The Problem of “The Jews” in John’s Gospel

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.
Professor of New Testament at Weston School of Theology, Cambridge, Mass.
Adapted from D. Harrington John’s Thought and Theology  (Liturgical Press, 1990)

The basic problem before us is that John’s Gospel says nasty things about a group that it calls “the Jews.” When twentieth-century people hear such negative talk about “the Jews,” they may assume a direct relation between “the Jews” of the Fourth Gospel and their Jewish neighbors who attend the local synagogue. Thus, the Fourth Gospel can become a vehicle for increasing anti-Semitism.

Although some texts in John refer to “the Jews” in positive ways (John 4:22; 8:32; 11:31-45; 12:11), for the most part “the Jews” appears in negative contexts in John’s Gospel. The most common negative context is debate with Jesus. Whereas in the Synoptic tradition Jesus’ debating partners are “the Pharisees” or “the scribes” or both, in John’s Gospel they are simply called “the Jews.” The Jews send priests and Levites to inquire about John the Baptist (1:19). Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” (3:1), questions Jesus. The Jews (5:10) object to Jesus healing a lame man on the Sabbath — and so on. These debates are literary productions, not direct recordings. In them Jesus’ interrogators — whether the Jews or his own disciples — are always misunderstanding him. Their misunderstandings in turn become the occasion for Jesus to go beyond their objections and to reveal more about himself and his mission of revealing the Father. But in the process the literary foils — in many cases the Jews — look foolish.

Besides looking like fools the Jews in the Fourth Gospe1 are said to have persecuted Jesus because he healed on the Sabbath (5:16) and to have sought to kill Jesus (7:1). The disciples warn Jesus against going into Judean territory again since the Jews were seeking to kill him (11:8). The motif of “fear of the Jews” runs through Jesus’ public ministry (9:22), his passion and death (19:38), and his resurrection appearances (20:19).

Before his final journey to Jerusalem Jesus no longer goes about openly among the Jews (11:54). The implication of John’s narrative is that, in fact, without the pressure applied to Pontius Pilate by the Jews, Jesus would not have been crucified (19:12-22). John even gives the impression that the Jews actually executed Jesus: “Then he (Pilate) handed him (Jesus) over to them (the Jews, their chief priests) to be crucified” (19:16). In John’s Gospel then the Jews oppose Jesus in debate, seek to kill him by various means and finally convince the Roman governor to execute Jesus.

Why was John so negative toward the Jews? After all, it is virtually certain that he himself was a Jew. I would like to suggest some sociological, political, and theological factors that contributed to John’s negative portrait of the Jews. First, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and subsequent occupation of the land by the Romans challenged all Jews to find ways to reconstruct Judaism without Temple and Land. The Gospel of John was written shortly after this pivotal event. Both pagan and Jewish observers of early Christians would have looked on John and his like as rivals in the task of reconstructing Judaism after the destruction of the Temple. Thus in the late first century Judaism was at a crossroads: it could take the apocalyptic, nationalistic, rabbinic, or Christian route. From the perspective of later history the rabbinic way won out among Jews while the Christian way developed into a separate religion. The apocalyptic way revived from time to time, and the nationalistic way emerged again with twentieth-century Zionism. The composition of John’s Gospel should be viewed against this background and the rival claims among Jews to carry on the tradition of Judaism. The negative portrait of the Jews in John’s Gospel is part of an intra-Jewish quarrel. More specifically, there is probably a connection between the Jews in John’s Gospel and the emerging rabbinic movement led by Yohanan ben Zakkai. In fact, the use of hoi loudaioi (“the Jews”) may even refer to the Judean roots of the rival movement.

Quarrels within a religious movement are often bitter. In our own day Jews argue about who is a Jew, Catholics debate about the proper interpretation and implementation of Vatican II, and liberal and fundamentalist Protestants repeat the “battle for the Bible.” Such modem analogies can help us to appreciate the context in which John talked about the Jews. A Jew himself, John wrote in a highly emotional setting in which the future of Judaism was at stake. John was convinced that the Christian way was correct and the early rabbinic way was not.

Besides the sociological factor there may also have been a political factor in John’s negative portrayal of the Jews. After the fall of Masada in 73/74 C.E. the Jews were a defeated people, under even more direct Roman control than before. At the same time Jewish Christians had to explain an embarrassing fact about their hero Jesus of Nazareth: he had been executed according to a Roman punishment reserved primarily for revolutionaries. The charge against him (“King of the Jews”) suggests that the Roman governor considered him just another messianic pretender, a political rebel. In the late first century, when the Jews had no political power, John and the other Evangelists to various extents shifted the responsibility for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. By blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death John explained away the embarrassing circumstances of Jesus’ death and connected the Jews of Jesus’ day with the rivals of his own community. This political apologetic on John’s part, ingenious in the situation perhaps, has had unfortunate long-term consequences on Christian-Jewish relations through the centuries.

Two theological factors further influenced John’s portrait of the Jews. First, John’s dualistic metaphors such as “darkness” and “light”, “the world” and the “children of darkness”, good and evil, leave little or no room for any “gray” areas in between. With only two categories to choose from, it is not surprising that John placed his rivals alongside “the world” with the “children of darkness.” The Jews simply end up on the wrong side of the dividing line.

Another theological challenge posed by the events of 70 C.E. was the task of locating Jesus with reference to Jewish institutions. John responded by showing how various Jewish titles — Wisdom, Lamb of God, Messiah, Son of God, King of Israel, Son of Man — apply to Jesus. He also showed how Jesus gave new meaning to the Sabbath, Passover, Tabernacles, and Hanukkah. By attaching new Christian meanings to these Jewish institutions John could further his case that Christianity was the route Judaism should take.

And yet, this negative portrayal of the Jews in the Gospel of John is essentially a Christian problem since it is we who affirm that John’s Gospel is part of Christian scripture and authentic testimony to Christ. There are two major avenues open to us who want to do something about the problem: educating people to recognize the shape of the problem, and reflecting on what our biblical translations communicate.

Recognizing the shape of the problem involves awareness of the historical circumstances in which John’s Gospel was composed. John wrote for a largely Jewish-Christian audience living in tension with other Jews in the late first century. He was trying to show that the Christian movement was the authentic response to the crisis posed by the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. His negative comments about the Jews had a specific setting and were not intended to be what we call anti- Semitic or anti-Jewish. Nevertheless, Christians must be willing to admit the anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic potential of John’s presentation of the Jews. This Johannine presentation of the Jews is a powerful argument for the need for Christians to become more sensitive to the historical origins of our sacred scriptures.

Second, we also need to consider what our biblical translations communicate. What images do our parishioners have of the Jews, for instance, when they read the passion narrative of the Gospel of John? Do they make connections with their Jewish neighbors and co-workers and carry negative stereotypes into their everyday lives? Some biblical scholars suggest our translations should be modified to read “some Jews” or “the Jewish leaders” or even “the Judeans” to break the pattern of collective imputation of guilt for Jesus’ death. Admittedly, some translations can be so “loose” as to distort the original meaning of the text, but we need at least to attempt to clarify some misleading terms in our own modern translations. If some of John’s “anti- Semitic” overtones can be explained by our inadequate translations, then we can at least correct these terms so as to focus our energies on the more complex problem inherent in the Gospel itself — John’s negative portrayal of “the Jews” which is independent of translation.

Our people also need help in grasping some points of Christian theology that have been clarified through recent Christian-Jewish dialogue. The claim that Jesus “fulfilled” the Jewish scriptures and institutions does not mean that he evacuated them of meaning. Jesus lived and died a Jew, one of a long line of Jews who have suffered for their righteousness and fidelity. The early church was thoroughly Jewish. Its willingness to incorporate non-Jews was based on the Jewishness of Jesus.

John’s Gospel is a problem for Christians and Jews today as they try to fashion a new, positive relationship. John does say harsh things about the Jews. But serious reflection on the situation in which John wrote and the identity of the Jews in his Gospel can help us reframe the problem and remind us that we are not obligated to repeat the past

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The Gospel of John and Anti-Jewish Polemic

By Robert Kysar
Professor of New Testament and Homiletics at the Divinity School, Emory University.
Article was excerpted by Loren L. Johns with permission of the author and the publisher from his chapter in Faith and Polemic: Studies in Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, ed. Craig A. Evans and Donald A. Hagner. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

 

Over twelve years ago Samuel Sandmel correctly observed, “John is widely regarded as either the most anti-Semitic or at least the most overtly anti-Semitic of the gospels.” Little has been done to ameliorate that harsh judgment since it was first written. While efforts have been made to soften the tone of the Gospel of John when it comes to Jews and Judaism, a reading of the Gospel tends to confirm Sandmel’s judgment.

My major thesis is that although the Gospel itself is not anti-Semitic, the text nurtures anti-Semitism in the church today. A surface reading of the text encourages the reader to cast Jews and Judaism  in an unfavorable light. The narrator is -detached from and consequently distances the reader from Judaism. As characters in the narrative, the “Jews” (Ioudaioi) are antagonists of the hero of the story. They misunderstand Jesus, they oppose him, they persecute him, and they seek to kill him.

Furthermore, they are unfaithful to their own faith and tradition. One cannot read the passion story of the Gospel and escape the impression that the Jewish leaders alone are responsible for the arrest, conviction, and death of Jesus (18:3, 12, 19ff.).

The impression gained by the reader is that Judaism in general is degenerate and untrue. In contrast to the falsity of Judaism, the message of Jesus is everywhere presented as superior to the religion of the Jews (2:1-10; 4:21; 5:39, 45; 6:58; 8:31, 58). The “grace and truth” revealed in Christ is superior to the Law of Moses (1:17). The conclusion is inescapable that the text of the narrative nurtures a negative mentality toward Jews and Judaism.

So far we have looked at the surface of the text. Now we must move “behind” the text to ask two related questions: What, exactly, is meant by  “the Jews” (Ioudaioi) in John’s Gospel? And what historical situation could possibly have led to such slanderous and stereotypical references? Ioudaioi occurs some seventy-one times in the Gospel. “The Jews” are part of the realm of unbelief. Although the term Ioudaioi is used to refer to many different groups in the Gospel and from varying perspectives, the negative characterization inherent in the term serves the dualistic scheme of the Gospel, the opposite of which is the Christian believer.

Few, if any, responsible scholars today would argue that the reference is to the entire Jewish people, for such a view would make no sense given the fact that Jesus and nearly all of the main characters of the Gospel are themselves Jews. The most frequent nominees for the position as referent of the expression are Judeans, as opposed to Galilean Jews, and the religious leaders of the Judaism contemporaneous to the Fourth Evangelist. It is most likely that “the Jews” in the Fourth Gospel refers to those leaders who hold some influence over their Jewish constituency in the region known to the Fourth Eyangelist.

But what occasion would have evoked such an attitude toward Jewish leaders as that of the Fourth Evangelist’s? In other words, what was the historical situation in which the Fourth Evangelist wrote?

Over two decades ago J. Louis Martyn and Raymond E. Brown each proposed that the occasion for the writing of the Fourth Gospel was an experience of expulsion of a Christian community from their synagogue home. Each concluded that the Johannine community had been part of a Jewish synagogue but was then expelled from its religious community there.

Most scholars now agree that the Gospel was written in response to the exclusion of the Johannine church from the synagogue and the subsequent dialogue between these two religious parties. The subject of the picture is a defensive and threatened Christian community, attempting to reshape its identity, isolated from the synagogue and its Jewish roots. The picture is trimmed in vigorous debate over issues central to both Jews and Christians. The picture is of two sibling religious communities, each with its own identity issues.

How does this hypothesis for the historical origin of the Gospel inform the anti-Jewish tone of the text? First, it makes clear that the language regarding Jews and Judaism is polemical in nature and typical of classical polemic.

The issue at stake was the social repositioning of the Christian community. By being expelled from the synagogue they had experienced the trauma of social dislocation. Their task was now one of making a new place for themselves in  a society which appeared to them to be hostile and unaccommodating of their views. Hence the pervasive insider-outsider language of the Gospel.

This view of the Gospel as the result of Jewish-Christian dialogue following the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogue explains why Judaism is painted in such unfortunate colors and why Christian faith is presented as superior to Judaism.

The Johannine Christians occupied a precarious position. They had been  Christian Jews who understood themselves as part of the ancient people of God. With their abortion from the bosom of the synagogue, they were trying to affirm that they did not need Judaism. t The vitriolic attack on Judaism is nothing more nor less than the desperate— and perhaps impossible—attempt of the Johannine Christians to find a rationale  for their existence in isolation from Judaism. This may explain why Torah plays no role in the life of the believer, according to the Gospel, .and why the Gospel reflects no covenantal theology.

But in spite of the best efforts of the Fourth Evangelist, the basic Jewishness of the perspective of the Johannine community is visible between and behind the lines of the text. Even in their desperate rieed to understand themselves over against Judaism, the Johannine Christians were not able to speak of their faith without recourse to its Jewish roots.

This historical hypothesis also helps us understand the Gospel’s portrayal of the Jewish leaders. An effective narrative needs an antagonist as much as it needs a hero figure. The situation of the Johannine community provided such an antagonist ready at hand in the figure of the Jews. The Gospel gave its first readers sanction to understand their own conflict with members of the synagogue as conflict with the forces that had been responsible for the death of their Lord.

Although the historical origin of the Gospel of John makes its anti-Semitic tone understandable, it does not alter the basic reality of that tone as the Gospel is read – and heard. The reality is that an occasional writing has become canonical literature. Herein lies a dreadful danger! It is now read and  interpreted outside of its original situation and beyond its original purpose. With the passing of centuries, the historical origin becomes more and more remote, less and less known or knowable.

The present task is to issue a challenge to those who would read, interpret, and place authority in the Gospel of John. The challenge is simply that its authoritative value must be seriously and carefully defined and its use meticulously controlled. It is to advocate that canonical authority resides only within an interpretative context. We must differentiate between the normative and the situational.

Only in a creative and diligent response to this challenge to define more sharply and interpret more effectively the doctrine of Christian canon is there the possibility of overcoming the tragic burden of the anti-Semitic tone experienced in the reading of the Gospel of John.

Saint Luke’s Message about the Christian Relationship towards Israel

by Petr Pokorny
Dean of the Protestant Theological Faculty of Charles University Prague, Czech Republic

 

Saint Luke, the author of the third Gospel and the canonical Acts of the Apostles, was considered to be one of the anti-Jewish early Christian authors. In his writings Jews are the opponents of Jesus, organizers of all the riots dangerous for the Empire and unwilling to listen to the Gospel. That is why the Good News has been sent to the Gentiles (Acts 28). This was the prevailing view until recent decades.

The fact that Luke is critical towards the Jews of his time cannot be denied; to some degree we can understand his position, since he wrote his two books when the division between the synagogue and the church had been just accomplished and the wounds were still fresh. However his image as an anti-Jewish writer may be corrected by another set of important observations: According to St. Luke the Torah and the other parts of the Jewish Scripture (Tanakh) are indispensable not only for the synagogue, but also for the Christian church. A Norwegian scholar, Jacob Jervell, tried to rehabilitate Luke as a theologian with a clearly positive attitude towards Israel. Not all his arguments stood up to exegetical scrutiny, but some of his insights are – in my opinion – irrefutable.

Most important is that Luke never blamed Israel as a whole. He never questioned the role of Israel in the history of salvation. This is an important observation.

In this context I realized how interesting it is to discuss the impact of the famous parable on the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) on the Christian-Jewish relationship. In Luke’s time the prodigal son was interpreted as a representative of Christians of Gentile background, the sinners who used to live in a distant country, still “far off” (in Greek MAKRAN – Luke 15:13,20), and yet children of God – “his offspring” (Acts 16:28). The older son, who becomes the main hero in the second part of the parable, obviously represented the synagogue, the Pharisees who try not to disobey the commands of God (Luke 15: 29, cf. the Pharisees as hearers of the parable in vv..2-3).

According to all the rules of telling tales, as they were described by V.V. Propp, the roles should change at the end of the story: The younger son, through his repentance became a positive hero, his older brother should be considered the wicked one. He became disobedient at the decisive moment, when the father invited him to join the feast celebrating the return of his prodigal brother.

Surprisingly the father does not share such a conclusion. His attitude towards the older son does not change at all and in fact is the same as the attitude towards the younger one: “…all that is mine is yours” (V31). The parable has an open end as to the reaction of the older son. It reflects the rupture between the Church and the synagogue in the time of Luke. Anyhow the solemn proclamation about the full participation of Israel in God’s eternal heritage is valid without any additional condition. The older son is full heir of the eternal heritage of the heavenly father (see vv..19 and 21) of the “kingdom of God”, as Luke used to say. In this respect Luke must have been – at least indirectly – acquainted with the Pauline view of Israel’s future according to which Israel will be saved together with the fullness of the Gentiles, as it is expressed in Romans 11. Paul’s “stopping” the mission of Israel, as Luke describes it in the last verses of Acts, is not identical with Israel’s eternal damnation.

However, the impression could arise that Israel’s future is dependent on its return into the paternal house and its reunion with Christians. This interpretation is readily available. However it is a false understanding. The parable was not intended as a missionary text for Jews. Its intention within the frame of Luke’s work is to address the Christians. They should know that the older brother, the Jews, have the full rights of the firstborn, that they are the heirs of God’s kingdom, even if they are not the addressees of the missionary preaching in the present age.

The legal problem of the parable, namely that both the brothers are the heirs of all that is the paternal heritage, has to be solved by discovering the divine logic: in the Kingdom of God all the heirs, the fullness of the eternal heritage is being shared by all (Luke 12:32; 22:29f.).

Together with the respectful confirmation of the Jewish Scripture as a part of the Christian Bible, it is this exhortation to respect Israel – the older brother with his full rights in the sight of God – which changes the traditionally anti-Jewish image of Luke. The Christians should listen carefully to God’s proclamation about Israel: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours…” (CEV)

Trouble in God’s Family

By: William H. Willimon
Minister to the University and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Unitersity, Durham, North Carolina

Law enforcement officers will tell you that they would rather try to stop a bank robbery in progress than to intervene in a domestic argument. Whether in the kitchen or the bedroom, in an enraged altercation between husband and wife or between brother and brother, someone is likely to get hurt. More people are murdered by relatives than by strangers. Family feuds are the worst and the most prolonged fights.

Stephen’s speech in chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles is a recollection of troubles within a family. Stephen begins with the promises to Abraham, “our father.” The subsequent history of Abraham’s family is the history of the unfolding of God’s promise to bless. But it is, in Luke’s hands, also a story of conflict within the family, reminiscent of Joseph’s jealous brothers who sold him into slavery, or of Moses’ rejection by his own brothers and sisters (Acts 7:23-29). There has always been trouble within God’s family, says Stephen.

As we read Acts, we learn of continued conflict within the Family of God. Modem interpreters of Acts tread a mine field in their attempts to determine the place of these “Jews” in Acts. As I try to read Acts, I struggle to be faithful to these assumptions: (1) Luke- Acts is the product of a long and painful family feud within Israel and the Church since the advent of Jesus; (2) Luke was probably a Jewish-Christian himself; (3) by the time Acts was written, any real hope on the part of the church for the evangelization of Israel was over; (4) Luke still felt it essential to base his proclamation of the Gospel upon the gracious fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel. We Christians should read Acts not from the spurious vantage point of Gentiles standing next to Jesus, upbraiding the Jews in Nazareth (Luke 4), but rather as co-members, with the Jews, of the household of God, for whom the presence of Christ  is both blessing and judgment.

Luke’s severe depiction of those Jews who reject the Gospel may sound harsh, spiteful, and downright anti-Semitic to our ears because we latter-day Christians have, in effect, traded places with that unbelieving segment of Israel that responded to early Christian truth claims with violence. Acts reminds us that, in any age, there are believers who would rather kill those who do not  share their faith than to trust their truth claims to stand or fall on their own. Alas, this has been the sad story of the church’s dealings with the Jews.

Even a superficial knowledge of the history of the church’s relationship with the Jews should send a shudder down our Gentile spines. The “sword” brought by Jesus firs t  severed Jew from Jew and then, in a singular perversion of the Gospel, severed Jew from Gentile. Whether by the Crusader’s sword, Hitler’s ovens, or Christian evangelism, the once-persecuted church became the persecutor of Jesus’s own people.

Of course, none of our latter-day Anti-Semitism explains Luke’s account of troubles between synagogue and church in Acts. Luke never urges Theophilus to raise a sword against God’s Chosen People—to do so would negate the claims of the very Gospel Luke is attempting to preach. Both Jews and Christians had been the victims of Rome’s cruel response to religious disputes. The Gospel offered another way.

David Tiede (in Prophecy  and  History in Luke- Acts) argues that we must not view Acts as establishment literature, as an attempt on the part of the dominant to justify their newly won dominance. Rather Acts is an inner-Jewish attempt to come to terms with the devastation resulting from the abortive Jewish wars against Rome and the terrible destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This devastation affected Christians no less than Jews. Where was God during the destruction of his Temple and the bloody persecution of his people? Was anyone among the faithful to blame for this tragedy? What is the hope for the future? Now that the Temple is gone (Acts 7:49-50), how shall we be faithful? These are questions of the oppressed, arguments among those who have nothing left but the promises of God. The stakes are high and, when much is at stake, we can expect the arguments to be fierce. A family under great stress, under constant assault from without, dispenses with the pleasantries

Yet we cannot read Acts without feeling uneasy about Luke’s repeated instances of Jewish obduracy and persecution of the “The Way.” Do stories like Luke’s account of the stoning of Stephen contribute, if even subtly, to modern Gentile antagonism toward the Jews? Yes, they certainly have, and might continue to do so unless care is excercised in the interpretation of these texts.

These are stories of Jew versus Jew, not Jew versus Christian. The church was the misunderstood, persecuted, minority movement fighting for its life. Every instance of rejection, every failure to convert—especially in the context of God’s Chosen People—was a life-and-death issue for the young church. Acts is the world of faith viewed, in a sense, “from the bottom up,” from the standpoint of a ridiculed, persecuted, ignored religious minority hanging between life and death on the fringes of the dominant culture.

Interpretive perversion occurs when we thoughtlessly apply the witness of Acts  to our own very different situation. Where the church is a predominant, culturally established majority religion, we dare not read ourselves back into the role of Stephen and, vice versa, read contemporary Jews into the roles of those who cast the stones. The reverse is true: we  are the ones who have stoned God’s prophets and made countless martyrs of God’s Chosen. If there is a rebuke in Acts to those in Israel who resort to coercion, collaboration with Caesar, and violence to settle their theological differences, it is a rebuke to us. How sad that the heirs of Stephen and Paul, witnesses, who knew what it means to suffer for the truth, eventually resorted to the same tactics that some of the church’s critics once used against her. We look back upon the centuries of Christian cruelty to the Jews and wonder why our Gospel failed to give more of us the resources rightly to live with, defend, and even to die for our Jewish brothers and sisters whom our Lord died to save. The church’s relationship to the Jews, a central concern of Acts, continues to be a key question for Christians.

With so great a potential for misinterpretation of Luke’s struggle with his fellow Jews, we can understand why some translators have sought to “clean up” texts like the stoning of Stephen, to expurgate these hostile “Jews” from the text or transform them into nondescript “critics” rather than risk fueling further animosity between Christians and Jews. Others accuse Luke of being “anti-Jewish” and question the advisability of the use of these questionable texts by the contemporary church. These proposals are misguided. As teachers and preachers in today’s church, we cannot sidestep the challenge of history. These texts require us to deal with the possible historical context, Luke’s motivations, and our own. Rather than change the text, let us change ourselves, and “clean-up” our perception of the relation of Jews and Christians. How could a person like Luke—who goes to such pains to ground his entire theology in the scripture and in the hopes of Israel, who feels such pain, resentment, sorrow, and anger at the rejection of the Gospel by his Jewish brothers and sisters—be “anti- Jewish”?

