Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
They Think they are Jews, but Are Not
One of the messier issues in early Christian history, including the book of Revelation, is the relationship between “church and synagogue.” Certainly by the second generation of Christian history, those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah began to affirm that they, rather than non-believing Jews, formed the real Israel of God. Stated briefly, many Christians believed that Jews who did not affirm that Jesus was the Messiah forfeited their rights, privileges, and citizenship as members of Israel.
This general Christian conviction seems to show up in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9. Some scholars who, like the early Luther, are critical of John’s theology charge the author of Revelation with religious bigotry or anti-Semitism for telling non-believing Jews that they were no longer entitled to be called Israelites. While God allows everyone the freedom to embrace or to reject the teachings of Scripture, it should at least be pointed out that long before the advent of Christ many Second Temple Jews had already begun the process of eliminating others who regarded themselves as Israelites.
I am referring, of course, to the Samaritans. Viewed historically, beginning from the call of Abraham, the group that came to be called Samaritans shared as much history with Judea’s Jews than they did not share. Every episode from Abraham through Solomon was common heritage to both the “Samaritans” and the “Jews.”
The fact that the “Jews” of Jesus’ day had disenfranchised their siblings became even more apparent with an important archaeological discovery in the 1970s. Most of what has been known about the Samaritans is what is told about them by their enemies (=Jews). As far as archaeological evidence is concerned, there were only a handful of artifacts that came from Samaritan hands.
Even though archaeological excavations and research had taken place on the Greek island of Delos for decades, it was in the 1970s that the French archaeologists discovered epigraphical evidence on Delos authored by so-called “Samaritans.” The startling fact was that the Samaritans on Delos did not call themselves “Samaritans.” Rather, they regarded themselves as “Israelites who worship at Mt. Gerizim” (or “Israelites who make first fruit offerings at Mt. Gerizim”). The Jews of the pre-Christian era had systematically attempted to amputate those who worshipped at Gerizim from the history that began at Abraham.
One can choose to disapprove of John’s language and theology in Rev. 2:9 and 3:9, but there is little room for depicting the Jews in Smyrna and Philadelphia as victims when long before Christianity they and their ancestors had used a similar rhetoric and process of marginalization against their siblings, those Israelites who worshipped at Gerizim.