The New Testament Provides the Key
Mixing pagan themes with Jewish ones in synagogue worship services is referred to by the apostle John in the Book of Revelation. He speaks about those who worship in "the synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:8; 3:9 boldness mine). His reference was not intended as a figure of speech. To John, that type of synagogue was in existence in the period of his writing. John depicts those who worshiped at such synagogues as heretics "which say they are Jews, and are not" (Revelation 2:8). And further, he said they were people "Who say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie" (Revelation 3:9). They had gone so far away from simple truth, as John conceived it, that they were eating food sacrificed to idols (Revelation 2:14). These strictures of John were not intended by him to be mere allegorical statements. These people were actually eating food sacrificed to idols, yet they were also identifying themselves as being Jews. John, however, called them liars ― they were not Jews!
These verses by the apostle John (when understood literally, as they properly should be) are powerful references that fit representatives of the Samaritans to a tee. John was very concerned with the Samaritans and their false teachings. Indeed, it has long been noticed by many Christian scholars that John’s Gospel has a decided "Samaritan theme" to it. True enough, and at the end of his first epistle, he left his readers with his main concern: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). And the heresies mentioned by John in the Book of Revelation also reflect very decidedly those of the Samaritans as viewed by John and the rest of the apostles.
The upshot of the whole thing is this. When the Jews were in good and prosperous times (as their condition would have been just before the C.E. 70 war with the Romans when most of the Book of Revelation was written), the Samaritans were prone to reckon themselves as Jews. They wanted to be "Jews" in order to share in the prosperity then being afforded the Jews at the time. There were then reasons when it was an advantage to be acknowledged as Jewish. But when the Jews were in distress and unpopular or under persecution by the Gentiles at whatever time, the Samaritans customarily abandoned their "Jewishness" and stated they were Gentiles. What irritated the apostle John so much with those falsely calling themselves "Jews" and who were associated with "the synagogue of Satan" was their continued practice of performing what he considered to be idolatrous acts (Revelation 2:14). This was no allegorical accusation. He warned his readers to "Keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21).
The Samaritans were prone to mix pagan practices with those of the Mosaic law. Simon Magus certainly taught such things. Since Simon wanted to have "a part" with the apostles i.e. to be an apostle himself (Acts 8:21), his rebuff by Peter may have made Simon Magus to begin his own career and claim his own apostleship from God. Recall that the apostle John also censured those in the Book of Revelation "who say they are apostles, and are not, and have found them liars" (Revelation 2:2). The statement is so similar to those where he mentioned the people "who say they are Jews, and are not, but are of the synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:8) and those "who say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie" (Revelation 3:9). These combined strictures smack of Samaritan influence upon 1st century Christianity and that the apostle John was trying to combat it.
Indeed, anyone living in the Middle East in the 1st century would have thought these combined statements of the apostle John in his Gospel, Epistles and the Book of Revelation would fit the Samaritan heretics in a definite way, and to Simon Magus and his teachings in a specific sense. And note this important point. Since the Samaritans customarily worshiped in synagogues each week in their homeland, it could well be that they did the same wherever they settled in their extensive diaspora over the Roman Empire. There can be no doubt that this is the case. On the island of Delos in the Mediterranean, archaeologists have found the ruins of a Samaritan synagogue. This island was a major intermediate point where many vessels would stop in their travels to all areas of the Mediterranean. But this fact does not end the matter. Another Samaritan synagogue was found in Thessalonica where the apostle Paul spent some time teaching the Gospel (J. Schiby, Zion, A Samaritan Synagogue in Salonica, (1977), vol. 42, pp. 103–109, Hebrew).
It is a matter of importance to pay close attention to the various synagogues in which the apostle Paul discussed theological matters when he was on his journeys. Note that when he came to Thessalonica, the Book of Acts makes the statement that Paul went to the synagogue to teach. Luke called this particular synagogue "the synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 17:1). Why does he add the phrase "of the Jews"? It could well be that in Thessalonica there were other synagogues besides those which belonged to the Jews. And now, archaeology shows us (Schiby, ibid.) that there was indeed a synagogue of the Samaritans in Thessalonica and a Samaritan community may have been there from the 1st century.
