HomeArticlesIs Rome "Babylon" in the Book of Revelation?

Is Rome “Babylon” in the Book of Revelation?

Biblical scholars have debated over the reference of Babylon in the book of Revelation as to what its identity is. This debate is rather recent since in the past it had simply stood unquestioned and taken for granted that it was a reference to Rome. We will argue below for the historical position of Babylon being Rome and that the recent developments of identifying this city as the literal city of Babylon in Iraq is more influenced by the New Evangelical’s ecumenical spirit of the day seeking to yoke up with Rome once again. That is not to say that every author who holds to Babylon as the literal city in Iraq is New Evangelical or ecumenical. Many great authors hold the position but I believe they are innocently ignorant but strongly influenced by ecumenical opinions attempting to remove the historically held convictions of Christians to oppose Catholicism and in viewing the church of Rome as antichrists.

This identity of Babylon as Rome is seen in the destruction of Babylon (Revelation 17-18) which is clearly referring to the city of Rome and has been used historically as such. “This can only be Rome. The main arguments for this are a. Rev. 17:9 : the city lies on 7 hills, and Rome is almost proverbially known as the city of 7 hills; b. it was common for later Judaism to apply to Rome the title Babel as a type of ungodly power. Cf. Apc. Bar. 67:7; Sib., 5, 143 and 159, and many Rabbanic passages.”1)Gerhard Kittel (ed.) Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI.: 1968), Vol. 1, p. 516

Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts uncovered at the Qumran community further elaborate our understanding of Jewish interpretations of Scripture during the centuries preceding the New Testament being written. Geza Vermes, the late Dead Sea scholar, identified the common idea of Jewish literature from the intertestamental period:

But from the second century BCE, Jewish writers also used ‘Kittim’ more precisely to denote the greatest world power of the day. In Maccabees (I, I; viii, 5) they are Greeks; Alexander the Great and Perseus are called kings of the ‘Kittim’. In Daniel xi, 302)Vermes is here implying that the book of Daniel was written during the Maccabean era, that is in the 160s BC; an idea that should be rejected on the other hand, the ‘Kittim’ are Romans; it was the ambassador of the Romans senate, Poppilius Laenas, brought to Alexanderia by ‘ships of Kittim’, i.e. the Romans fleet, who instructed the ‘kings of the North’, the Seleucid monarch Antiochus Epiphanes, to withdraw at once from Egypt. The term ‘Romans’ is substituted for ‘Kittim’ already in the old Greek or Septuagint version of Daniel xi, 30. None of these texts are critical of ‘Kittim’. They are seen as the ruling force of the time, but not as hostile to Israel. In fact, in Daniel they humiliate the enemy of the Jews. It is not till a later stage, especially after 70 CE, that they come to symbolize oppression and tyranny.3)Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Penguin Classics (New York: NY, revised edition 2004), p. 59

In a fragmentary manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls containing a commentary on Habakkuk we find clear evidence that Kittim, identifying Rome, is equated with Babylon—“Chaldeans”. Commenting on Habakkuk 1:6, “For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation” this manuscript states: “Interpreted, this concerns the Kittim [who are] quick and valiant in war, causing many to perish. [All the world shall fall] under the dominion of the Kittim, and the [wicked…] they shall not believe in the laws of [God…]”(brackets in original as reconstructions of damaged manuscript)4)Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Penguin Classics (New York: NY, revised edition 2004), p. 510

Other ancient Jewish sources present the idea of Rome being  called Babylon. Th Sibylline Oracles clearly equate a Roman king with the name of Babylon. “The poets will bewail thrice-wretched Greece when a great king of great Rome, a god-like man from Italy… He will flee from Babylon, a terrible and shameless prince whom all mortals and noble men despise… He seized the divinely built Temple and burned the citizens… a great star will come fro heaven to the wonderous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a true people perished.” Sibylline Oracles 5.137-161)5)The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 1, p. 396-397

