The Historical Setting of Revelation

The Historical Setting of Revelation

This is a basic orientation to the origins of the Apocalypse and a discussion of the aspects of the local situation in which John writes. We shall consider the questions — Where? When? Who? In what situation?

John wrote to churches in the seven major cities in Asia, a Roman province situated along the western coast of Asia Minor. Asia Minor was of the most significant geographic areas in the development of early Christianity. It was very important to Roman. It was rich in natural resources, manufacturing, and taxes. It’s location was strategic in regards to trade routes and military action. With three hundred or more cities, it natured cultural activities. Many cities became centers for libraries, museums, and spectacular monuments.

The Place

The writer of the Apocalypse indicates exactly where he and his audience reside. It is from the small island of Patmos, one of the Sporades Islands in the Aegean Sea about thirty-seven miles south and west of Miletus, on the western coast of Asia Minor. John writes to the seven major cities located along the western coast of the Roman province of Asia.

This was one of the most significant geographical areas in the development of early Christianity. Paul conducted his missionary work in this area during the fifties. His letters and tracts circulated among its cities. 1 Peter is written to the churches of Asia. From the start of the second century Ignatius of Antioch writes letters to five churches in Asia. We can identify eleven cities of the Asia province by this time. Each of which are associated with a major apostolic figure as Peter, Paul and John.
The province of Asia was also important to the Roman Empire. A successful public career was a requirement to become a proconsul of this province. Because of it was rich in natural resources and manufacturing, Asia was also rich in taxes. It was located strategically in relationship to trade routes and military campaigns. There were as many as three hundred cities, which catered cultural activities and supported libraries, museums and monuments. The locale of the Apocalypse is significant in both Christian and Roman history.

Christians in the Province of Asia

The interpretation of the Apocalypse should not solely rest on a response to Domitian’s excessive claims to divinity or to a reign of terror at the end of his rule. Domitian provided economic and political stability for the whole empire as other emperors.

John’s apocalypse deals with the Christian life in the cities of the province of Asia. The conditions there are most important to John than life in Rome. The backdrop of the Apocalypse is the social and political institutions and arrangements in those cities of Asia. To account for the local conditions of Christian life, we must move in a series of concentric circles beginning with the province of Asia, then Jewish life in that province, and finally the social, economic and political life in the cities of Asia.

Distribution of Christian Communities

The evidence for Christian communities in Asia for the most part come from early Christian sources, such as Paul’s letters, the Revelation and Ignatius. Ignatius sent letters to Asian churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Smryna and to Polycarp.

There are no inscriptions or coins from the late first and early second centuries that mention Christianity, and only a few references to Christians by non-Christian writers are extant. This makes it difficult and complicated to place Christians in the social world of Asia. Because Christian writers were concerned with life and thought within the churches, Christian sources only refer incidentally to factors that contribute to a profile of the social world in which they lived.


Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 16:9) from the early 50’s provide us with the earliest reference to Christians in Asia. Paul was not alone at Ephesus. Other Christian leaders were there such as Timothy. Paul stayed at Ephesus for three years according to Acts 20:31. By the end of the first century Christian was already present and had emerged from Ephesus.

According to Acts, Paul stopped at Ephesus as he was travelling from Corinth to Syria. There he was accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18–19), who were native of Pontus (northern Asia Minor) but as a result of Emperor Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome had recently come to Corinth (Acts 18:1–2). Paul shared a common occupation with them. Together they traveled to Ephesus, where Priscilla and Aquila established a house church (2 Tim. 4:19; Rom. 16:3–5). It may be conclude that these church leaders were fairly wealthy independent artisans, originally a part of the Jewish community in Asia Minor.

Apollos, a learned Alexandrian Jew, well versed in the Scriptures, is taught more accurately by Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:24–28). He is another Christian convert from Judaism who has independent means (1 Cor. 16:12, Titus 3:13).

In Acts 19:11–20, there is story about Paul’s healing powers, Jewish exorcists, and magic at Ephesus. There was apparently a magic dimension to religion at Ephesus. Artemis of Ephesus was associated with the Ephesia grammata, originally six powerful, magical words. Artemis’ magical powers are referred to in a later Jewish and Christian traditions. A few magical Jewish amulets have been discovered at Ephesus. In the story of Acts many who practiced magic arts secretly, were converted to believers and were from either Jewish or Gentile backgrounds.

