Pergamon

Pergamon (or Pergamum) was among the seven cities addressed by John in Revelation: 

And to the angel of the church in Pergamon write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword:  "I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is.  Yet you are holding fast to my name and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.  But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.  So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  Repent then.." (Revelation 2:12-16)

It is in his letters to congregations at Pergamon and Thyatira specifically that John condemns the practice among some Christians (followers of “Balaam” or of “Jezebel”, or the “Nicolaitans”) who were eating food sacrificed to idols and, in the eyes of John, participating far too much in the practices of surrounding culture (“fornication”).   John, the Jewish-Christian author, draws on stereotypical figures associated with the worship of foreign gods in the Hebrew Bible (1-2 Kings) in order to condemn these Christians and their practices.  The question of whether it was acceptable for Christians to eat food offered to the Greco-Roman gods (from the market-place or elsewhere) was a hotly debated issue concerning the relationship between the group and broader society.  Not all early Christians agreed on what was acceptable practice.  Eating idol-food was also an important topic in Paul’s correspondence with the Christian congregations at Corinth (1 Corinthians 8-10).  Paul’s stance seems to differ somewhat from John’s outright condemnation of eating idol-food, however.

John’s letter to Pergamon also makes reference to “Satan’s throne”, which may be an allusion to the small, yet prominent, temple of Zeus on the acropolis (the upper-city), or to the fact that the Roman governor also had his seat in the city at the time.  John is well-known for his overall condemnation of the Roman empire, characterizing imperialism using the imagery of beasts and whoredom, as I discuss extensively in my book.

There were many associations in Pergamon.  A group of hymn-singers existed there, regularly singing hymns in praise of their patrons, the emperors, in both public and private settings.  There was a temple at Pergamon for the goddess Roma and for Augustus in the first century, and another imperial temple was built in the second century for emperor Trajan, which was located on the acropolis.  In Asia Minor, the emperors (often called the Sebastoi, “revered ones") were more often than not considered gods alongside traditional deities, and the forms of honours addressed to them, including sacrifice, were the same as those addressed to other gods.

Several inscriptions from the city also attest to an association devoted to the mysteries of Dionysos.  The group called itself the “dancing cowherds” (IPergamon 485-88) and met together regularly for rituals and meals in the so-called “Hall of Benches”, which has now been excavated (see the photo above left).  Among the functionaries in this association were those who took on the name of an important mythological figure in Dionysos’ story. Silenos is often pictured as an old man watching over the vulnerable infant Dionysos.