“The Jews” in John’s Gospel

On Sunday, I promised a fuller discussion of the use of the term “the Jews” in the Gospel According to John. Here it is. What follows is a lightly edited and expanded section from my seminary thesis on the “Fourth Gospel,” which my outside reader, the truly wonderful Brian McLaren, encouraged me to include in the final manuscript. Previous to the inclusion of this section, I had footnoted the use of the term “the Jews,” but back in 2008 Brian rightly identified it as more important than a mere footnote.

After the turmoil in Charlottesville, VA where white supremacists were heard chanting anti-Semitic slogans, I now have firsthand knowledge as to why Brian urged me to add it to the final draft. To all my Jewish friends, please know I stand with you in denouncing the hateful and disturbing rhetoric of those white nationalists, Klan members, and neo-Nazis, whom you have been attacked by for years and years, but to whom many of us Christians are only now and belatedly waking up. For not speaking out sooner, I seek your forgiveness.

Perhaps the most difficult word to interpret in the Gospel according to John translates into English as “the Jews.” The Greek word Ioudaios appears more often in John than in the other three accounts of the Gospel combined. The term is used in multiple ways to identify various groups of people in the text. The memory of centuries of Christian misunderstanding and persecution of the Jewish people lives in the hearts and minds of modern Jews and Christians. The combination of prevalence, variety, and memory makes a faithful interpretation of Ioudaios both challenging and necessary. A blanket understanding of the term is insufficient, so the text calls the sensitive reader to the complex task of deciding in each case just whom the narrator is talking about.

First of all, identifying a certain group of people in the Gospel as “the Jews” is like going to Boston and saying: “The Red Sox fans are taking the Green Line to Kenmore Square.” The city is chock full of Sox fans—which ones are taking public transportation? Likewise, everyone in the Gospel is Jewish—even Jesus. (Well, almost everyone: the Samaritans in Chapter 4, the Greeks who make a cameo in Chapter 12, and the Roman occupiers are not.) Jesus was not the first Christian, and it was several generations before Jewish followers of Jesus stopped identifying themselves as Jewish. Second, scholars point out that the term Ioudaios can mean both “Jews” and “Judeans.” The latter identifies the people who live in the region of Judea, much like people who live in Texas call themselves Texans.

So, when does John speak of Jews and when does he speak of Judeans? When he speaks of Jews, which group is he talking about? Again, there is no blanket interpretation, but the majority of the uses of “the Jews” identify Jesus’ opponents. They are said to seek Jesus’ life (5:18; 7:1), people would not speak openly about Jesus for fear of them (7:13), and they pick up stones to stone Jesus (8:59; 10:31). They also bring Jesus to Pilate (18:28) and clamor for Jesus’ crucifixion (19:15). These actions of the people the narrator identifies as “the Jews” have been used disgracefully for centuries to justify Christian anti-Semitism. Such a misreading is due to the fact that anti-Semites enlarge the group the narrator talks about to include the entire Jewish people, not just the people who butted heads with Jesus. For example, I’m sure you have heard Christians castigate “the Jews who killed Jesus,” an erroneous and extremely divisive misunderstanding of the Gospel. Yes, Jesus’ opponents are often identified as “the Jews” in the Gospel according to John, but that in no way validates Christian persecution or discrimination against Jews either in history or today.

To make matters more confusing, not every usage of “the Jews” identifies these opponents. “The Jews” comfort Mary and Martha after Lazarus’s death (11:31). Many of them believe in Jesus after the raising of Lazarus (11:45), a great crowd of them comes to see Jesus (12:9), and this crowd mingles with those at the festival who welcome his humble, yet triumphant entry into Jerusalem (12:17). “The Jews” are divided in 10:19-21. Some think he has a demon, while others disagree: “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

Written at a time of painful unrest as the new Christian movement was breaking away from its Jewish roots, the Gospel according to John often places the turmoil of its writers into its narrative. This is best seen in John 9, where a man born blind, to whom Jesus gives sight, takes center stage. In this chapter, especially in the argument between the man and the leaders of the synagogue, we catch a glimpse of the late first century community who wrote the Gospel.

Especially following the Roman destruction of the temple in 70 CE, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Jews who were convinced that the Messiah had not yet come began dissociating themselves from one another. As the years passed, the rift between these two groups widened until the Jewish followers of Jesus stopped identifying themselves as Jews altogether. Throughout the Gospel according to John, which was probably written in the final decade of the first century, the tension between these two groups swims just beneath the surface of the text, even though the events described happened more than half a century before.

The picture that forms by reading the subtext of Chapter 9 is one of a community seeking to differentiate itself from the Jewish communities who do not confess Jesus to be the Messiah. The arguments and turmoil that ensued from this differentiation led the Johannine community to export its connotation of “the Jews” from its own time and place, where the division between the community and the neighboring synagogue was a present reality. The writers sought to place Jesus’ message into their own context and some anachronistic conflation results, the most blatant of which is the shorthand use of the term “the Jews.” Indeed, in Chapter 9, there is clear confusion as to whom the man born blind is conversing. The conflation is odd: first they are identified as the Pharisees, but five verses later morph into “the Jews.” Sadly and unconscionably, such usage has led to a bloody history of Christians demonizing, marginalizing, and killing our Jewish brothers and sisters.

When you read “the Jews” in the text of the Gospel, several layers of interpretive imagination are necessary as you ask yourself a series of questions. First, what makes this group of Jews different from the Jewish people as a whole? Second, how does the outlook of the writers of the Gospel influence this characterization of “the Jews?” Third, what authentic motivations (tradition, understanding of God, adherence to the Law, etc) do Jesus’ opponents possess as they converse with him? Fourth, how has this usage of “the Jews” affected Christian behavior toward our Jewish neighbors in history and today?

The sensitive reader must grapple with these questions when he or she sits down with the Gospel according to John. The Gospel is not anti-Semitic, but there is ample opportunity for those who are to bend the text to their hateful interpretation. It’s up to us to bend it back.

4 thoughts on ““The Jews” in John’s Gospel

  1. This is an excellent explanation of the use of the phrase “the Jews”. I wish this were taught universally!
    Would you consider sending an editorial piece to our local newspapers?

  2. Another point is that in the Old Testament, the people are represented by their leadership. So often “the Romans” is a metonym for the “Roman rulers”, “Jews” stands for the “Jewish leaders”.

    Even if we set aside the quite obvious fact that Jesus was actually killed by the Roman authorities, no gentile (Christian or otherwise) has any standing to assign blame in this. After all, the Jewish people don’t go around looking back 2000 years to figure out if any gentiles contributed to the death of one of their own in an unfair way!

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