This post begins to set out the main points of Thomas Witulski’s discussion of the situation facing the Christians in Pergamon as described in Revelation 2:12-17. This account, following his discussion of the two beasts in Revelation 13, is part of the larger argument to place Revelation in the time of Hadrian. The numbers in brackets are the source page numbers in Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian.
Revelation 2:12 To the angel of the church in Pergamum write:
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. 13 I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.
14 Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. 15 Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.
17 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
Noting what the passage says:
The Pergamene Christians live (at the time of the writing of Revelation) where Satan’s seat is located. (238) (The identification of Satan’s throne will be the subject of the next post in this series.)
At some time before this was written, the Pergamene Christians were shaken but remained steadfast when Antipas had been killed for his faith.
Since the apocalyptist describes the death of one μάρτυς [martyr/witness] Antipas as the climax of the hostilities acting from without on the Christians living in Pergamum, it can be assumed that his death was the only case of a Christian killed for the sake of his faith in that city at the time of the writing of Revelation. This means, however, that up to this time there can be no question of a comprehensive or general persecution of the Pergamenian Christians. (239, translation)
No details are given to enable us to know whether the death of Antipas was the result of a lynching or a formal trial. Both are conceivable. (239)
But there’s a problem. Among these Christians are false teachers whose teachings match those of Balaam whom we know from Numbers 25. Since the comparative adverbs translated above as “likewise” and “also” identify the teaching of the Nicolaitans, plural, as being the same false doctrine that is identified with that of Balaam, we can conclude that some members here called “Nicolaitans” are teaching the same false doctrine of the Old Testament’s Balaam. (240f)
So what was the teaching of Balaam?
While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate the sacrificial meal and bowed down before these gods. So Israel yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor. And the Lord’s anger burned against them. – Numbers 25:1-3
They [the Midianite women] were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful to the Lord in the Peor incident. – Numbers 31:16
The false teaching consisted of seducing the people to commit apostasy. The sexual sin was not the point. That was only “the means” to the goal. It was what the sexual sin was designed to lead to — idolatry — that was the issue. (I am reminded of that old joke: Why do Methodists not have sex while standing up? Because it might lead to dancing.)
Paying attention to details:
— Israel was enticed into participating in a joint cultic meal. Israelites are eating food offered to pagan deities as they participate in that cultic meal.
— Revelation 2:14 echoes Numbers 25:1-3. That is, there are members who are said to be participating in a cultic meal in honour of pagan deities. Sexual immorality is therefore a metaphor for the enticement to participate in that pagan worship. Among the several works cited to support this view, W. includes the English language Commentary of Caird. I quote from Caird more completely than does W.:
It is [Balaam as the father of religious syncretism] traditions … that John is following. But is he ascribing to Balaam two errors or only one, idolatry and sexual licence or only idolatry? This is a difficult question, because the verb porneuein (to commit fornication) is regularly used in both Old and New Testaments to mean either sexual licence or religious infidelity; and since pagan religion frequently involved sexual immorality, it could sometimes be used in both senses at once. A good example of this is found in the story of Baal-peor, where the Israelites had intercourse with Moabite women; for the real offence of this action was that they were foreign women, who enticed them to eat meat which had been offered in sacrifice to pagan gods. On the basis of that story John could obviously use the word in either or both of its senses. But in every other case except one in which he uses the verb porneuein or the noun porneia he uses them metaphorically, and it is best to assume that this is his intention here. There might indeed be some doubt about those at Pergamum whom John calls adherents of the teaching of Balaam, but there can be no doubt about the woman at Thyatira whom he calls Jezebel, and to whom he ascribes the same teaching; for nobody ever accused Ahab’s wife of harlotry except in a metaphorical sense (2 Kings ix. 22). The sum total of the Nicolaitans’ offence, then, is that they took a laxer attitude than John to pagan society and religion. Because we hear only one side of the argument, it is easy for us simply to accept John’s verdict without considering whether his opponents might have had a defensbile point of view. (Caird, 39 bolding in the original; the sentence in red is quoted by W.)
