After a conference of the International Churches of Christ held in Izmir, Türkiye this past March, participants visited archaeological ruins at the sites where the seven churches of Asia once were. Besides Laodicea, another interesting site was that of Smyrna, the name that modern Izmir was known by in antiquity. This blog will explore the background about and the text written to the church in Smyrna and reflect on its lessons for us in Hong Kong today.
Background on the Second Church of Asia, Smyrna
Old Smyrna enjoyed five hundred years of history before the Lydians destroyed it around 600 BC (Wilson, 2020). Smyrna was later rebuilt — one tradition purported that Alexander the Great reconstructed the new city over two centuries later (Wilson, 2020).
Smyrna asserted itself among the cities in Asia Minor under Rome, vying for the title of “first in Asia” (Morris, 1987, p. 62). Blessed with a fine harbor, Smyrna was a center for trade with a planned civic layout, wide streets, and large buildings (Ferguson, 1996). Smyrnaeans took pride in their city: “some of its coins read ‘first of Asia in beauty and size’ — a statement continually tested by its chief rivals, Ephesus and Pergamum” (Wilson, 2020, p. 301). Smyrna was “the first city to establish a cult to Rome by building a temple for the goddess Roma” (Wilson, 2020, p. 301) in 195 BC. A temple for another emperor, Tiberius, was completed in 26 CE, second only to Pergamum at the time (Friesen, 2001).
Smyrna constructed temples for Greek deities, such as Zeus and Aphrodite (Ferguson, 1996). The city had a theatre larger than either of Laodicea’s, with seats for 16,000 (Wilson, 2020). During the end of the first century, Smyrna, like Ephesus, was one of the cities where the Roman proconsul would stay to organize court sessions and handle the affairs of the empire (Wilson, 2020).
Two remaining archaeological ruins demonstrate the city’s loyalty to Rome. First, an earthquake destroyed Smyrna in 178 CE (Wilson, 2020). Unlike Laodicea, Smyrna relied upon Rome to help it rebuild: a stone arch over a colonnade bearing the façade of Marcus Aurelius’ wife Faustina testifies to the gratitude of the city toward the Roman emperor (Wilson, 2020). In addition, a stone tablet marking the 3rd time that Smyrna was certified to build a temple for the cult of the Roman emperor (end of 2nd – beginning of 3rd century) sits quietly at the site.
To the Text
The letter begins as follows: “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (New International Version Bible, 2011, Rev 2:8). These words echo the city’s history, since Smyrna had undergone a death and then rebirth hundreds of years later. The city, however, had nothing on Jesus, Himself raised from the dead. John then records three verses written to the church:
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. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.New International Version Bible, 2011, Rev 2:9-11
These verses make up the shortest letter to any of the seven churches of Revelation 2-3. It begins with a typical formulation: the angel acknowledges the believers and their situation. In Smyrna’s case, the church is commended for its endurance through afflictions and poverty. The Greek word for afflictions, thlipsis, is actually singular and refers to “the burden that crushes” (Morris, 1987, p. 63). The Greek word, ptócheia, is no ordinary poverty, but instead means that they had nothing to live on at all (Morris, 1987). Despite their hardship, the disciples persevered in the wealth they enjoyed in Christ (2 Cor 6:10, 8:9).
The angel then reveals something else that afflicted them: “the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9). What does this sentence exactly mean? Different explanations for this community who claimed that they were Jews but were not have been offered. Were they non-Judean Gentiles who were taking too many liberties with the Christian message (Bruning & Hughes, 2022)? Were they actually ethnic Jews? If so, were they the ones who opposed the Christians or simply all non-Christian Jews? Ferguson (1996) asserted that Smyrna had a large Jewish population at the time. So far, no archaeological evidence of a Jewish synagogue in Smyrna has been excavated (Wilson, 2020).
The Jews of Asia Minor during the late first-century had reason to oppose a new group of believers arising from its midst. Jews were jealous of the attention that Paul’s message received in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13). Jews saw the message of crucified Messiah as a stumbling block (I Cor 1:23). Tellbe (2020) cited the Birkhat haMinim, a Jewish saying that later became used against Christians, who were labeled “heretics” (minim) and forced out of synagogues during the late first century, when Jews sought to strengthen their faith after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
In addition, at this time Jews enjoyed special privileges that had been diplomatically negotiated with the Roman emperors over time, such as the power to make rulings for their own communities, move monies freely, and to be exempt from military service (Tellbe, 2020). They had social and political status that an association with an emerging community of believers could have jeopardized:
There are therefore reasons to believe that Jewish opposition to early Christ-believers was also caused by the concern of the Jewish communities to maintain their religious and ethnic identity, including their privileges. On several occasions, Luke reports about Jews’ accusations against Christ-believers for upsetting the peace of the status quo (Acts 17:5–7; 18:12–17; 25:1–8). Their missionary activities among the God-fearers may easily have diminished the Jewish standing and protection within the Greek communities.(Tellbe, 2020, p. 158)
An example of funds moved around Asia Minor was the Jewish temple tax. After the fall of Jerusalem, that tax became a fiscus Iudaicus, or tax paid to Rome for the rebuilding of a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus (Tellbe, 2020). Emperor Domitian’s agents enforced this tax on those who were born Jewish as well as those who lived as Jews “without professing Judaism” (Tellbe, 2020, p. 159). Smyrnaean Christians had to stand firm, foregoing any benefits from living under the Roman economic system that the Jews enjoyed in order to avoid compromising their faith and paying a tax to support a Roman temple reconstruction (Bredin, 1998; Tellbe, 2020). Tellbe (2020) commented that the turmoil surrounding the identification of Jews with the paying of this tax may have been the biggest source of tension between Jews and Christians in Smyrna. Overall, then, “the reasons for Jewish opposition to early Christ-believers in Asia Minor were a complex mix of various factors, and among the most important were theological, socio-political, and financial factors” (Tellbe, 2020, p. 156).
