Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
The Fourth Gospel at the Service of Praise
Is John antisemitic? A question of method
The Antisemitism, proceeding from the Antijudaism which is rightly or wrongly attributed to the fourth gospel, is like a cliché in ancient and modern exegetical literature. The most usual way of dealing with it consists in making an inventory of the verses which speak of the Jews. The drama of the Shoah has made us prudent. Progress in the interpretation of these verses happens by nuances that have been introduced in dealing with the term «the Jews». Its usage is examined case by case, and the nuances serve to show how very complex the reality is. Starting with Jn 1:19, the Jews are first designated as «the Jews of Jerusalem», that is to say, in a first precautionary sense, as the inhabitants of Judea, the Ioudaioi, the Judeans. Very soon, in the same first verse of the narrative, another layer of meaning is introduced which prevents simplification. «Priests» are mentioned and «Levites», then «Pharisees» (1:24). Beginning with John the Baptist’s first intervention, «Israel» comes up (1:31) as distinct from the Jews, so as to safeguard a more positive relationship with Jesus for the whole northern part of the Land of the promises. A little later, Nathanael, whose name is not interpreted like that of several others, but which means «God gives», is defined by Jesus himself as «an Israelite in whom there is no guile» (1:47).
This whole survey certainly bears fruit in differentiating the meaning. This is important and we can only rejoice over it. But it doesn’t eradicate to the necessary extent the root of the misunderstandings which have damaged relations not only between Christians and Jews, but simply between human beings. In this regard, it is not false to say that the dialogue between Christians and Jews, which is the most delicate because the most complex, can serve as a paradigm for all other areas of dialogue. And as it turns out, this root is clearly discussed in John’s gospel. However, it does not appear at all where one might expect it: not in the way the relationship with the Jews is approached, but in the way Jesus confronts evil. The question doesn’t come up first of all where Jews or Judaism are concerned. It develops rapidly and reaches its greatest intensity in Jesus’ relationship with the disciple who betrays him and who bears the name of Judas. Thus, this name, like the person bearing it, takes on a symbolic meaning. We must understand this well. We shall thus follow the meanderings of how it is used in the fourth gospel. This method should allow us to adjust correctly the interpretation of certain controversial verses.
1. Judas, (son) of Simon Iscariot, one of the twelve chosen ones, who betrays Jesus
All the details are important, beginning with the first mention of Judas in Jn 6:71. We are at the last verse of chapter 6. The covenant was fulfilled by Jesus during the episode with the bread; this was followed by Jesus’ walking on the water, and, in the gospel of St. John, by the long discourse on the Bread of life. In this way, the controversies which will follow in Jerusalem, are situated at the heart of a positive covenant. These are so many modalities in a trial within the covenant, and they are in full conformity with what the prophetic literature had already said on this subject. This moment is chosen by the author of the fourth gospel in order to introduce at one and the same time the question of the traitor, of the treason, and of the way in which Jesus situates himself when confronted with this person and with this event. What was just said about the controversies and the subsequent trial gains in meaning when we understand it first of all concerning the traitor and the treason. They have their place within the covenant. The traitor is among the twelve disciples who are closest to Jesus. He was not mentioned until now, and this is different from the lists of apostles which we find right from the beginning in the synoptics. He bears the name Judas, which is spelled with a final s in French and English, according to the transliteration of the Greek Ioudas. But without any doubt, this name picks up the name of the most important and prestigious southern tribe, which, in the traditions of the Torah, goes back to the fourth son of Jacob-Israel and of Leah (Gen 29:35; cf. 49:8). In view of popular etymology, the texts are precious. Leah exclaims: «This time I will praise the Lord.» (TOB and NRSV) The footnote u) in the TOB (French ecumenical translation – transl.) to this verse is perfect:
«In Hebrew, the word yoda can mean to praise, which allows for a play on words with Judah (‘Yehuda’). The author ends this first group of the sons of Jacob with the future royal tribe of Judah (cf. 49:10).»
