Insights on the Apocalypse of John: Why Was John on Patmos?

Why was John, the Jewish-Christian prophet, on the island of Patmos? What was the island like? John reports in Rev 1:9 that he was on the island of Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (διὰ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ). It has often been assumed from the very earliest interpreters of the Apocalypse that John was relocated to Patmos as a punishment of Roman exile.

However, there seems to be no evidence that Patmos was ever used as a location of exile. David Aune, (Revelation 1-5, 78) has pointed out that Patmos had both a temple of Artemis and a gymnasium situated upon it during the first century CE. He also argues that, based upon this evidence, that there is no Roman evidence to indicate that Patmos was ever a prison settlement.

It is true that the Roman punishment of exile (to an island) was in full force during the first century (it was a legitimate punishment even in the city of Corinth). Many scholars uncritically point to this evidence as proof to that John suffered exile. However, when we look at the specific islands used for such punishment, Patmos never once appears among the lists. Tacitus (Annals 3.68) is often cited by scholars in favor of the exile interpretation, but this text only demonstrates that banishment to islands was a regularly practiced punishment. Patmos is not listed by Tacitus, but the island of Gyarus is. In Annals 4.30 Tacitus refers to the islands of Gyarus, Donusa, and Amorgus as locations (which he is aware of) used for the Roman punishment of banishment. 

Patmos was certainly a known island for ancient historians and geographers. The Greek historian Thucydides refers to Patmos in passing in The Peloponnesian War 3.33.3, and mentions nothing about the island’s description. The geographer Strabo cites it in his Geography 10.5.13, but like Thucydides mentions nothing other than its location.  Pliny (Nat. Hist. 4.12.69) refers to Patmos as one of many islands in Southern Aegean, but makes no mention of it as a location of exiles. 

Statements made by scholars that Patmos was an island of banishment or prison colony have been uncritically influenced by the ancient Christian interpretations of Rev. 1:9, but not by verifiable evidence. So if John was not exiled to Patmos, why was he there? Let’s take a look again at his reason, found in Rev. 1:9 (“on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”). The preposition dia used with the accusative could easily mean “because of,” or “on account of.” Since the “word of God” is a shorthand reference to the Christian gospel message, and since “the testimony of Jesus” likely refers to the Christian kerygma both spoken by Jesus and concerning Jesus, it is much more likely that John was on Patmos for evangelistic purposes. Leonard Thompson (“Ordinary Lives: John and His First Readers,” in Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students, ed. David L. Barr [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003], 33-4), offers the attractive hypothesis which suggests that John was meeting with a Christian congregation located on the island of Patmos. Although we have no data about a Christian community existing on Patmos, this suggestion is more likely to be historical than the popular suggestion that John was located there because of exile.

Since the theme of holding fast to the testimony of Jesus is a significant motif within the Apocalypse, it is likely that John is using himself as an example of faithful gospel-preaching, despite the fact that he shares in their tribulation (1:9b).

Patmos has now turned into a tourist attraction. From the looks of this picture, I wouldn’t mind being exiled there 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Insights on the Apocalypse of John: Why Was John on Patmos?

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