’s spiritual adultery or apostasy from his covenant. “A harlot in the prophetic sense is one who has broken the vows and bonds of the marriage covenant by any infidelity to the obligations of such union.”
Many attempts have been made to locate the exact Old Testament source behind John’s symbolism. Because the harlot imagery is pervasive in many of the prophets, it is impossible to resolve this question with certainty. It is perhaps more likely that the image was so familiar to John’s original audience that the very usage of the term implied to them a reference to Jerusalem. As atrocious as Rome’s crimes before God’s tribunal were, moreover, how could that nation be designated as the great harlot? Yes, there were harlots there, but the city itself was not acting contrary to any commitment to Jehovah, for it had never entered into covenant with him. The earliest Christians would not have forgotten that Isaiah had called Jerusalem the “faithful city that has become a harlot.” They were certainly familiar with the gross idolatry that Jeremiah emphasized as Israel’s primary harlotry, an apostasy that would result in Jehovah’s divorce of Israel. Moreover, one entire book of the Old Testament, Hosea, is God’s suit as a husband against his whoring wife, Judah. Ezekiel 16 fills out this imagery in such global dimensions, stressing that Israel went whoring after all the nations, that one cannot help but feel that is likely the chief Old Testament source behind John’s presentation. The sheer weight of Old Testament evidence strongly suggests that we refer John’s usage of the image to Jerusalem.
Therefore, the analogy of faith with respect to John’s symbolism supports a Jerusalem rather than a Roman reference. Rome was not in covenant with God, and this term could not be applied to it. “Indeed, it is the covenant relationship with Jehovah which makes Israel his special people, his bride, how could a non-Israelite nation be called a ‘harlot’ except in a much less precise sense? It is the covenant which makes the bride, the breaking of it which makes the adulteress.” As Ladd states, “In the Old Testament, the metaphor of adultery was frequently used of Israel as God’s faithless wife who had proved unfaithful by turning to false gods. Foreign nations were never accused by the prophets of this form of sin.” Moreover, if we have correctly identified John’s leading theme as the judgment of the reigning Christ against apostate Israel for their centuries of spiritual apostasy and recent rejection of the Messiah, then this inference becomes more certain. Jehovah’s long-threatened divorce from Israel will not become a reality through the destructive armies of Imperial Rome. Even apart from the strong exegetical evidence that I shall garner, as well as the stated theme of Revelation, this seems to be the strongest evidence for the Jerusalem=harlot interpretation of Revelation 17.
The Jerusalem and Judah which thus rejected the Christ of God were therefore guilty of the most criminal apostasy, and are appropriately called the great harlot. The shameful repudiation of her Lord was but the filling up of a long history of apostasy from the holy law, which was recognizing as having been given by the ministry of angels.
The Nature of the Harlotry
The common rebuttal of this hypothesis is that the harlotry of which John speaks is not primarily religious or spiritual but rather economic and political. “In the context of Revelation 17 and 18, the imagery is not that of religious profligacy but of the prostitution of all that is right and noble for the questionable ends of power and luxury.” Evidence for this is derived from the luxurious dress of the harlot in verse 4, the universality of her corrupting influence, and the mourning of the sailors and merchants when Rome falls and their prosperity ends. As Metzger has written, “The statement that ‘the kings of the earth have committed fornication’ with her (17:2) must be understood metaphorically to mean that Rome has usurped and perverted the political power of all her provinces.” Rome entered into strategic trading relations with her subject nations and provinces. These nations gained immense wealth by doing business with Rome. However, to enter into this economic relation involved a sort of “fornication,” an economic, cultural, and religious devotion to Rome. This necessarily entailed following her perverse customs and idolatrous religion. “But whereas John certainly places a strong emphasis on the socio-economic communion between Rome and the nations, idolatry cannot be excluded as one of the elements which in his mind make the relationship illicit.” Thus, “the pornei>a of which these kings were guilty consisted in purchasing the favour of Rome by accepting her suzerainty and with it her vices and idolatries.” This is symbolized by the repeated judgment that all the nations “have drunk of the wine of her fornication” (17:2,4; 18:3). John’s chief concern was thus to warn the first-century Church to avoid the spiritual implications of doing business with the beast. Beale adequately summarizes the economic understanding of fornication.
