The Whore of Babylon

"The Tower of Babel" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Babylon! It is the Biblical symbol of rebellion against God. The first account of Babylon comes from the Book of Genesis, where it is referred to by its ancient name 'Babel'...
Now the whole earth had one language and few words.  And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built.  And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. -- Genesis 11:1-9 RSV-CE
The story is significant, because it highlights the initial rebellion against God that came after the flood of Noah. In Genesis 9 and 10, God commanded the sons of Noah to go fill the earth. The implication here is to scatter, go abroad, and repopulate the planet. However, these descendants of Noah decided to do the opposite. They found a fertile plain in Shinar and concentrated there, building a small city. Then they decided to build a tower as a sign of their power, so they would not be scattered about the earth. (See the rebellion? God says scatter, man says unite!) The story continues, in that God saw what they were doing, and decided that because humanity had only one language, it would allow them to easily rebel against his commands, and they would be able to easily organise and draw others into their rebellious thinking. So God miraculously confused their languages, making it impossible for them to understand each other. The result? They were forced to obey God's command, and each family when their own way, unable to understand other families. Thus they scattered.

Why did God do this? The common explanation is that the fallen nature of mankind is rebellious. God had just flooded the whole earth because of man's rebellion before and during the time of Noah. Having one common language after the flood simply made a repeat of that rebellion easier for mankind to accomplish. Thus God gave the original command to scatter and fill the earth, so as to separate humanity, and slow the rate of rebellion. Eventually, in time, languages would change on their own. However, some people rebelled, and decided to congregate into a city, using a tower to call all men back, thus bringing all people together under one language, one government and one civilisation. This of course, with man's fallen nature, would do the exact opposite of what God wanted, and allow the rapid descent back into social depravity. So God forced his will. Rather than allowing languages to grow apart naturally, as they would if people were scattered abroad on their own, he simply confused the language ahead of time, leaving people unable to communicate with each other. Thus they scattered naturally, each according to his dialect.

The lesson of Babel is about rebellion and how God deals with it. It's about man trying to play God, by using his ingenuity and ability to communicate in such a way as to usurp the will of God. Thus God has to step in and forcibly correct the situation. For this reason, in Hebrew literature, Babel (or Babylon) is always seen as a symbol of rebellion against God, and a nemesis to the people of God, who are trying to live according to God's will.

Later in Hebrew literature (Old Testament) we see how the ancient Kingdom of Israel interacted with the Babylonian Empire. Things didn't go well. Israel began paying tribute to Babylon, and was eventually conquered by Babylon, and everyone within the Kingdom was taken into Babylonian captivity as slaves for nearly 70 years (BC 605 - 538). Thus, once again, Babylon is seen as a nemesis to God's people and God's commandments. However, Babylon is also seen as serving a purpose, as an instrument of God's justice. You see, prior to the Babylonian captivity, The Hebrew people in Judah had fallen into sin and rebellion themselves. So the captivity was seen as a punishment for their sins and a corrective measure to the nation. The Hebrew people who had once been delivered from slavery in Egypt, were briefly delivered back into slavery in Babylon, as a reminder of what happens when they don't obey the laws of God.

Something else happened during that Babylonian captivity as well. The City of Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians. The Babylonian Empire fell and was absorbed into the Persian Empire. It was the Persians who freed the Hebrews in Babylon and sent them back to the promised land of Israel (BC 538 - 515). Because of this, a new dimension was added to the image of Babylon in Hebrew literature. Not only was Babylon a symbol of rebellion against God, but God could use it as an instrument of justice against his people when they were rebellious. Furthermore, if Babylon was just an instrument of God, it can be disposed of by God when it is no longer useful. Just as God scattered the inhabitants of the ancient City of Babel by confusing their language, so God just as easily caused the ancient Babylonian Empire to fall to the Persians once he was done with using them to chastise his own people in Israel. As an interesting footnote in history, the City of Babylon not only fell to the Persians, but again to the Greeks later on. After that it never recovered. The ancient City of Babylon has remained in ruins for thousands of years. Even an attempt by the dictator Saddam Hussein to rebuild Babylon, in the late 20th century as a tourist destination, failed miserably.

