What is the “Harlot City” in the Book of Revelation?

Today, it is generally believed that the “Harlot City” referred to in the Book of Revelation is Rome. The opulence and the prominence of the city along with the mention of the seven hills on which it rests, its persecution of Christians, and the use of euphemisms such as “Babylon” are generally presented as evidence that Rome is the wicked city.

I propose that the city is actually Jerusalem, not Rome. A more direct indication than the oblique references above occurs in Revelation 11:8, which says that it is where also their Lord was crucified, a clear reference to Jerusalem.

Let’s look at Revelation chapter 11 in context.

Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told: “Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there, but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample over the holy city for forty-two months.”

Revelation 11 opens with John being told to measure the “temple,” clearly referring to the Temple in Jerusalem (the “holy city”). The Jewish Temple had a court of the nations (Gentiles) and was the only temple rightly called the “temple of God.” The “forty-two months” is likely a reference to the duration of the Jewish War with the Romans, three and a half years.

The fact that John is instructed to measure the temple obviously presumes that there is still a temple to measure! Many scholars assume that the temple is only a symbol, not that it is really possible for John to measure the actual, physical temple. This may be so, but to me the context seems more straightforward and that the real temple is meant. If that is true, then this is evidence that Revelation was written before 70 A.D., as a growing number of scholars think tenable.

As for the court of the nations not being measured, and the Gentiles role in trampling the city, this refers to a prophesy by Jesus of Jerusalem, not Rome. Jesus prophesied that Jerusalem would fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Lk 21:24). Rome did in fact lay siege to Jerusalem under the command of Titus. On August 29th in 70 A.D., the final wall was breached and Roman soldiers poured into the temple area where they fought hand to hand with Jewish soldiers there. In his work The Jewish War (VI 4,5), Josephus points out that the Temple was destroyed by fire on the exact anniversary (9th of Ab) of its destruction by the Babylonians.

But, back to Revelation 11, where prior to this destruction we are told of two witnesses that will warn the city and call the people to faith. The witnesses can be no other than Moses and Elijah, who are themselves symbolic of the Law and the Prophets.

And I will grant my two witnesses power to prophesy for one thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands which stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours out from their mouth and consumes their foes; if anyone would harm them, thus he is doomed to be killed. They have power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to smite the earth with every plague, as often as they desire.

That these are Moses and Elijah figures is evident in their powers. One has the power to smite the land with every plague and turn the waters to blood (Moses in the Exodus). The other has the power to call down fire from Heaven and to shut the sky to prevent the rain (Elijah).

Allegorically, these two witnesses represent the Law and the Prophets and illustrate how the very Scriptures venerated by the Jewish unbelievers testify against them. The Law and the Prophets point to Jesus Christ. Of what use would such a testimony be to a pagan city such as Rome? But Jerusalem would experience shame and stand accused. As the context builds, we are surely in Jerusalem, not Rome.

Then come the key verses:

And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that ascends from the bottomless pit will make war upon them and conquer them and kill them, 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 Lord was not crucified in Rome but in Jerusalem. Thus the “great city” is unambiguously identified as Jerusalem.

Why does the text speak of Jerusalem as “Sodom and Egypt”? In fact, such terminology was common among the prophets. Here are some examples:

  1. The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah … Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! … Bring no more vain offerings; your incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure your iniquity and solemn assembly (Isa 1:1,13).
  2. For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen … they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil upon themselves (Isa 3:8-9).
  3. But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah (Jer 23:14).
  4. My people do not cry to me from the heart, they wail upon their beds; for grain and wine they gash themselves, they rebel against me … They turn to Baal; they are like a treacherous bow; their princes shall fall by the sword … Such is their derision in the land of Egypt. (Hosea 7:14-16)
  5. As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, says the Lord GOD (Ezek 20:36).

Finally, a Satanically inspired attack sees the two witnesses killed, and in what is a special ignominy in a Jewish context, the bodies are not buried:

For three days and a half, men from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them.

For the Jewish people, the burial of the dead was a fundamental work of mercy. It was unthinkable to allow even one’s enemy to remain unburied. In the book of Tobit, for example, Tobit actually risks his own life to ensure that a stranger is buried.

For all of these reasons, I argue that the “great city” of the Book of Revelation, a city doomed to destruction, is Jerusalem.

