Babylon, Destroyer of the Temple

Revelation 14,16-19

In the Book of the Revelation, the author John identifies one of the chief antagonists of his visions as a 'great city' which he calls 'Babylon'. Given the immense symbolism of the book, it seems evident that he is using the name 'Babylon' as some sort of metaphor. While many various guesses are based on pure whim, the simple fact is that the true identity of 'Babylon' would have been obvious to any reader with a Judean background (as John's original, contemporary audience was at least partly comprised of Judean followers of Jesus).

In 587 BC, the historical kingdom of Babylon, under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, conquered the kingdom of Judah, occupied their capital Jerusalem, and destroyed the city's temple. Many of the Judeans (particularly the nobility and 'upper class') were deported back to the land of their conquerors. When this Babylonian Exile came to an end, the Judeans returned to their homeland and began a reconstruction of Jerusalem. This included building a second temple.

Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon's destruction of the first temple stuck in Judean memory. For example, the Book of Daniel uses Nebuchadnezzar/Babylon as a parallel to Antiochus Epiphanes, who attacked Jerusalem and desecrated the second temple in 167 BC.

When we come to the first century AD, the Roman Empire occupies the land of Judah and tensions are rising. At first there are a few skirmishes and attempts at revolt, but by AD 66 the fire of rebellion has erupted, and Emperor Nero declares war on the Judean people. After roughly three and a half years of fighting, Roman forces successfully overthrow Jerusalem and destroy the second temple in AD 70.

It didn't take long for Judeo-Christian sentiment to make the connection between Rome and ancient Babylon.

1 Peter 5.13

c AD 85-95

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise elect, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.

Widespread testimony of early church writers is that Peter spent his later years in Rome. It is implied first in 1 Clement, a letter written circa AD 85-95. First Peter was not written by Peter, but a later author impersonating his name, about the same period as 1 Clement. Following this tradition that Peter went to Rome, the author identifies Rome as 'Babylon'.

Revelation 17.3,5-6,9,18

c AD 90-95

I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. … and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: 'Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth's abominations.' And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. … 'This calls for a mind that has wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated. … The woman you saw is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.'

Babylon is 'the great city' that rules over the whole world, seated on 'seven hills', and accuses the city of persecuting Christians. This is a perfectly accurate and succinct way of describing Rome in the late first century.

4 Ezra 3.1-2,28-31

c AD 90-100

In the thirtieth year after the destruction of the city, I was in Babylon — I, Salathiel, who am also called Ezra. I was troubled as I lay on my bed, and my thoughts welled up in my heart, because I saw the desolation of Zion and the wealth of those who lived in Babylon. … 'Then I said in my heart, Are the deeds of those who inhabit Babylon any better? Is that why it has gained dominion over Zion? For when I came here I saw ungodly deeds without number, and my soul has seen many sinners during these thirty years. And my heart failed me, because I have seen how you endure those who sin, and have spared those who act wickedly, and have destroyed your people, and protected your enemies, and have not shown to anyone how your way may be comprehended. Are the deeds of Babylon better than those of Zion?'

The author ('Salathiel' may be his real name) casts himself in the role of Ezra, which enables him to compare Rome to 'Babylon' in light of the recent destruction of Jerusalem ('Zion'). The historical Ezra was active more than a century after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem; this 'Ezra' is instead active in 'the thirtieth year' after Jerusalem was destroyed, i.e. thirty years after AD 70.

2 Baruch 10.1-3, 11.1-3

c AD 100-120

And it happened after seven days that the word of God came to me and said to me, 'Tell Jeremiah to depart, in order to support the exiles to Babylon. You, however, remain here amid the desolation of Zion, and I shall show you, after these days, what will happen at the end of days.'
'Now I, Baruch, say this to you, O Babylon: "If you had prospered and if Zion had lived in her glory, it would have been a great sorrow to us that you had been equal to Zion. But now, behold, the grief is unending and the lamentation is immeasurable, for, behold, you are prosperous and Zion desolate. Who will be judge over these things? Or to whom shall we complain about what has befallen us?"'

Similar to 4 Ezra, the anonymous author uses the Babylonian exile as a literary device. He casts himself in the role of the prophet Jeremiah's comrade Baruch, in order to reflect upon the recent destruction of Jerusalem by Rome.

Sibylline Oracles 5.180-201

c AD 130-160

When out of Italy a mighty king of mighty Rome shall smite the isthmus' neck, a godlike man, whom they say Jove himself and honored Juno bore, who, courting praise for his sweet songs with a melodious voice, will with the wretched mother many slay. From Babylon shall flee the fearful king and shameless, whom all mortals justly hate; for he slew many, and laid violent hands upon the womb; against his wife he sinned, and of flagitious parents was he born. But he will come unto the Medes and kings of Persia whom he first sought, and for whom he wrought renown, and, with these wicked ones, will lurk against a nation not beloved. He seized the God-made temple, and he burned the citizens and people going in, who have been justly eulogized in song.

The Sibylline Oracles, written over the course of about two or three centuries, contain various Judeo-Christian prophecies. Most of the passages are easily dated by their references to contemporaneous historical events. Book 5 pays special attention to the Roman Emperors. The section above clearly focuses on Emperor Nero: he was 'king' of Rome, he attempted to dig a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, he was a singer, he killed his mother, he killed his pregnant wife, he was the one who declared war on the revolutionaries in Judah, and thus he was blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem's temple. In the process of describing Nero's horrible rule, the author identifies Rome as 'Babylon'.