By Gordon Franz
One misconception regarding John’s exile to Patmos which has appeared in the commentaries and popular prophetic writings it is that Patmos was a sort of Alcatraz (Swindoll 1986:3); or for the French, St. Helene where Napoleon was exiled (Saffrey 1975:392). Part of this is due to the 19th century travelers who described the island in terms such as “barren, rocky, desolate-looking place” (Newton 1865:223) or as “a wild and barren island” (Geil 1896:70). Unfortunately these nineteenth century realities were imposed on the first century text and island. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the first century Roman world, Patmos was a very strategic island on the sea-lanes from Ephesus to Rome. The first stop on this line of communication and commerce for the boat sailing from Ephesus to Rome would have been Patmos, because of its natural and protective harbor. The last stop for a boat traveling from Rome would have been Patmos. This island had a large administrative center, outlying villages, a hippodrome (for horse racing) and at least three pagan temples. It was hardly an isolated and desolate place!
Let us examine the archaeological remains and the literary evidence in order to paint a more accurate picture of first century Patmos.
This crescent-shaped island, 12.5 kilometers long, covers an area of some 34 square kilometers and has a jagged coastline of some 65 kilometers. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), in his Natural History, says Patmos is 30 miles in circumference (4.12.69; 1989:169). In the center, nearest the narrowest point is the Kastelli, the ancient acropolis. This administrative center is located behind the harbor, called Skela today. Remains of the wall and three towers can still be seen today. The walls, up to 1.30 meters thick at points, and three towers, still exist (Tozar 1889:194,5; Simpson and Lazenby 1970:47-52). This center has a commanding view of the harbor and the sea-lanes to and from Patmos. I also might add, spectacular sunsets!
The literary sources mention outlying villages, which probably engaged in fishing and agricultural activities. Three temples are known from the sources. There was an inscription found mentioning a temple to Artemis (Diana), the goddess of the hunt. Her main temple was in Ephesus and it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Patmos was called Artemis’ “most sacred island.” The temple was probably located underneath the present day Monastery of St. John near the village of Chora. The threshold stones of the iconostasis in the chapel of the Virgin are thought to be remains from this temple. There is literary evidence of a temple to Apollo, the brother of Artemis. This temple, most likely, was located near the harbor of Skela. One nineteenth century traveler mentioned, “at the wharf I observed four or five beautiful white marble columns, cut and carved in true Greek fashion, and once very likely standing in the portico of some splendid temple to a heathen god, now used as mooring posts” (Geil 1897:73). Most likely this temple was the one dedicated to Apollo. There is also literary evidence of a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. This temple was probably built on the Kalikatsou rock.
Another inscription mentions a hippodrome on the island. This has not been discovered archaeologically, but probably was located near modern day Skela. Again, using my sanctified imagination, I wonder if the Apostle John preached to the inhabitants of Patmos in this circus (hippodrome)?
Unfortunately, most tourists visiting Patmos today, disembark at the port of Skela, hop on a bus, zip up to the Cave of the Apocalypse, zing on up to the Monastery of St. John in Chora, and then zag down to the harbor of Skela for shopping and eating before embarking on their cruise ship to sail off to another destination, all in four hours. Their thought? “Been there, done that!” There are more Biblically significant things to see and experience on this island than the typical four-hour tour wonder. Please do not misunderstand. These are important places to visit, but a serious student should spend a couple of days on the island.
Closely related to the first misconception is another that describes Patmos as a penal colony. Some commentators quote Pliny, Natural History 4.12.69 as proof, but all the passage gives is the circumference of the island! It says nothing about weather it was a penal colony or not (Sanders 1962-63:76; Hemer 1986:221, footnote 1). My impression is that John was exiled to Patmos because of its Artemis/Ephesus connections. The proconsul of Asia Minor wanted to get John away from the city of Ephesus so he sent him to Patmos, which was within his jurisdiction. Hemer suggests the island might be connected with Miletus some 70 kilometers to the Eastnortheast of Patmos (1986:28,222, footnote 8).
The length of John’s exile on Patmos differs from tradition to tradition. Most likely he was only exiled for about 18 months. Upon Domitian’s death, John was free to return to Ephesus. Dio Cassius wrote, “[Emperor] Nerva also released all who were on trial for maiestas (high treason) and restored the exile” ( Roman History 68:2; 1995:361). Eusebius adds, “The sentences of Domitian were annulled, and the Roman Senate decreed the return of those who had been unjustly banished and the restoration of their property. … the Apostle John, after his banishment to the island, took up his abode at Ephesus” ( Eccl. Hist. 3.20.8,9; 1980:241).
