Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

The Woman on the Scarlet Beast in Revelation 17

“Babylon the Great”

In Revelation 17, John describes a vision he saw.

I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, jewels, and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand filled with everything detestable and with the impurities of her prostitution. On her forehead was written a name, a mystery: Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and of the Detestable Things of the Earth. Then I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. Revelation 17:3-6

John then goes on to explain the imagery of this vision. In Revelation 18, he relates what he hears about “Babylon the Great.”

Cities as Women

Some people are disturbed by this female figure and what she may suggest or signify about women in general. However, this figure does not represent women or make a statement about women. This vision is all about “Babylon,” that is, Rome and Roman rule which included the persecution of Christians.

Cities are usually depicted metaphorically in the Bible as women, not as men. And Roma (Rome) was typically personified as female in the ancient world.

… such female imagery for cities utilizes conventional language because then, as today, cities and countries were grammatically construed as feminine. In addition centuries before Revelation, the Hebrew prophets had employed the image of the bride, the wife, or the harlot either for characterizing Jerusalem and Israel or for depicting other nations and their capital.[1] The female imagery of Revelation, therefore, would be completely misconstrued if it were understood as referring to actual behavior of individual women … The image of the heavenly woman [in Rev. 12], the bride [in Rev. 21],[2] or the harlot [in Rev. 17-18] symbolizes cities as places of human culture and political institutions and does not tell us anything about the author’s understanding of actual women. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 95-96.[3]

Idolatry and Immorality

The Roman imperial cult posed a threat to Christians. Christians who refused to participate in its idolatrous cultic activities were regarded as treasonous and could be persecuted by Roman officials. Idolatry is sometimes referred to metaphorically as sexual immorality in the Bible. So “Babylon” being described as a prostitute fits the usual tropes and symbols. And the book of Revelation is all about Jewish symbolism.

However, our view of being a sex worker has changed. We understand that many sex workers in the ancient world and today are often trafficked women with no choice, while other women have resorted to prostitution because of desperation brought about by destitution or addictions.

I can’t use the word “wh***” and am deeply uncomfortable with the word “harlot.” But John seems to have had no qualms in describing “Babylon”―idolatrous, indulgent, and cruel Rome―as such.[4] Nevertheless, this says nothing about his general attitude to women.

Rather, as Ian Paul points out, John uses the “city-women” in Revelation to present “a powerful rhetorical challenge.” Namely, to which of the “city-women,” Babylon or the New Jerusalem, will his readers give their allegiance? Where is their true citizenship?[5]


Footnotes

[1] See also Galatians 4:25-26.

[2] In Revelation, the “bride” (nymphē) or the “wife” (gynē) of the Lamb is the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 19:7 “wife”; Rev 21:2 “bride”; Rev 21:9-10 “bride” and “wife”; Rev. 22:17 “bride”; cf. Rev 3:12).

[3] Ian Paul writes that there is a “powerful binary contrast between the city-woman Babylon and the city-woman the New Jerusalem, both of which are shown to John by ‘one of the seven angels’ of the bowls (17:1; 21:9). The first sits in the desert, depends on the ultimately destructive power of the beast, is adorned with luxury gained from oppression and will meet an untimely end. The second rests on a high mountain, is sustained by the life-giving power of God, is adorned by the gifts of grace and will endure forever.”
Paul, Revelation (Tyndale New Testament Commentary: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 278.

[4] “In terms of the imagery John is using, the woman is depicted as a high-class courtesan (hetaira), but in his language John describes her as a common prostitute (pornē). Rome’s excessive wealth and indulgence are debasing and corrupting it.” Paul, Revelation, 281. John writes that she thinks of herself as a queen (Rev. 18:17).

[5] Paul, Revelation, 278.

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Image Credit

Excerpt of a coloured version of an illustration of the woman of Babylon from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible. (Source: Wikimedia)

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8 thoughts on “The Woman on the Scarlet Beast in Revelation 17

  1. So clear and helpful. Thank you.

  2. ships are referred to as hers yet it was a man at the helm of the titanic responsible for its sinking because he ignored warning signs of ice bergs ahead.

    1. Babylon was a city, but it was male emperors and senators who guided its policies.

  3. Don’t you think Babylon represents false religion-in contrast to Jerusalem/the Bride?

    1. Hi Diana, Yes, “Babylon” very much includes the emperor cult which was a false religion in contrast with the religion associated with the New Jerusalem.

      The common understanding is that persecution of Christians under Domitian, and the continued persecution for the next 200 years, is the background for Revelation.

      George Athas makes these comments.

      So what were the ancient Christians of Asia Minor facing? They were facing potential hardship, even death, because of the Roman imperial cult operating in their province. What was the imperial cult? In short, it was a demand that the people of a region demonstrate their loyalty to the Roman emperor by participating in a sacrifice that recognised him as a god. (Source)

      While the persecution of Christians is the focus and concern of Revelation, Revelation 18:11-13 and 17-19, and other verses, indicate that “Babylon” is more than religion. She represents Rome as a whole.

  4. Thanks for this. Of course, if you are a Dispensationalist or were an early Reformer, she represents Papal Rome, something that was unknown to John. Even in Australia, dispensationalist ideas of the “last days/end time” have come into the evangelical church especially Pentecostals. I am going through clearing my mind of these ideas, some of which I was taught from the 1960s. George Athas has been a big help in this as well as a very large commentary on the Bible published by IVP many years ago.

    1. Yes, around this time, First Clement, a letter from the Roman Church to the Corinthian Church, was written. The major concern in this letter was younger men usurping older men in the Corinthian Church. There is no hint in the letter about papal-style leadership within the Roman Church.

      No documents written at the time (circa AD 100) speak about papal-style leadership in Rome, but several speak about persecution. For example, Ignatius’ letters, written by Ignatius (bishop of Syrian Antioch) when he was under arrest and being taken to Rome, Pliny’s letter to Trajan (10.96-97), about what to do with Christians and the two women ministers he had tortured, and the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum mentioned in Revelation 2:13, etc.

      There are plenty of accounts of persecution and martrydoms starting from the first century (they are mentioned in the New Testament) right up until the Edict of Milan in 313. One interesting source of information are the surviving libelli from the Decian Persecution in 250.

      1. Yes, I have the Penguin Early Christian Writing which includes the letter from Clement and those of Ignatius.

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