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Smyrna was an important port city on the west coast of Asia Minor.

Ruins of the Smyrna Agora North of the Northwest Basilica, founded in the fourth century BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Smyrna, known today as İzmir, was a significant port city in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) during the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods. Revered by the ancient historian and geographer Strabo for its beauty (Geogr. 14.646), Smyrna was a pivotal site for religious and cultural exchange in antiquity.

What was the significance of Smyrna in the ancient Mediterranean?

Due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Hermaic Gulf and along an important east-west trading route, many imperial powers jockeyed for control of the city throughout its earliest history. Though the settlement in the area around Smyrna likely dates back to the tenth century BCE, the city flourished after its reestablishment by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. From that time on, Smyrna became a cultural capital, renowned for its wealth, literature, architecture, and dedication to science and medicine. The city also claimed to be the birthplace of the legendary poet Homer, author of the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a shrine dedicated to the poet was a popular tourist attraction in the Roman Empire.

Was there conflict between Jews and Christ believers in Smyrna? 

Like many coastal metropolises in the ancient Mediterranean, Smyrna was home to a variety of communities and their religions. Archaeological and literary evidence suggests that Jewish, Christ-believing, and polytheist communities lived and worked near one another. As such, Smyrna became a site for navigating religious difference, particularly during the first few centuries CE when Christ believers emerged.

One negotiation centering on ritual practice can be found in the book of Revelation. There, John of Patmos addresses the Smyrnaean community of Christ believers, cautioning the community against “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (2:9). This enigmatic phrase has often been interpreted as denouncing Jews who had rejected Jesus. Contemporary scholarship has pointed out, however, that the letters in Revelation likely do not reflect a historical reality in Smyrna. John is probably commenting on the practice of fellow Jews more generally who were practicing a diluted interpretation of dietary and sexual purity laws that ran contrary to his own views (see Rev 2:14, 2:20).

We know from other literary sources like the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the letters of the bishop Ignatius that Smyrna hosted an influential community of Christ believers in the second century and later. Moreover, many inscriptions (public messages written on stone) indicate that the Jewish community in Smyrna was deeply involved in city life. One inscription from the second century CE, for instance, records a donation made by a Jewish group to the city of Smyrna for public works (I.Smyrna 697; 124 CE). During a time when Jewish communities were revolting against Roman rule in Palestine, Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Cyprus, the Jews of Smyrna were apparently affirming their allegiance to the city and its Roman government. Additionally, literary evidence indicates an open attitude of the Smyrnaean Jewish community, which occasionally encouraged non-Jews to participate in synagogue life (for example, the Martyrdom of Pionius 13.1–3). Christian and Jewish sources, however, are relatively quiet on Christian-Jewish-polytheist relationships in Smyrna, which leaves open the question of whether there was conflict between the groups during this time period.

  • Dane Scott is a PhD student in Religious Studies at Boston University. He specializes in the lived experience of religion in the ancient Mediterranean, particularly Greco-Roman religions and early Christianity. His primary focus is on the role of materiality and visuality in shaping religious practices in the ancient world.