“The Travels of St. John in Patmos”
According to church tradition, this book entitled “The Travels of St. John in Patmos” was written by Prochorus, the secretary to the Apostle John. This is the Prochorus mentioned in Acts 6:5. Critical scholarship, however, suggests it was written in the 5th century AD. If this book is historically reliable, then John was just banished to the island, but not imprisoned, so much for the Alcatraz view.
The “Travels of St. John in Patmos” makes interesting reading. On the way over to Patmos, a violent storm arose and a passenger is swept into the sea. John prays and a wave deposited the young man back on the boat. This miracle gave John the opportunity to preach the gospel. Once on Patmos, the Roman governor, Laurentius, set John free. “Laurentius’s father-in-law, Myron, offers the Apostle lodging in his house, and soon Myron’s house became the first church on the island. Apollonides, Myron’s son, who was possessed with the devil, was healed by St. John, and this miracle led to the conversion of both Chrysippe, Myron’s daughter, and her husband, the Roman governor” (Meinardus 1979:7). John has a spiritual confrontation with Kynops, a famous magician on the island, in which John is finally victorious. Kynops is drowned in the harbor and today a church is dedicated to that event (1979:9). The result of this victorious confrontation is the salvation of the rest of the island. Before John left Patmos, the believers asked John to write an account of the life of the Lord Jesus. According to one tradition, the gospel of John was written on Patmos.
Whether these accounts are believable is a matter of debate. However, there are subtle hints in the book of Revelation that John had freedom of movement while on the island.
What did John see?
While exiled on Patmos, John experienced things that reflect life on the island. The weather phenomena recorded in Revelation are common to the island. White clouds (14:14); thunder and lightening (11:19; 14:2); great hail (8:7; 11:19; 16:21) and rainbows (4:3; 10:1). From the peak of what is called Mt. Elias today, sitting 883 feet above sea level, a person has a spectacular view of the islands of the Aegean Sea and the mountains of Asia Minor (western Turkey today) to the east. There are at least 22 references to the “sea” in the book of Revelation (4:6; 5:13; 7:1,2,3; 8:8,9; 10:2,5,8; 12:12; 13:1; 14:2,7; 15:2; 16:3; 18:17,19,21; 19:6; 20:13; 21:1). J. C. Fitzpatrick visited the island in the 1880’s and observed: “The islands to the west stand out darkly against the brightness of the horizon; and the others are lighted up with the glory of the setting sun, whilst the track of its last rays is a ‘sea of glass, mingled with fire'” (Rev. 15:2; 1887:16). In Revelation 6:14 and 16:20 John describes the islands of the Aegean and mountains Western Turkey disappearing. The last time I was on the island, I can personally attest that they are still there awaiting future fulfillment.
Only one spring exists on the island at a place called Sykamia on the road leading from Chora to Groikos. Tradition has it John baptized some of his converts in the baptistery nearby. What a contrast this small spring was to the “pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (22:1) in the New Heaven and New Earth (21:1). Yet John recognized he was to worship the One who made heaven and earth and the sea and springs of water (Rev. 14:7).
In Revelation 13:1, John wrote that he “stood on the sand of the sea. And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name” (NKJV). Awhile back, a friend asked me who I thought the beast was in this verse. I responded, “I haven’t the foggiest idea, but I can tell you exactly what beach John stood on when he saw that vision. It was the Psili Ammos beach.” In Greek, the word means “fine sand”, and indeed this light, fine golden sand is the only beach on the island which has no stones or pebbles (Stone 1981:83,84). In contrast, the colored pebbles on the Lambi beach impress the visitor to the island. The other beaches have rocks and pebbles on them.
John had the opportunity to walk to this isolated beach some 45 minutes to an hour walk from the harbor of Skela. He probably went to the Psili Ammos beach to get away from the noise and the crowds at the harbor, or to meditate on the Word of God and spend time in prayer. The impression I am left with is that John had freedom of movement on the island.
The Volcano at Thera (Santorini)
From this beach one could see an eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, also known as Santorini. In 1888, an interesting but highly imaginative article appeared the journal The Nineteenth Century entitled “What St. John Saw on Patmos” by J. Theodore Bent. In it he proposed that the Apostle John saw a volcanic eruption of Thera (Santorini) in AD 60. This eruption of Thera, as the Greek name implies, was the “beast” of Rev. 13:1. He suggested that “St. John made use of [this] phenomena which he saw with his own eyes, to prophetically depict a destruction of another kind” (1888:813). What that was, he does not say.
At the outset, there are several major problems with this thesis. First, Bent rejects the AD 95 date for the writing of Revelation and follows the “consensus of modern opinion” (for 1888) that it was written between AD 60 and 69. Second, he assumes there was an eruption of Thera in the year AD 60. This, however, is based on a secondhand, and probably unreliable, source. The authority, George of Syngelos, probably confused it with the AD 46-47 eruption.
