A close look at what the Bible says
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: “I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names…and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots…” (vv. 3-5).
They point to two main verses to “prove” that the woman (the harlot) is 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.” Wow. Open and shut case, right? Well, not so fast.
I’m going to make the case, using just the Bible, as to why I believe the harlot of Babylon is not the Catholic Church, but rather the city of Jerusalem. Let’s look a little more closely at some of these verses from Revelation 17.
Revelation 17:1, “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. The relationship between God and Israel is frequently 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.
Revelation 17:3, “…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. But, if Rome is the beast, then that “proves” the woman sitting on the beast is the Catholic Church, right? Again, 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.” Let’s think about that. 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.” Sorry, but there are a few 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!
Jerusalem, however, as the capital city of God’s Chosen People, which just so happened at one point to have within its walls the Temple of Solomon and the Holy of Holies, and which was the seat of the line of David – the line from which the King of kings and Lord of lords was to come – did indeed have dominion over the kings of the earth.
Revelation 17:6, “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.
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!) If, though, 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.
One more major point to make, and this one pretty much seals the deal. The Bible tells us that the harlot of Babylon is a city, not a church. In fact, the harlot of Babylon is referred to as the “great city,” in Revelation 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.” The “great city” is where the Lord was crucified. Now, I could be wrong, but wasn’t the Lord crucified in Jerusalem? So, is the “great city” Jerusalem in Revelation 11, but then all of a sudden it becomes Rome in Rev 17? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
So it seems that there is a very strong scriptural case for Jerusalem being the harlot of Babylon, while there is very little evidence for it being the Catholic Church. So, for folks who go by the Bible alone, and who believe the Catholic Church is the harlot of Babylon, I think they need to look at their Bibles a little more carefully.
John Martignoniis a nationally-known Catholic apologist and Bible scholar. He is the Founder and President of the Bible Christian Society, where you can find lots of free apologetics materials — CD’s, mp3 downloads, e-newsletters, and more, and host of EWTN’s “Open Line” airing on Mondays at 3 p.m. EST. He is also Director of the Office of the New Evangelization in the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama.