The question for today is literally, where to even begin? Yesterday (June 16, 2021) on the Jim Bakker Show, the special guest was Joel Richardson and the focus of the program was the underground church in the Middle East. Naturally, the conversation gravitated to persecution. Doesn’t it always? The church, we are told by Richardson, is today growing in Iran and Afghanistan by leaps and bounds, while the church in the US and the West is declining. On top of that, we in the West, by inference and allusion to the book of “Revelation”, are essentially not only tacit persecutors of the growing church, but also of the Jewish people because so many in the church itself are anti-Semitic and hate Israel.
In order to illustrate this, Richardson cited a well-known (and worn out, I think) passage from “Revelation” (more accurately, the Apocalypse of John) which reads “Behold, I will make 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 before your feet, and make them know that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9, NASB).
Now, anyone who has studied this passage on a scholarly level is aware of the fact that it, often along with other New Testament passages, has been used time and time again by those who wish to hate as an excuse to persecute the Jewish people. By an odd extension, today it is also often used by those who wish to hate to persecute certain Christians who appear to not love the Jewish people or Israel enough.
Richardson, as he quoted the above passage, was alluding to this issue within the Christian church, and he was correct in so doing. This, even as he expressed this concern as if it were something to be addressed because it previously has not been, which is simply not the case. In fact, it has been addressed by many scholars, both within the church and outside of it, for some time.
If that had been the only issue with what Richardson had to say on the subject, there would have been no perceived need to write anything here. Sadly, this was not the case because, true to form (meaning typical of Christianity’s response to just about everything when utilizing “history”), he went on into an absurd historical construct which was, frankly, entirely false.
Having quoted the above passage, Richardson continued, “Now, these were not Jewish people. They were actually gentiles that in the first century had created synagogues claiming to be Jews. And why did they do that? Well, the reason is because under the Roman Empire there was an exception. . . . It was an exception for ancient religions where if you were part of an ancient religion you didn’t have to do sacrifice to Caesar; you didn’t have to engage in the pagan temple rituals. And, so, you even had gentiles that pretended to be Jews and created synagogues so that they could avoid some of the requirements of the Roman Empire. But they were persecuting the Christians. And, so, this is a well-known historical fact. So you will have Christians today that will quote these passages from Revelation and they will apply it to modern-day Jews….”
Obviously, Richardson continued on. But this quote is the extent of that which is necessary to utilize from him because everything else is irrelevant to the points that need to be made here. The frank fact of the matter, as a biblical scholar, I was absolutely appalled by this “explanation” of said passage. But, that is nothing new for me since these religious literalist-types constantly today, and have constantly in their past, misquoted passages and misconstrued history to fit their view so often as to make it simply fiat. But, the need to counter this blatant twisting of history presented itself to me nevertheless.
Where to begin? I will begin with the FACT that, although elements of what Richardson stated are indeed true, they are taken out of context and twisted into something that does not resemble reality in any way whatsoever. And, I submit, he knows this. But, the average listener would not know this because they would not have the scholarly background by which to discern it. I, on the other hand, immediately recognized the faults in his explanation exactly because of my scholarly background. For those who are still unaware of this, I am a biblical scholar with multiple advanced degrees in the subject, who happens to be a Pagan (more or less exactly because of my scholarly background).
All that said, let’s get into his explanation and carefully dissect it as we might a subject in a biology lab. The first and foremost thing that must be brought out here is that the above passage from John’s Apocalypse is not, and never has been, a literal piece of history. It is clearly, as one would see when consulting other scholarly materials on said passage, an allusion TO something that was taking place during John’s time, but not an actual, literal, event that anyone would have experienced directly.
What do I mean by this? What I mean is that the writer of the Apocalypse was addressing a situation in which he perceived that the churches which adhered to his doctrinal stance were being persecuted by other churches. But, even that is not a completely accurate statement because the writer refers to them as those who believe they are true Jews, but are not. As I have brought out in my first book, “Apocalypse and Armageddon, The Secret Origins of Christianity” ALL of the first “Christian” churches sprang directly from Jewish synagogues. Yes, there are other scholars who do not agree with this. But, frankly, it is as plain as day if one reads the book of Acts and the writings of Paul. As I have explained, Paul, and others, went directly to Jewish synagogues in the diaspora to get converts. Never once, according to the documentation, did he or any of the others go directly to gentiles to attempt to gain converts. But, lots of the coverts to the early church were, in fact, gentiles who had begun the process of becoming a part of the Jewish religion, but who had not completed said process. That was one of the main reasons that a dispute concerning circumcision arose in the early church – because a Jewish synagogue would require circumcision and it was felt by many that the Christian church should also require it. But Paul led the charge against this requirement and ultimately prevailed. This made it so much easier for the church to gain adherents from among the gentiles because most of them did not want to become circumcised.
Thus, the early Christian church was very quickly populated by converts who had initially intended to become Jewish by religion, but who had seen the benefit of not having to become circumcised. In so many words, they didn’t have to go all the way if they became Christians instead. And, as it turns out, they didn’t have to follow Jewish dietary laws either, which also made Christianity more appealing than Judaism.
Even having stated all of that, at this time Christianity was actually not seen as separate from Judaism. It was seen as another branch of Judaism or quasi-separate. The actual split had not yet taken place. Thus, Christian churches could rightly be called synagogues. In fact, they were. Both the synagogue and the church were referred to as “assemblies”. It is exactly the same term. From whence do you think the Assemblies of God gets their name? But, obviously, this is nuanced throughout the New Testament, especially in English translations.
But, Richardson continues that these gentiles were not really Jewish but had created synagogues of their own so that they could be exempt from certain Roman regulations, such as making sacrifices to Caesar. Now, having studied this period extensively, I actually almost laughed him to derision when I heard him say this, it was so appallingly untrue! There are multiple reasons why this statement is false. First and foremost is the fact that no Pagan would have had any real scruples concerning sacrificing to the Roman emperor, or to any deity for that matter. That’s what really made Richardson’s explanation so laughable. He proposed that Pagans had an issue with sacrificing to a human who was seen as divine. Ridiculous! Worship of, and sacrifice to, personages who were elevated to divinity in the minds of others was so common as to make it almost a competition between the gods and men! Heroes had always been given divine status and worshipped from time immemorial. Often various rulers, especially in the Greek and Hellenistic words, had also been. There was absolutely nothing new in any of this, and only a few agitated against this in any way. Most often these were adherents of some philosophic school which found some basis in rejecting all kinds of social mores of the time, such as eating meat or even beans. But they did not often convert to Judaism in order to satisfy whatever philosophical scruples they may have had. That was simply not a solution because they would have found many of the precepts of Judaism to be burdensome as well.
In addition, the plain fact of the matter is that, during the first century emperor worship, and sacrifice to the emperor, was really in its beginning stages of development. Frankly, there was no general requirement for anyone to sacrifice to the emperor so early in history. That came later and, in fact, Christians were persecuted for their objection to it and sometimes even executed for refusing to do so. But that was NOT in the first century.
Now, in fact, the Jewish people were early exempted by the Romans from having to participate in any way in polytheistic religion. That included the cult of the emperor, in whatever form it took during its various stages. Judaism was designated as an ancient religion and given recognition as such. For the Roman, if a religion was ancient then it could be accepted, or at least tolerated. That was exactly the problem when Christianity broke away from Judaism. Since Christianity was then to be seen as “new”, it did not automatically enjoy the exemptions that Judaism had been afforded. But, the Christians expected this, so there was conflict.
Now, this does not mean that Judaism was actually favored, as such, or that the Romans even liked the religion. On the contrary, there are many writings that demonstrate how loathsome at least some Romans felt the Jewish religion and people to be. Did that prevent at least some people from finding this religion interesting enough to become converts to? Not at all. But, again, they did not do so for the reasons Richardson specifies.
Frankly, Judaism was not the only religion that some Romans found objectionable. Any religion that was seen as in any way corrupt, in bad taste, or excessive might be found to be objectionable to a proper Roman because the Romans were, in fact, very conservative in their religious attitudes. Even so, if they felt that they had appropriate reasons in so doing, they would still accept or tolerate even the excessive, orgiastic cults such as that of Kybele. But, adherents of these religions were NOT exempted from sacrifice, either to the deities or to the emperor. Only Judaism enjoyed such a privilege simply because it stood so opposed to it and the Romans knew it was necessary to exempt them so that they might be good citizens of the empire. And, in fact, as long as the temple stood in Jerusalem the priests made appropriate sacrifices in behalf of the emperor’s well-being and the well-being of the Roman state. It was a reciprocal relationship with an effort toward, more or less, mutual respect. But this is exactly one of the reasons that some Jewish sects, such as the Essenes, objected even to the temple itself because they saw it as having been defiled (the reference to Jezebel that I will get to). And, this is partly what is being touched on in the above passage from the Apocalypse. Every Jewish sect saw themselves as the “true Jews”, including the Christian sect. And this WAS during the first century.
So, the frank fact of the matter, thus far, is that; (1) the so-called “synagogues [or assemblies] of Satan” were NOT separate synagogues founded by gentiles pretending to be Jews in order to be exempted from sacrifice to the emperor; (2) emperor worship and sacrifice were not really major issues during the first century anyway; (3) all Jews referred to themselves as the “true Jews”; (4) therefore, when Christianity did split off from the rest of Judaism it expected to be granted the same exemptions that the Jewish religion enjoyed, but the Romans did not see things the same way because Christianity was now seen as new and, frankly, excessively superstitious.
As a momentary aside, if the reader does not fully believe me when I emphasize that even the earliest Christians saw themselves as the “true Jews”, please just read the book of Acts. When Paul was questioned by Roman authorities the very first thing he did was to overly-emphasize the fact that he was a Jew. He never once stated that he was a Christian, although he did acknowledge this by stating that he was a member of the sect of the Nazarenes. But, before King Agrippa Paul stated, “So then, all Jews know my way of life since my youth, which from the beginning was spent among my own nation and in Jerusalem, since they have known about me for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I lived as a Pharisee according to the strictest sect of our religion. And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. For this hope, O king, I am being accused by Jews” (Acts 26: 4-7, NASB). In each case, when Paul refers to “the Jews” it should actually read something more like “those other Jews who are not really Jews and who don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ”. That is implied in this entire passage.
Now, on to the statement made by Richardson that these “fake” Jews were persecuting Christians, according to the above passage from the Apocalypse. Frankly, that’s not even what the passage says. But, it has always been a mantra of Christianity that the church has been persecuted by others even from the very beginning. So, they literally look at everything as a sign of such persecution (like “Ancient Aliens” looks at every rock and says aliens must have been here). In this way it is rather easy to simply extrapolate that this passage is about others – other Jews – who were persecuting the early church. The main problem with this is that there is no evidence for it. Were there conflicts between the Nazarenes and other Jewish sects? Absolutely. We DO know that from history. Was this persecution of Christians – was it always a one-way street so that others were always picking on the poor Christians? In a word, no. It is a historical fact that early Christians did a lot of things that brought on opposition from others, sometimes deliberately. They still have a tendency to do that today.
But, beyond this, another problem is with the fact that Richardson, and presumably others, want to take this passage literally at face-value. In other words, it just had to have been referring to a historical event, even if we don’t know the details of it because, again, there isn’t any evidence.
In fact, there is evidence to the contrary right in the Apocalypse. In the second chapter where the writer is dictating to the church in Thyatira, he states, “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with plague, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds. But I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not known the deep things of Satan, as they call them—I place no other burden on you” (Rev. 2:20-24, NASB).
Good scholarship on the subject of this passage demonstrates that the writer is using a common (for that time) rhetorical device here. Thus, this passage is rhetoric, not a description of a literal event. The writer is doing this for effect to get a point across to the readers. No, Jezebel was not a real person (it might have been the defiled temple), etc. But the writer does connect Jezebel with Satan and, thus, this passage is directly connected to the writer’s reference to the synagogue of Satan. See how that works?
As I show in my first book, “Apocalypse and Armageddon”, John’s area of authority was in Asia Minor where these seven churches were located. And John did not agree with Pauline teaching that converts could eat sacrificial meat. Yes, contrary to the picture drawn of early church history, there was great conflict between opposing factions from the very beginning. THIS is what the writer of the Apocalypse, whether it was John or a disciple of his, was referring to when he references “the deep things of Satan” and “the synagogue of Satan”. HIS people were NOT to participate in such things! THEY were the TRUE JEWS.
But, don’t take my word alone for it. If one requires scholarly input from another source, the article by Mark R. J. Bredin entitled “The Synagogue of Satan Accusation in Revelation 2:9” (Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture, 1 Nov. 1998) states in abstract: “The accusation that the synagogue was a synagogue, not of Judeans but of Satan is connected with an internal dispute on how one faithful to Israelite traditions should live with the Roman economic system. The author of Revelation was arguing that there should be no compromise with Rome, and those who did compromise were not fit to be called Judean. The Synagogue, on the other hand, argued that peaceful coexistence with Rome was possible. It is suggested that the synagogue accused members of the church in Smyrna of not being Judean because they refused to pay the special Judean tax that allowed them to practice their religion unmolested. For the author of Revelation, however, to pay the tax would be an act of apostasy, as the tax paid for the rebuilding of the Capitoline temple”.
Now, a careful reading of this abstracted passage from said article shows that a real, physical synagogue, as such, is not being referred to. What is being referenced is another branch of Judaism as opposed to the “true” branch. Further, the main issue was participation in the doings of the wider world, specifically the Roman economic system which, in part, depended upon pagan temple sacrifice. Of course, the seemingly corrupted Jewish temple in Jerusalem also depended upon such sacrifice. But these converts lived in areas where traveling and sacrificing at that temple, even if it were allowed, would have been impractical, at best. The writer didn’t even want his followers paying the tax mentioned because they were separate from those other Jews who did pay the tax. But, that effectively helped to set up the inevitable conflict with the Romans once the Romans recognized them as a separate religious sect – as a new religion.
Thus, it is in fact NOT a well-known historical fact that this entity referred to as the “synagogue of Satan” was persecuting the churches. That is simply NOT the case at all. This is a rhetorical device employed to draw a distinction between “us and them” in the minds of the readers. Fake gentile synagogues that persecuted early Christians simply DID NOT EVEN EXIST.