In the longest of His seven letters, Jesus’s words to Thyatira hold—at least to my ears—grief over Jezebel and her adherents, and concerned warning over those who were not repenting of what Jesus called porneia and debauchery.
Now known as Akhisar, Thyatira was an ancient Greek city in Asia Minor in the region of Lydia, which is now Turkey. You and I are familiar with Thyatira because of two powerful and influential women: Lydia, whose story appears in Acts 16, and Jezebel, whose story (such as it is) features in Revelation 2.
Lydia was most likely born into a Greek nobleman’s home, and raised in the wealth and bustle of Thyatira, a city world-renowned for its dyes and textiles trade. In fact, Thyatira was home to more artisans and guilds than any other city of its day, including the dyes guild, of which Lydia undoubtedly later became a member.
An outlier in her time, Lydia made a name for herself in the dye trade, establishing her own business and household, and enjoying a level of independence only a small minority of women were able to experience.
Lydia puts Thyatira on the map for us, and it is its reputation as a commercial guilds center that possibly led to Jezebel’s popularity as a self-professed prophet and spiritual leader.
First-Century Trade Guilds
Clubs in the Greco-Roman world were definitely a thing.
Often, people formed a funerary club, promising to pool together their funds when one of their members died in order to honor them with a worthy funeral (and perhaps even a monument).
Mystery religions also formed as a clubs, meeting in each other’s homes, creating spaces for rituals, collaborating financially to provide whatever accoutrements (robes, furniture) and sacrifices (birds, bulls) were necessary for their ceremonies, initiation rites, and festivals.
Guilds—called collegia—were much the same as a club. People in the same trade would form, or join, an association related to their work, creating a solid base in which they could share trade secrets, lobby for fair taxes and treatment by local governments, protect their market share, share clients and patrons, and even intermarry with each other’s families.
Though professional guilds, such as would have been associated with Lydia’s textiles and dye profession, were not in themselves religious, they did have a religious connection. Everything in the Greco-Roman world eventually led back in some way to the Roman (or Greek) pantheon of gods. In this case, most guilds identified with the cult of Minerva, goddess of (among other things) arts, trade, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, and the crafts.
Guild members would have been expected to make regular offerings to Minerva, worship her in prayer and honor her with her image in their home and workplace. Once a year, they would celebrate Quinquatria, commemorating her temple built in Rome, with five days of offerings, sacrifices, gladiatorial competitions, horse-and-chariot races, gymnastic events, theatrical performances, and feasting.
Maybe of even more particular importance was the emperor Domitian’s claim (he reigned from 81-96 CE, right when John’s Revelation would have been written) that Minerva took a special protective interest in him, and he commissioned a temple for her in Rome.
Interestingly, no sexual rites were attributed to Minerva. She was, in fact, the most chaste of all the Greek and Roman gods, rebuffing every sexual advance in order to maintain her virginal purity.
Her sister Venus was an entirely different story.
Jezebel’s namesake, in Israel’s history, was the infamous queen married to King Ahaz. Jezebel, whose name uses a derivative of the god Ba’al’s name (bel = Ba’al), was the daughter of the priest-king Ethbaal, who ruled the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, now the coast of southern Lebanon.
The Phoenicians were well-known for their diplomacy, open trade agreements, wealthy port cities, and their export of the highly prized Tyrian purple dye. A sophisticated, largely peaceable culture, the Phoenicians enjoyed amicable relations with Egypt, Greece, north Africa, and their other coastal connections, but had recently been invaded and annexed by Assyria.
So, Jezebel came to Israel as a powerful princess in her own right, bringing with her Phoenicia’s wealth, international ties, lucrative trade relations, and even more importantly, added military buffer between Israel and Assyria.
She was also the high priestess of Ba’al, and it seems her influence on her new husband was immediate, for soon after their wedding day,
[Ahab] went and served Baal, and worshiped him.
He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria.
Ahab also made a sacred pole. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.1 Kings 16:31-33 (NRSV)
Along with instituting Ba’al worship and erecting a temple to Phoenicia’s storm god in Israel’s capital city of Samaria, Ahab also instituted the worship of Asherah with her sacred pole as the state-funded religion. He made public worship of YHWH illegal and banned God’s word, the Scriptures.
Meanwhile, being a woman of ferocious determination, Jezebel set out to rid all Israel of any trace of YHWH worship.
It certainly gives perspective, does it not, on Jesus’s concern?
It seems, by name association, the Jezebel of Thyatira’s ministry was really more along the lines of the ancient Queen Jezebel’s spiritual legacy.
“I Have Against You …”
Jesus’s letter began with high commendation of the believers in Thyatira.
- Agape, the highest form of love, flowing from the heart and Spirit of God.
- Confident belief which involved both faithfulness and trustworthiness.
- Diakonos, a word that Paul used to describe Jesus’s and his own ministering service.
- Endurance that was both hopeful and patient.
- Spiritual growth in that their last works were greater than their first works.
Unlike the churches Jesus had already addressed, they had not lost touch with their first love for Jesus or for the Body of Christ. Rather than stall out in their life of faith, they had instead grown and thrived. Though they dealt with the same brutal persecution the other churches were laboring under, they continued to hope rather than despair.
But there was still something remiss.
And most likely it had to do with the reality of trying to make a living.
Without participating in the guilds, any craftsman or workman would have found it unimaginably difficult to get clients, or patrons, or find work of any but the lowest kind. It is possible, as Thyatiran Christians tried to find ways to accommodate guild requirements without transgressing their loyalty to Christ, that certain untenable compromises were made along the way.
It is a difficulty you and I face to this day.
What is the line between being respectful of the law and others’ customs and keeping our own integrity?
When does being gracious turn into being complacent, and therefore complicit in compromising with what is right and wrong?
And within the church, what is the balance between generous and forgiving love, especially towards wayward leaders, and righteous justice concerning heresy and abusive practices?
Though you and I will look at this more next Thursday, here is the summary of Jesus’s concerns:
- Jezebel was a self-proclaimed prophet.
- She taught false doctrine to Christians.
- To make matters worse, she enticed believers into practices repugnant to Jesus.
- She encouraged and seems to have indulged in idol worship—eating food sacrificed to idols and engaging in illicit sexual activity.
- Though it is unclear whether Jesus meant Jezebel was engaged in physical porneia with her own disciples, it is certain what she was preaching and practicing was spiritual porneia, which is to say, adultery against her spiritual bond with God through Christ.
- Jesus had given her ample opportunity to repent, but she was not willing.
As an aside, it is significant that Jesus was not concerned about Jezebel being a woman overseer in the church.
Look through the list, it is exhaustive.
Jezebel being a -woman- leader, teacher, and prophet was not an issue at all for Jesus.
Bad leaders are bad leaders, whether they are men or women. Jesus pointed out bad male leaders to the church in Pergamos. Now Jesus was pointing out a bad female leader.