Who is the “Great Whore of Babylon”? Revelation 17:1-18

The woman in Revelation 17 is riding a “scarlet beast.” We might have expected to see the beast himself, or the king who represents the beast.  Rather than the king, we see a prostitute riding a scarlet beast.  It is possible the image of a beast is of a throne, and the woman is the king. This beast is not unlike the beast from chapter 13 or the fourth beast of Daniel 7, other than the color scarlet. Nothing much can be made of this color, although it is similar in color to that of the red dragon who gave his authority to the beast in chapter 13.

Great Whore of BabylonThe woman is described as a prostitute. Prostitutes are common images in the Old Testament for unfaithfulness, for example, Jerusalem Isaiah 1:21, Tyre in Isaiah 23:16-17 and Nineveh in Nahum 3:4. Israel herself is compared to a prostitute in Jer 3:6-10; Ezek 16:15-22; 23:49; Hos 4:12-13; 5:3.

Although there are some commentators who made the woman represent Israel, but the vast majority of writers associate the woman with Rome, especially given the evidence below. The “final” empire as Rome is consistent with Daniel 2 and 7, and with the rest of Revelation.  It is Rome which is demanding worship in chapters 2-3, and it is Rome which persecutes the saints.

The various descriptions of the woman add to the vividness of the image:

  • She was dressed in purple and scarlet.  The word for the color purple here covers a range of colors from deep purple to black.  While the color is normally associated with royalty and prestige, the writer Porphyry associated the color purple with carnality (which is interested because his name is derived from the word, Aune 3:935).
  • She was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls.  The stereotypical prostitute is gaudy and over-dressed with jewelry and other accessories.
  • She held a golden cup in her hand. This gold cup is likely an allusion to Jeremiah 51:7, although the verse there refers to Babylon.  This is an example of the unusual blending of Roman and Babylonian elements in the chapter.  The cup is filled with “abominations and impurities.”  The word abomination is almost always associated with idols or meat sacrificed to idols (Jer 51:7).
  • On the head of this woman is written several names. There is a problem of how to read the verse with respect to punctuation.  Is this “on her forehead was written a name, a mystery:” or “on her head was written a name: MYSTERY”?  In verse seven, the angel interprets the “mystery” of the woman, so it is likely here that the name of the woman begins with BABYLON rather than mystery. Why is the head of the beast’s empire portrayed as a female prostitute?  She is not just a whore, she is the mother of all whores.
  • The prostitute is drunk on the blood of the saints. That the woman is a prostitute is bad enough, but she is a drunk prostitute. Descriptions of prostitutes in the Greco-Roman literature usually indicate they drink very little “for professional reasons” (Aune 3:927.)  There really is not more degrading way of describing a woman than as a drunk whore.  To be “drunk on blood” is am image of extreme violence (see Ezek 39:18-19; Isa 49:26)

It is possible this description is based on coins minted by Vespasian in A.D. 71. These coins depict the goddess Tiber seated on seven hills, as described in this vision.   The image of the goddess is common both before and after Vespasian, but not the image of a goddess seated on seven hills. On the reverse, the river goddess Tiber reclines on seven hills, holding a sword indicating the military might of Rome. S and C stand for senatus consultum – a resolution of the senate. In the background are a she-wolf and the twins Romulus and Remus.

 

 

Coin with Vespasian, minted AD 71

A coin minted in A.D. 71 featuring Vespasian and (Cohen, Description 1:398 [no. 404]) From Aune Revelation, 3:920

The coins of Rome obviously do not depict Rome as a prostitute. But there may bit a subtle word play in this description:  “The Latin term lupa, ‘she-wolf,’ had the connotation ‘prostitute’ and might have contributed to a subversive joke that was transferred to Roma as the female personification of Rome” (Aune 3:929).

