The harlot of Babylon that is spoken of in chapter 17 of the Book of Revelation
There are a lot of folks who have been taught that the Roman Catholic Church is the harlot of Babylon that is spoken of in chapter 17 of the Book of Revelation. These folks point to two main verses to “prove” that the woman (the harlot) is indeed the Roman Catholic Church. Those verses are: 1) Rev 17:9…”This calls for a mind with wisdom; the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman is seated,” and 2) Rev 17:18…”And the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth.”
“See,” they say, “the seven hills means Rome, which is a city that sits on seven hills. The Catholic Church is headquartered in Rome. And, Rome was the great city that had dominion over the kings of the earth. Therefore, the harlot of Babylon is a world-wide religion that is based in Rome.”
How to answer that? Well, the main strategy that I employ in this instance is the “But That’s My Interpretation” strategy. That strategy is this: Protestants believe that we should go by the Bible alone in determining what is and is not authentic Christian teaching. Furthermore, they believe that each person has the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves to determine what is and is not authentic Christian teaching.
What I do is give them my interpretation of these passages, and, if they try to tell me that my interpretation is wrong, I simply ask them if, according to their theology, I have the right to read and interpret Scripture for myself so as to determine what God is saying to me through Scripture. And they say, “Of course you do.” Then I tell them, “That is MY interpretation!” They can disagree with my interpretation if they want to, but, by their own theology, I have a RIGHT to my interpretation. Therefore, they cannot say my interpretation is wrong…the best they can do is disagree with it.
This is a very important point to remember…they, by their own theology, cannot tell me my interpretation is wrong, unless they wish to be hypocrites. They can disagree with my interpretation, but they cannot say it is wrong…not if they believe in the right of each individual to read and interpret Scripture on their own so as to determine true and false teaching. And, remember, you can use this strategy every time you discuss the Bible with a non-Catholic, regardless of the particular doctrine or dogma you are talking about.
However, I’m not going to simply leave it at that. I am going to give you scriptural support for my interpretation which will hopefully make them re-think what they have been taught about the harlot of Babylon. Remember, though, that I am not saying my interpretation is THE correct interpretation…the Church has not, to my knowledge, defined exactly what these passages refer to, so I am free to interpret these passages within the overall parameters of Catholic teaching. So, again, I’m not saying that I am 100% right, all I’m saying is that what follows is my interpretation, to which I am entitled to by Protestant theology – in an absolute sense, and by Catholic theology – as long as it does not contradict Church teaching.
What I’m going to do is just go through chapter 17 and comment on a few of the verses here and there to show why the harlot of Babylon is not the Catholic Church, and why I believe it is the city of Jerusalem. That’s right, my interpretation is that the harlot of Babylon is a symbol of the city of Jerusalem.
Verse 1: “…’Come, I will show you the judgment of the great harlot who is seated upon many waters.'” How is the nation of Israel often referred to in the Old Testament? As a harlot. Why? Because Israel quite often would forsake worship of the one true God, and would turn instead to the worship of false gods. Quite often the relationship between God and Israel is described in marital terms. Therefore, when Israel would forsake her true Spouse, she was described as a harlot…a whore. Hosea 9:1, “Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the harlot, forsaking your God. You have loved a harlot’s hire upon all threshing floors.” So, we see from the Old Testament that Israel is often referred to as a harlot.
Verse 3: “…and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.” And, verse 9-10: “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….” What do we see here? We see that the seven hills pertain to the beast on which the woman is seated, not the woman herself. I believe, as do most folks I’ve read…Catholic and Protestant…that the beast is symbolic of Rome and the Roman Empire. So, again, the seven hills are referring to the beast the woman is seated upon, not the woman herself. And, if Rome is the beast, then that “proves” the woman sitting on the beast is the Catholic Church, right? Not so fast.
