THE KING AND I: JOHN IN EPHESUS The King
And I:The Third Seal (Rev. 6:5, 6)--Part 3
Emperor Domitian, the
self-proclaimed “Lord and God” and ruthless dictator, reigned from AD 81 to
96. He was the son of Emperor Vespasian
and the brother of Titus, the conquerors of Jerusalem and the Judean people. During the last few years of his life,
Domitian became very superstitious. In
fact, on the day before he was murdered, he consulted an astrologer. During this time he also consulted Apollo,
the god of music and poetry, as well as the god of light, truth and
prophecy! To commemorate his
superstition, the emperor-minted coins depicting Apollo on one side and a
raven, a bird associated with prophecy, on the reverse side (Jones 1990:266). It was believed one could tell the future by watching
this bird’s flight (Kanitz 1973-74:47), so Domitian looked to it to foretell
his immediate future. Ironically,
Suetonius, a Roman historian and senator, records, “A few months before he
(Domitian) was killed, a raven perched on the Capitalium and cried, ‘All will
be well,’ an omen which some interpreted as follows: ‘… a raven … could not
say, “It is well,” only declared “It will be well.”’” (
Domitian 23:2; 1992:385).
Emperor Domitian died soon after and all was well!
The Apostle John, exiled on the island of Patmos about AD 95, received a more sure
word of prophecy. Not from a raven, nor
Apollo, but from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
The Book of Revelation begins, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which
God gave Him to show His servants – things which must shortly take place” (Rev.
1:1). He goes on to say, “Blessed is he
who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things
which are written in it; for the time is near” (Rev. 1:3).
The Book of Revelation is a polemic
(a controversial argument, against some opinion, or doctrine) against Emperor
Domitian and the Roman world. While
Domitian looked to Apollo and the raven to foretell the immediate future, the
Lord Jesus Christ, omniscient and infinitely greater than Domitian, revealed
the future of the world in this book. He
instructed John to “write the things which you have seen [the vision of the
glorified Son of Man (Rev. 1)], and the things which are [the situation of the
seven churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century AD (Rev. 2 and
3)], and the things which will take place after this [all the future events
recorded in Rev. 4-22]” (1:9). This
paper will examine several aspects of Domitian’s reign and John’s exile to Patmos.
In the nineteenth century, Bible
scholars, linguists, pilgrims, travelers and military intelligence officers
from America, England and the Continent began to visit the Holy Land and explore the Land of the Bible. In their books they described sites, recorded
manners and customs, drew maps and sketched landscapes. This research began to open up the world of
the Bible, a Book which was no longer a theological treatise, but a Book about
real people, real events and real places.
These explorers added a third dimension to Bible study for students back
home. In addition they provided
intelligence information for the countries of Europe awaiting the collapse of
the Ottoman Empire.
In the late 19th and
early 20th century Sir William Ramsay explored, excavated and wrote about Asia Minor. One of
his monumental studies is his book,
Letters to the Seven Churches. A
more recent study on the setting of Revelation 2 and 3 is Colin Hemer’s Ph.D.
dissertation under F. F. Bruce at the University of Manchester
in 1969 entitled,
The Letters to the
Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting.
I have tried to “follow in the
footsteps” of these great explorers.
First, by reading the accounts of their travels. Second, by travelling to the places they
visited and making my own observations and taking pictures.
These observations will help us
consider the historical setting of Revelation 1:9 and understand the apostle
John’s exile to the island
of Patmos. I will begin with the assumption that
Revelation was written in AD 95 during the reign of Emperor Domitian, and not
in the reign of Nero (Thomas 1994:185-202).
Let us begin with Emperor Domitian.
Emperor Domitian had a definite ego
problem! In Imperial Rome the senate
would deify an emperor upon death (Kreitzer 1990:210-217). However, Domitian, like Gaius Caligula, could
not wait until death, so he deified himself.
This is well attested to by the ancient writers.
Suetonius (AD 75 – ca. 140), in his
Lives of the Caesars, wrote,
“With no less arrogance he began as follows in issuing a circular letter in the
name of his procurators, ‘Our Master and our God bids that this be done.’”
