There are no shortage of mysteries within the Book of Revelation, particularly as things pertain to its numerous symbolic figures. I have written elsewhere about the “Beasts” of Revelation 13, as well as the enigmatic “Mark of the Beast.” Here, I would like to make some informed speculation about the identity of the “Great Harlot” of Revelation 17.
Can this figure be known, or can we at least find a likely candidate based on the textual clues?
I believe so, but it will take some unpacking.
The Harlot of History
Whenever discussing most (though not all) aspects of biblical prophecy, it’s important to understand that the subject being evaluated must have had meaning to the original audience. In this case, that means that the Harlot figure had bearing on the lives of those hearing Revelation read aloud in their worshipping communities, near AD 100.
This critical point can lead us to uncovering who the Great Harlot may have been, in an historical sense.
One of the most ignored aspects of Revelation—and perhaps the main reason why the book is often so misunderstood—is that its author drew heavily upon the Old Testament, especially the Major Prophets. In my article about Revelation 13, I discussed the fact that the “Mark of the Beast” can only truly be understood in light of the Shema; that is, the head and the right hand are almost certainly symbols pertaining to giving one’s will and actions over to Satan.
Just as believers are marked with the “Seal of God” (7:3), the unrepentant are marked with the “Mark of the Beast” (13:16).
With that said, I believe that the Great Harlot has a similar OT parallel, and it is found in Ezekiel 16. When this chapter is read alongside of Revelation 17, the similarities literally jump off the page.
On twelve separate occasions within Ezekiel 16 alone, God calls Jerusalem a harlot (zanah). This is sometimes translated instead as “prostitute,” as is the term used for harlot (porné) in Revelation 17. Clearly, it’s the same idea being expressed; Jerusalem—encompassing God’s people, here—had continuously betrayed her Husband by fornicating with many other lovers.
She had chosen to be unfaithful to God, so that she could passionately entertain the many false gods of the surrounding pagan world.
“But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his . . . At every street corner you built your lofty shrines and degraded your beauty, spreading your legs with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by . . . You adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband!”
This is just a few verses of the sexual carnage displayed by the people of Jerusalem, and the entire chapter of Ezekiel 16 reads in much the same way. In fact, both the Major and Minor Prophets consistently referred to the Jewish nation as an adulterous whore. (Their words, not mine!)
With that said, let’s now consider what is revealed in Revelation 17 about the Great Harlot. We know from the text that the Harlot John saw was “sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns” (17:3b.) This beast was previously depicted in Revelation 13 and, as I describe in this blog, it corresponds with the creature in Daniel 7:7-8. That said, this terrible beast is almost universally (and rightly, I think) recognized by biblical scholars as symbolizing the Roman Empire.
So, the Harlot—whoever she was—acted in coordination with the Roman Empire. She was even clothed in purple and scarlet and was adorned with luxurious items (17:4), thus showing that she shared in the vast wealth of the empire.
We are also told the Harlot was “drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (17:6). This is extremely telling. This means, without question, that the Harlot joined with Caesar in martyring the saints. That is, she put Christ’s followers to death.
Now, who on earth could this mysterious figure be? She is steeped in riches, works in conjunction with the Roman Empire, and even persecutes God’s holy people.
Yet again, we arrive at the same conclusion: the Harlot is none other than Jerusalem.
In the first century, the Jewish authorities joined with the Roman Empire—prompted them, really—to murder Jesus, their King. And what did they say when Pilate tried to dissuade them?
“They cried out, ‘Away with him, away with him, crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar” (Jn. 19:15).
Further, Jesus made their allegiance to murdering God’s people plain during his ministry:
“Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Lk. 13:33).
Elsewhere, Jesus followed up with this theme:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Mt. 23:37)!
This was even the exact point of Jesus’ Parable of the Tenants (Mt. 21:33-46), wherein the chief priests and Pharisees are prophesied as those who murder God’s servants and, ultimately, His Son.
To compound the matter, we also know that it is wholly appropriate to refer to Israel—Jerusalem, in this case—as a woman. In fact, both Israel and the church are referred to as “women.” Revelation 12 points to a good and virtuous woman who is the opposite of the Harlot in chapter 17. The good woman gives birth to the Messiah, while the evil woman effectively puts him to death.
In essence, this represents both the holy nature of Israel as God’s chosen nation and the unholy nature of the corrupt Jewish leadership. This is eerily comparable to the Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly contrast that exists within the Wisdom texts, especially Proverbs.
Another clue within the text is so difficult to detect that one can hardly be blamed for missing it. We are told in 17:6 that John not only “marveled” but “marveled with great admiration” at what he was seeing with the Great Harlot (17:6-7). In other words, this particular vison blew John’s mind! This is remarkable, since John had previously seen visions of beasts emerging from the land and sea (ch. 13), armies of locust men (9:7), and angels pouring bowls of wrath onto the world (ch. 16)!
No, something about this vision startled John more than the others. Could it be because he saw that it was Jerusalem—not any number of the wicked cities described within the OT—that was so thoroughly corrupt?
If this interpretation seems difficult to swallow, then let me assure you that I was not comfortable with it at first, either. I’m still not, for that matter. However, all roads seem to lead to the Harlot of Rome and I see little way around it.
In conclusion, can I—in good conscience—tell you that the Great Harlot is indeed a reference to Jerusalem and the corrupt Jewish leaders of the day? No; of course not.
What I can say is that the shoe fits, and that it fits rather comfortably.
Teaser: The Harlot of the Present/Future?
With all that was previously said, one important question remains: If Jerusalem truly is the Harlot of Revelation 17, was she the final manifestation of it? Personally, I think not.
In fact—and in my way of thinking—a virtually identical system took its place within the church, not long after its formation.
That, however, will have to be addressed next time.
 The apostle John is historically considered to have authored Revelation. Though many contemporary scholars doubt this reality, the overall evidence is strong that John was at least connected to the text. There is certainly no other legitimate contender, either.
 Ezekiel 16:15, 25 and 32 (my emphasis).