Turkey Day 5 – Pergamum

The cryptoportico at the Asclepion at Pergamum

The cryptoportico at the Asclepion at Pergamum

Today we headed to the city of Pergamum. For those who have visited this impressive Roman site in the past, you might recall the sky-tram running from the base of the mountain to the park entrance. At this time, the system is being repaired so the larger busses have to hire a series of cabs to ferry people to the top. Since we are a smaller group traveling in a van we went up the winding road ourselves. There was one larger group ahead of us, otherwise we had the acropolis to ourselves. 

The city has a rich history. Pliny the Elder considered the city “the most important in the province” (Naturalis historia 5.126). Pergamum was the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon 281–133 BC; in 133 BC Attalus III died without an heir and gave the kingdom of Pergamon to Rome in his will. 

Although Pergamum was the site of the first imperial cult in Asia under Augustus, the imperial cult site at the acropolis was redesigned for Trajan (who died before it was completed) and Hadrian. The city reached its peak population of about 200,000 at this time. 

One of the main points of interest is the platform of the Temple of Zeus. The temple itself was dismantled and moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, but one can still imagine how impressive the building would have been sitting at the time of the acropolis. For many interpreters, Revelation 2:13 refers to this temple as the “place where Satan has his throne.” For others, this is a reference to the imperial cult, although the impressive imperial Temple was not constructed until after Revelation was written. A few have suggested Satan’s throne is the Asclepium (see below).

Imperial Cult Temple at Pergamum

Imperial Cult Temple at Pergamum

The imperial temple has been partially reconstructed. There are a number of impressive pillars and the vault system is open to visitors. A partial statue of Trajan is still standing, everything else has been moved to a museum. In a small open-air collection of inscriptions next to the imperial temple is an inscription honoring Trajan. After listing many of his imperial titles, the main part of the inscription ends with the words, “of the earth and the sea, Lord.” This is the imperial claim that the Emperor was the Lord of the Land and Sea, probably reflected in Revelation’s beast of the earth and beast of the sea (Revelation 13).

The theater is the steepest in the ancient world. The 78-rows could hold up to 10,000 people. Pergamum also boasted a large library containing as many as 200,000 volumes. 

One member of our group grabbed a wooden handrail and was skewered by a massive splinter. After a brief detour to the hospital for stitches, we spent some time at the Asclepion. (I suppose we could have waited for the healing waters of Asclepius, but we thought a tetanus shot was a better idea). 

Theater at Pergamum

I had not visited the this site in my two previous trips to Turkey, I was really looking forward to seeing this center of healing in the Ancient world. Asclepius was the god of medicine and the Asclepion was equal parts cultic center and medical center. Certainly the sick  benefited from medicine and hygiene, but they were also encouraged to sleep in the presence of the god and listen for his voice in the night suggesting medical treatments. The famous ancient physician Galen worked at the Asclepion in Pergamum for many years, 

We had a late lunch and a visit to an onyx shop (many contributed to the local economy) before heading back to the hotel for our last night in Izmir. 

Revelation as Resistance Literature

Despite the fact the book of Revelation is usually mined for what it has to say about future events, it is not a “roadmap for the future.” It is, rather, an exhortation written to very real churches to encourage them to live a different kind of life in the shadow of the Second Coming. This life means enduring persecution for their belief in Jesus and their non-belief in an imperial system that was becoming increasingly hostile to that faith. In Revelation the church is called to resist the culture, not through underground military action, but by being faithful witnesses to Jesus despite persecution.

There are many examples of this in Revelation, but I will offer one from the letter to Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17). In Rev 2:13 the church is commended for not renouncing their faith even though one faithful witness was put to death.  The city is described as the place where Satan has his throne (v. 13) and “where Satan lives” (v. 14). There are several suggestions for what is meant by “Satan’s Throne” (in fact, David Aune lists eight major possibilities). The Temple of Zeus Soter overlooked the city, and this throne was well known in the ancient world. On the other hand, this may refer to the Imperial cult represented by two temples to emperors Augustus and (later) to Trajan.

In support of this view, it is observed that the term “throne” is used as an “official seat or chair of state” in the New Testament, Pergamum was the center of Satan’s activities in the province of Asia much the way Rome becomes the center for Satan’s activities in the west. The Temple of Augustus in Pergamum was built in 29 B.C., and was the first of the imperial cults in Asia Minor.  In TJob 3:5b pagan temples are called “the temple of Satan.”

Antipas of PergamumEven though the imperial cult is strong in their city, the church of Pergamum remains true to the Lord’s name, even to the point of death. Nothing is known from scripture about the martyr Antipas, which is a shortened form of Antipater.  The title given him is “faithful witness,” title given to Jesus in Revelation 1. Eventually Pergamum will become known for several important martyrs.  The fact that the city was the center of the imperial cult would make the Christian refusal to accept the cult a serious crime.

There is a principle running through several of the letters in Rev 2-3 that the witnessing church will be a persecuted church (Beale, Revelation, 427).  Since the church has had a reputation for being a strong witness in the community, the church has had to face persecution, perhaps in the form of financial hardship and other social complications; but more importantly, members of their community have been killed for their faith.

Let me draw this back to the application of Revelation to the present church. How should the modern church “resist” the culture of this world? In western, “first world” countries this would look different than in some parts of Africa or Asia where the church is illegal and being persecuted for their faith. It is possible that the lack of persecution in the west is an indication that we have embraced culture and are no longer “faithful witnesses” like Antipas?