Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Of Biblical, Historical, Geographical,
and Statistical Illiteracy

George Berkeley once said that "truth is the cry of many but the game of few." The same could very well be said of people who take pride in their reputation of being Biblically literate.

I was in Italy recently, and got to see firsthand the city of Rome. When I returned home, I stumbled across a story posted by a Dominican friar on the Internet in which he was accosted by someone who asked whether he'd read Revelation 17 recently. The insinuation, of course, was obvious: That the Catholic Church fits the description found of "the harlot" in Revelation 13 and 17. In this brief post I intend to demonstrate why this interpretation is not only based upon a sloppy reading of the Sacred Page but also founded upon an ignorance of geography, history, and statistics.

The idea that the harlot spoken of in Rev 17 is the Catholic Church became popular with Martin Luther. But equivocations differ: some say that the popes are the "seven kings"; others say that he is "the beast." At this point the metaphor becomes confused: who rides upon whom? The pope upon the Church? The Church upon the pope?

The idea, or confusion, is still popular. Several denominations publish this idea in their official handbooks of doctrine. The late Jack Chick of Chick Publications is perhaps its most famous propagandist. But as we will see, it is insurmountably difficult to sustain such an interpretation of Rev 17 (and 13).

The basic motif in Rev 17 is found in v. 3, "...a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and ti had seven heads and seven horns." Later, in v. 9, we read that "the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated" (RSV). The Greek noun translated as "mountains" here, or
ē, is derived from oros which can be translated either "mountain," "mount," or "hill" (cf. W. C. Trenchard, A Concise Dictionary of New Testament Greek [New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003], 114). In fact the NIV translates this precisely as "The seven heads are the seven hills on which the woman sits."

(We might add that, if one wants to be literalist about Rev 17:3, one would have to find, exactly, a city with seven mountains instead of hills--especially if one is a "King James Only believer.")

What locale fits the description of "the seven hills"? Rome, of course, does: it is famously known as "the City of the Seven Hills"--with the Aventine Hill, the Caelian Hill, the Capitoline Hill, the Esquiline Hill, the Palatine Hill, the Quirinal Hill, and the Viminal Hill. This is where anti-Catholics get lost--I have yet to meet one who interprets Rev 17 as referring to the Catholic Church and can name the Seven Hills of Rome.

At this point, it is difficult to see how the Catholic Church is referenced here.

In the first place, St Peter's Basilica sits on the Vatican Hill, which is not even counted among the "Seven Hills of Rome." To make matters worse, St Peter's Basilica sits on the west side of the Tiber River; when the Revelation to John was composed, the City of Rome extended only to the east bank of the Tiber River. In point of fact, what is now "Vatican City" does not even coincide with the old city of Rome, which can be said to have two sets of boundaries. Originally, the Servian Wall surrounded the city in the fourth century B.C. and later expanded with the Aurelian Wall, constructed in the third century A.D.

But it gets worse.

St Peter's Basilica is not even the head of Catholic Christendom, it's the Lateran Basilica and it does sit on a hill--the Lateran Hill which, again, is not one of the Seven Hills of Rome. The Lateran Basilica--which is properly called the "Papal Archbasilica of the Most Holy Saviour"--is situated between the Esquiline and the Caelian Hills.

It is even harder to see how we can square the number "seven" with the Church of Rome. There are indeed "patriarchial basilicas" in Rome where the pope has the title to--but there are only five of them. In addition to the Vatican and Lateran Basilicas, there is also Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major), San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul Outside-the-Walls) and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura (St Lawrence Outside-the-Walls). As you can see, two additional patriarchal basilicas are outside the boundaries of old Rome.

There are a few more difficulties with the equivocation of Rev 17 and the Catholic Church.

Rome wasn't always the site of the papal curia. Several times throughout its history, the popes resided in other cities, especially Orvieto, Viterbo, and Avignon, which isn't even on the periphery of Rome.

And then, of course, we have the "seven kings" (vv. 10-12), one of whom was dealt a "mortal wound" (Rev 13:14). These "seven kings" have often been referred to as popes, but since Pope Benedict XVI is number two hundred sixty-five in the papal succession, it is difficult to see how 10 can equal 265.

Moreover, "the woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth." The Catholic Church, obviously, is not a city. It is, well, a Church.

What can I say now? Probably none other than what can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church under the entry "Antichrist": "...the identification of the Pope with the Antichrist has been frequently made, especially in the less educated circles of Protestantism" ([New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997], 76).

And good riddance, since the word "antichrist" is nowhere to be found in the book of Revelation.

For further reading: http://www.catholic.com/library/Hunting_the_Whore_of_Babylon.asp
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