Thanks for joining us for another segment on the Apocalypse of John. Today we will discuss how persecution in particular relates to the occasion of this document, which admittedly is a fiercely debated issue. Regarding the internal evidence, particularly in the letters to the seven churches, there are only sporadic references to persecution of Christians. Believers in Smyrna are told that they will be thrown into prison (2:10) and one particular Christian named Antipas has already suffered as a martyr in Pergamum (2:13). Conflict and harassment with the local Jewish synagogues (2:9; 3:9), as the split between the followers of Christ and Judaism became ever more apparent, surely brought antagonism and hostility to the Asian churches. Contact with various manifestations of the Roman imperial cult very likely brought tension with the monotheistic faith of the churches in Asia Minor. Other references are more general, revealing that John desired that his recipients refuse to assimilate in a compromising manner into the culture of Greco-Roman society.
The particular manner of conflict experienced by John’s audience was likely to be of the sort described by Pliny the Younger in one of his letters to the emperor Trajan (Ep. Trajan 10:96-7). The exchange between Pliny and Trajan (circa 112 CE) demonstrates that Christians could indeed be killed simply for being Christians. According to Trajan’s response, in order to avoid being killed, Christians would have to repeat an invocation to the gods, offer prostration (using wine and frankincense) to Trajan’s image, and subsequently curse Christ. There was not an active program of persecution where Christians were sought out and hunted down. Pliny’s request for advice from Trajan presupposes, rather, that there was no formal precedent for dealing with the Christian sect. Trajan responded by stating that if the occasion arose then the penalty of death was certainly warranted, although he orders that the Christians should not be actively sought out.
The nature of the conflict was one that would not have been perceived by the imperial authorities as out of place. However, Christians sympathetic to John would have perceived imperial hostility as a significant struggle, as the particularly small congregations, with their limited sources of power, stood no chance against the might of the Roman Empire. The emperor Domitian, as a conservative citizen of Rome, would have felt no qualms about “keeping the peace” by threatening what he would have perceived as an unpatriotic, upstart religion. The Pax Romana was, after all, the most decisive and prized sign of the times. Christians who refused to participate with the imperial cults or other forms of religious activity which they deemed offensive would almost certainly encounter harassment at the local level, which would include social ostracism, public shame, and even the seizure of their property. John, acting out the role of a Christian prophet, recognized that his audience faced a historical crisis and therefore composed the Apocalypse in order to offer a response to this catastrophe. The audience, by hearing the words of the document read aloud within their worship services, would participate in John’s experience as a seer and thereby appropriate the visions for their own Sitz im Leben.
I strongly argue that the circumstances for composing the Apocalypse of John must be taken seriously when attempting to interpret its message and meaning.