Look at this point for a moment because it bears an important relationship to our present study. Suppose a person of this 20th century went searching for a synagogue (or synagogues) in any city or town in Europe, Africa or the Americas. If any synagogue were found (and there would be plenty), no one would have to say that those synagogues were "synagogues of the Jews" because everyone knows that all synagogues in the world (except two Samaritan ones that still remain in Israel) would be "of the Jews." Furthermore, if a person today saw a Menorah (the seven branched lamp stand of the Temple) positioned as a sign of identification in the window of a home, at an office or in a synagogue in such areas of the world, it would immediately be reckoned as an unmistakable sign that the places were Jewish. But in the 1st century in many regions of the Roman Empire, this would not have been the case. Samaritans also met in synagogues in this early period and used "Jewish" types of symbols.
Note this. In the main cities of the Roman Empire where Paul went on his journeys (such as Antioch of Pisidia, Athens, Corinth and Ephesus), Luke in the Book of Acts simply stated that Paul went to "the synagogue." These were buildings where worship and discussions concerning religious or social matters could be held. This is where Jews and many proselytes met and discussed religion. Both groups worshiped there. The concluding phrase "of the Jews" is not mentioned by Luke as associated with these synagogues. But when Paul went to the island of Cyprus, Luke specifically stated that he went to "the synagogues of the Jews" (Acts 13:5) where apparently Jews alone had control and where there was a specific Jewish worship. Also when Paul fled to Iconium from the major city of Antioch of Pisidia, he went to "the synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 14:1). And later when he left Thessalonica (Acts 17:1), he then went to Berea where there was also "the synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 17:10). The fact that Luke singled out these particular synagogues as being "synagogues of the Jews" is a very interesting point, and it may have been significant to Luke.
Remarkably, however, when Paul got to Athens and went to the synagogue there (Luke refers to it as simply "the synagogue" that was adjacent to the Market Place where many people met for assembly), Luke stated that Paul immediately began to argue with the Jews and other worshipers about the worship of idols that the whole city of Athens was engaged in doing (Acts 17:16–17). When one reads the Greek carefully of Acts 17:16 and 17, it indicates that the synagogue as well as the Market Place had idolatrous things associated with them. After mentioning the rampant idolatry in Athens, the Book of Acts states, "therefore indeed" [or "accordingly" or "because of this"], "he [Paul] began to reason in the synagogue with the Jews and the worshipers [about that very idolatry]." These latter worshipers (who met in the synagogue with the Jews) were not necessarily whom the Jews would call "proselytes" to Judaism. These "worshipers" with the Jews could be any group of people who met at the synagogue to worship or to discuss religion, and in this particular synagogue Paul began to argue with those synagogue worshipers about the idolatry that was beginning to creep into the precincts of the synagogue itself.
This synagogue in Athens may not have been a "synagogue of the Jews" alone, but a general one for Middle Eastern peoples who congregated with those of the Market Place to discuss all matters of religion and philosophy. This event mentioned in the Book of Acts appears to be the first historical indication to my knowledge of some idolatry creeping into a synagogue and Paul having to argue with the Jews and other worshipers about the encroachment. But let us not forget that the Book of Revelation tells us about some synagogues in western Asia Minor where certain people of "the synagogue of Satan" were eating meats offered to idols. The apostle John twice stated that those people who seemingly did those things were those "who say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie" (Revelation 3:9). Thus, the New Testament provides us with some essential keys that can be used to understand the history of the years just succeeding the times of the apostles. The Book of Acts as well as the Gospel of John (with, of course, the Book of Revelation) give us the prime information in helping to identify The People That History Forgot.
And what is now happening? Archaeology has come to our aid and remains of buildings now prove that there were indeed Samaritan synagogues where the Samaritans went in their dispersion within the Roman Empire in the periods following that of the Second Temple and the apostles. It is now time to look at the evidence to show this.
Click here to order the print version of: The People That History Forgot
© 1976-2021 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions