This is one in a series of posts about a recent trip to visit Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). I’m well along in the series; I’ve already written about Roman architecture, Roman religion, the exercise of imperial power, and the apostle Paul’s message to Jews and Gentiles. There are a few more topics I want to reflect on, including why Christianity appealed to the populace and how early Christians responded to oppression. This post will be about the second of those topics.

I’ve previously discussed the expectation throughout the Roman Empire that everyone offer sacrifices to or in other ways venerate the Roman gods, among them the emperors, who were typically awarded divine status posthumously, and sometimes when still alive. Adherents of Roman and Greek religious cults had no difficulty with this requirement; the person who worshiped Zeus on Monday could worship Aphrodite on Tuesday and the emperor on Wednesday without dissonance. Monotheists worship only one God, though. If they are being faithful to that one deity, they will refuse honoring all others. This was an issue for Jews before there were any Christians. After Palestine had come under Roman rule, in the days of Augustus, they were granted an accommodation. They didn’t have to make sacrifices to the emperor. Instead, it was considered sufficient that sacrifices were made for the safety of the emperor in the Jerusalem temple. Throughout most of the empire, first-century Christians were considered Jews, and so they benefited from this exemption.

There was some persecution of Christians by Romans even when they ostensibly had the benefit of the Jewish loophole. In particular, Christians were persecuted by Nero in Rome in the 60s. Both Peter and Paul were martyred there. Rome’s understanding with Judaism was strained when temple sacrifices for the emperor were suspended in 66 A.D., shortly before the Jewish revolt. Jews also became more concerned about losing some from among their number to Christian conversion and became determined to not allow those converts to continue to identify with synagogues. “The Curse of the Minim,” found in a Jewish document written around 90 A.D., was intended to end the practice of Christian converts associating with Judaism.

Thus, toward the end of the first century, Christians became less able to depend on the Jewish exemption to the expectation that they worship the emperor. That was also when emperor Domitian intensified efforts to get the entire populace to participate in emperor worship. In his commentary on Revelation, Paige Patterson, after summarizing the above history, indicated that “Christians, especially Jewish Christians, found themselves facing the unhappy alternatives of either denying Christ and embracing Judaism entirely or else preparing themselves for serious persecution at the hands of both the Romans and the Jews.” (Revelation)

The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s, and the letters to the churches in chapters 2 and 3 address the increasing likelihood of persecution or at least hardship because of their faith. Thus, the church at Smyrna referred to “the slander of those who call themselves Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” (Lexham English Bible) This may sound like anti-Jewish sentiment, but, as N.T. Wright notes, “this was essentially a struggle within Judaism, not against Judaism.” (Revelation for Everyone, p. 16) The church had Gentiles in it, but also had a fair number of Jews who believed they were the ones who were properly worshiping the God of the Hebrews. Those in the synagogue disagreed, and were probably telling the Romans that followers of Christ were not true Jews. John, the writer of Revelation, warned that the outcome would be persecution:

“Do not be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and you will experience affliction ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10)

The last phase seems to suggest that some in Smyrna would be martyred. We don’t know whether the believers there remained unswerving in their faith, but it’s fairly clear that in some of the churches there were believers who compromised when faced with hardship. This seems to have been the case in Pergamum, which had major temples to Zeus, Asclepius, and Athena and was becoming an important center for the imperial cult.

Base of altar for sacrifices to Asclepius, Pergamum.

Remains of temple to the emperor Trajan, Pergamum.

A believer named Antipas had been martyred in Pergamum. John commends those who remained steadfast despite the danger: “you hold fast to my name and did not deny your faith in me….” Yet there were others who weren’t to be commended:

 “But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold fast to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat food sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14)

John is referring here to an episode during Israel’s exodus from Egypt in which Balaam, a prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, instructed Balak to send Moabite women to entice Israelite men to sin. Those in the church who hold fast to Balaam’s teaching have apparently decided that it is acceptable for Christians to compromise with the surrounding culture in a manner similar to how the Israelite men acted in response to Moabite seductresses. G. K. Beale gives the following explanation of the temptations that were present in Pergamum:

“In particular, what may be included are trade guild festivals involving celebration of patron deities through feasts and sometimes immoral activities. Refusal to participate in such activities could result in economic and social ostracism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:11–21). Therefore, there was much pressure to compromise. And just as Israel was influenced to fornicate both sexually and spiritually, the same was true of Christians in Pergamum.” (The Book of Revelation, p. 249)

We tend to think that early Christians were regularly being thrown to wild beasts or being told to recant or die. Though such things did happen, what was probably more common was the kind of social and economic pressures found in Pergamum. Membership in one’s trade guild, and with it one’s livelihood, depended on participating in an occasional festival honoring a pagan deity. It would be easy to rationalize such compromise. Yet John makes it clear that Christ wouldn’t tolerate such betrayal of the faith among his followers. All this makes me wonder whether there are compromises I’m making that Christ finds equally distasteful. We Westerners are in a culture that doesn’t erect statues to Zeus or Athena, Still, there are abundant idols for us to worship–fame, money, power, pleasure, self. It takes considerable discernment to recognize whether we’ve been bowing the knee to any of these. Reflecting on the situation in Pergamum has made me more attuned to this issue in my own life.

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