(Rev. 17:5) What is the mystery of Babylon?

CLAIM: Commentators wonder how we should render this section of Revelation. Should we render this section in this way?

NASB: “On her forehead a name was written, a mystery, ‘Babylon the Great.’”

ESV: “On her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great.’”

NLT: “A mysterious name was written on her forehead: ‘Babylon the Great.’”

Or should it be translated as the NIV renders it?

NIV: “This title was written on her forehead: ‘Mystery Babylon the Great.’”

Is “Mystery Babylon” the title? Or is the title a mystery now revealed as Babylon? Moreover, what does this title mean?

RESPONSE: The title of this section comes from the practice of first-century prostitutes, who would wear their names on their foreheads. Johnson writes, “From the writings of Seneca and Juvenal, we know that it was the custom for Roman prostitutes to wear their names in the fillet that encircled their brows.”[1] But what was the name of this harlot?

We should prefer the NASB, ESV, and NLT on this passage: the name “Babylon” was the mystery—rather than the title “Mystery Babylon.” When the title is explained elsewhere, it just says “Babylon”—not “Mystery Babylon” (Rev. 16:19; 18:2). John is saying that this title was a mystery before, but now it is revealed.

But what does John mean by Babylon here? This is never interpreted for us, so we have to speculate. Two options are likely:

OPTION #1: Rome?

Osborne argues that Babylon is symbolic for Rome. He writes, “It was frequently used for Rome (1 Pet. 5:13; 2 Bar. 11.1; 67.7; 79.1; Sib. Or. 5.143, 159; 2 Esdr. [4 Ezra] 3:2) because like Babylon, Rome also conquered Israel and destroyed its temple as well as led the world into immorality.”[2] Moreover, the angel tells John that the woman “is the great city, which reigns over the kings of the earth” (17:15).

OPTION #2: Idolatrous religion?

Walvoord argues that Babylon is symbolic for idolatrous religion.[3] The original Babylon was Babel in Genesis 10 and 11. Here, Nimrod—an evil king—created the kingdom of Babel (Gen. 10:10), which eventually led to a one world government and religious system opposed to God (Gen. 11). Babel turned into Babylon which conquered Israel in Daniel’s day. This was a huge empire that tried for world domination. They also tried to convert Israel from worshipping God (Dan. 1-2). Similarly, Babylon at the end of history is a one world government that has a religious system opposed to God.


While Babylon is called a “city” (17:15), could more be implied? In other words, Babylon is a city, but is it merely a city? The fact that this city rules over “the kings of the earth” implies that it is the locus of the world-system.

[1] Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12: Hebrews through Revelation (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.) (556). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Osborne, Grant. Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002. 612.

[3] Walvoord, John. The Revelation of Jesus Christ. JFW Publishing Trust. Chicago, IL. 1966. 246-248.