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The originality and meaning of the city's symbolism in Rev 17-21.


Most scholars agree that the understanding of the symbolism is important in order to access the mysteries of Revelation, a book that sometimes seems codified and hermetic. Thus, a key to interpreting the book could be the hermeneutics of the symbols. However, in order to interpret the symbols, one must first clarify their origin. Some commentators state that the author would have been inspired by pagan myths or legends (Georgi 1980: 352-360). Although there are some similarities to these, the source of inspiration seems to be the Bible (Biguzzi 2005: 80-87). From the very beginning, it must be mentioned that the author has an absolutely original manner (Faraoanu 2016: 411-430) of using the data of the Scripture, particularly visible in their adaptation and transformation. According to Vanni, the symbolism of Revelation must be studied in the context of John's writing without separating it from the Book. In fact, the bulk of the Book and its internal cohesion provide the proper frame for the interpretation of the symbols (Vanni 1988: 31-32).

Along with the discourse on the origin of the symbolism, one should also look for the reasons for using the symbolic language. In the past, some scholars believed that John had used symbols in order to code the messages. Thus, they would have been unknown to persecutors, but would have been accessible to the insiders. The author, however, stated at the end of his writing: "seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book" (Revelation 22:10). In fact, the Lamb removes the seals one by one and makes God's plan known in history and eschatology (see Revelation 5-6). Moreover, Revelation itself is a book of prophecy (see Revelation 1:3-5), a book on the Word of Divine Truth to be proclaimed publicly.

At general level, the starting point of the symbolism of Apokalypse is the true meaning of some terms or concepts. However, the author passes from the literal plan to the symbolic one. This is an important change of meaning also within the linguistic system. The linguistic system used by the author of Revelation is the Koine Greek, yet his cultural environment is the Old Testament. This is the source of inspiration for many symbols (Vanni 2005: 32-33). Thus, we could identify three steps: first, the real plan; secondly, the symbolism in the Old Testament; finaly, the symbolic universe of John. The author appropiates the symbolism of the Old Testament but creates his own universe with mixed and complex elements.

Another point to be emphasized is the declared symbolism. John speaks of enigmas he proposes while calling them mysteries. He often explains them introducing the explanation with a deciphering formula, see Revelation 17:6-7: "I will explain to you the mystery of the woman, and of the seven-headed and ten-horned beast carrying her." Other times, the author interrupts the presentation of the symbol and, addressing the reader directly, warns him: "This is something to be carefully deciphered and understood" (see Revelation 13:10.18; 14:12; 17:9).

It is necessary to mention that John uses the symbol with his metareal meaning, as the ideas refer to spiritual and transcendent realities, to God's plan. Human language is often limited when it comes to expressing the heavenly and divine world. Such symbolism must also be correlated with the theological plan and the message of the book.

1. The specific of city's symbolism in Revelation

In Revelation, man is not alone, but always with others, thus showing his nature as social being. The natural place of man is the city. In the Old Testament, the city of was the center of the economic, political and cultural life; it was a place of life and relationships. The city can be considered an extension of the exodus. Actually, the tribes of Israel take possession of the land of Canaan with its cities (see Joshua 6; 8; 10; Judges 1). The term polis has about 160 ocurrences in the New Testament: almost half of them are found in Luke; 26 ocurrences in Matthew and 27 in Revelation. The meaning is: an enclosed human settlement, that is a group of people living in a community. It is highly probable that the author had in mind the Hebrew city, but completes the image with the model of the Greek city of the 1st century A.D.

