CLAIM: John writes of the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9). Of course, many Jewish readers have taken offense to this statement. Was John anti-Semitic?
RESPONSE: John was not being anti-Semitic in this passage, because he himself was Jewish! This would be similar to Dave Chappelle’s rendition of “Clayton Bigsby”—a fictional character who was a blind black man who was a member of the Klu Klux Klan. 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? When we understand the historical backdrop, this passage comes into focus. John tells us that this group of people was bringing “slander” (NIV; Greek blasphēmian) against the believers in Smyrna. Historically, Smyrna had a high Jewish population that was bringing intense Roman persecution on the Christian populous there. In the mid-second century Martyrdom of Polycarp 12-13, we read that the Jewish population sold Polycarp out to the Romans. 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! Yarbro Collins (1986: 313) believes that 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.
The Judean tax that the Romans imposed on Jews for the rebuilding of the Capitoline temple. It was this tax that allowed the Jews freedom from participation in the imperial cult. Christians refused to pay this tax; thus the Jews denounced Christians as not being true Judeans and as being troublemakers.
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). 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).