Jul 18, 2011

Babylon Is Rome?

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Perhaps the most popular view concerning the identity of Babylon is that she represents the city of Rome.

Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Jerome use Babylon as representing the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages Rome is frequently styled "the Western Babylon." The sect of the Fraticelli, an eremitical organization from the Franciscans in the fourteenth century, who carried the vow of poverty to the extreme and taught that they were possessed of the Holy Spirit and exempt from sin—first familiarized the common mind with the notion that Rome was the Babylon, the great harlot of the Book of Revelation. [1]

This interpretation goes back at least to the time of Tertullian (Adv. Marc. iii.13). It was adopted by Jerome and Augustine and has been commonly accepted by the Church. There are some strong reasons for accepting it. (1) The characteristics ascribed to this Babylon apply to Rome rather than to any other city of that age: (a) as ruling over the kings of the earth (Rev. 17:18); (b) as sitting on seven mountains (Rev. 17:9); (c) as the center of the world’s merchandise (Rev. 18:2 19:2); (d) as the persecutor of the saints (Rev. 17:6). [2]

Because Rome, with the Vatican, is home to the global system of Roman Catholicism, the identity of Babylon as the city of Rome has often gone hand-in-hand with the view that The Great Harlot represents Roman Catholicism, possibly wed with other religious systems (See Mystery Babylon?).

The identity of Babylon with Rome has been bolstered by three events of history:

  1. The Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70—In a similar way that Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, Rome destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple under Titus. This established Rome as a key enemy of Israel and Jerusalem prior to the time of John’s writing. Thus it is thought to be only natural that Babylon would be used as a code name for Rome. [3]

  2. Christian Persecution—For the early church (remembering that John wrote from exile on Patmos during the reign of Domitian), the modern-day persecutor of the saints was Rome. Although John’s prophecies concerned the time of the end, those who have sought to restrict fulfillment to his immediate audience can find no other viable candidate outside of Rome. At that time, she was indeed “the center of the world’s merchandise [and] the persecutor of the saints.” [4]

  3. The Reformation—When the reformers broke away from Roman Catholicism, the prophecies concerning Babylon and the Beast provided ready ammunition against Rome. By identifying the papal system and Rome with the Beast and Babylon, it could be clearly seen that Roman Catholicism was the predicted enemy of the true faith and destined for eventual destruction. Due to its great utility, this view has dominated Protestant interpretation for many years.

    "The Romish Church is not only accidentally and as a matter of fact, but in virtue of its very PRINCIPLE, a harlot, the metropolis of whoredom, 'the mother of harlots'; whereas the evangelical Protestant Church is, according to her principle and fundamental creed, a chaste woman; the Reformation was a protest of the woman against the harlot” (See Relation to the Pope). [5]

Although evidence for the identification of Babylon with Rome may initially appear convincing, upon careful examination it becomes clear that Babylon cannot mean Rome.

Those who propose that Babylon be understood as a code name for Rome often point to evidence of such use in early extra-biblical writings:

“For the early church the city of Rome was a contemporary Babylon. [In II Bar. 11:6; 67:7 and Sib. Or. 5:143, 159, 434 (possibly 1 Pe. 5:13 as well) Rome is called Babylon.]” [6]

However, such evidence is inconclusive because these other writings date much later than the book of Revelation:

“Often supporters of the symbolic view use the Sibylline Oracles (V. 143, 159, 434) and the Apocalypse of Baruch (11:1; 67:7) to prove that Babylon was a code name for Rome (Swete, Charles, Ladd), but the composition of these two works came in the second century, quite a while after John wrote Revelation.” [7]

Some assert that Peter’s use of the term Babylon (1 Pe. 5:13) must point to Rome. But this is an argument from silence. It is also possible to take Peter’s mention of Babylon as denoting the city on the banks of the Euphrates, which served as a center of Jewry beyond the time of Peter’s writing (see Babylon’s Historic Fall). [8]

The Babylon is Rome view also fails to explain passages in the Old Testament which designate Babylon as the place of final judgment. Identifying Babylon as Rome implies that God gave numerous prophecies utilizing a code name which would not obtain its true meaning until hundreds of years later. Thus, the prophecies given to the original recipients could not be understood using the normal meaning of terms with which they were familiar. Such a view violates the rules of historical-grammatical interpretation and turns the interpretation of prophetic passages into a guessing game (See The Importance of Meaning).

