16 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (16 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.
Loading...

Symbolism in Revelation: The Whore of Babylon

The point of this mini-thread is to argue that the author of the book of Revelation does not describe a “hell” that people will be sent to in order to be tortured for all eternity – even though he is often read that way.   My argument is that page after page of the book is filled with highly symbolic visions, and realizing this is a fairly obvious key to interpreting the book.

For the next couple of posts I’ll try to show how the interpretation actually works.   Then I’ll move to explore his comments about the “lake of fire,” the image widely used to develop the notion that those who are wicked and/or who do not believe in Jesus (that is most of the many billions of people who have ever lived) will be tormented eternally in flames

In my previous post I summarized, rather tersely, the narrative flow of what happens in the book of Revelation (if you haven’t read it recently, I’d advise it!  It’s a terrifically gripping account).  None of this breathtaking vision can be read literally as an indication of what, chronologically, will happen at the end of time.   That’s because …

Not that your eternal life depends on it, but you really ought to read the rest of this post; and if you don’t belong to the blog, you can’t.  So why not join?  It doesn’t cost much, and even though it won’t earn your everlasting salvation, it’ll do a lot of earthly good!

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.


More Symbolism in Revelation: 666, The Number of “The Beast”
Overview of the Book of Revelation

43

Comments

  1. mkahn1977  September 26, 2018

    how did satan going from being the adversary and working for god under Jewish belief transform into the opposite and enemy of god in Christianity? (Having grown up a Reform Jew, satan was never even discussed, nor hell.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      It all happened with the rise of apocalyptic thinking, especially in the second century BCE, a dualistic form of thought in which the suffering in the world is caused by a personal enemy of God, the satan (= adversary).

      • mkahn1977  September 28, 2018

        In the new book will you cover if this dualistic thinking was influenced from non-Jewish sources?

      • doug  September 28, 2018

        It sounds like even back then, people were wrestling with the problem of how to account for evil in a world created by God.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 28, 2018

      If you study the evolution of the cosmologies and metaphysics of the cultures that spanned from northern India to the Mediterranean ca. 600 to 100 BCE, you’d see this growing notion of an evil entity who is in some kind of cosmic battle with the divine goodness. For instance, in Buddhism he is called Mara, the one who tempted the Buddha while he was trying to reach enlightenment (just as Satan tempted Jesus in the desert). In Zoroastrianism he is called Angra Mainyu, the evil cosmic adversary of Ahura Mazda. This idea of a cosmic adversary, therefore, was something that was developing in the religious and philosophical milieu of the Axial Age. By the first century CE, this idea of a cosmic war between a good godhead and his evil adversary was a common assumption throughout many cultures of the Near East, eventually finding full form in dualist religions like Manichaeism.

  2. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 26, 2018

    I know the symbolism of the “Whore of Babylon” has been used by some sects of Christianity to say the Roman Catholic Church is the “Wore of Babylon” to justify an anti-Catholic attitude and sentiment.

    How does the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus and the apocalyptic teaching of the Book of Revelation square with one another? Does the book align with Jesus’ view of the apocalypse or is it more congruent with Paul’s theology or does it teach a theology all of its own?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      It would take an entire chapter to give a solid answer. Much of Revelation coincides roughly with Jesus’ views (and Paul’s), especially its emphasis on the catastrophes coming at the end of time before Judgment Day; but the details are unlike anything found in either Jesus or Paul.

  3. jhague  September 26, 2018

    ” It is not some wicked woman bound to appear soon in the twenty-first century.”

    Do most fundamentalist think some wicked woman bound to appear soon in the twenty-first century? Is this what you thought when you were younger? (I don’t think the conservative church I grew up in thought this.)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      No, we understood it was symbolic. My point is that it *it* is symbolic, why not other symbols in the book (such as the lake of fire)

  4. AggieGnostic  September 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Were you taught at Moody and Wheaton that the Whore of Babylon was the Catholic Church or was this more of a Jack Chick-type phenomenon?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      There were certainly people who said that; I can’t remember what I personally thought at the time (45 years ago now!)

  5. Meiguoji  September 26, 2018

    Bart,

    Do critical historians know when the Satan (heavenly prosecutor) in the Hebrew Bible became a or “the Devil” who opposes G-d? OR is the Satan and Satan different beings?

    Thank you for this excellent post!

  6. fishician  September 26, 2018

    Satan is called the “serpent of old.” Do you think this is a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden? If so, it is the only book in the Bible that makes that connection, as far as I can tell.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      Yup. (And yes, Revelation is the only book to make the connection)

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  September 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, I tell people that if they really want to understand Revelation they really need to read other Jewish apocalyptic literature of that time, such as Enoch, 2 Baruch and 4 Ezra. Don’t you agree that it would be very difficult for the layperson to understand such literature without understanding the historical context — viz. the Jewish uprisings against Rome from 60 to 140 CE — and that trying to understand Revelation outside that context is, at best, myopic?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      Yes, but Enoch is centuries before that (Book of the Watchers is normally dated to the late 3rd c. BCE), and it’s important to understand its own context as well.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 28, 2018

        Fair enough, but the Similitudes section of Enoch dates closer to the 1st century, does it not?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 30, 2018

          Yes, the date is debated. The Book of the Watchers is the oldest apocalyptic book we have, probably a couple hundred years earlier.

