CLAIM: John writes of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9). Many Jewish readers have taken offense at this statement. Was John anti-Semitic?
RESPONSE: John was not being anti-Semitic in this passage, because he himself was Jewish! If John was hateful of Jews, then he would need to be hateful of himself, the other eleven apostles, and Jesus himself! This seems wildly unlikely. In fact, John was the author who wrote that salvation came from the Jews (Jn. 4:22).
What then is John referring to in this passage?
The surrounding culture viewed Christians with suspicion because they refused to worship the emperor. The central issue confronting Christians was likely the fact that Domitian required to be called “Lord and God” (Latin: dominus et deus, Suetonius, Domitian, 13:2-3; Martial, Epigrams 9.56.3; Dio Cassius, History, 67.4.7). All true Christians refused to worship the emperor, and thus, they were marked with suspicion.
Jewish people were exempt from emperor worship, but they needed to pay for the pagan temple tax. Domitian granted the Jews freedom of religion. However, he heavily taxed the Jewish population, and tax evasion was met with worse penalties. To avoid this merciless taxation, some Jews hid their ethnicity and religion. Suetonius writes, “Domitian’s agents collected the tax on Jews’ with a peculiar lack of mercy; and took proceedings not only against those who kept their Jewish origins a secret in order to avoid the tax, but against those who lived as Jews without professing Judaism. As a boy, I remember once attending a crowded Court where the imperial agent had a ninety-year-old man inspected to establish whether or not he had been circumcised” (Suetonius, The Life of Domitian 12.2).
However, while Domitian taxed the Jews to help rebuild the Capitoline temple, he “allowed the Jews freedom from participation in the imperial cult.” If a Christian joined the synagogue, he would be exempt from emperor worship. But if the “Christians refused to pay this tax… the Jews denounced Christians as not being true Judeans and as being troublemakers.”
Christians were in danger of losing their property. Domitian had exhausted the wealth of the Roman Empire, and he taxed the people harshly. Suetonius records, “Any charge, brought by any accuser—to have spoken or acted in prejudice of the Emperor’s welfare was enough—might result in the confiscation of a man’s property” (Suetonius, The Life of Domitian 12.2). This explains the comments from the author of Hebrews who writes, “[You] accepted joyfully the seizure of your property” (Heb. 10:34). Since Christians were already under the microscope, if someone accused a Christian of sedition, his entire property could be taken by the Empire.
Christians couldn’t hide under the protection of Judaism because Jewish people could excommunicate them from the synagogue. Hemer writes, “The situation placed the Jewish communities in a position of peculiar power. By disowning a Christian and informing against him, they might deprive him of his possible recourse to toleration at a price, and render him liable to the emperor-cult.” By AD 90, synagogues publicly read the “Eighteen Benedictions,” one of which was the “curse of the Minim,” where every Jewish person needed to openly curse Jesus Christ. Of course, followers of Jesus couldn’t do this, so this was “a means of detecting Christians in the synagogues.” This explains why Jews proselytized Gentile Christians in Philadelphia (Ignatius, To the Philadelphians 6.1), and why John mentions another “synagogue of Satan” in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:9). These Gentile Christians wanted the legal protection of Judaism. Hemer writes, “Individual Jews may have informed against individual Christians, or the synagogues may have provided on occasion lists of bona fide members of their congregations. The authorities, primarily concerned with tax avoidance, may thus have had forced on their attention a powerful movement which appeared to defy the emperor under the guise of a Judaism which the official Jews repudiated. A systematic inquisition would naturally follow.”
Conclusion: Christians faced a damning dilemma
The Christians could either (1) worship the emperor or (2) apostatize to Judaism. Neither option was tenable to a follower of Jesus because both were “an implicit denial of his Lord.” When we understand this historical backdrop, this passage comes into focus. John tells us that this group of Jewish people was bringing “slander” (blasphēmian) against the believers in Smyrna. Historically, Smyrna had a high Jewish population that was bringing intense Roman persecution on the Christian population there (which had existed for 40 years or so, Acts 19:10).
A historical example: Polycarp (AD 70-156)
In the mid-second century Martyrdom of Polycarp 12-13, we read that the Jewish population sold Polycarp out to the Romans. Because Polycarp refused to call Caesar “lord,” he was burned alive at the age of 86. Osborne writes, “The Jews denounced Polycarp and the church before the Roman authorities for defaming the emperor and the Roman religion by refusing to worship the emperor. Then they helped gather wood to burn Polycarp even on the Sabbath! …This slander by the ‘synagogue of Satan’ refers specifically to a group of Jews who instigated legal action in the Roman courts against the Smyrna Christians.” John calls them a “synagogue of Satan” as a play on words. Satan is the “slanderer” of God and his people (Rev. 13:1, 5-6; 17:3), and the “devil” is the “accuser” of the brothers. In the same way, this group of Jews was a synagogue of slander, persecuting the people of God in the way that Satan does (c.f. comments on 1 Thess. 2:14-16).
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 127.
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 11.
 Of course, this was written before the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and in our view, it was written in Jerusalem. However, the same cultural and sociological principles were surely operating as Christianity became more distinct from his mother-religion of Judaism.
 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 8.
 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 9.
 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 9-10.
 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1989), 10.
 Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 131.