This image from the New Testament has been used for centuries to endorse the idea that Jewish synagogues and Judaism are from the devil. It has also contributed to the deep divisions and disunity between the church and synagogue. How should we understand this fateful portrayal, and what does the apostle mean by it?
As happens all too often, verses like this are taken out of context (especially about Israel and the Jews), and used in ways that they were never intended. A simple reading of the passage shows that this image is not about Jews or Judaism, but was used by John as a jarring image to warn the early Messianic community about a first century group “calling themselves Jews.”
“Look at those who belong to the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews but are liars instead” (Rev. 3:9).
Some have surmised that the Apostle is suggesting here that only he, and his Messianic followers, are the “true Jews.” In other words, as though John is saying, “We are the true community of God, the unbelieving Jews are “fake Jews.” This idea comes from another misinterpretation of Paul’s statement in Romans that, “true Jews are those circumcised in heart” (2:28-29). However, he is merely emphasizing that there is a deeper spiritual meaning of being Jewish that is often disregarded. He is not redefining who is a Jew, as some assume.
John is not claiming the title “the true Jews” for himself, or the Messianic community. The image of a synagogue of Satan is not a condemnation of the Jewish religion, rather, it is an expression of John’s concern that certain members of the Messianic community were “calling themselves Jews but are liars.”
The seat of Satan
In this section of his vision, John is writing from the Isle of Patmos to the seven churches in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. To the Church of Pergamum, John writes, “I know where you live, where the throne of Satan sits” (Rev. 2:13). In the late 19th century, excavations at Pergamon uncovered a massive altar to the Greek god Zeus. The altar is 110 meters (360 ft.) in circumference with a 20- meter-wide (66 ft.) staircase leading up to it and was the centerpiece of an entire acropolis dedicated to the Greek gods. The restored altar is now part of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which includes findings from the legendary metropolis of the Hellenistic world in Pergamon that had influence throughout the region John is visiting in Asia Minor, since 146 BC.
At the time of his writing, John’s major concern was the influence and attraction that Hellenism was having on the early Church. The group of “fake Jews” John opposes are made up of Hellenized Jews who are welcoming God-fearers, and others, into their community without requiring substantial separation from the Greco-Roman culture and its idolatries. John then creates an image of this dangerous splinter group, a “synagogue of Satan,” who disagree with the apostle about what is required to be God’s people. John insists that the Messianic community be a movement of Jews and Gentiles separated from the pollutions of the all-encompassing Hellenistic-Roman culture.
In these passages to the seven churches in Asia Minor, John refers to several other groups that are also competing with John for leadership, and present dangerous cultural and idolatrous attractions leading the early community into serious error. He calls these factions Jezebel, Balaam and Nicolaitans (Rev. 2-3), and together with the image of a satanic synagogue, John sees the same diabolical hand behind them all.
John is mocking these sects with biblical names, and of the fake “true Jews” who present themselves as the congregation of God, John calls sarcastically a “synagogue of Satan.”
There is absolutely no justification to see in this image a rebuke of the Jewish people in general, nor of a supposed corrupt Judaism. Neither can we use this image to conclude that John was pointing to an early split between Judaism and Christianity; “us” and “them.” John nowhere claims exclusive use of the title Jew for himself, nor is there any notion of a so-called “true Israel” applied to the Church in any of his writings. This group that John considers outside the boundaries of Messianic faith, are simply those who are too Hellenized, too assimilated, or too willing to compromise with polytheism.
It is this boundary, between the Messianic community of faith and the (“idolatrous” and “Satanic”) worldly culture, that is being opposed by the image of a “synagogue of Satan” – not the separation between Christianity and a supposed “demonic” Judaism. Understood this way, the apostle’s writings are a perceptive insight into what eventually became the greatest danger to the Church: the Hellenistic-Roman-Western materialistic and rationalistic culture and philosophy, in opposition to a biblical, Jewish faith.
It is perhaps needless to point out, again, how the misinterpretation of this verse, and others, has contributed to a long history of antisemitism and anti-Judaism in the Church.
Perhaps we all might consider what Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi who articulates better than most a challenge to the Church in our own days: “The vital issue for the Church is to decide whether to look for roots in Judaism and consider itself an extension of Judaism, or to look for roots in pagan Hellenism and consider itself as an antithesis to Judaism.” The Insecurity of Freedom (Schocken Books, 1972) pp. 169-70.
For more on this see our series Athens or Jerusalem? Establishing the Spiritual Heritage of Jesus’ Followers
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