The angel gives an invitation to the reader to “figure out” what the beast represents in verses 9-14 “this calls for wisdom.” The city of Rome was well known in antiquity as the city on seven hills, although it is difficult to identify which are the seven hills on which Rome was founded.  In the various attempts to make the beast Jerusalem, the seven hills becomes a problem.

The angelic guide identifies the ten horns as seven kings who are coming.  There are at least three was to “count” the Roman emperors of the first century. There are at least three approaches to handling this problem.

The historical approach.  This approach attempts to make sense of the series of kings in Roman history.  One must determine the start of the series, and decide which of the kings “count.”  For example, there are three Caesars in A.D. 69, before Vespasian takes the throne.  Do they count as three separate kings, or as a single king, or not at all?

The symbolic approach.  This approach argues John has no specific kings in mind, but rather he means to use the number seven as a complete number of kings. This is consistent with Revelation’s use of the number 7, and Roman history as well, which held the first period of their history was ruled by seven kings, when in fact there were likely many more than this.

A combination of the historical and symbolic approaches.  This attempts to use the historical sequence of kings, but declines to identify the first 5.  It is the sixth king that is important, and is well known to the readers (either Nero or Domitian, depending on one’s view of the date of the book.)  The hope, then, is that this evil sixth king will only reign for a short time.

Once again, Revelation leaves us with more questions than answers. If this image does refer to Rome, then Revelation 18-19 describes fall of Rome. Since Revelation 19:11-21 refers to the return of Jesus as the Messiah, when does Rome fall? Certainly not in John’s time, and it is unclear this could refer to any historical event in history. A solution may be to understand the prophecy of the fall of Rome as already beginning in the first century, but not yet consummated until the Second Coming.

 

 

25 thoughts on “Who is the “Great Whore of Babylon”? Revelation 17:1-18

    • My blog posts are small selections from my larger notes (on any book not just Revelation). My intention is to use that material for short commentaries, Galatians is finished, Ephesians and Thessalonians are next.

      Thanks for the encouragement, Maybe I will bump Revelation higher in my queue!

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      • Revelation is one of those books where I know it will be hard to have my 3 good commentaries to go to when I do sermon prep on it (in around 2-3 years from now). Commentaries are either too thick and take too much time for a pastor/coach/husband/father to work through, or they are too light and un-nuanced.

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  1. While attending Dallas Theological Seminary I started to hear people say and see online videos of people saying “America” was what was being described in Rev 17-18. So I wrote a paper titled, “Why Dallas Is the City of Babylon in Revelation 17-18.” Obviously, it was a little bit of a spoof and I had a little fun making all the frivolous and silly connections that people make.

    However, your post here is solid. I appreciate you laying out the three different views. Thanks for your ministry.

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    • I am glad you said it was a spoof, I read the link to the paper first and thought it was some new internet craziness.

      Thanks for you kind word and helpful comments

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  2. Have you seen the statue of Europa riding the beast outside of the Headquarters of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. Those symbols have been around for millennia and they are still around today. We just have to look for them!

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  3. Pope John Paul II did then & Pope Francis is now promoting religious unity with fake religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shamanism including all sorts of pagan APOSTASY. The Roman Catholic Church Militant cannot identify that their own church is headed in that direction, driven by Satanic Jesuits. Being Eastern Orthodox is safer than being Catholic. The RCC is grossly IDOLATROUS, and Satan driven. Killing children in Ninth Circle Satanic Child Sacrifice Cult events inside the Vatican for decades.
    If you see this Michael Wood, make a claim that is not happening with anger, I want to laugh.

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  4. There is only one Great Harlot City .It has been spoken through ALL of the prophets of old & is clearly defined in Rev 16;6 & 17 ;6 & 18; 24. as the city with the blood of the prophets , the saints & Jesus’s witnesses on it. Now for those who have eyes to see & ears to hear GOD’s Prophetic Word is the lesson :- Jesus’s witnesses are to be killed in JERUSALEM [Rev11;8] outside Netanyahu’s ABBYSS Temple[Ezekiel 8 &Rev 11;7].The saints Stephen [first saint] & Paul [Greatest saint] both condemned Sanhedrin JERUSALEM. God’s Prophets were ALL tortured beaten or Murdered in JERUSALEM especially God’s Herald Prophet John the Baptist & His MESSIAH SON Jesus Christ. You can understand & accept this or argue with GOD. Good luck with that!!!! The Harlot sits on the Beast ISRAEL led by an elected king /anti Christ beast man / Man of perdition/false prophet who fulfills ALL prophecy in ALL ways if you have eyes to see–most don’t! His name in Hebrew adds to 666 & has with his Teva Biotec r/hand marking system marked over 1/2 the world –India & China & more..Do not be marked or be fooled as it says the elect will.Do not revere or follow after the Harlot [JERUSALEM] The Beast [ISRAEL} or the anti Christ [Netanyahu- WAS-12th P.M.but 11th king- male- 1996 -8th head-male- as 3 repeat office -7th head -Rabin -had fatal wound] WAS NOT treads down 3 kings & WAS AGAIN 2009 returning without the honour of kingship- Livni won election ] Straight forward if can come as a child. We are in ENDTIME a time as such the world has never seen- When has the world been in entire LOCKDOWN ? NOW ! [2020a.d.] ………MARANATHA sHALOM……servant of Jacob.

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  5. Who is the great whore of Babylon in revelation 17:1-18
    A common theme that I have picked up on attempting to interpret revelation is that battle of interpreting the visions black and white, or word for word. Or taking them as visions and dreams, understanding that they could be analogies for what Jesus was giving john.
    Within this blog post, PLong is addressing the great whore of Babylon. Through other chapters that we have read through and attempted to interpret. We have seen a theme of these visions being about Rome. So, in this case, the whore is representing Rome. We see this whore being also drunk, so this was as bad as it gets. She was drunk in the blood of the saints, so she was also violent. This is expected to be the reason we believe it is Rome. From the empire falling to persecuting jews.
    The problem here is that then the vision John had would have been fulfilled not long after he has the vision. So where does this all fall in the line of the prophecies that John is given? That I do not know. But from my major paper, I saw a cool theme that could be happening here. The visions that Daniel and John have could be foreshadowing that has already happened in their time, they will come to fruition in the second coming.
    Prophecy is so tough for me like I have said so many other times. But it is worth digging into.

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    • Come as a child Jesus said. Prophecy I find simple , not at all complicated ,straight forward. Jesus makes it clear. He will return to save the remnant of the Great harlot & Beast that has the curse upon them -Matt27;25 that they wished upon themselves. The only person /man of perdition that could stand in the Holy Place can be a Jew ;no Pope.No Pope can be as was Christ ;king of the Jews,Matt 27;37 No head of Roman Catholic Church is the 11th king or an 8th head – there is only one man who fulfills this & ALL other prophecy who rules over the city with the blood of the prophets ,saints & Jesus’s potential witnesses on it [JERUSALEM ] that sits on 7 mountains – he is the current king of the Jews with his ABYSS [Rev11;7] Synagogue Temple under the Dome of the Rock who is different to ALL before him [native born – speaks lion-Hebrew – like a leopard -born Palestine leopard country- bear feet -USSR origin]. We are in End Time . God measures time in hours during it -appointed hour; 1/2hour of silence etc .the 2 last prophets will be their for the appointed hour 1260days -3.5 years. So time times & 1/2 time is;- 3.5x 3.5 + 1.75 = 14 yrs …’and they [the Jews] will be given into his hand for time ,times & half time{Dan7;25} .Returned without the honour of kingship 30th March 2009 + 14 yrs = 30th March 2023..By the way the Pope ;yes a false line of prophets; but is not ANTI [against ] CHRIST. Netanyahu on the other hand is ;his 3rd ? act of Parliament [1996] was to try to ban the teaching of Christianity in Israel- he failed.Please look i the right direction.I pray the spirit will guide you……….Baruch Hashem….Maranatha; Israel.- Messianic Jew.