The mention of “seven mountains” (or hills) in conjunction with the Harlot (Rev. 17:9) is often seen as an allusion to seven hills known to be associated with Rome:

The Rome view is also built upon the assumption that the seven hills of Revelation 17:9 identify the topography of the ancient city of Rome. Because literature of the ancient world contains dozens of references to the seven hills of Rome, the ancient city of Rome was universally known as the city of the seven hills. Thus, such a topographical reference would immediately suggest Rome in the minds of John’s original audience. This suggestion is especially true given the fact that the seven hills were the nucleus of the city on the left bank of the Tiber River and given the fact that an unusual festival called the septimontium received its name because of this topographical feature.

In addition, the notion that John’s audience would have understood the imagery of Revelation 17 as referring to the topography of Rome seems strengthened by the discovery of the Dea Roma Coin minted in A.D. 71 in Asia Minor. One side of the coin contains the portrait of the emperor. The reverse side of the coin depicts Rome, a Roman pagan goddess, sitting on seven hills seated by the waters of the Tiber River. There are obvious similarities between the Dea Roma Coin and the imagery of Revelation 17. In both cases, the goddess and the harlot are seated on seven hills and are seated either on or by the waters (Rev. 17:1). In addition, the name of the goddess was thought by many Romans to be Amor, which is Roma spelled backwards. Amor was the goddess of love and sexuality. Thus, both the woman on the coin and the woman in Revelation 17 represent harlotry (Rev. 17:5). Furthermore, the coin equates Roma with the power of the Roman Empire, which was active in persecuting Christians of John’s day. The placement of Vespasian on one side of the coin and Roma on the other makes this connection... The goddess is also pictured as holding a sword, which may depict Rome’s imperial power. This imagery parallels with the woman in Revelation 17 who is said to be drunk with the blood of the saints (Rev. 17:6). [9]

This association sounds convincing until one studies the text of Revelation 17 more closely. Unfortunately, the KJV translation is misleading here in its inference that the seven mountains are different from the seven kings:

“And there are seven kings.”

This leaves the interpreter with the notion that the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits and there are (also, NKJV) seven kings which are not to be identified directly with the hills. As we show in our commentary on Revelation 17:10, the Greek actually says that the “seven heads are seven mountains...and they are seven kings.” Thus, the mountains are to be understood in their typical Scriptural usage as denoting kingdoms (Jer. 51:25; Dan. 2:35; Zec. 4:7) and may not be related to topography at all. The Great Harlot is said to sit on these mountains. She is also said to sit on peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues. Thus, her sitting probably speaks of the scope of her influence and control rather than a physical location.

Another problem with taking Babylon to be Rome is her relatively late appearance as a major empire. The Great Harlot is said to be “that great city” (Rev. 17:18). She is also said to be the “mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:5). She is the source and origin of harlotry (spiritual idolatry) and abominations. Rome can hardly be said to occupy this role because harlotry occurs in the Biblical record far in advance of the time of Rome. Those who identify Babylon as Rome often point to the undeniable similarities between the history and practices of Roman Catholicism and what is said concerning The Great Harlot. But does this mean that Babylon is Rome? Might it not simply reflect the truth that Rome is one of the Harlot’s most influential daughter harlots of history?

The points of correspondence between Rev. 17 and the history of Romanism are too many and too marked to be set down as mere co-incidences. Undoubtedly the Papacy has supplied a fulfillment of the symbolic prophecy found in Rev. 17. And therein has lain its practical value for God’s people all through the dark ages. It presented to them a warning too plain to be disregarded. It was the means of keeping the garments of the Waldenses (and many others) unspotted by her filth. It confirmed the faith of Luther and his contemporaries, that they were acting according to the revealed will of God, when they separated themselves from that which was so manifestly opposed to His truth. But, nevertheless, there are other features in this prophecy which do not apply to Romanism, and which compel us to look elsewhere for the complete and final fulfillment. We single out but two of these... In Rev. 17:5 Babylon is termed ‘the Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.’ Is this an accurate description of Romanism? Were there no ‘harlot’ systems before her?... The Papacy had not come into existence when John wrote the Revelation, so that she cannot be held responsible for all the ‘abominations’ which preceded her... Again; in Rev. 17:2 we read of ‘the great Whore’ that ‘the kings of the earth have committed fornication’ with her. Is that applicable in its fullness to Rome? Have the kings of Asia and the kings of Africa committed fornication with the Papacy? It is true that the Italian pontiffs have ruled over a wide territory, yet it is also true that there are many lands which have remained untouched by their religious influence. It is evident from these two points alone that we have to go back to something which long antedates the rise of the Papacy, and to something which has exerted a far wider influence than has any of the popes... Papal Rome, was only one of the polluted streams from this corrupt source (Babel)—one of the filthy ‘daughters’ of this unclean Mother of Harlots. [10]

The Biblical accounts from the Old Testament give greater attention to Babel, Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, and Greece because they were great powers far in advance of Rome. Thus, Rome cannot be a mother in the sense required of the Harlot on the Beast. Nor can Rome provide the necessary support for the ride of the Harlot throughout history as implied by the seven heads on the Beast she rides (Rev. 17:3 cf. Rev. 13:1) which are associated with the dragon (Rev. 12:3) who has ruled kingdoms throughout history (Luke 4:5-6; John 12:31; 1 Jn. 5:19).