Some will argue that the seven hills the harlot is describe as riding (Rev 17:9) clearly refers to Rome. However, I contend that the use of “seven” may be as a symbol of fullness rather than as a definitive number. Mount Zion (Jerusalem) is the great mountain of the Lord, the true pole of the earth: God’s holy mountain rises in beauty, the joy of all the earth. Mount Zion, true pole of the earth, the Great King’s city! (Psalm 48:2-3)

Others may point out that the harlot is called “Babylon” later in Revelation: Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! (see Rev 18:2) Babylon was a code word for Rome among early Christians (see 1 Peter 5:13). However, this may well be said in irony. Ancient Babylon was once cursed with these words: Babylon must fall because of Israel’s slain, just as the slain in all the earth have fallen because of Babylon (Jer 51:49). So now, ironically, Jerusalem must fall because of the slain Christians.

The name of the “great city” is hidden behind many references in Revelation. In the end, though, I believe that it is clearly and unambiguously identified as Jerusalem in Revelation 11:8. It is the great city, where also their Lord was crucified. No ancient pagan city (with the possible exception of Tyre) was ever referred to as “harlot.” This term was reserved as an ironic epitaph for Jerusalem or Israel, which bore this term with special ignominy because she was espoused to God (Ezekiel 16; Jer 2:20; Is 57:8).

Of all this, some may say, “Why does this matter? Who cares about the identity of the city?”

Indeed, to some this may seem to be “inside baseball” or a debate about non-essentials, but I contend that it is an important consideration for us who live in troubled times.

Jerusalem represents the family of faith and Rome, the “outside, pagan world.” One of the saddest truths for us to ponder is that our struggle is not only or even primarily with the unbelievers around us. Tragically, our struggle often takes place within the house faith. Our opposition is too often from among our very number, people who, having heard the truth of God, accept it only selectively.

Half-hearted faith is often a worse enemy than wholehearted rejection. Jerusalem saw some conversion to Christ, to be sure, but collectively she turned on and crucified the very Messiah whom God had sent to her. Why? Because she heard and accepted only what pleased her.

Selective faith may be worse than no faith at all. Indeed, the fierce Roman opposition could be tamed, but selective faith is more subtle, more internally self-justified. It wears the garments of faith, but betrays that the deeper conversion that is required has not yet occurred.

Jerusalem or Rome? What do you think? If you disagree with my conclusion, I would be grateful if you would explain why your view should override the textual reference to the city where Jesus was crucified, for indeed that is the heart of the argument I have set forth here.

This song says, not merely of ancient Jerusalem but also of us,

Ne irascaris Domine satis,
et ne ultra memineris iniquitatis nostrae.
Ecce respice populus tuus omnes nos.
Be not angry, O Lord,
and remember our iniquity no more.
Behold, we are all your people.
Civitas sancti tui facta est deserta.
Sion deserta facta est,
Jerusalem desolata est.
Your holy city has become a wilderness.
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem has been made desolate.


23 Replies to “What is the “Harlot City” in the Book of Revelation?”

  1. I would like to draw attention to the fire that comes from the mouths of the two witnesses. (It isn’t called down from Heaven as Elijah did.) I had always understood that to be a symbol of their preaching, which their enemies could not refute.

  2. Msgr Pope,

    I have listened to several studies on the Book of Revelation (once from Dr. Scott Hahn) and it was an eye-opener and the conclusion was that the city was Jerusalem herself.

    Kind of hard to denounce that it was Jerusalem when clearly Jerusalem was where “their Lord was crucified”.

    The interesting thing about studying all this is that sometimes I wonder if Catholics have become the new Jews. The Jews had the Truth but were blinded. We Catholics have the Truth and at the same time we have been blinded especially over the last 100 years or so.

    From your Five Points above:

    1. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure your iniquity and solemn assembly (Isa 1:1,13).

    Has the USCCB become this assembly here in the states? Maybe I’m looking too much into things but there was an article that I read that stated that at the time President Obama did something that nothing else could and that was to have all the Bishops agree on an issue.

    If our shepherds can’t agree and are in contention, then what happens to the flock? I think we can see what happens to the flock.

    Please forgive my criticism of our Bishops but even Cardinal Dolan said the bishops tongues were tied because of the “Sexual Irrevolution”.

    Wasn’t Adam’s tongue tied when the serpent was talking to Eve?

    2.For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen … they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil upon themselves (Isa 3:8-9).

    We Catholics have stumbled. We have brought the destruction of the family by accepting secular teachings on the “Birth Prevention Pill” and not listening to Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae”. “Catholic” leaders proclaim sin like Sodom in supporting abortion and the false ideology of the “Sexual Irrevolution” producing it’s child of the neverending acronym: LGBTQ …

    3.But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah (Jer 23:14).

