How the Contemporary English Version Avoids Anti-Judaism

by Dr. David G. Burke

In every passage of the CEV New Testament, the basic concern of  the American Bible Society’s translation team was to produce a faithful and stylistically appropriate translation of the meaning of the Greek text. One of the key results of this overarching concern for accuracy and appropriateness for contemporary users of English is a significant reduction in the number of passages where the phrase “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) can be wrongfully understood as a reference to the entire Jewish community, whether past or present.

The ABS translators are convinced that it was never the intention of any New Testament writer to perpetuate anti-Jewish sentiments which could result in discrimination against, or persecution of the Jewish community. Everyone involved was Jewish: the Jews who believed Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Jews who were faithful to the concept of a single God and the very small number of Jews working for the Roman invaders. In the numerous passages (mostly in John and Acts) where the phrase “the Jews” appears, there is evidence of differences and conflict among various segments of the Jewish people, and the Jesus movement was part of that first-century Jewish community. So to translate this phrase, “the Jews”, without nuance or note leads modern readers to see or hear it as an inclusive reference to all Jews.

The CEV makes clear that the phrase, “the Jews”, is best understood as “some Jews”, “certain Jews”, “the Jewish leaders”, or “a Jewish group.” The synoptic gospels almost never use the phrase, “the Jews”, but refer instead to a distinctive group within the Jewish community: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the zealots. In John 5, hoi Ioudaioi are clearly the Jewish leaders, and are subsequently referred to in the CEV as “they” or “the leaders.”

Where the Greek text reports that “the Jews” plotted against Jesus, there would be no one among the original audiences who would have assumed that all Jews (whether in Jerusalem, Judea, or anywhere) were involved in some sort of monolithic conspiracy, but they would have understood this to indicate that certain leaders did oppose Jesus and the movement that formed around him.

Some people not happy with contemporary translations write to say, “You are changing the words of the Bible.” We write back to assure them that no one is changing the words of the Bible in the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but that the translators seek to bring to the modem reader the meaning of these texts in the clearest possible form. Phrases such as hoi Ioudaioi are being translated in ways which are both accurate to their setting and appropriate for modern audiences who lack information about that setting.

Within the last several decades there has been more interfaith conversation between Jews and Christians, and more scholarly convergence on the early Jesus movement, the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. One small, but perhaps very significant factor in this is the role of the CEV Bible which significantly reduces the passages that have been serving the purposes of anti-Jewish hatred.

Dr. David G. Burke
Director, Dept. of Translations and Scripture Resources, American Bible Society, New York City


The Hermeneutics of Translation

By: James A Sanders

It is common place to note that there are two basic kinds of translation; formal equivalence and dynamic (or functional) equivalence. The King James Version (ICJV) of the Bible may well be the best extant example in English of a completely formal ‘equivalence translation.

The Good News Bible, and its successor, The Contemporary English Version, are good examples of dynamic equivalence translations. The focus of dynamic equivalence is to score the essential point or points of a passage in the receptor language without necessarily reflecting the original with its textual nuances.

In the case of biblical texts which purport to recount “history” there is often still a gap between what scholarship understands to be the time of the author(s) and editors of a text and the events which the text relates. How to span the gap between record and event is a constant problem for the student interested in the historical value of biblical texts.

Second Testament scholarship in the past century has convincingly made a distinction between the date of the composition of the text of the gospels and Acts, and the historical events they purport to recount.

Judaism in the period, which began in the sixth century B.C.E., was highly pluralistic, having a number of different shapes and forms, leaving a variety of Jewish literature either preserved by the early churches (such as the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, and the Second Testament) or recovered through modern archaeology (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls). What rabbinic Judaism preserved after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE was of a certain type of Judaism only.

What has become quite clear is that Jesus and all early Christians were Jews, whether by birth or by conversion. The term, Christian Jews, simply designates all early, first century Christians, whether born Jewish or converted to this particular sect of Judaism in the early first century, who believed in “the Way”. Hence the churches’ insistence in the first century on adding the gospels and Epistles onto Jewish Scripture and, then in the second century, insisting on keeping the “Old Testament” in the Christian canon.

Since it is clear that Jesus was a Jew, that all his early followers were Jewish by birth, or by conversion to a sect of Judaism, and that the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that Christian Judaism was as much a Jewish community as any other within the Jewish pluralism of the time, then the polemic within the NT against “the Jews” needs to be addressed for what it really was, instead of allowing the NT language of Christian hurt and rejection at the end of the first century to continue to color what was going on in the first half thereof If Bible translations like the NRSV can legitimately “correct” exclusion on one level, caused by the patriarchal cultural trappings in the text, they ought to be able to “correct” exclusion on the broader level, so that the text reflects what was essentially an intra-mural Jewish situation of the early first-century period. The narratives provide clear mirrors for Christians today to see their own humanity reflected in those around Jesus, instead of identifying with Jesus and dehumanizing his fellow Jews.

The real issue is whether biblical scholarship is prepared to “go public” with the truth about the crucial gap between record and event in the case of these canonical narratives of Christian origins. If we think we have arrived at that point, then we should offer historically dynamic translations or we should print in banner headlines across the top of the usual formal equivalence translations of the gospels and Acts that they were written decades after the events recounted and in a quite different situation with regard to Christianity’s Jewish origins. The present falsehood, with all the pain and damage it has for centuries caused both Christians and Jews, cannot in good conscience be permitted to continue.

James A Sanders
President of The Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center
Emeritus Prof of Biblical Studies
Claremont School of Theology, California

Challenging the Curse on the Chosen Ones

by Barclay Newman

Unfortunately, the Jewish people have suffered twenty centuries of defamation and persecution because of what is wrongfully understood to have been said about them in the same New Testament that also affirms: “Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us” (CEV, Ephesians 2:14).

In this brief article, which is a condensed form of a seminar I recently conducted by this same title, I wish to challenge this Curse on the Chosen Ones!

The Chosen Ones

Assuming all people have a common ancestor, how does “favored nation status” arise? The Genesis writer answers this question through the accounts of Noah and His Family (9:18-29) and The Table of Nations (10:1-32). In essence, these reports represent what may be defined as either “monkey-tail” or “elephant-trunk” theology, in that they put nations “in their place” by explaining how each nation somehow reflects the traits of its ancestor in the generation following “righteous” Noah, who was apparently ignorant of the intoxicating effects of the juice from the grapes that he was the first to grow  (9:20-21).

While Noah was lying drunk in the privacy of his own tent, his youngest son Ham (9:24) entered and probably committed some much more heinous wrong against his father than voyeurism. As a result, Noah placed a curse on Ham’s son Canaan (9:25), the ancestor of the Egyptians and of the Canaanites (see 10:6; Psalm 78:51; 105:23, 27; 106:22), who would ultimately become Israel’s supreme enemies in the biblical scheme of events.

On the other hand, the Lord is highly praised because of the virtuous behavior of Noah’s son Shem (9:26), the ancestor of Abraham (11:27), and both Shem and Japheth are promised power over Canaan’s descendants (9:26-27). In Genesis 10, the Shemites are given prominence, first by tracing Shem’s descendants to the sixth generation (10:21-31; 11:10-32) and those of Ham (10:6-20) and Japheth (10:2-5) to only the third generation, and second by reversing the order of presentation, making it possible to climax the genealogical accounts with God’s call of Abraham, the father of the Chosen Ones (12:1-3).

And so it is that theological presuppositions determine the historical perspective from which both individuals and nations are judged within the framework of Genesis-and, indeed, throughout the entirety of the biblical account, as may be seen in the evaluation of the Israelite kings in the books of Kings and of Chronicles, according to their perceived obedience or disobedience to the Lord.

The Curse on the Chosen Ones

From a cursory reading of the New Testament, it has often been concluded that an eternal curse has somehow been placed upon the Chosen Ones, who are now reduced from “favored nation status” to that of God’s supreme enemies, because of their rejection of Jesus Christ both during his lifetime and in the earliest days of the Christian Church. Nothing could be further from the truth!

This is not to deny the reality of sometimes fierce conflicts between the first Christians-who were themselves Jews, including Jesus himself-and certain other segments of the Jewish Community of that time. But it is a reminder that the New Testament writers were no less preju¬dicial in their presentations than are the Genesis accounts of Noah and his descendants, including God’s choice of Abraham. Indeed, whenever the phrase the Jews is used of the opponents of Jesus in the New Testament, it means at the very most some of the Jews of that time and place! Moreover, the cumulative effect of repeating the Jews with negative connotations within the overall canonical context of a New Testament is far more dangerous to truth than the appearance of the phrase would have been within the original setting of the individual books themselves. In effect, this means that a literal translation both generates and perpetuates a hostile environment today that contradicts the overall message of the New Testament itself.

