Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

How Typical a Roman Prostitute Is Revelation's "Great Whore"?

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

How Typical a Roman Prostitute Is Revelation's "Great Whore"?

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

John of Revelation famously introduces the woman Babylon as a ... ("Come, I will show you the judgment of the great ...," 17:2; cf. 17:5, 15-16; 19:2). But would early readers or hearers of Revelation have tended to see Babylon, based on John's description of her, as a typical Roman ...? What were the typical, or stereotypical, traits of a ... by the latter half of the first century c.e.? And how well does Babylon fit the profile? These are the principal questions that animate this article. In pursuing them, we argue that John's representation of Babylon as a prostitute mimics a pattern of gender-based derision characteristic of coeval Roman writings, a pattern contingent on features of ancient prostitution that we elucidate. Imagining Rome as a prostitute who declares herself empress, John relies on the same logic that informs Roman authors who characterize imperial figures as pimps and whores. In Revelation, however, it is not the empress who is characterized as a prostitute but the empire itself.

Ancient Mediterranean sex workers came in two principal types: the ... and the .... The first term might be translated "brothel worker," "brothel slave," or, more colloquially, "streetwalker," depending on the context. The second term is best translated "courtesan." Although John terms Babylon a ..., scholars have tended to treat her as a ....1 By the beginning of the Common Era, however, the ... was largely a literary construct-"not a historical entity, but a cultural sign," as classicist Laura K. McClure puts it.2 Even more typical of the scholarly approach to the... Babylon is recourse to the topos of the harlot in the Hebrew Bible. A parade example is G. K. Beale's fourteen-page treatment of Rev 17:1-16, which is dense with textual references to OT harlots and their attributes.3 Our point is not that Jewish Scripture is irrelevant to the depiction of the woman Babylon in Revelation, or even that the courtesan topos is irrelevant to it. Our point is rather that the scholarly approach to Babylon has been excessively "bookish." Reading the myriad commentaries, monographs, and articles on Revelation, one might be forgiven for supposing that the primary, indeed only, knowledge (cultural, if not carnal) that John's original audiences had of prostitutes was derived either from elite Greek or Latin literary texts or from Jewish Scripture.4 By and large, the social realities of prostitution in the Roman world have not been adduced by such scholars to reconstruct the immediate connotations of the word ... for such audiences-connotations far from the scriptorium or the symposium, as we shall see, and much closer to the ... or brothel.5

This neglect is, however, understandable. It is only in recent years that the study of prostitution in the ancient Mediterranean world has fully taken off, finally becoming "[more than] a footnote to scholarship on ancient sexuality and gender."6 The present article is thus an attempt to recontextualize and reread the fraught figure of Babylon, ..., in light of the burgeoning body of work on ancient Greek and Roman prostitution. Recognition of the difference between a ... and a courtesan is essential for appreciating the bite of ancient Roman invective. We shall find the woman Babylon's closest analogue in an altogether unlikely place, the Annals of Tacitus, which will help us comprehend the political valence of John's reliance on the trope of prostitution.

I. Between the Symposium and the Brothel: Locating Babylon's ...

Why Babylon Is Not a True Courtesan

By the late fourth century b.c.e., the ... had become a readily recognizable type in Athenian comic drama in particular, "one that traveled well to non- Athenian theaters scattered throughout the ancient Mediterranean world" and survived into the Roman era to become a fixture in the comedies of Plautus and Terence and the literary symposia of the Second Sophistic authors. …

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