    Need I really say more how this is similar with Catholics today and just like my response above, especially “Catholic” politicians.

    4.My people do not cry to me from the heart, they wail upon their beds; for grain and wine they gash themselves, they rebel against me … They turn to Baal; they are like a treacherous bow; their princes shall fall by the sword … Such is their derision in the land of Egypt. (Hosea 7:14-16)

    Catholics have rebelled (i.e. “women priests and bishops” and the like)When will we really cry to the Lord from our hearts?

    5.As I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, says the Lord GOD (Ezek 20:36).

    We need Divine Mercy more then ever.

    Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.

    1. Darren, you make some great points. The Bible is God’s letter to us yesterday, today and tomorrow. All that is in it applies to each of us and we better be attentive. His Kingdom is here and now. We walk in the Garden at every Mass and eat the Fruit of the Tree of Life (or don’t). We stand at the foot of the cross and either Jesus sees our backs or gazes into our eyes and says, “You will be with Me in My Kingdom.” Either our worship at Mass is like the worship of Cain or the worship of Able. We repent of our sins like David or we die by our own sword as Saul. We submit to our husbands as Mary or in pride we speak with the devil. We provide and protect our wives as Joseph or fail to do so as Adam.

      We better be attentive and begin to work mighty hard at knowing, loving and serving God. It is only in striving to live in His Kingdom as His children that we will find peace in this life. But, we must be faithful in doing so. If we are faithful He will gift us with eternal happiness. We just have to be faithful to His beautiful blueprint for us.

  3. Why can’t “of Babylon” be a description of who she fornicated with rather than her geography. I.e., whore=woman=Jerusalem and Babylon=her lover=Rome. This would indicate that Jerusalem, once espoused to God, fornicated with Rome, she gave herself to Rome, she became “of” Rome. The seven hills can be Rome that she sits upon, that she rides, that does her “dirty work” in the execution of Christ, but then turns on her and destroys her. The seven kings can be Julius Daesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula (Gaius), Cloudius, Nero (one still lives), and Galba (reigned 6 months). See Dr. Brant Pitre, study guide on the subject at Catholic Productions(https://store.catholicproductions.com/products/who-is-the-whore-of-babylon?variant=&variant=16598315585) and Michael Barber, Coming Soon, Emmaus Road, 2006.

    1. I am of the opinion that the seven heads are the seven emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian and Titus. The beast has ten horns because of the seven emperors plus the three very short ones: Galba, Otho and Vitellius during the Year of the Four Emperors (A.D. 69) after Nero’s death.

      Revelation may have been started while the Temple still stood (hence 666=Nero Caesar) but I think it was finished during the reign of Domitian. Many saw Domitian as a return of Nero, so the head that “was mortally wounded yet lived again” would be Nero/Domitian.

      1. I think the 7 heads are in fact the seven herods and the 10 horns are the emperors that interacted with the seven herods. Horn=power and the emperors empowered the Herodian dynasty.

        Also I may have missed something in the thread, but I see no evidence presented for your theory about Domitian and the dating of the book. Your solution seems contrived more than evidenced

  4. I think the argument for Jerusalem makes a lot of sense. However, I also think that understanding the book of Revelation is nigh impossible with our pathetic worldly wisdom. Is it literal? Is it symbolic? Is it talking about the future or the past or both? Who are the two witnesses? Is one of them Enoch or Moses? The questions go on and on and definitive answers are not possible.

    I have read and re-read Revelation and countless books about it and only feel sure about one thing. God wins and evil loses. I guess that is the only thing that really matters in the end.

  5. I thought the harlot was a reference to Washington. 😉

    Interesting article!

  6. I have generally thought that Rome included the entire empire, and therefore Jesus died in Rome because Rome included Jerusalem and so much more.

  7. I believe it is Jerusalem as well, with a date perhaps right before or right after AD70 (say, plus or minus two years). Aside from the clues about the city itself, the fact that the number of the beast is widely believed to refer to Nero Caesar seems to warrant a date between 65-75. Nero ruled from 54 to 68, and St. John writing about him in such a fashion would seem to have not as much impact in the late 80s or early 90s. Modern liberal scholars tend to stretch the dates out as far from the 50s-70s as possible, but more and more it seems that early dates (all prior to at least AD90) can be supported for all of the New Testament.

    Furthermore, the number of Old Testament references in Revelation almost points with certainty to a Jewish author and his interest in framing the New Covenant as starting in, but expanding outside of, Jerusalem.

