What is the “synagogue of Satan”?

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Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. – Revelation 3:9

To use a phrase that “this is one of the most misunderstood verses in the entire Bible” is to use a cliché, but in this case the claim is actually true. The traditional interpretation is as follows:

The Jews in the city of Philadelphia hated and opposed the Christians, but according to God, the Christians now were the true people of God (spiritual Jews), and not them (the carnal Jews). The Jews, because of their unbelief and rejection of Jesus, are no longer Jews spiritually, the Christians are now spiritual Jews. There will come a day when persecuted Christians will be triumphant and the unbelieving Jews will submit to them. God will make it abundantly clear to all that He was always on the side of the Christians. The Jews simply lied about their identity. The Church has now became what Israel once was, God’s own people.

It is clear that my simplified but fair summary of the interpretation of these texts is an example par excellence of replacement theology or supersessionism at work. What, if not this reading, should be the proper reading of this text? There are a number of issues to consider here.

First, Christian Bibles (well-meaning and faithful translations) still fall into the trap of age old Christian Anti-Judaism when it comes to translation decisions from the Koine Judeo-Greek text of the New Testament when it is translated into modern languages. Take for example the Greek word συναγωγῆς translated here as synagogue (of Satan), while in James 2:2 when the commandment is given to treat poor worshipers on a par with the rich the same word (συναγωγῆς ) is translated as (your) assembly. The word synagogue (συναγωγῆς) in the first century and following was actually a Greco-Roman institution that emerged and functioned during the time of the Babylonian exile. It became a place of Jewish gatherings for study, prayer and fellowship. It really did mean something like a meeting or an assembly. James 2:2 is therefore appropriately translated, but instead of applying the same logic when an utterly negative context is in view as in Rev. 3:9 (of Satan), the overwhelming majority of Christian translators chose to call it not an assembly, but a Synagogue of Satan. In the minds of all modern people (Jewish or otherwise) this word evokes a clear affiliation with the religion we today call Judaism. This was not always because the first century Graeco-Roman institution called a συναγωγῆς (synagogue) was freely used by Jews and non-Jews alike .

Second, and this is absolutely stunning, Jesus actually told the Philadelphian believers that people who were saying and doing these things are not Jews. Stop and think about it for a moment. If we do not accept the traditional interpretation that the carnal Jews are not the spiritual Jews, we could accept what may be called the plain meaning of Jesus’ words, namely that the people opposing them were not Jews at all. If they were not Jews, who were they? Given the widespread practice of conversion to Jewish ancestral practices (proselyte conversion) or coming near to them as in the case of God-fearers, we may be dealing here with overzealous people who were either completely new to Jewish ways of life or who were only superficially familiar with the traditions and therefore not representative of them. We must think through other interpretive possibilities if Jesus’ words (that these people were not Jews) could be taken literally and seriously.

The seven assemblies of Asia Minor were made up of large number of former God-fearers (Gentiles) who had joined the faith of Israel through their reception of Jesus as the Christ (Messiah) and the assemblies included those Israelites who had earlier followed Jesus as the Messiah. It is likely that the non-conversion prescriptions decreed in Acts 15:29 were to blame. The group of people, led by overzealous converts to Jewish ancestral ways of life and who, until recently, were not members of the Jewish people were the ones behind the persecution of believers in Philadelphia. They strongly objected to Gentiles joining the Jewish people without formal proselyte conversion which was not required by the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:29) and which the Apostle Paul clearly forbade (1 Cor. 7:17-24). Jesus promised the Gentiles who followed him according to the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (vs. those who chose the proselyte conversion path to Israel’s God) that he would finally and publically approve them (Rev. 3:9b). He also praised them for doing well.

10 Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. 

The Jews in the Roman Empire were numerous and they were a privileged minority. Since the followers of the Jewish Christ from the Nations were instructed against proselyte conversion to Judaism, they were at odds with both the prevailing Roman culture and the majority of Jews who did not understand why they counted themselves among the people of Israel’s God without officially joining that very people. This was the primary meaning of conversion in late antiquity. Jesus promised these precious believers, that since they had kept his commandments in spite of enormous difficulties, he in turn would preserve them through the hours of great difficulty that were soon coming. It is likely that the empire-wide persecution of Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ was in view. That particular persecution took place under Emperor Nero (64-68 C.E.)

11 I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

In the Roman Empire, Jews, even Jesus-following Jews, were a minority who were protected by law. However, Gentile followers of the Jewish Christ were not. Former Roman pagans who joined this Jewish coalition under Jesus without actual conversion to Jewish ancestral traditions and way of life were vulnerable to the attacks of their enemies on both sides – the Roman pagans that despised them and the former Roman pagans who went through proselyte conversion to Judaism (those who say “they are Jews, but are not” in Rev.3:9).

Even with the promise of preservation (Rev. 3:10), the coming persecution and survival/overcoming would not be easy. Once it was accomplished, however, the rewards of the Israelite Kingdom for Gentile members of this Jewish Jesus coalition would be great. Members from among the Nations of the world who joined the Jewish Jesus not as Jews, but as members of the nations, would be fully brought in and treated as first class citizens of the Kingdom of Israel’s God.

This article originally appeared on Jewish Studies Blog by Dr. Eli, October 5, 2015, and reposted with permission.