The other text quoted is at the end of Jacob’s blessings and is precisely about Judah. It is too bad that the same TOB translation does not respect the French verb which was already used in Gen 29:35 and which comes again now in Gen 49:8: «Judah, your brothers shall praise you.» But the footnote s) to the verse does go in the same direction:
«Judah, explained by the root ydh (‘to confess, to praise’). This tribe, with a complex population which is to a large extent Canaanite (cf. ch. 38), will be the royal tribe of David at Hebron.»
In light of the Pentateuch and according to a tradition of interpretation which now has become greatly popularized, there is no doubt. The name Judah, with or without an s, means: «The one who causes praise». If we weren’t afraid of using a somewhat strange word, we could say: «the praiser». Because Judas, one of the Twelve, is one of those whom Jesus chose, elected, to use the verb form of the election which in the deuteronomic traditions is reserved for Israel, particularly this time. Why is the detail given that he is «the son of Simon Iscariot»? First of all surely to distinguish him from the other one, «not the Iscariot» (Jn 14:22). And then in all likelihood and according to the commentaries, in order to emphasize his Judean origin: «The man from Keriot (a city in the south of Judea)». (1)
However, that is not yet the essential. The decisive phrase comes in verse 70, where we have the recorded word that is attributed to Jesus: «And among you, (the) one: devil, he is (it)!» (2)The best way to shed light on the meaning of this word is to see it in relationship with Wis 2:24, which offers two advantages: it decodes the symbol of the serpent in Gen 3, and it calls sin par excellence by the name of «envy». From the point of view of style and of narrative, the phrase makes us cross over a threshold. It makes us go from one disciple, one man, to that which goes beyond a purely human, horizontal, view of reality: not only evil, but its presumed author. «The devil» is a «spiritual» being who deceives the human person, like the serpent deceives Eve. He leaves intact human responsibility for the transgression, for the freedom of choice. But he manifests a power which goes beyond this responsibility. The mechanisms of temptation are found to be dismantled. They leave the mystery of evil intact: it is unfathomable, unjustifiable, inexplicable.
Here, Judas the disciple seems to be identified with the devil. That is fearsome. In that case, what other end is there for him except damnation or perdition? Other texts will deepen yet more this strange destiny and what is at stake anthropologically as much as theologically. However, one thing is already sure. The fourth gospel and the way it reports the words and gestures of Jesus excells in the way it distinguishes between the sinner and the author of sin. This is done in such a way that the sin par excellence of treason is first attributed to one of the Twelve: to Judas, not to the Jews! The way Jesus’ relationship to Judas is envisaged thus serves as a prism for envisaging his relationship to the Jews. The decisive key lies in the fact of distinguishing the powers of sin at work in the humanity of sinful human beings, of which we are all victims, including the disciples. This is of utmost importance for our interpretation. Judas, who until now was identified with the devil, is not a person at the service of the sinner’s dejection and his or her being closed in on self. What is said of his name, of his election and of his mysterious relation to evil places him at the service of praise. In the desertion of the chosen one, everything will serve to praise God.
2. The election of the traitor
It is the task of the first part (Jn 13-17) of the Passion-resurrection narrative according to John (Jn 13-21) to carefully dissociate what seems to be combined at the end of the first part (Jn 1:19-6:71) of the public life of Jesus (Jn 1:19-12:50). Everything hangs on the culmination of Love (Jn 13:1). In order to reach culmination, Love must pass through the powers of hatred and come out victorious, concretely, from a betrayal which leads Jesus, the unique Son, to the ignominious death of an evildoer. Also, in Jn 13:2 he comes immediately to dissociate the plan worked out by the devil from what the devil works in Judas of Simon Iscariot. A new hermeneutical operation which is destined to make us understand that what happens through Judas goes beyond him. As enigmatic as it may seem, everything is happening in the devil’s heart! What he plots explains what is realized in Judas. Thus, we again have exoneration and an opening to the inscrutable abyss of evil. Absolute mercy towards the sinner, the most threatened lost sheep, and the most complete absence of leniency possible towards sin and its instigator. Attention to these details serves the culmination of Love. The latter will pass by way of that which should hinder it. The «diabolos», from the Greek root diaballein, which is contrary to sumballein, comes to hinder the revelation of Love. In fact, he serves it yet more. The diabolos furthers the expression of an extraordinary symbolization of Love, in particular in that eloquent gesture without words of the washing of feet. Put clearly: Jesus washes all his disciples in anticipation of a treason in which all also have a part. As is confided to Peter, who protests, letting themselves be washed in this way which is so disconcerting, becomes the condition for having a part, for participating in the filiation and thus in the fraternity with Jesus (Jn 13:8).
