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