An Early Church Perspective on Revelation 17 (Part 1)
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Among the more controversial chapters in the Bible is Revelation chapter 17, which describes a woman named mystery Babylon and a beast that she rides upon. There are numerous explanations being taught today concerning this chapter – some of them are older while others are relatively new. In this two-part series, we want to examine the early church perspective on Revelation 17.
In this first part, we want to review a series of quotes from early church writers. How did the early Christians view this passage of Scripture?
Hippolytus (180-230 AD)
“Tell me, blessed John, Apostle and disciple of the Lord, what did thou see and hear concerning Babylon? Arise, and speak; for it sent thee also into banishment” (Treatise on Christ and Anti-Christ, Section 36).
Tertullian (155/160-220 AD)
“So, again, Babylon, in our own John, is a figure of the city Rome, as being equally great and proud of her sway, and triumphant over the saints” (Answer to the Jews, 9).
“By a similar usage Babylon also in our St. John is a figure of the city of Rome, as being like (Babylon) great and proud in royal power, and warring down the saints of God” (Against Marcion, 3.13)
Victorinus (270s-280s AD)
“Therefore in the trumpets and phials Is signified either the desolation of the plagues that are sent upon the earth, or the madness of Anti-Christ himself, or the cutting off of the peoples, or the diversity of the plagues, or the hope in the kingdom of the saints, or the ruin of states, or the great overthrow of Babylon, that is, the Roman state…” (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 17.2).
“‘the seven heads are the seven hills, on which the woman sits’ – That is, the city of Rome” (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 17.9).
Eusebius (260-340 AD)
“And Peter makes mention of Mark in his first epistle which they say that he wrote in Rome itself, as is indicated by him, when he calls the city, by a figure, Babylon, as he does in the following words: ‘The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, salutes you; and so does Marcus my son’” (Church History, 2.15).
Augustine (354-430 AD)
“In Assyria, therefore, the dominion of the impious city had the pre-eminence. Its head was Babylon – an earth-born city, most fitly named, for it means confusion. There Ninus reigned after the death of his father Belus, who first had reigned there sixty-five years. His son, Ninus, who on his father’s death, succeeded to the kingdom, reigned fifty-two years, and had been king forty-three years when Abraham was born, which was about the 1200th year before Rome was founded, as it were another Babylon in the west.” (The City of God, 16.17)
“…where it is needful, to mention the Assyrian kings, that it may appear how Babylon, like a first Rome, ran its course along with the city of God, which is a stranger in this world. But the things proper for insertion in this work in comparing the two cities, that is, the earthly and heavenly, ought to be taken mostly from the Greek and Latin Kingdoms, where Rome herself in like a second Babylon…” (The City of God, 18.2)
“To be brief, the city of Rome was rounded, like another Babylon, and as it were the daughter of the former Babylon, by which God was pleased to conquer the whole world, and subdue it far and wide by bringing it into one fellowship of government and laws” (The City of God, 18.22).
These quotes seem to be unanimous in their view that the woman of Babylon was the city of Rome. Indeed, the woman is described as a great city which influenced many people in John’s day (Rev. 17:1, 15, 18). Hippolytus made an indirect reference to the city when he referred to John’s banishment. Early Church writers understood that he was banished to the isle of Patmos by Roman authorities.
Tertullian and Victorinus made direct references to the woman as the city of Rome. Tertullian compared the pride of Babylon with that of Rome. Victorinus linked the seven mountains from Revelation 17 to the seven mountains that the city of Rome was built upon.
Eusebius also links the city of Rome to the Whore of Babylon. In the quote we used from him, he claimed that Peter’s reference to Babylon in I Peter 5:13 was symbolic language which referred to Rome. Augustine’s three quotes provide another unique perspective. He called Rome ‘the Babylon of the west’ and then called Babylon the first Rome!
Early Church writers seemed to be convinced that the Whore of Babylon was indeed the city of Rome and its government.
In the second part of this series, we will examine why they held this view. Moreover, we will examine what Roman historians said about the city of Rome and compare it to Revelation17 and 18.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org