The whole question then consists in letting oneself be guided by a logic not of exclusion but of communion in reading the text. For the temptation and the risk of excluding Judas from all that Jesus recommends are real. Doesn’t he say: «You are clean, but not all of you» (13:10)? And the redactor goes further: «For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’» (13:11) In what follows, the same restrictions seem to be even more emphasized, in verse 18:
«I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I choose, but it is to fulfill the Scripture: ‘The one who ate my bread lifted his heel against me.’» (Ps 41:10)
These words expose one to major misunderstandings: Jesus did not confide the example of the washing of feet to everyone. He would exclude Judas, because from now on Judas is excluded from the election of the Twelve. This would be explained as the fulfillment of Scripture, as illustrated by a verse of a Psalm. In that case, the fulfillment of Scripture would be understood as approval for the exclusion of Judas where election is concerned, because he betrays at the very table where he is invited. Various authors have tried to avoid such a pessimistic way of reading by distinguishing between an election to ministry and an election to salvation. Judas would have fallen from the first, but he would remain a beneficiary of the second. (3)
What is at stake is of great importance: this way of thinking comes from a certain idea both of biblical election and of the fulfillment of Scripture. We must respect the complexity of the thought that is expressed in the verses which are truly winding. We can admit that the first phrase: «I am not speaking of all of you», is above all applicable to the beatitude which precedes it: «If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.» Judas does not have the disposition of the beatitude that was announced to those who realize the meaning of the words and actions of Jesus in the washing of feet. Ultimately, he doesn’t know what he is doing (cf. Lk 23:34). Does that mean that he is excluded from the election? The word of Jesus can have a less negative meaning. Jesus knows of the fallibility of those whom he has chosen, of the one whom he has chosen. But for all that, that person is no less chosen. In this sense, the fulfillment of Scripture means the unfailing fidelity of the one who chooses even in the infidelity of the one chosen. In fact, this foundation of the covenant goes through the entire Bible, from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. In the Old Testament, this is already the good news in the deuteronomic current of thought and in the priestly tradition. The creature, the people necessarily prove to be sinners, unfaithful to the covenant. But God is there to create something new (Jer 31:22; cf. Isa 42:9), as only God can do while remaining faithful towards and against the sin of people. The following verse, Jn 13:19, says that this is offered for faith even before the events of the Passion and death of Jesus, the evening of the Last Supper, where all that follows is determined. Jesus, repeating his «I am», remains the same in the alteration of his disciple who betrays him; he is faithful to himself, faithful to Love until the end. From now on, that end has been reached. Verse 20 goes still further by underlining the presence in the one who is sent of the One who sends, even if the one sent is a sinner, even if he is a traitor. The worth of the mission in the poverty of the missionary; the validity of the sacraments in the infidelity of the minister: Catholic doctrine has always upheld this principle of hope in apostolic and sacramental practice. It has its scriptural foundation in these texts of Saint John.