The same point is reaffirmed in Giesen’s German-language commentary:
With the “teaching of Balaam” the Nicolaitans, in accordance with this tradition, seek to seduce the Christians of Pergamum into fornication and the consumption of meat sacrificed to idols. The consumption of meat sacrificed to idols probably stands for participation in public events of a religious character, especially since meat was often distributed at such festivities in Hellenistic times, financed by the state or wealthy citizens (Mounce 98; Müller 112). Fornication is considered a major pagan vice (cf. 1 Cor. 6:8-20, etc.). The fact that meat sacrificed to idols is actually served during the pagan feasts could lead us to understand fornication in a literal sense (F. Hauck-S. Schulz, ThWNT VI 594; Wikenhauser 41; Ladd 48; Roloff 54f.; Beasley-Murray 86f.; Mounce 98; Karrer, Letter 200f.; Ruiz, Ezekiel 314).
Against such an interpretation, however, is the fact that the pseudo-prophetess Jezebel, according to 2:20 (cf. v. 22), also entices the congregation to “commit fornication and eat meat sacrificed to idols”. “To commit fornication” here, according to prophetic usage (Hos. 2:4-17; Isa. 1:21; 57:7-13; Jer. 3:1 – 4:4; Ez. 16:15-22; 23 et al.), means apostasy from God and turning to the gods (Caird 39.44; Schüssler Fiorenza, Religion 267; Kraft 65; Woschitz, Renewal 202; Giesen 44; ders., Reich 2534f.; Zimmermann, Christus 190; Ritt 28; Vögtle 41f.; Wengst, Pax 151; Holtz, Werke 352f.; Thompson, Book 122). This is by no means an “interpretational emptying” of the “terms used here of their concrete sense in favour of a merely figurative sense of fornication as engaging with foreign gods” (cf. Karrer, Letter 200). For it is precisely in this sense that Babylon/Rome is called “great whore” (17,1f.5; 19,2). This interpretation is supported by the fact that participation in meals sacrificed to idols is also seen as an affirmation of the pagan gods (Ladd 47; Collins, Vilification 317). A literal and figurative understanding at the same time is also not obvious (gg. Lohmeyer 31; Schüssler Fiorenza, Apocalyptic 117; Mounce 98; Müller 113.118f.). (Giesen, 102 f. translation; my bolding)
Philo, Vita Mosis 1.48-55 and Josephus, Antiquities IV 126ff are further evidence for the Jewish traditional interpretation that the Balaam episode was primarily about the sin of worshipping pagan gods; the sexual seduction was the means to that end and not the crime for which God punished the Israelites. (243)
In the context of the preceding discussion about the two beasts, W interprets the passage as an attack on those Christians who joined in with the cult festivities and related practices associated with the worship of the “Zeus-Emperor” Hadrian.
The followers of the διδαχή Νικολαϊτών [= teaching of the Nicolaitans], to be located within the Pergamenian community, apparently attempted — at least according to the apocalyptist’s accusation — to soften the exclusivity of Christian worship of the one God of the Old Testament and his ἀρνίον[=lamb] Christ and to bring about a greater openness to participation in the worship of pagan deities, here especially to participation in pagan cultic feasts. From this, it follows for the understanding of the terms φαγεῖν εἰδωλόθυτα [= to eat things sacrificed to idols] and πορνεῦσαι [= to commit sexual immorality] as catchwords to characterize the διδαχὴ Νικολαϊτῶν [= teaching of the Nicolaitans] currently prevalent in the Pergamenian community: The assumption that the apocalyptist intends to “emphasize” with these terms a participation in the cultic-religious worship of pagan deities merely indirectly and unconsciously through the purchase of meat sacrificed to idols on the market is hardly probable. It is far more likely … that he is concerned here with conscious and direct participation in the corresponding (cultic) events. With the expression φαγεϊν είδωλόθυτα [= to eat things sacrificed to idols] he either emphasizes the participation of Christians in pagan-religious (cult-)events, cult-fairs and festivities in general, or in particular their participation in such (cult-)events within which also publicly distributed meat sacrificed to idols was consumed. By the term πορνεῦσαι [= to commit sexual immorality] he intends to refer metaphorically to a worship of pagan deities practiced by the followers of theδιδαχὴ Νικολαϊτῶν [= teaching of the Nicolaitans] in addition to the worship of the God of the Old Testament and his άρνίον Christ. This is quite consistent with Old Testament usage and the metaphorical use of the term πορνεία [porneia] etc already present there. In the context of this explanation, the φαγεϊν είδωλόθυτα [= to eat things sacrificed to idols] as participation in pagan religious (cult) events constitutes a partial aspect of the charge of πορνεία [porneia] aimed at the practice of pagan worship as a whole. (243 ff., translation, my bolding)
Other possibilities proposed:
Does “eating food sacrificed to idols” simply address the same question we find in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: should a Christian worry about purchasing meat from a butcher if there is a suspicion that it comes from an animal that had been sacrificed to an idol?