Before Paul leaves Ephesus another conflicts arises with silversmiths who make “silver shrines of Artemis” (Acts 19:21–41).

When Paul is on his way to Jerusalem he calls the elders from Ephesus to Miletus for a final exhortation (Acts 20:18–35). Paul refers to “Jewish plots” against him while at Ephesus. He recognizes the elders as “bishops” over the flock of Ephesus (cf. Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1, Titus 1:7, 1 Pet. 2:25). He says that after he leaves, “savage wolves” will comes among the flock and even from among the “bishops” men will speak “perverse things” to draw away the disciples. Paul concludes by referring to the labor with his hands at Ephesus.

John seems to be against the urban culture and opposed to any opposed to any Christian accommodation toward it among the Christian groups at Ephesus (Rev. 2:6, 14, 20).

Churches in the Lycus Valley

There were other Christian communities in three cities in the Lycus Valley, which joins the Meander River about a hundred miles east of Ephesus. In the area were Laodicea, a prosperous cultural center was located at a major crossroad on the southern route from Ephesus through Anatolia. The letters of Paul indicate Christians at Colossae. It was a smaller town about 10 miles further on the main road east. Hierapolis was a textile town 5 or 6 miles north on the road to Tripolis and Philadelphia (Col. 4:13, 16). It was best known for Epictetus, a famous Stoic philosopher, and in Christian history, Papias, “the milennarian lover of oral tradition,” and friend of Polycarp of Smyrna (Eus. Hist. Eccl. 3.39). In later Christian literature the churches at Laodicea and Hierapolis appear. The Revelation attests that Christians shared in the prosperity of Laodicea.

Thyatira and Pergamum

John refers to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira as infested with false prophets. John is in conflict with their local members and not with outsiders.

The offense of the Nicolaitans and Jezebel is “to eat food sacrificed to idols and to practice immorality” (Rev. 2:14). The order is revered in description to Jezebel (2:20). The offense alludes to the story of Israel’s idolatry with Baal of Peor at Shittim. In Numbers 25, the daughters of Moab “invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods” (Num. 25:2). In Greek and Roman cities people would eat meat in a cultic setting both on public occasions and at private settings. Banquets and parties expressed social connections and common causes among the whole province, the whole city, a specific group or friendship. These events posed fundamental questions about how Christians should associate to social institutions that affected social status. Their involvement in economic and civic responsibilities would engage them in the eating of meat in a cultic setting. Christian leaders did not universally agree about how to handle the eating of meat in a cultic setting and its meaning for a Christian (1 Cor. 8:1–13). John objects to the Christian participation, but Paul defends it as allow as it does not destroy a weak brother.

The author of Acts mentions a woman from Thyatira named Lydia whom Paul met at Philippi in Macedonia (Acts 16:13–15). She is the seller of purple cloth and a worshipper of God. She may have been associated with the Jewish community, or a Jew, a proselyte who was faithful to some of the Jewish law. Lydia converts to Christianity with her household. From prison Paul goes to her house and exhorts the brethren and leaves Philippi (Acts 16:40). Perhaps she was a businesswoman dealing in a luxury item, a sign of wealth. She travels extensively in connection with her trade. Her story tells us that some prosperous Jewish traders from Asia like Aquila converted to Christianity.

Sardis and Laodicea

Sardis supported a large, well-integrated Jewish community throughout the first and second centuries A.D. The first Christians there were probably from the Jewish community. The city flourished at the end of the first century A.D. It was a judicial center. The temple of Artemis had the right of asylum, which was a status sought by many temples. After the earthquake of 17 A.D., private, imperial and sacral gifts were given which indicate wealth in the community. Sardis was a lively commercial city located in a favorable position at the crossing of five roadways (to Philadelphia and Laodicea southeast, to Acmonia east, to Thyatira north, to Magnesia ad Sipylum and Smyrna west-northwest, and to Ephesus south). Sardis with is significant Jewish community was a thriving Asian city had the social ingredients for emerging Christianity. But Paul, the writer of Acts nor Ignatius mentions Sardis. John makes no mention of oppression from Jews in those prosperous Christian communities of Sardis and Laodicea.

A Christian community that sets up high boundaries between itself and the rest of the world sees Judaism and Greco-Roman society as evil, but a Christian community that is less concerned with sharp boundaries and exclusive self-definitions seems to have little conflict with Judaism or Greco-Roman urban institutions.
As the second century closes, Melito, a Quartodeciman – one who celebrates Easter on the Jewish Passover — writes of Sardis in an Apology to Marcus Aurelius and a Paschal Homily. In his homily he makes a stance against the large and powerful Jewish community in Sardis.