As an interesting aside, the writer of Revelation used similar language to identify the opponents of the believers in Philadelphia. The church there faced opposition from “those who are the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars” (Rev 3:9). Wilson (2020) also noted that no synagogue ruins have been found in this second city, either.
Given all these considerations, one plausible explanation of these slanderers who “say they are Jews but are not” goes like this: they were the ethnically Jewish who wanted to protect their standing under Roman authority and so slandered the Christians. Their allegiance was to Rome and its economic system (Bredin, 1998). They probably held to Jewish practices like the Sabbath, wanting to Judaize the Christians (Bieler, 2023). John may have shared Paul’s sentiment that there were those who were outwardly Jewish, but not inwardly so (Rom 2:28-29). A “synagogue of Satan” then serves as a strong figure of speech.
It’s worth pointing out that despite this strong language, the writer distinguishes the slanderous group from all Jews, as if to allow for at least some Jews a possible reconciliation with God one day. Lohse (1992) noted that sharp polemic language was often used between Jewish groups at the time. He argued that the understanding of Scripture and terms used when writing Revelation “related to the whole of the people of God according to the understanding of John the prophet point to the fact that the other side is still kept into consideration” (Lohse, 1992, p. 122). For example, messianic titles in Revelation “are always mentioned in regard to their Old Testament background and the interpretation of Jewish messianic hope” (Lohse, 1992, p. 116). Such use of language could have been intended to protect Jewish sentiment as dialogue with them continued in that day.
Revelation 2:10 admonishes the Smyrnaean disciples to stand firm. Persecution, even imprisonment, awaits them and will last for “ten days,” a fixed length of time. The suffering could end in death, but the promise is that “the one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death” (Rev 2:11). The first death is not the end, but will result in a resurrection of which Jesus is the Forerunner, the Pioneer of our faith.
More could be written about the letter to the church in Smyrna, but clearly, the angel had no criticisms of the Christians living there. They were very poor, under duress, and uncompromising, but soon would face a time of testing. God prepared them for the persecution to come when their faith might undergo the ultimate trial.
Beasley-Murray (1970) speculated that Polycarp, who later became the bishop of Smyrna, must have heard this letter read in the congregation. History notes that Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch and a mentor to Polycarp, stopped in Smyrna on his way to Rome as a prisoner around 110 CE (Bieler, 2023). Ignatius was later martyred in the capital of the empire. His example must have left a mark on the Smyrnaean believers, including Polycarp. The Smyrnaean Christians understood the call to remain faithful until the end.
Finally, “some 40 years later (perhaps in 155) Polycarp himself was to follow in his friend’s footsteps to a martyr’s death” (Bieler, 2023, para. 16).
Questions to Consider
- Smyrnaean believers had to consider all the pros and cons of living faithfully for Jesus in their day. Do you have any areas of life — professional, social, or familial—where you are tempted to compromise? Have you held back something from Christ?
- Gordon Ferguson (1996) asked, “Do you have fears about suffering for the cause of God’s kingdom? Disciples in our day have been imprisoned for their faith. How does that affect you?” (p. 42).
Beasely-Murray, G.R. (1994). Revelation. In Wenham, G.J., Motyer, J.A., Carson, D.A., & France, R.T. (Eds.), New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition (4th Edition, pp. 1421-1455). Inter-Varsity Press.
Bieler, L. G.J. (2023, June 8). St. Ignatius of Antioch. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Ignatius-of-Antioch
Bredin, M.R. J. (1998). The synagogue of satan accusation in revelation 2:9. Biblical Theology Bulletin, 28 (4), 160-164. https://doi-org.elibrary.johnsonu.edu.10.1177/014610799902800405
Bruning, B. E., & Hughes, J. A. (2022). Sham synagogues and fake jews: Advancing the thesis of pauline pagans at smyrna and philadelphia (rev 2:9, 3:9). Annali di Storiadell’Esegesi 39(1). 197-220.
Ferguson, G. (1996). Mine eyes have seen the glory: The victory of the lamb in the book ofrevelation. Woburn, MA: Discipleship Publications International.
Friesen, S. J. (2001). Provincial imperial cults of asia under augustus and tiberius. Imperial cults and the apocalypse of john: Reading revelation in the ruins (online ed.). New York: Oxford Academic. https://doi.org/10.1093/0195131533.003.0003
Lohse, E. (1992). Synagogue of satan and church of god: Jews and christians in the book of Revelation [Paper presentation]. University of Lund & University of Uppsala. Scania & Uppsala, Sweden.
Morris, L. (1987). The book of revelation: An introduction and commentary (2nd ed.). Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
Tellbe, M. (2020). Relationships among christ-believers and jewish communities in first-century asia minor. In C.R. Koester (Ed.), The oxford handbook of the book of revelation (pp. 152-167). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190655433.013.9
Wilson, M. (2020). Biblical turkey: A guide to the jewish and christian sites of asia minor (4thed.). Istanbul, Turkey: Zero Produksiyon Ltd.
 I am grateful for the support of the Hong Kong Church of Christ, enabling myself and my wife to join many other conference participants on this educational tour of several Asian church city sites.