Was John Really Exiled To The Island of Patmos?

  • Was John really exiled to the Island of Patmos?

Church tradition teaches that Patmos was a Roman penal colony and that the Roman Emperor (Nero or Domitian depending on how you date Revelation) exiled John to the island. However, that is a myth because John was not a Roman citizen and only Roman citizens could be exiled. Later on in this post, we will also find out that there is no historical evidence from Roman historians of Patmos ever being a prison colony.

  • So how did this myth begin?

Church tradition records this statement from Tertullian:

But if thou art near to Italy, thou hast Rome, where we also have an authority close at hand. What a happy Church is that! on which the Apostles poured out all their doctrine, with their blood: where Peter had a like Passion with the Lord; where Paul bath for his crown the same death with John; where the Apostle John was plunged into boiling oil, and suffered nothing, and was afterward banished to an island.

So let’s search for the truth …

From 30 BC – 212 AD non-Roman citizens were referred to as Peregrinus to denote their free status in the Empire. However, if they were accused of the same crime as a Roman Citizen, they were treated differently under the Roman legal system.

Therefore if a Peregrinus subject was accused of a crime they were not kept in prison for very long. Either crucifixion was the means of punishment or else they were sent into slavery to work in the quarries or mines, usually till death. There was no budget for keeping Peregrinus prisoners alive in a prison cell and their punishment was swift and non-expensive.

However, a foreigner could be banished from Rome and that was referred to as relegatio in Roman law.

The mildest form of banishment is called the relegatio. The relegatio is removal (of undesirable foreigners) from Rome or a Roman province by magisterial decree for a specified amount of time or for life. A person subject to relegatio is ordered to leave Rome by a certain date; however, they are not sent to a designated location or do not lose any of their civil rights. [1]

In the bible we read of relegatio happening to the Jews when they were expelled from Rome in 19 AD, under the reign of Emperor Tiberius, and between 49 AD and 54 AD under the reign of Emperor Claudius.

The book of Acts records this:

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, ~ Acts 18:1-2

John was a Peregrinus subject in the Roman Empire, unlike the Apostle Paul who was a Roman citizen.

If you were a Roman Citizen accused of a crime, like Paul, you went through a different legal system. Having Roman citizenship was a huge advantage as milder punishments were issued to citizens.

  • Beheading instead of crucifixion.
  • Exile instead of slavery in the mines.
  • Banishment was broken down into different levels of severity for Roman citizens –  aquae et ignis interdictio, and deportatio.

Instead of being beheaded, a Roman Citizen could voluntarily agree to exile. According to Polybius, a famous Roman historian who documented the Roman Republic, “exilium was a voluntary act through which a citizen could avoid a legal penalty by quitting the community.”

Aquae et ignis interdictio banishment was when the victim lost the civil rights that came with Roman citizenship and their property was confiscated.

Deportatio was the most extreme case of banishment for a Roman citizen. It required forcible removal to a fixed place, most commonly an island in the Mediterranean, usually for life and it was traditionally reserved for members of the elite in Roman society. [2]

Therefore John could never have been exiled or banished by the Roman authorities to the island of Patmos as he was not a Roman citizen.

Was Patmos a Penal Colony?

Greek tourist sites and Church tradition would have you believe that Patmos was a Roman penal colony. However, there is no historical information from Roman Empire sources that this was the case.

According to Pliny (nat hist. iv, 23)  it was a place of exile for Roman citizens and not a penal colony for Peregrinus subjects in the Roman Empire.

“The language of [Revelation] 1:9-10 does not give a hint of a suggestion that John was banished, deported, relegated, or imprisoned on Patmos; nor is there any evidence from Roman sources that Patmos was a prison settlement. Nor was it a deserted, barren isle, as is sometimes suggested; it had sufficient population to support a gymnasium two centuries before the Common Era, and around the time of John an inscription refers to the presence of the cult of Artemis.”[3]

Exiles of the Dispersion

But John was an exile of the Dispersion which is something totally different from being an exile in the Roman Empire.

An exile of the dispersion was a Jew who had left Judea for one reason or another and was living somewhere else. Today we’d call that person an expat.

In Acts 2, Luke records that those Jewish exiles of the dispersion had come back to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven…And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. ~ Acts 2: 5,8-11

While elsewhere in the New Testament we read that Paul visited many synagogues across the Roman Empire. So there were well-established Jewish communities outside of Judea who were known as the exiles of the dispersion.

The Great Commission went to those areas to seek out the Jews to tell them the good news of the gospel of the Kingdom.

The Apostle Peter wrote the following to the Jewish Christian exiles of the dispersion who lived in Asia Minor.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, 1 Peter 1:1

Jewish Christians also fled Judea due to persecution from their fellow Jews. We know of 7 of those established churches in northern Asia Minor as John wrote to those same churches in Revelation, as did Peter.

John was a “partner in the tribulation” with the 7 churches. He suffered like all the other Jewish Christians from the persecution from Jews who lived throughout the Roman Empire.  In John’s letter to the 7 churches in Asia Minor, John identifies the source of the persecution as coming from the Jewish community and he calls them the synagogue of satan.

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. Revelation 1:9

There is no evidence that John was ever exiled to the island of Patmos by the Emperor. Rather, it seems most likely that he was on the island of Patmos due to the Great Commission as it was ideally situated where he could support the churches in Asia Minor under his care.

Some apostles remained in Jerusalem and the rest of Judea while others spread out among the nations.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” ~ Matt 28:16-20

The myth of John being in a penal colony on the island of Patmos has been supported by those who believe the book of Revelation was written post 70 AD.

If you are interested in discovering more about the dating of the Book of Revelation I can recommend this free book Before Jerusalem Fell by Kenneth Gentry. It documents the overwhelming historical evidence proving that Revelation was written before 70 AD.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relegatio

[2] https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/brill-s-new-pauly/deportatio-e315720

[3] Thompson, Analysis of Tribulation, 150, citing Saffrey, H.D. “Relire L’Apocalypse à Patmos”. RB 82:393-407.


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