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Who are the “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9)?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
2 minutes read

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 translating two ancient Greek words: “Ekklēsia” and “ Sunagógé.”

Many Christians in modern times are familiar with the term “Ekklēsia,” which they often understand to mean “church.” However, this interpretation is not entirely accurate. In ancient Greek, “Ekklēsia” and “Sunagógé” were both used to describe gatherings or assemblies.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

The term synagogue is of Greek origin (synagein, “to bring together”) and means “a place of assembly.”

Ecclesia, Greek Ekklēsia, (“gathering of those summoned”), in ancient Greece, assembly of citizens in a city-state. Its roots lay in the Homeric agora, the meeting of the people.

In James 2:2, for example, the Greek word “Sunagógé” 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 we associate with them today (‘Ekklēsia’ to mean a Christian church and ‘Sunagógé’ to mean a Jewish synagogue). Instead, they referred to any type of assembly or gathering, regardless of religious affiliation or context.

Another example is Acts 19:41. In the English Standard Version (ESV) it reads, “he dismissed the assembly.” The word for assembly is “Ekklēsia.” If “Ekklēsia” indeed meant “church,” as commonly believed, the translation should read, “he dismissed the church.” However, it wasn’t a Christian church at all but a gathering of a “crowd” (verse 35) of random people, most of which “did not even know why they were there” (verse 32).

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 Sunagógé 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 translated “the assembly of Satan” (instead of “synagogue”), recognizing its real meaning.

“synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9)

In conclusion, it is clear that the group of individuals attacking the Christians in the City of Smyrna in Revelation 2:9 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

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist