Revelation 11:8 has a passage that has troubled some interpreters with the conflicting indications of the place mentioned in this verse, which could be taken as Jerusalem or Rome based on the text of Revelation itself. While most interpreters settle on seeing it as Jerusalem out of seeming necessity, this necessity can be obviated with an alternative interpretation of the crucified one being mentioned here.
The alternative interpretation starts from the manuscripts that read “ὁ κύριος αὐτῶν,” i.e., “the Lord of them” or “their Lord,” along with a few premises of convenience better suited to another essay.
Premise (1). The text is a unity. This is possibly wrong, but it did achieve its final form at some point, and I don’t have confidence in recovering a possible original.
Premise (2). The text speaks of a beast in terms of the Nero Redivivus myth and was written between 70 AD and 96 AD (most likely, under Domitian).
Premise (3). The text implies the identification of Babylon as Rome (as both destroyed Jerusalem).
I’m sure there are plenty of people that reject the premises, but let’s follow through on them.
The Great City?
References to “the great city” are:
(1) Rev. 11:8. And their dead bodies lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified.
(2) Rev. 16:19. And the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell: and Babylon the great was remembered in the sight of God, to give unto her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of his wrath.
(3) Rev. 17:18. And the woman [Babylon] whom thou sawest is the great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.
(4) Rev. 18:9-10. And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived wantonly with her, shall weep and wail over her, when they look upon the smoke of her burning, standing afar off for the fear of her torment, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.
(5) Rev. 18:16. saying, Woe, woe, the great city, she that was arrayed in fine linen and purple and scarlet, and decked with gold and precious stone and pearl!
(6) Rev. 18:18. and cried out as they looked upon the smoke of her burning, saying, What city is like the great city?
(7) Rev. 18:19. And they cast dust on their heads, and cried, weeping and mourning, saying, Woe, woe, the great city, wherein all that had their ships in the sea were made rich by reason of her costliness! for in one hour is she made desolate.
(8) Rev. 18:21. And a strong angel took up a stone as it were a great millstone and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with a mighty fall shall Babylon, the great city, be cast down, and shall be found no more at all.
All the other references are easily understood as Babylon, a cipher for Rome, but the first one gives us trouble. Here is the surrounding passage (ASV):
“And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and one said, Rise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein. And the court which is without the temple leave without, and measure it not; for it hath been given unto the nations: and the holy city shall they tread under foot forty and two months. And I will give unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks, standing before the Lord of the earth. And if any man desireth to hurt them, fire proceedeth out of their mouth and devoureth their enemies; and if any man shall desire to hurt them, in this manner must he be killed. These have the power to shut the heaven, that it rain not during the days of their prophecy: and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to smite the earth with every plague, as often as they shall desire. And when they shall have finished their testimony, the beast that cometh up out of the abyss shall make war with them, and overcome them, and kill them. And their dead bodies lie in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. And from among the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations do men look upon their dead bodies three days and a half, and suffer not their dead bodies to be laid in a tomb. And they that dwell on the earth rejoice over them, and make merry; and they shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwell on the earth. And after the three days and a half the breath of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them that beheld them. And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they went up into heaven in the cloud; and their enemies beheld them. And in that hour there was a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell; and there were killed in the earthquake seven thousand persons: and the rest were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven.”
As with the phrase “the great city,” that other phrase “the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations” (which in our passage refers to people that dwell on earth and would rejoice over the death of the witnesses), when read with cognate expressions elsewhere in Revelation, favors reading the reference as Rome. Here is a later reference to the beast:
“and it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and there was given to him authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation. And all that dwell on the earth shall worship him” (Rev. 13:7-8)
Here also is a reference to Babylon (Rome):
“And he saith unto me, The waters which thou sawest, where the harlot [Babylon] sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues.” (Rev. 17:15)
This kind of phrase is also found in several references to heaven, where the New Jerusalem is. Here you see a parallel being developed, between Babylon (Rome) where people who dwell on earth worship the beast and New Jerusalem where people who are in heaven worship the Lord of lords. All “the peoples and multitude and nations and tongues” are found in both the earthly Rome and in the heavenly New Jerusalem, according to their allegiances.
That Jerusalem was figuratively called Sodom in the scriptures is true, but that it was called Egypt isn’t quite as clear. The presence of Egypt already alerts us to new possibilities behind this figurative reference. Egypt held Israel in captivity, just as Babylon did. The great city elsewhere identified as Babylon is here figuratively identified as Egypt and Sodom. We can easily suppose that the third cipher Sodom, a place that did not hold Israel captive, may just refer to the great wickedness of Rome (Babylon), which is frequently attested in the text of Revelation itself. There is no polemic elsewhere against Jerusalem, the name of the heavenly city, which is one more reason for seeing Rome here.
One really decisive piece of evidence, moreover, is that the “holy city” of Jerusalem on earth had been already destroyed and trampled under foot, something the author understood in his historical situation and explicitly mentions as belonging to a prior event in this passage. It hardly merits a description later in the same passage, presumably still regarding the city in which the two witnesses were lying dead in the street, that “the tenth part of the city fell” after the entire holy city had been sacked and trampled under foot (unless, of course, we read “the great city” in this passage as being distinct from “the holy city” Jerusalem).