There is no way around the obligation to preach and teach The Acts of the Apostles in such a way as to make clear that this book is an instrument  whereby the contemporary church is inextricably wedded to Israel rather than a pretext for our severance from the people who first taught us Gentiles to look for the Messiah. Of course there are real differences between us Christians and the Jews. Their “story” is not merely subsumed by our “story.” The church is not a replacement for Israel. Even though Acts 2  (and, indeed, the whole of Acts) reminds us that the message of Jesus was first believed within Israel, Acts also tells how the church eventually found its most fertile soil among those who had no claim  upon the promises God made to Israel. Acts bristles with the astounding insight that, “to the Gentiles also God has given repentance” (Acts 11:18). As Luke sees it, Israel became a light to the nations with an intensity that blinded many, even within Israel. Conflict between Jew and Jew over Jesus, so central to the purpose of Acts, continues to be an issue for Israel and the church.

True, Jews really have not recognized Jesus as their long-awaited Anointed One. In an attempt to overcome our Anti-Semitism, we must not buy the fallacious argument (so dear to the heart of all anti-Semites) that Judaism is no longer a theological problem for Christians because the Jews have ceased to be God’s elected people. As Paul says, the “gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). We Gentile latecomers will not get out of our dilemma with the Jews through some sort of liberal and intellectual imperialism which first demands that both Christians and Jews be converted into bland, universalized, Western, American pagans before we can live together. Our best way back to our brothers and sisters, the Jews, lies among paths such as that blazed by The Acts of the Apostles. The more clearly we come to see the blasphemous way we have dealt Jesus’ kinfolk, the better we will understand Christ as the fulfillment of the prophetic promises to Israel; the more keenly we will feel the unmerited quality of our inclusion into those promises; and the more quickly will be healed the tragic separation within the Family of God. We believers—Christian and Jewish— who allow our faith in God to be diluted through nationalistic loyalties, pagan philosophies, or other alien truth claims, forfeit the theological resources whereby we are enabled to live together as family.

Christ’s lordship, the message proclaimed by the witnesses in Acts, cannot be surrendered as guilt payment for the sins of Christians against those who do not believe that the Gospel is true. The story of Christ is made credible not by using the sword to compel belief or to suppress the story until it is so watered down that the Jews will not recognize its offense. The only way this story of Jesus is made credible is the way of Acts—by our willingness to live and die by the Gospel; not by resorting to the tactics of Caesar, but by living lives that do not blatantly contradict the love of which we speak.

Luke told a parable about a troubled family (Luke 15:11-32) in which a younger son, after a lurid sojourn, returned home in rags and smelling of the cheap perfume of harlots. The waiting father received him with joy. A party ensued. But the older brother—the one who never left home, who remained in the field, faithfully working for the father—refused to attend the party. The father came out into the darkness and pled with the brother to come in, but to no avail.

In our day, in our lives, the parable has undergone a sad and unexpected reenactment. The music and dancing continued. The smug younger brother had it all to himself. But outside in the dark still stood the Father where Luke left him, out in the darkness, standing where he had always been: beside the older brother. The younger brother had succeeded in locking out his brother but, alas, in doing so, he had locked out his loving father as well.

The Gospel of John and Anti-Jewish Polemic

Over twelve years ago Samuel Sandmel correctly observed, “John is widely regarded as either the most anti-Semitic or at least the most overtly anti-Semitic of the gospels.” Little has been done to ameliorate that harsh judgment since it was first written. While efforts have been made to soften the tone of the Gospel of John when it comes to Jews and Judaism, a reading of the Gospel tends to confirm Sandmel’s judgment.

My major thesis is that although the Gospel itself is not anti-Semitic, the text nurtures anti-Semitism in the church today. A surface reading of the text encourages the reader to cast Jews and Judaism in an unfavorable light. The narrator is detached from and consequently distances the reader from Judaism. As characters in the narrative, the “Jews” (Ioudaioi) are antagonists of the hero of the story. They misunderstand Jesus, they oppose him, they persecute him, and they seek to kill him.

Furthermore, they are unfaithful to their own faith and tradition. One cannot read the passion story of the Gospel and escape the impression that the Jewish leaders alone are responsible for the arrest, conviction, and death of Jesus (18:3, 12, 19ff.).

The impression gained by the reader is that Judaism in general is degenerate and untrue. In contrast to the falsity of Judaism, the message of Jesus is everywhere presented as superior to the religion of the Jews (2:1-10; 4:21; 5:39, 45; 6:58; 8:31, 58). The “grace and truth” revealed in Christ is superior to the Law of Moses (1:17). The conclusion is inescapable that the text of the narrative nurtures a negative mentality toward Jews and Judaism.

So far we have looked at the surface of the text. Now we must move “behind” the text to ask two related questions: What, exactly, is meant by “the Jews” (Ioudaioi) in John’s Gospel? And what historical situation could possibly have led to such slanderous and stereotypical references?

Ioudaioi occurs some seventy-one times in the Gospel. “The Jews” are part of the realm of unbelief. Although the term Ioudaioi is used to refer to many different groups in the Gospel and from varying perspectives, the negative characterization inherent in the term serves the dualistic scheme of the Gospel, the opposite of which is the Christian believer.

Few, if any, responsible scholars today would argue that the reference is to the entire Jewish people, for such a view would make no sense given the fact that Jesus and nearly all of the main characters of the Gospel are themselves Jews.

Most scholars now agree that the Gospel was written in response to the exclusion of the Johannine church from the synagogue and the subsequent dialogue between these two religious parties.

The most frequent nominees for the position as referent of the expression are Judeans, as opposed to Galilean Jews, and the religious leaders of the Judaism contemporaneous to the Fourth Evangelist. It is most likely that “the Jews” in the Fourth Gospel refers to those leaders who hold some influence over their Jewish constituency in the region known to the Fourth Evangelist.