The next time we hear of Babylon again is in the New Testament, spoken of by a the Apostle John in visionary form, in a symbolic way, which draws heavily on the Hebrew understanding of what that ancient city symbolises...
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who is seated upon many waters with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the dwellers on earth have become drunk.” And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.  The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication;  and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.”  And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly.  But the angel said to me, “Why marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her.  The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition; and the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, will marvel to behold the beast, because it was and is not and is to come.  This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while.  As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to perdition.  And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast.  These are of one mind and give over their power and authority to the beast;  they will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” And he said to me, “The waters that you saw, where the harlot is seated, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues.  And the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the harlot; 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 giving over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled.  And the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth.” 
-- Revelation 17:1-18 RSV-CE
Now, when we read this passage, we must remember the time period it was written in. It was written by the Apostle John (a Hebrew Christian), to other Christians (many of them Hebrews by birth), during the late 1st century. The time period of the text is between AD 60 to 100. Now, what was happening at this time? Up to this period in history (AD 33 - 67), Jewish Christians were being heavily persecuted primarily by Judaism. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had banned Christians from the Jerusalem Temple. They had been put out of the synagogues as well. Various Christian leaders in Jerusalem had been stoned. The Temple had sent emissaries to synagogues all over the ancient world to beware of Christians. Sometimes they were arrested, and taken back to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem for trial. While Christians had some problems with the Greek Pagans here and there, Pagans were not their primary persecutors during this time period. In fact, by this time, more Pagans were converting to Christianity than Jews. It was the Jewish leadership, primarily in Jerusalem, that presented the biggest problem for the early 1st century Christians. They caused great trouble for Christians living within Jerusalem, and even those living outside of Jerusalem. This is why the same man who wrote this above passage, the Apostle John, twice referred to the Jewish leadership as the 'Synagogue of Satan' earlier in the same book (Revelation 2:9; 3:9).

As another point of context, this same Jewish leadership, based out of Jerusalem, in the late 1st century, did something to the early Christian community that would change the course of history, and seal Jerusalem's fate as the chief persecutor of Christianity in ancient history. Jewish leaders from Jerusalem sent emissaries to Rome, and convinced Nero Caesar that Christians were not part of Judaism. You see, Jews had a special place of privilege within the ancient Roman Empire. Because of Jerusalem's willingness to cooperate with Rome, Jews were dispensed from the imperial duty of having to worship Caesar upon paying taxes. Unlike the Pagans, they were not required to throw a pinch of incense on the Pagan altar and say 'Caesar is Lord'. Rather, they were only obligated to pray for Caesar to the God of Israel. This is exactly what was done in Jerusalem, in the Temple itself, as sacrifices were made on Caesar's behalf, praying to God for his health, safety and wisdom. In exchange for this, Jews were exempt from the obligatory Caesar worship enforced throughout the entire Roman Empire. Christians were originally exempt from this too, because Rome considered Christianity to be a Jewish sect. However, once leaders from Jerusalem convinced Nero Caesar otherwise, Christians no longer fell under the protection of Jewish exemption. Rome now viewed them exactly the same as Pagans. Henceforth, they would be required to give worship to Caesar upon paying taxes, just like any other Pagan, and failure to do so could mean death. Thus, the final blow the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem dealt to Christians was to remove their Jewish exemption from Caesar worship, thus ensuring their persecution by the Roman Empire for the next 200+ years! In effect, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem got Pagan Rome to do their dirty work for them. What followed however, was their immediate destruction, as Zealots (Jewish Nationalists) attempted to expel the Roman occupation by force. This resulted in Rome crushing them, and the City of Jerusalem being burned to the ground as a result, Temple and all. Thus, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem got Pagan Rome to persecute Christians, and immediately thereafter, God allowed Pagan Rome to destroy Jerusalem. This is the historical context the Book of Revelation was written in. Now, go back and re-read the passage above from Revelation 17.

Immediately, you should see the parallels. The 'Beast' described in this passage is the Pagan Roman Empire. There is no doubt about that. The seven heads refer to the seven hills of ancient Pagan Rome, and seven emperors of the Roman Empire leading up to that time period. However, the woman, who is described as a harlot (or whore), with the name 'Babylon the Great' written on her crown, is none other than Jerusalem. (Jerusalem is also built on seven hills, which is an interesting parallel I'm sure the ancient Jews were well acquainted with. Thus Rome and Jerusalem, two cities each built on seven hills, are intimately connected in this text.) You see Jerusalem, particularly the Temple leadership in Jerusalem, which was at that time the primary persecutor of the early Church, is the 'whore' or 'harlot' called 'Babylon' by the Apostle John. Why is this? He says this because Jerusalem has 'prostituted' or 'sold herself' over to Pagan Rome. She does Rome's bidding in the Holy Land, and in turn, Rome keeps the Temple leadership in power. Thus Jerusalem is now serving in the place of historical Babylon, persecuting the people of God (the Church), who will later be represented as the 'New Jerusalem' descending from heaven (Revelation 21). Also, Rome now does Jerusalem's bidding against the early Christians. So the prostitute (Jerusalem= Whore of Babylon) demands her price for her 'services', which was the blood of Christians. Jerusalem was the first to have Christians martyred, and so Saint John says that she (Jerusalem = Whore of Babylon) became 'drunk' on the blood of martyrs and saints. Then she prostituted herself by convincing Rome to do her dirty work for her. In the Old Testament, whenever Israel was unfaithful to God, the words 'prostitute' and 'harlotry' were used to describe her (Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:1–11; Ezekiel 16:1–43; Ezekiel 23). So it is used again here in Revelation 17 in regards to Jerusalem. Jesus Christ himself assigned Jerusalem (and Jerusalem alone) as the city that murders God's prophets and saints (Matthew 23:34–37; Luke 11:47–51; Luke 13:33). While Rome had great political power over the world, it was Jerusalem that had regional power over Rome, because the Temple leadership in Jerusalem kept the peace in that volatile part of the world. It was a stretch of land that the Roman Empire needed to maintain control of the entire Mediterranean Sea. If Rome lost the Holy Land, the Empire would be split in two. So Jerusalem kept the peace, and its religious leaders did so religiously, as many kings in that region would come to the Temple and pay homage to the God of Israel.

Now consider the dichotomy. Saint John, the author of this Book of Revelation, refers to the Church as the 'bride' of Christ multiple times (Revelation 19:7; 21:2; 21:9; 22:17) and Jesus Christ as the bridegroom (Revelation 18:23). But to the old Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, he calls them the 'whore' or 'harlot'. The message is clear. By refusing to follow Jesus as the Messiah, and then going so far is to persecute his followers, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem (at that time) prostituted themselves with Rome, and thus forfeited their place within the 'bride' of Christ. Jesus had come to be their Messianic King, and they in turn had him crucified saying: 'We have no king but Caesar.' (John 19:15). In the decades that followed, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem acted accordingly, giving homage to Caesar, while conducting an empire-wide campaign in all the synagogues throughout the Mediterranean, to have those who call Jesus 'King' persecuted, and in some cases, executed. Then, their final blow, was to convince Nero Caesar himself that Christians were not a Jewish sect, and therefore should not get Jewish exemption from Caesar worship, which would ignite two centuries of Roman persecutions on the early Church. This was the situation near the end of the first century, when the Book of Revelation was written, and this is what the reference to the 'Whore of Babylon' is all about.