Just as Jewish sources of the day recognized Rome as Babylon (the title Babel is the Hebrew name for Babylon) so did the early Christian authors. Tertullian wrote in A.D. 197, “Babylon, in our own John, is a figure of the city Rome…”6)Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, chap. IX;  The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1885, fifth printing 2012), Vol. 3, p. 162 a decade later he rehearsed, “By a similar usage Babylon also in our (St.) John is a figure of the city Rome, as being like (Babylon) great and proud in royal power, and warring down the saints of God.”7)Tertullian, Against Marcion, Bk. III, chap. IX;  The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1885, fifth printing 2012), Vol. 3, p. 332 Hippolytus, who was the disciple of Irenaeus, who in turn was a disciple of Polycarp the disciple of the apostle John, wrote a Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, saying, “Tell me, blessed John, apostle and disciple of the Lord, what didst thou see and hear concerning Babylon? Arise, and speak; for it sent thee also into banishment.”8)Hippolytus, Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 36; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1885, fifth printing 2012), Vol. 5, p.211 It is obvious that “it” was Rome that sent John into banishment as he received the revelation on the island of Patmos. Victorinus, around 280 wrote about “the great overthrow of Babylon, that is, the Roman state.”9)Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse; The Ante-Nicene Fathers, (ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1885, fifth printing 2012), Vol. 3, p. 352 This understanding persisted throughout Christian history as Thieleman J. van Braght, a Mennonite scholar writing in 1660 documented the historical development of Rome’s persecution of Christians. He referenced from “A.D. 900” the prevailing view: “Tergandus, Bishop of Treves, called the Pope of Rome antichrist, yea, a wolf, and Rome, Babylon.”10) Thieileman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, From the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660, (trans. Joseph F. Sohm) Herald Press, 1660, first English edition 1886, twenty-fifth printing 2004, p. 240; citing Geslacht-register, page 128

The ecumenical mentality of New Evangelicalism and their compromise with Rome has caused the shifting away from the historical interpretation of Babylon meaning Rome, to Babylon meaning the city in Iraq.

The reason why Rome was viewed as Babylon is explained by John Walvoord. “After the Persians took over Babylon in 530 B.C., they discouraged the continuation of the mystery religions of Babylon. Subsequently the Babylonian cultists moved to Pergamum (or Pergamos) where one of the seven churches of Asia Minor was located (cf. Rev. 2:12-17)…. When the teachers of the Babylonian mystery religions later moved from Pergamum to Rome, they were influential in paganizing Christianity and were the source of many so-called religious rites which have crept into ritualistic churches.”11)John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, Victor Books, Division of SP Publications Inc., 1983, seventh printing 1987, p. 970-971 Hence, the obvious expression of Babylon in Revelation as an apostate Christianity. Dave Hunt quotes Catholic authority Karl Keating who writes,

Babylon is a code for Rome. It is used that way six times in the last book of the Bible and in extrabiblical works such as Sibylline Oracles (5, 159f.), the Apocalypse of Baruch (ii,1), and 4 Esdras (3:1).

Eusibius Pamphilius, writing about 303, noted that “it is said that Peter’s first epistle…was composed at Rome itself; and that he himself indicates this, referring to the city figuratively as Babylon.”12)Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians,” (Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 200; as cited by Dave Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast, Harvest House Publishers (Eugene, Oregon, 1994), p. 68

Dave Hunt concluded: “The woman represents a world-wide religious system which is based in Rome and claims to be Christian but which has its roots in Babel and Babylon. That conclusion will become unassailable…”13)Dave Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast, Harvest House Publishers (Eugene, Oregon, 1994), p. 65 Ed Hindson agreed with Dave Hunt, saying, “Hunt makes a very strong case against the Roman Catholic Church for its frequent violations of the relationship of religion and politics. He also points out the terrible persecutions the Roman Church often inflicted on those true believers who dissented with her.”14)Ed Hindson, Approaching Armageddon, Harvest House Publishers (Eugene, Oregon: 1997), p. 249