    • godspell  September 28, 2018

      Can we be sure that ‘John’ had read those texts? Obviously there was a larger apocalyptic tradition–nor is that entirely a Christian thing. Many pagan religions, most notably that of the Norse people, spoke of a final confrontation between good and evil, darkness and light, creation and destruction, order and chaos.

      Revelation is best understood as a commentary on the time it was written in. The same is probably true of Nostradamus. But because people wish some control over the future, they look for some key to foreseeing it. It can be Revelation, the I Ching, or Das Kapital. And it never works. Me, I’ll take this ode over any of them.

      //But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
      In proving foresight may be vain;
      The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
      Gang aft agley,
      An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
      For promis’d joy!

      Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
      The present only toucheth thee:
      But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
      On prospects drear!
      An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
      I guess an’ fear!//

  8. forthfading  September 26, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    When it came to finalizing the canon of scripture, was Revelation accepted by most Christians at the time as being authoritative? Is there any convincing evidence, in your opinion, that the author of Revelation was connected to any disciple of Jesus?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      It depends at what time you’re referrig to. It was debated for a long time; only when it came to be believed to be written by John the son of Zebedee was there wide acceptance, toward the end of the fourth century.

  9. JohnKesler  September 26, 2018

    I agree with the Babylon-Rome equation, but two passages seem, at least on the surface, to belie this.

    Revelation 11:7-8
    7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, 8and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.

    Revelation 18:24
    24 And in [Babylon] was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth.’

    These verses seem to fit Jerusalem rather than Rome. How could Rome have slaughtered the prophets or been the place where Jesus was crucified? Compare Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:37/Luke 13:34: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it…”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      Yes, ch. 11 is talking about Jerusalem. Ch. 18 though is about Rome.

  10. Stylites  September 26, 2018

    I remember standing in the cave on Patmos where tradition claims John wrote Revelation and wondering at the time if he knew how much mischief his writing would cause in the future if he would have bothered.

  11. godspell  September 26, 2018

    Me, I always figured it was Celine Dion. 😉

    Obviously it’s Rome. And it’s an allegory.

    To read the Old Testament is to see a succession of empires rise and fall. While somehow Israel remains (not always as an extant nation, but as an idea, embodied in its religious texts). That’s the story being told, and it’s a persuasive one. Babylon falls, Jerusalem prevails.

    So it doesn’t require divine revelation to know Rome is just the latest empire to rise, and while Vespasian proved to be a good emperor (as they go), most of the previous run had been abysmal, and the last three had all failed to last even a year. Obviously Rome’s downfall would come, and deep down inside, all Romans knew that. “Every dog has his day.”

    But of course Rome’s day was far from over. I wonder what the author of this book would have said if he’d known that it would meet its end as a Christian empire?

    We see popular stories in various mediums prophesying the fall of our civilization on just about a weekly basis these days.

    But they rarely, if ever, rise to the level of the imagery here. I wish it wasn’t part of the canon, but I can’t help admiring the talent of whoever penned it.

  12. RayC  September 27, 2018

    Bart, thanks for a very interesting post. This may be a dumb question, but what is the point of all the symbolism? If the symbolism would be easily recognizable, or at least somewhat recognizable, by those reading it, it would seem to be an unnecessary level of indirection. And if it was to hide the message from authorities who may not get it, it would seem easy enough for them to get someone who could interpret the symbolism, again making it unnecessary. Maybe it’s just part of the apocalyptic genre?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      Apocalypses use this kind of wild symbolism to heighten the mysterious character of their revelations. It’s not simply straightforward and prosaic, but mystical, needing to be deciphered.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 28, 2018

      The symbolism also gives it the whiff of prophecy. Most prophecies of that time came through abstract “visions” — either in dreams or induced while awake (sometimes via a pharmacological means) — and so the “vision” quality was emphasized in order to give the prophecy a semblance of authenticity. That is, the divine entity (a god or goddess, an angel or other supernatural messenger, etc.) gives the prophet a vision of the future that needed to be interpreted.

      The reason that these prophetic “visions” came in a form that needed to be interpreted is probably just an accident of history. The full evolution of the process is something I have yet to see fully researched. It probably has something to do with the abstract qualities of dreams themselves. Since dreams rarely, if ever, make sense, it must have been assumed by the ancients — who saw dreams as somehow real and important — that the meaning of the dream had to be unraveled. And thus was created the dream “interpreters” like Joseph and Daniel.