[“Dominus et deus noster hoe fieri iubet.”] (
Domitian 13:2; 1992:367). He
also delighted in the adulation of the people in the amphitheater when they
shouted, “Good Fortune attends our Lord and Mistress.” [Domino et dominae
1992:367). A reference to himself and
Pliny the Younger (born AD 61 or 62
– died before 113), wrote in his
a tribute to Emperor Trajan, “He (Domitian) was a madman, blind to the true
meaning of his position, who used the arena for collecting charges of high
treason, who felt himself slighted and scorned if we failed to pay homage to
his gladiators, taking any criticism of them to himself and seeing insults to
his own godhead and divinity; who deemed himself the equal of the gods yet
raised his gladiators to his equal.” (33:4; 1992: 395).
Dio Cassius, in his
Roman History, wrote, “For he even insisted
upon being regarded as a god [
and took vast pride in being called ‘master’ [
despotus] and “god” [
theos]. These titles were used not merely in speech
but also in written documents” (
1995:329). Elsewhere he wrote, “One Juventius
Celsus, … [conspired] … against Domitian … When he was on the point of being
condemned, he begged that he might speak to the emperor in private, and
thereupon did obeisance before him and after repeatedly calling him ‘master’ [
despoton] and ‘god’ [
theon] (terms that were already being
applied to him by others)" (
of Book 67:3:4; 1995:349). Later
writers repeat the same claim and then go on to embellish it (Jones
1992:108). However, Statius claims
Domitian rejected these titles (
1:6:83-84; 1982: 69, 71).
There seems to be other contemporary
evidence that backs up Domitian’s claim to deity. Unfortunately, no inscriptions have been
discovered with these titles on them.
Dio Cassius again adds an important detail, when he wrote, “After
Domitian, the Romans appointed Nerva Cocceius emperor. Because of the hatred felt for Domitian, his
images, many of which were of silver and many of gold, were melted down; and
from this source large amounts of money were obtained. The arches, too, of which a very great number
were being erected to this one man, were torn down” (
Epitome of Book 68:1:1; 1995:361).
Upon his death, the Roman Senate was, “… overjoyed … [assailed] the dead
emperor with the most insulting and stinging kind of outcries. … Finally they
passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all
record of him obliterated" (Suetonius,
23:1; 1992:385). This decree, the
damnatio memoriae, destroyed all the
statues and epigraphical inscriptions of Domitian. Evidence of this can be seen in the arch at
Hierapolis, built by Domitian, [Fig. 2] as well as the dedicatory inscriptions
for the Temple of the Sabastoi in Ephesus (Friesen 1993a:34). There are a few exceptions. One is a marble portrait of Domitian with an
oakleaf crown, the so-called
civica, in the National
(Sapelli 1998:24). This bust, found in Latina, was probably
buried before the emperor died.
The only evidence not destroyed was
the coins minted by Domitian because it was impossible to recall all of
them. Numismatics is able to provide
some evidence of Domitian’s boast of deity.
Dr. Ernest Janzen, of the University of Toronto, in an article entitled, “The
Jesus of the Apocalypse Wears the Emperor’s Clothes,” provides for two lines of
evidence from numismatics for Domitian’s claim to deity. The first are coins minted in AD 83 called
the DIVI CAESAR (“divine Caesar”) coins.
These coins, minted in gold and silver, had the bust of Domitia, the
wife of Domitian, on the obverse with the inscription, “DIVI CAESAR MATRI” and
“DIVI CAESARIS MATER”, the mother of the divine Caesar! On the reverse was their infant son who was
born in the second consulship of Domitian in AD 73 and died in the second year
after he became emperor (AD 82)
1992:345). He is depicted as naked and
seated on a zoned globe with his arms stretched out surrounded by seven
stars! The inscription surrounding it
said “DIVUS CAESAR IMP DOMITIANI F”.
Translated it means, “the divine Caesar, son of the emperor
Domitian.” The infant is depicted as
baby Jupiter (Jupiter being the head of the Roman pantheon). “The globe represents world dominion and
power, while stars typically bespoke the divine nature of those accompanied. … the infant depicted on the globe was the
son of (a) god and that the infant was conqueror of the world”
(1994:645-647). It does not take a
rocket scientist to figure out that if he is the son of a god, then who is
god? Of course, his father, Domitian! I can not help but use my sanctified
imagination and wonder if John did not have this coin in front of him when he
penned, “and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man,
clothed with a garment down to His feet … He had in His right hand seven stars”
(Rev. 1:13,16). He refers back to this
vision in the letter to the church at Thyatira when the Lord Jesus identifies
Himself as the “Son of God” (Rev. 2:18).
The second bit of numismatic
evidence comes from the coins with the
(“thunderbolt”) on them. The
fulmen is the divine attribute of
Jupiter. Janzen points out; “In 84
Domitian struck reverse type Jupiter holding thunderbolt and spear. The first
issue of 85 continued this type but the second issue witnessed the
fulmen in Domitian’s hand. He and Jupiter would ‘share’ the
fulmen for the years 85-6 after which
Jupiter remained as a regular type, only without
fulmen. From 87-96 Domitian
alone held the
evidence of a developing megalomania which place the
fulmen in Domitian’s hand and are clearly patterned after the
fulmen type” (1994:648,
footnote 55). One numismatic expert says
this type “clearly suggests a parallel between himself and ‘Jupiter tonaus’
(the thunderer) or the father of the gods” (Mattingly, cited in Janzen
1994:648, footnote 55).
Martial, the first century Howard
Stern of Rome
confirms this idea in his writings. One
of his epigrams, written in AD 94, describing the
Gens Flavia (Jones 1992:1,199, footnote 1) says, “This piece of
ground, that lies open and is being covered with marble and gold, knew our Lord
domini) in infancy. … Here stood the venerable house that gave
the world what Rhodes and pious Crete gave the starry sky [Helios, the sun god,
was born on Rhodes according to some traditions, and Zeus, the chief god, was
born on Crete]. … But you the Father of the High One did
protect, and for you, Caesar, thunderbolt (
and aegis took the place of spear and buckler” (
Epigrams 9:20; 1993b: 249).
Sometimes Martial even calls Domitian the “Thunderer” (7:99:1; 1993b:
157), a title that usually belongs to Jupiter (Zeus) (
Epigrams 9:91; 1993b: 311)!
Domitian is putting himself on the same level as Jupiter.
Elsewhere in Martial’s writings he
calls Domitian “lord” (
8:82; 9:20, 28, 66; 1993b: 75, 231, 249, 257, 291) and “lord and god” (
Epigrams 5:8; 1993a: 361; 7:34; 8:2;
1993b: 105, 161). Interestingly, after
the death of Domitian, Martial repudiates these titles attributed to Domitian (
Epigrams 10:72; 1993b: 391). However, I think he was reflecting the
sentiments of the day while Domitian was alive.
He may not have believed it, but that’s what Domitian wanted, so that’s
what he got.
Another interesting sidelight, on
some of Domitian’s coins the initials “PM” appears on the inscriptions. These initials stand for “pontifex maximus,”
the high priest as head of the Roman religion.
This title, Biblically, belongs only to the Lord Jesus (Heb. 4:14).
It appears that in AD 85/86
something triggered Domitian to openly claim deity. What it was, I do not know, but the response
in Asia Minor was a temple dedicated to the
Temple in Ephesus
In 1930, the Austrian archaeologist
Josef Keil, began to excavate an artificial terrace near the southwest corner
of the Upper Agora in Ephesus. As the excavations progressed, it became
clear that this terrace, measuring 85.6 x 64.5 meters, supported the foundation
of a temple, but which one (Friesen 1993b:66).
In one of the vaults the “head and left forearm of a colossal,
akrolithic male statue” was discovered which lead the excavator to identify it
as the Temple
of the sabastoi (“emperors”) (1993b:60).
The structure was an octastyle temple of the Ionic order which measured
34 x 24 meters at its base (1993b:63).
“The cella had an interior measurement of about 7.5 x 13 meters”
(1993b:64). East of the temple stood and
altar (1993b:67). The north side of the
terrace had a three-story façade. The
top level had engaged figures of various deities supporting the terrace
above. Originally the façade probably
had 35-40 engaged figures of eastern and western gods and goddesses. Today, only two figures, Attis and Isis, both
eastern deities, have been restored (1993b:70,72).
