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ANTI-SEMITISM IN JOHN'S GOSPEL
by TOM MACABI
Antisemitism is unique in both its persistence and virulence. Over the last twenty years a growing body of Christian opinion has suggested that the answer lies in its theological roots. For example, in "The Holocaust as Interruption" (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, Ltd., 1984) Dr. E. Florenza (Professor of New Testament Studies) & Dr. D. Tracy (Professor of Philosophical Theology) say that, "Christian biblical theology must recognize that its articulation of anti-Judaism in the New Testament ... generated the unspeakable sufferings of the Holocaust."
Drs. A.L. & R.E. Eckhardt (the latter a Methodist minister) say the same. They write that within the, "New Testament ... the defamation of the Jewish people ... constitutes in and of itself an incitement to corporate murder", "Long Night's Journey into Day", Wayne University Press, 1988. They make specific reference to the Holocaust as an example. See also Eckhardt, A.R., "Jews and Christians", Indiana University Press, 1986.
In "Top Ten Profs" (Schwanger & Miller, The Philadelphia Enquirer, 21 09 1986) Professor David Efroymson (Chair of the Department of Religion at a leading Catholic university) admits that there is a "direct line" from the New Testament "to the Holocaust".
Finally, Rev. James Parkes, a UK Christian who has done more than most to further the cause of Jewish-Christian understanding writes, "It is dishonest henceforth to refuse to face the fact that the basic root of modern antisemitism lies squarely in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament." In: Davies A.T. (ed) "Antisemitism and the Foundations of Christianity", Paulist Press, New York, 1979, p. xi.
The document that has attracted especial attention is the Gospel of John. Anyone reading this Gospel will soon know who the "good guy" is and who are the alleged villains. It is difficult for many people to read it without becoming hostile to the Jews. The Church Fathers found it to be the best source of anti-Jewish quotations in the New Testament. John's Jesus portrays Christians as the beneficiaries of all that is positive and good (light; truth; spirit and life). In contrast, the Jews belong to the realm of Satan; death; falsehood; flesh and darkness.
John's Gospel is obsessed with "the Jews". Thus "Jew" or "the Jews" is mentioned 71 times in John, but only 5 times in Matthew; 6 times in Mark and 5 times in Luke. At least 35 of John's references are antisemitic. The Jews are portrayed as persecutors of Jesus (5:16). They disapprove of him (6:41); seek to murder him (7:10); are blind to his teaching (7:31); claim that he has a demon (8:52) and stone him (8:59). John's Gospel uses "the Jews" as a blanket term that obliterates the essential distinctions seen in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke). Note how, for example, as the tension is wound up in chapter 9, "the Pharisees" (a specific term) become "the Jews" (an indiscriminate term).
According to John's Gospel, the Jews are satanic (8:44). This has had a tremendously negative impact on the Christian psyche. Drawing directly on John's Gospel, the Nazis incorporated the satanic image of the Jew into their antisemitic propaganda.
John's Gospel abolishes what is sacred for Judaism and replaces it with "Christ". Everything that was held to be important by "the Jews" is dismissed in John as insignificant. Christ replaces or supersedes Judaism. The Church expresses this idea today by claiming to be the "New Israel". According to John, Christ replaces the Temple (2:18-22); the Law (5:39-40) and Israel itself (15:1-17) - the "vine" being a symbol of Israel (Psalm 80:8; Ezekiel 15:1-6 and Hosea 10:1). There is no room left for Judaism as an expression of God's will. This has led to what one author has called "a theological vendetta" against the Jews.
Too often in history those who have concluded that Judaism is obsolete, have also concluded that the Jews are equally obsolete, with tragic results. Christology is the study of the nature of "Christ". In Johannine Christology, Christ is portrayed as a divine man who fulfills prophesy and reveals God in his own flesh. This was and still remains, pure anathema to Jews. From a Jewish perspective the Johannine god-man vision of Christ is a repulsive paganism. By virtue of their innate inability to accept such a vision of the Messiah, Jews are automatically condemned by Johannine Christology. It is inherently antisemitic.
John goes out of his way to distort history and involve the Jews in the death of Jesus. He introduces two Jewish trials of Jesus (18:13 and 24), in contrast to the single Jewish trial in the Synoptic Gospels. The Jews are unfairly portrayed as the moving force behind the crucifixion (18:35) - Pilate's words focusing attention on the Jews. Pilate, who in reality was both efficient and brutally cruel, is portrayed as an incompetent administrator who is manipulated by the Jews (19:12-13). Pilate even speaks against the Jews in Jesus's defense (18:38). The Jews are directly implicated in the crucifixion of Jesus (19:16; 21 and 31). John here lays the foundation for the later Christian accusation of Jewish decide. No one should need reminding of the tragic consequences for Jews generally throughout history of their being labeled as "Christ killers".
