Rev.2:9 I also know the slander against you by those who call themselves Jews…
A traditional interpretation of this passage suggests the Christian Church at Smyrna suffered at the hands of the Jews. The Jews thought they were the people of God but were actually the representatives of Satan. Christians were now the People of God just as Jews once were. Why were these people said not to be the Jews then? It is simple, the traditional theory posits – they were Jews by race and religion only.
But there are all kinds of misconceptions and anachronisms that are present in this common and usually unchallenged reconstruction of what took place in the city of Smyrna. This reconstruction that I sought to briefly present above is usually offered together with a story of the martyrdom of the great man of God, Polycarp (“bishop” of Smyrna), disciple the Apostle John. When he was offered life in exchange for a public denial of Jesus and acceptance of Roman Emperor as Lord he uttered now his iconic words: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong; how, then, can I blaspheme my King and my Savior!”
Problems with traditional interpretation
The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom, though being one of the greatest stories that inspired millions of Christians for a greater commitment to the Lord, is not reliable historically. At the very least its authenticity is significantly weakened by the lack of early sources. The earliest manuscripts are dated to the tenth century CE and come across as full of inspirational Christian interpolations. This becomes clear when the story of the Martyrdom of Polycarp is compared to the account as told by Eusebius in his Church History written in the fifth century CE. The differences are considerable. There are other issues like literary parallels with the passion of Christ that are doubtfully coincidental. Moreover, by the fifth century CE Christ-followers have already developed what can be called Historic Non-Jewish (and often-times anti-Jewish) Christianity and therefore it is doubtful that documents coming from under the feather of fifth-century Christian historians such as Eusebius can be trusted completely, especially when they involve the Jews.
My point here is not that nothing in Eusebius’ account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp is true. But that we simply do not have ideologically independent and reliable sources to establish the details of martyrdom, especially involving the Jews of the city of Smyrna, claiming that they led the way and encouraged the murder.
The accuracy of Eusebius’s account has been called into question many times both today and in the ancient times. For example, in the 5th century, the Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus described Eusebius as writing for “rhetorical finish” and for the “praises of the Emperor” rather than the “accurate statement of facts.” (Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, Book 1.1) The so-called historical methods of Eusebius have been criticized by many modern scholars as well.
My suggestion, therefore, is to leave the story of the dating and the authenticity of these materials to the scholars of later periods and not to allow those accounts of Polycarp (whether they are true, false or only partially so) to influence our reading of a much earlier text of Revelation. We need to be able to read the Letter of Revelation as a first-century literary work without borrowing insights and inspiration from later often-times anti-Jewish theology.
A Different Angle
… and really are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
The translation choice of the overwhelming majority of Christian translations of the Book of Revelation for the Greek συναγωγὴ τοῦ σατανᾶ is a synagogue of Satan. This a perfect example of inconsistent and clearly anti-Jewish translation. By inconsistency I mean that in the cases when the word synagogue is positive or neutral in meaning it is translated as a “congregation” or as “assembly” (James 2:2 “For if a man comes into your assembly (συναγωγὴ) with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes…”), but in the cases where it is negative, as in this one, it is translated not as congregation or assembly of Satan, but rather something that in modern minds evokes strictly a Jewish affiliation – “the synagogue”.
If we read this text as is normally done in the context of Christian Polycarp being murdered in the mid-second century by the Jews, we will not be able to see any other interpretive options here at all. If we follow traditional trajectory (that the persecuting party was local Jews), we would have to disregard Jesus’ words (that they were not). Jesus says that those who slander his followers in Smyrna were dishonest about being Judeans. They were not Jews. They pretended to be so.
What if Jesus was right literally? What if these people slandering the Jewish believers in Jesus and those who joined them in following the Jewish Christ were not Judeans/Jews at all? What if they were recent converts to the Judean life-style package from the Romans – a well-known and problematic phenomenon in the Roman Empire? Incidentally, the utter religious zeal is very much characteristic of a religious convert.
A Greco-Roman writer Epictetus who was a Stoic Philosopher residing in Asia Minor at the time of the composition of the Book of Revelation wrote the following: “Why, then do you call yourself a Stoic, why do you deceive the multitude, why do you act the part of a Judean, when you are a Greek? Do you not how each person is called a Judean, a Syrian, or an Egyptian? And when we see someone not being decisive, we are accustomed to saying, “He is not a Judean, but he is just pretending.” But when he takes up the state of mind of one who has been baptized and made a choice, then he is a Judean in both reality and name. So also we are falsely baptized, Judeans in a word, but in deed something else, not in harmony with reason, far from applying the principles we profess, yet priding ourselves for being people who know them (Dissertations 2.9.19-21 = Stern no. 254).”
The people forming the so-called “synagogue of Satan” may have come from the Greco-Roman world; perhaps former God-fearers who became attached to Jewish ways and practice. Historically speaking, this scenario is quite plausible. Many sources speak of Gentile God-fearers who began to adopt Jewish customs and affiliate themselves in one way or another with the Jewish people. Like many new converts to any religion, some members of this group probably displayed extreme religious zeal.
The modern English translation of the original text as “Synagogue” of Satan is unjustified since the people attacking early Gentile Christ-followers in the City of Smyrna were not Jews themselves. To translate the Greek word (συναγωγὴ) that was not particularly “Jewish” in the first century with a word that is exclusively Jewish in our time (synagogue) is misleading and dangerous. There are even more hidden treasures just waiting for you to unearth when you begin to read the scriptures from a Jewish perspective.