Therefore, Babylon is the prevailing economic-religious system in alliance with the state and its related authorities and existing throughout the ages. Of course, the generally known fact that whores in the ancient world offered their bodies and sexual service for payment only enhances the economic nature of the Babylonian prostitute.
Klaybill argues at length throughout his recent book that to enter into business in the Roman world usually required participation in local trade guilds and associations, most of which had local patron deities to which religious veneration was performed. Thus, the fornication of which John speaks refers to “the reciprocal exchange of benefits and loyalties that bounded provincials to the imperial rulers. While most people of the East viewed this network of reciprocal relationships as positive and useful, John condemns it as immoral, self-serving, and idolatrous.” “Already during the reign of Nero, that religious and ideological phenomenon had metastasized like a cancer throughout the Roman world.” I find much that is attractive about Klaybill’s book. His work, however, is not an exegetical commentary on Revelation, and the reader should remember that he does not address the theme of Revelation or the important contextual indicators in chapters 14-16. The evidence he gathers establishes the first-century context of the book of Revelation and highlights the struggles God’s people inevitably faced living in the Roman empire. It places chapters 2-3 of John’s vision in a compelling historical and cultural background. However, I believe it is inappropriate to apply his thesis to Revelation 18 and view Rome as the referent of John’s vision.
Virtually all parties agree that John is heavily dependent upon the prophetic imagery of the Old Testament. While Klaybill builds an interesting case, the Old Testament regularly speaks of Israel’s apostasy in economic and political terms similar to John’s prophecy in Revelation 17-18 (cf. Isa. 1:21-23; 3:13-26; 30:2,3). “You also played the harlot with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; indeed you played the harlot with them and still were not satisfied. Moreover you multiplied your acts of harlotry as far as the land of the trader, Chaldea; and even then you were not satisfied” (Ezek. 16:28,29). The important thing to remember is that Israel’s sexual sins, luxury, covetousness, and unlawful political allegiances with the nations of the world were always viewed in the Old Testament as idolatrous relations. They inevitably corrupted Israel’s worship away from the one true God and his regulative principle of worship. They were evidences that Israel’s heart had wandered far from God and his covenant (Jer. 22:9; Ezek. 44:7; Hos. 7:11-8:1; 12:1,2). The Old Testament background of Revelation 17 and 18 strongly supports the notion that the economic and political fornication should be viewed primarily as evidence of spiritual apostasy from Jehovah and his covenant. Economic prostitution and pagan political alliances are harlotry precisely because they are evidence of Israel’s degenerate spiritual condition and religious compromise. As Provan has noted,
That general criticism is much more about religion than it is about economics; or to put it another way, economic sins are only ever a function of idolatry, so far as the Old Testament is concerned, and it is on the idolatry that the emphasis falls, rather than upon the economics.
It is in this light that the image of the harlot riding on the beast should be understood (17:3). It is clear that the beast is the one introduced in chapter 13, the imperial power of Rome as a blasphemous enemy of God. The harlot should not be viewed as another symbol for this power, and it does not do justice to the following verses to assume that the harlot is the city of Rome while the beast is the imperial empire that is the foundation of the city. Beasley-Murray’s comments are typical of this view. “The two figures of monster and woman are really alternative representations of a single entity, but in this context they yield an appropriate means for depicting the antichristian city in relation to the antichristian empire.” This would be redundant. “Rome cannot be seated upon Rome.” Even Beale, a modern advocate of the Rome=harlot view admits this fact. No, there seems to be some league between the two that causes John to wonder in astonishment and refer to the image as a “mystery.”
