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The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
Chapter 20: The Letter to the Church in Smyrna
These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and lived:
I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich), and the blasphemy of them
which say they are Jews, and they are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Fear not the
things which thou art about to suffer: behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into
prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days. Be thou faithful
unto death, and I will give thee the crown of life.
He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.
He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.
The letter to the Smyrnaeans forms in many ways a marked contrast to the Ephesian
letter; it is constructed exactly on the same plain, but the topics are of a very
different kind. Of all the seven letters this is expressed in the most continuous and
unbroken tone of laudation. It is instinct with life and joy. The writer is in thorough
sympathy with the Church which he is addressing; he does not feel towards it merely that
rather cold admiration which he expresses for the noble history of the Ephesian Church, a
history which, alas! belonged only to the past: he is filled with warm affection. The joy
that brightens the letter is caused not by ease and comfort and pleasures, but by the
triumph over hardship and persecution, by superiority to circumstances; and the life that
invigorates and warms it is that strong vitality which overcomes death and rises
victorious from apparent dissolution.
Another marked difference between the two letters is this. While the Ephesian letter
appeals throughout to the past history of the Church in Ephesus, and attempts to rouse a
fresh enthusiasm among the congregation by the memory of their previous glory as
Christians, the Smyrnaean letter is to a remarkable degree penetrated with local feeling
and urban patriotism, which must be pointed out in the details, one by one.
The Smyrnaean Church is addressed by "the first and the last, which was dead
The meaning of this opening address is obscured by the unfortunate mistranslation,
which mars both the Authorised and the Revised Versions, "was dead and lived again."
The insertion of this word again is unjustified and unjustifiable: there is nothing
in the Greek corresponding to it, and the quotations from Matthew 9:18, John 5:25, Ezekiel
37:3 (which Alford gives in illustration) do not constitute sufficient defence. The
analogy of Revelation 13:2ff corroborates the plain sense of this letter. The idea is, not
that life begins a second time after a period of death, but that life persists in and
through death. The Divine Sender of the letter to Smyrna "was dead and lived,"
and so likewise Smyrna itself "was dead and lived." If anything should be
inserted in the translation to make the meaning quite clear, the word needed is yet,
"which was dead and yet lived."
Again, the phrase "was dead" also is not an exact equivalent of the
Greek words: it would be nearer the true force of the Greek to render "became
dead" or "became a corpse."
All Smyrnaean readers would at once appreciate the striking analogy to the early
history of their own city which lies in that form of address. Strabo, as usual, furnishes
the best commentary. He relates that the Lydians destroyed the ancient city of Smyrna, and
that for four hundred years there was no "city," but merely a state composed of
villages scattered over the plain and the hillsides around. Like Him who addresses it,
Smyrna literally "became dead and yet lived." A practical corroboration
of these last words is found in an inscription belonging to the fourth century BC, which
mentions Smyrna as existing during the period when, as Strabo says, it had been destroyed
and had not been refounded. During those four centuries Smyrna had ceased to exist as a
Greek city, but it lived on as a village state after the Anatolian system: then the new
period began, and it was restored as an autonomous, self-governing Greek city, electing
its own magistrates and administering its own affairs according to the laws which it made
In a sense both Smyrna and Ephesus had changed their character and situation in ancient
time; but the salient fact in the one case was simple change of the city's position, in
the other apparent destruction and death under which lay hidden a real continuance of
life. Strabo emphatically says that Smyrna was obliterated from the roll of cities for
four centuries; but other authorities speak of Smyrna as a State existing during that
period of annihilation. The words of the ancients literally are that Smyrna was dead and
yet lived. The two letters are adapted to the historical facts with delicate
discrimination; change is the word in the first letter, life under and amid death is the
expression in the second.
The idea of life is, of course, to be understood in its fullest sense when applied to a
Christian congregation. It implies the energetic discharge of all the duties and functions
of a Church. The contrast between apparent destruction and real vitality is expressed in
several forms through this letter. The Church seemed poor, but was rich. It suffered
apparent tribulation, but was really triumphant and crowned with the crown of life. Its
enemies on the other hand were pretenders; they boasted that they were the true Jews, but
they were not; they claimed to be the people of God, but they were only a synagogue of
After the introductory address, the letter begins with the usual statement: the writer
has full knowledge of the past history of the Smyrnaean Church. The history of the Church
had been a course of suffering, and not, as the Ephesian history had been, of achievement
and distinction. The Smyrnaean Church had had a more trying and difficult career than any
other of the Asian Churches. It had been exposed to constant persecution. It was poor in
all that is ordinarily reckoned as wealth; but it was rich in the estimation of those who
can judge of the realities of life. There is here the same contrast between appearance and
reality as in the opening address: apparent poverty and real wealth, apparent death and
The humble condition and the sufferings of the Smyrnaean Church are in this letter
pointedly connected with the action of the Jews, and especially with the calumnies which
they had circulated in the city and among the magistrates and the Roman officials. The
precise facts cannot be discovered, but the general situation is unmistakable; the
Smyrnaean Jews were for some reason more strongly and bitterly hostile to the Christians
than the Jews of Asia generally. But the Asian Jews are little more than a name to us.
From general considerations we can form some opinion about their position in the cities,
as is shown in chapter 12; but in respect of details we know nothing. Accordingly we
cannot even speculate as to the reason for the exceptionally strong anti-Christian feeling
among the Smyrnaean Jews. We must simply accept the fact; but we may certainly conclude
from it that the national feeling among them was unusually strong.
In an inscription of the second century "the quondam Jews" are mentioned as
contributing 10,000 denarii to some public purpose connected with the embellishment of the
city. Bockh understood this enigmatic phrase to mean persons who had forsworn their faith
and placed themselves on the same level as the ordinary pagan Smyrnaeans; but this is
certainly wrong. Mommsen's view must, so far as we can judge, be accepted, that "the
quondam Jews" were simply the body of the Jews of Smyrna, called "quondam"
because they were no longer recognised as a separate nation by the Roman law (as they had
been before AD 70). The reference proves that they maintained in practice so late as
130-37 their separate standing in the city as a distinct people, apart from the rest of
the citizens, although legally they were no longer anything but one section of the general
population. Many Jews possessed the rights of citizenship in some at least of the Ionian
cities, such as Smyrna. The quondam Jews who made that contribution to embellish Smyrna
were probably for the most part citizens.
We may also probably infer from the strong hatred felt by the Jews, that at first many
of the Christians of Smyrna had been converted from Judaism. It was the Jewish Christians,
and not the pagan converts, whom the national Jews hated so violently. Except in so far as
the converts had been proselytes of the synagogue, the Jews were not likely to care very
much whether Pagans were converted to Christianity: their violent hatred was roused by the
renegade Jews (as they thought) like St. Paul, who tried to place the unclean Pagans on a
level with themselves.
The action of the Jews in the martyrdom of Polycarp must be regarded (as a succession
of writers have remarked) as corroborating the evidence of this letter. In that case the
eagerness of the Jews to expedite the execution of the Christian leader actually
overpowered their objection to profane the Sabbath day, and they came into the gay
assemblage in the Stadium, bringing faggots to make the fire in which Polycarp should be
consumed. It must, however, be observed that they are not said to have been present at the
sports in the Stadium. The games were over, as usual, at about the fifth hour, 11 AM.
Thereafter the rather irregular trial of Polycarp was held; and about 2 PM the execution
took place, and the most bitter opponents of the Christians had ample time to hear the
news, assemble to hear the sentence, and to help in carrying it into effect. Undoubtedly,
many who would abhor to appear as spectators of the games on a Sabbath would feel
justified in putting to death an enemy of their faith on that day.
Severe trials still awaited the Church in Smyrna: "The devil is about to cast some
of you into prison"...The expression must be understood as symbolical; and it would
not be permissible to take "prison" as implying that imprisonment was the
severest punishment which had as yet been, or was likely to be, inflicted on Christians.
The inference has even been drawn from this passage that death was still hardly known as a
penalty for the crime of Christianity, and was not even thought of as a possibility in the
immediate future. In fact, such a sense for the term "prison" would be an
anachronism, introducing a purely modern idea. Imprisonment was not recognised by the law
as a punishment for crime in the Greek or the Roman procedure. The State would not burden
itself with the custody of criminals, except as a preliminary stage to their trial, or in
the interval between trial and execution. Fine, exile, and death constituted the usual
range of penalties; and in many cases, where a crime would in modern times be punished by
imprisonment, it was visited with death in Roman law.
The "prison" into which the devil would cast some of the Smyrnaean Christians
must be understood as a brief epitome of all the sufferings that lay before them; the
first act, viz., their apprehension and imprisonment, is to be taken as implying all the
usual course of trial and punishment through which passed the martyrs described in the
later parts of the book. Prison was thought of by the writer of the letter as the prelude
to execution, and was understood in that sense by his readers.
