Every Monday, I will provide a glimpse into the research I am doing into the persecution of the Christian and Jewish communities during the reign of Domitian. I am plunging headlong into the research and loving every minute of it.
My interest in Domitian began with research I undertook in summer of 2014 into Johannine studies. Last week’s second part can be seen here. Today, I present to you the third portion of that research, and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
GALATIAN IMPERIAL CULT
Along with the re-evaluation of Domitian, Thompson and several others propose moving research toward a possible Imperial cult at Ephesus. They view this cult as a far more promising insight into understanding persecution as localized events during Domitian’s reign. P. Prigent is the trailblazer in locating Asia Minor as the hub of much of the Imperial cult faith and practice.1 These community organized religious observances would have included public worship of the Emperor. Failure to do so would have been costly. The specific cult in question at Ephesus has been dated for A. D. 89-90, and had built a gym-bath house complex to specifically honor Domitian. This leads these researchers to conclude that the Christians were under a local persecution due to their abhorrence to worship a man as god, and that tales of a empire wide persecution are exaggerations.
Appraisal and Critique of Galatian Imperial Cult
The Ephesian Cult is truly a promising explanation for many experiences of persecution felt by the Christian community spread throughout the Empire. However, it fails in several respects to answer the persecutions and apostasies that happened outside Ephesus. Beale mentions letters between Trajan and Pliny, and discussions of apostasies that happened under Domitian.2 Beale’s conclusion is that, “[t]he truth likely lies somewhere in between the recent historical revisions concerning Domitian (Thompson and others) and more traditional assessments of Domitian, since all the ancient testimonies both for and against Domitian contain varying degrees of bias and truth.”3
Not mentioned by Thompson nor Beale nor the other researchers, but still important is the failure to answer the most prominent question in the material studied, the letter of Clement to the Church at Corinth. The first letter of Clement is one of the earliest Christian writings that still exist. It was most likely written contemporary with John’s writing of Revelation in the latter 90’s of the first century.4 Clement wrote the letter on the occasion of a schism in the Corinthian church, not unusual for them as he makes mention of their previous conduct under the administration of Paul. However, it is this reference he makes which argues for a far larger persecution than the Ephesian cult warrants. “Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves,” has been correctly interpreted as evidence of a wider persecution since it refers to Clement and not, as it proceeds, to the sedition at the church.5
This oversight is noticeable since it further substantiates a persecution much larger than the city of Ephesus during Domitian’s reign. Also, the possibility of falsification of the data is low because it would have been harmful for Clement to lie about persecution since it would have been reported to the church, and he would have lost a great deal of respect. The same political or religious motivation is also gone for the same reason as it would have been harmful to his reputation, and more dangerous to his life. Clement’s letter further cements the classical portrait of Domitian.
The largest oversight in the view of an Ephesian Imperial cult is the utter lack of a comment about this cult or persecution in the short message to the Ephesian church by John. The text of Rev. 2.1-7 makes no mention of persecution and no mention of a cult, unless the researchers want to substantiate that the Nicolaitans are the Imperial cult, and that would be a extreme minority view. It would have heavily been in the Apostle’s favor to mention the cult persecution, and there are no political reasons that inhibit him from doing so if he is in exile on Patmos, as the church traditionally maintains. The view that there was an Ephesian cult that explains the persecutions during this time needs to answer why a comment does not appear in the Biblical text when a comment would have been in the favor of the Christian community in this case.
1Pierre Prigent, “Au Temps de l’Apocalypse, II : Le Culte Impérial Au 1uer Siècle En Asie Mineure,” RHPR 55, no. 2 (1975): 215–35. Also in a dissertation level paper by, S. J. Friesen, Twice Neokoros, Harvard University. As well, Giancarlo Biguzzi, “Ephesus, Its Artemision, Its Temple to the Flavian Emperors, and Idolatry in Revelation,” Novum Testamentum 40, no. 3 (July 1998): 276–90.
2G. K Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 5-6.
4W. C. van Unnik, Encounters with Hellenism: Studies on the First Letter of Clement, ed. Cilliers Breytenbach and L. L. Welborn, Arbeiten Zur Geschichte Des Antiken Judentums Und Des Urchristentums 53 (Boston, MA: Brill, 2004)., 118.
5Continuing the context of the salutation, “we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us;1 and especially to that shameful and detestable sedition.” 1. St. Clement of Rome, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Online, n.d., http://www.ewtn.com/library /patristc/anf1-1.htm, chap 1.
Heroic statue of Domitian as prince (emperor 81–96 CE), 70–80 CE, by Bibi, published into the Public Domain.