      But there was also a practical reason for the abstract, ambiguous “visions” of prophets. The ancient career of a prophet was what we might call a high risk, high reward occupation. That is, if a prophet was good — as in, his prophesies regularly seemed to come to fruition — then he tended to be rewarded quite handsomely, for example, with a plum position in a king’s court, or great fame and notoriety. But if a prophet consistently got it wrong, he could very quickly find himself dead. Hence ancient prophets quickly realized that if their prophecies were just ambiguous and abstract enough, then it was possible to “interpret” them in ways that allowed the prophet to hedge his bet.

      One of the more famous examples from history is that of the Lydian king Croesus, who asked the Oracle at Delphi if he should attack the Persian Empire. The Pythia prophesied that if Croesus attack Persia, a great empire would fall (or something to that effect), and Croesus “interpreted” that to mean he would conquer the Persian Empire. But, instead, it was the Persians ended up conquering the Lydian Empire! So the Delphic Oracle managed to have it both ways…conveniently for her.

  13. Kevin Nelson  September 27, 2018

    I’m not so convinced this is an either/or matter. You are surely right that the Whore of Babylon is a symbol for Rome, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that literal predictions about the end times are also being made. Anyway, the symbols in Revelation come so thick and fast that they can be symbols for all sorts of things.

    I’ve noticed this seems to be a difference between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants generally seem to think that if something is symbolic, then it isn’t to be interpreted literally. But in Catholic tradition, it’s common to accept some scriptural passage as literal and then to find all sorts of symbolic meanings in it as well.

    • godspell  September 28, 2018

      You’ll pardon my saying so, but protestants tend to think that if something can’t be interpreted literally, there’s no point to interpreting it at all. With many honorable exceptions.

      I think Revelation is predicting the fall of Rome–well, that happened. Is it also predicting the coming of the Kingdom of God? Of course. Bart said so.

      But by the time it was written, everybody who Jesus had said would see the coming of the Kingdom had died.

      So how could the author of Revelation believe Jesus was speaking literally, and still believe Jesus was divine? And if Jesus can speak in metaphor and allegory, why can’t he?

      Why can’t anyone? Literalism is so drab. So prosaic. So–forgive me for saying–Protestant. 😉

  14. gavriel  September 27, 2018

    Wouldn’t this have been a pretty dangerous writing to distribute within the Roman Empire? Are there any indications that it contributed to Roman persecution of Christians?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2018

      No, no evidence that outsiders ever read it. It was completely insider literature.

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  September 28, 2018

        I can’t remember where I read this theory but it said that Revelation was written Symbolically to protect those reading and distributing the book from persecution from Roman authorities. So there is no evidence that was the motive for writing symbolically?

      • galah  September 28, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, gavriel asks, “Wouldn’t this have been a pretty dangerous writing to distribute within the Roman Empire?” to which you reply, “no evidence that outsiders ever read it. It was completely insider literature.” But you tell RayC that, ” It’s not simply straightforward and prosaic, but mystical, needing to be deciphered.” How can we be certain that the symbolic language wasn’t, in fact, designed to protect the material and/or the person who held the document? Historically, messages have been enciphered for this very reason. What do you mean when you say, “insider literature?” Do you mean that, at first, the document only circulated among a relatively small group of believers who possessed copies of the document? Do you mean that the many Romans and people loyal to the state didn’t have access to it? Is there really evidence that supports this? Clearly, it became outsider literature at some point in time. Has there been a study that determined when that may have occurred? Sorry for asking so many questions here.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 30, 2018

          See today’s post. The book is written only for Christians within the community; and it is written in a highly mysterious fashion so that it seemed mystical, revelatory, not simply straightforward prose.

  15. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 27, 2018

    Once again, great final sentence! (I’m still smiling).

  16. Dawg  September 27, 2018

    More revelation please, so timely!

  17. JohnKesler  September 28, 2018

    fishician wrote:
    Satan is called the “serpent of old.” Do you think this is a reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden? If so, it is the only book in the Bible that makes that connection, as far as I can tell.

    Bart replied:
    Yup. (And yes, Revelation is the only book to make the connection)

    My reply:
    What about Romans 16:20? “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet…” Is this not an allusion to the curse of Genesis 3:15? “I will put enmity between [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” I do wonder, though, why Paul refers to the “serpent’s” (not Satan’s) tempting of Eve in 2 Corinthians 11:3, and then refers to Satan as an “angel of light” a few verses later. Do any of these passages show what Paul believed about the serpent-Satan relationship?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 30, 2018

      Romans 16:20: Yes, it certainly may be. And you’re right, in 2 Cor. 11:3 he is not referring to Satan, at least not obviously so. I don’t see a direct connection of 2 Cor. 11:3 and 14. I’m not saying that Revelation invented the idea that the serpent was Satan, only that it is the only place that makes the clear connection.

  18. Eric  September 28, 2018

    I have understood thew whore to be rome for so long I had forgotten that this was taken as the meaning by all, even fundamentalists.

    IIRC, even in the NA baptist church I grew up in (pretty literal), I think it was taken to mean Rome, and prophetically the “Rome of the Day”, whenever that day came.

You must be logged in to post a comment.