Philadelphia and Smyrna

Both John and Ignatius address Christian communities at Ephesus, Smyrna and Philadelphia. In the Apocalypse, there is no indication of persecution by the Jews, but John makes a sharp contrast between Christians and Jews.

Ignatius in his letter to the Philadelphians, there is a form of “Judaizing” within the church (1 Philad. 6.1).
Jews at Smyrna are blaspheming Christians. “Blasphemia” could possibly refer to “charges of anti-social behavior” reported to proper officials against Christians (Sweet 1979).

Magnesia and Tralles

Ignatius also wrote to the churches of Magnesia and Tralles in the Meander River Valley southeast of Ephesus. He restates the separation of Christianity from Judaism: “for if even unto this day we live after the manner of Judaism, we avow that we have not received grace” (1 Magn. 8). He argues for the Lord’s Day and concludes with, “It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity” (1 Magn. 10). In his letter to Tralles, about fifteen miles east of Magnesia on the road to Laodicea, Ignatius attacks docetism, which is the doctrine that Jesus Christ only seemed to have a human form).

Social Status of Christians

What was the social status of the Christians in the province of Asia? Power, occupation, income, education, religion, ritual purity, family, ethnic group position and local community affected status. We lack sufficient information to determine the exact social status of early Christianity.

Paul writes “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). References to slaves in the early church indicated a variety of classes. This association with slavery would be one reason why early Christians were identified with the poorest and least powerful.
Pliny in his letter to the Emperor Trajan about Christians in Pontus at about 112 A.D. states that Christians were “of every age and class, both men and women” (Ep. 10.96.9). He also refers to two slave women whom Christians called deaconesses (Ep. 10.96.8).

The fact that Christian were involved in reading and writing indicates that they “belonged to a sector of society in which literary education was highly valued and a disproportionate number of persons wrote books” (R. M. Grant, 1980). This distinguished them from both the lowest and highest classes of Roman society.

The manner in which Christians received punishments speak of their status. Pliny in his dealing with Christians in Bithynia, treated Roman citizens differently from those who were not citizens, and free people from slaves.

Their status is also reflected in having a house church and in traveling. The owners of house churches probably served as “patrons” to the church as patrons supported private clubs and guilds. Christians traveled a lot, in connections with their trade and sometimes in support of a particular church or churches. Travel was expensive, but individual Christians and churches could afford to do it. The ‘typical’ Christian was a free artisan or small trader. Some had houses, slaves, and the ability to travel. Some provided housing, meeting places, and other services for the Christians, fulfilling the role of patrons.

Affluent Christians shared fully in Roman life (1 Cor. 5:10). From the beginning Christians were involved in sexual intercourse with non-Christians. They were to live a life that was above criticism. Non-Christians came to Christian meetings, and ate dinner with non-Christians. At the close of the second century, Tertullian in his Apology states that Christians share in the same manner, the same dress, and the same requirements of living. They were dependent on the marketplace, the butchers, the baths, shops, factories, taverns and other businesses. They sailed ships; served in the army; tilled the ground; engaged in trade with non-Christians; and provided skills and services for the whole society (Apol. 42). Their leaders did not want them to live separately and aloof. Christians lived in contact with non-Christians in economic, social, familial, and political settings.

The Author

The author refers to himself as John, but not as John the son of Zebedee, or as the anonymous writer of the Gospel. It is evident that the seven churches of Asia were the objects of his special care (Rev. 1:11). John received the Revelation while imprisoned on the small Island of Patmos (Rev.1:4, 9-10).

Papias was the earliest writer to be familiar with the Revelation. Irenaeus was first to attribute book and Gospel of John to the same author, the disciple John. Justin also said it was written by the Apostle John.

The Apostle John, a son of Zebedee (Matt. 4:21), was one of the innermost circle of the disciples (Matt. 17:1). He was the disciple whom Jesus loved. Tradition states John’s residence was in Ephesus, but these claims cannot be substantiate.

Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist (d. 165 A.D.), John the apostle wrote the Revelation (Dia. Tryph. 81.4). Later, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, writes that the apostle of John, son of Zebedee, wrote the both the Revelation and the Gospel of John (Haer. 5:30). Most of the church fathers, not all, follow them. However, Dionysius of Alexandria (third century) states that “some indeed of those before our time rejected and altogether impugned the book, examining it chapter by chapter and declaring it to be unintelligible and illogical, and its title false. For they say that it is not John’s, no, nor yet an apocalypse, since it is veiled by its great thick curtain of unintelligibility” (Eu. Hist. Eccl. 7.25). He based his conclusions on style and linguistic reasons.

Some of the church fathers who assumed apostolic authorship of the Gospel of John did not given the same to the writer of Revelation. Modern scholarship tends to agree. Because of the style, vocabulary, and theology different significantly from the Gospel, common authorship is unlikely and the apostle did not write the Apocalypse.

The name “John” was common in the early church. The personal identity of John remains unknown. Perhaps he was affiliated with the Christian community of Ephesus. By his own description he is a prophet. He probably traveled among the churches of Asia. Paul places the prophet high on his list of church offices (1 Cor. 12:28). In the Didache, a second century Christian document, prophets are itinerants who go from one assembly to another (Did. 11–13). John functions as a prophet and assumed the authority of that office as a leader in the churches and addresses their conflicts (Rev. 2–3). Was John a “head prophet” among a school of prophets? Did he deliver the Revelation to a community of prophets in the churches rather than to all Christians (Rev. 2:1)? It is clear that John was an early Christian prophet, the author of the Apocalypse, who sent a message of “revealed knowledge” to the seven churches of Asia.

The Date and Occasion of the Apocalypse

The consensus among scholars is that the Apocalypse was written during the reign of Domitian towards the end of the first century, 92–96 A.D. The evidence of an earlier date of prior to 70 A.D. is surpassed by the cumulative weight of the evidence for a later date. The difference of dating can lead to different interpretations.

The Earliest traditions point to the later date. The most important of these witnesses are Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses 5.30.3), Victorinus of Pettau (Apocalypse 10:11, 304 A.D.), Eusebius (The History of the Church 3:17–18, 260–340 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (Quis Dives Salvetur 42) and Origen.

Irenaeus stated that the book was seen at the end of the reign of Domitian (emperor from 81 to 96) implying c. 95-96. Eusebius follows Irenaeus on this date. Victorinus of Pettau states John was banished by Domitian to a mine or quarry on the island of Patmos. After his imprisonment, John may have later composed the Revelation in Ephesus.

Eusebius’s History of the Church 3:17-20. Domitian’s persecution:

John the apostle and our Saviour’s relatives. 17. Many were the victims of Domitian’s appalling cruelty. At Rome great numbers of men distinguished by birth and attainments were for no reason at all banished from the country and their property confiscated. Finally, he showed himself the successor of Nero in enmity and hostility to God. He was, in fact the second to organize persecution against us, through his father Vespasian had had no mischievous designs against us. 18. There is ample evidence that at that time the apostle evangelist John was still alive, and because of his testimony to the word of God was sentenced to confinement on the island of Patmos. Writing about the word of God was sentenced to confinement on the island of Patmos. Writing about the number of the name given to antichrist in what is called the Revelation of John, Irenaeus has this to say about John in Book V of his Against Heresies: “Had there been any need for his name to be openly announced at the present time, it would have been stated by the one who saw the actual revelation. For it was seen not a long time back, but almost in my own lifetime, at the end of Domitian’s reign.” Indeed, so brightly shone at that time the teaching of our faith that even historians who accepted none of our beliefs unhesitatingly recorded in their pages both the persecution and the martyrdoms to which it led. They also indicated the precise date, noting that in the fifteenth year of Domitian Flavia Domitilla, who was a niece of Flavius Clemens, on of the consuls at Rome that year, was with many others, because of the testimony of Christ, taken to the island of Pontia as a punishment. 20. So much we learn from Hegesippus, Tertullian, again, has this to say about Domitian: “A similar attempt had once been made by Domitian, who almost equalled Nero in cruelty; but — I suppose because he had some common sense — he very soon stopped, even recalling those he had banished.” After fifteen years of Domitian’s rule Nerva succeeded to the throne. By vote of the Roman senate Domitian’s honours were removed, and those unjustly banished returned to their homes and had their property restored to them. This is noted by the chroniclers of the period. At that time too the apostle John, after his exile on the island, resumed residence at Ephesus, as early Christian tradition records.