The evidence thus points to the holy city being Jerusalem and to the great city being Rome, here named Babylon while also being figuratively called Sodom and Egypt.
Lord of the Earth?
A key question here: who is to be understood as “the Lord of the earth” at the beginning of this passage about the two witnesses? Before whom are they standing? This expression is unique in Revelation, as nowhere else in the text is such a phrase used in the many references to God or in the references to Jesus. Indeed, at the conclusion of the passage, we find a contrasting reference to the “God of heaven” to whom distressed people give glory. The two witnesses are prophesying before the lord of the earth, but who is he? By translating it in the upper case, we’ve prejudiced the inquiry. Could it be someone other than God before whom the witnesses stand as they are protected by divinely endowed powers?
Suetonius says that Domitian was the first Roman emperor who had demanded to be addressed as ‘dominus et deus’ (lord and god). Well there you go! In the reign of Domitian, we have a Roman emperor who, in his time, was exceptional in his demand to be addressed as lord and god.
The whole scene takes place in the future, where Nero Redivivus (the beast) is able to slay the two witnesses, who lie dead in the streets, while simultaneously in this great city the one called “the lord of the earth” and “the lord of them” (the lord of those who dwell on earth) was crucified. Since the beast is described as the eighth king in Rev. 17:11, it certainly makes sense that the “lord of the earth” (Domitian) would need to be removed from power, and that means death. Presumably the beast wasn’t going to let the emperor Domitian keep on ruling the earth and may be taken as responsible for both the death of the two witnesses and the crucifixion of the Roman lord.
This does depend on a reading that has been preserved variously, but it’s easy to see the mistake being made, given how formulaic “our Lord” is throughout Christian writings and how uncommon “their Lord” is for referring to, you know, He who is our Lord for the Christians. The primitiveness of the awkward expression is easy to see, and the awkward choice of expression also tends to suggest that it does not refer to Jesus Christ or to God, who would with difficulty be spoken about as “their Lord” as if to distance Jesus or the divine from the author. Moreover, it makes rather good sense in context, given the other unusual phrase, “lord of the earth,” which similarly points away from a truly divine reference and instead points to a reference to the emperor over the earth who demanded divine worship as lord in his lifetime.
By way of clarification, I do not see the “lord of the earth” (Domitian) behind either beast of Revelation 13. The reason for this is that both of them, later called “the beast and the false prophet,” are cast alive into the lake of fire in Revelation 19:20. Nor do I see Domitian in Revelation 17, as it is clear that the entire passage regarding the beast here concerns the one that has seven heads and ten horns (Rev. 13:1, Rev. 17:3) that rises from “the abyss” and from “the sea,” not the other one later called a false prophet that comes from the earth. The number of the beast (666 = Neron Caesar in Hebrew) and the description of the beast “that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven” identifies the beast with Nero Redivivus, who amazes people on earth by returning even though he once “was not.” By skipping over Domitian, who would count himself as the eighth king here, and by picturing him crucified earlier in Revelation 11, the author obliquely implies the illegitimacy of the then-reigning emperor.
The author implies that he is writing during the reign of Vespasian (the sixth king) and also alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem in his prophecy, by which we understand that the author wants us to place the vision at roughly 69 AD, even while it is being written later, in the last decade of the first century. The implied age allows some details to authenticate the rest of the prophecy.
We know historically that Domitian was assassinated, not crucified. If this is a reference to Domitian, this implies that the book was written before Domitian’s fate was known.
Incidentally, I would draw attention to the denarius pictured at the top of the article, where the “divine” Domitian straddles the cosmos. What I find interesting about it is that the coin shows seven stars. This image is apparently subverted by the author at the outset of Revelation, for whom “the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20) held in the right hand of “one like the Son of Man” (presumably “Jesus Christ … the ruler of the kings of the earth” of Rev. 1:5).
As another aside, you can also see that the author of Revelation has developed an interpretation whereby “the court which is without the temple” has been “given unto the nations” so that they may “tread under foot” the “holy city.” If you take this literally, it is nonsense, because it was not merely “the court which is without the temple” that had been destroyed in 70 AD but the whole enchilada, holy of holies and all. Figuratively, however, the entire earthly temple in Jerusalem had become for the author “the court which is without the temple,” a fact for him that allows for the “temple of God, and the altar, and them that worship therein” to exist in heaven and to be measured by the prophet in his vision (such measurements are indeed given later in Revelation according to the author’s vision, where again Jerusalem is called the holy city, Rev. 21:2).
Long story short, based on the three premises at the start, which are defensible but which really are separate topics and thus are not treated here, the great city is Rome throughout Revelation. We can identify both the “lord of the earth” and “their lord” as the emperor of the Romans who first demanded to be known as lord and god, emperor Domitian, whom the apocalyptic author imagines being crucified in the great city when the beast brings war to the earth.