Anti-Semites often speak of the Jewish people as the “synagogue of Satan” and as imposters “who say that they are Jews and are not.”

These favorite anti-Semitic slurs surprisingly originate in the apocalyptic book of Revelation, which depicts the heavenly, resurrected Yeshua denouncing the late-first-century synagogues of Smyrna and Philadelphia. These statements have puzzled Bible readers for a long time, and unfortunately, they have fueled both replacement theology and theological anti-Semitism.

In Chronicles of the Apostles, we work our way through the story of the Apostolic Era from the beginning of the book of Acts to the second century. In the process we reassemble the historical context around the New Testament texts, and that historical context often yields rewarding insights into otherwise baffling passages. The present case provides a good example. When placed back into their historical context, the Master’s words regarding the Jewish communities in Smyrna and Philadelphia support neither replacement theology nor anti-Semitism. Instead, they reveal a critical historical moment in the separation between “church” and “synagogue.”

The offending passages, bereft of historical context, read as follows:

I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (Revelation 2:9)

Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. (Revelation 3:9)