The word Babylon could be a direct reference to Jerusalem. Or it could be a direct reference to the city of Pagan Rome itself, since the personification we're dealing with here in Revelation 17 is the 'Whore of Babylon' which is a summary of the name written on her crown. We know she is a 'whore', but who is she the whore of? The answer is she is the whore of Babylon, meaning she serves Babylon, and is united with Babylon in an intimate and carnal way. If by 'Babylon', the Apostle John means Rome, than by 'whore' he again means Jerusalem. The use of a sexual personification is no accident here. By their actions, Rome and Jerusalem have become 'one flesh', acting in unison against the early Church. That is the key. All of these images deal with how things are perceived by the early Christians. The fact that both cities are built on seven hills, and this is cited as a key to understanding the whore's identity, again points toward some kind of 'union; between the leadership of the two cities. The personification of a 'whore' indicates this 'union' is intimate and carnal, probably based on the lust for power, which Saint John metaphorically equates to the lust for sex.

It should be noted here, lest anyone accuse me of anti-Semitism, that this interpretation of the text (which I believe to be the BEST interpretation possible) can only apply toward the Jewish Temple leadership of the late 1st century. This does not, in any way, apply to Jewish people in other parts of the world, or in later periods, or even today. It cannot. Furthermore, the man making this illustration (Saint John the Apostle) was himself a Jew, and he was making this criticism of some fellow Jews. This terminology of 'bride' and 'whore' are used by a Jew, in criticism of fellow Jews, in a purely Jewish context that can only apply to a specific place and time -- 1st century Judea. Any attempt to extrapolate this text beyond that historical context is an abuse of Scripture.

Yet, centuries later, that is exactly what many Gentile Christians have historically done. Initially, the texts referring to the 'synagogue of Satan' and the 'whore of Babylon' were used in reference to Jews in general. This is unfair, as that is not the context Saint John wrote in. Remember, John was himself a Jew, his Hebrew name being Yochanan, and he was speaking not of his fellow Jews around the world, but of a specific group of Jews who were ruling Judaism from Jerusalem at that time. Remember, those specific Jews, the leadership in Jerusalem, had declared that Christians are not Jews, not even Hebrew Christians, and had just convinced the Roman imperial government of the same. For years, the leadership in Jerusalem had convinced rabbis around the world to put Christians out of the synagogues -- or effectively excommunicate them from Judaism! Now, by the time of this writing, the leadership in Jerusalem had convinced Rome of the same -- Christians are not Jews. Saint John, himself a Jew, is rebuking them here in the Book of Revelation. He was effectively saying: 'Hey! We're not the fake Jews here. You are! You! the ones who are persecuting us. You're the fake Jews! You're the Synagogue of Satan! You are the whore of Babylon.' Indeed, considering the uncharitable action of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem at that time, many modern Jews today would actually agree! There are many Jewish scholars today who see God's judgement upon ancient Jerusalem as punishment for failing to follow the precepts of the Torah, by persecuting ancient Christians in such a cruel and uncharitable way. Few, if any, Jews today would agree with the way the Jerusalem leadership in the 1st century treated early Christians. We all need to recognise this -- both Jews and Christians alike. So after twenty sad centuries, it's time to 'bury the hatchet' between Christians and Jews. The bishops of the Catholic Church called for this in 1965 with Nostra Aetate, and the world's leading Orthodox rabbis did the same in 2015 with the Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity.

In the Book of Revelation, a book that must be interpreted in historical context, Saint John is saying: 'We Christians are: the real Jerusalem, the spiritual Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem, the bride of the Messiah. While the old (1st century) Jerusalem in Judea is the whore of Babylon.'

