Conflict and Crisis in Asia Minor—Revelation 2 and 3

Studies in Revelation—Lesson 9

by Reta Halteman Finger

Ruins in Ancient City of Philadelphia, photo by Reta Finger
Little is left of the ancient city of Philadelphia except the remains of a huge arch. Photo by Reta Finger

What were the prophet John’s major concerns for his churches as he entered into a spiritual trance on that critical “Lord’s Day” on Patmos?

I have long been troubled over what John said to the church in Thyatira about “Jezebel.” “Do not tolerate that woman who calls herself a prophet” (Rev. 2:20) and teaches all the wrong stuff! To call a woman Jezebel—a reference to the pagan wife of King Ahab and the most ruthless woman in the Hebrew Bible— is a huge indictment. To derisively suggest that “that woman” only “calls herself a prophet” makes me wonder if John has a problem with women leaders in general. Further, “Jezebel” teaches her people to eat foods sacrificed to idols (v. 20), something that Paul never outright condemns. How do these charges relate to John’s problems with other churches in Asia Minor?

Complications of religion and politics

Although apocalypses tend to be written during times of religious persecution, there is debate over how much the Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) actually cracked down. (We find only one martyr mentioned in John’s letters:  Antipas in Pergamum.) A careful reading of John’s messages reveals that his primary concern for his churches is their accommodation to the surrounding Greco-Roman culture (where politics and religion are inseparable). The churches in Sardis and Laodicea, by yielding to the materialism around them, represent commercial accommodation; while some in the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira practice eating foods sacrificed to idols (2:14) or tolerate those who do (2:20), reflecting their adaptation to Roman civil religion.

But the “synagogues of Satan” in Smyrna (2:9) and Philadelphia (3:9) seem like a different problem. Thus many commentators assume John is anti-Jewish, believing all true Jews are Christians and all others belong to Satan.

Immigrants and mestizos

Most Revelation commentaries I am using do not probe deeply into the cultural conflict implied in these letters. Instead, I will interact with two other sources that do. The first is theologian Justo L. Gonzalez’s For the Healing of the Nations: Revelation in an Age of Cultural Conflict (Orbis, 1999). As a first-generation Cuban-American, a mestizo who lives between two cultures, Gonzalez identifies with John. As do many commentators, Gonzalez  posits that John originally migrated from Palestine; and this explains his deep immersion in and constant allusions to Hebrew scriptures, his often-awkward grammar (indicating that Aramaic rather than Greek was his native language), and his Jewish law-observance.

Back in Jerusalem, notes Gonzales, there were tensions from the beginning of the early church between Hellenist (Greek-speaking) Jews and Palestinian Jews (Acts 6:1-6). John must have been aware of this and also of the later debate at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, where James proposed a compromise for accepting Gentiles into the church without insisting on male circumcision. The compromise, however, required that the Gentile Christians observe Jewish laws about food and fornication (Acts 15:19-20). (“Fornication” may refer to intermarriage or sexual relations with the city dwellers who worshiped other gods. Or it could instead function as a metaphor for the syncretism involved in eating food dedicated to Greco-Roman deities, thus symbolizing spiritual unfaithfulness. See Hosea 2:2-23.) John clearly supports James’s proposal from the Jerusalem Council, which is why he is so harsh to the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira. They  reject these exact restrictions, as is shown in Rev. 2:14 and 2:20).

As a mestizo, Gonzales understands John’s more conservative perspective as a recent immigrant. He compares him to Paul, another Jew but one who was more acculturated to Hellenism by having grown up in Tarsus as a Roman citizen (pp. 61-62). John never mentions Paul, but Gonzalez softens the common interpretation that “synagogue of Satan” implies that John is anti-Jewish. Rather, the expression refers “most likely to Jews who from [John’s] perspective appeared to have capitulated before the demands of the surrounding society” (p. 64). That may be, but I would note that at this time Rome was probably still exempting Jews from a civic requirement of pagan temple sacrifices and worship of Roman deities. So what was going on in those non-synagogues?

What were the “synagogues of Satan”?

Ruins of Altar to Zeus in Pergamum, photo by Reta Finger
The ruins of the Altar to Zeus in Pergamum “where Satan lives” and where animals would have been sacrificed. The gods only liked the smell of burning fat, so the meat was later sold in the marketplace. Photo by Reta Finger

My second source is a chapter (pp. 37-72) in Elaine Pagel’s book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation (Viking, 2012). She challenges every other commentator I have read by sharpening the conflict between John and the “synagogues of Satan.”

Pagels agrees with all other commentators that John is not the original disciple of Jesus nor the author of the Gospel of John. Like Gonzalez, she thinks he likely has immigrated from Palestine and maintains James’s view that Jews should continue to be law-observant.

At the point in time in which John was writing, she argues, probably “Christianity had not yet become entirely separate from Judaism. Instead, like Peter, Paul, and other early followers of Jesus, John clearly saw himself as a Jew who had found the Messiah” (p. 46). He never calls himself a Christian. Pagels then proposes that the “synagogue[s] of Satan” in Smyrna and Philadelphia were not composed of Jews at all. Rather, they were rival church groups that very well could be Pauline churches composed primarily of Gentile “God-fearers.”

Forty years earlier, according to the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul would first preach in Jewish synagogues, but his most eager converts were Gentile “God-fearers”—like Lydia in Acts 16:14. There is no evidence in Paul’s letters that he ever asked Gentile believers to observe the rules James had laid down in Acts 15:19-21. Indeed, Paul speaks of a “law-free” gospel and asserts that believing Gentiles are now equal with Jews before God (e.g., Romans 2:14-16; 9:30-32). Acts 19:10 also confirms that Paul had spent two years in Ephesus “so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord”—on Paul’s theological terms!

In contrast, “John took his stand as a Jewish prophet charged to keep God’s people holy, unpolluted by Roman culture” (Pagels, p. 47). John would consider these Pauline non-Jews as imposters who “say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). He would likewise condemn those in Pergamum (2:14) who “hold to the teaching of Balaam” (a non-Israelite who caused Israel to sin in Numbers 22:5,7) and in Thyatira where “Jezebel” calls herself a prophet. Compare John’s condemnation of their practice of eating foods sacrificed to idols with Paul’s nuanced discussion in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and my lesson on this text. The Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:6, 15) are likely also rival church groups, whom John wants his people to “hate” (i.e., dis-associate from).

If Pagels is right—and the literary and geographical evidence seems to concur—our New Testament canon includes church conflicts that go unresolved. John’s messages to the seven churches in Revelation reflect the sharp conflict that must have already existed within the Jesus Movement of the first century. For all we know, “Jezebel” may have been a fine woman prophet in the Pauline tradition!

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. John’s authority is backed up by a vision of Jesus himself, who dictates what to write. But Paul, with different theological views, says he also received “visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor. 12:1-4). How should Christians who support biblical authority deal with this diversity of belief and John’s harsh language?
  2. How much should we expect cultural background to influence how we hear the Spirit’s voice?
  3. In current church conflicts, opposing groups often believe they are “led by the Spirit” on a particular topic. How can we tell the difference between Spirit-led wisdom and human perspective?


Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.