The Bible and Archaeology: The Book of Revelation—History and Prophecy

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The Bible and Archaeology

The Book of Revelation—History and Prophecy

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In our long-running series "The Bible and Archaeology," we have gone through the Scriptures from Genesis through the Epistles reviewing many of the surprising archaeological finds that confirm and illuminate the biblical record. We conclude the series with a look at archaeological and historical evidence relating to the last book of the Bible, Revelation.

The apostle John, who wrote it under the inspiration of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1), mentions where it was written and that it was addressed to congregations in seven cities in Asia Minor.

How do the descriptions of these places compare with discoveries about them from history and archaeology?

Exiled to Patmos

We learn from John that he wrote Revelation from the island of Patmos (verse 9), in the Aegean Sea 40 miles off the coast of Asia Minor (modern- day Turkey). Patmos is a small island of only 24 square miles (62 square kilometers), with a coastline in the shape of a horseshoe.

Was it customary in the Roman Empire for convicts to be exiled to an island? The Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 56-120), in his book Annals, mentions the policy of banishing political prisoners to small islands (Sections 3:68; 4:30; 15:71).

Patmos, a rocky, volcanic and sparsely populated isle, was an appropriate place to send captives. Banishment was a terrible punishment that often involved whippings and being bound in chains before the prisoner was sent off for years of hard labor in rock quarries. At John's advanced age it would have been a harrowing ordeal. Yet he mentions it as an honor to participate "in the tribulation and kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ" (verse 9).

During the time of John's exile, traditionally 94-96, history records violent persecution against Christians under the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96). This despot declared himself a god and demanded the worship of his subjects— with the exception of Jews. This meant that once a year each head of household had to appear before authorities, burn incense to the emperor and declare, "Caesar is lord." Those who refused were branded as traitors and either sentenced to death or exiled.

Since Christians confessed they had only one Lord, Jesus Christ, they were mercilessly hounded. John, the last living apostle of the original 12, apparently was banished for this reason.

A message to seven churches

While on Patmos, John received a long and complicated vision from Jesus Christ (verses 1-2, 10-20) with the instructions: ". . . What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia: to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamos, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea" (verse 11).

How accurate are the descriptions of these seven cities mentioned in the book of Revelation according to archaeology and history? Interestingly, Jesus used some of the characteristics of each city to spiritually evaluate its congregation and to prophesy the history of His Church up to His second coming.

The first church: Ephesus

The port city of Ephesus was a short voyage from Patmos. Therefore one could logically send a letter there and then on to the remaining six cities Christ mentioned.

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of the Roman roads that stretched from Ephesus to Laodicea. "It is no accident," notes John McRay, "that the letters in Revelation 1-3 are arranged in this same sequence. Beginning with Ephesus, the roads follow a geographic semicircle, extending northward, turning to the east, and continuing southward to Laodicea—thus connecting the cities on what must have functioned as an ancient postal route" (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 242).

The apostle Paul had founded a large church in Ephesus, and now Jesus addressed the members there with a prophetic message that applied to them and was predictive of the Church's future. Jesus had told John: "Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are [at the present time], and the things which will take place after this [in the future]" (verse 19, emphasis added throughout). Hence part of the message of Revelation would apply to John's time, and part would be for future generations.

Christ recognizes the effort of the Ephesian brethren, in spite of many obstacles, to keep the faith and carry out the commission He had given them. "I know your works, your labor, your patience," He told them, "and that you cannot bear those who are evil" (Revelation 2:2).

In Ephesus was much evil to avoid— within and without the congregation. It was there that Paul had warned the "elders of the church" (Acts 20:17): "For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves" (verses 29-30).

Moreover, the Ephesian brethren had to resist the many temptations the immensely popular pagan temple worship offered them. Archaeologists have found at Ephesus the ruins of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the temple of Diana, or Artemis, also mentioned in the Bible (Acts 19:27). Thousands of priests and priestesses served the temple; many of the priestesses were dedicated to cultic prostitution.

Centuries earlier Heracleitus, an Ephesian philosopher, described the inhabitants there as "fit only to be drowned[,] and the reason why [they] could never laugh or smile was because [they] lived amidst such terrible uncleanness." Such was the reputation of ancient Ephesus. It would have been difficult to live as a Christian in the midst of such an immoral city.

Knowing this, Christ gives the brethren the hope that if they persevere in the faith they will receive something that all the temple worship of Diana could never give them—the gift of eternal life. "To him who overcomes," He promised, "I will give to eat from the tree of life [symbolizing eternal life], which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7).

Smyrna: Center of emperor worship

The next city on the ancient postal circuit was Smyrna, about 40 miles north of Ephesus. It was a flourishing city and the main center of emperor worship.

Jesus tells the church in Smyrna: "Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days" (verse 10).

These words had not only a prophetic sense but a literal fulfillment in John's day as well. The brethren in Smyrna knew they were special targets of the persecution under Domitian, for the city's history had shown an unwavering loyalty to Rome. It was proud that it had been declared a "free city," which meant its residents had the right to govern their own affairs.

"Long before Rome was undisputed mistress of the world," comments William Barclay, "Smyrna had cast in its lot with her, never to waver in its fidelity. Cicero [the Roman orator] called Smyrna 'one of our most faithful and most ancient allies' . . . Such was the reverence of Smyrna for Rome that as far back as 195 B.C. it was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma" (Letters to the Seven Churches, 1957, p. 29).

The only way Church members could go about peacefully in this place was to carry a certificate showing they had offered incense to the emperor and proclaimed him lord. Among the ancient papyri letters that archaeologists have found is one with such a request and another with an accompanying certificate declaring: "We, the representatives of the Emperor, Serenos and Hermas, have seen you sacrificing."

Many of the Christians in Smyrna would die because of fierce persecutions. So Christ encourages and reminds them that He is offering them something Caesar worship could never provide—the chance to live forever. He exhorts them: "He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death" (verse 11).

Pergamos: "Where Satan's throne is"

Next on the Roman mail route was Pergamos, the Roman capital of Asia Minor. This city would never reach the commercial greatness of Ephesus or Smyrna, but it was the indisputable center of religious, medical and artistic culture of the region. The city's famous library, with 200,000 parchment rolls, was rivaled only by the library in Alexandria, Egypt.

Christ tells the church at Pergamos: "I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan's throne is" (verse 13). Again, this prophecy had a literal fulfillment as well as serving as a description of a future time for the Church.

The mention of Satan's throne in Pergamos likely refers to the famous worship of its most popular deity, the serpent god Asklepios Soter, whose Latin equivalent means "the man-instructing serpent and savior." The serpent god was none other than Satan, whom Revelation describes as "that serpent of old, called the Devil" (Revelation 12:9).

Pergamos was so renowned for the worship of this god, who supposedly healed the sick, that this deity was called "the Pergamene god." Many of the coins discovered in Pergamos have the serpent as part of their design.

The remains of the shrine to Asklepios have been uncovered by archaeologists. "A 450-foot segment of the widest section was excavated and reconstructed so visitors to the site can experience a beautiful approach to the Asklepieion," notes John McRay. "Dedicated to Asklepios Soter, the god of healing, the Asklepieion was a kind of Mayo Clinic of the ancient world . . . Numerous treatment rooms, sleeping rooms (for incubation and autosuggestion in psychiatric treatment), meeting rooms, and temples were located here . . . Patients coming to the shrine believed that Asklepios would heal them. There was no perceived dissonance between science and religion in the ancient world" (McRay, pp. 271-272).

"From all over the world," adds William Barclay, "people flocked to Pergamos for relief of their sicknesses. R.H. Charles has called Pergamos 'the Lourdes of the ancient world' . . . Thus, pagan religion had its center in Pergamos. There was the worship of Athene and Zeus, with its magnificent altar dominating the city [now partially reconstructed in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin]. There was the worship of Asklepios, bringing sick people from far and near, and above all there were the demands of Caesar worship, hanging forever like a poised sword above the heads of the Christians" (The Daily Study Bible, notes on Revelation 2:12-17, Bible Explorer Software).

Origin of serpent worship in Pergamos

How did serpent worship begin in Pergamos? Some historians trace it to the collapse of the Babylonian Empire, when some Chaldean priests established their religious center in Pergamos. "The defeated Chaldeans fled to Asia Minor, and fixed their central college at Pergamos," notes historian William Barker in his book Lares and Penates of Cilicia (1853, p. 232).

