The Confusion of Patmos and Cyprus

Cyprus as the location of John’s exile in some medieval sources

According to a medieval Greek prologue to the Gospels, John wrote his Gospel “in Patmos of Cyprus.”[1] Of course, Patmos is quite a distance from the much larger island of Cyprus (see map below).

This map of Paul’s first missionary journey shows Antioch, Seleucia, Paphos, and Patmos (source)

Other sources seem to be interacting with the same or a similar tradition. Richard of St. Victor (c. 1150), writing in Latin, claimed that Patmos was located “in the Syrian sea” (in mari syrico)[2]; Cyprus, not Patmos, was located near Syria. And according to a Geez (Ethiopic) commentary on Revelation, John saw his vision on “Fəṭmo, one of the islands of Sälagya of Antioch.”[3] This Sälagya is thought to refer to Seleucia, the port city of ancient Syrian Antioch; while there are no islands near Seleucia, Cyprus is about 80 miles away. Thus, this confusion may have been quite widespread, showing up in Greek, Latin, and Ethiopic sources.

Patmos and Paphos

There is also the claim, found in some Greek colophons, that “John composed the Gospel named according to him after he returned to Ephesus from Paphos”[4] Paphos was a city on the western side of the island of Cyprus (see map above), but the narrative of John’s returning to Ephesus from there and writing his Gospel recalls the statements of Clement of Alexandria (Quis div. 42) and other early sources that John settled in Ephesus and wrote his Gospel there after his release from exile on the similar-sounding island of Patmos.

Accidental Confusion or Deliberate Conflation?

Were Patmos and Paphos simply accidentally confused? This could explain an isolated tradition, but probably not an apparently widespread one. I would suggest that conflation created the narrative. Let me explain (this summarized from my book, The John also Called Mark).

A number of Greek (e.g. Acts of John by Prochorus, Book of John Concerning the Falling Asleep of Mary) and Syriac (e.g. Mingana 540, Codex 825) sources place John’s departure from Jerusalem to the province of Asia and his exile on Patmos in the decade of the 30s (on account of his later identification with John the son of Zebedee and subsequent incorporation into the tradition of the Twelve being allotted to their labors following the resurrection, as I explain in the book).

Yet many medieval sources, cited in my book, exhibit a tradition according to which John journeyed to Antioch, Seleucia and Cyprus in the 30s and 40s.

I suggest that when the narrative of John’s exile and return to Ephesus was wrongly placed in the 30s, it was variously conflated with a tradition of John’s Syrian and Cypriot ministry which was contextualized in this period, resulting in the tradition of John’s exile to Cyprus.


Footnotes

[1] Cited in Dean Furlong, The John also called Mark: Reception and Transformation Christian Tradition, p. 169.

[2] Cited in Furlong, John also called Mark, p. 178.

[3] Cited in Furlong, John also called Mark, p. 178.

[4] Cited in Furlong, John also called Mark, p. 169.

3 thoughts on “The Confusion of Patmos and Cyprus”

  1. I think the confusion comes from different Johns and the Beloved Disciple (Mary Magdalene of Bethany) getting confused together. I’ve increasingly come to think the John of Revelation is in fact Mark and that the vision may have actually been given on Cyprus possibly at Paphos and that Patmos was originally a reference to that and only became a lame for the island of Letois much latter.

    I think John son of Zebedee died the same day his brother did and thus didn’t write any book of the New Testament. If any of the Apostles involved in all this confusion was ever at Ephesus it was Mary.

    These are all things I believe regardless of the when of Revelation’s writing.

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    1. I argue that the Patmos (Letois) tradition was the original one, but that it became conflated with John/Mark’s earlier Cypriot ministry (as related in the Acts of Mark).
      I think the evidence rather points to John the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus both being killed around the same time (end of Claudius’ reign) in Jerusalem.

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