But what occasion would have evoked such an attitude toward Jewish leaders as that of the Fourth Evangelist’s? In other words, what was the historical situation in which the Fourth Evangelist wrote?

Over two decades ago J. Louis Martyn and Raymond E. Brown each proposed that the occasion for the writing of the Fourth Gospel was an experience of expulsion of a Christian community from their synagogue home. Each concluded that the Johannine community had been part of a Jewish synagogue but was then expelled from its religious community there.

Most scholars now agree that the Gospel was written in response to the exclusion of the Johannine church from the synagogue and the subsequent dialogue between these two religious parties. The subject of the picture is a defensive and threatened Christian community, attempting to reshape its identity, isolated from the synagogue and its Jewish roots. The picture is trimmed in vigorous debate over issues central to both Jews and Christians. The picture is of two sibling religious communities, each with its own identity issues.

How does this hypothesis for the historical origin of the Gospel inform the anti-Jewish tone of the text? First, it makes clear that the language regarding Jews and Judaism is polemical in nature and typical of classical polemic.

The issue at stake was the social repositioning of the Christian community. By being expelled from the synagogue they had experienced the trauma of social dislocation. Their task was now one of making a new place for themselves in a society which appeared to them to be hostile and unaccommodating of their views. Hence the pervasive insider-outsider language of the Gospel.

This view of the Gospel as the result of Jewish-Christian dialogue following the expulsion of the Christians from the synagogue explains why Judaism is painted in such unfortunate colors and why Christian faith is presented as superior to Judaism.

The Johannine Christians occupied a precarious position. They had been Christian Jews who understood themselves as part of the ancient people of God. With their abortion from the bosom of the synagogue, they were trying to affirm that they did not need Judaism. The vitriolic attack on Judaism is nothing more nor less than the desperate—and perhaps impossible—attempt of the Johannine Christians to find a rationale for their existence in isolation from Judaism. This may explain why Torah plays no role in the life of the believer, according to the Gospel, and why the Gospel reflects no covenantal theology.

But in spite of the best efforts of the Fourth Evangelist, the basic Jewishness of the perspective of the Johannine community is visible between and behind the lines of the text. Even in their desperate need to understand themselves over against Judaism, the Johannine Christians were not able to speak of their faith without recourse to its Jewish roots.

This historical hypothesis also helps us understand the Gospel’s portrayal of the Jewish leaders. An effective narrative needs an antagonist as much as it needs a hero figure. The situation of the Johannine community provided such an antagonist ready at hand in the figure of the Jews. The Gospel gave its first readers sanction to understand their own conflict with members of the synagogue as conflict with the forces that had been responsible for the death of their Lord.

Although the historical origin of the Gospel of John makes its anti-Semitic tone understandable, it does not alter the basic reality of that tone as the Gospel is read and heard. The reality is that an occasional writing has become canonical literature. Herein lies a dreadful danger! It is now read and interpreted outside of its original situation and beyond its original purpose. With the passing of centuries, the historical origin becomes more and more remote, less and less known or knowable.

The present task is to issue a challenge to those who would read, interpret, and place authority in the Gospel of John. The challenge is simply that its authoritative value must be seriously and carefully defined and its use meticulously controlled. It is to advocate that canonical authority resides only within an interpretative context. We must differentiate between the normative and the situational.

Only in a creative and diligent response to this challenge to define more sharply and interpret more effectively the doctrine of Christian canon is there the possibility of overcoming the tragic burden of the anti-Semitic tone experienced in the reading of the Gospel of John.

By: Robert Kysar, Professor of New Testament and Homiletics at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. This article was excerpted by Loren L. Johns with permission of the author and the publisher from his chapter in Faith and Polemic: Studies in Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, ed. Craig A. Evans and Donald A. Hager. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Is The New Testament Anti-Semitic or Anti-Jewish

What is Anti-Semitism? Coined in the last century, the term has become in the West the primary way of referring to hatred toward Jews, but not toward other religious or ethnic groups which are, like Arabs, Semites. It especially denotes “Christian” hatred of Jews, or more precisely, those who would masquerade as Christians. Inasmuch as the term is used for defining the hatred of one group out of numerous groups which could be called “Semitic,” and since the term was conceived within a political and ideological context in the nineteenth century that specifically targeted Jews in European communities for exclusion and oppression, it should be replaced by the more accurate and contemporary term, “Anti-Jewish.”

 

Is the New Testament Anti-Jewish?

 

There are some harsh passages in the New Testament. Let us look first at the Gospel According to John, which has rightly been placarded as full of potentially hateful statements directed against the “Jews.” A study of the Greek text of John reveals that Anti-Judaism occurs much more consistently in translations, especially in children’s bibles, as Chairman Irvin J. Borowsky and Professor William H. Willimon of Duke University have pointed out in Explorations 7.1 (1993).

 

In the past we professors have occasionally erred in the way we have taught our students to translate the Greek New Testament. We taught them to memorize paradigms and lists of vocabulary. But such a method tended to encourage an excessively philological and atomizing approach to translation. As a result the Greek text of the New Testament was not sensitively translated as a product of the first century and as a challenge to Christians today.

 

Today we need to teach our students to attend to the philological subtleties of a word within its literary context. They need to be sensitive to three phenomena. First, they must seek to discern the literary context of any given passage of scripture. The rhetorical thrust of the whole document, as well as the immediate passage being translated, must be analyzed carefully. Second, the sociological matrix which has given rise to the expressions or concerns found in the document must be reconstructed wherever possible using methodologies that derive from sociologists and related specialists who have struggled to determine the probable setting and origin of these ancient documents. Third, unlike translating the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Pseudepigrapha, students must be aware of the obligations of translating documents that are going to be received as scripture, because the vast majority of readers will not read these documents according to a putative historical context, but immediately as if they are as contemporary as this morning’s newspaper.

 

The Gospel According to John

 

Let us see how these methods apply with a particular text of John, specifically John 11:54. This verse is almost always translated as follows: “Therefore Jesus no longer went about openly among the Jews, but he went away into a region near the desert, into a city called Ephraim; he remained there with his disciples.” So translated, the interpretation seems obvious: Jesus was afraid of the Jews, he must not have really been a Jew. He fled to Ephraim, which must have been a non-Jewish city, with his disciples, who were obviously all non-Jews.

