Persecution and the Book of Revelation

The majority of the early church assumed that the Book of Revelation was written when Domitian was persecuting the church. For example, Irenaues said that John wrote “nearly in our generation,” at the end of the reign of Domitian. 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 argues the establishment of an imperial cult in Ephesus is the immediate background for Revelation 13 (Rituals and Power, 197-198). 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.  This is possible, but a serious allusion to Daniel 3 in Revelation 13 is less than obvious.

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, and by contrast, ,making the current emperor Trajan appear as the better sovereign. 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 [Fall 1991]: 199).  DeSilva does not argue for a systematic, empire-wide persecution, however.

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.

But these two views may not be opposed to each other.  The church is in fact experiencing “growing pains” as it moves further from its Jewish roots into the pagan, Gentile world.  We know this was true during Paul’s lifetime, it is no surprise to find that the next generation of Gentile Christians continued to struggle with how their new Christian faith integrated (or did not integrate) with their Greco-Roman world view.  But as the church grew, the Roman world began to notice it and they considered it to be a strange superstition.  Any new philosophy or religion was suspect in the Roman world and Christianity was attacked as a strange and pernicious cult whenever it was successful.  The persecution which is in the background in Revelation may not be anything specific, rather, Christians everywhere faced pressure to conform to the Roman ideal and potentially loss of property or life if they did not.

John is therefore projecting into the very near future when he believed imperial worship would be required. Christians who reject imperial worship will be persecuted and eventually killed for their stand against Rome.  The book of Revelation provides encouragement to Christians facing a very real threat to their lives because of their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.