“Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it. — Revelation 2:17
Mythological mystery clouds the founding of Pergamum. Legend claimed it was founded by Telephus, who was king of Asia Minor, the son of Hercules, and the grandson of Zeus. Therefore, Pergamum rulers felt justified to claim divine authority. “Pergamum” derives from the Greek word for “citadel,” a fitting name since the acropolis sits on the zenith of a hill, 1,300 feet above the valley. Archeological evidence points to a settlement dating back to the eighth century B.C.E., but Greek history first records Pergamum when soldiers passed through it to battle the Persians in 399 B.C.E. Alexander the Great took control of the city, but one of his generals was soon betrayed by an officer named Philetaerus. So began the 150-year Attalid Dynasty from 281 B.C.E. to 133 B.C.E. This dynasty defeated the invading Gauls from the region of Galatia (the ancestors of Celtic peoples who originated in Anatolia). The ruler at the time constructed the now famous Altar to Zeus at Pergamum as a memorial for victory against the Galatians in the second century B.C.E.
Part of what gained Pergamum wealth and distinction was the Asklepion, one of the earliest medical centers and scenes of cult worship of Asclepius, the god of healing. Beginning in the fourth century B.C.E., cult practices and medical treatments took place at the site, southwest of the acropolis. These practices became widely used in the Greek and Roman world, but Pergamum was one of the more famous sites. Similar to a modern spa, the treatments included massage, herbal remedies, mud and bathing practices, and sacred drinking water. Other treatments were spiritual in nature, including interpretation of dreams and psychotherapy. The rich and famous sought healing from the sacred Asklepion, including emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. The serpent became the Asklepion emblem. A snake wrapped around a rod, still widely used as a logo for medical organizations today, came from the Rod of Asclepius, a symbol of the god of healing.
In 129 B.C.E. Pergamum came fully under Roman rule and may have been the capital of the Roman province. However, a vigorous, ongoing rivalry continued among Pergamum, Ephesus, and Smyrna as to which one truly led the region. After a time of decline, Pergamum was reestablished as a powerful city in Asia Minor in the early second century A.D. It fell out of prominence somewhat in the third century A.D. even though an eventual emperor, Julian, lived there during his studies. By the eighth century, Arabs overtook Pergamum as did the Byzantines, Crusaders, Seljiuks, and Ottomans in subsequent decades.
By his personal example, firm faith and constant preaching about Christ, Saint Antipas began to turn the people of Pergamum from offering sacrifices to idols. The pagan priests reproached the bishop for leading the people away from their ancestral gods, and they demanded that he stop preaching about Christ and offer sacrifice to the idols instead. — (The Orthodox Church in America)
Pergamum in Christian History
We do not know how the Christian gospel came to Pergamum, but we do know that an established Christian community existed there when the Apostle John wrote his apocalyptic letter. It seems the believers in Pergamum experienced the most intense opposition of any church addressed in John’s Revelation. John recognized their difficulty of living in “Satan's throne,” most likely referring to the Asklepion, which was dedicated to Apollos’ son, Asclepius. Asclepius was sometimes referred to as a savior with a serpent (Satan’s bodily form in the garden), and thus the serpent became his symbol.
“Write to the angel of the church in Pergamum: Thus says the one who has the sharp, double-edged sword: I know where you live—where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding on to my name and did not deny your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness who was put to death 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 place a stumbling block in front of the Israelites: to eat meat sacrificed to idols and to commit sexual immorality. In the same way, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. So repent! Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth. — Revelation 2:12-16
Tradition states that John ordained Antipas as bishop of the city, but in 92 A.D. Antipas was martyred. Supposedly, he was burned in a brazen, bull-shaped altar that locals used for casting out demons. John refers to Antipas as “my faithful witness” or “martyr.” He commends the church’s faithfulness in the face of suffering, and heavy persecution persisted there. Christian tradition maintains that at least three prevalent Christians were martyred for their faith: Carpus, Paylus, and Agathonice, all of them likely killed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.). Even though they endured persecution, John still rebukes the Christians in Pergamum for two things. First, they followed the teachings of Balaam, which meant they ate meat sacrificed to idols and committed sexual sins. Second, some held to the teachings of the Nicolaitans, which was probably some form of Gnosticism.
The gigantic temple to the emperor Trajan in the center of the acropolis stands as a reminder of the letter that Pliny, governor of Bithynia (northern Asia Minor), addressed to the emperor Trajan. The letter requests assistance in dealing with the “offenses” being brought before him, namely, that people were becoming Christians. Pliny expresses concern that “the contagion of this superstition [had] spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.” It seems that Christianity had moved north and east, puzzling the local governor. The persecution experienced by the Christians in Pergamum no doubt spread along with the message of Christ.