 

But distinguished commentators on the Gospel of John would readily admit that it is abundantly clear that Jesus was a Jew, a devout Jew, and that each of his disciples were Jews. But what about Ephraim? Was it a gentile, non-Jewish city like Caesarea, Sipphoris, or Scythopolis? While we cannot yet locate the city, it is clear that the city was Jewish. It was not in the decapolis, the area of the ten Hellenistic cities. Nor was it on the coast where the Romans dominated as in Caesarea. It was deep in Jewish territory.

 

The problem, then, really seems to be with the Greek en tois Ioudaiois, which is translated customarily “among the Jews.” Attending to the particulars of John 11:45-54 we learn that Jesus could not have been afraid of all the Jews. The passage begins with the report that many ektōn Ioudaiōn (“from the Jews”) believed in him. Others in this category, however, went to the Pharisees to report that he had raised Lazarus from the dead. Subsequently the high priest, Caiaphas, announces that Jesus “was to die for the nation” and “to gather together” the children of God who had been dispersed over the earth so that they may all be one (John 11:49-50). The motive given by the Evangelist to the high priest—that the unity of “the nation,” that is the Jews, must be preserved and that Jesus by his death can keep the nation from perishing—is quite ironic. The Ioudaioi are, in fact, divided among themselves by Jesus’ actions and signs; some believe him, others want him to be removed from the scene. His death will only heighten this division, not heal it. The Gospel itself provides evidence that the Johannine community was being excluded by other Jews, notably by those who controlled the synagogues, precisely because of their understanding of Jesus’ significance. In fact, the word which denotes being cast out of the synagogue appears only in John in the New Testament. Yet the issues before us remain: given all this, what does “the Jews” mean in this context?

 

Semantically, translators have assumed that Ioudaioi always means simply “Jews” without qualification. Such reasoning violates the methodological principles of translation we previously outlined. That is, a word obtains meaning only within the context of other words and, especially given the antiquity of documents like the Gospels, the precise meaning of a passage or a word demands careful research into the historical and social setting that has given rise to the shape, structure, and intent of the Gospel.

 

These two criteria reveal that the simple noun “Jews” is sometimes the most inappropriate translation. Yet, few words always have only one meaning. Surely the noun Ioudaioi has numerous connotations in the Gospel According to John. As we have seen in our discussion, the literary context of John 11:45-54 indicates that the group denoted is a collection of men located in Judaea and prominent in Jerusalem’s religious circles. These are the Ioudaioi “who planned to kill” Jesus as we learn from John 11:53. But how do we thus translate this plural noun in John 11:54? Being sensitive to the perspective shared above, a proper translation of John 11:54 may be as follows:

 

Therefore Jesus no longer went about openly among leaders in Judaea, but he went from there (Judaea) into a region near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim. He remained there with the disciples.

 

This translation represents reflections on the literary context and the social milieu of the passage.

Jews today and in the future have nothing to dread if the Gospels are translated so that those who read them will perceive that Jesus was a faithful Jew who was crucified by Roman soldiers, following the command of a Roman prefect, who was perhaps duped by some Judean religious leaders.

 

Conclusion

 

In the end, it is important to stress that the New Testament authors would have been horrified by the claim that anything they wrote was Anti-Jewish. Far from supporting the hatred of Jews or any movement that produced the Holocaust (or better the Sho’ah), most of the Jews in the Palestinian Jesus Movement would have been gassed at Auschwitz. Almost all of the authors of the New Testament documents were Jews. I am convinced that the Jews who authored the New Testament would want to affirm that they not only were born Jews but continued to be faithful Jews.

 

The goal is not only to recognize our need of each other. We Christians need Jews. We Christian theologians need Jewish theologians. We biblical scholars need Jewish scholars. We also need to stand firm in the face of secularism and united together in the affirmation of common roots, common commitments, common values, and common dreams. We New Testament text critics and translators should devote our labors to translations and interpretations that carefully represent the ethos of the scriptures. We should focus our energies to present (and represent) the New Testament so that it can never again be used to stir the flames of hatred toward those of the race from which our Master came.

 

James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, Princeton Theological Seminary

 

 

The Narratives of Jesus’ Passion and Anti-Judaism

The dramatic power of these stories makes sensitive Christians uneasy. How can they be proclaimed without adding to the tragic history of their misuse against the Jewish people? Originally published in America, April 1995.

Part of what makes holy week holy is the solemn reading of two Gospel passion narratives, one from the first three Gospels on Passion (Palm) Sunday, and the one from John every year on Good Friday. It can be fairly claimed that these masterpieces have given more inspiration to artists, musicians, poets and mystics than any other sections of the New Testament. Ironically, however, such dramatic power makes sensitive Christians uneasy about anti-Jewish elements in the passion narratives. How can they be proclaimed without adding to the tragic history of their misuse against the Jewish people?

In 1994 I brought out a very long commentary on the passion narratives, The Death of the Messiah (2 vols., Doubleday), the primary focus of which was the positive message that the evangelists wished to convey to their Christian hearers and readers. In it I gave considerable attention to the danger of anti-Judaism in our reactions, but here I want to concentrate on the evolution of anti- Judaism in New Testament thought about the passion to help us to understand how our oldest religious ancestors approached the death of Jesus. As we come to this Holy Week [1995] in the shadow of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I dedicate this essay to the struggle to appreciate the truth and beauty of the narratives without arousing hostility.

There are two approaches I firmly reject. Throughout the centuries and still today the passion narratives have been read as literal history. Such an interpretation produces a view of the Jewish leaders as scheming liars who knowingly deceived the Roman prefect in order to bring about Jesus’ death. Matthew’s and John’s use of the generalizing description of these opponents of Jesus as “Jews” has too often been heard without historical perceptivity as referring to Jews of later centuries and thus have contributed to ongoing hate. This approach has now been firmly rejected in Roman Catholicism, whether or not all Catholics know this. In 1964 the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission taught authoritatively that the Gospels are the product of considerable narrative, organizational and theological development and so are not simply literal accounts of the ministry of Jesus. The next year Vatican Council II explicitly condemned an outlook that would blame the passion without distinction on all the Jews then living or on the Jews today. (See the Council’s “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” [1965], No. 4.)