In the last 125 years of research
and excavations at Ephesus, 13 inscriptions
dedicated to the provincial temple in Ephesus
have been discovered. These rectangular
marble blocks were set up by various cities of Asia Minor in recognition of Ephesus being the
“neokoros” (guardian, or caretaker) of this temple (1993b:29, 35). These inscriptions have the name of Domitian
chiseled out and in some cases have “Theos Vespansian” put in its place
(1993b:37). The destruction of
Domitian’s name was the result of the Roman Senate’s edict to erase any mention
Several questions should be asked
regarding this temple. First, to whom
was the Temple
of the Sabastoi dedicated? Domitian
would have a statue and possibly his wife Domitia (1993b:35). Most likely it also included the rest of the
Flavians: Vespasian, who was Domitian’s father, and Titus, his older brother.
Second, when was the temple fully
functional? Friesen, doing careful
detective work with the inscriptions, suggests the date of September AD 90 when
the temple was fully functional (1993b:44, 48).
Most likely the people began to build it after Domitian began to express
his opinion that he was a god in AD 85/86.
Third, whose head did the colossal
statue represent? When this statue was
first discovered in 1930, the excavator identified it as Domitian. Georg Daltrop and Max Wegner later questioned
this identification. Based on facial
features from portraits, they suggested it depicted his older brother
Titus. However, other art historians
still think it belongs to Domitian (1993b:62).
This akrolithic statue, made of a wooden body, now disintegrated, and
stone extremities, stood 8 meters tall (ca. 25 feet) (Friesen 1993b:63;
1993a:32). The left hand had a groove in
it in which a spear was placed. This
description accords historically with Ephesian coins depicting the Temple of the Sabastoi
with a statue in front holding a spear (1993b:63).
Fourth, where was the statue placed
in the temple complex? Some have
suggested that it was outside in the courtyard.
However, the problem with that suggestion is that the torso was made of
wood and would deteriorate in the inclement weather. Most likely it was inside the temple. Friesen notes that the back of the head was
not finished, thus “the statue could only have been displayed in front of a
wall where visitors were not expected to go behind it” (1993a:32). The most logical place would be inside the
temple. Also inside, most likely, were
similar statues of the other Flavians (1993b:62).
Fifth, what was the symbolism of the
temple complex? A visitor approaching
the Temple of
the Sabastoi from the Agora would notice the northern façade with the engaged
deities supporting the temenos and wonder what was the intended symbolism. Friesen remarks, “The message was clear: the
gods and goddesses of the peoples supported the emperors; and, conversely, the
cult of the emperors united the cultic system, and the peoples, of the
empire. The emperors were not a threat
to the worship of the diverse deities of the empire; rather, the emperors
joined the ranks of the divine and played their own particular role in that
realm” (1993b:75). Ephesus,
with its harbor, was the major commercial center of Asia
Minor. The pilgrims and
traders would mix their commercial ventures with their cultic worship of the
emperors while in Ephesus. I would like to suggest that first century Ephesus is a
prototype of the future religious and
commercial center predicted in Rev. 17 and 18 called “Mystery Babylon”
controlled by the Antichrist.
Interestingly, F. Farrar, in his monumental work,
The Life and Work of St. Paul says of Ephesus, “It’s markets, glittering with the
produce of world’s art, were the Vanity Fair of Asia. They furnished to the exile [of] Patmos the local colouring of those pages of the Apocalypse
in which he speaks of ‘the merchandise of gold, silver,…’ (Rev. 18:12,13)”
(1888:355). The first century church
could relate to this.
In the midst of all this commercial
and cultic activities, the believers in the Lord Jesus Christ took a stand for
Him (Rev. 2:2, 3). One of their elders,
the apostle John, refused to participate in the emperor worship and preached
against it. While on Patmos,
he received the revelation from the Lord Jesus that was a polemic against
emperor worship and Domitian in particular.
Revelation 1:9 says that John was on the island of Patmos
“for the word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.” The serious Bible student knows there are at
least three different interpretations for that verse. First, the Lord sent John to the island
specifically to receive the revelation.
Second, John voluntarily went to the island to preach the gospel. Third, he was banished by the Roman
government because of preaching the gospel (Thomas 1992:88, 89). Most likely the third is the primary
interpretation but the other two are correct as well. John was exiled to Patmos
because of preaching the gospel and against emperor worship, but the Lord in
His sovereignty used this opportunity for him to receive the book of Revelation
and while he was there, he had the opportunities to proclaim the gospel.