The Bible identifies that the woman is a “great city” (Revelation 17:18, 18:10), which sits on seven mountains (Revelation 17:9), and is located on the sea port (Revelation 18:17-19). The city of Babylon in Iraq is on the Euphrates River, not the sea. The Roman Empire took for granted any reference to “the sea” as the Mediterranean Sea. This is true for the Hebrew culture as well since the Hebrew word “sea” יָם yam is the root for the word “west” as one would add a directional ה he at the end יָֽמָּה yammah  to indicate “seaward, westward”15)Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, , Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd. (London: 1973), p. 70 as in the land of Israel, going west would be toward the Mediterranean Sea. This Hebraism would be expected from John’s writings. Philip Schaff said, “The fourth Gospel is pure Greek in vocabulary and grammar, but thoroughly Hebrew in temper and spirit, even more than any other book, and can be almost literally translated into Hebrew without losing its force or beauty.”16)Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusettes: 1858, fourth printing 2011), Vol. 1, p. 699

John was receiving this revelation from the island of Patmos, which being situated in the Mediterranean Sea, tells us from John’s present vantage point the word “sea” would most likely be a reference to the Mediterranean Sea. If any other sea was in mind it would have been specified by name such as “Adria” (Acts 27:27); or to focus on John’s writings, “the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias” (John 6:1) which is then followed by the word “sea” (John 6:16, 17, 18, 19, 22, 25) in general use obviously defined by its context, which similarly occurs in the last chapter of John’s gospel “sea of Tiberias” (John 21:1), and “the sea” (John 21:7). In Revelation, when “sea” is meant without a symbolic expression (Revelation 5:13; 7:1, 3; 8:8, 9; 10:2, 5, 6, 8; 12:12; 13:1; 16:3; 18:17, 19, 21; 20:13; 21:1) it carries either the most general meaning possible such as “the gathering together of the waters” is called “seas” (Genesis 1:10); or John gives us the present locality of his vantage point, “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw…” (Revelation 13:1). This would surely identify the shores of Patmos with the word “sea” to be understood as the Mediterranean Sea. The Dead Sea Scrolls commentary on Habakkuk 1:8-9a identified Rome as  the “Kittim,” stating “They come from afar, from the islands of the sea…”(italics in original identifying quotations from Scripture)17)Geza Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Penguin Classics (New York: NY, revised edition 2004), p. 511 as The book of Revelation even refers to the Euphrates river as a “river” (Revelation 9:14; 16:12), not as a sea.

Ed Hindosn wrote: “I believe John saw the Roman Empire of his day as the greatest threat to the early church.”18)Ed Hindson, Approaching Armageddon, Harvest House Publishers (Eugene, Oregon: 1997), p. 248Of course that is how John viewed Rome. In Revelation 17:18, the woman is called “that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” The description of this city “which reigneth” is a present active participle, meaning the city was currently reigning over the kings of the earth in John’s day—this could be none other than Rome.

Arnold Fruchtenbaum expressed in his article “The Campaign Of Armageddon And The Second Coming Of Jesus The Messiah,” that Babylon is to be understood as the literal city in current day Iraq, situated on the Euphrates river. His identifying the city of Babylon directs his whole idea of the events as he states,

God will use Gentile believers to destroy Babylon.

For example, the context of Isaiah 13:6–22 clearly puts the destruction of Babylon, announced in verses 1–5, within the scope and time of the Day of Jehovah, a reference to the Great Tribulation.19)Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “The Campaign Of Armageddon And The Second Coming Of Jesus The Messiah,” Conservative Theological Journal, Volume: 05:14 (Mar 2001), p. 10-11

