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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Pergamus Pergamum

(ἡ ΙΙέργαμος or τὸ ΙΙέργαμον; Revelation 1:11; Revelation 2:12 leave the gender uncertain; Dio Cassius, Pausanias, and Ptolemy have the fem, form, most authors and inscriptions the neut.; the AV_ chose the former, the RV_ the latter)

Pergamus was for over a century (241-133 b.c.) a royal city, and for two more centuries the official capital of a great and wealthy Roman province. Built on a huge conical hill, which dominated the broad and fertile valley of the river Caicus and afforded an extensive view of the aegean Sea (15 miles distant), it was an ideal citadel in days of ancient Mysian warfare. Its historical importance began when the adventurer Philetaerus, the agent of Lysimachus, made it the capital of an independent State (283 b.c.), which was raised into a kingdom by Attalus I., the conqueror of the Asiatic Gauls (241-197). For assisting the Romans in their struggle with Antiochus the Great, Attalus’ son Eumenes II. was rewarded with the magnificent gift of all the Seleucid dominions north of the Taurus. The Attalids made their capital one of the most beautiful of Greek cities, adorning the Acropolis with stately public buildings, which they filled with treasures of art._ The library contained 200,000 volumes, and ‘parchment’ is derived from Pergamus. When Attalus III. (138-133 b.c.) bequeathed his realm to the Romans, the greater part of it was formed into the province of Asia, of which Pergamus was the capital. The city could never be a centre of international commerce like Ephesus or Smyrna, for it was traversed only by inland byways of traffic, but its brilliant history gave it an indisputable claim to the primacy among Asian cities, and it was not till the time of Hadrian (a.d. 117-138) that Ephesus became officially what it had long been in reality-the administrative centre of the province.

It was probably towards the end of the reign of Domitian (a.d. 81-96) that Pergamus was described as the place ‘where Satan’s throne is,’ ‘where Satan dwelleth’ (Revelation 2:13). The words express a prophetic horror of some malignant enemy of Christ and His Church. Who is thus regarded as sitting in visible might and majesty on Satan’s throne, by merit raised to that bad eminence? Christianity in Pergamus was confronted by three distinct types of pagan religion-the popular Asiatic, the cultured Greek, and the official Roman. The first was the worship of Dionysus and Asclepius, which may be traced back to the primitive Anatolian cult of the bull and the serpent. Asclepius ‘the Saviour’ had a great vogue at Pergamus under the Empire; his priests were supposed to be in possession of precious medical secrets, and his temple and curative establishment were thronged with invalids who came from far and near with expectations of miraculous healing. His symbol, the serpent, which may be seen beautifully engraved on many Pergamenian coins, was naturally a repulsive object to Jews and Christians, who associated it with the legend of Eden, and some interpreters have imagined that his temple outside the city was viewed by St. John as Satan’s throne. But the sight of a multitude of sick folk-reproducing Bethesda and anticipating Lourdes-was more likely to excite feelings of pity than of wrath. The second type was the Hellenic worship of Zeus and Athene, assiduously fostered by all the Pergamenian kings, who wished to have their kingdom regarded as the bulwark of civilization against the hordes of barbarians. On a broad ledge of the city-hill, 800 ft. above the plain, in front of the temple of Athene, stood the great altar of Zeus, 40 ft. high, on a base adorned with reliefs of the gods in conflict with the giants; and some have supposed that as the Christians gazed at the smoke of sacrifice ascending from this altar, they exclaimed in horror, ‘This is Satan’s seat.’ But the worship of the Olympic gods had, for all intelligent minds, long been a bankrupt concern, on which the prophet would not waste his invective. At any rate, neither of these types of paganism would arouse his saeva indignatio like the third. This was the worship of Rome and the Emperor, of which Pergamus, as the capital of the province, was the recognized centre. As early as 29 b.c. (Tac. Ann. iv. 37), Pergamus possessed a temple dedicated to Divus Augustus by the Provincial Synod known as the Commune of Asia (κοινὸν Ἀσίας). The city thus became the first Neokoros or Temple-Warden of the Emperor in the province. It was not till a.d. 26 (Ann. iv. 56) that Smyrna also gained the coveted honour of the Neokorate. In the reign of Trajan Pergamus became ‘twice Neokoros,’ and Caracalla (a.d. 198-217) made her ‘thrice Neokoros,’ which meant that she had now three temples consecrated to the worship of the Emperor, each with its numerous priesthood and pompous ritual. Now this cultus, which was the proud distinction of the city, became, by a refinement of ingenuity which might well be characterized as Satanic, an insidious temptation and a cruel dilemma to the Church. Emperor-worship, so hateful to every monotheist, was in the time of Domitian made a test of loyalty to the State. The refusal to utter the formula κύριος καῖσαρ, or to offer a pinch of incense to the Emperor’s image, rendered the most peaceful and law-abiding citizen liable to be regarded as a traitor or rebel worthy of death. But to the Christian, the apotheosis and worship of Caesar meant disloyalty to Christ and forfeiture of His eternal Kingdom. The issue was too clear to be evaded, and the Christians of Pergamus came through the ordeal in triumph. Antipas, Christ’s faithful ‘witness’ (Revelation 2:13)-already the word μάρτυς begins to have the deeper tragic meaning-is probably named not as the only victim (as A. C. McGiffort suggests [Apostolic Age, 1897, p. 635]), but rather as the first of many brave confessors, both in the city and in other parts of the province, who proved the strength and genuineness of their faith by preferring death to dishonour.