As regard the Book of Revelation, the term polis sometimes appears in a literal sense, for example, when it refers to the pagan cities of the pagans that fall (16:19) or to the winepress where the wine is squeezed outside the city (17:10). Very close to this sense is the mentioning of the holy city despoiled by the hostile forces (11:2), or the symbolic figure of the prostitute city considered to be the great city of Rome (17:18). But this literal level is quickly surpassed. Even the reference to Jerusalem or Rome allows the passage from the literal to the symbolic meaning. There have been some debates caused by the interpretation of the meaning of the city in Revelation 11. W. Readers summarizes five proposals to discover the mistery of the city in Revelation 11: a) Rome; b) Jerusalem; c) the non-Messianic Judaism; d) the world of the nonbelievers; e) the Apostate Church (Reader 1981: 431-434). The city could be Rome (Lambrecht 1994: 99) since the seven occurrences of the word "the great city" refer to Babylon that is Rome (Revelation 14:8; 16:19; 17:18; 18:10,16,18,19,21). This argument could be contradicted by the discussion on and the distinction between the great Babylon and Jerusalem, the holy city. Nevertheless, the city that John has in mind could be Jerusalem (Massyngberde Ford 1980: 285-288). The thesis is supported by the description of the crucifixion of the Lord, happened in Jerusalem, and by the allusion to the temple in the beginning of chapter 11. The author doesn't talk about the historical Jerusalem, which was destroyed in the year 70 A.D. More, John not refers to a real martyrdom since isn't any historical memory of the crucifixion of martyrs in Jerusalem in the first decades of Christianity. Therefore, the city in Revelation 11 is not the old Jerusalem, but could be that type of Jerusalem that kills the prophets and crucified the Messiah.

It seems to be difficult to identify the divine city since it is spiritually (Vos 1965: 47) associated with Sodom (the symbol of sexual deviations) and Egypt (the symbol of oppression). The combination of the two realities already appeared in Amos 4:10-11. The kingdom of Judah was perceived sometimes as Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:8-15) because of idolatry. In Revelation 11, Sodom and Egypt need to be understood symbolically as a model for any city or space where testimonies are given, but also a place of rejection. The rejection of the prophets from a spiritual point of view means idolatry (Sodom) and slavery (Egypt). The combination of the three realities, Sodom, Egypt and Jerusalem, in a single city is intentional, first of all to motivate the testimony even in persecutions. Even if there is rejection (Sodom), oppression and death (Egypt), the authenticity of the testimony needs to remain constant (Bauckham 1994: 106).

From the previous reports, we conclude that the author did indeed intent to change the symbol of Jerusalem. Indeed, he adds some details (Hellenistic and universalistic) like the city square, the earth's inhabitants and the people from any tribe and nation. These universal elements, along with the invitation to interpret the city in a spiritual way, lead to the idea of an entire world seen as a symbol. The great city is the entire people of God, desecrated and soiled by his enemies (the comparison with Sodom and Egypt), but at the same time it is also the holy place of worship and testimony for the Lord. This great city could be seen as a symbol of every angle of the earth, the space of confrontation between the Messianic and the non-Messianic forces and a place where the Gospel is spread to all nations (Prigent 2000: 337).

In the last chapters of the book, the term polis refers to Jerusalem and has a symbolic meaning (Mounce 1997: 385). Jerusalem is called: new, descending from heaven, from God's area, adorned as a bride (21:2); in another presentation, the city becomes, in a symbolic way, he Bride, the Lamb's Wife (21:9), thus acquiring a human nature. The author continues his creative action: the characteristic elements of the city are presented one by one. The gates, as they open towards the four cardinal points, indicate the universality; the foundation stones of the city's walls are the 12 apostles of the Lamb (21:14). Succesively, the gates and the walls are presented by their measures. So, appears an explicit change in the meaning of the symbol. The novelty is the dimension of perfection, indicated by the cubic shape resulting from the measurement. Then, the idea of value suggested by the very expensive material: 12 gemstones and pearls, anthropomorphic symbols of God's value, present in the city. Thus, the city is not only the ordinary place of the human community, but also communion with the personal God.

