The majority of the early church assumed that it was under Domitian’s persecution that the book was written. Irenaues said that John wrote “nearly in our generation”, at the end of the reign of Domitian. All of the secular evidence for persecution under Domitian comes from after his reign. However, contemporary sources such as Tacitus, Pliny and Dio Cassius all imply Domitian persecuted Christians. In 1 Clement 1:1, written in A.D. 96, alludes to “the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses that have befallen us.” 1 Clement 4-7 contains several references which might be taken as either referring to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul or the present persecutions under Domitian.
S. R. F. Price (Rituals and Power, 197-198) argues the establishment of an imperial cult in Ephesus is the immediate background for Revelation 13. He draws parallels between Dan 3:12, 18 (LXX) and Rev 13:7-8, 14-15, 18 and concludes the writer of Revelation is drawing a connection between the refusal of the three young men to bow to the idol and the presence of an imperial cult in Asia Minor.
Since all of the sources which describe Domitian as a megalomaniac who demanded worship as a god date from after his reign, it can be argued the later sources are painting the old emperor in a negative light (perhaps to paint Trajan in a good light.) DeSilva disagrees, arguing instead that “Domitian valued cultic language as an expression of social and political relationships.” This cultic language would have been imposed on the lower levels of society as a method of declaring loyalty to the state. (“The ‘Image Of The Beast’” TrinJ 12:2 (Fall 1991), 199)
On the other hand, there are a number of recent scholars who challenge the assumption of Roman persecution as a background for the book. For example, A. Y. Collins (Crisis and Catharsis, 69-73) argues the book is more about problems within the church, especially with Christians being drawn into pagan worship, rather than an organized and systematic persecution of Christian by the Empire. This is view has the advantage of taking the letters to the seven churches seriously (Rev 2-3). In these letters, the problems arise from within the church and not from Rome. The problems revolve around how the churches in Asia Minor integrate Christianity and pagan culture. If there is a persecution theme in Rev 2-3, it is the same fraternal debated between Jews and Christians we see as early as Galatians.
In the end, however, I think that John is addressing how Christians can live in a culture that is thoroughly anti-Christian. For the Jewish convert to Christ, this is easier since Jews were more or less used to finding ways to be separated from the paganism of the Greco-Roman world. For the converted Gentile, things were much more difficult because their worldview simply accepted many of these practices as “normal.”
It is this problem which is most “preachable,” since American Christianity stopped asking how to remain separate from the world, hardly noticing how non-Christian categories of thought influence how we live our lives in Christ. Perhaps we need to re-read the letters to the seven churches with this in mind. (Let the one with ears hear?)