Given all the available interpretive options, the harlot=Jerusalem view is the most consistent with this image. Accordingly, John presents the apostate city of Jerusalem in league with the Roman empire. She is receiving her power for national existence and economic prosperity from the persecuting power of Rome. She is in league with a wicked nation rather than dependent upon God’s covenant promises and trusting in his provision of a Messiah through Jesus Christ. This at once answers one of Beale’s primary objections against the preterist view, which he mistakenly believes necessitates a Jerusalem referent for the harlot. It is true that the “influence of Jerusalem was at its lowest in the two centuries preceding A.D. 70.” It is exactly for this reason that Jerusalem must be seated upon the beast of the Roman empire if her national and economic stability is to be secured. This also conforms to the standard Old Testament criticism against Israel. It was when Israel and Judah were at their weakest spiritually, politically, and economically that they played the harlot against Jehovah and entered alliances with pagan nations. Beale’s insight actually sustains the harlot=Jerusalem point. For in turning away from Jehovah, Israel found it necessary to ride Rome’s coat tails in order to survive. This is especially true with respect to Jerusalem’s murder of the Messiah and subsequent persecution of the Church he established.
The imagery clearly recalls Old Testament prophetic denunciations of Israeli alliances with foreign powers. It is this symbol that causes John to gawk in amazement in vv. 5,6. The once faithful city is now aligned with the enemies of God against the Lord Jesus Christ. “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 (cp. Matt. 23:37ff.; John 19:16ff.; Acts 17:7).” This is the great mystery. Mystery is a technical term indicating something once hidden but now revealed, and the publication of a mystery is the unveiling of truth. Here the term reveals some shocking aspect of the woman’s character. The full apostasy and final end of the city of Jerusalem and with her the destiny of Jewish nation is now revealed. Her harlotry and hence her judgment has reached its pinnacle. Her doom is certain, and it is near. It is the filthiness of apostate Judaism and the abominations of her harlotries that cause John to stare in amazement.
Moreover, the woman is drunk, saturated with the blood of the saints and martyrs of the Lord Jesus Christ. This symbol cannot in any fashion be applied to Rome, who at the time of Revelation’s writing had not entered the ranks of the persecutors of the Church. Even later, its murderous ways can never compare with the guilt incurred by Jerusalem for its centuries of persecution against God’s prophets and faithful people. The description aptly fits Jesus’ prophesy against Jerusalem in Matthew 23:35: “that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth” (cf. Acts 7:52). Jerusalem is the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth. She has become the modern Babylon. This is why John also pictures her as sitting upon many waters, an Old Testament allusion to the geographical location of the ancient city of Babylon (17:2). She will now be judged in the same devastating fashion, never to rise again, as Babylon of old was by the Medo-Persian empire. Like Babylon of old, she has become thoroughly evil and the great enemy of God’s covenant.
Hence, there is nothing incongruous about the description of the harlotry in Revelation 17 and 18 and a Jerusalem referent for her. If anything, Jerusalem is the only real referent available to us. For the practice of pagan municipalities entering into religious, economic and cultural alliances with Rome can hardly be called “harlotry.” It is not a “mystery” for the city of Rome and its tributaries to be entangled politically and economically with the beastly Roman empire. Both are acting consistently with their unregenerate natures, and both will be judged by God accordingly. However, as harlotry chiefly implies apostasy from the covenant, it cannot truly be predicated of either. When applied to Jerusalem it becomes a striking reminder that Jerusalem has never repented of her former practice of entering into alliances with pagan nations. Hereby she revealed her apostasy and unbelief. In entering into her allegiance with Rome for political and economic reasons, she is guilty of the same crime. Accordingly, the harlotry in chapters 17 and 18, though spoken of in highly political and economic terms, is at heart religious and ethical. Moreover, as subsequent sections of this paper shall address, the economic aspects of chapter 18 fit in nicely with the economic and political environment of Jerusalem at the time of John’s writing and are additional evidences of her apostasy and reasons for her decimating judgment by Jehovah.