The other view I judge unacceptable discredits the Gospel passion narratives as almost totally the product of Christian imagination, with little or no foundation in fact. Under the mantle of scholarly objectivity, advocates assert firmly but without proof that the early Christians knew little about how Jesus died and simply invented their narratives on the basis of Old Testament imagery. Indeed, some scholars (of Christian upbringing) would paint them as creating lies precisely to vilify the Jews. If the literalist interpretation of the passion narratives can produce hate toward Judaism, this interpretation can have the effect of portraying Christianity as a false and hateful religion. Religiously sensitive Jews and Christians recognize that if either group of our respective first-century ancestors is presented as liars who wanted to destroy their opposites, nothing has been gained in the ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue.

A careful examination suggests that the situation in the first century was far more complex than such overly simple reconstructions allow. Let me attempt to do at least partial justice to the complexities by describing four  stages in the development of New Testament attitudes toward the death of Jesus.

STAGE ONE: What happened in A.D. 30 or 33 when Jesus was executed on a cross. Without attempting to repeat all the evidence amassed in The Death of the Messiah, a very plausible case can be made for the following. Jesus upset and even alarmed some of his coreligionists by his attitudes toward some legal demands, his assumptions about his own unique teaching authority his association with sinners and his critique of public practices that he regarded as meaningless religiosity Rumors that he might be the Messiah (whether promoted by friends or opponents) caused tension. This came to a head when in Jerusalem he castigated and/or publicly acted out a critique of the Temple procedures 4(< and the sanctuary-a sensitive issue economically, socially and politically. A Sanhedrin or meeting involving the high priest and other important Jerusalem figures decided that he was a dangerous and arrogant (that is to say, blasphemous) nuisance and arranged for him to be seized and handed over to the Roman authorities.

That Jesus could have been manhandled and abused in such an arrest and transferal would be far from surprising. For the Roman governor he 4″ was not a major threat. (Pilate’s prefecture up to this time saw occasional protests and riots but not the armed revolutionary movements of an earlier or later period, when the Romans sent out troops and executed hundreds without any pretense at trial.) Nevertheless, Jesus was potentially a menace if people thought he was a messiah or king, and so Pilate ordered Jesus executed.

The historical plausibility of this Gospel picture can be supported from Josephus, the Jewish historian who wrote his Antiquities at the end of the first century A.D. Amid his account of Pilate’s governorship (including several instances of crowds assembling to put pressure on him), Josephus refers to Pilate’s treatment of Jesus. Serious scholarship would now judge the following on us and on our children-), that other people was taking on the responsibility for the death of Jesus. Indeed, the reference to “children” here and in Lk. 23:28 (“Daughters of Jerusalem.. .for yourselves weep and for your children”) suggests that the Roman defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70 were perceived as God’s punishment for having put Jesus to death. It is not surprising that Christians would make such a judgment, given that Josephus (Antiquities 20.8.5) gave an analogous theological explanation: God turned away from Jerusalem and allowed the Romans to burn the city because of hate for the impiety, murders and profanation among Jews there in the 50s and 60s.

Some of the alleviating factors in Stage Three were now gone, and the parallel .between “the Jews” who were hostile to Jesus and contemporary Jews who did not accept Jesus and were looked on as hostile to Christians became complete. (And one may guess that on the other side among some Jews a parallel was drawn between “that fellow” who caused trouble 40 or 50 years ago and the present troublemakers who were making blasphemous claims about him) One catches elements of that connection in a passage like Mt. 28:12-15, where a lie that the disciples stole the body of Jesus, started through a bribe given by the chief priests and elders, “has been spread among Jews until this day.” If at this stage we can finally speak of anti- Judaism, notice that it had taken time to develop, was not intrinsic to the passion itself and reflects the unfriendly relationship between Christians (ethnically Jew or Gentile) and Jews who did not believe in Jesus.

STAGE FOUR was only the beginning of a long history; by the next century Christians would be accusing Jews of deicide (Melito of Sardis),X.. and Jewish legends (reflected in the pagan Celsus’ attacks on Christianity) were portraying Jesus as a wicked magician and the illegitimate son of an adulteress. The effect of the hostile feelings  became one- sided after the conversion of Constantine to Christ and the gaining of  political power by Christians This was the beginning of a tragic history that would see the oppression and persecution of Jews continue through the centuries, culminating horrendously in our own. Many non- Christian elements contributed to that history, particularly in the Nazi period; but often the passion narratives were read in a way that fueled hatred of Jews.

In efforts to ensure that this never happens again, what I have contended above may serve well. The recognition that important Jewish figures in Jerusalem were hostile to Jesus and had a role in his death need not of itself have produced anti-Judaism, any more than the fact that the Jerusalem priests and prophets plotted Jeremiah’s death would produce such a result. The first Christian attempt to see theological significance in Jesus’ death by use of the scriptural portrayal of the just persecuted by the wicked did not of itself have an anti-Jewish tone. Anti- Judaism appeared when the death was interpreted through the optic of the then-existing bad relations between believers in Jesus (often no longer ethnically Jewish) and Jews who did not believe in him.

Good relations between Christians and Jews based on respect for each other are the optic that will most facilitate the reading of the passion narratives without an anti-Jewish effect. Christians who appreciate the great heritage of Judaism will work sensitively to correct the simplification whereby those hostile to Jesus are portrayed without qualification as “the Jews.”

We Christians cannot dismiss or deny what happened to Jesus-that is too facile an escapism. In liturgically celebrating the truth and power of the passion narratives, however, we must be equally energetic in proclaiming, as did Pope John Paul II on the Auschwitz anniversary: “Never again anti-Semitism!”

Rev. Raymond E. Brown, a Sulpician priest, is Auburn Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies Union Theological Seminary, New York City