    Also, do we know when Rome began and stopped using Patmos as a penal colony?

    1. I think St. John referred to Nero because many believed Domitian was the Nero returned. Thus you have a beast with seven heads (Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus) and ten horns (the seven heads+ Otho, Galba and Vitellius: short lived emperors during the chaos that followed Nero’s death). Domitian and Nero would be considered the same head which “was mortally wounded yet lived again.”

      1. Rather, I think Nero is mentioned because Nero was emperor at the time of composition. I would be in the school that dates revelation prior to 70 AD

  8. Perhapse it’s an archetype in as much as an allegory.

  9. When I read scripture both old and new, I usually draw some conclusion. Especially when I come across an early Christian writer that agrees with me. I then feel pretty smug. Hey I figured this out same as this old timer. Then comes the humble pie when further reading reveals that the writer that I agreed with was later on declared a heretic. So one thing I’ve learned is this. It’s why Jesus set it up like he did the clergy teaches the laity learns. I didn’t have any understanding of these passages prior to reading your interpretation. Now when next I read it, it will be with understanding. Thank you.

  10. The harlot city has multiple meanings:

    – Rome, where the two witnesses Peter and Paul will die (1 Peter 5:13)
    – Jerusalem, where the Lord was crucified and risen (just as it says in the text)
    – every unrepentant sinner, who fall from Grace (Saint Ambroses’ On Repentance, Book 1, Chapter 9, Part 43)
    – the unrepentant followers of the Antichrist (according to the commonly held belief of the faithful)

    It does not refer to America or any modern nation, as if they are a “new Babylon” or “new Jerusalem” or “new Rome,” for the Church is the New Jerusalem.

    Nor does it mean the Church is a harlot, unrepentant, Babylonian, Roman, pagan, or judaized, for she is the Body of Christ, the spotless wife of the spotless Lamb.

    Lastly, it does not mean we can antagonize Jews or non-Christians, fellow sinners or even the Antichrist, for Jesus is a Jew, has called us non-Christians to Baptism, we sinners also still need Him, and we become antichrists if we reject Christ our Peace by antagonizing others.

    1. I’ve often wondered if the witnesses were not Peter and Paul

  11. I don’t disagree with your conclusions, but I do have a question on the two witnesses who are to return. St. Robert Bellarmine said the two would be Enoch and Elijah. Why do you think it is Moses, and not Enoch? St. Bellarmine, I believe, said that it was because Enoch and Elijah never died, but were taken up by the Lord. What are your thoughts?

    1. I have a similar question.

      I believe most of the Fathers of the Church said it would be Enoch. Most Protestants say Moses though, because no one knows where Moses is buried.

  12. Hello Msgr. Charles Pope,

    The Two Witnesses
    Only Two are authorized by God to be His Witnesses on earth, the Jewish and Catholic Churches. The Two Lamp stands, from which our Lamp, God, shines His light to the world, are the Jewish and Catholic Churches. The Two Olive Trees from which Spiritual living waters flow from heaven to man on earth are the Jewish and Catholic Churches. The ‘fire’ which comes out of their mouths, to destroy their enemies, is Catholic Anathema and Jewish Karet. Jesus swears that anyone Apostolic Successors call upon Him in heaven to bind to sin on earth, He will do so. This is a spiritual death weapon. The forty two months (1260 days) is symbolic for the period of time between the fall of Israel one in 587 B.C. till Jesus comes to Rule the world, upon victory at our future Battle of Armageddon. Jesus and the Blessed Mother have told St. Faustina to prepare the world for Jesus’ Second Coming. So the 42 months looks like it will be equivalent to about 2600 years. The huge event of Revelation and OT apocalyptic scriptures is the enthronement of Jesus as King and Ruler of the world, and it is coming soon! Jesus tells us that He is going to set His Catholic Apostles up on thrones to rule over Israel, and the world. Jesus says that His Catholic Apostles will be His ‘Witnesses’ in Jerusalem and the world. Sorry Jewish Church ‘Witnesses’, you are done; you should not have killed Jesus. God was King and Ruler over Israel from the Exodus till the fall of Israel one in 587 B.C.. God Ruled with and through His Jewish Church and Jewish kings. God pulled His Presence out of Israel and put man’s evil pride in world dominant secular power, king Nebuchadnezzar as king over Israel and the world, in 587 B.C., because of the massive sins of Israel. ‘Satan’ is symbolic for man’s evil human pride on earth, especially in secular power. Archangel Michael casting Satan out of heaven, as the Two Witnesses are called up to heaven, is indicating a power change on earth. No longer is Satan, man’s evil pride in secular power, going to rule on earth, but King of kings, Jesus Christ is going to Rule on earth, with and through His Catholic Church, the Catholic Church, using the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’. This will be the restoration of Israel where Zion is born. The Catholic Church will be the New Jerusalem; she will shine with miracles from Jesus and the nations will stream to her. Satan, (man’s evil human pride) kills the Two Witnesses. Well the Jewish Church was already killed by Satan when they crucified Jesus. Expect a fall to Satan (man’s evil human pride) of the Catholic Church. Then God blows new life into the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church goes on to Rule the world with Jesus, under Messianic Reign. Messianic Reign is the ‘golden era for mankind’ that the Blessed Mother has promised us. I say, Let Jesus Rule! Hallelujah!