Further Descriptions of the Harlot Implying a Jerusalem Referent
In this section, the other leading descriptions of the harlot in chapters 17 and 18 are placed in the context of the harlot=Jerusalem referent. It will be seen that each of these easily fits and better explains John’s vision than the alternate Roman referent. I will intermingle the arguments for the harlot=Rome view throughout this section so that the reader can determine which referent best approximates John’s inspired description of this wretched woman.
1. The Dress of the Harlot (17:4). The harlot’s dress is often viewed as indicative of the luxury and materialism of Rome. As Beckwith states, “The description in verse 4 and chapt. 18 shows that the figure here includes all Rome’s wicked luxury and her allurement to godlessness and immorality.” Historically, this cannot be denied. However, in light of the established Jerusalem context of chapters 14-18, as well as the overall theme of Revelation, the purple, scarlet and precious stones seems more indicative of the priestly order of Jerusalem with the temple in her midst. The harlot’s priestly attire thus contributes to her mysterious and abominable appearance. The very priesthood God ordained to lead men to peace with himself is now perverse beyond recovery. The golden cup is also related to the priesthood and temple. Josephus describes the temple of that day as follows: “The number of the rooms [in the temple] was also very great, and the variety of the figures that were about them was prodigious; their future was complete, and the greatest part of the vessels that were put in them was of silver and gold.” Rather than being filled with drink offerings to the Lord, however, this cup is full of the abominations and filthiness of Jerusalem’s apostasy from Jehovah. How can the priests who minister in the temple offer anything else up to God since they have murdered his Messiah, Jesus Christ? All of their offerings are an abomination to the Lord. Ford’s comments are especially helpful here.
In the picture of the adulteress what one may have is a parody of the high priest on the Day of Atonement wearing the vestments specially reserved for that occasion and holding the libation offering. However, instead of the sacred name upon his brow the “priest-harlot” bears the name Babylon, mother of harlots and the abominations of the earth, a title illustrating Ezek 16:43-45 (RSV), where Yahweh speaks of the lewdness of Jerusalem.
2. The Kings of the Land (17:2). The phrase “kings of the earth” is commonly urged as an objection to the harlot=Jerusalem view. A cursory consideration of the universality of the harlot’s corrupting influence certainly seems to favor a Roman rather than Jerusalem referent. This phrase occurs four times in chapters 17 and 18 (17:2,18; 18:3,9), and I believe it should refer more locally to the leaders in the land of Palestine each time. First, the context must determine the significance of the images and descriptions in the text. The Jerusalem context of chapters 14-16 favors a localized interpretation of the phrase. Then, in verse 18 the harlot is identified as the “great city” that rules over the “kings of the land.” This great city has already been identified as Jerusalem in 11:8. In terms of its covenant status, Jerusalem was not only the center of the Palestinian region, but it also exercised a spiritual superiority over all the nations: to it belonged the ordinances of God, the priesthood, the temple, and indeed it alone possessed the gateway to the true religion and knowledge of the one true God. As Revelation is primarily a “covenant” book, i.e., descriptive of God’s great judgment against covenant breaking Israel, it is not at all surprising that John should describe Jerusalem in this exalted fashion. He is following Jeremiah’s example in so designating Jerusalem. Contemporary designations support the Jerusalem referent for the city. Josephus describes Jerusalem as “the royal city Jerusalem [that] was supreme and presided over all the neighboring country as the head does over the body.” He records at length the moving speech of Eleazar, the defender of the Jewish fortress of Masada, in which he calls upon the garrison of men, wives, and children to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. At one place, Eleazar says, “Where now is that great city, the metropolis of the whole nation of Jews, protected by so many encircling walls, secured by so many forts, and by the vastness of its towers, which could with difficulty contain its munitions of war, and which was garrisoned by so many myriads of defenders? What has become of that city of ours in which it was believed God Himself was a dweller?” Finally, this designation is consistent with the usage of the phrase in related passages such as Acts 4:26, where it is stated that the “kings of the earth” took counsel together against the Lord and his Anointed. This must be seen as a reference to the rulers of the land of Israel. This understanding of the phrase is consistent with John’s stated theme in the book, the usage of Scripture, and other contemporary descriptions of Jerusalem.
