What Is The Synagogue Of Satan?

9 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.

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.

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  1. jane z. mazzola

    Yes, you’re right & also, humorous! 🙂 The same Greek word or Hebrew word, whenever it appears in a text, would be better served to be translated consistently w/the same “new” language word. I wonder how this passage is translated in all English Bibles? I am not in VA w/my usual resources to check, but I shall when I return. I’ll check Dr. A-J Levine, ed.. New Testament & comments also. Have you considered for some future time, making your case to all publishers w/the recommendation that all future editions of English language Bibles change the phrase of “synagogues of satan” to “assemblies of the devil” or other less offensive words? Why not?

    Again, prayers for your safe, successful travels & safety for those in Israel.
    Jane M

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks, Jane. I have not considered, but we are talking about here a miracle of gigantic proportions. 🙂 Thank you so much!!!!!!

  2. jane z. mazzola

    Dear Dr. Eli,

    Thank you for your kind & generous words.

    The definition of “alliteration” which you quoted seems to fit this example of “synagogue of satan” perfectly or vice versa. Frequently the sounds may be repeated more than just 2x to continue the emphasis, but this one works quite well, w/ the harsh “S” sounds of “s”. It even creates (in my mind’s eye) a Sinister Satanic Situation (!) & for you, creates additional pain & anger, in light of history, ancient & modern. I appreciate your reaction, & it is so rightly justified. You are entitled. Thank you for your honesty & recognition that the personal perception may be present in this particular passage (alliteration?). 🙂

    On the other hand, you have pointed out that the translations of James & this passage in Revelation came from the same Greek word(s); hence the question remains, why are 2 different English words used? Was it really meant to be anti-Semitic? Or was there something else being emphasized w/this community? While you explain them so well in light of language, history, culture, & “connecting the dots”, there is still a measure of mystery w/Jesus’s messages to each of these communities. That possible unknown is what I see in this particular passage. I still wonder if the modern translation in other languages of the same phrase engenders as much “hair raisin’ on the back of the neck”? In other words, is the word “synagogue” actually what is used in different modern languages? Or would it be in a Spanish language Bible, a word used equal to assembly? It would be a good modern language word study. For instance, what word is used in a Russian Bible translation? Would it be more accurately translated to the original 1st c. text?

    I am not sure that I have made my question clear, but I hope. 🙂
    Jane M.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Ok… I c. thanks. Why is this word used, probably, the answer is because people that were translating (most of them not harboring any bad feelings towards the Jews and some having real sympathies in fact) translated it this way is because they are thinking in the Church/Christianity, synagogue/Judaism paradigm. In other words this translation reads into text the kind of separation that was not there at the time of the writings! Synagogues were not exclusively Jewish and while it can be translated this way it should then inconstantly translated this way in other places too. Again I think when the Christian mind demonizes the Jews (and this translation whether on purpose or not) just that… literally, this is not the right way to go! (see I am not using alliteration here, though I at least now know what it is) :-).

  3. jane z. mazzola

    After reading this post & comments numerous times, I still come away w/ a certain defensiveness on your part, Dr. Eli, & that comes in all due respect from a reader/fan. I
    agree w/the gent, David, near the beginning of comments. I see your reasoning re: the use of the words, “assembly” & “synagogue” in different texts but w/the same Greek. However, is the case of English translation to “Synagogue of Satan”, a strong alliteration, for the purpose of emphasis of Jesus’ message to this community, rather than Jews as a group? Just by reading the phrase once, the English sounds are strong & harsh…an effective literary device. I would wonder if the same expression or sounds in French, Spanish, or any other modern languages would have that same effect or even same translation? For all you of numerous languages, what are your translations?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dearest Jane, I have never doubted your fan sympathies :-)!!!! I guess for a me this is a VERY EMOTIONAL issue. In other words how I hear this translation choice is very different from how I hear almost any other debated point. Hence (no doubt some of the defensiveness you are rightfully sensing). In my mind this kind of translations laid foundation for literally much later in Christian history spilling my people’s blood. So am sensitive about it. Yes :-).

      I had to look up alliteration :-). (Got this: “Alliteration is a stylistic literary device identified by the repeated sound of the first consonant in a series of multiple words, or the repetition of the same sounds or of the same kinds of sounds at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables of a phrase.”) Not exactly sure what you may be referring to here in your question. Can you rephrase and repost?

  4. yetilived

    Would the Jews ( that Jesus loved) already have had their hearts tested ( received the revelations of Christ) —but are unfinished/entombed? I am trying to understand what it means to be kept from the hour of testing and Exodus 16 speaks of testing like drops of water (heavenly messengers) rather than streams of living water.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Testing is good. It allows to show faithfulness and to grow. Consider Abraham and Job.

  5. Greenzone

    “Nearly all the Samaritans, but few among the rest of the nations, confess him [Simon Magus] to be the first god and worship him.”

    • Justin Martyr, Apology, I.26

    “He [Simon Magus] was glorified by many as a god; and he taught that it was he himself who, forsooth, appeared among the Jews as the Son, while in Samaria he descended as the Father, and the rest of the world he came as the Holy Spirit. That he was the highest power, to wit, the Father over all, and that he allowed himself to be called by whatever name men pleased.”

    • Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.23.1

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      ??? and…

      1. Greenzone

        9 Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan [ synagogues of the Gnostic Samaritans ]
        , who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie [ they are Gnostic Samaritans, which follow Simon Magus the Samaritan ]

        “Nearly all the Samaritans, but few among the rest of the nations, confess him [Simon Magus] to be the first god and worship him.”

        • Justin Martyr, Apology, I.26

        “He [Simon Magus] was glorified by many as a god; and he taught that it was he himself who, forsooth, appeared among the Jews as the Son, while in Samaria he descended as the Father, and the rest of the world he came as the Holy Spirit. That he was the highest power, to wit, the Father over all, and that he allowed himself to be called by whatever name men pleased.”

        • Irenaeus, Against Heresies, I.23.1

        The People That History Forgot – Chapter 4 Who Built the Idolatrous Synagogues?
        http://www.askelm.com/people/peo004.htm

  6. premkumar samuel

    Jesus when he addressed the jews who believed in Him, said among other things I know you are Abraham’s descendents (Meaning they are Jewish by birth)You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.
    So i think It is quiet possible that Jesus may be referring to Jews who are persecuting the Church as belonging to the evil one.
    I also wish to add Dr. Eli, that David Stern of JNP has also taken your Stand and its worth considering.Replacement Theology is not Biblical and every Christian should be taught the truths of Romans 9-12 as well Jeremiah 33 which clearly states that His covenant with His people (The JEWS) are irrevocable and eternal.
    Shalom
    Premkumar Samuel
    India.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      You see it is one thing to have a heritage, to be born into a particular family and into the covenant. But one is responsible to live it as well. No one tossed out the personal responsibility out of the equation. Some people can be “bad Jews” but still “Jews” not someone else. Some people can be better then “bad Jews” but that does not mean God will dispossess the “bad Jews” of their “Jewishness” and hand it over to those who ware better than they are, but happen not to be Jews. 🙂 These things do not change. 1 Cor 7:19.

    2. alicialala

      If circumcision of the flesh is a distinct characteristic of a natural Jew, and the circumcision of the heart makes a spiritual Jew, does it mean that christians are spiritual jews? Does this fall under Replacement Theology?

  7. HEZEKIAH

    Another interesting article in all generational record keeping, keeps it up sir.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  8. yetilived

    Are you saying that the word church means assembly.? God didn’t exclude me, but the word church seems very exclusive to me (unchurched). I noticed in Exodus that the lampstand was gold and gold was ““tested by fire” I also notice that the manna was used to” test them and see whether they will follow my instructions”. Is the word assembly a reference to a building? Is assembly different than a temple or church? If a lampstand is the church how can a building test us? Just trying to clarify word meanings 🙂

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. English word church is very specific, but it is modern and is out of place in 1st century. Greek word Synagogue (at that time) meant a gathering and not necessarily a Jewish one (as it does today). So Synagogue/Assembly of Satan can include anyone!

  9. Kostya

    Shalom Dr Eli!
    I really appreciated this discussion of Rev 3:9 on the basis of’ the plain meaning’ of the words of Jesus. That is certainly a possibility that I have never heard before. I too have seen this text used as another log to throw on the anti-Semitic campfire.

    However, what you explain as the plain meaning of ‘who say they are Jews and are not’, and you have argued it well, remains, and I think you would agree, just a possible alternate interpretation.

    You answered the question of what was the synagogue in Philadelphia, but have you
    answered the question of why Jesus called it the synagogue ‘of Satan’?

    I no longer have computer access to your commentary on John 8:44 and don’t remember your interpretation of that text where Jesus told the Jews He was addressing that their father was the devil. But it seems to me that Rev 3:9 might possibly also be put into that category.

    The issue there in John’s Gospel was not about ‘carnal’ vs “spiritual Jew’ as some like to put the issue, but who is doing the will of the Father and has received the One whom the Father had sent.

    I am one who opposes replacement theology at every turn, even when it is very difficult to do so, but there is a big question that needs to be asked more often than it is: What does Jesus think of those who do not receive Him – whether they be Jews or not?

    These words of Jesus are more than a comment on the socio-cultural- historical situation in Philadelphia, they sound like a prophetic pronouncement from on high- almost of judgment.

    Verses like John 8:44 and Rev 3:9 together with many passages in Hebrews are important indicators to us of how God considers those who reject His revelation in His Son.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear, Kostya, I am glad we are on the same page with replacement theology. The question you asked is “Why Synagogue of Satan?” Is this not a prophetic pronouncement of judgement? Perhaps. The question I ask is “who is precisely the synagogue of Satan?” And my answer is – could be anyone and not necessarily Jews. The word Synagogue is not a Jewish equivalent of Church in 1st century. Since the word synagogue does not mean a Jewish gathering exclusively in 1st century there is no need to think of the gathering being qualified as Jewish.

      The fact that someone rejects something bears no effect on one’s identity, heritage, genealogical decent and belonging. An elephant may hate to be on land and prefer to swim but that does not classify him as a fish. He was born and elephant and will remain as such, just really water-loving elephant. 🙂 The whole rhetoric “who say they are Jews but are not” follows this simple logic. My interpretation has nothing to do with acceptance or rejection of Jesus. Jesus is not a factor of Jewish identity. It has to do with identity confusion and priority confusion. If one’s life choice in life to to be a member of “the congregation of Satan” that that is his chosen path and chosen identity and negligence whether Jewish or not. A bad, undeserving and wayward Jew is still a Jew. Not that there is such a thing and a true or real Jew and less deserving, less real Jews. That’s my thinking…

  10. Jay Axtell

    Rev. 3:9-13 (TLV) “9 Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of satan—who say they are Jewish and are not, but lie—behold, I will cause them to come and bow down before your feet , so that they acknowledge that I have loved you! 10 “Because you have kept My word about patient endurance, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is coming upon the whole world to test those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon—hold on to what you have, so that no one will take away your crown. 12 The one who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the Temple of My God , and he will never leave it. And on him I will write 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 own new Name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Ruach is saying to Messiah’s communities.”
    Jacob (James) 2:2 (TLV) “For if a man with a gold ring and fine clothes comes into your synagogue, and a poor person in filthy clothes also comes in”

    There is consistency. The TLV is a fully vetted translation with team of biblical scholars (seventy in all), both Jewish and non-Jewish. Some on the translating and theology team you might recognize are Jeffrey Feinberg, Helen Dallaire, Ray Gannon, Michael Brown, Dan Juster, Glenn Blank, Eric Tojaker, Craig Keener, just to name a few. The Tree of Life Messianic Jewish Family Bible project manager is Jeffrey Seif is also illustrated by Messianic Jewish artist, Michael Washer. Here is a link: https://tlvbible.com/Portals/0/bible/index.html.

    Blessings,

    Jay

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I am glad there is consistency. I know TLV. 🙂 This still does not fix the problem that in the 1st century the word Synagogue DID NOT mean “a Jewish gathering” exclusively and was often used by pagans to describes their assemblies as well. Today it is always understood as a Jewish gathering and here it the problem of a modern reader. While its technically accurate functionally it does not accurately transmit the same broader idea.