These texts adjust our way of seeing and our intelligence so that we might understand what follows, which goes in the same direction. Whatever importance we attribute to the morsel Jesus gives to Judas, it can also be read positively: the preferential gesture of the father of the Jewish family towards the guest of honor – and every guest is a guest of honor in the context of Passover and of welcoming the stranger! -, a covenantal gesture inspired by the Book of Ruth (4)or simple respect shown by the head of the meal toward the person invited. From this, verse 27: «After he received the morsel, Satan entered into him», becomes more meaningful if we read it to-gether with what was said above about the relationship between Judas and the devil, starting with 6:71 and going by way of 13:2. The schemes of the devil, the Accuser - the opposite of the Defender, the Paraclete -, rather than hindering the gift of Love, which comes to its culmination, are integrated in that and even make it possible! Wandering astray and sin remain in the control of the Father who has given all into the hands of the Son (13:3), including the most heinous treason. The death-bringing processes remain assumed by Love in its culmination. Even in the night into which Judas plunges, light shines in all its splendor (cf. Jn 1:5). The Son of man is glorified a first time. He is able to give the gift of loving as He loves.
Everything is contained in this semantic and symbolic universe. The essential was to follow its main lines. Thus, Jesus’ behavior towards Judas well and truly serves as a paradigm for the correct interpretation of his relation with the Jews. Jn 13:33 is explicit as to this line of vision: «As I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’» The difference between the disciples and the Jews is that the disciples received more while not having understood any better up until the pascal context. They did not answer any better. On the contrary. And they don’t mind saying it clearly. This is in order to praise the gratuitousness of the gift of which they recognize themselves as being the humble beneficiaries. To read such passages and such pages with an antisemitic grid is to understand the opposite of what they are saying. Before concluding, let us return for a moment to the last controversial passage concerning Judas, so implicitly also concerning the Jews. It is a major one!
3. The Son of Perdition
According to the structuring advanced for all of chapters 13 to 17 of the fourth gospel, the two times that the fulfillment of Scripture is mentioned together with an explicit quotation, at the center of Jn 13 and of Jn 17 respectively, correspond entirely to one another within the whole. Both of them are meant to give an account, as well as this can be done, of the betrayal of Jesus by one of his own. (5) Such an historic event must of necessity include a metahistoric, transcendant dimension. We already verified this in speaking about the «devil» in Jn 6:70 and Jn 13:2 and about «Satan» in Jn 13:27. Evil includes an aspect which will always escape human understanding. Nevertheless, we must seek to explain it as much as possible, without abdicating too quickly in our effort to reflect on it, if for no other reason than for the sake of wisdom, so as to prevent evil before it becomes rampant. The center of what is rightly called the «priestly» prayer of Jesus in Jn 17 comes back to this. Now, we are in the second time of glorification (Jn 17:1-5), after Jn 13:31-32. The Son is glorified in the very act of placing himself totally in the hands of the Father, thus exercising his unique and absolute mediation between heaven and earth. But as if it were a matter of always remembering well the conditions for that glorification, the Son evokes again that moment when all could have fallen onto the side of the annihilation of Love and of the whole of humanity.
«When I was with them, I kept them in your name which you gave me, and I watched, and none of them was lost, except the Son of Perdition (2 Thess 2:3-8), so that Scripture might be fulfilled.»
Again, we must keep from reading Judas in too immediate and univocal a way in this Son of Perdition. In Jn 6:70, Judas was identified with the devil. Then, in Jn 13:2, Judas was dissociated from the devil in such a way that he appears clearly to have been dominated by something stronger than himself. The referral to Satan in Jn 13:27 deepened that dissociation still more. Here, in our opinion, the text is no longer talking about Judas, about a human person, but about the author of sin. Within the limits of Jn 17, «the Son of Perdition» is a synonym for the «Evil One» mentioned in Jn 17:15. The text in 2 Thess 2:3-4 also establishes very well the equivalence in this row of terms:
«First must come apostasy and the Man of Iniquity, the Son of Perdition, the Adversary must be revealed, the one who raises himself above all that bears the name of God and is worshipped, and who goes so far as to take his seat in the sanctuary of God, declaring himself to be God.» (Translated from the French of the original article)
The person described in the last words points towards Antiochus Epiphanes in Dan 11:36, the king of Tyre in Ezek 28:2, and the king of Babylon in Isa 14:13-14, all of which are texts in the apocalyptic vein. None of them claims to identify the mystery of evil with these persons. But also, none of these persons can in any way be totally identified with these descriptions of the idol. The idol is of the order of symbolization of evil and is irreducible to the human. Seen thus, we have here so many synonyms for the other terms used before: the devil and Satan. From the point of view of interpretation, it thus becomes clear that we are not dealing with Judas, but with Jesus’ partner in his eschatological combat and final apocalypse. He alone is «lost». And the argument that Scripture is being fulfilled strengthens this meaning. Jewish Scripture, and a fortiori Christian Scripture, from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, testifies that evil never had and never will have either the first or the last word. But we needed the Christ of Israel in order to show us this in truth.