3. The Name on the Harlot’s Forehead (17:5). The background to the image of the harlot’s name written on her forehead is usually referred to the practice of Roman prostitutes, who in order to make themselves more available would identity themselves in this fashion. Beale strongly questions this parallel by nothing that “the validity of the references attesting this are doubtful (except perhaps the elder Seneca, Controversiae 1.2.7). The more likely background of John’s image is found in Deuteronomy 6:8, where the Lord commands his people to place his law on their foreheads. This language was a symbolic depiction of Israel’s duty to love the Lord with all their mind and to be faithful to his covenant. Israel turned away from this commandment, and in the likely Old Testament background to this verse in Revelation, Jeremiah states that Israel has a harlot’s forehead, the brazenness of a prostitute in her rebellion against God (3:3). On this verse Calvin comments, “Jeremiah proceeds with his severe reproof,–that the Jews were wholly given to wickedness, for they had altogether devoted themselves to superstitions, and also to unlawful alliances, and had in both instances despised God.” In Revelation the “name on the forehead” motif is prevalent and is clearly based upon the images of the old covenant. The new covenant saints of God have his name written on their foreheads (7:3; 9:4; 14:1). The followers of the beast have his name written there (13:17). In Revelation 17:5 the harlot city of Jerusalem is depicted as having something other than God’s name written on her forehead. Rather than the law of God her forehead brazenly announces her covenant apostasy and crimes. She has a new name now, Babylon. The once faithful city has become the greatest enemy of the kingdom of God on earth. The chief purpose of this depiction of the harlot is to stress her covenant apostasy from Jehovah. She has a new lover, a new law, and a new identity. She has totally forsaken the Lord God.
4. The Judgment against the Great Harlot (18:1-20). One chief objection that the harlot=Jerusalem view must overcome is the strong case that has been built by Klaybill, Beale and others that the judgment outlined in chapter 18 is an unmistakable reference to the ancient city of Rome and the divine response to the economic and political fornication in which Rome engaged with her suitors. I will not dispute the fact that many parallels for John’s economic descriptions can be found in the Roman histories and archaeological record of that era. Again, however, the theme of the book, the context of chapters 17-18, and other clear exegetical factors must take precedence over supposed easy historical identifications. The description of the judgment in 18:9-19 is quite compatible with the harlot=Jerusalem view, as current exegetical and historical research are demonstrating.
I would begin by noting two ways in which the description of judgment in these verses does not fit a Roman referent. First, chapter 18 does not at all appear to be an economic critique of Rome, as some who adopt a Roman referent have argued. In his recent essay Bauckham argues that the reason for the judgment is Rome’s economic exploitation of the surrounding lands. A careful consultation of the text would seem to imply that the reason for the lament of the merchants, who are given prominence in these dirges, kings, and sailors is their own loss of revenue in the destruction of the harlot. They are weeping with the harlot. If anything, John presents them as participating with the harlot in the fornication for which she is being judged. This greatly weakens the regularly accepted hypothesis that Rome is being judged for her political and economic fornication. It would also support the Jerusalem=harlot view in that the entire land of Palestine benefited from the constant trade and economic prosperity generated by Jerusalem. When she is judged, their prosperity will end as well. Against Bauckham’s thesis and of this position in general, Provan observes,
He is very hard put to demonstrate at all, in fact, that John saw Rome’s wealth as profit from the empire enjoyed at the expense of the peoples of the empire. This is, of course, because Revelation 18 does not speak of economic exploitation at all. The courtesian under examination here may well enjoy an extravagant lifestyle; but there is no hint in the passage that she does so at the expense of her clients, and much evidence that the clients have been more than happy with the exchange of goods. They lament the passing of trade which has been in their own interests.
