Theological Anti-Semitism In The Fourth Gospel

By Janis E. Leibig


The Jews: a critical investigation

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.” They note 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 Synoptics.  They also recognize that; while the Synoptic occurrences do not reflect in any negative way upon “the Jews,” more than half the seventy occurrences of “hoi Ioudaioi” in the Fourth Gospel do convey a negative, polemical attitude.  The reader 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 polemical usage of “the Jews” which demands investigation.

The immediate impression conveyed by “the Jews” is one of unreceptivity and hostility toward Jesus.  “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 (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.’”

Fuller regards this definition of opponents as a polemical device which extends the condemnation beyond the religious authorities.

That “the Jews” cannot simply be identified with the religious authorities is further substantiated by passages in which a similar polemical shift is operative―i.e. from “ochlos” (or “ochloi”) to “hoi Ioudaioi.”  This is exemplified in the Bread of Life discourse where Jesus’ opponents start out as a crowd demanding a sign (6.30), but by vs. 41 (cf 52), they have become “the Jews.”  The term “ochlos” occurs through 12.34 and often vacillates between hostility and friendliness to Jesus, a vacillation which Fuller believes was part of the pre-Johannine tradition.  Yet, the Evangelist has increasingly chosen after 10.19 to substitute “Ioudaioi” for the “ochlos” of his tradition.  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,” tout court.

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 which 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 (cf 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 1973, 126) 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.

While one can explain the historical circumstances which influenced John’s treatment of “the Jews,” one cannot exonerate him from the ultimate responsibility of producing “a written compilation of clearly expressed anti-Jewish sentiments.”

The “anti-Semitic potential” of the Fourth Gospel is sometimes obscured by scholars who believe that a careful reading of the context of these hostile references reveal that the Evangelist does not mean “the Jews” in general, but only the authorities; for them, the “context” protects the Evangelist and the Gospel against an “anti-Semitic potential.”  The ecumenist Roy Eckardt responds to this approach:

“ . . while the context of any proposition is relevant when discriminate or qualified judgments are tendered, the context becomes totally irrelevant when indiscriminate or unqualified judgments are being made.”  For Eckardt and for many other scholars, “the Jews” belongs to the latter category: the Gospel of  John again and again makes indiscriminate, hostile judgments against “the Jews” as Jews, and this is what is meant by anti-Semitism.  The article “the” is as decisive as the word “Jews” or more so. Thus, the “context” is powerless in neutralizing the “anti-Semitic potential” of the Fourth Gospel.

Many biblical scholars believe they can exonerate John from the charge of anti-Semitism by interpreting “the Jews” as a symbol.  Thus, “the Jews” represents not specific persons but a ‘typical kind of human failure to accept Christ.’  It is a term symbolizing all opposition to Jesus, or all human opaqueness, or even the general evil of the world.  The logical conclusion of these scholars is the same: John’s term “the Jews” is not anti-Semitic because it does not actually refer to Jewish people at all. Yet, this conclusion reveals a somewhat unsophisticated understanding of symbol.  John Townsend reacts:

Using “the Jews” to denote ... the whole sinful world is scarcely pro-Jewish.  In such a case, “the Jews” have become the epitome for what is evil.

Dominic Crossan recognizes “’the Jews’ as a dangerous symbolic term... that might well be a root of anti-Semitism in the Christian subconscious.”  Born out of the collective unconscious of the Johannine community, “the Jews” soon embodies an independent life within the text of the Fourth Gospel. Breaking out of its time bound situation, it takes on a timeless character and a sinister power whose evil consequences no amount of Christian love (cf 13.34-35; 15.12-17) can overcome.

John’s polemical usage of “the Jews” constitutes a’ symbolic demonization of a people.  That usage cannot protect the Fourth Gospel from the charge of anti-Semitism.

One last approach which obscures the “anti-Semitic potential” of the Fourth Gospel relies upon technical distinctions between the various levels of anti-Jewish attitudes manifested throughout history.  Many ecumenists draw a legitimate distinction between “anti-Judaism” and “anti-Semitism.” Edward Flannery defines “anti-Semitism” as a purely theological reality which reflects Judaism as a way of salvation, but not Jews as a people. It is “intellectual in nature... , bereft of hatred or stereotyping of Jews, it is a ‘theological offensive’ against Judaism, which constitutes ‘fair and irenic polemics.’”  “Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, always includes a note of hatred or contempt of the Jewish people as such.” While many scholars have finally acknowledged “anti-Judaic” sentiments within the Fourth Gospel, very few are willing to label those sentiments “anti-Semitic.”

While it is “technically” wrong to apply anti-Semitic to the Gospel of John, it is certainly not “technically” correct to revert to “anti-Judaic” language.  The Fourth Gospel far exceeds Flannery’s definition of “anti-Judaism.” It is neither bereft of hatred or stereotyping of Jews nor are its polemics “fair and irenic.”  Eldon Epp, who distinguishes three levels of anti-Jewish sentiments within the New Testament, believes that while the “denigration of the Torah” by Paul and the “maligning of the Pharisees” in the Synoptics have led to “pernicious consequences,” the “vilification of the Jews” as a whole by the Fourth Gospel must be accounted more heavily responsible for those consequences.’ His judgment is harsh: ‘It is difficult to apply to the Fourth Gospel’s anti-Jewish attitudes and to their distinct impact upon the reader any other term than ‘anti-Semitic.’

Thus, the theological turning point of anti-Semitism is found in the New Testament, and is manifested particularly in the Fourth Gospel. That turning point provides not only the distinguishing characteristic between pagan anti-Semitism and John’s polemics, but also a catalyst, a rationale, a theological base for future racial antipathy toward the Jewish people. Recognition of this ‘anti-Semitic potential’ inherent within the Fourth Gospel is the first step toward any resolution.