1.1 Metamorphosis in the symbolism of Babylon (Revelation 17:1-18)

In the last chapters of his book, John presents two important cities in antithesis: Babylon, which is judged, and Jerusalem, the city proposed as model. In Revelation 17, the author describes a woman, the great prostitute (in Greek: porne), which has committed fornication with the kings of the earth. In Revelation 17:4-6, the starting point is the outer description: the garment displayed ostentatiously (purple and bright red, adorned with gold and precious stones); the action appears in the forefront: in the hand she has a chalice with horrors and misdeeds; then comes the presentation of the identity--the name of Babylon on the forehead; finaly, one could see the deep degradation--drunken with the blood of martyrs. At the end, in Revelation 17:18 there is a key of interpretation: "The woman you saw is the great city which has sovereignity over the kings of the earth." The author make known that the great prostitute is a city, not a woman. In fact, the name of Babylon is written on the woman's forehead (v. 5); she is burned and destroyed like a city (v. 16), and at verse 18 she is indicated as the great city (Aune 1998: 912-918).

Why is she called a prostitute? Because she was a prostitute for the kings and the earth's inhabitants, this having also a world dimension as the author mentioned that the inhabitants drank from the cup of her prostitution to intoxication. Prostitution must be understood in a metaphorical manner: idolatry, negative influences and corruption, etc. Another symbolism lies in the fact that this prostitute sits by the waters of the deep! Then, the author will mention that she stands above the Beast (v. 3), the Beast being actually a support and tool of domination (Beale 1999: 882-889).

As for the identity of the city, most of the scholars consider that it is Rome. In fact, there are enough clues in the text: a) the name Babylon attributed to Rome because it destroyed Jerusalem as the Babylonian Empire did in 587 B.C.; b) the reference to the eight kings or emperors who succeeded in Rome; c) the mention of the seven hills on which Rome is built; the allusion to the many waters, probably to Mare nostrum; d) the reference to Emperor Nero's episodes of perse-cution against the Christians; e) the battle against idolatry that found a proper environment in Rome. In this same context, one can locate John's deep dissatisfaction with the cult of the Roman Emperor.

The city is described using a wide range of attributes or images, thus reaching a complex picture; many elements lead to the power and domination of Babylon. What is the ultimate goal? It is suggested that Babylon is a fearsome enemy that did odious things. However, Babylon is not invincible.

After this analysis, we could observe a sign of metamorphosis of the symbols. The author passes from the symbolism of the woman to the symbol of the city. In the same way, there is an overturned idealization in as regard the great prostitute of 17:3-21. Thus, beauty becomes ostentatious prostitution and incitement. Being presented as the mother of all prostitutes and misdeeds of the earth, maternity appears here as an overthrown symbol. The woman's negativity also results from the fact that she, who, by her very nature is the source of life, is here 'drunken with the blood of God's holy ones' (17:6). Thus, the author takes the most significant anthropological values of the woman and overturns them to express the negativity of Babylon.

An element specific to the grammar of John's narrative is the contradiction of certain details about an episode. In Revelation 17:1, the angel promises to show John the judgment in store, but then John sees the great harlot who sitting on the scarlet Beast in verse 3 (the Beast, the type of monarch holding the power); then, in verse 9, the text states that the anguished sea actually sits on seven mountains. The same phenomenon will be encountered in the description of the New Jerusalem. The text of Revelation 21 describes the measurement of the city, of its gates and walls (v. 15), but only the city and the walls are actually measured, and not the gates. These narratives are closed, as they seem to ignore one another. By doing so, the author would suggest that the human eye only often captures the inconsistent surface of history, being unable to perceive the deep connections that connect historical events (Biguzzi 2005: 106-107).

For John, the woman-city in Revelation 17 is a symbol of the corrupt and opulent city, characterstics of the Babylon of the Old Testament. This decadent city is guilty of the prostitution (porne) with reference to idolatry, imperial cult, a lifestyle based on injustice and of the persecution, shedding of the blood of those belonging to the Lamb.

1.2 Complexity of Jerusalem's symbolism (Revelation 21:9-20)

The image of Jerusalem is frequent in the Book of Revelation. In order to describe the city of Jerusalem, the author uses the Old Testament. Indeed, there are many connections between Revelation and the Hebrew Scripture. Furthermore, the author also uses sources of Judaic apocalyptic literature revised with the Christian writings attributes (Bergmeier 1984: 87).

