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. Sonya Nolan

    Great article. I totally agree, and have wondered in my own thinking if that were the case, though I was not aware of anyone else who would agree with me. I was actually sent here to read a different article (about Luke) from Friends of eTeacher, but it wasn’t available(?). But I’m glad I came! Wow, thanks!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks for the response. Glad you came. Browse through the archives, we have all kinds of great articles here!

  2. Jane Z. Mazzola

    How wondrously kind her statement. if you can provide your mailing address, Ma’ lene, I can send a copy of Dr. Eli’s GOSPEL of JOHN book. I have some extras I ordered. Gift to you.
    If you prefer my email is jzmazzola1@gmail.com.

  3. Ma'lene

    Thank you for your knowledge and wisdom and above all, for hearing what Yahwe teaches you to tell people like me to hear! I know you are going to be humble now, saying it is all from G-d, it is, but thank you for spending time and for making it your mission and calling to teach me. I cannot afford buying your work and studies, but “I’m feeding on what you share per email and your blog.

    God Bless!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Ma’lene, thank you for you kind words. I am glad you can enjoy the blog. I will keep posting, you spread the word share with others and tell them what a blessing it is for you. Shalom.

  4. Pam

    Dr. Eli,

    It is true in my mind that the word “synagogue” evokes a clear affiliation with Judaism, and I am learning and understanding and seeing more and more the influence of Replacement theology in the “church”. This idea that the church has replaced Israel I completely reject!

    My confusion at present is with your statement: “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. ”

    My understanding is that the “place of gathering” came out of the Babylonian exile, but was it a Greco-Roman institution? According to the Jewish Encyclopedia “The synagogue as a permanent institution originated probably in the period of the Babylonian captivity, when a place for common worship and instruction had become necessary.

    It is not clear to me what you are communicating. Could you please clarify, explain?

    The blessing of the Lord be upon you!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I see where the misunderstanding crept in. Synagogue is a Greek word. Though it is used to described gatherings of Jews (in the NT especially) it is used to describe gathering of all kinds, Jewish, pagan, political, family, civic and etc. As such a gathering (synagogue) is not really Jewish or non-Jewish, its just a gathering. Synagogue as a Jewish communal institution is a different matter. It is all in the contexts. But just because the word synagogue is used (in speech or texts), it does not mean this was a Jewish gathering, and it does not even mean it was anything religious for that matter.

  5. Jane Z. Mazzola

    It sounds as if Dr. van den Berg has points & agreement w/your camp.

    Blessed hopes for more,
    Jane M

  6. Dr. Charles van den Berg

    An excellent exegesis! One of the causes of a wrong explanation of biblical texts is that one forgets to interpreted the text within its historical context.
    In Acts 14:1; 17:1; 17:10 is explicitly spoken of ‘ the synagogue of the Jews ‘, to distinguish it from other synagogues (assemblies).
    It would not have been necessary when a synagogue is by definition a Jewish phenomenon.

  7. Jane Z. Mazzola

    Soŕry. I just saw that the earlier post appeared. Yes you have mentioned this gent, Dr. Brad Young before. I did see a presentation he made (youtube) w/ the Galilee Summer Institute website advertisement.

  8. Jane Z. Mazzola

    Dr. Eli,
    I wrote a post @ this issue recently but appears the blog has a new format & not transmitted. So I’ll beat the “dead horse” again.
    Dr. Levine’s ANNOTATED New Testament uses a current use version of the NT with commentaries included and separate scholarly contributed articles, but not a whole newly translated NT, as I thought it would be.

    There is the precedent, however, w/Dr. David Stern’s Translation and also, a separate Commentary. He uses the phrase ,”synagogue of the adversary” which may sound more benign but still does not adaquately explain what was going on.

    The point is that at some point, sooner than later, your task seems to remain. Then in my inbox today, an article appeared that you are addressing that task sooner than later.

    Good for you & blessings on your work for renewed enlightenment/discussion.

  9. Jane Z. Mazzola

    Dr. Eli,
    Not to beat a dead horse issue, but I shall!

    When the time is right in years to come, perhaps you will re-translate the NT. Precedents are there: Dr. David Stern has done so (you mentioned him in one of your webinars) & even, Thomas Jefferson (!). The MIRACLE is possible.

    With your knowledge & passion for this subject, you could also include the commentary for your translations. You have already begun w/the Gospel of John & Revelation.
    Blessings, Jane M

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you confidence, but I don’t think I am the right guy for the job! By the way my friend Brad Young is either working on it now or have already complied it! Check him out! He is very good.

  10. Miloslav Dunka

    Dear Dr. Eli,
    I don’t see that the Jews were a “privileged class” in Roman Empire as you indicate in this article. Not at least from reading the NT and Josephus. The Jews living in Rome were driven out of it (Josephus gives the reasons), see Aquila and Priscilla meeting Paul in Corinth. Paul himself had the regular privileges as a citizen just because he was a citizen from Tarsus. Many other Jews didn’t have that. It seems that most of the 12 Apostles didn’t enjoy even the citizenship of Roman Empire.

    Before I accepted Jesus in my life, I studied secular history. After my conversion, I matched the history of God’s people to what I had already known from the secular point of view. Based on the fact, I cannot other but accept the prophetic interpretation of the Seven churches which begins in Ephesus (as the First Christian segment of history) and ending with Laodicea (the end-time segment before His coming.). Doing this, it gives me much more harmony between what the “Letters to Seven Churches” say and the fulfilment during the last two milenia.

    As to the “synagogue of Satan,” I see that when Jesus uses the word Jews, it is appropriate to use the expression denoting congregation or gathering that is relevant for the name “Jews.” Further, it seems that the word Jew, Jews, or “those of Israel” is often employed in the Bible to indicate faithfulness to God in the truth and true knowledge of God, not just being a part of a nation or a congregation (nominal believers), see Romans 9:6. In fact the chapters 9, 10, and 11 of Romans are full of wisdom on this subject. Jesus, when He talks to the Samaritan woman, tells her that “salvation is from Jews,” not from Samaritans, not from any other nation. I can’t help it but believe that this means that the truth about salvation was given to Jews, and so it must be a Jew who would be sacrificed for the sins of the world. The letter to the second church (Smyrna) uses the same expression to denote faithful ones vs. synagogue of Satan: “… the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” Rev 2:9.

    Again Apostle Paul in 1stCor 1:23, 24 says: “… we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Here again Paul goes back to the thought that nationality doesn’t matter in spiritual things. What matters is the true obedience to the calling of God.

    As to the severe persecution of Christians happening under Nero (for Philadelphians), we know that it was only beginning which didn’t impact all Christians of RE’s territory. Colosseum (the place of killing Christians for entertainment) was not in existence yet, Paul was one of his first martyrs, possibly Peter also. But Nero committed suicide and it was the emperors who followed in a next few centuries who extended the persecution to horrific proportions all over the Empire.

    I don’t mean to oppose at any cost, just making comment on what I know for perhaps enlarging the horizon of views for everyone who likes to read and study.