Babylon in the New Testament

Babylon Babulon, is used in New Testament in at least two different senses:

1. Mesopotamian Babylon:

In Mt 1:11-12,17; Ac 7:43 the old Mesop city is plainly meant. These all refer to the captivity in Babylon and do not demand any further discussion.

2. Symbolic Sense:

All the references to Babylon in Rev are evidently symbolic. Some of the most important passages are Re 1:1; 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2,10,21. In Re 1:1; 17:5 Babylon is designated as musterion. This undoubtedly in dicates that the name is to be under stood figuratively. A few interpreters have believed that Jerusalem was the city that was designated as Babylon, but most scholars hold that Rome was the city that was meant. That interpretation goes back at least to the time of Tertullian (Adv. Marc., iii. 13). This interpretation was adopted by Jerome and Augustine and has been commonly accepted by the church. There are some striking facts which point to Rome as the city that is designated as Babylon.

(1) The characteristics ascribed to this Babylon apply to Rome rather than to any other city of that age: (a) as ruling over the kings of the earth (Re 17:18); (b) as sitting on seven mountains (Re 17:9); (c) as the center of the world's merchandise (Re 18:3,11-13); (d) as the corrupter of the nations (Re 17:2; 18:3; 19:2); (e) as the persecutor of the saints (Re 17:6).

(2) Rome is designated as Babylon in the Sibylline Oracles (5 143), and this is perhaps an early Jewish portion of the book. The comparison of Rome to Babylon is common in Jewish apocalyptic literature (see 2 Esdras and the Apocrypha Baruch).

(3) Rome was regarded by both Jews and Christians as being antagonistic to the kingdom of God, and its downfall was confidently expected, This conception is in accord with the predicted downfall of Babylon (Re 14:8; 18:2,10-21). As Babylon had been the oppressor of Israel, it was natural that this new power, which was oppressing the people of God, should be designated as Babylon.

3. In 1 Peter:

In 5:13 Babylon is designated as the place from which 1 Pet was written. Down to the time of the Reformation this was generally under stood to mean Rome, and two cursives added "en Roma." Since the Reformation, many scholars have followed Erasmus and Calvin and have urged that the Mesopotamian Babylon is meant. Three theories should be noted:

(1) That the Egyptian Babylon, or Old Cairo; is meant. Strabo (XVII, 807) who wrote as late as 18 AD, says the Egyptian Babylon was a strong fortress founded by certain refugees from the Mesop Babylon. But during the 1st century this was not much more than a military station, and it is quite improbable that Peter would have gone there. There is no tradition that connects Peter' in any way with Egypt.

(2) That the statement is to be taken literally and that the Mesop Babylon is meant. Many good scholars hold to this view, and among these are Weiss and Thayer, but there is no evidence that Peter was ever in Babylon, or that there was even a church there during the 1st century. Mark and Silvanus are associated with Peter in the letter and there is no tradition that connects either of them with Babylon. According to Josephus (Antiquities, XVIII, ix, 5-9), the Jews at this time had largely been driven out of Babylon and were confined to neighboring towns, and it seems improbable that Peter would have made that his missionary field.

(3) That Rome was the city that was designated as Babylon. The Apocalypse would indicate that the churches would understand the symbolic reference, and it seems to have been so understood until the time of the Reformation. The denial of this position was in line with the effort to refute Peter's supposed connection with the Roman church. Ancient tradition, however, makes it seem quite probable that Peter did make a visit to Rome (see Lightfoot, Clement,II , 493 ff).

Internal evidence helps to substantiate theory that Rome was the place from which the letter was written. Mark sends greetings (1 Pet 15:13), and we know he had been summoned to Rome by the apostle Paul (2Ti 4:11). The whole passage, "She that is in Babylon, elect together with you, saluteth you," seems to be figurative, and that being true, it is natural that Babylon should have been used instead of Rome. The character of the letter as a whole would point to Rome as the place of writing. Ramsay thinks this book is impregnated with Roman thought beyond any other book in the Bible (see The Church in the Roman Empire, 286).

A.W. Fortune

 
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