There were, however, so-called Christians in Pergamus, as in Ephesus, who thought that a reasonable compromise might be effected. Their line of argument, though nowhere clearly stated, is not difficult to imagine. Nobody needed to take the idea of a divine Emperor too seriously. ‘For myself,’ said Tiberius, when it was proposed to erect a temple to him and his mother, ‘I solemnly assure you that I am a mortal man, and that I am confined to the functions of human nature, and I would have posterity remember it’ (Tac. Ann. iv. 38). May not loyal citizens, then, feel themselves absolved-even in the reign of Domitian, who takes his deity very seriously-from too great literalism in the interpretation of Caesar-worship? It is a political far more than a religious affair, being indeed a mere glorification of Imperialism. One may offer the grain of incense, or utter the prescribed ‘Caesar is Lord,’ with a degree of mental reserve; and if the Church, avoiding a stiff nonconformity, will liberalize herself so far as to demonstrate her loyalty, she will advance under the protection, instead of being thwarted by the hostility, of the powers that be, which are ordained of God.

But to the prophet of the Revelation-a passionate hater (Revelation 2:6) as well as lover-this doctrine is detestable, and against its time-serving exponents he declares open war (Revelation 2:16). He calls them Nicolaitans, i.e. Balaamites (νικο-λαος being the rough Greek equivalent to the Heb. áiòÎòí), for their compromise is a new and more subtly dangerous form of the notorious teaching and practice of Balaam. If the Church comes to terms with idolatry, if she yields to demands of a blasphemous Caesarism, she will be unfaithful to her Lord, dishonoured and defiled. In the Imperial temple of Pergamus no Christian must ever bow down and worship. Conformity is here deadly sin. The Imperial power, as wielded by Domitian and inextricably bound up with his worship, is so far from being ‘ordained by God’ (a phrase used by St. Paul a generation before [Romans 13:1]), that it is without hesitation denounced as Satanic, and thereafter branded, all through the Revelation, as the power of the Beast. The Church of Pergamus must learn to say with her Lord, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ Let her realize that the weapons of His warfare are other and mightier than those of Caesar. With the sword (ῥομφαία) of His mouth He comes to make war not only against persecuting foes without but against treacherous friends within His Church (v. 16). Pergamus must, at all costs, hold fast His name, and not deny His faith. Only thus can she keep her soul alive.

The site of the ancient city has been thoroughly excavated, and the sculptures found, especially the reliefs in the frieze of the Gigantomachia (now in the Berlin Museum), are among the treasures of Hellenistic art._ The other remains-palaces, temples, theatres, thermae, etc.-all tell of a vanished gloria mundi. The modern Bergama has little interest.

Literature.-Strabo, XIII. iv. 1-3; M. Fränkel, Die Inschriften von Pergamon (Alterthümer von Pergamon, viii.), 1890; W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia, 1904; Murray’s Handbook to Asia Minor, 1895.

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Pergamus Pergamum'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/pergamus-pergamum.html. 1906-1918.

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