Once more, the teaching proves to be significant. Hell exists, but nobody knows who is there. I must be mindful of it, because my freedom can always become perverted. But to send someone to hell, whether it be Judas or the worst criminal, would be to despair of them by limiting Love. «Whoever envisages the possibility even for one single outcast other than him-/herself, will have great difficulty in loving unreservedly…» (6) But how can we avoid that kind of predestination to hell in the name of Scripture when we hear «the Son of Perdition» about a disciple or about a human being? (7) Thus, the same doctrine is still respected. Evil passes through the human person. But in his Son, God makes it contribute to good by subjecting it radically to himself. Such is God’s Wisdom, of which we can have a part if we enter into God’s ways. The Book of Genesis, and in particular the story of Joseph, already expresses this clearly: «The evil that you planned to do to me, God’s plan turned it to good, so as to fulfill what is being realized today: to save the life of numerous people.» (Gen 50:20)
Once we have remembered these foundations and put them in place, the most delicate texts in the Gospel of John radiate an astonishing light. Going first to the Passion and then returning to the controversies in Jerusalem in chapter 8, let us look at some of the implications where the relationship with Jews and Judaism is concerned.
1. Jesus’ second appearance before Pilate inside the Praetorium
«You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.» (Jn 19:11)
On the background of the preceding texts concerning «the one who betrayed» Jesus, the least precaution we must take here is to safeguard the permanent distinction between the sinner and the author of sin. In the singular, the expression can only point to Judas. But we have seen that Judas is dominated by something stronger than himself, which, however, has been vanquished by the Son who loves «to the end» (Jn 13:1) in passing through all the powers of hatred. According to the interpretation offered here, the one who betrays Jesus to Pilate would not be handing him over simply to a human person or human persons, but rather, to the Prince of this world who has no power over Jesus (Jn 14:30). Here, no more than anywhere else, Jesus does not set himself up as the «Accuser»: that would be to demonize him. He offers himself as the first Paraclete-Defender (cf. Jn 14:16) for all the sinners, among whom are we.
2. The «betrayal» of Jesus by Pilate
«Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.» (Jn 19:16a)
Even though in the Arte, Corpus Christi broadcasts the following was said about this verse: «Because of this word, because of this minimal matter, some letters, the misfortune of the Jews came about», (8) the text is neither ambiguous nor «antisemitic». Here again, in his own action of «betraying» Jesus, the whole context insists on the fact that Pilate is manipulated by something stronger than himself. Three times, like Peter in his denial, Pilate argues with every plausible reason against condemning Jesus (Jn 18:38; 19:4,6). According to the context, all the evidence points to the fact that those to whom he hands Jesus over are the Jewish high priests. If we take into account the content of the narrative and of the dialogue, they are not seen to be any less taken in by iniquitous plots which go beyond them. But there is more. By means of Pilate’s and the high priests’ function as representatives of Roman paganism and Judaism, we can see the entire world implied in this death. Because of this, every person is called forth. It is sin which puts to death the Son of God, and we all take part in this. We are all saved from it through the unique Righteous One who lets himself be crushed to this extent. Antisemitism is born and born again when people give way to scapegoat mechanims by attributing the fault to others and not to themselves first of all. (9)