Certainly the Old Testament identifies Satan's chief seat of activity as being in ancient Babylon, where the doctrines of its mystery religion "made all the earth drunk" (Jeremiah 51:7). This would make its religious successor, Pergamos, the temporary new "Satan's seat" of the Babylonian mystery religion.

"That seat," comments Alexander Hislop, "after the death of Belshazzar [the last Babylonian king], and the expulsion of the Chaldean priesthood from Babylon by the Medo-Persian kings, was at Pergamos, where afterwards was one of the seven churches of Asia. There, in consequence, for many centuries was 'Satan's seat.'

"There, under favor of the deified kings of Pergamos, was his favorite abode and was the worship of Asklepios, under the form of the serpent . . . Pergamos itself became part and parcel of the Roman Empire, when Attalus III, the last of its kings, at his death, left by will all his dominions to the Roman people in 133 BC" (The Two Babylons, 1959, p. 240).

In this way, the Roman emperors had become the heirs of "Satan's seat" during John's day. Later, when the Roman Empire collapsed, its successor, the Holy Roman Empire, would inherit the role. It is noteworthy that Revelation 17:4-5, 18 reveals that in the end time a powerful religious system from the ancient past will again reign over the nations and be identified as "Mystery, Babylon the Great, the Mother of harlots and of the Abominations of the Earth."

Pressure to compromise in Thyatira

Some 40 miles east of Pergamos lay Thyatira, a city important for its commerce in wool and textiles.

When the city was excavated from 1968 to 1971, its architectural remains showed it had the typical Roman style of colonnades and public buildings and a temple to the goddess Artemis. The city was especially famous for its fine woolen cloth, usually dyed in a shade that came to be called Thyatiran purple. It was from Thyatira that Lydia, a seller of purple and convert to Christianity, had come (Acts 16:14). Inscriptions at the site reveal the existence of trade guilds, many of them associated with the powerful textile industry.

Christ says about this congregation: "I know your works, love, service, faith, and your patience; and as for your works, the last are more than the first. Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols" (Revelation 2:19-20).

Since Thyatira was a religious center, and the home of powerful guilds demanding religious participation of their workers in their banquets, it was difficult for Christians to resist falling into idolatry.

"The strong trade guilds in this city," says Leon Morris, "would have made it very difficult for any Christian to earn his living without belonging to a guild. But membership involved attendance at guild banquets, and this in turn meant eating meat which had first been sacrificed to an idol. What was a Christian to do? If he did not conform he was out of a job . . .

"The teaching of Jezebel [probably a symbolic name] apparently reasoned that an idol is of no consequence, and advised Christians to eat such meals. That these meals all too readily degenerated into sexual looseness made matters worse. But we can understand that some Christians would welcome a heresy of this type. It enabled them to maintain a Christian profession while countenancing and even engaging in immoral heathen revels" (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 1975, p. 71).

Christ reminds the Thyatiran brethren they must come out of that worldly society, no matter how enticing it appeared, and not compromise with the truth. He promises to those of Thyatira who remain faithful that they will be arrayed, not in Thyatiran purple, a cloth used mainly by Roman royalty, but at His coming with the spiritual mantle of rulership over the nations.

He tells them that "he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations—'He shall rule them with a rod of iron; they shall be dashed to pieces like the potter's vessels'—as I also have received from My Father" (Revelation 2:26-27).

Sardis: Warning to watch

Poised above the rich Hermus Valley, Sardis was 30 miles south of Thyatira. The city appeared as a gigantic watchtower and was considered impregnable. Five roads converged below it and contributed to Sardis's status as a great commercial center. The wealth of the city—which had been the capital of the Lydian Empire under the opulent King Croesus—was legendary.

Christ exhorts this church, "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God" (Revelation 3:2).

The Sardian brethren could readily identify with a warning to be watchful. The only two times Sardis had been conquered were when its citizens had become overconfident and failed to watch.