The main features of the city, as presented in 21:2.9-10, are: the New Jerusalem; the bride of the Lamb; the holy city; coming down from God. The New Jerusalem is, first of all, the bride of the Lamb. From a general perspective, the author alludes to a broader semantic range, using the symbol of the woman, fiance and bride. The language is undoubtedly symbolic, the fiance-bride being the people of God. The image of the bride was often used in reference to Israel in relationship to the discourse of the faithfulness to God (see Hosea 2:2-3, Jeremiah 2:1-2,1,1, Ezekiel 16:11). In Revelation, it is no longer Israel, but Jerusalem is the bride. So, one could observe a first transformation of the nuptial metaphor of the Old Testament. More, the symbol of the bride is later changed: the New Jerusalem has not a matrimonial alliance with God, but gets the bride of the Lamb.

Secondly, the New Jerusalem is defined as the holy city. Jerusalem is holy, because God, the Saint par excellence present in the city, communicates his holiness. Those who, throughout history are not guilty of idolatry and washed their clothes in the blood of the Lamb, take part in God's holiness.

Thirdly, the Jerusalem of Revelation 21 comes down from heaven (the area of transcendence), from God to a new earth. The accent falls on the descendent movement of the city, comparable to the images where ascension to heaven is not possible as heaven descends on earth. An example is the episode with the Babel Tower that presents the efforts to ascend to heaven using one's own forces.

Finally, Jerusalem is the new city (Revelation 21:2). Jerusalem is new because it goes beyond and replaces the previous heaven and earth, realities that disappeared. In Revelation, the novelty comes from Christ and his salvation that penetrates every reality and removes the old structures, inserting everything into eschatology.

In the next pages, the author presents the external features of the city, followed by the internal characterstics. The visionary contemplates the external aspects of the city as architectonic elements: the walls, the gates and the foundations (Revelation 21:12-14). These elements are not to be considered literally as they are symbols of the community in which God coexists with humanity. The vision on the external presentation of the city will be further developed by indicating its measures, drawing attention to the square shape (Revelation 21:15-17), symbol of perfection.

In the end, Revelation 21:18-21 focuses on the precious materials used for the gates and foundations, in order to reveal the invaluable significance of the people-city. The eschatological Jerusalem, the community of the redeemed, is presented from the outside, highlighting primarily the terrestrial aspects: the walls, the gates, the foundations and the materials these are composed of. Apart from these, there are also divine aspects related to the presence of God: the glory, the holiness and the perfection given by divinity. The New Jerusalem is thus a divine and human city, a community in which all people are invited to participate.

It is highly probable that the external description of the New Jerusalem also has the function of creating an antithetical parallelism with Babylon. The emphasis is on the antithesis between the two cities. Babylon, a terrestrial and historic city, is associated with the Beast (Revelation 17:3), while the New Jerusalem, a heavenly and eschatological city, is associated with the Lamb (Revelation 21:9-10). Babylon is the prostitute (Revelation 17:2), while the New Jerusalem is the bride (Revelation 21:2.9). Finally, the clothes and jewels of the prostitute (Revelation 17:3-4, 18:16) are in contrast with those of the Lamb's fiance (Revelation 19:7, 21:11.18-21) (Deutsch 1987: 107-126). The antithesis created could be the result of a rhetorical intent. The visual impression produced by the architecture and art developed by the Roman imperial power (temples, sumptuous buildings, works of art) is counterbalanced here by the image of the new Heavenly Jerusalem, full of splendor, perfection and absolute preciousness. The author offers the vision of a world presented from divine perspective and in harmony with God's plan. Hence, the invitation made to Christians to leave Babylon, delimitating themselves from the imperial cult, and turning to the future Jerusalem, the ideal city with the divinity at its heart, to which access is direct. This idealized city is, at the same time, the symbol of a community that ensures perfect security to its citizens.

2. The originality and meaning of the city's symbol in Revelation

Symbols represented a way of transmitting messages in the apocalyptic literature, yet John stands out due to the original way he uses such symbols (Gundry 1987: 263-264). It is highly probable that the main reason for the use of symbolism resides in the richness and quality of the symbolic language. This language is first of all universal; it applies not only to a particular episode, but to any similar situation of any time. Secondly, symbolic language is more appropriate to describe ineffable realities. The heavenly or supernatural world can be better represented through symbols. Finally, symbolism stimulates readers to approach the symbol to identify the meanings. Sometimes, it is the very author that invites the reader to pay attention: "Let him who has ears heed the Spirit's word to the churches" (see Revelation 2:7,11, 17,29) (Biguzzi 2005: 43).