Moreover, the list of cargoes given in verses 12-17 does not fit a Roman referent very clearly. For if John’s intention were to present the incredible luxury of Rome, he would have chosen the many examples of Roman opulence that would have made his point much more vividly than the items he mentioned. These are standard goods, none of which reveal any ostentation, unnecessary luxury, or materialism. It is far more likely that the listed materials have reference to the temple ministry and the commerce of Jerusalem. The listing is similar to one found in Ezekiel 27:12-24. The inclusion of chariots should not lead us away from a Jerusalem referent. For the multiplication of chariots was forbidden to Solomon and Israel as leading them toward imperialism and away from trust in Jehovah (1 Kings 4). John’s mention of them here strengthens his charge of covenant apostasy and dependence upon foreign powers rather than upon the faithfulness of the Lord. Josephus and Edersheim can be cited for evidence of Jerusalem’s extensive commerce with the surrounding nations. Whereas the Lord had promised material prosperity to Israel for covenant faithfulness, the coming judgment of Christ in A.D. 70 will put an end to her economic prosperity, and the local rulers of the land, merchants, and sailors who greatly prospered as a result of her thriving economy will marvel at the judgment and lose the economic benefit.
5. The Name of “Babylon” Applied to the Great Harlot (17:5; 18:2). An additional objection to the Jerusalem=harlot reference is the apparent incongruity of applying the appellation “Babylon” to Jerusalem, a logical corollary of this view. It is true that Peter and other first century literature apply this ancient city’s name to Rome, likely because “it was the world capital of idolatry, a position once held by the Mesopotamian city.” Again, however, the context must determine our application in any given passage. After all, in both instances it is a symbolic application of the name, and hence an a priori objection to a symbolic application of it to Jerusalem is inappropriate. In the Bible, Jerusalem is often called by the names of notoriously wicked and idolatrous cities. She is called Sodom by Isaiah (1:9), Jeremiah (23:14), Ezekiel (16:46), and John (11:8), a designation intended to recall the gross wickedness of her people and religious practices. John has previously called her Egypt (11:8). In the light of the biblical precedent for describing Jerusalem by pagan city names, John’s precedent for so doing in Revelation, and the overall context of Revelation, it appears that he is applying this title to Jerusalem in 17:5. As Russell correctly noted, “If she passes under one pseudonym, why not another, provided it be descriptive of her character? All these names, Sodom, Egypt, and Babylon, are alike suggestive of evil and of ungodliness, and proper designations of the wicked city whose doom was to be like theirs.” It is interesting that John intensifies his imagery with the adjective “the great” (17:5). In his mind, Jerusalem displays the greatness of Babylon’s perversity and wickedness. Instead of conducting herself as God’s faithful Bride, she has become the great enemy of the kingdom of God.
6. The Call to Leave the Harlot City (18:4). Although not a central plank of the Jerusalem=harlot view, the command to “leave the city” provides further evidence for this view. Not only does the command recall Jesus’ instructions to his disciple to leave Jerusalem when they see Jerusalem surrounded by the Roman armies (Matthew 24:16), a command that the remaining Christians in the city obeyed when they fled to Pella, but also the language in this and the surrounding verses is applicable only to Jerusalem. The reason for the impending judgment is strictly covenantal. She will be judged because “God has remembered her iniquities.” Her centuries of apostasy, wickedness, and bloodshed will now be punished with a cumulative judgment that will signal her total destruction. In writing that her sins have “reached to heaven,” John clearly recalls Paul’s earlier indictment of the Jewish nation in 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16: “who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men, forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, so as always to fill up the measure of their sins; but wrath has come upon them to the uttermost.”