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    • From cover to cover the Bibles Prophecies are written by, about & to the Hebrews & will be fulfilled through them [not just the Jews]. Only one nation is anti Christ -Israel! Only one city has the blood of GOD’s Son ‘s- precious blood- on it & will be made desolate because of the evil done there- JERUSALEM -the great city that sits on 7 mountains That is why the last two prophets WARN of the approaching impending doom on the appointed day ! Rome will suffer it’s own punishment for not keeping God’s Law. It is not anti Christ…… .Maranatha

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  6. There are a few ways that you can view this scene. Instead of viewing the prostitute as a person, the prostitute may be an idea or reality. This reality could be godlessness. This prostitute may be meant to signify the idolatry, sensuality, and prosperity of a certain society (ESVSB 2486)–in this case, most likely Babylon or Rome. Instead of viewing the prostitute as a person or society, you could view her as the sin of that society. “…in cultures that defy God, an insidious conspiracy unites the relentless pursuit of wealth and pleasure and the ruthless exercise of political and coercive power” (ESVSB 2486). The culture is defiant against the ways of the Lord, so the ways are shown through the prostitute riding the beast.
    The more “traditional” way of view this chapter is as you stated: the prostitute represents a broader Rome or Babylon kind of entity. This is a more viable option, concerning the text. The prostitute is seen as the one who may be in cahoots with the Antichrist (ESVSB 2486). However, I am not quite sure that we can absolutely pinpoint the specific ruler or emperor, or even the exact nation that is represented, and will be falling, in that time. As in many other areas in Revelation, these given ideas are relatable representations so that John can communicate the gravity of what is to come. “It is Rome which is demanding worship in chapters 2-3, and it is Rome which persecutes the saints” (P. Long). To that point, it is logical to assume that Rome would be the object of comparison in that time. Perhaps John was trying to relay the gravity of what the evil society or entity of the end times would try to do to the people of the last days.

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    • There is only ONE way to view this scene ! The Biblical Way – GOD’s Way – it is written for those that have eyes to see & ears to hear – you are blind & deaf ! The Harlot / Prostitute IS A CITY [Rev 17;18 & 18;18] can’t you read !! Rome does not have the precious blood on it- only JERUSALEM the city on 7 Mountains has that !! WAKE UP !!! Come as a CHILD!!……Shalom .

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  7. Crazy things we read in the book of Revelation, but like discussed before, we are just reading pieces and parts of very cultural and ancient imageries and references. I love the idea that apocalyptic books are like reading an ancient political cartoon with ancient cultural references from another country and in a different language it makes it very difficult to really get the whole picture. But, non the less, this book has been given to us 21st century readers to be profitable. I have heard also that some people (not many) have a thought that the Great whore is representing the Roman Catholic Church. They connect the dress and attire she is wearing, the gold and jewelry she is wearing to the roman catholic church. It describes her as dressed elegantly and wearing purple and scarlet with also draws connections to the roman catholic church. The fact that she is sitting on the beast that covers many areas and has influence all over the world. Once again this is not a common view but an interesting view. I also have had thoughts that this is simply a group of people who match the description of the whore in many different places, not just a country, religious group or ruler. This passage has always had me wondering.

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  8. You obviously do not have eyes to see nor ears to hears God’ Prophetic Words. See my posts …….Maranatha Shalom ….hoping you survive Corona Virus -Rev 7;14 -the first great tribulation..AMEN.