Let’s look at the last verse of the chapter again…verse 18: “And the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth.” Wait a minute here. Let’s think about this. We are told that the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth is Rome. And, since it is Rome, that “proves” that the harlot of Babylon is the Roman Catholic Church. But, big problem: I’ve already shown that the beast the woman is seated upon is Rome. If verse 9, which refers to the beast the woman is seated upon, is referring to the city of Rome; and verse 18, which refers to the harlot, is also referring to the city of Rome, then the beast and the harlot are one and the same. Both are the city of Rome. But, these are clearly two separate entities, so if one is Rome, then the other has to be something else. This is a bit of a problem for the harlot of Babylon folks.
Now, someone may say, “Well, of course the beast is Rome…the city on seven hills…but, the harlot is the city within the city – Vatican City, where the Catholic Church is headquartered.” But, there are a whole bunch of problems with that. First and foremost, that’s not what the Bible says. I don’t see anything that mentions Vatican City or a city within a city. So, let’s not add words to the Bible, right? Second, is that there was no such thing as Vatican City until the early 20th century. In other words, it didn’t exist until almost 1900 years after the Book of Revelation. Therefore, it could not, and did not, have dominion over the kings of the earth when John wrote the book. And, remember, the Bible was speaking about the harlot in the present tense: “…IS the great city which HAS dominion over the kings of the earth.” Third, while you can argue that the Catholic Church did, in a sense, have dominion over the Catholic kings of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa at different points in time; it has never had dominion over all the kings of the earth. It never even had dominion over a majority of the kings of the earth. And, today, it has dominion over pretty much none of the kings of the earth. Heck, there are hardly any kings left on the earth over which to have dominion!
Furthermore, the harlot is clearly identified as a city, not a Church. Catholics are often accused of “adding” to the Bible…well, here is a perfect example of adding to the Bible. The harlot of Babylon is a city. Nowhere does the Bible say it is a church. Do these folks take the Bible literally, or not?
What else can we glean from chapter 17? Let’s look at verse 16: “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.” Does that mean that Rome will burn Vatican City? (There goes a bunch of tourist revenue!) Ask these harlot of Babylon folks exactly what that means? Make them give you an interpretation, and listen and see if that interpretation doesn’t stretch the bounds of credulity. If, however, the beast is Rome (or the Roman Empire), and the harlot is Jerusalem, then we can see here a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, by Rome, which sacked and burned Jerusalem in 70 A.D. – leaving her naked and burned up with fire, just like the Bible says.
Verse 6: “And I saw the woman drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Let’s turn to Matthew 23:33-38. Here Jesus is speaking to the scribes and Pharisees. “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah…O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you…Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.”
Notice Jesus says that He sends these folks where? To Jerusalem. And what’s going to happen to them? They will be killed and crucified and scourged and persecuted. Sounds like Jerusalem will be drunk with the blood of the martyrs and saints of Jesus, just like the harlot of Babylon, doesn’t it? And compare verse 38, about Jerusalem being forsaken and desolate with Rev 18:21-24…these verses describe a city that is pretty much forsaken and desolate, don’t they? And, look closely at verse 24: “And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth.” Well, if the blood of all who have been slain on earth are found in the harlot of Babylon; and the blood of all the O.T. prophets and wise men and scribes, and the blood of those sent by Jesus who are yet to be crucified, killed, scourged, and persecuted are upon Jerusalem (Matthew 23), then it looks, again, like Jerusalem is the harlot of Babylon.
One more major point to make. The harlot of Babylon is referred to as the “great city,” in 17:18 and in a few verses in chapter 18. Knowing that, let’s turn to Rev 11:9, “…and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the GREAT CITY which is allegorically called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.” Hmmm. The “great city” is where their Lord was crucified. Now, I could be wrong, but wasn’t the Lord crucified in Jerusalem? So, is the “great city” Jerusalem in Rev 11, but then all of a sudden it becomes Rome in Rev 17? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but then, I am just an ignorant Catholic.