The Book of Revelation is perhaps the most notoriously cryptic work of literature ever composed. The history of the interpretation of this book leaves most students with more questions than answers. Commentators have come to little, if any, consensus on the interpretation of many key passages, and many of the best scholars of Christian history have simply thrown up their hands in bewilderment at the challenge of scaling its enigmatic heights.1
Thus, approaching the Apocalypse for analysis necessarily requires the possession of a couple of key items: one, an interpretive grid integrating one’s hermeneutics and general theological viewpoint, and two, a healthy dose of respectful reservation. Interpretation of Revelation and dogmatism do not go well together, despite the impression one might draw from the popular literature.
That said, it is the intent of this study to examine what is hopefully a sufficiently narrow issue in the interpretation of the Apocalypse: the identification of “Babylon," the harlot of chapters seventeen and eighteen.2 While discussion of this topic
will of necessity involve the implementation of perspectives that have been embraced on quite separate grounds, this issue has been chosen for study precisely because it is my conviction at this point that a harmonization of the evidence for Babylon’s identity can potentially go a long way in contributing to the ever tapering “spiral” of one’s hermeneutical approach. If the conclusions of this thesis are correct, proper identification of the harlot may quickly shed light on such issues as general themes of the book, its dating, and interpretations of other problem passages.
In order to fairly acknowledge personal leanings, warranted or otherwise, that influence my interpretation of the text, it will be helpful as we begin to first examine the overall grid from which I am proceeding and the most relevant presuppositions I bring to the discussion. The three most pertinent perspectives to consider for the topic at hand are my understanding of promise/fulfillment issues (i.e., the covenant-dispensational spectrum), my view on interpretation of apocalyptic material, and my take on the book of Revelation as a whole (i.e., futurist, preterist, historicist, or idealist).
Regarding the biblical covenants: to state the matter briefly, while I do not consider myself a dispensationalist by most definitions, I find traditional covenant theology unconvincing as well. I prefer a mediating position along the lines of what some are calling “new covenant theology.” This term is actually claimed primarily by authors at the pastoral level,3 but the views involved are basically similar to those of such scholars as D. A. Carson,4 Douglas Moo,5 Gordon Fee,6 and others, who see primary fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises as a whole in the present-day new covenant people of God, composed of the remnant of the nation of Israel and Gentile believers who have been grafted into the tree of God’s people. While this does not preclude a future soteriological restoration of the rest of ethnic Israel, I am not persuaded that this will involve a Jewish kingdom or a necessary restoration of the land of Israel for the Jewish people. On the whole, I take these views largely on the basis of Pauline passages such as Rom 2:26–29, Gal 3:6–29, and Eph 2:11–22, which I take to describe the full Abrahamic heirship of believers in Christ, be they Jew or Gentile.
For my handling of apocalyptic material, I derive much of my understanding from the work of N. T. Wright and G. B. Caird.7 While a thoroughgoing discussion of the complex debate over apocalyptic literature is outside the scope of this thesis,8 I would summarize the gist of this perspective as the view that in the genre of second-temple Jewish apocalyptic, exalted, cosmic, metaphorical language is used to communicate the theological significance of this-worldly events in history. Unlike the idealist view, which takes the language simply as abstract metaphor, this position regards apocalyptic symbolism as having a focus on actual historical events, but with the full investiture of their salvation-historical significance, which is portrayed by the strikingly colorful rhetoric of the Jewish imagination. In other words, I see in apocalyptic writing the application of stock images from the Jewish worldview (which includes the Creation, the sovereign, universal kingship of Yahweh, the Exodus, the enemy empires of Israel’s past, and the rest of the narrative of her entire history) to major events that manifest the salvation-historical working of God for His people.
This then leaves open the question of whether prophecies can be fulfilled in multiple ways and instances. This question arises from the surprising manner in which the New Testament often uses the Old. For instance in the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) we see Christ applying Danielic language to coming eschatological events even though it would seem that some of this material from Daniel originally found its focus in the events surrounding Antiochus Epiphanes’ dealings with the Jewish people in the intertestamental period.9 This seems to indicate that God’s dealings with history are such that certain events may recapitulate key happenings of the past, perhaps filling out their theological significance in a greater way and a new context. The prophetic imagery of the former events may then be properly recalled with reference to the new situation, especially if historical experience or further revelation apparently indicate that the previous scenario did not exhaust the full range of God’s eschatological intention.
Such a perspective leaves open the possibility that some of the interpretations we propose as we consider Revelation may not be the final say in the matter. It may always be that God’s historical plan will work itself out in such a way that certain prophecies will again find significant realization in a future scenario. However, for the purposes of this study, my intention is to focus on whether or not the human author of the Apocalypse had in mind a specific referent for the Babylon/harlot imagery within the context of his own day of writing, and if so, to whom was this devastating polemic directed?
Related to this hermeneutical approach to apocalyptic literature is my take on the Book of Revelation as a whole, which is largely preteristic. There are basically four major angles on the interpretation of the book, namely, historicism, futurism, idealism, and preterism.10 Historicism looks to the events of the entire Christian era for fulfillment, futurism looks primarily to the future (from our perspective), and idealism regards the images of Revelation as symbolic portrayals of the eternal cosmic conflict between good and evil.
As one who prefers a preteristic emphasis, I understand much of the book to be primarily dealing with the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 as a judgment from God for covenant apostasy. This dovetails with the topic in question, the identity of the harlot, in
that ultimately it will be the aim of this thesis to present the evidence (which I find to be persuasive) that this image is intended by the author of Revelation as a veiled reference to Jerusalem itself. All of this is very much in keeping with my own “spiral” pilgrimage of interpretation, since my primary reason for taking seriously a preteristic interpretation of Revelation is what I consider to be the weight of the internal literary evidence for recognizing Jerusalem in the passage presently under discussion.
Thus, we will proceed to consider the issues surrounding the interpretation of this text. While this solitary issue might seem peripheral, the implications of the view for which we opt on this matter may be of more significance than one might suppose. If the conclusions of this thesis stand up to scrutiny, and Jerusalem is being warned of the coming of judgment through Rome, then the major themes and dating of the book warrant thoughtful reconsideration among scholars.
1 E.g., Luther and Calvin, neither of whom, despite their otherwise voluminous literary legacies, produced a commentary on the Apocalypse.
2 That is, sufficiently narrow in the sense that we will hopefully not be biting off a larger portion than can adequately be addressed in a work of this size. The scope of this study will also be limited in that the research will be restricted to English sources only.
3 E. g., John Reisinger, Abraham’s Four Seeds (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 1998); Fred Zaspel and Tom Wells, New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2001).
5 Cf. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 175, 697–710.
6 Cf. Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 870–76.
7 See especially N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), chap. 10; G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980).
8 For more comprehensive study, see D. E. Aune, T. J. Geddert, and C. A. Evans, “Apocalypticism,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000); John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2d ed., The Biblical Resource Series, ed. Astrid B. Beck and David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Leon Morris, Apocalyptic (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); D. S. Russell, Divine Disclosure: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).
10 For a helpful, concise discussion of these positions, see Steve Gregg, ed., Revelation: Four Views, A Parallel Commentary (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1997), 2–3.