3. Accusation or naming of an alienating paternity?
«You are from your father, the devil, and you want to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.» (Jn 8:44)
In conclusion, this is understood to be the undoubtedly most antisemitic verse in the fourth gospel. Taking into account the preceding analyses, who does not see that in fact, Jesus is here pointing out the true author of sin so as to liberate his victims from him by introducing a space of freedom? The historical context of serious quarrels between the Synagogue and the Jewish-Christian Church at the time of Yavne-Jamnia (90-110 C.E.) does not suffice to detect in these words what certain people call «an incredible violence». Here no more than anywhere else, does Jesus give way to violence, which always includes something pernicious. The Church which speaks in him, as in the prayer in Jn 17, never tires in making us understand to what extent he alone can express himself in this way. Not in order to lock the sinner into the violence which he himself endures. But in order to free him/her by powerfully denouncing once again a «paternity» of the evil which goes through the human person. There is no greater mercy than that which names the sin and its true source. That is ipso facto an exoneration of the sinner, and it offers him/her a path of freedom. Jesus pays for his word with his life without responding to violence with violence. He who is handed over, in exchange hands over the gift par excellence of his life: the Spirit (Jn 19:30). Instead of and in the place of all refusal which goes through the whole of humanity, he hands over his divine life to share it. According to Saint John, this is to be believed. And this believing is also the work of the Father in us (Jn 6:29). From beginning to end, the fourth gospel reveals itself to the attentive reader as being at the service of endless praise for that freely given work of God the Father in his Son through the Spirit of holiness in the believer.
* Yves Simoens, SJ is a New Testament scholar. He teaches the Gospel of John at the Centre Sèvres in Paris and at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
Article translated from French by K.E. Wolff.
1. R.E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (i-xii) (The Anchor Bible 29), New York, Doubleday & Company, 1966, p. 298.
2. For lack of anything better, I am quoting the literal translation (into French) which is suggested in Selon Jean, I. Une traduction (Collection de l’Institut d’Etudes Théologiques 17), Bruxelles, Editions de l’I.E.T., 1997, p. 34. The new translation (into French) of the Bible, which was published by Bayard in 2001, waters down the strength of what is said: «But a divider is among you.» Similarly, what is said about the term «Diabolos» in the Glossary, pp. 3145-3146, is not explicit enough when it comes to the relationship between the «devil» and the author of evil.
3. Cf. Y. Simoens, La gloire d’aimer, Structures stylistiques et interprétatives dans le Discours de la Cène (Analecta Biblica 90), Rome, Biblical Institute Press, 1981, pp. 71-72. More recently: Selon Jean 3. Une interprétation (Collection de l’Institut d’Etudes Théologiques 17), Bruxelles, Editions de l’I.E.T., 1997, pp. 577-578.
4. «At mealtime Boaz said to Ruth: ‘Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the vinegar’» (Ruth 2:14): exactly the same expression, in Greek, as in Jn 13:26. We find the vinegar again later, at the cross: Jn 19:29.
5. «For John, the fall of Judas was a bigger enigma than the ruin of Jerusalem and of the rabbinate.» (A. Schlatter, Der Evangelist Johannes, Stuttgart, Calwer Verlag, 1948, p. 184 on Jn 6:70).
6. H. Urs von Balthasar, L’enfer. Une question. Translated into French from the German by J.-L. Schlegel, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1988, p. 60.
7. The translation of the Bayard Bible, which has no footnote on the subject, upholds the confusion: «When I was with them, in your name which you gave me, I protected them, watching so that none of them might be lost except the one who had to be lost so that Scripture might be fulfilled.»
8. J. Prieur, interviewed by Catherine Humblot in Le Monde of Sunday – Monday, March 23-24, 1997, Télévision-Radio-Multimédia, p. 3.
9. A longer discussion can be found in Y. Simoens, «Jésus dans l’histoire. Lettre et Esprit»; cf. O. Flichy (ed.), Le milieu du Nouveau Testament, Diversité du judaïsme et des communautés chrétiennes au premier siècle, Paris (Médiasèvres), 1998, pp. 93-114, there p. 97.