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  9. There is no shortage of imagery lacking in chapter seventeen, that’s for sure! I’ve always found it interesting that John equates Rome to Babylon within Revelation. Perhaps he does this in order to avoid penalty for writing some borderline seditious things against the Roman Empire. It makes doesn’t surprise me at all that Rome is described as a prostitute, a moniker that was given to an unfaithful, idolatrous Israel during the time of Hosea, in particular (Hosea 1:2). Given the prevalence of the Roman imperial cult in the cities of seven churches that John had written to in the beginning of the book of Revelation, there definitely exists parallels between these two periods and peoples. The woman sitting on the beast is also dressed in purple, with a large amount of gold jewelry all around her form (Revelation 17:4). She certainly thinks herself to be very rich, just as Rome, the dominant empire of John’s time, thought of itself. And finally, she is drunk, but not on alcohol, but on the blood of the saints and martyrs (Revelation 17:6). Verses seven through fourteen, however, are much more cryptic than the imagery given at the beginning of the chapter; they do indeed require wisdom, as the angel tells John (Revelation 17:9).

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  10. Blackwell makes a point that the book of Revelation’s symbolism evokes contrasting reactions and sometimes confusion (138), which most likely is true, like Dr. Long would say, it gives us more questions than answers. I was reading the ESVB footnotes on page 2487, saying the beast is the enemy, and its method of attack is intimidating violence, and the prostitute method of attack is beguiling affluence. Charm and violence mix with deception and selfless discipline can bring chaos. If it is possible the prostitute represents a king and the beast as a throne, there must be a possibility of such a leader who will have much influence with intimidating violence able to charm people to follow his agenda in defying God in so many ways. There is a lot of interpretations of this image, and again as I mentioned before Revelation gives us more questions than answers. It is our job as believers to study and discern and growth maturity.

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  11. Whether or not the prostitute actually stands for Rome as questioned in this article is unclear, but what is clear is that she stands for impurity. Everything about her is gaudy and she has an air of evil. Revelation has made it clear that she is against God and his people and that her desires are for worldly pleasures. Edith M. Humphrey contradicts the image of the prostitute with the image of a repenting woman from the story of Joseph and Asenteth. Joseph is said to have married a gentile woman after she converted to Judaism and lamented for a week for the forgiveness of her impure ways. There is a stark contrast that is shown between the two, the prostitute does not desire to turn from the life she lives while Asenteth repents and changes her ways. “In parallel, these two figures show us the dynamic shared by solemn biblical texts and ancient writings composed for entertainment—God lifts up the humble and casts down the arrogant” (Humphrey, p. 142). I think for me, the most notable difference between these two women is the visual of purity. Psalm 199:9 says, “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word”. It is only through God that a person is able to be pure. Asenteth became pure when she cried out to God, but the prostitute stayed in her wicked ways and remained defiled. While the examples are both women, it is showing a contract of all those who follow God and keep his laws against those who only desire a life filled with sinful desires.

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    • There have been 2 totally evil institutions in history . The Sanhedrin Jerusalem & the Roman Catholic Church. In terms of which is the worst I believe that there is no contest. As evil and vile an institution as it is the Roman Church it pales compared to that which the Sanhedrin is responsible for ; the death of GOD’s Messiah Son .That is why Jerusalem is the Great Harlot with the blood making Israel the Scarlet Beast !!!!!! The man of sin/ anti Christ leads this anti Christ Nation- sadly my family- only the remnant will be saved – Please pray for a large remnant….We are ALL one under Christ !!……………Maranatha Shalom.

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  12. I didn’t realize there was so much meaning and imagery wrapped into this one image of a prostitute. It was really interesting to read the meanings behind the specific descriptions of her. This seems like another one of those times where I have to wonder if these images were clear and obvious for the people of John’s time, but maybe just not ours? Or is this something that no one ever really knew the answer to and we won’t until that day comes? I’ve heard a bit about the approaches described towards the end for counting the Roman emperors. For me, this adds some more doubt around trying to do the math to find the answer and solve some of these questions… if there isn’t a straightforward or obvious way to do it, maybe we weren’t intended to know the exact formula. Or maybe this is something that could have multiple meanings or applications. I just don’t think we’ll be able to give strong answers to these questions we have.

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