That this is so is proved by the promise that follows, "Be thou faithful unto
death, and I will give thee the crown of life": Endure all that falls to the lot
of the true and steadfast Christians, beginning with arrest and imprisonment, ending with
execution: that death will not be the end, but only the entrance to the true life, the
birthday of martyrdom. The martyr "was dead and lived."
The importance of this idea in the letter is proved by the conclusion, where it recurs
in a slightly varied form: "he that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second
death." It is this triumph over death that constitutes the guiding thought of the
whole letter, just as change was the guiding thought of the Ephesian letter. He that
persists to the end, he that is steadfast and overcomes, shall triumph over death:
apparent death affects him; but not the complete and permanent death. Here, again, the
final promise is seen to be peculiarly appropriate to the character and needs of the
The mention of the crown would carry a special meaning to the Smyrnaean readers, and
would rouse in their hearts many old associations. The "crown of Smyrna" had
been before their eyes and minds from childhood (as was shown in chapter 19). The promise
now is that a new crown shall be given to Smyrna. She shall wear no longer a mere crown of
buildings and towers, nor even the crown of good citizens which Apollonius advised her to
put on, but a crown of life. The earthly Smyrna wore a mural crown like that of her
patron goddess: the true Smyrna shall wear a crown suited for the servants of the one
Another expression which must be taken in a figurative or symbolic sense is, "thou
shalt have tribulation ten days." The "ten days" means simply a period
which can be measured, i.e., which comes to an end. The persecution will rage for a time,
but it will not be permanent. The Church will live through it and survive it, and has
therefore no reason to be afraid of it.
The expression "be faithful," again, would inevitably remind Smyrnaean
readers of the history of their city, which had been the faithful friend and ally of Rome
for centuries. It cannot be a mere accident that the only one of the Seven Churches, with
which the epithet faithful is associated in the letters, is the Church of that city which
had established its historic claim to the epithet in three centuries of loyalty, the city
which had been faithful to Rome in danger and difficulty, the city whose citizens had
stripped off their own garments to send to the Roman soldiers when suffering from cold and
the hardships of a winter campaign. The honour in which Smyrna was always held by the
Romans was proclaimed to be a return pro singulari fide (Livy, xxxviii, 39); to
Cicero it was "the most faithful of our allies"; and its services were rewarded
in AD 26 by the permission granted to it, in preference even to Ephesus and Sardis, to
dedicate the second Asian temple to the reigning Emperor Tiberius and his family.
The same reflection occurs here as in the case of Ephesus. Some may think that such an
explanation of the reason why this special form of words in the exordium of this letter
was chosen, and why the epithet "faithful" is applied to the Church, is fanciful
and even unworthy. It is evident, however, that the study which is here presented has been
made from a different point of view. It is not in accordance with right method to form a
priori theories of what is right or wrong, dignified or undignified, possible or
impossible, in the interpretation of St. John's words. The only true method is to take the
words, and ask what they mean, and what must the readers, for whom they were in the first
place written, have understood from them. Now considering how exactly those words, "was
dead and lived," applied to ancient Smyrna, it seems certain that the reference
must inevitably have been appreciated by the Smyrnaeans; and if so, it cannot have been an
accidental coincidence. The writer deliberately chose those words to appeal to local
sentiment and patriotism. The same remark applies to his choice of "faithful"
as the appropriate epithet for the Smyrnaean Church. Not merely had the Church been
faithful; the whole city regarded faithfulness as the chief glory of Smyrna; and the topic
must have been familiar to all inhabitants and a commonplace in patriotic speeches.
It is evident that the writer of the Seven Letters did not discourage such feelings of
attachment to one's native city, but encouraged local patriotism and used it as a basis on
which to build up a strenuous Christian life. The practical effect of such teaching as
this is that a Christian could be a patriot, proud of and interested in the glory and the
history of his own city.
This gives a different impression of the writer's character from what might be gathered
from later parts of the Apocalypse; but it is not good method to take parts of a book and
determine the author's character from them alone. Rather, the Seven Letters are a truer
index to the writer's character than any other part of the Apocalypse, because in these
letters he is in closer contact with reality than in any other part of the book.
