Local References in the Letter to Smyrna (Rv 2:8–11), Part 1: Archaeological Background -- By: David E. Graves

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 18:4 (Fall 2005)
Article: Local References in the Letter to Smyrna (Rv 2:8–11), Part 1: Archaeological Background
Author: David E. Graves


Local References in the Letter to Smyrna (Rv 2:8–11), Part 1: Archaeological Background

David E. Graves

Relevance of Local References

Within the message to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, there are several “local references” to geographical, historical or cultural items. Evidence from archaeology, museum artifacts, inscriptions and numismatics (coins) helps illuminate the Biblical text and provides a basic historical context in which to understand the passages (Ramsay 1979; Hemer 1989; Scobie 1993: 616–17; Wood 1962:263–64; Porter 1987:143–49). Ramsay is particularly famous for his work in this regard and refers to the local references when he writes:

[T]he letters were written by one who was familiar with the situation, the character, the past history, the possibilities of future development, of those seven cities (1979: 28).

There is some debate over the relevance and validity of this line of inquiry. Court sees the implications of the local references theory as a kind of “environmental determinism” where the cultural setting is forced on the text to superimpose a particular meaning (1979:27). Barr attempts to demonstrate the pedagogical role of local references when he writes,

Boardwalk of Izmir (ancient Smyrna), the third largest city in Turkey. Until 1922 there was a large Greek Orthodox and Christian population in the city.

Harbor of Izmir (Smyrna) from Mt. Pagus, surrounded by the modern city. The second century agora (market) is on the left side of the photo. The city of Izmir is in the process of renovating access to the site and turning the ruins into an archaeological park.1

[T]hese places and their associated ideas are not merely historical correlations, as Ramsay saw, but they are an oratorical device which would enable easy memorization of the order and scope of these letters (1986: 245–46, n. 9).

Hemer seeks to refine Ramsay’s approach, reconstructing the social history of the seven cities as “applicable to the original readers” (1989:210). Scobie answers those who doubt the importance of local reference when he argues that the proof of a few local references adds merit to this theory:

If only two or three local references can be convincingly demonstrated this would be sufficient to uphold the theory of local references; these would then greatly increase the possibility that at least some further such refere...

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