As we have seen, John's Gospel is a primary source of antisemitism. Some authors have tried to defend it against this charge. They are clearly trying to defend the indefensible, but in fairness, their opinions follow.
Several defenses have made much of the alleged ambiguity of "the Jews" in John's Gospel. As already mentioned , of the 71 references to "the Jews" or "Jews" in John about 35 are antisemitic. That means that about 36 references are thought not to be antisemitic. Some simply refer to Jews as a group, "The Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (4:9). Others are explanatory and probably editorial insertions for the benefit of non-Jews, "Tabernacles, a feast of the Jews was at hand" (7:2). Some might be references to the religious authorities, "... the Jews of Jerusalem sent a deputation of priests and Levites to ask him who he was" (1:19). This is rather like saying "the British" when we mean "the British government".
It is suggested by some defenders of John's Gospel, that if all the 71 references are taken together they balance out to give a neutral presentation. However sentences are not numerical entities where negatives and positives cancel each other out. From the evidence of his own words, the Jesus of John's Gospel was what we today (including many non-Jews) would call an antisemite.
It has also been suggested that "the Jews" might be a cipher for the unbeliever. Thus "the Jews" is to be read as "the unbelieving Jews" or "the unbelieving world". Using "the Jews" as a cipher for unbelievers, or the unbelieving world, seems more like antisemitism than an explanation.
Finally, it might be that "the Jews" is a geographical term meaning "the Judeans". This notion has found favor with certain groups, especially missionaries to the Jews. However, hardly any Greek scholars give it support. Even some of its supporters are unsure about it. For example, in the so-called, "Jewish New Testament" (a missionary publication), which makes liberal use of this idea, it is now the 'Judeans' whose father is Satan (8:44), but salvation still comes of 'the Jews' (4:22). Such inconsistency probable comes from the author's unwillingness to relinquish what he sees as the positive points.
A defense much favored by certain missionary groups (e.g. "Jews for Jesus") is to claim that if the New Testament is antisemitic then so is the Hebrew Bible. They draw parallels between Johannine antisemitism and certain passages in the Hebrew Bible, such as Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34, claiming that they are essentially identical.
However, the important difference between the Hebrew prophets and the Jesus of John's Gospel, is that the latter is indiscriminate in his condemnation, whilst the former are not. The use of the 'the' in 'the Jews' in John's Gospel is the decisive point. It makes the difference between, say, "Some Jews are liars" (a statement of fact) and "The Jews are liars" (an antisemitic slur, implying that all Jews are liars). In both Jeremiah and Ezekiel it is the leaders (i.e. "the shepherds") of the community, at a certain historical period, who are being taken to task. This in no way compares with the indiscriminate use of "the Jews" in John's Gospel.
It is sometimes claimed that Johannine antisemitism is the Jews' own fault. Here the clue is taken from three references in John's Gospel to "aposynagogoi" (9:22; 12:42 and 16:2). These were followers of Jesus who were excluded from the synagogue. These references are taken as evidence of conflict between the Synagogue and the early Church. The antisemitic statements in John's Gospel are, it is argued, to be seen in this historical context. Poor chap might have gone a little over the top, but who could blame him when faced with such Jewish antagonism, etc. I find this unconvincing. Descending to antisemitic abuse is not excused by conflict, especially in a book that is regarded by most Christians as the last revelation of God's love for humanity.
Another claim is that Johannine antisemitism is a specific example of a general Christian response to any unbelief. John's Gospel clearly claims that anyone who doubts Christianity is unreasonable, insincere and even wicked (3:16-21). Jewish unbelief would thus automatically bring down condemnation upon "the Jews". However, descending to antisemitic abuse is not excused by bad theology anymore than by conflict.
This article uses "antisemitism" where some authors would use "anti-Judaism". They would claim that antisemitism is a uniquely 19th century European phenomenon and, consequently, that it is unreasonable to apply it to John's Gospel. Anti-Judaism is theological, rather than "racial", prejudice. I feel this to be a wrong approach for two reasons. Firstly, antisemitism is essentially theologically motivated Jew hatred combined with the later addition of biological racism. This is clearly what Wilheim Marr had in mind when he coined "antisemitism" as a replacement for "Judenhass" (Jew hatred) in 1879.
Secondly, even if the distinction between Church anti-Judaism, with its concomitant Jew hatred and antisemitism is accepted, it still leaves the issue of current interpretations of John's Gospel. My concern is not with the intention of whomsoever wrote the antisemitic passages in John, but the effect they might have on a current reader. Typically this will be a person with little or no experience of meeting real Jews. Today the potential of John's Gospel is almost exclusively as a promoter of antisemitism and it should be viewed with this in mind.
So let there be no doubt about the final connection. Christian theology, heavily dependent on the words of Jesus as recorded in John's Gospel, provided the Judenhass; 19th century European pseudoscientific "racial" theories provided the justification and 20th century German science provided the means by which the Holocaust was made possible.
Tom Macabi (email@example.com)