🔼The name Patmos: Summary
- Unclear but perhaps Getting Stepped On
- Unclear but perhaps from the verb πατεω (pateo), to tread or walk.
🔼The name Patmos in the Bible
The name Patmos belongs to the island on which John the Revelator famously wrote the Book of Revelation. It's mentioned only once (Revelation 1:9), and that makes it one of about half a dozen mentions of Patmos in classical literature. The other mentions — by Pliny, Thucydides, Strabo, Dionysius via Eustathius, and some anonymous author — are inconsequential and of a mere geographical nature. Patmos is relatively small (34 square kilometers) but has been inhabited since deep antiquity.
Most commentators insist that John was exiled on Patmos, during the brutalities instigated by Caesar Domitian no less, but that's all conjecture. We simply don't know why (or when) John was on Patmos. John merely submits that he was there "because of the Word of God and because of the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 1:9). He may very well have hidden out there, or simply crossed over to share the gospel. No classical writer reports that Patmos was ever host to exiles, but Tacitus makes mention of one savagely tempered proconsul of Spain named Vibius Serenus, who was subsequently banished to Amorgos, which is an island about fifty kilometers to the south-west of Patmos (Tacitus Annals.IV).
We don't even know who John the Revelator was. Tradition equated him with John the Evangelist but modern scholars rejected this as they noted the clear differences in style, purport, themes and outlook between the gospel of John and Revelation. Others note that there may have been as much as two decades between the years of production of the decidedly chipper gospel and the much more glum Revelation, and a person's style may surely change during such time.
But whatever John was doing on Patmos, he was certainly free to move around, to procure writing materials (a much bigger deal then than now), and to keep up correspondence — which required visitors and exchange of goods. In the middle of the stormy correspondence of the late first century AD, John's Revelation went viral (was copiously copied and sent all over the place), and that requires John's already existing celebrity and favorable connection to a publishing house.
The Book of Revelation is arguably the most political book of the Bible. It discusses absolute evil personified by Rome, and absolute good personified by the Jewish unarmed resistance movement of which Jesus of Nazareth was the face. Patmos is one of the islands collectively known as the Sporades, the "Scattered", which may also be the translation of the name Nazarene. Patmos is one of the Southern Sporades, and more specifically the northernmost island of the Dodecanese, literally Twelve Islands — which is a group of more than 150 smaller islands and twelve large ones, among which Rhodes and Cos, which were major centers of commerce, culture and science.
The famous senator Cassius, who was one of the Liberators who opposed tyranny and ultimately killed Julius Caesar (see our article on Philippi), had studied in Rhodes and leaned towards Epicureanism. In the aftermath of the assassination, Cassius sacked Rhodes for its allegiance to Caesar. He himself was killed at the Battle of Philippi and the Dodecanese became part of the Roman Provincia Insularum, which also contained Crete.
Patmos too was far from an abandoned rock. An acropolis dates from the 4th century BC, and in Roman times the island was home to several towns and villages, a hippodrome, a gymnasium with torch-runners and oil-slippery athletes, a considerable administrative center and major temples of Apollo, Aphrodite and Artemis. The latter particularly appears to have been dominant on the island. According to a 2nd century AD inscription found on the island, the cult of Artemis and associated activities went on strong on Patmos, and the then incumbent priestess, Vera, was the tenth in line. The inscription also calls the island Πατνος (Patnos) instead of Patmos, dubs it "the most illustrious island of the daughter of Leto" (which would be Artemis), and claims that the famous God-fallen image was in fact on Patmos and not in Ephesus (Acts 19:35).
It's not clear whether or not there was a Jewish community on the island, but the Jews were virtually everywhere so most probably also on Patmos. Literary sources mention a hippodrome but traces of this have been found only very recently; a little synagogue in a town somewhere would be even harder to find and would have most likely been demolished at some point. John's visions appear to have started on the Sabbath (Revelation 1:10), but the mere fact that it was Saturday (or Sunday?) seems rather irrelevant and one could surmise that John was referring to a formally organized Lord's Day. This in turn could mean that John gave credence to his hosts, perhaps a school of thought or an outpost of the non-violent resistance movement that opposed Rome without breaking its laws.
Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that at present we have not enough information or even insight into the nature and working of the Book of Revelation to guess what was going on at Patmos, who John was and what the deal was with the seven churches in Asia Minor (there were many more in Anatolia and beyond; why these seven? But see Isaiah 4:1, Exodus 2:16, Proverbs 9:1). Was John really on Patmos, or was "being on Patmos" a colloquial expression, perhaps an old-world equivalent of "being up the creek" or perhaps even "going to Arabia" (which might have meant "being itinerant"; also see our article on the name Nereus). John said he was on the island through (δια, dia) the Word and the testimony, and, as some scholars note, the causative span might include the name Patmos: the island was called Patmos through the Word.
He also said that he was in the Spirit, and on the Lord's Day, and viewed things that weren't part of observable reality. In other words: John may not have physically been on Patmos but rather "in spirit", just like he was in heaven (Revelation 4:2), the wilderness (Revelation 17:3) and a high mountain (Revelation 21:10, see the close similarity with Ezekiel 40:2). This would also correspond to the remote-viewing tradition of Ezekiel at the Chebar River and Daniel at the Ulai Canal and Tigris (Ezekiel 1:1, Daniel 8:6, 10:4).
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Patmos
The name Patmos is hugely old. So old even that it's no longer clear where it came from or even from which language, and ultimately what it may have meant to the original name-giver. It's not even clear what the name actually was, as variants include Patnos, Patno, Phatmos, Pathamus, Pammos, Patmum and Patmon. It's not even sure that the various Greek and Latin commentators (half a dozen pre-John and many post-John) were talking about the same island! The descriptions of its size and location vary so widely and there are so many Sporades islands that the chances are excellent that some ancient writers confused some islands and their names.
Much more interesting, therefore, is what people from John's time could have figured the name Patmos to mean. Note that John himself utilizes location names as literary devices (11:8, 14:1, 17:5, 20:8; and "all the tribes" mentioned in 1:7 may also refer to Pamphylia).
The 19th century French explorer Victor Guérin reported of a tradition that related the name Patmos to the verb πατεω (pateo), meaning to tread or walk (on account of the myth that Neptune stepped ashore there) and particular to its derived noun πατημα (patema), meaning either step or that which is stepped on, that which is trodden. This in turn describes either grapes or olives that are trodden for their juice and oil, or else dung and refuse that get trodden underfoot. Perhaps this is why John submits that he is "partaking in the tribulation" (also Revelation 1:9), and perhaps this is why the 18th century scholar Alexander Cruden felt certain that the name Patmos reflected the rather elaborate meaning of "I am squeezed to pieces" (Cruden, Complete Concordance).
Our word πατημα (patema) occurs with the latter meaning in Ezekiel 34:19, where the Lord says that his flock must eat and drink what others step on: "As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for my sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day (Ezekiel 34:12, see Revelation 1:7)".
Another theory of interest suggests that the name Patmos is a garbled form of the name Λατμος, Latmos, which belonged to a mountain and a town close to Patmos but on the mainland of Anatolia. The meaning of the name Latmos is as obscure as Patmos, also because Latmos was just one of many names by which the mountain was known (its modern name is Besparmak). Tradition insists that John resided in a cave when he received Revelation, and while tradition is great at coming up with superfluous or nonsensical details, John's cave may have been entered into the account to remind people of the mythical story of Endymion, who sleeps eternally in a cave on mount Latmos. But better yet is the connection with Elijah, who had his conversation with the Word of the Lord in a cave on mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:9).