Once, when King Cyrus of Persia besieged the city, the Sardians, nestled in their fortress high above, paid little attention to the invader. Cyrus could not find a way to get up to the citadel and even offered a reward to the soldier who discovered a pathway. Sometime later a vigilant Persian soldier spied a defender who had accidentally dropped his helmet from above. The careless soldier climbed down a secret pathway to retrieve it, and that night the Persians led their troops up the same pathway and to the top. To their surprise, the site was completely unguarded. The watchmen had gone home to sleep, thinking there was no need to keep guard at night—and so Sardis fell.

Incredibly, several centuries later the same sequence of events occurred when a Greek general besieged the city. After a year's siege the Greeks appeared to lose all hope of conquering the city. Then one of the Sardian soldiers dropped a helmet and retrieved it. That night the Greeks led some men up the steep cliff. When they reached the top, the place was again unguarded. Sardis's inhabitants had forgotten their lesson, and their city fell again.

Christ uses this lesson to drive home a powerful spiritual point to His Church: "Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you" (verse 3).

Faithfulness in Philadelphia

About 25 miles southeast of Sardis lay the city of Philadelphia, newest of the seven cities. An imperial road passed through it from Rome to the east, so it became known as "the gateway to the East."

Christ says to this church: "These things says He who is holy, He who is true . . . Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more" (Revelation 3:7, 11-12).

Christ emphasizes His loyalty to His true followers and reminds them to be equally faithful to Him. If they persevere in His Word, He will give them a crown that they may rule with Him in His Kingdom.

We find a definite theme of brotherly fidelity in this section. The Philadelphian brethren could well identify with this admonition.

Philadelphia means "brotherly love." The city was named after the love the king who founded the city held for his brother. The city was established by Attalus II (159138 B.C.), who was called Philadelphus ("brother lover") in honor of his loyal affection toward his brother, King Eumenes II of Pergamos. During his brother's lifetime Attalus II was his most loyal assistant. He successfully commanded his brother's forces in several wars and later became the trusted ambassador to their ally, Rome. There he won respect and admiration from the Romans for his brotherly fidelity.

The New Bible Dictionary comments: "As Philadelphus was renowned for his loyalty to his brother, so the church, the true Philadelphia, inherits and fulfills his character by its steadfast loyalty to Christ" (1982, "Philadelphia," p. 926).

Laodicea: Warning to repent

The last city on the route was Laodicea, 45 miles southeast of Philadelphia. With three main roads crossing it, the city was one of the richest commercial centers in the world. The Laodiceans were famous for producing shiny, black wool clothing and boasted of an outstanding medical center that specialized in eye ointments. With the wealth amassed, it had also become the banking center of the region.

Christ says to this church: "I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see" (verses 15-18).

Archaeologists have discovered the main aqueduct going to Laodicea, and several miles of it can still be traced. The water piped in from the south had so many minerals that the Roman engineers had covers installed so they could remove the mineral deposits before the pipes clogged.

"For all its wealth, the city had poor water," says The Expositor's Bible Commentary. "The water either came from the nearby hot springs and was cooled to lukewarm or came from a cooler source and warmed up in the aqueduct on the way" (notes on Revelation 3, Zondervan software).

Christ uses the Laodiceans'lukewarm and distasteful water to point out that their poor spiritual state is equally offensive to Him. He warns them that, if they do not rapidly improve their spiritual condition, He will reject them. He detests the Laodicean attitude of compromising with God's laws. By contrast, He later describes those who are faithful to Him as "those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" (Revelation 14:12).

Further, even if their clothing were world renowned, Christ tells them their "spiritual garments" were in pitiful condition. He recommends they focus instead on buying from Him the spiritual clothing of true righteousness that He later describes as "fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints" (Revelation 19:8).

Jesus next tells those brethren, who were blind to their true spiritual condition, that the "Phrygian powder" concocted in their medical center as an eye ointment was useless. Instead, He advised them to use His true spiritual eye salve so they can clearly see and repent of their compromising attitudes.

Lastly, Christ warns them not to put their trust in their physical wealth but in Him, who can develop the true gold that comes from overcoming trials and building righteous spiritual character. This solid advice is of lasting value to the entirety of the Church at any time in its history.


This concludes our archaeological review of the last book of the Bible. We hope this series has been a satisfying journey through the Bible and that it has strengthened your faith.

Throughout this series we have confirmed what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." GN