Conclusions Regarding Domitian
I wonder if the Apostle John had
ever seen the statue of Domitian in the Temple
of the Sabastoi? If he had, I’m sure he
refused to bow down and worship it, or even burn incense on the altar before
it. What a contrast between this
lifeless stone statue of a mere mortal man and the vision which John saw of the
resurrected and living Savior, the Son of Man, in Revelation 1. On the isle of Patmos
he saw, “One like the Son of Man, clothed in a garment down to the feet and
girded about the chest with a golden band.
His head and His hair were white like wool, as white as the snow
(Domitian was bald!), and His eyes like a flame of fire; His feet were like
fine brass, as if refined in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many
waters; He had in His right hand seven stars (as opposed to a spear in
Domitian’s left hand), out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and his
continence was like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:13-16). When John saw this One, he fell down as dead
(1:17a). He worshipped Someone
infinitely greater than the mortal and dead emperors. He worshipped the One who was the “First and
the Last,” and the One who lives, and was dead, and is alive forever more
Is it any wonder that John also
recorded the statement of the four living creatures, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord
God (“Kurios ho theos”) Almighty. Who
was and is and is to come” (4:8)? The
contrast of the “Lord God’s” was obvious for any believer living in the first
century. Domitian tried to legislate
public and private morality, yet he himself was immoral: an adulterer, involved in incest, responsible
for the murder of his niece. Julia died
as a result of a botched abortion after he impregnated her. There were other people murdered by
Domitian’s command because he felt they were a threat to his rule. He was blasphemous as well as an animal abuser. He would sit in his room, catch flies, and
stab them with a “keenly-sharpened stylus”.
On the other hand, the Lord Jesus Christ is “holy, holy, holy.” The One who could not sin, would not sin, and
did not sin (James 1:13; II Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). He was the spotless Lamb of God (I Pet.
1:19). Domitian called himself Dominus
Dues Domitianus (D. D. D.). Yet the Lord
Jesus is the “Lord God Almighty”, the One who is El Shaddai! Domitian was born on Oct. 24, AD 51 and
murdered on Sept. 18, AD 96. He was
cremated and his ashes mingled with his niece Julia and buried in the temple of
built over the house where he was born.
This house was located on the Quirinal Hill in the sixth Region (Jones
1992:1; Richardson 1992:181). Yet the
Eternal Son of God is the One “who was and is and is to come!” Domitian reigned only 15 years (Sept. 13, AD
81 – Sept. 18, AD 96), yet King Jesus will reign for a thousand years as “King
of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 20:4-6; 19:16). Believers in the Lord Jesus during the first
century would be encouraged (and blessed) by reading the book of Revelation.
Coinage and Finances in the Reign of Domitian. A.D. 81-96. Oxford: BAR International series 178.
Cassius Roman History, Epitome of Book LXI-LXX. Cambridge,
1993a Ephesus. Key to a Vision in Revelation.
Archaeology Review 19/3: 24-37.
Twice Neokoros. Ephesus, Asia and the Cult of the Flavian Imperial Family. Leiden:
E. J. Brill.
The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting. Sheffield: JSOT.
Numismatic Compass for the Troubled Waters of the New Testament
The Picus ??: 99-138.
The Jesus of the
Apocalypse Wears the Emperor’s Clothes.
SBL 1994 Seminar Papers. Atlanta,
The Emperor Domitian. London: Routledge.
A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins. London:
Domitian The Man Revealed by His Coins.
the Roman Emperor.
Biblical Archaeologist 53/4: 210-217.
C., and Jackson, J. (trans.)
The Annals of Tacitus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
J. H. (trans.)
Statius’ Silvae. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Pliny’s Natural History. 10
Pliny’s Letters, Book VIII-X, Panegyricus. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University (Loeb).
The Letters to the Seven Churches. Peabody, MA:
A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. Baltimore: John
Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars,
Domitian. Loeb Classical
Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme. Milan: Electa.
Bailey, D. R. (trans.)
Martial’s Epigrams. Vol.
1. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge,
Martial’s Epigrams. Vol. 2.
Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge,
An Exegetical Commentary. Chicago:
Theonomy and the
Dating of Revelation.
The Master’s Seminary Journal 5/2: