Generalization about “the Jews” in John’s Gospel

  • PASSAGE:  “When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it . . .”  John 1:19
  • PASSAGE:The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” John 6:41

PERILOUS: The phrase “the Jews” comes early in John’s gospel, but John’s habit of speaking of “the Jews” collectively is found throughout his Gospel.  By the end of his account, “the Jews” are being held responsible for Jesus’ death.  A careful examination, however, shows that these generalizations are both overstated and historically imperfect.

In the first passage above, it would clearly have been impossible for every Jewish person in Jerusalem to have “sent priests and Levites” to question Jesus.  Instead, this passage must depict a relatively small group of Jews (according to John 1:24 this would have been Pharisees, leaders of the Jewish community when the gospel was written and among the strongest opponents of the Jesus movement), who, according to this narrative, wanted to find out what claims Jesus was making about himself.  In the second passage, the people Jesus was addressing were a relatively small “crowd” (John 6:22-24) who had come to the city of Capernaum by boat, “looking for Jesus” (John 6:24b), plus any citizens of the city and the surrounding area who may have come in hope of hearing Jesus speak.

Why then were these generalizations about “the Jews” made?

One explanation refers to the time the Gospels were written.  Many do not realize that they were authored decades after Jesus’ death, which occurred in about 30 AD/CE.  John’s Gospel, the latest, was written in about the year 100. Therefore, these texts are more likely to reflect the friction between the Jewish leaders and the followers of Jesus rather than a conflict with Jesus himself.  Additionally, these texts were written at a time when Jesus’ followers were beginning to separate from the Jewish people and wanted to build their “case” that they had “replaced” the Jews as God’s people.

Tragically, these references to the “the Jews” throughout John’s Gospel have helped to create a portrait of the Jewish people as “Christ-killers.”  This portrayal has come down through history, strengthening anti-Semitism, fostering prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish community, giving ammunition to bigots and manipulative politicians, and contributing to the torture and death of millions of Jews by purveyors of hatred. Surely John and the other New Testament writers, along with all the followers of Jesus to come, did not intend to unleash upon the world such defamation and horror.

“The Jews” attack Jesus for not following the [Jewish] “laws” 

  • PASSAGE: Therefore “the Jews” started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. JOHN 5:16 
  • PASSAGE: For this reason “the Jews” were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. JOHN 5:18 

PERILOUS: Nearly all the historical evidence points to Jesus as generally law-observant.  Like other Jews of his time, he seems to have entered into disputes about certain legal issues.  He had a “program” for the reform/restoration of Israel in light of the kingdom/reign of God he saw breaking in, and the Pharisees, among others, had a different program.  They may well have argued about the interpretation of points of the Law.  Further, Jesus seems to have been convinced that following him, or accepting the “in-breaking” reign of God, was more important than some stipulations of the Law.

The fact is much, perhaps most, of the disputes about the Law in the gospels date from after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE/AD), long after Jesus’ death.   After the destruction of Jerusalem, the issue facing Judaism was how to re-constitute itself without the Temple (and, later, the land).  The Pharisees and their successors, the rabbis, argued that strict observance of the Law, especially in the home and family, was the key.  The followers of Jesus, still largely Jewish, argued that accepting the messiahship of Jesus was the way to a “true” Judaism.  Therefore, the disputes about “the Law,” were primarily between the followers of Jesus and other Jews, and tend to be overstated in regard to Jesus’ own feelings on this subject.

These passages also call into question the “generalization” of “the Jews,” when it was surely only certain Jewish leaders who would have been the antagonists in the above texts.

“The Jews” are Sons (and daughters) of the Devil

  • PASSAGE: “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” JOHN 8:44
  • PASSAGE: “Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.” JOHN 8:47

PERILOUS: The founders of Christianity were confronted with the fact that the Jews, merely by continuing to be Jews, threatened the legitimacy of the Church, which claimed to be the “true” Judaism.  The existence of Judaism and the Jews challenged the validity of the Church thus the Church had to deny the validity of Judaism and the Jews.  The Church had to deal with this challenge in a strategic and effective manner; the editors of the New Testament could not just frame a simple historical narration of the opposition to Jesus.
The Jews, not their arguments, had to be permanently discredited.  Thus, the New Testament created the most often repeated Christian accusation against the Jews: the Jew’s killed Jesus and thus the Jew, every Jew, in all generations is a “Christ-killer”. With these charges of deicide and collusion with the Devil, the early Church put the Jew, rather than itself, on the theological, not to mention moral and ultimately physical, defensive.

Parents of a formerly blind person fear “the Jews”

  • PASSAGE:  “They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees” JOHN 9:13
  • PASSAGE: “So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.” JOHN 9:15
  • PASSAGE: “Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight . . .” JOHN 9:18
  • PASSAGE: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue .” JOHN 9:22

PERILOUS: The reading states that the formerly blind man’s parents “were afraid of the Jews” (John 9:22). But, the parents themselves were Jews. Therefore, it seems most probable that John, in this concocted narrative, is using the term “the Jews” in a specific way, not to refer to Jews in general (as this would have included the parents themselves), but rather to mean a particular set of religious officials who had become, at the time the gospel was written, the principal adversaries of the Jesus movement.

People who read the Bible or listen to readings in church, probably would not make this distinction. Not only might they draw the conclusion that all Jews at the time were people  to be feared, they may also make that giant leap to assign blame to modern day Jews.  This cannot have been what Jesus would have wanted. 

More passages indicting “the Jews” in general

  • PASSAGE: “While some were saying, “He [Jesus] is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of “the Jews.” JOHN 7:13
  • PASSAGE: After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because “the Jews” were looking for an opportunity to kill him. JOHN 7:31
  • PASSAGE: The disciples said to him [Jesus], “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you . . . “JOHN 11:18  

PERILOUS: These passages portray “the Jews” as being so antagonistic to Jesus that they wanted to kill him.  This clearly is unjustifiable because it depicts Jesus and his disciples, who are Jews themselves, as something different from “the Jews” who want to kill Jesus.  It seems incongruous to have Jewish disciples warning their Jewish Master about Jewish antagonists, as though the former were completely separate from the latter.

Given the fact that ALL the participants in the above passages are Jews, it is most probable that John is using the term “the Jews” in a specific way, not to refer to Jews in general, but rather to mean a particular set of religious officials who had become the principal adversaries of the Jesus movement.

Additionally, the followers of Jesus, who wrote the Gospels decades after his death, may have wanted to cast blame on “the Jews” in general, as they were now separating from the Jewish people and wanted to build their “case” that the followers of Jesus had “replaced” the other Jews as God’s people.

Unfortunately, it is this tendency to see “the Jews” as a group totally alien to Jesus and his disciples that has allowed people down through history to refer to “the Jews” as “the bad guys” and Jesus and his followers as “the good guys.”  The common refrain “The Jews did it” has given anti-Semites throughout history a way to justify the persecution of Jewish people.  It is a generalization that clearly does not reflect the history at the time. 

Passages on the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus (Passion Narratives)

  • PASSAGE:  “Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people..” JOHN 18:14
  • PASSAGE: “Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death” JOHN 18:31b
  • PASSAGE: “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” JOHN 18:36
  • PASSAGE:  “After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him.” JOHN 18:38  [This is said three times, as it also appears in 19:4 and 19:6]
  • PASSAGE: “The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”JOHN19:7
  • PASSAGE: “The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”19:12
  • PASSAGE: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed.” JOHN 19:31B

PERILOUS:  All of the above passages on the arrest, trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus are perilous because they do not take into account certain historic facts.  These include:

1)    Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution. Ultimately, it was the Romans who put Jesus to death, whatever may have been the level of cooperation by some Jewish collaborators (the high priest, for example, having been appointed by the Romans at this time).

2)    The Gospel of John was written around 100 CE/AD, two  generations after the event of Jesus’ crucifixion.  The extent to which anyone at the time of its writing actually knew, in any detail, what actually happened in Jesus’ arrest and trial is highly unlikely.

3)    Further, the Gospels were written at a time when the Jesus movement was having some success among Gentiles, and far less success among Jews. But Jesus came “to the Jews,” as every recollection and every version of the story affirmed. Thus the question naturally arose, “Why have you (‘Christians’) not succeeded among the Jewish community?”  The Gospel response was largely to answer by accounting for the failure of the “mission to the Jews”
by blaming Jewish “blindness” and intransigence, which allegedly characterized the Jewish response to Jesus throughout much of his ministry and especially at his death. This inevitably colored the Gospel narratives.

4)    By the time the Gospels were taking shape, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  Many Jews, including the followers of Jesus, in large part, saw this destruction just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel saw the earlier destruction of Jerusalem (in 587 BCE) –as punishment for Jewish sin. The followers of Jesus were quick to adduce the “sin” for which Jerusalem was now again destroyed: the “rejection” (as they saw it) of Jesus by the Jews.  Thus the motivation of #3 above was reinforced.

None of these facts is intended to suggest that the whole thing was “made up.” Jesus was  crucified by the Romans, and some Jewish Temple authorities were almost certainly involved (the most likely of these were collaborators with the Romans, who were the most likely to react negatively to Jesus’ “stirring up the people” (as per Luke23:5).  However, when these passages are read without careful interpretation and an understanding of the historic facts of the time, they can strengthen anti-pathetical attitudes toward Jews in general.  This cannot have been Jesus’ intention.

Regarding the “Jewish” role in Jesus’ arrest

  • PASSAGE:  “So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.” JOHN 18:12

PERILOUS: There is no quarrel about the arrest in itself but, John’s Gospel has a significant and historically plausible Roman presence at Jesus’ arrest.  John includes a detachment (Greekspeira) of Roman soldiers as well as a Roman officer (Greek: chiliarchos: “commander-of-a-thousand”).  The two Greek words are technical Roman terms and therefore not the words of the Jewish command.   Therefore, they imply a greater role by the Romans, than by the “Jewish police.”

One of the most damaging passages in the New Testament against “the Jews”

  • PASSAGE: He [Pilate] said to the Jews, “Here is your King!”  They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”  JOHN 19:14-15

PERILOUS: Pilate is depicted here as wanting to release Jesus.  “The Jews,” however, demand his crucifixion.  “Shall I crucify your king?” asks Pilate.  The chief priests, obviously speaking for “the Jews,” responds:  “We have no king but Caesar!”  In saying this they would be rejecting both Jesus and God as their king, abandoning their role as the people of God.   We know this did not happen.