John does not give many clues about the time in which he is writing. There are no references to the historical situation besides references to the seven churches. If there are any, they are veiled to us today. Chapters 13, 17 and 18 refer to emperors and the city of Rome. From these, we may sure that the Apocalypse was written in the time of the empire. Yet no precise date can be ascertained.

John alludes to the “return” of one of the emperors in connection with Rome’s destruction. There are three versions of this return: (1) “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition” (17:8); (2) “The dwellers on earth… will marvel to behold the beast, because it was and is not and is to come” (17:8); and (3) “As for the beast that was and is not, it is an eighth [king] but it belongs to the seven [kings], and it goes to perdition” (17:11). This “coming again” of one of the kings is an allusion to the Emperor Nero. There was a myth that after his death or flight, Nero would come again from the East and fight against some or all of the Roman Empire. In Jewish and Christian literature the “revived Nero” is an enemy of Rome and an opponent of the chosen people. In the fourth Sibylline Oracle, Nero is spoken of in this way: “Then strife of war being aroused will come to the west, and the fugitive from Rome will also come, brandishing a great spear, having crossed the Euphrates with many myriads” (Sib. Or. 4.137–39). In the fifth, Nero will be destructive “even when he disappears”; “Then he will return declaring himself equal to God. But he will prove that he is not” (Sib. Or. 5.33–34, cf. 5.93–110). In the Apocalypse, the legend of Nero is associated with the beast from the abyss and the “eighth king.” He is one of the evil figures who will war against the Lamb and his followers (17:14). The legend could have spread quickly after Nero’s death. From this evidence, the Apocalypse could not have been written in its present form before 68 A.D. when Nero died.

Rome is identified with Babylon, which provides some evidence for dating the Apocalypse. In Jewish literature, Rome is identified with Edom, Kittim, Egypt, and Babylon. For the most part, the identity with Babylon occurs after 70 A.D., after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

Additional evidence can be found in reference to the seven heads of the beast as seven kings (emperors) (17:9–14). Concerning the kings, “five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come and when he comes he must remain only a little while. As for the best that was and is not, it is an eighth but it belongs to the seven, and it goes to perdition.” If one can figure out which five emperors have already fallen, then the sixth emperor is reigning during the time John writes his Apocalypse. Julius Caesar (d. 44 B.C.) would be the earliest. The five emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty followed from 27 B.C. to 68 B.C., Augustus (27 B.C.–14 A.D.), Tiberius (14–37 A.D.), Gaius (37–41 A.D.), Claudius (41–54 A.D.), and Nero (54–58 A.D). Three short-lived emperors followed from 68 to 69 A.D., Galba, Otho and Vitellius. After which three of the Flavian emperors, Vespasian (69–79 A.D.), Titus (79–81 A.D.) and Domitian (81–96 A.D.). The problem lies in where one should begin to count and which emperors should be included in the count. Some scholars argue for the setting in which the Revelation was written was in the chaotic state of the empire after Nero’s death (70 A.D.). Others conclude it was written after the fall of Jerusalem (70 A.D.)

The identification of Rome with Babylon and the reference to Nero “coming again” present the strongest argument for a date after 70 A.D. The list of kings does not justify any date before 70 A.D. The most significant evidence for dating the Apocalypse after 70 A.D. is found in the reference by Irenaeus, who came from Asia Minor and knew Polycarp, bishop of Smryna. He states that the visions of the Apocalypse were seen “not long ago” but “close to our generation, towards the end of the reign of Domitian” (Iren. Haer. 5.30.3 = Eus. Hist. Eccl. 3.18.1). A date during the reign of Domitian is in accord with the list of chapter 17.

When taken together the weight of internal and external evidence we can conclude with most scholars that the Apocalypse was written sometime during the latter years of the reign of Domitian, around 92–96 A.D.

The Reign of Domitian

Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth century Christian historian, established in Christian history for viewing Domitian’s reign as a time of persecution and crisis. In a second devoted to the Emperor Domitian, he states that “may were the victims of Domitian’s appalling cruelty.” Then he states that the apostle and evangelist John “was still alive [in Domitian’s reign], and because of his testimony to the word of God was sentenced to confinement on the island of Patmos.” Under Nerva, Domitian’s successor, John was allowed to return from exile on Patmos to his residence at Ephesus. He also notes that non-Christian historians record the persecution and martyrdoms that Christians such as Flavia Domitilla suffered under Domitian (Eus. Hist. Eccl. 3.17–20).

“The letters to the churches suggest that persecution was occasional and selective, and that the chief dangers were complacency and compromise” (J. P. M. Sweet, 1979). Leon Hardy Canfield (1913) concludes after researching both Christian and non-Christian sources that no great persecution occurred under Domitian. Most modern commentators no longer accept a Domitianic persecution of Christians, but they do conclude that Domitian’s increased demands for worship and the “reign of terror” in the years preceding Domitian’s death created a critical situation for Christians in Asia Minor. Adolf Harnack writes “The politics of Jewish apocalyptic viewed the world-state as a diabolic state, and consequently took up a purely negative attitude towards it. This political view is put uncompromisingly in the apocalypse of John, where it was justified by the Neronic persecution, the imperial claim for worship, and the Domitianic reign of terror” (1961). Johannes Weiss notes that no many actual deaths occurred when the Apocalypse was written but Domitian intensified demands for worship seen in that he placed importance on being called “lord” and “god.”

Roman historians characterize the latter part of reign of Domitian as a reign of terror by a tyrant and megalomaniac who demanded imperial worship (Rev. 1:9, 2:13, 13, 17–18). This is a part of the social and political setting of the Apocalypse. In addition the economic situation during Domitian’s reign was another component (Rev. 6:6, 13:17).

The pressure of the Roman world tested the loyalty of the seven churches. Paganism, laxity in sexual behavior, gluttonous and idolatrous feasts, and the Imperial Cult were demanding on the believers in Asia Minor.

In the Roman world, there was a struggle to reach a god or gods who remained essentially inaccessible. Scepticism prevailed, and Roman religion was losing its integrity. However, the massive temples and gilded shrines exercised a powerful influence. The cult of Mithra was perhaps the strongest rival of Christianity in the first and second centuries. Mithra was the sun-god, who gave the mastery over darkness and evil. Followers underwent elaborate initiations.

Because of rid monotheism and strict moral and ceremonial purity, the Jews were set apart from pagan ideals and practices. Christians took the same positions, because of their faith’s close connection with Judaism. However, it did not have a national origin as their defense. Rome was tolerant of a national religion but not with individuals, who were not obligated by racial ties, would abstain from the pleasures in which the majority indulged. Christians were under constant suspicion and were denied privileges freely given to others.

Christianity had to shape a new way of thinking, by applying the principles of the gospel of Christ to Greek idealism and Roman materialism.

Christians were probably not the object of general economic discrimination. However, Revelation 13, though prophetic, seems to indicate that some type of existing economic pressure existed. The seal of Augustus to Trajan the seal of the emperor was affixed to bills of state and similar documents. The seal contained the year of the reigning Caesar, his name, and sometimes the abbreviation. There is no evidence that Christians were forced to wear this stamp on their persons. If they suffered economic discrimination, it was more like because they refused to use the seal on their business documents, since it implied worship of the empire.

The Imperial Cult

Perhaps no other reality of the Roman Empire has prompted the writing of the Apocalypse than the Imperial Cult, that is impetus of the Roman emperor to demand worship on part of those who fell under the domain of the empire. Its importance should not be understated. For this was the occasion for Revelation. The Imperial Cult played an important part in the persecution of the Christians. In conjunction with the persecution of Christians by the emperors Nero and Domitian, the tribulation which John speaks is validated.

On Nero, in his Annals, Tacitus wrote:

Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.

The Apocalypse presupposes that Christians were required to participate to some degree in the imperial cult (e.g., 13:4–8, 15–16, 14:9–11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4).
Roman emperors require worship of their person prior to the reign of Domitian. Nero’s persecution of the Christians was not because the refusal to worship him, but because he blamed them for the great fire of Rome. In the Apocalypse, persecution arises because of the failure to worship the ungodly king.

The imperial cult was strong and created a totalitarian state, both political and religiously. The Romans felt that their security was personified in the head of the state, and their future, which created an atmosphere of man-worship.

The emperors posed as gods. The emperor was the living head of the state and the guardian of its welfare. It was the most dangerous of the cults. The worship of the emperor did not disturb the worshipers of other gods save the Jews and Christians.

Despite the demand for worship, under the emperors Flavian, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, Rome prospered. However, Rome was more strict with the administration of its provinces. Emperor worship was more prevalent in the provinces than in Rome, particularly in the Middle East. Christians were placed in the dilemma. The Roman Emperor set the direction of political and economic conditions in the provinces.


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Penguin Classics. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

Thompson, Leonard L., The Book of Revelation, Apocalypse and Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.