No, replies W., because in Revelation we read of Christians succumbing to a “teaching of Balaam” perpetuated through “Nicolaitans”. The association with the cultic feast in Numbers 25:1-3 and 31:16 speaks against the interpretation that the author was responding to the mere question about the origin of meat sold in the market.
This suggests that when he used the term Φαγεϊν είδωλόθυτα he was not thinking of the consumption of meat sold in the market which had previously been used in sacrificial rituals dedicated to pagan deities, but of the consumption of meat sacrificed to idols within public ceremonies dedicated to pagan deities. (246)
What about Acts 15 where the Jerusalem church led by James made a ruling about the necessity to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols?
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. — Acts 15:19-20
Again, any attempted comparison fails on the grounds that Acts is addressing the coexistence of Jewish and Gentile Christians in the one assembly. That has nothing in common with the point in Revelation which is about the relationship of Christians with their gentile environment, specifically in relation to cultic-religious worship. (246)
The key in any interpretation is the emphasis in Revelation 2:14-15 on the teaching of Balaam (which brings to mind the Numbers 25 account of seducing Israelites to participate in idol worship) and the implication in “the teachings of Nicolaitans” that members of the Pergamene congregation were advocating participation in a pagan cult as a complement to their Christian worship. (247)
Are the guilty parties in Pergamon “radicalized Paulinists”? Are they teaching an “enlightened scepticism” by reminding any who would listen that idols are nothing so if one sees a good time or tasty meals associated with them, Why not? Is the author attacking what he takes to be Paul’s teachings? (248)
Unfortunately, the passages in Revelation are too cryptic, too terse, to help us towards understanding the motives of those described as Nicolaitans. As another commentator on Revelation writes,
It is very tempting to imagine in the background of our text the controversies opposing the Judeo-Christians to the disciples of Paul. Such an argument should not be overruled, on the condition, however, that we note that the backdrop appears radically different here. . . The heretical Christians mentioned here are perhaps the heirs of Paul on the question of food sacrificed to idols, but they are illegitimate heirs because of their extremism. (Prigent, 175)
Even though Church Fathers wrote of Nicolaitans they are not much help with what we can know about them. Their information was often taken from interpretations of what they themselves read in Revelation 2 and not all of them agreed that they were “gnostics” or “pre-gnostics”. (249)
What is clear from “John’s message” is that these false teachers were part of “the church”. They were still Christians. They were therefore called upon to repent.
Next in the series: a look at “Satan’s throne”.
Caird, G. B. (George Bradford). A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. http://archive.org/details/commentaryonreve0000cair.
Giesen, Heinz. Die Offenbarung des Johannes. Regensburg: Pustet, 1997.
Prigent, Pierre. Commentary on the Apocalypse of St. John. Translated by Wendy Pradels. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.
Witulski, Thomas. Die Johannesoffenbarung Und Kaiser Hadrian: Studien Zur Datierung Der Neutestamentlichen Apokalypse. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007. pp. 238-250
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