What is the meaning of Satan's throne in Revelation 2:13?

Marko Joensuu         No comments

In Revelation 2, when we come to Pergamum, we encounter the One who has “the sharp two-edged sword” acknowledging that the Christians there live where “Satan’s throne is”, and where Satan “lives”. Between these two remarks about Satan’s residence is a reminder that Antipas was martyred there.

The reference to where Satan’s throne is and where he lives has been interpreted primarily in four ways. It has been suggested that it refers to:

• the Altar of Zeus and Athena in Pergamum

• the Asklepieion at the outskirts

• Pergamum as a centre of Roman rule in the province of Asia

• the imperial cult temple for Rome and Augustus somewhere in the city. (Friesen 2005, 357)

But all these four suggestions are somewhat unconvincing.

The Altar of Zeus and Athena was built as thanks for a victory over the Gauls in 190 BC. The reason why it has been a popular guess is that in the late nineteenth century the altar was one of the only monuments from Pergamum known to scholars, and the friezes were hauled off and displayed in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. (ibid., 357, 359) For some conspiracy theorists, the fact that this altar is now located in a city associated with the Nazi Germany has proved tempting, and recently, it was referred to by some Christian Leave campaigners as part of the Brexit referendum.

But there is no obvious reason why this specific temple would have been singled out in Revelation.

The second candidate for the throne of Satan is the Pergamene Asklepieion—the healing complex related to the cult of Asklepios. (ibid., 359-360) Again, there is no obvious reason why this healing complex would have been referred to as Satan’s throne in Revelation.

Pergamum was not the Roman capital of Asia Minor, as Ephesus was the governmental centre, (ibid., 361) so the theory that this was the reason why it is referred to as Satan’s throne has no historical support.

The cult of Roma and Augustus was set up in Pergamum in 29 BC. (Friedrich 2002, 191) But the theory that Pergamum was called Satan’s throne because of it being a centre for emperor worship faces some difficulties.

In the time of the writing of Revelation, there were at least thirty-five cities in Asia Minor with temples dedicated to imperial divinities, (ibid., 192) so that would not have been a differentiating factor.

Pergamum was not Asia’s only cult for the emperor, and by the time of Emperor Domitian, there were three cults for the emperor in Asia Minor; there probably was not one central imperial temple

in Asia Minor. Friesen suggests that it is the hostility leading to the martyrdom of Antipas that Satan’s throne is referring to. (Friesen 2005, 363, 365) This seems to be supported by the sandwich structure of the text with the martyrdom placed between two references to Satan.

What is clear is that in John’s mind Pergamum had some sort of concentration of demonic power, and this power was able to release serious persecution of Christians.

According to church tradition, Antipas, who had been discipled by John, was roasted to death in a brazen or copper bull in the temple of Artemis. There are many legends around this story, but the kernel of the story is probably true. We can safely assume that John would have been interceding for people he had been discipling, and this might have been the reason he received the revelation about Pergamum.

So, is the throne of Satan the throne of Artemis? Are we back with the same issue of idolatry that we were dealing with Ephesus but now with persecution?

I would suggest that these options exclude the only building in Pergamum that fits the bill simply because most scholars do not perceive the religious nature of the blood games in the amphitheatre.

But as today with the cutting off the throat of Christians by Islamic extremists, the slaughter of Christians was not just for bloody entertainment but a profoundly religious act.

Tertullian writes in The Apology of Tertullian, Chapter 15:

But may be I am to think you more religious in the amphitheatre, where the gods are brought in dancing upon human blood, and upon the dead bodies of criminals; the gods, I say, which supply the fable, unless it be when the poor actors are forced to suffer to the life, and be the very gods themselves. For we have seen an actor truly suffer castration in personating the god Atys of Pessinus; and another playing Hercules in real flames; and among the ludicrous barbarities which are exhibited at noonday, for the entertainment of those who are more greedy of them than dinner. I could not forbear smiling to see Mercury going about with a rod of iron red hot, probing the bodies to fetch out the souls, and Jove’s brother Pluto, in like manner, with his mallet in his hand to finish those that were not quite dead, and make them ready for the ferry-boat.

In the arena, the guards dressed like the evil spirits of the dead. Mercury or Pluto watched over the dying and removed the corpses from the arena. (Thompson 2002, 47) The cult of Nemesis in the Roman period was associated with the blood games and the imperial cult. (Tataki 2009, 641)

So, perhaps the double-edged sword of Jesus in reference to Pergamus is there to remind Christians that they were between two swords: one can kill only temporarily, but the other will bring an eternal separation from God.

There was only another amphitheatre in Asia Minor, apart from the one in Pergamum. It was in Cyzicus. But we know nothing about Christianity in the first century Cyzicus. So, if the amphitheatre was Satan’s house, there were not that many Christians living near the second Satan’s house in Asia Minor—in Cyzicus. And if there were, John probably did not have personal connections to the Christians living there.

As we saw earlier, Tertullian very much saw the amphitheatre and the prison that prepared for it as the devil’s house. It was the blood games that made the Roman Empire more horrendous than any earlier empire. And because of the thoroughly religious aspect of these gladiator games, they amounted to a horrendous human sacrifice. It was in the amphitheatre rather than in temples that the Romans sacrificed humans to their gods. And it was in the amphitheatres where many Christians would die in the next centuries.

For more on the Book of Revelation, you can read my book Understanding Revelation.

Sources

Friedrich, Nestor Paulo. ‘Adapt or Resist? A Socio-Political Reading of Revelation 2.18-29’. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25, no. 2 (1 December 2002): 185–21.

Friesen, Steven J. ‘Satan’s Throne, Imperial Cults and the Social Settings of Revelation’. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27, no. 3 (2005): 351–73.

Tataki, Argyro B. ‘Nemesis, Nemeseis, and the Gladiatorial Games at Smyrna’. Mnemosyne 62, no. 4 (2009): 639–48.

Tertullian, Apologeticus  (The Apology of Tertullian)

Thompson, Leonard L. ‘The Martyrdom of Polycarp: Death in the Roman Games’. The Journal of Religion 82, no. 1 (1 January 2002): 27–52.



Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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