Accordingly, we must accept the plain evidence of this letter and infer (as in the
Ephesian letter already) that to the writer of the letter the life of the Church in Smyrna
was not disconnected from the life of the city; and this must be regarded as a general
principle to be applied in other cases. The Church was to him the heart and soul of the
city, and its members were the true citizens. Just as the so-called Jews in Smyrna were
not the true Jews, but a mere synagogue of Satan, so the Pagans were not the true
citizens, but mere servants of the devil. The true Jews and the true citizens were the
Christians alone. To them belonged the heritage of the city's past history: its
faithfulness, its persistence, its unconquerable and indestructible vitality, all were
theirs. To them also belonged the whole ancient heritage of the Jews, the promises and the
favour of God.
In the letter to Smyrna then we see an influence of which no trace was visible in the
Ephesian letter. The stock topics of patriotic orators, the glories of the city, are
plainly observable in the letter; and the writer had certainly at some time mixed in the
city life, and become familiar with current talk and the commonplaces of Smyrnaean
municipal patriotism. Patriotism still was almost entirely municipal, though the Roman
Empire was gradually implanting in the minds of ordinary men a wider ideal, extending to a
race and an empire, and not confined to a mere city. Greece had vainly tried to make the
Hellenic idea strong in the common mind; philosophers had freed themselves from the
narrowness of municipal patriotism; but it was left to Rome to make the wider idea
effective among men.
In the Ephesian letter, on the other hand, it was the eternal features and the natural
surroundings of the city that the writer referred to. The Smyrnaean letter is not without
similar reference. The writer did not confine his attention to those ephemeral
characteristics which have just been mentioned, or (to speak more accurately) he regarded
those characteristics as merely the effect produced by eternal causes. He had thought
himself into harmony with the natural influences which had made Smyrna what it was, and
which would continue to mould its history; and form this lofty standpoint he could look
forward into the future, and foretell what must happen to Smyrna and to the Church (which
to him was the one reality in Smyrna). He foresaw permanence, stability, reality
surpassing the outward appearance, life maintaining itself strong and unmoved amid trial
and apparent death. In Ephesus he saw the one great characteristic, the changing,
evanescent, uncertain relations of sea and land and river; and interpreted with prophetic
instinct the inevitable future. In Smyrna he saw nothing of that kind. The city must live,
and the Church must live in it. Sea and plain and hills were here unchanging in their
combined effect, making the seat of a great city. The city must endure much, but only for
a definite, limited period; as a city it would suffer from invaders, who would surely try
to capture it; and the Church not only would suffer along with the city, but would also
suffer from the busy trading community, in which the element hostile to God would always
And history has justified the prophetic vision of the writer. Smyrna, the recipient of
the most laudatory of all the Seven Letters, is the greatest of all the cities of
Anatolia. At the head of its gulf, which stretches far up into the land, it is at present
the one important seaport, and will remain always the greatest seaport, of the whole
country. But the same situation which gives it eternal importance, has caused it to suffer
much tribulation. It has been the crown of victory for many victors. It has tempted the
cupidity of every invader, and has endured the greed and cruelty of many conquerors; but
it has arisen, brilliant and strong, from every disaster. No city of the East
Mediterranean lands gives the same impression of brightness and life, as one looks at it
from the water, and beholds it spread out on the gently sloping ground between the sea and
the hill, and clothing the sides of the graceful hill, which was crowned with the walls
and towers of the medieval castle, until they were pulled down a few years ago. The
difference in the beauty of the city caused thereby shows how much of the total effect was
due to that "crown of Smyrna."
That hill seems at the first view to be only a rounded hillock of 450 feet in
elevation. But, when you examine it more closely, you find that it is not merely an
isolated conical hill, as it seems from the sea to be. It is really only a part of the
vast plateau that lies behind it, and pushes it forward, like a fist, towards the sea. It
is far stronger than at first it appeared, for it is really a corner of the main mass of
the Asiatic continent, and is supported from behind by its immeasurable strength. Strength
surpassing appearance, brightness, life: those are the characteristics of the letter and
of the city.
In this letter no one can fail to recognise the tone of affection and entire approval.
Whereas the writer urged the people of Ephesus to be as they once were, he counsels the
Smyrnaeans to continue as they are now. Ephesus has to recover what it has lost, but
Smyrna has lost nothing. The persecution and poverty which had been the lot of its Church
from the beginning, and which would still continue for a period, kept it pure. There was
nothing in it to tempt the unworthy or the half-hearted; whereas the dignity and high
standing of the Ephesian Church had inevitably attracted many not entirely worthy members.
The writer looks confidently forward to the continuance of the same steadfastness in
Smyrna. He does not even hint at the possibility of partial failure; he does not say,
"If thou be faithful, I will give thee the crown"; he merely exhorts them to be
faithful as they have been.
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