As regard the originality of symbols, an important question is the manner of usage of the Old Testament texts. The old testamentary elements are transformed (Babylon is now an oppressive and opulent empire) and enriched (Jerusalem is presented with new attributes: the heavenly city, the bride, etc.). These changes are based on the new exodus and the absolute novelty offered by Christ. Secondly, the original elements must be correlated to John's artistic genius demonstrated especially in the elaboration of complex and special images. Thirdly, it is appropriate to correlate originality with the theological and exhortative intentions, expressed through the urges to perseverance and fidelity. Thus, we can also identify a solution to the motivation of the creative symbolism in the Revelation.

2.1 The metamorphosis of the city's symbol

The author creates various metamorphoses. There is a transition from the image of the city to the symbol of the woman, and vice-versa: the anguished sea of 17:1 becomes the great Babylon in 17:5. There is another metamorphosis in 17:16 where the end of the prostitute-city is described using two actions specific to a human being and two aspects specific to a city. Another metamorphosis is present in Revelation 21:9-10: The Lamb's Fiance/Bride becomes the heavenly city.

In this respect, a first direction would be the transformation of the original symbol. Thus, from a real plan, the author passes to the perspective of the Bible, usually the features of the symbol in the Old Testament. Finaly, the symbol is introduced in the complex symbolic universe created by John. The symbolic elements are borrowed from the symbolic world of the Bible. John's mind and imagination were probably dominated by the concepts and ideas of the Holy Scripture. He shares this world of the Bible with the readers of his writing. It is assumed that the recipients were familiarized with the Holy Scripture, considering that the author of the Revelation does not indicate the sources of the quotations. Most often, his quotations are just allusions to the biblical fragments that his interlocutors would have known.

Another direction refers to the changes in the symbolic image throughout the book. From Jerusalem of Revelation 3:12 to the city of my God coming down from God in Revelation 21. Revelation 11 and 14 contain mere allusions to the holy city while, the attributes of Jerusalem are complemented by the characteristic of holiness and the nuptial metaphor in Revelation 21:1-10. This is the context for the merger of several inspirational sources that lead to creative images. As for the hermeneutic function of the metamorphosis in John's book, this allows to capture the complexity of events, as well as the evolution and development of history towards the purpose set by God. In this context, the eschatological tension is relevant. Thus, it can be stated that the city is considered as having an eschatological meaning, alluding to the afterlife. However, one must not forget that escathology is in line with history. In fact, preparation is needed throughout the historical existence. In this context, the author also presents the manner of preparation: consistent righteous deeds are necessary in order to enter the New Jerusalem, after having previously won the final battle with the forces of evil.

2.2 The complexity of city's images

The Book of Revelation is fullfiled of the mixed and complex images inspirated from the Old Testament. Some images have a strong visual impact: the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Babylon. They are characterised by the combination of chromatic, anthropological and other symbols. One could speak of the integration of symbols into the complex images created by John: thus, along with the idea of the city, other aspects relating to man and his life are present. This way, the so-called descriptive songs (Beschreibungslied) are present: a mosaic with varied and complex elements. This is an indication of John's creative genius, and, as well signals to capture the readers' attention. Regarding the specific purpose of these songs, these are intended to convey something. This accounts for the clues for the identification and interpretation of the negative or positive characters (Biguzzi 2004: 105).

John thus creates a world of his own, beyond the usual logic and experience; a world of rules, protagonists, and scenarios without parallelisms. Such examples can be found in Revelation 17 that states that the anguished sea is drunken with the blood of the saints and martyrs of Jesus (Revelation 17:6). However, blood is not alcoholic; then, the act of getting drunk indicates here a fierce attitude as regards the victims. Another example can be found in Revelation 21: every gate of the holy city is a precious pearl. This is a hyperbole as there are no pearls as big as that; the message refers to the inestimable value of the city. This world can be defined as being surreal. But, beyond the metaphoric dimension, the purpose of the oneiric world is prophetic and revelatory. All tend to new heavens and new earth, realities that God creates and which He will lead to fulfillment in eschatology.