Those who identify Babylon as Rome often place great emphasis upon the similarities between what is said of the Harlot and what history records of Roman Catholicism. Yet, taking the Harlot as Rome also conflicts with the Roman connection which Scripture records concerning the Beast (Dan. 7:8, 20; Dan. 9:26 ):

The identification of the harlot as Rome is problematic because one ends up with two images for Rome; the beast and the harlot... If these two characters represent the same entity, why are they depicted as two separate entities? (Rev. 17:11, 18) Why is the beast punished in Revelation 19 after the harlot has already been destroyed in Revelation 18? If these two characters represent the same entity, how are they able to interact with one another? Revelation 17:3 depicts the woman as riding on the beast. How can Rome ride upon Rome? Revelation 17:16-17 depicts the beast destroying the woman. How can Rome destroy Rome? Perhaps it is possible to propose that the imagery could be satisfied through Nero’s burning of Rome in A.D. 64. However, the destruction of Rome portrayed in Revelation 17:16-17 cannot be a picture of Nero burning Rome because Nero did not destroy Rome in its entirety. Rather he only wanted to destroy part of Rome in order to make room for a building project. In sum, the imagery makes more sense if Rome destroys a rival power. This fact should prevent interpreters from identifying the woman with Rome. [11]

Although the idea that Babylon is Rome may seem intriguing at first, we believe there are significant liabilities attending the view. Chief among them are the problem of language—making Old Testament passages which speak of Babylon be reinterpreted hundreds of years later to denoting an entirely different city—and the lack of the necessary historical significance in Rome’s early history to account for her as the mother of harlotry and abominations (See Old Testament Context).


[1] M. R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies (Escondido, CA: Ephesians Four Group, 2002), Rev. 17:5.

[2] A. W. Fortune, “Babylon in the NT,” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, 1915), 1:391.

[3] “David S. Clark ... takes the view of many others (Moses Stuart, Jay Adams, etc.) that the increased attention to Babylon in the second half of Revelation should be taken as a mystic reference to Rome, the persecuting city after the fall of Jerusalem: ‘Rome was called Babylon because [she was] sort of a duplicate of old Babylon, in that she was a persecutor of God’s people, she was intensely idolatrous, and she was doomed to overthrow for her sins.'"—Steve Gregg, Revelation Four Views: A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Rev. 14:8.

[4] Fortune, “Babylon in the NT,” 1:391.

[5] A. R. Fausset, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” in Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997, 1877), Rev. 17:5.

[6] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), Rev. 14:8.

[7] Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 8-22 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), Rev. 14:8.

[8] We believe this view is bolstered by the many aspects of his epistle which indicate he is ministering primarily to Jewish Christians of the Diaspora (1 Pe. 1:1). Although Fortune favors the Roman identification, he offers two alternatives to understanding Peter’s use of Babylon as denoting Rome: "(1) That the Egyptian Babylon, or Old Cairo, is meant. Strabo (xvii.1.30), who wrote as late as A.D. 18, says the Egyptian Babylon was a strong fortress, founded by certain refugees from the Mesopotamian Babylon. But during the 1st cent this was little more than a military station, and it is quite improbable that Peter would have gone there. There is no tradition that connects Peter in any way with Egypt. (2) That the statement is to be taken literally and Babylon in Mesopotamia is meant. Many good scholars hold to this view, among them Weiss and Thayer; but there is no evidence that Peter was ever in Babylon, or that there was even a church there during the 1st century. Mark and Silvanus are associated with Peter in the letter and there is no tradition that connects either of them with Babylon. According to Josephus (Ant. xviii.9.5-9), the Jews at this time had largely been driven out of Babylon and were confined to neighboring towns, and it seems improbable that Peter would have made that his missionary field.”—Fortune, “Babylon in the NT,” 1:391.

[9] Andy Woods, What is the Identity of Babylon in Revelation 17-18?.

[10] Arthur Walkington Pink, The Antichrist (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1999, 1923), s.v. “Antichrist and Babylon.”

[11] Andy Woods, What is the Identity of Babylon in Revelation 17-18?.