There was a very catastrophic eruption between 1520 – 1460 BC, which some geologists have suggested was the largest eruption in historical times. This destroyed the Minoan civilization and might be the basis for the “Atlantis” legend. Strabo described an eruption in 197 BC ( Geography I.3.16: 1989:213,215). Pliny mentions one in AD 19 and several Roman historians record the AD 46-47 eruption (Vougioukalakis 1995:13-15).
The student of Bible prophecy should be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bath water” on some of Bent’s observations. In the article he compares “passages in Revelation with extracts from medieval and modern accounts given by eye-witnesses of the eruptions of Thera” and notes they make “many remarkable parallels” (1888:813). Let us examine three examples.
First, the sixth seal (Rev. 6:12-17). “There was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. … and every mountain and island was moved out of its place.” All these phenomenon; an earthquake, a dark sun and moon like blood, “stars” falling from heaven and movement of land masses are associated with volcanic eruption. The volcanic cloud in the atmosphere would darken the sun and make the moon appear blood red. The mention of late figs may give us a chronological indicator as to when this eruption takes place, August or September (Boronski 1987:37,38,115).
Second, the first trumpet (Rev. 8:7) describes hail and fire mingled with blood that was thrown to earth. This destroyed one third of the trees and burned up all the grass. Bent recounts M. Delenda’s account of the eruption of 1707 where “flames … issued out of the sea, and of the damage done to the vines and trees by the noxious vapours and by the terrible crashing of the volcanic bombs” (1888:817).
Third, the second trumpet (Rev. 8:8, 9). “And something like a great mountain burning with fire was thrown into the sea, and a third of the sea became blood; and a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.” Father Richard, observing the eruption of Thera (Santorini) in 1573 writes, “even when the volcano is quiescent, the sea in the immediate vicinity of the cone is a brilliant orange colour, from the action of oxide iron” (Bent 1888:817). M. Delenda observed after an eruption of Thera in 1707 the sulphurous vapours mixed with the sea, turned it white and the fish of the harbor died (Bent 1888:817). The destruction of one third of the ships would be caused by a tsunami. Interestingly, geologists calculated the tsunami (tidal wave) after the eruption of Thera between 1520-1460 BC, was initially 42 meters high (Pararas-Carayannis 1992:122). That would surely wreck havoc on any navies in the area!
Stothers and Rampino (1983:6357-6371) did a detailed study of volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean Sea before AD 630 from the written and archaeological sources.
Earthquakes are always associated with volcanoes. The book of Revelation records at least five earthquakes during the seven years of the Tribulation. The first one during the sixth seal is called a “great earthquake” (6:12). The second, during the seventh seal (8:5). The third is after the resurrection of the two witnesses and it is called a “great earthquake” and seven thousand men were killed (11:13). The fourth earthquake is during the seventh trumpet (11:19). The fifth and final one is during the seventh bowl judgment. It is described as “a great earthquake, such as a mighty and great earthquake as had not occurred since men were on the earth” (16:18). This last statement would strike the minds of the reader in Asia Minor of the recollection of the stories that they heard from family and friends of the great earthquake of AD 17. Pliny the Elder, who ironically died studying the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, penned these words concerning this earthquake. “The greatest earthquake in human memory occurred when Tiberius Caesar was emperor, twelve Asiatic cities being overthrown in one night” (2:86:200; 1979: 331). John, writing less than twenty years after Pliny, reminds his readers that there is still a greater earthquake to come. Tacitus, a Roman historian and a contemporary of John, described the horrors of the AD 17 earthquake in very vivid and graphic language ( Annals 2:47; 1992: 459). A careful reading of the text of Revelation seems to indicate that these are major earthquakes in which God directly intervenes in the judgment on humanity.
As any good geologist knows, there has actually been a decrease in the number of earthquakes. A bulletin, put out by the National Earthquake Information Center and arm of the US Geological Survey, asks the question “Are earthquakes really on the increase?” They answer the question this way. “Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant throughout this century and, according to our records, have actually seemed to decease in recent years.” They go on to point out, “A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications”
This should not surprise the student of Bible prophecy because no verse in the Bible says there will be an increase in the number of earthquakes before the Lord Jesus Christ returns! (Austin and Strauss 1999).
More study needs to be done on the seal, trumpet and bowl judgments in Revelation. These are all natural phenomenon on a supernatural scale. The Lord is directly intervening in the affairs of human history during the Tribulation. These are not humanly contrived events, be they MX missiles, black helicopters, etc. Nations can explain, warn and defend against missile attacks. On the other hand, these natural phenomenons: volcanoes, earthquakes and weather patterns can not be predicted, nor prevented by scientists. As a result of not having control over them, they will cry out blasphemies toward God (Rev. 16:21).
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