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SIDIC Periodical XXXIV-XXXV - 2001-2002/1.3
The Gospel of John. Conflicts and Controversies (Pages 34-37)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Wrestling with God and the Devil
Jacobs, Steven Leonard



Now, more than fifty years after the conclusion of the Second World War and the nightmarish events now known as the Holocaust, with the reality of genocide lingering into this new century, the full impact of religion, both theological and institutional, upon these events remains little explored at best. It is the story remaining to be told. Despite all the bridge-building efforts of sincere Jews and Christians we have only hesitantly begun to scratch at this scabbed-over surface of our wounds, still perhaps truly afraid to launch a bold and daring frontal assault on our own flawed religious and theological traditions. Even these post-Shoah public readings of selected Hebrew Scripture and New Testament are fragile beginnings, but beginnings nonetheless. The Shoah is, equally, our sure inheritance and legacy as Jews and Christians, just as our evolved and evolving rituals and ceremonies, our changing ethical systems, our unique insights on the Divine-human encounter, and our scriptural texts are welcome parts of that same inheritance and legacy. That the 20th Century began with the genocidal slaughter of the Armenians (despite continuing Turkish denial), proceeded through the genocidal slaughtering of Jews and Roma, and ended with the genocidal slaughtering of Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, as well as the Rwandese, remains a stinging indictment of the supposed “power of faith” to move the hearts of humanity in a positive direction.

And yet, as one ordained to the liberal rabbinate of the Jewish Religious Tradition (but whose roots remain strongly intertwined with the German Orthodox Jewish Religious Tradition), whose entire professional career, both scholarly and congregational, has been in dialogue with those both inside and outside the Jewish Community, I continue to affirm the potential power for good, not only of our own faith traditions to affect both the present and future courses of human events, but of those of us willing to reach out to others among us who are not like us. And I affirm the central insight of the Jewish “philosopher of dialogue” Martin Buber (1878-1965), that where two persons truly meet, there in that interstitial place the very presence of the Divine may be found. Standing, therefore, on holy ground together with my three beloved colleagues let me proceed.

John 8: Wrestling with the Devil

There is no way to minimize the venomous rage attributed to Jesus in the following verses from John 8:

42: If God were your Father…. 44: You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and 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…. 47: The reason you do not hear them (the words of God) is that you are not from God…. 55: ...you do not know Him (God).

Nor can we minimize the historic and contemporary implications1 associated with the commentaries on this overall passage. To cite but two examples:
The Jerome Bible Commentary: (43) They do not receive his word because they cannot: They have closed their ears to the Word of God. This, in turn, identifies them as the (44) the devil is the father you spring from: This must be, for it is the devil who is the very antithesis of the God to whom they claim to belong.2

The Oxford Annotated Bible: (39-47) Their (the Jews’) desire to kill Jesus forfeits their claim to be heirs of Abraham’s faith and true children of God. They insist (v. 41) that God is their father. Their murderous intention and resistance to the truth belie this and brand them as children of the devil (v. 44). The fault is in them and not in Jesus.3

Before proceeding further, however, it is crucially important to heed as well the words of the late Roman Catholic New Testament and Jesus scholar, Raymond E. Brown:

Perhaps here we should re-emphasize that a chapter like John 8 with its harsh statements about “the Jews” must be understood and evaluated against the polemic background of the times when it was written. To take literally a charge like that of v 44 (“You are from your father the devil”) and to think that the Gospel imposes on Christians the belief that the Jews are children of the devil is to forget the time-conditioned element in Scripture….Lest the picture seems too dark, we must remember that this same Fourth Gospel records the saying of Jesus that salvation comes from the Jews (4:22).4

Accepting Brown’s notion of the “time-conditioned element in Scripture,” are we, therefore, correct in our understanding that this text from the Gospel of John is antisemitic? As I have written in Rethinking Jewish Faith:

To condemn the New Testament as “antisemitic,” it seems to me is both to misread and misunderstand the tendenz of the anti-Judaic portrait painted therein. A much more accurate understanding of that negative depiction would be to see the controversy as “in-house, intra-family Jewish debate”….later taken over by non-Jews, gentile successors to Paul, who, in their burgeoning desire both to separate themselves from their Jewish beginnings and further to create a new and distinct religious response to the times, lost sight of the original meaning of those words, with disastrous future results.5

No, this text is not antisemitic, but it is anti-Judaic – though it has been read antisemitically for two thousand years! And it is that fact of reality with which we must grapple as Jews and as Christians, as Craig A. Evans of Trinity Western University pointedly reminds us:

