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The Gospel of John and Christian Anti-Judaism
A scripture scholar situates John’s Gospel in its larger historical and literary context.
One of the surest historical facts we have about Jesus’ life is his death. Sometime around the year 30, on or near Passover, Jesus was executed by the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The stories about Jesus familiar from the New Testament appear to have been written sometime after the year 70, approximately forty years after his death, in the wake of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the course of the Jewish War (circa 66-73). The names by which we know the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – were ascribed over the course of the late second century. And the canon as we know it only appeared around 200. The passage of time, the growth and development of traditions, and two events of momentous consequence – the destruction of the Temple, and the demographic shift within the Christian movement from almost exclusively Jewish to predominantly Gentile – thus stand between the consolidation of the New Testament gospel tradition and the death of Jesus of Nazareth. When assessing these texts as history, we need to keep these things in mind.
The figure of Jesus we meet in the Fourth Gospel stands apart from the Galilean exorcist and teacher presented in Mark, Matthew and Luke. John’s Jesus first appears not in a manger in Bethlehem, nor by the banks of the River Jordan with the Baptist. He stands, rather, “In the beginning,” at the creation of the universe, in the evangelist’s revisioning of the opening verses of Genesis.
“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God; through him were all things made.” (Jn 1:1-3)
This divine principle, God’s Logos or word, entered the cosmos that he had made, actually becoming flesh and dwelling with humanity in order to bring the power to become children of God to those who receive him (1:10-12,14). John’s prologue establishes all the major theological themes that contour this Gospel’s singular presentation of Jesus. Jesus is God’s cosmic Word; he is from Above and descends into human history (vv. 10,14); he supersedes both John the Baptist (vv. 6-7) and Moses (v. 17); he is rejected by his own people (v. 11); and he is the sole and exclusive way to God the Father, since only he, the Son, has seen God (v. 18).
Theology indeed dominates story throughout John’s presentation of Jesus’ mission. What Jesus does seems subordinate to what Jesus says. Through ironic dialogue with other characters (as with Nicodemus in chapter 3, for example) or through his great bel canto soliloquies (“I am the Good Shepherd,” 10:11; “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” 11:25), Jesus’ speech relates the religious message of John’s gospel. And that message is most often presented through antitheses, the contrasting of paired ideas: Above/Below; Light/Darkness; Spirit/Flesh; Knowledge/Ignorance; Sight/Blindness. On this point, we come to our theme for Bach’s St. John Passion and, indeed, for Christian traditions about the Crucifixion and responsibility for the death of Jesus. “Children of God,” stand at the positive pole of one contrasting pair; but at the other, clustered with darkness, flesh, and ignorance in the lower world, stand the “children of the Devil” (8:44), Jesus’ opponents, the Ioudaioi: “Jews”.
The term Ioudaioi in Jesus’ lifetime and earlier primarily designated an ethnic group related to a geographical area: Ioudaioi meant “Judeans,” people living in or originating from the region of Judea. Implicit in the term was a religious designation. People from Judea worshiped the god of the Judeans; just as people from Athens worshiped the gods of the Athenians, and so on. A community of faith or a particular religious group was not the word’s primary referent. In the context of John’s gospel, for the most part, this original meaning still stands. The evangelist depicts people in the north, Galileans and even Samaritans, as Jesus’ sympathetic hearers (4:45; 7:39); by contrast, the Ioudaioi in the south, in Jerusalem and Judea, challenge, taunt, and threaten.
By the time Christianity became primarily a Gentile religious movement; by the time the gospels were assembled as a collection; and certainly by 312, when Rome in the person of Constantine the Emperor became a chief support of the Church, this had changed. Ioudaioi (Latin Iudaei) no longer meant “Judeans”; it now meant “Jews”. And thus the identity of Jesus’ opponents in John’s Gospel changed too. The residents of Judea became “Jews” – any and every Jew, in every place, at any time, who by refusing to convert to the Christianity of the new majority was in essence complicit in the death of Christ. This teaching was to have a long influence. Not until 1964, during Vatican II, did the Roman Church repudiate this construction of Jewish “guilt”.
Scholarship in the last century has increased historians’ awareness of the degree to which all four New Testament Passion accounts are shaped by the theological and literary concerns of their respective authors. Critical comparisons of Matthew, Mark and Luke (the three “Synoptic” or “see-together” gospels) reveal telling differences between their different versions; comparisons with John only multiply these. Mark and Matthew feature two Jewish trials the evening after the seder, and showcase the High Priest’s charge of blasphemy. Luke has only one trial, and he drops both the High Priest’s role and the charge of blasphemy. John has no Jewish trial at all, but simply a brief and informal questioning before Annas and then Caiaphas; and the action for him occurs the night before the night of the seder. Consideration of these differences serves to underscore the Gospels’ function as community-building documents. They offer religious proclamation, not simple history.
Modern translators, faced with the Greek text of John, have two choices, neither good. To translate Ioudaioi as “Judeans” is truer to the term’s meaning in John’s lifetime and, certainly, in Jesus’; but such a translation cuts the text off from the centuries of traditional commentary that form its environment of interpretation in subsequent Christianity. To translate the word as “Jews” rejoins the text to the Church, but invites and encourages the sort of anti-Judaic and indeed anti-Semitic readings that have blighted and bloodied Christian relations to Jews and Judaism from late antiquity to the twentieth century.
Perhaps the best we can do is approach John’s text with an educated appreciation of its complex history and with a full awareness of its dangers if heard uncritically. And perhaps the glorious music that this Gospel inspired can serve as a means past its dangers, to a sense of the divine love that John himself insisted was the essence of his – and Jesus’ – message.