Island of Patmos
Patmos is one of many islands in the Aegean Sea attributed to Greece. Famously, it is where John the Apostle was said to have been exiled by the Roman Emperor Domitian, and where he received a series of visions that eventually were transcribed to the Book of Revelation.
Patmos was known for its steep cliffs, dotted with caves, among which is nestled the Cave of the Apocalypse, where John was transported in the Spirit, towards the end of the first century, to witness God’s unveiling of spiritual and physical reality.
Churches in Asia Minor
The seven churches addressed in Revelation are clustered together in a circular pattern in what was then known as Anatolia in Asia Minor, and what is today the nation of Turkey.
“Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”Jesus to John, Revelation 1:11 (NRSV)
As you can see, the Isle of Patmos lies just off the coast of Turkey, among those islands associated with Greece.
The church in Ephesus was well-known, a thriving center of trade and one of the must-see cities of the ancient world. Paul spent a a number of years there, though his presence caused a great deal of trouble. Ephesus is the namesake for one of Paul’s letters, found in the Christian Testament.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Ephesians 1:1-2 (NRSV)
Early in the second century, only maybe fifteen years after the publication of the Book of Revelation, Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna.
According to church tradition, in 92 C.E., John the Apostle recognized Antipas as the first overseer of the Christian assembly gathering in Pergamum. From the beginning, there was conflict between the worshippers of Serapis (the Greco-Roman god of the sun, also associated with worship of the Egyptian bull deity Apis) and those who followed Christ.
In the second volume of his documentary for Theophilus, Luke spoke of a woman who hailed from Thyatira,
A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.Acts 16:14 (NRSV)
The city of Sardis was destroyed in 17 C.E., during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, by an enormous earthquake. The emperor supplied the resources to quickly rebuild, and the Christian assemblies must have survived, as a fourth century Byzantine church was built among the ruins of a tumbled-down temple.
Ignatius of Antioch also wrote a letter to the church at Philadelphia.
Another of Paul’s letters, to the Christians in Colossae, also mentions Laodicea.
For I testify for him that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters in Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea.Colossians 4:13-16 (NRSV)
Emperor Domitian (51-96 C.E.)
Domitian followed his father Vespasian, who reigned 69-79 C.E., and his older brother Titus, who reigned 79-81C.E., to the throne, where he managed to reign for fifteen years.
Described as ruthless, efficient, and authoritarian, Domitian expanded the borders of his empire, and restored the glory of Rome, its capital city. He was also a conservatively religious patriot, making him wildly popular with the people and the army, but despised by the Senate, who considered him a tyrant. In the end, Domitian was assassinated by Roman court officials. His contemporaries considered him cruel and paranoid, but revisionists today believe it was his reforms that kept peace in the second century.
Ironically, as a deeply religious and moral person, Domitian revived the Roman cult of emperor worship, and deified several members of his family, including his deceased brother Titus. Ancient historians claim Domitian entitled himself Dominus et Deus, “Lord and God,” and temples dedicated to his worship quickly appeared throughout the Greco-Roman world, each city fiercely competing for the privilege.
Unsurprisingly, then, early church historian, Eusebius, chronicled Domitian’s persecution of Christians.
Domitian, having shown great cruelty toward many, and having unjustly put to death no small number of well-born and notable men at Rome, and having without cause exiled and confiscated the property of a great many other illustrious men, finally became a successor of Nero in his hatred and enmity toward God. He was in fact the second that stirred up a persecution against us, although his father Vespasian had undertaken nothing prejudicial to us.
9. Tertullian also has mentioned Domitian in the following words: Domitian also, who possessed a share of Nero’s cruelty, attempted once to do the same thing that the latter did. But because he had, I suppose, some intelligence, he very soon ceased, and even recalled those whom he had banished.
10. But after Domitian had reigned fifteen years, and Nerva had succeeded to the empire, the Roman Senate, according to the writers that record the history of those days, voted that Domitian’s honors should be cancelled, and that those who had been unjustly banished should return to their homes and have their property restored to them.
11. It was at this time that the apostle John returned from his banishment in the island and took up his abode at Ephesus, according to an ancient Christian tradition.Eusebius (c. 260-339 C.E.), Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 17, and Chapter 20.9-11
And the exile of John to the Isle of Patmos
1. It is said that in this persecution the apostle and evangelist John, who was still alive, was condemned to dwell on the island of Patmos in consequence of his testimony to the divine word.
2. Irenæus, in the fifth book of his work Against Heresies, where he discusses the number of the name of Antichrist which is given in the so-called Apocalypse of John, speaks as follows concerning him:
3. If it were necessary for his name to be proclaimed openly at the present time, it would have been declared by him who saw the revelation. For it was seen not long ago, but almost in our own generation, at the end of the reign of Domitian.
4. To such a degree, indeed, did the teaching of our faith flourish at that time that even those writers who were far from our religion did not hesitate to mention in their histories the persecution and the martyrdoms which took place during it.
5. And they, indeed, accurately indicated the time. For they recorded that in the fifteenth year of Domitian Flavia Domitilla, daughter of a sister of Flavius Clement, who at that time was one of the consuls of Rome, was exiled with many others to the island of Pontia in consequence of testimony borne to Christ.Eusebius (c. 260-339 C.E.), Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 18