Challenging the Curse on the Chosen Ones

“Monkey-Tail Theology” by which history is explained in terms of theological presuppositions must be recognized for what it is, whether in the Old or New Testament, and it must be dealt with accordingly. As indicated in an earlier article (Making Peace Between Jews and Gentiles,” Explorations Volume 10, Number 1, 1996, pp. 7-8) [included above], it is possible to put things in proper perspective in some New Testament passages simply by translating the Jews of the Greek text as either some of the Jews or the Jewish leaders or some of the Jewish leaders, which would then be followed by the pronouns they and them, in keeping with acceptable English style.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which Bible translation must give way to Bible transformation, which I personally define as the application of what is known about God through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Living Word, to the understanding of the Written Word, especially as regards matters of race, gender and social status. These collected writings that we call Sacred Scripture become Word of God only to the extent that the message they communicate, whether directly or indirectly, is consonant with the forgiveness, acceptance and love revealed in a God who sacrifices self for the redemption of all humanity.

Dr. Barclay M. Newman
Senior Translations Officer American Bible Society New York City

Making Peace Between Jews and Gentiles

by Barclay M. Newman

Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles and He has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us… On the cross Christ did away with our hatred for each other. He also made peace between us and God by uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body. (Ephesians 2.14, 16: Contemporary English Version)

“The Jews”

Jesus was a Jew. Peter was a Jew. Paul was a Jew. The disciples were Jews. The apostles were Jews. The first Christians were Jews. Nicodemus was a Jewish leader (John 3.1).

Yet the frequent appearance of the Jews in negative contexts of the New Testament has led some readers to wrongly conclude that the Christian Scriptures speak of two categories of people — Christians and Jews, the “good guys” and the “bad guys?’ But nothing could be further from the truth.

In most of the New Testament the Jews is best understood to mean “the other Jews” or “some of the Jews” or “a few of the Jews” or “the Jewish leaders” or “some of the Jewish leaders” or “a few of the Jewish leaders.” Never does it refer to the nation as a whole. Above all else, to assume that every generation of Jewish people should be held responsible for the death of Jesus is without historical foundation. It was Pontius Pilate — the Roman Governor — who sentenced Jesus to death! And those men who nailed Jesus to a cross were Roman soldiers!

“Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us” (Ephesians 2.14) stands as a witness against those who would use any portion of the New Testament as a weapon of warfare for inciting anti-Jewish sentiments. To do so is to deny the efficacy of the work of Christ, as well as the overall message of the New Testament itself. Those New Testament accounts of early conflicts between “Jesus Jews” and “the (other) Jews” should not be distorted into justification for racial hatred today. And a truly faithful translation of the New Testament requires that the translator should constantly seek ways in which false impressions may be minimized and hatred overcome.

In every passage of the CEV New Testament, the basic concern was to produce a faithful and stylistically appropriate translation of the meaning of the Greek text. As a result of this overriding concern for accuracy and style, there are fewer passages in the CEV where the phrase “the Jews” can be wrongfully understood as a reference to the entirety of the Jewish community, whether past or present.

Whole … Part

Obviously any negative reference to “the Jews” in the New Testament cannot include the totality of the Jewish community, since the followers of Jesus are themselves Jews. So it becomes the responsibility of the interpreter-translator to determine precisely who is intended in any given passage. Sometimes this task is easy; sometimes it is difficult. What follows is merely a sampling of places from the Gospel of John where “the Jews” is represented by some term that indicates only part of them. In verses where “the people” occurs in the CEV, it was felt that the context clearly implies that these are Jewish people. In other contexts “Jewish” seemed a necessary modifier.

(a) John 1.19-20: “The leaders in Jerusalem.

(b) John 2.18: “The Jewish leaders asked Jesus …”

(c) John 10.19: “The people took sides”

(d) John 11.54: “Stopped going around in public” (= “openly among the Jews”)

(e) John 18.12: “… the temple police” (= “the Jewish officials”)

(f) John 18.31: “The crowd replied …”

A few other passages outside the Gospel of John that fall into this same category are:

(a) Acts 25.2: “… some Jewish leaders.

(b) Acts 25.7: “… the leaders from Jerusalem …”

(c) Acts 26.7: “… some of their leaders.

(d) Acts 26.21: ” … some men grabbed me …”

(e) Romans 3.2-3: “… the Jews … some of them …”


Flow of the Narrative

Good English style requires that persons be first identified fully, then in lesser degree (often by pronouns) throughout the remainder of the narrative, and this attention to matters of stylistic detail resulted in fewer negative references to “the Jews” in CEV. Once again, a few pas¬sages from the Gospel of John:

(a) John 2.18, 20: “The Jewish leaders … the leaders …”

(b) John 5.10, 15, 16, 18: “the Jewish leaders…  the leaders … They … the leaders.

(c) John 6.4, 41, 52: “… the Jewish festival … The people . . . They.

(d) John 9.18, 22 (twice): “… the Jewish leaders … their leaders. The leaders. ..”


Explicit … Implicit

Certain passages where the Jews occurs in the Greek text require a more delicate touch than others.  In the translation of the CEV, some of these more sensitive passages were:

(a) Matthew 28.15. Here the Greek text has “this story has been spread among the Jews until this day.” But in Mark 1.5 and John 3.22, the phrase “land of the Jews” (more literally “the Jew[ish] land”) is equivalent to “Judea.” And so in the CEV this verse has been rendered: “The people of Judea still tell each other this story.”

(b) Acts 15.11. In translating “But our Lord Jesus was kind to us Jews,” the reference to “Jews” is left implicit” in the CEV: “But our Lord Jesus was kind to us.” This is legitimate, because the apostle Peter is speaking on behalf of the Jerusalem church, and “us” clearly contrasts with “Gentiles” in the same verse.

(c) Acts 21.20: “Many thousands of the Jewish people” becomes “many thousand of our people.” Here the context is once again the church in Jerusalem, and the speakers are Jews.

(d) Romans 11.14: “my fellow Jews” (more literally “people of the same flesh”) is “my own people.”

(e) 2 Corinthians 11.24, 26: The Greek text reads “Five times the Jews gave me thirty-nine lashes with a whip,” which is translated, “Five times my own people gave me thirty- nine lashes with a whip” and is in some respects even more effectual than a literal rendering. Similar is Verse 26, where “I have been in danger from rivers, robbers, Jews, and foreigners” becomes “I have been in danger from rivers, robbers, my own people, and foreigners.”

(F) Galatians 2.13: In light of “Jewish followers” (Verse 12), it was unnecessary to use “Jews” again in Verse 13, (Greek: “the other Jews”), and so in the CEV it is simply “the others.”

(g) 1 Thessalonians 2.14-15: In Greek “the Jews” are mentioned only in Verse 14, but restructuring for clarity of pronominal references is difficult to accomplish for the average reader. However, this passage reads as follows in the CEV “14And so, you were mistreated by your own people, in the same way that they were mistreated by their people. “Those evil people killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets… They keep us from speaking …” By this restructuring the reference is clear, but “the Jews” are left implicit.

(h) Revelation 2.9, 3.19: These two may be listed together, since the subject matter is essentially the same. The phrase under consideration is “who claim to be Jews.” It was felt that the real force of these words could be both faithfully and forcefully rendered as “who claim to be God’s people.”

“Jewish Meeting Place”

Although synagogue is a fairly well-known word, it is almost impossible to “sound out” by persons unfamiliar with biblical jargon, and so it is not used in the Contemporary English Version (CEV). Instead, the Greek word is translated “Jewish meeting place” or “Jewish meeting,” depending upon the context. This means the “Jewish” could possibly occur more often in the CEV than in some other translations, but not in contexts where it is likely to incite anti-Jewish sentiments. For example, Mark 1.21, 23 is translated as follows:

Jesus and his disciples went to the town of Capemaum. Then on the next Sabbath he went into the Jewish meeting place and started teaching… Suddenly a man with an evil spirit in him entered the meeting place…

To have translated “meeting place” instead of “Jewish meeting place” following the mention of “Capernaum” in Verse 21 would have suggested to the uninitiated reader a town meeting of some sort. On the other hand, “meeting place” is all that is necessary in Verse 23, because it obviously refers back to the previously mentioned “Jewish meeting place.” Here — as in other places in the Gospels where “synagogue” is mentioned — it was felt that the use of “(Jewish) meeting place” in no way implied anything negative about the Jewish community of Jesus’ day. In fact, it reminds the reader that Jesus himself was a devout Jew, who regularly attended synagogue.


Barclay M. Newman
Senior Translations Officer, American Bible Society

A Plea for Paraphrase

By Joseph Bailey

I am a Professor of New Testament in the diocesan seminary. Last year when the students went home for spring break I went to Vail, Colorado, for some spring skiing. On Good Friday afternoon we came down off the mountain to attend the liturgy at the Vail chapel. Still in ski togs we were ushered to the front pew where copies of the Paluch Missalette were put in our hands. We were invited to participate in the reading of the Passion according to St. John. As usual in such cases the celebrant read the words of Jesus, a lay reader took the role of narrator, and the congregation took the vari¬ous other voices. Thus we all joined “the Jews” in crying out “Away with him, crucify him.” My inner impulse was to stand up and say “No!” I honestly felt manipulated and was ashamed that the lay people who filled the chapel did not feel the same way. This was an emotional moment.

In later reflection I recalled my first experience of the Good Friday Passion as a college student back in the 40’s. Back then the entire text was sung in Latin by the three priests, with the celebrant taking the Jesus words in a bass-baritone, the narrator a shrill tenor and the third somewhere in between. When the latter sang “Crucifige eum” it was solemn, lugubrious and unemotional. I was moved more by the performance than by the words in the context.

It seems to me that we must restore some of that emotional distance. And obviously we cannot do that by returning to the Latin. The text used in the Missalette by Roman Catholics is that of the NAB lectionary. If changes are to be made they must be made in the lectionary. Sad to say we cannot depend on informed catechesis by the homilist (I am thinking of the Catholic priest who presides). In spite of the forthright statement on Jewish culpability in the death of

Christ as set forth in Nostra Aetate and the specific instructions in the follow- up “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church”, June 24, 1985, the average homilist is not sufficiently equipped or motivated to provide such explanations. We need to make changes in the text itself. And here we are back at the dilemma of paraphrase. Can we even dare to consider the alternative of paraphrase?

Paraphrase is looked upon by many as a dirty word, associated only with such versions as The Living Bible. So we have invented the current catch-word “dynamic equivalency.” No matter what you call it, the effort made in the revisions of both the NRSV and the NAB is really para-phrase. We are by no means finished with paraphrase yet. We still have to face up to the application of inclusive language to the deity in both testaments. J.A. Sanders amusingly points out that the task force on the NRSV “weighed the problems involved and decided that the NRSV might simply not be used in most churches if inclusive language for God were attempted.” (p. 56 in Removing the Anti- Judaism from the New Testament, ed. by Howard Clark Kee and Irvin J. Borowsky)

This should make us realize that the problems with biblical language are often the creation of the Christian community itself. A much greater fluidity in translation is evident in the versions before the fourth century, before the fixation of the church with the concept of divine inspiration. Calling the Bible “the Word of God,” as we address it in our liturgies, has only added to the problem of its immutability. For that reason the Dutch exegete Lucas Grollenberg has called for a moratorium on the expression: “One of the expressions which, as I see it, must be avoided is this – the Bible is the word of God.” (p. 170, Bible Study for the Twenty- first Century) Connotations override denotations.

We simply cannot avoid the moral imperative of addressing this problem now. The problem of inclusive Ianguage pales beside it. As Lloyd Gaston put it twenty years ago, we are on the horns of a nasty dilemma: “A Christian Church with an anti-Semitic New Testament is abominable. A Christian Church without a New Testament is inconceivable. It may be that the Church will survive if we fail to deal adequately with that question but more serious is the question whether the Church ought to survive.” (p. 48, Anti-Semitism and the Foundations of Christianity, ed. Alan T. Davies) Norman Beck in Mature Christianity (p. 34) is even more forthright: “Are we willing to take the risks involved in a drastic repudiation of a portion of the New Testament, namely its anti- Jewish polemic?” Repudiation is a strong word. Paraphrase is mild by comparison.

Just at this moment when we are preparing to launch a new lectionary in the Catholic Church it may not be opportune to start talking about paraphrase. But recalling the number of years it has taken to adopt inclusive language, a beginning must be made soon. If Jules Isaac had not seized the moment and gone personally to Pope John )0UB we probably would not have the conciliar document known as Nostra Aetate.

The urgency of the problem is emphasized by the instruction just sent out by the U.S. Catholic Conference on the use of the new lectionary. In answer to the question, May a read¬er change the text in proclamation? The instruction says: “No. Just as the Church is obliged to faithfully pro¬claim the Bible as it is passed on, the reader is obliged to faithfully proclaim the text exactly as it appears in the Lectionary for Mass. The homily is the proper place to explain biblical texts which are unclear or appear to be inconsistent with contemporary sew activities. We can never change the Bible because it is the Word of God.”