Fruchtenbaum’s basis for saying Gentile believers will destroy Babylon is based on the phrase “I have commanded my sanctified ones” (Isaiah 13:3) as the reference to those who destroy Babylon. However, John Gill appropriately explains, “The Medes and Persians, so called, not because sanctified by the Spirit of God, or made holy persons, through the regenerating and renewing grace of God, or purified by the blood of Christ, and prepared for glory; but because they were set apart in the mind and counsel of God for a special work and service, and were qualified by him with courage and strength to perform it, and therefore said to be his; and this command that was given them was not by a voice from heaven, or in a message by one of his prophets; but by a secret instinct, and, by the power of his providence, stirring them up to engage in such an enterprise”20)John Gill, John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible, (Isaiah 13:3; accessed at http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/isaiah-13.html Cyrus is called the Lords anointed (Isaiah 45:1) and is thus sanctified for the Lord’s purpose fulfilled through him, that is conquering Babylon. The topic of Isaiah 13:1-5 does not necessitate a full chronological connection as many prophetic passages contain time gaps in their midst. Furthermore, a closer look at vv. 4-5 indicates Fruchtenbaum’s misunderstanding. Verse 4 states first “The noise of a multitude in the mountains…” which is an expression to identify the geography of the Medes country. Next it states, “like as of a great people; a tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together: the Lord of hosts mustereth the host of the battle.” Here is an enormous army being gathered together in these mountains. Furthermore, the Isaiah passage indicates in verse 5, “They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the Lord, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land.” The following context addresses the leaders of this confederacy as the Medes (v. 17), hence this passage has either been fulfilled historically, or if projected into a future fulfillment it would indicate Islamic nations as the descendants of the Medes. It would be conceivable if in the future Islam rose up to destroy Rome, turning against all the Pope’s efforts for interfaith dialog. Fruchtenbaum’s premise that these armies are “Gentile believers” in the tribulation period is horribly wrong as it would imply Christians rising up in war and express a very unbiblical opinion. It is likely that this entire passage (Isaiah 13:1-14:23) is properly interpreted as an eschatological passage. The phrase continuously used “the day of the Lord” (Isaiah 13:9, 13) in conjunction with the Satanology passage ending with his casting into the pit seems to demand this time frame (Isaiah 14:13-15 cf. Revelation 20:1-2). However, Isaiah 14:1 seems to imply Israel in Babylon being brought back to their land, but vv. 2-4 imply end time populating of Israel with v. 4 comparable to the imagery of Revelation 17:4 and 18:16. There still finds no basis to ignore this applied to Rome in an eschatological sense. End time involvement of Persia (Ezekiel 38:5) is well understood and does not rule out the references of the Medes in this passage to be eschatological and directed to Rome.

Other prophecy teachers that have held to the rebuilding of Babylon in Iraq reveal serious inconsistencies in the positions. For example, Grant Jeffrey speaking of the city of Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, states, “King Nebuchadnezzar created the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a huge seventy-five-foot-high artificial mountain that could be seen fifty miles away, for his beloved queen, who came from a mountainous area and hated the flat plains of Mesopotamia.”21)Grant R. Jeffrey, War on Terror, Frontier Research Publications, Inc., (Toronto, Ontario: 2002), p. 119 Note that his description includes the flat plains of Mesopotamia of which fifty miles away this artificial mountain can be seen. As John was a first century Jewish author22)By Jewish author I am using the term as reference to his ethnicity. The fact that he had converted out of Judaism and was a Christian must be emphasized. The New Testament authors were all Jews converted to Christ, and none of them were ashamed to be called “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 1 Peter 4:16). When Agrippa said to Paul “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” (Acts 26:28) Paul did not reply “do not be a Christian, just call yourself a Messianic Jew” or any such thing that present light sentiments to the name of the Lord Who purchased us with His own blood (Acts 20:28). No, Paul answered Agrippa, “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.” (Acts 26:29). Paul said “I wish you were a Christian just as I am”, unashamed of the name of Christ. writing in Greek; comparing his words to another first century Jewish author writing in Greek, such as Josephus gives us further knowledge of how the original recipients of the book of Revelation understood John’s words. Josephus also speaks of “the great plain of Babylon”23)Josephus, Antiquity of the Jews, Book X, Chap X, sect. 5; The Complete Works of Josephus (Trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapid, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 224 indicating no person in the first century would have thought John spoke of Babylon in Iraq. Revelation tells us the city is on seven mountains (Revelation 17:9). Furthermore, Revelation 18:24 says “in her [Babylon] was found the blood of prophets and of saints…” which does not fit a description of the literal Babylon (cf. Revelation 17:4), but could fit Rome or Jerusalem (Revelation 11:7-8). Jeffrey indicates an interesting factor in another book in reference of Daniel’s prophecy in chapter two, saying,