7. The Rejoicing of the Holy Apostles and Prophets (18:20). Further support for the Jerusalem=harlot view can be found in the rejoicing of the holy apostles and prophets in the downfall of the great harlot city. As noted previously, while Rome would become a great persecutor against the Church, she entered the battle very late. The Jewish nation is responsible for the slaying of numerous prophets whom God sent to warn her for covenant apostasy. The apostles also were special targets of Jewish hostility. It is clear, moreover, that the judgment is in response to a long epoch of persecuting wrath against these devoted servants of God. Jesus himself had announced that all the blood spilt by the Jewish nation would bring a cumulative judgment upon that generation, and John now writes that the promised judgment will arrive in a very short time. God has remembered their complaint against the apostate nation and will revenge their treatment by destroying the once faithful city.
It was the just retribution to Israel for her oppression of saints, apostles, and prophets throughout her history, and culminating in the Last Days in her war against Christ and His Church. It was she who had inspired the Roman persecution of Christians; but the wrath which she had stoked up had been poured out on her head instead.
The Two Cities of Revelation
There is one final argument for the Jerusalem=harlot view that deserves separate consideration. It is obvious that John contrasts two cities and women in the book of Revelation. It would appear that the faithful woman and city of chapters 12 and 21 are the antithesis of the great harlot of chapters 17 and 18. How should we understand this contrast? Advocates of the Rome=harlot view are in the position of having to defend that John is contrasting the city of Rome to the city of God, Rome to the Church, and Rome to the heavenly Jerusalem. Understood in this fashion, John is pitting a worldly against a spiritual power, luxury and oppression against faith, economic fornication against purity and holiness. “The prevailing economic-religious system of Babylon, in alliance with the state, commits immorality by fostering multiple forms of idolatry among the peoples of the world (see on 17:2), whereas God’s people remain faithful only to the Lamb.”
This line of argumentation fails to do justice to the mystery of this contrast (17:5), not to mention its utter failure to deal adequately with John’s stated theme (Rev. 1:7), use of Old Testament imagery, and clear textual allusions to Jerusalem. It is not a mystery, at least in the biblical sense of the word, to compare the faithful Church to the pagan city of Rome. While the comparisons between the purity and holiness of the Church as the chaste Virgin of Christ and the wickedness of ancient Rome are undoubtedly multitudinous and striking, they are to be expected. Properly speaking, John did not need revelation from heaven to see this for himself. As Fairbairn has written, “Now, there had been no mystery in this sense, had the power here referred to been merely a worldly kingdom, opposing and persecuting the church of God, and as such called Babylon from its resemblance to the old heathen power of that name; the commonest understanding might have perceived the meaning and propriety of the designation.” What would have been a startling mystery to John, however, an identification requiring revelation from heaven to be grasped, is if this great seductress was once known as the faithful city of God’s covenant. Seen in this light, the harlot city of Jerusalem is the antithesis of all that is good and holy. Her priesthood is spoiled. Her rebellion and hardness of heart have brought her to an historical impasse. She has turned into the opposite of all God called her to be. As hard as it often was to the first century Christian mind to comprehend, the new order or kingdom of Jesus Christ would pursue a separate ecclesiastical organization, social setting, and national future from the great harlot city of Jerusalem. What John is describing, therefore, is the judgment of the exalted Jesus of Nazareth against the apostate Church of the old covenant centered in Jerusalem and the old priestly order.
But there was a mystery in the strictest sense, if the power so designated professed to be the very reverse of what the designation implied; if by a spirit of degeneracy and unfaithfulness it had, while still retaining its claim to spirituality, sunk into a condition of the grossest earthliness and corruption. In that case, there would be needed the wisdom that comes from above, the hidden wisdom of God’s Spirit, to look through the external appearance, and discern the real state and character underneath. To call this power, therefore, in connection with the appellation Babylon, a mystery, was quite of a piece with calling Jerusalem in our Lord’s time, and in after times the corrupt and apostate church spiritually, Sodom and Egypt (chap. xi. 8): it denoted a character the reverse to the spiritual mind that it should seem to be carnal.
Within the text of Revelation, moreover, there are indicators that this is the contrast John has in mind. The most important textual clue is that the faithful Bride of Christ is designated as the new Jerusalem from above, implying a clear contrast with the old Jerusalem from below. This is reminiscent of Paul’s comparison in Galatians 4:24-31, as well as that found in Hebrews 12:18-24. The clear implication of John’s organization is that a new order of things has arrived. The old faithless city is apostate and corrupted. Her judgment is near. This judgment will not mark the end of God’s glorious city, Zion or Jerusalem, however, for through the person and work of the Messiah he has purified his people and formed her into a pure and chaste Bride, a people who will dedicated to doing his will.
This contrast is certainly consistent with the practice of the New Testament authors to expound the implications of the transition from the old Jewish order to the new heavenly order of the Church. This was a change that constantly confused God’s people, who in the decades immediately following Christ’s ascension continued to entertain ideas that God’s new covenant work would be centered somehow in Jerusalem. How perplexing this issue is even to professing Christians in our own day! Yet John and the other New Testament authors are clear. In rejecting the Messiah, the city of Jerusalem, its leaders, its priestly cult, and its people revealed themselves unworthy of the kingdom of God. It was therefore taken away from them and given to a nation, a new city and kingdom, that would bear the fruits of it to the glory of God. That nation is the Church or kingdom of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:9), outside of which there is no possibility of salvation, and which shall continue to grow and fill the earth until the knowledge of the glory of the Lord covers it from sea to shining sea.
It has not been my intention in this paper to explicate every textual detail in chapters 17 and 18 related to the judgment of the great harlot. Rather, I have endeavored to demonstrate that advocates of the Jerusalem=harlot view have a strong case to offer the Church of Christ in her ongoing attempt to correctly understand the final book of our English Bibles. This view is certainly consistent with John’s stated theme: God’s great divorce of Israel and Christ’s judgment upon her. It also does justice to the established biblical usage of the harlot imagery, especially as it pertains to nations that have broken covenant with Jehovah. This interpretation is further supported by the many textual indicators in chapters 14-18 pointing to a Jerusalem referent, John’s usage of “mystery,” and the contrast in Revelation between the chaste Bride of Christ and the apostate Jewish church. The Rome=harlot view, while attractive at certain points, simply cannot be sustained in the light of this evidence.
If that is the case, why do the majority of commentators dismiss the Jerusalem=harlot view with small footnotes and passing allusions? The answer to this question is complex. It centers around the failure of theologians and commentators to grasp or admit the significance of the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 for God’s redemptive program in history. This failure has led to an improper dating (late) for the book of Revelation, and indeed for many New Testament books, as well as improper eschatological schemes based upon futuristic interpretations of New Testament prophecies that had as their primary referent events in the first century. This is not to say, of course, that the judgment of apostate Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is the proper referent of all the prophecies of final judgment found in the New Testament, only that it was an expected event and regular theme found in Jesus, Paul, and John. Some are unwilling to admit this for fear that it will open the door to a hyper-preterism that denies the physical coming of Christ at the end of history. Others do not wish to see certain prophecies in this light because such an admission would require the abandonment of cherished eschatological schemes. Both of these fears are unjustified responses to the claims made in this paper and will result in continued interpretive errors, theological, eschatological, and practical. For in the minds of the biblical authors, this was a theme that desperately needed clarification in the minds of the early Christians, many of whom were Jews or Gentile proselytes who could not imagine Christianity radically severed from its natural center in Jerusalem. Accordingly, it was necessary to teach that God’s redemptive plan for the new covenant age will not be centered in Jerusalem. That city and the nation over which it reigns is apostate. In murdering the Messiah, retaining a priesthood and sacrificial system after the shedding of the Anointed’s blood, and persecuting his Church, the place of that nation and city in God’s plan is irreversibly lost. This event was a dramatic shift from the Jerusalem-based kingdom of God in the Old Testament and certainly required explication from the biblical authors. This is why Jesus spoke so often to the subject, and ultimately why he had John dedicate the final book of the New Testament to the one climactic event that would reveal the end of the old Jewish order in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple environs in A.D. 70.