A couple readers have asked that I go ahead and post some notes from the presentation of sorts that I put together for bible study last night on the Whore of Babylon. Notes is probably putting things a little strongly for what I walked into the room with, but I'll try to organize and put up here what I came up with.
First, on the more general principles we've been working on, and which I'm getting primarily from our assistant pastor (who's led half the sessions) and also from Sacra Pagina and the Collegeville bible commentary. As such, I'm taking Revelation as dealing primarily with the situation of Christians living around the time and place it was written (aprox 100AD in the churches of Asia Minor) rather than being a prophecy primarily dealing with the literal end of the world. John is writing in much the same genre as Old Testament books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel -- using a fantastic and apocalyptic vocabulary to talk about the current tribulations of God's people, their need for repentance, and their eventual deliverance.
Thus, while John is in a certain sense talking about the end of the world per se, he's also talking much more specifically about the hope that the Christians currently suffering persecution under the pagan Roman Empire can have that a new order will come which will wipe away their current persecutors and allow the worship of Christ our Savior to flourish.
So, all of that said, let's dive right in.
Then one of the seven angels who were holding the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come here. I will show you the judgment on the great harlot who lives near the many waters. "
The "many waters" refer to the confluence of rivers at the historical Babylon. While the term "Babylon" is used metaphorically rather than literally in Revelation (as a nod to the historical references to Babylon in the OT, and also as a way of referring to a large and profane empire in general) this evocation is based on the actual geography of the literal city.
The kings of the earth have had intercourse with her, and the inhabitants of the earth became drunk on the wine of her harlotry." Then he carried me away in spirit to a deserted place where I saw a woman seated on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names, with seven heads and ten horns. The woman was wearing purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a gold cup that was filled with the abominable and sordid deeds of her harlotry. On her forehead was written a name, which is a mystery, "Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth."
Something to keep in mind here is that among the prophets of the Old Testament, fornication, adultery and prostitution are all used as a metaphor for idol worship. When paganism springs up in the kingdom of Israel, Israel and Jerusalem (as the metaphorical brides of Yahweh) are accused of harlotry and adultery. Thus, the image of the harlot here is probably best seen as an embodiment of the idol worship that was the state religion (and one cannot over-emphasize the extent to which Roman cult and civic life were intertwined) of the Roman Empire.
I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the holy ones and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her I was greatly amazed. The angel said to me, "Why are you amazed? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, the beast with the seven heads and the ten horns.
So here we hear that the harlot is gorging on the blood of martyrs, which also seems to underline her identity as the Roman Empire, and the pagan world in general. The angel then provides some additional explanation:
The beast that you saw existed once but now exists no longer. It will come up from the abyss and is headed for destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world shall be amazed when they see the beast, because it existed once but exists no longer, and yet it will come again. Here is a clue for one who has wisdom. The seven heads represent seven hills upon which the woman sits. They also represent seven kings: five have already fallen, one still lives, and the last has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a short while. The beast that existed once but exists no longer is an eighth king, but really belongs to the seven and is headed for destruction.
Okay, so this is probably where some of the "Whore of Babylon is the Catholic Church" stuff gets started: The seven heads represents seven hills on which the woman sits. What city famously sits on seven hills? R0me. Ha! We've got those papists now, haven't we?
Well, maybe not. What did Rome symbolize to St. John? This woman drunk on the blood of martyrs, arrayed in the jewels and purple robes of imperial wealth doesn't seem like a good fit with the Church in Rome circa 110 AD. Saints Peter and Paul were executed in Rome not so many years ago, and the church there suffers some of the more systematic persecutions under Nero, Domitian and Trajan.
This beast's heads represent not only seven hills, but seven kings, the sixth of whom rules now. The Roman Empire, then.
Were they on the sixth Roman Emperor? No. How you count the emperors is fuzzy. Does Julius Caesar count when he never accepted the title? Do you count Galba, Otho and Vitellius from the years of the four emperors? (The fourth was Vespasian, who lasted ten years.) Revelation seems to have been written somewhere around 90-115 AD, which puts it under Domitian, Nerva or Trajan. (see list of emperors here)
I don't think John is trying to be strictly historical here. He may have six specific emperors in mind for the first six heads, or he may not. (You could make a good case for counting Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian and Domitian as the six "major emperors" -- with Domitian as the current one up to 96AD -- if you wanted.)
So what's this business with this shadowy eight emperor, somewhere in the future, who will be one of the first five who "existed once but exists no longer is an eighth king, but really belongs to the seven and is headed for destruction". The notes in the Jerusalem Bible (as well as Sacra Pagina and the Collegeville commentary) suggest that this is Nero, about whom there was a legend that he would return from the dead. I looked up Suetonius' life of Nero to follow up on this and found the following:
LVII. He died in the thirty-second year of his age, upon the same day on which he had formerly put Octavia to death; and the public joy was so great upon the occasion, that the common people ran about the city with caps upon their heads. Some, however, were not wanting, who for a long time decked his tomb with spring and summer flowers. Sometimes they placed his image upon the rostra, dressed in robes of state; at another, they published proclamations in his name, as if he were still alive, and would shortly return to Rome, and take vengeance on all his enemies. Vologesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent ambassadors to the senate to renew his alliance with the Roman people, earnestly requested that due honour should be paid to the memory of Nero; and, to conclude, when, twenty years afterwards, at which time I was a young man, some person of obscure birth gave himself out for Nero, that name secured him so favourable a reception from the Parthians, that he was very zealously supported, and it was with much difficulty that they were prevailed upon to give him up.So in addition to the general rumor of Nero's possible return, there was an actual claimed re-incarnation of Nero right around the time that Revelation was written. Certainly, one can imagine a Nero returned from the underworld as the opposite to Christ -- a king of the damned rising not through triumph over death, but as death triumphing over the world, leading a "culture of death" in persecuting Christ's church.
This is getting awfully long, but one other thing that struck me and which I mentioned in class is that the beast "was covered with blasphemous names". If we're seeing the beast as embodying in some sense the Roman state and state religion, we might imagine these names as being the countless pagan deities which made up pan-pagan set of cults accepted in Rome: Jupiter, Minerva, Apollo, Mithras, Dionysius, Bacchus, Isis, Osiris and many others drawn from all over the empire, everything from the lars (household spirits) of everyday superstition to the semi-messianic fertility "mystery religions" which had come in from Egypt and the east. Alternatively (or in addition) one might imagine the beast to be inscribed with the countless semi-religious/semi-civic offices through which ambitions Roman citizens climbed the ladder of the state cult: tribune, praetor, questor, augor, consul, etc. The innumerable deities and the many semi-priestly political offices which served them probably both seemed equally bizzar and demonic to the early Christians to whom John was writing.
The account them moves on to a civil war and degeneration into chaos in which formerly subservient kings bring down the beast, and then finally the triumph of the followers of the Lamb. Here John is looking forward to an end of the domination of the earth by profane powers, and the coming of an order the acknowledges Christ as king.
Some might see this as simply looking forward to and to to the pagan Roman order -- but in a larger sense I think we can see this as applying to all of us in looking forward to the kingdom of heaven in which the worldly priorities on which the kingdoms of this world are focused will be forgotten.