An additional fascinating prophecy is revealed in Daniel’s last sentence that Christ’s return will supernaturally and suddenly destroy, not only the “iron and clay” (the revived Roman Emprie), but also “the brass” (the revived Grecian Empire), “the silver” (the revived Medeo-Persian Empire), and “the gold” (the revived Babylonian Empire). Therefore, students of prophecy should closely watch the political, economic, and military activities of the European Union, Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. All four of these ancient empires will play crucial prophetic roles in the dramatic strategic events of the last days in the final crisis of the Tribulation.24)Grant R. Jeffrey, Triumphant Return, Frontier Research Publications, Inc., (Toronto, Ontario: 2001), p. 241-242

As mentioned above, Babylon is described with a sudden fiery overthrow which would be fitting this description from Daniel 2, and is thus equated with the revived Roman Empire, which we have also seen inherited the priests of the Babylonian mystery religion after the Persian dominion of the ancient city.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins offer five reasons for their view that Babylon must be rebuilt.

1. Isaiah 13 and 14 and Jeremiah 50 and 51 describe the destruction of Babylon as “the day of the Lord.25)Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times?, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., (Wheaton. Il: 1999), p. 135

 All five reason they employ revolve around these passages fro Isaiah 13-14 and Jeremiah 50-51. The discussion of Isaiah 13-14 was presented above. Jeremiah 50-51 is significantly understood by the majority of prophecy teachers to stretch back in forth from history to prophecy. For example, Walvoord and Zuck write, “Possibly this prophecy represents a blending of the near and the far. That is, the fall of Babylon and the return of the captives under Zerubbabel merged in the prophetic picture with the still-future destruction of Babylon and the final restoration of Israel and Judah.”26)John Walvoord and Roy Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, Victor Books, Division of SP Publications Inc., 1985, fourth printing 1987, p. 1199 This comment concludes the idea that Babylon will be rebuilt while their New Testament commentary identified Babylon as Rome as quoted above.

Ed Hindson disagrees with the idea that the literal city of Babylon will be rebuilt and become a major city that is central to fulfilling prophecy.

Babylon is still in ruins in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Saddam Hussein’s attempt to “rebuild” it as a tourist trap hardly qualifies it as the great city of the last days. Besides, his attempts have failed. Babylon has no sacred significance to the religion of Islam. Muslims are interested in protecting only their holy sites. They have no interest in rebuilding ancient pagan sites, including Babylon. Therefore, it will likely remain in ruins.27)Ed Hindson, Approaching Armageddon, Harvest House Publishers (Eugene, Oregon: 1997), p. 245

As the thrust of this article indicates, these Old Testament prophecies of Babylon’s destruction can be applicable to Rome being projected in end times. Therefore, ll the arguments raised for Babylon as the city in Iraq falter with circular reasoning. One must presuppose it cannot mean Rome in order to offer any arguments that these references must be Babylon in Iraq. However, as we have seen, Jews prior to John’s writing of Revelation understood Babylon to carry an interpretation to Rome; as did the earliest Christian authors. Furthermore, the geographical descriptions do not fit an Iraq location.

In conclusion, it should be evident that Babylon as expressed in the book of Revelation is indeed Rome. The augments to the contrary are weak and inconsistent.



Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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