The originality is also obvious in the paradoxes presented (the Lamb's wedding), expressive exoticisms ('I will give the morning star'), the disconcerting narrative grammar (the funereal lamentations on Babylon, before addressing its defeat in Revelation 18), etc. Symbolism has a logic specific to John, a logic where symbols still preserve a meaning and purpose.

Such use of symbols confirms the originality of the author of Revelation, whose literary and artistic talent is undeniable by the creation of surprising images, as well as by the development of a symbolic universe of unfathomable wealth. One must not exclude John's creative genius capable of creating surprising pages.

2.3 The theological meaning and exhortative function of the city's symbolism

We have to keep in mind the theological interpretation of the symbols. The city of Revelation acquires a spiritual or surreal symbolism. The starting point could be the literal level: the city as a space of human cohabitation. Yet, in Revelation, the function and role of the city are changed. The symbol of the city is related to God (theology), Christ (Christology) and Church (ecclesiology). Babylon is the city that competes with God's sovereignty over history. In spite of its power, the great city will be defeated and destroyed.

From a Christological perspective, it is useful to emphasize the dimension of the novelty brought by Christ. Everything that is new comes from Christ and from his redeeming sacrifice. Babylon disappears and a New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, a city penetrated by the renewal brought by the sacrifice and Resurrection of Christ.

Based on these premises, we can state that the city also has an ecclesiological dimension, relating to the people of God. They must come before the Lord with a certain type of clothing: pure and white clothes, symbol of the righteous deeds that allow the celebration of the eschatological wedding. The city eventually becomes the symbol of a community that gathers before the throne, indicating the worship before God and the Lamb. Thus, we can also note a qualitative change: the city no longer remains a simple space of human cohabitation, as it becomes a community of worshipers who live together with the divinity.

The last note takes into account the exhortative dimension. Since readers are asked to interpret, the images and symbols are intended to capture their attention, to surprise and exhort. On the one hand, there is a warning against the danger of persecution or idolatry. In this regard, the clothes should remain clean, should be washed. Purity refers in particular to the absence of contamination with idolatry. In the same line, John warns that red, a negative symbol must be avoided. In fact, Babylon is the prostitute dressed in red and purple clothes. On the other hand, there is the positive exhortation: John proposes an attractive image, namely the perspective of the New Jerusalem: Christians must come together with the forces of good (Mathewson 2003: 174-175. To fulfill this purpose, fidelity is necessary as condition to take part in the resurrection and receive the final reward that exceeds any expectation.


John is a master in the art of symbolism. He uses a wide range of symbols and creates unprecedented, surprising images. Is symbolic language still valid? The world we live in has other categories to express itself. In addition, the symbolic universe of contemporary culture is different and less inspired from the Scripture. Nevertheless, some ideas in John's symbolic world could be borrowed and translated into art, cinematography or other areas or used to describe the ineffable of the divine world.

The author of the Book of Revelation is remarkable eith the originality of the symbols and their integration into a system. John's genius and the logic of his symbolic universe can be eloquent even nowadays. Christianity should be presented as a system of values that needs our fidelity. John's constant appeal regards the very uncompromising fidelity in front of persecution and idolatry.

Finaly we could propose a better usage of the city. The city is the space of human cohabitation, but it should be more the environment for the development of vertical and horizontal authentic relationships, as well as the place where the fundamental values of humanity are cultivated: life and love together God and the Lamb.

Author Contributions

The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and approved it for publication.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


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Iulian Faraoanu, PhD. Reverend Associate Professor, Faculty of Catholic Theology. Alexandru Ioan Cuza University. Iasi, Romania;
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Title Annotation:Book of Revelation
Author:Faraoanu, Iulian
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EXRO
Date:Jun 22, 2019
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