Was the author of John’s Gospel Jewish? No other New Testament writing has been accused more often of an anti-Judaic thrust than the Gospel of John.  Its ambiguous replacement theme, its pointed arguments with individual Jews, and its attack against the religious position of Judaism all reflect the polemical stance of the Fourth Evangelist.

Scholars are intrigued by the Johannine use of “the Jews,” particularly because of the striking number of times it is used in John (seventy times) as compared to the sixteen occurrences (Mark, six, Matthew, five; Luke, five) in the Synoptic.  They also recognize that more than half the seventy occurrences of “hoi Ioudaioi” (the Jews) in the Fourth Gospel do convey a negative attitude.  Reading the Gospel of John, one is confronted, not only by the frequency of the refrain “the Jews,” but also by a drastically different meaning mediated by that refrain.  It is John's negative use of “the Jews” that demands investigation. The immediate impression conveyed by “the Jews” is one of unreceptively and hostility toward Jesus.  According to John, “the Jews:”

Question and misunderstand Jesus' words (John 2.18,20; 6.52; 7.35; 8.22);

They murmur at him (6.41);

They disbelieve him (9.18; 11.37);

They desire to put Jesus to death (5.16,18; 7.1) and even attempt to do so with their own hands (John 8.59; 10.31; 11.8).

In the Gospel of John the enemies of Jesus are simply labeled “the Jews.”  Unfortunately, this identification is so complete that the author almost forgets that Jesus himself and his disciples were members of the same Jewish people. Rudolf Bultmann remarks: “The Jews are spoken of as an alien people. Jesus himself speaks to them as a stranger and correspondingly, those in whom the stirrings of faith or the search for Jesus are to be found are distinguished from ‘the Jews,’ even if they are themselves Jews” (7.19; 8.17; 10.34, 7.22). “The Jews” conveys not only the degenerate nature of the enemies of Jesus but also the negation of the Jewish religion.  In John 5, for instance, the Johannine Jesus addresses “the Jews:”

"His voice you have never heard ... and do not have his word hiding in you... You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life ... but I know that you have not the love of God within you. If you believed Moses, you would believe me ... But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? (John 5.37-47, RSV)

A key issue regarding John's usage of “the Jews” is the question of their identity.  Who is this group of people who hate Jesus and are responsible for the organized opposition against him?  Raymond Brown answers, in the Anchor Bible, “In general, the Fourth Gospel uses “the Jews”as almost a technical title for the religious authorities, particularly those in Jerusalem who are hostile to Jesus.”

The term “the Jews” often functions in John the same as the religious authorities―the Pharisees, scribes, elders, chief priests and Sadducees―do in the Synoptic Gospels (John 18.28-31 and Mark 15.1; John 2.18 and Mark 11.27-18). Dominic Crossan agrees: "'The Jews" is most often restricted to mean precisely those forces in authority inimical to Jesus. He concludes that “to accept it otherwise involves numerous contradictions in the text.”

Nearly all biblical scholars extend the historical meaning of “the Jews” to include the Jewish authorities of John's own day.  Thus, John indicates by this term that “the Jews” of his own time are the spiritual descendants of the Jewish authorities who were hostile to Jesus during the ministry. 

Yet, to reduce the polemical meaning of “the Jews” to the Jewish authorities of either Jesus' or John's time is to miss the numerous ambiguities, the confusion of roles, and ultimately the anti-Judaic bias that permeates the Gospel of John.

Like Brown and Crossan, Reginald Fuller acknowledges a group of occurrences of “hoi Ioudaioi” which are reminiscent of the conflict stories in the Synoptic.  In these, “the Jews” take issue with Jesus for performing healings on the Sabbath (John 5.10,15,16)―a role usually played by the Pharisees or scribes in the other gospels.  However, Fuller points out that in some of John's conflict stories the opponents are actually named as “Pharisees” at the beginning of the passage, but  as the hostility increases they significantly become “hoi Ioudaioi” (9.13 and 18ff; 8.13 and 22ff).  He remarks:

“This shift from the ‘Pharisees’ to 'Ioudaioi' shows clearly that the picture of hostility was rooted in the pre-Johannine tradition and that it is the Evangelist who redefined the opponents of Jesus as 'Ioudaioi.'

By the time of the passion narrative, 'the crowd is always the 'Ioudaioi' and it is always hostile.'  In replacing the 'crowds' of his source with his polemical terminology, 'the Jews,' John indicts all the Jewish people - not just the authorities - for their hostility toward Jesus.”

To concentrate all exegetical efforts upon determining the historical identity of “the Jews” in John is to disregard the Evangelist's intention. He cares little for individual identities; in fact, through his usage of “the Jews” he intentionally obscures all identities and inflicts indiscriminate hostility upon all Jews - both of Jesus' time and of his own. For John, the opponents of Jesus and of Christianity are 'the Jews.'

Many scholars recognize that “the Jews” functions symbolically throughout John's Gospel and that it can only be understood in relation to the Johannine meaning of “the world.” For John, “the world” is a symbol that represents the realm of unbelief; it is the realm of darkness whose head is the devil, the prince of the world (12.31; 14.30; 16.11). “The world” hates Jesus and his disciples (15.18-19, 17.14-16); it does not know Jesus (1.10) or the father (17.25); when Jesus departs, the world will be glad (16.20). In the fourth Gospel, “the world” is the totality of all that is not of God.

For John, “the Jews” are inextricably bound to “the world.”  Like the world, “the Jews” are “from below;” they do not know the Father and have never heard his voice nor seen his face; they do not believe in the one whom he sent (5.37-38).  Kysar reflects on “the Jews” as a symbol: 'Those human beings ... who cling to their pride in themselves―those human beings who cannot accept that self-understanding presented in the Revelation of God in Christ - these are the persons represented in the symbol 'the Jews.

The anti-Jewish stance of the Fourth Gospel is exemplified in the portrayal of the Jewish people as enemies of the truth, as persons devoid of spiritual insight (3.1-7) - and, ultimately, as spawn of the devil.  This portrayal is mediated through the Johannine use of “the Jews”― a polemical device which John uses both intentionally and indiscriminately to indict all opponents of Jesus and Christianity.

The indictment: the anti-Semitic potential of “the Jews.” "All the learned exegesis in the world cannot negate the truth that there are elements not only of anti-Judaism, but also of anti-Semitism in the New Testament (A. Roy Eckardt, The Encounter of Jews and Christians). Many scholars, in attempting to deal with the anti-Judaism that permeates the Fourth Gospel, have not come to terms with the theological sources of John's polemic.



Janis E. Leibig, "John and The Jews: Theological Anti-Semitism in the Fourth Gospel"