'The Whore of Babylon' by Lucas Cranach in 1534
This was a coloured woodcut on Martin Luther's Bible
Notice the Whore on the Beast wears a papal crown.
Centuries later, another group of Gentiles began misapplying this Biblical text to the political-religious schism that developed between Protestantism and the Catholic Church. In this case, the 'Whore of Babylon' was compared to the Catholic Church, particularly the papacy, because the Vatican is situated across the Tiber River, just outside the ancient city of Rome. In this case we have a very gross misapplication of the text. The Beast (which is what represents Rome) is confused with the Whore of Babylon (which is supposed to represent Jerusalem). In the Biblical text cited above (Revelation 17) it is clear these are two distinct images. The Beast and the Whore are separate. The Woman (Whore or Harlot) rides atop the Beast. In other words, the Beast supports the Whore, while the Whore appears to control the Beast. This is a visual illustration of the 1st century relationship between Rome (the Beast) and Jerusalem (the Whore). They are not one in the same entity. They are separate. The Woman (Whore) is dependent upon the Beast for power, but later the Beast turns on her, and burns her with fire. This is, of course, the prophetic/historic telling of the tragic events that happened in AD 67 - 70, when Rome sacked Jerusalem and burned it to the ground. What we have in this later example of Scriptural abuse, by the Protestants, is a symbolic misapplication of the imagery used in Revelation 17 to back a political agenda in the 16th century. Martin Luther was the first to do this. He compared the Whore of Babylon to the papacy. Now any reasonable reading of the text, with any cursory understanding of the historical context in which it was written, will show that Martin Luther's misapplication here is clearly an abuse of Scripture. However, most German peasants in the 16th century couldn't even read, let alone know the historical context this passage of Scripture was written in. So what Luther successfully did was scare the hell out of people! By convincing the illiterate masses that the pope is the Antichrist, and the Vatican is the 'Whore of Babylon', he was able to get millions to follow him, and Protestants have been using this line of deceit ever since.

In the centuries that followed, even up to this very day, Protestant Fundamentalism is rife with books, booklets, tracts, Internet articles, and YouTube videos, about how the Catholic Church is the 'Whore of Babylon'. Again, all of this is Scriptural abuse. Any cursory knowledge of history easily reveals that. Today, elaborate conspiracy theories abound in the Protestant world, ranging from a 'Great Apostasy' with Emperor Constantine (which I covered here), to last-days fears about the 'New World Order' and the 'Illuminati'. Modern day Protestant Fundamentalists are convinced the Catholic Church is the 'Whore of Babylon' written of in the Book of Revelation, and they live accordingly, seeking to convert any Catholic they can, and constantly tell the world that; the pope is the Antichrist, he's hell-bent on taking over the world, and making everyone take the 'Mark of the Beast' or '666'. It's really sad, but this is the world many American Evangelicals live in.

Martin Luther is the father of this heresy and Scriptural abuse. His treatise 'The Babylonian Captivity', published in 1520, launched a love affair between the Protestants and the 'Whore of Babylon' that would last five centuries to this very day. It was written into the Westminster Confession in 1646. The premise was expounded upon by Alexander Hislop in 'The Two Babylons' (published in 1853). It is part of the foundational documents of the Seventh Day Adventists (The Great Controversy: Between Christ and Satan. The Ellen G. White Estate. p. 581.). It remains academic teaching within some Lutheran synods. The abuse continues to be expounded upon by modern Protestant Fundamentalist publications, such as 'Roman Catholicism' by Loraine Boettner (published in 1962), and 'A Woman Rides the Beast' by Dave Hunt (published in 1994), as well as a steady stream of Anti-Catholic tracts and comic books published by Chick Publications in Chino California. This is just scratching the surface.

The modern Scriptural abuse of Revelation 17, which identifies Catholicism to the Whore of Babylon, has been a stunningly successful tool of destruction. With it, Protestants throughout the centuries have literally been able to frighten people out of the Catholic Church, and kindle the flames of hatred toward Catholicism. It has kept countless of Protestants in their place, safe within the pews of their respective denominations, and squashed any serious consideration of the claims of the Catholic Church. It was, and remains, a master tool of deception and manipulation, that uses ignorance of history as a means to control the behaviour of Christians. The only way to render this heresy and abuse harmless is to educate the masses (especially Catholics) in how to properly interpret the Book of Revelation, especially Revelation 17.

END.

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Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books, and columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'FullyChristian.Com -- The random musings of a Catholic in the Ozarks.'

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