I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9)
The Jewish and Christian scriptures have long been subject to translation and interpretation. However, the process of translation is not without its challenges and consequences. One significant challenge arises from the linguistic differences between ancient Greek, the original language of the New Testament, and modern English. This issue is particularly evident in the translation and understanding of two ancient Greek words: “ekklesia” and “synagoge.”
The book of Revelation was written by the Apostle John, a Jewish believer in Jesus, and it is primarily addressed to early Christian churches. The phrase “synagogue of Satan” refers to certain individuals “who say they are Jews and are not.” In the context of the passages, these individuals were causing harm to the early Christian communities by opposing their faith and creating divisions.
Many Christians in modern times are familiar with the term “ekklesia,” which they often understand to mean “church.” However, this interpretation is not entirely accurate. In ancient Jewish Greek, “ekklesia” and “synagogue” were both used to describe gatherings or assemblies. In James 2:2, for example, the Greek word “synagoge” is translated as “assembly,” referring not to a Jewish synagogue but to a Christian church gathering. Therefore, these two words did not carry the modern religious connotations that we associate with them today (‘ekklesia’ as a Christian church and ‘synagoge’ as a Jewish synagogue). Instead, they referred to any type of assembly or gathering, regardless of religious affiliation or context.
For example, Acts 19:41, in the English Standard Version (ESV) translation, reads, “he dismissed the assembly”. The word for assembly is “ekklesia.” If “ekklesia” indeed meant “church,” as commonly believed, the translation should read, “he dismissed the church.” However, it wasn’t a Christian church, but a gathering of a “crowd” (verse 35) of random people, most of which “did not even know why they were there” (verse 32). This case comes to show as well that the two ancient Greek words, “ekklesia” and “synagoge,” means assembly or gathering, regardless of what type.
The inconsistency in translating these words highlights the ideological bias that translators may unknowingly (or knowingly) introduce. The inconsistent translation of these words in the Bible has led to confusion and, in some cases, serious consequences such as antisemitism.
Revelation 2:9 states, “the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews and are not but are the synagogue of Satan.” Most translations use the term “synagogue” even though the verse specifies that those referred to are not Jews. For the sake of comparison, the New American Bible version used the word “assembly” instead of “synagogue,” recognizing its real meaning.
In Revelation 2:9, it is clear that the group of individuals attacking the early Gentile Christians in the City of Smyrna were not Jews. It is possible that they originated from the Greco-Roman world and were former God-fearers who adopted Jewish customs and practices, similar to some of the Galatians.
This article is based on my new book, “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus“