Rev.2:9 I also know the slander against you by those who call themselves Jews…

Traditional Interpretation

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.

My conclusion

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.



  1. If I grew a catholic, became evangelist, then realised Israel's revelation od God's people, then join a messianic congregation, then try to mingle with the Orthodox Jews, am I just schizophrenically sick ?
    • :-) no this means (probably) that you are yet to find a balanced community of faith that will allow you to both follow Christ Jesus and appreciate deeply the Jewish setting of such following.

      + More answers (7)
  2. Thanks for clarifying the misuse of the word for Synagogue. Regardless Christians know, if they are really followers of Jesus whose hearts are in what Jesus said was the summation of the laws and the Prophets, to L.O. A. , even to Love those we consider our enemies, to always do good, not evil to others, to at least have a chance to make them friends. Persecution of anyone is not Christian, it is Hitler's facism that invaded Christianity, such as the influence of negativeness (or satan) in immature or evil hearts in any belief.
  3. I will add here. The Synagogue of Satan, is all religions without Christ. Rom 2:28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: Rom 2:29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. Rom 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be
    • Hi Joan. "It preaches," as they say, but John appears to have something more specific in mind here than just "all religions without Christ." If you're quoting Rom 2:28-29 to hint that "the Synagogue of Satan" does indeed refer to a synagogue composed of Jewish people that don't believe in Jesus, I responded to that suggestion above.
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with Exodus and The New Testament or Revelation in a Jewish Context II : Discovery. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
  4. I've have long held the view that the members of this congregation were likely some form of proselytes rather than literal Jews. That said while the verse has been adopted by theologies with an anti Jewish basis, I'm of the opinion that the use of συναγωγή rather than ἐκκλησία was more for the use of a good timely alliteration to really hit home in regards to how unjewishly the opposing congregation was behaving.
  5. Translation seems to be a key factor in understanding scripture from a proper perspective. Most people do not know the original languages and are therefore at the mercy not only of the translator, but often his theological bias as well. Thank you for sharing this.
  6. There was a lot of Jewish proselytizing going on in those days--Jesus even remarks on it in Matthew 23:15. There were some hypocrites who were seeking Gentile proselytes merely for their money and position in the Empire. The Talmud comments on it. Jesus must have taken an extremely dim view of the practice, as He said that those doing those things were making proselytes who were "twice the sons of hell" as the hypocritical teachers themselves were. Jesus leaves no doubt that we are not speaking of ordinary, fleshly and worldly sinners, but instead, of actual Satan-followers.
  7. The "assembly (synagogue) of Satan" has been present among humans ever since the Fall. Those who are religiously evil are working directly for Satan and his minions--see Ezekiel 8. With the 1928 discovery of the Ras Shamra documents in Syria, the linguistic scholars who worked on translating the cuneiform tablets were shocked to discover that the Canaanites WERE as evil as the Bible says. (Liberal scholars had suggested that the Tanakh had exaggerated.) The descriptions of ordinary life in the Ras Shamra documents was unexciting; the religious practices of the Canaanites were very disturbing.
    • Hi, JBell. Thanks joining the discussion. I think John probably had something a little more specific in mind but as I said above, it definitely preaches :-)
    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with Exodus and The New Testament or The Jewish Gospel of John I: The Arrival of the King. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!
  8. All of Paul’s letters are written to communities referred to as ekklesias. The synagogue in Jerusalem under James/Ya’akov seems to be highly observant. James in fact asks Paul to offer sacrifices in the Temple as a benefactor to four of his members who were completing Nazirite vows. When Paul persecuted the MJ community (in Jerusalem?, Ac. 22:19), he goes from synagogue to synagogue. But I’m not sure that, outside of Corinth, any other places have synagogue leaders. Couldn’t the term synagogue indicate that a minyan of Jewish people met weekly for liturgical worship (and practiced kashrut, Shabbat/Torah reading, and circumcision)?
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