Msgr. Joseph Bailey
Msgr. Bailey is a Catholic priest, ordained in 1943. He studied at the Catholic University of America, and later at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

No Jews or Christians in the Bible

Dr. John J. Pilch
Professor of Scripture, Georgetown University, Washington, DC

The Hebrew word, Yehudim, and the Greek word, Ioudaioi, should be properly translated in Judean. The contemporary English word, Jew, is not appropriate. Shaye Cohen and Jacob Neusner remind us that contemporary Jewish beliefs and practices are rooted in the formation of the Talmud of the sixth century CE, a process that began with the compilation of the Mishna (around 90 CE). Some con-temporary practices, like the bar/bat mitzvah, have no’ root in the Hebrew Bible or in biblical times.

It is equally anachronistic to speak of Christians in the biblical period. It is clear from Acts 11:26 that the name “Christians” was given to the group by outsiders, and in Acts 26:28 the outsider, Agrippa, uses it in a mocking sense. In 1 Peter 4:16-17, it appears again with a plainly pejorative meaning best translated as “Christ-lackeys.” Thus in biblical times and texts there existed neither “Jews” nor “Christians” as these terms are understood and used today.

Contemporary scholars propose three terms to describe the past in accord with a major, three fold division of Jewish history.

1. Israelites is the term most appropriate for the period of the first Temple (950 BCE to 586 BCE). The country is known as Israel. The religious beliefs and practices of the people of this period are properly called Israelite religion, whether political, with the Temple as its focal point (see Leviticus), or domestic, centered on ancestry rooted in burial in the family grave (Gen 49:29-33).

2. Judeans is the term most appropriate for the period of the Second Temple (520 BCE to 70 CE). The country is called Judea and its condensed from Hervormde Teologiese Studies inhabitants are called Judeans. The religion is properly called Judaic.

3. Jews is the term most appropriate for the period of Rabbinic Judaism (6th century CE Babylonian Talmud beginning perhaps as early as 90 CE—the date of the reputed gathering of the so called Council of Jamnia—and continuing to the present day). The religion of this period is currently termed “normative Judaism” which derived from Pharisaic scribalism and became the foundation of contemporary Jewish belief and practice. In the modern day, the terms Jewish religion, Jewish beliefs, etc., are most appropriate but cannot and should not be retrojected into the Bible which belongs to the previous two periods.

Insiders and Outsiders

Anthropologists observe how people distinguish between in-groups and out-groups, insiders and outsiders. This distinction is very useful in understanding the terminology, “Judean” proposed for the Second Temple period.

Insiders generally referred to themselves as the “people of Israel” (e.g., Ezra 2:1; 3:1; etc.) or as members of “the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6). Israel was an in-group name (see John 1:47). Fellow ethnics who mocked Jesus called him “King of Israel” (Matt 27:42). The whole house of Israel was one big in-group, even though its boundaries were fluid and always shifting.

The first century “house of Israel” in-group recognized three geographical divisions: Judea, Perea (land east of or across the Jordan), and Galilee. The people of each area represented three in-groups within the overall in-group of the house of Israel: Judeans, Pereans and Galileans. What they had in common was birth into one people (“house of Israel”) and allegiance to the Jerusalem Temple. From this in-group perspective, Jesus the Galilean was put to death by outsiders (Romans) at the instigation of some Judeans.

The in-group name also applied to emigres living in various colonies outside the country as well as members of the house of Israel born outside the country. Paul of Tarsus commonly identified himself as a Hebrew or Israelite (2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5; Rom 11:1).

Jesus was not a Judean, yet the title placed upon his cross read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans” (Matt 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). In John, Jesus’ opponents know full well he is a Galilean, but they do not ask Pilate to change “king of Judeans” to “king of Galileans.” They ask only to indicate that Jesus made such a claim.

Outsiders, such as the Romans, called the entire land Judea and all its inhabitants Judeans. Outsiders justified this global term for the entire country and all its inhabitants as well as those with ethnic roots here but living elsewhere because they all affirmed allegiance to the God of Israel whose Temple was in Jerusalem, which was in Judea. Jesus’ fellow ethnic opponents accept the outsider identification, and so did Paul (Acts 22:3; Gal 2:15) who identified himself accordingly.

The house of Israel similarly lumped all outsiders into a large group called non-Israel or “the nations” (Hebrew goyim; Greek ethne, English “gentiles”), ignoring all distinctions. People were similarly lumped together as “Greeks” or “Hellenes” and their typical behavior described as “Hellenism.” Such stereotyping is normal for group-centered cultures (who judge by insider-outsider perspectives) such as those reflected in the Bible. More than 90% of the world’s contemporary cultures are group-centered or collectivistic in perspective. No wonder understanding the Bible is a special challenge for those reared and living in individualistic cultures.

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.