    1. I am surprised how much comment the two witnesses has generated. It seems pretty clear to me that it is the Law and Prophets, i.e. God’s word as represented by Moses and Elijah. But other views are certainly permitted by the Church.

  13. Hello Msgr Pope

    Israel is the Bride of God who was discarded, by God, in Babylon, as a harlot. The Jews of today are from the House of Judah which fell in 587 B.C.. The House of Israel is dominated by Judah’s brother Joseph and his descendants are Josephites, not Jews. The House of Israel fell in 722 B.C.. The Jews maintained their lineage but the Josephites are lost in the masses and scattered to the world today. Jacob/Israel bypassed the twelve tribes of Israel and placed the ‘Blessing of Abraham’ on his grandson, Joseph’s son, Ephraim. The Blessing of Abraham is, myriads of descendants, will grow to become a multitude of nations (GEN 48:17, 41:52, Joshua 17:14), with world dominant power (GENESIS: 17:15, 22:17, 24:60, 27:29, 37:5, 41:39, REV 17:15) and great wealth (DEU 33:1). The beast the harlot is riding on is world dominant power. The heads of the beast are the dynasties of Ephraim’s descendants past and present. These heads include Greece, Rome, England, France, Spain, Germany, the United States, Russia, and more. These are the countries where Ephraim lives and dominates the world from. Ephraim Rules in the form of a multitude of nations so dynasties have multiple world dominant powers at the same time. Ephraim is, GEN 33 “The majestic bull, his father’s first-born, whose horns are those of the wild ox with which to gore the nations, even those at the ends of the earth”. Babylon was a kingdom of business men and tradesmen. Though Israel enters Babylon as conquered slaves, like Joseph in Egypt, they take over and rule symbolic Babylon today, due to their possession of the Blessing of Abraham. The fall of Babylon in the Book of Revelation is the fall of Ephraim, (his descendants) at Armageddon. ( Hos 5:9 Ephraim shall become a waste on the day of chastisement.) Ephraim is also the Prodigal son in Christ’s parable. The harlot of Babylon falls at our near future Battle of Armageddon to make way for Christ’s Kingdom Come. Jesus will Rule the earth, with and through His Church, the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is made up of people from all races and nations. Catholics, faithful to Jesus, will be the New Jerusalem and rightful heirs to Abraham, under Messianic Reign. Let Jesus Rule! Halelujah!

  14. (Different Nick from above, I’m at Nick’s Catholic Blog)

    I looked into this issue a while back and here’s what I found:

    The dating of Revelation at 96AD is based on a misreading of Irenaeus. In reality, there’s better patristic evidence for an earlier date. The Muratorian Canon written in AD150 says “the blessed Apostle Paul, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes to no more than seven churches by name“. This suggests that Revelation was the first book of the NT written, and Paul used John’s example of writing to Seven Churches (Rev 2-3) to write to Seven Churches himself (Romans, Galatians, Corinthians, et al).

    Also, St Clement of Alexandria wrote in about AD180, saying: “For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero.” This is saying the Apostles stopped teaching new things after the reign of Nero, thus before AD70.

    Now for the internal evidence that Revelation was written prior to AD70:

    (1) John quotes Jesus as saying He will return “very soon,” multiple times. This is strange if “soon” means 2,000 years plus. Instead, it makes more sense to say Jesus is going to return in terms of judgment upon Jerusalem, which fits perfectly the war of 66-70AD.

    (2) In Revelation 17:9-10, John speaks about “seven kings” on the hills of Rome, five of which have already fallen, one who is currently reigning, and one final which will reign a short time. This perfectly lines up with the Roman Emperors at that time, with Nero currently reigning (and persecuting the Church). No other list comes anywhere close to fitting this data.

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