First of all, there appears to be a lack of awareness of the polemic within the Jewish Scriptures themselves. Secondly, many Jews and Christians read the New Testament writings in the context of medieval and modern non-Jewish Christianity….New Testament polemic should be viewed as part of the intra-Jewish polemic which took place in the first and early second centuries. Finally, the New Testament can be read, and, tragically, has been read in an Anti-Semitic manner….But divorced from their original context, these expressions do readily lend themselves to Anti-Semitic ideas. Yes, the New Testament can be understood as Anti-Semitic if taken out of its early Jewish context. But if it is interpreted in context, as it should be, the New Testament is not Anti-Semitic.6

The explosive nature of verses 31-59 and the antisemitic reading of them over the last two millennia, most especially and particularly in light of the Shoah, regardless of the historical context which gave rise to this passage and/or the accuracy of the reporting of the confrontation between Jesus and his fellow Jews – whether or not they were perceived as supportive of him – strikes at the very heart of the various understandings of Christianity and their relationship to the New Testament text, and forces a confrontational response to a series of painfully difficult questions (as do other passages within the Hebrew Scriptures):

• What now is to be done with this text within the Christian communities of the faithful?

• Does one confine the question of historically-contextual knowledge to the classroom only, be it church or college/university or seminary?

• Does all such knowledge mandate dramatic and drastic revisions of all biblical curricula in the above settings?

• What does such knowledge say in a post-Holocaust age about the sacred nature of this New Testament text, regardless of whether or not one is a scriptural literalist or non-literalist?7

• What about the liturgical and lectionary responsibilities of those who are called upon to address this text and others like it directly?

• For example, does one “preach the Word” with a thoroughly revised text reflective of this more accurate historical understanding of the New Testament, and, in doing so, draw the worshipper’s attention to such painfully problematic passages such as this one and raise questions and doubts as to their efficacy?

• Does one simply “share Scripture” without commentary, albeit with this revised text?

• Does one reconstruct the lectionary of one’s own denominational religious tradition to exclude those passages which raise these issues, concentrating instead on those passages which reflect the highest moral, spiritual, and religious values of Christianity?

• Indeed, how does one incorporate this understanding liturgically and lectionarily?

Returning to the text itself: Jesus’ assault upon the covenantal integrity of the children of Abraham (31 ff.), affirmed at Har Sinai/Mount Sinai and continuously celebrated by countless generations of Jews since – despite periodic abuse – cannot be Jewishly accepted, and must therefore be categorically rejected. The question remains: How will Christians (and Jews) in this post-Shoah and still-genocidal world deal not only with this text but with others in the New Testament – texts which equally denigrate the parent-faith of Judaism and the people who refuse to surrender it, providing religio-theological foundational support for the worst excesses of Western Civilization? Can there truly be open, honest, respectful, and sincere dialogue on the part of both Christians and Jews beginning with the sacred literature of both faith traditions, despite or perhaps because of all those passages of text which cause pain – and worse? The answer is “Yes! – Because we must!”

Conclusion: Searching for the B’racha / Blessing

In 1993 at the 23rd Annual Scholars Conference on the Holocaust and the Christian Churches, in a setting similar to that which occasioned these reflections, I re-translated Bereshith/ Genesis 32:29 – the conclusion of Ya’akov’s/Jacob’s//Yisrael’s/Israel’s wrestling match with the ish: “No longer shall you be addressed as Ya’akov (Heel-grabber), but, rather, as Yisar’El (Israel), because you have wrestled with beings both human and divine and have been enabled.” As this text informs us, there was, in truth, no victor in the wrestling match. Ya’akov was now enabled (empowered) to go forward in search of the b’racha/blessing which had thus far eluded him.

So it is with us Jews and Christians, both children of Ya’akov. Wounded in the frays of the past, all too often responsible for wounding each other, together, we must go forward in search of the b’racha/blessing which has thus far eluded us also. As persons individually and collectively committed to the integrity of our own faith traditions, our shared commitment is to seek and find that b’racha/blessing which is, most assuredly, “out there.” L’chu l’shalom/Let us go in peace.


1. For example, The Miami (FL) Herald reported on 31 January 2000, in an article entitled “State investigating Bible history courses in 14 districts,” by Robert Sanchez, “A lesson on John 8 used in Levy County asks, ‘Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil.’”
2. Brown, Raymond E., Fitzmeyer, Joseph A., Murphy, Roland E., eds., The Jerome Bible Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 442.
3. May, Herbert G. and Metzger, Bruce M., eds., The Oxford Annotated Bible (New York, NY: Oxford Publishing Company, 1962), 1297-1298.
4. Brown, Raymond E., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1968), 368. Emphasis mine.
5. Jacobs, Steven L., Rethinking Jewish Faith: The Child of a Survivor Responds (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), 90. I remain indebted to the writings of Professor Ellis Rivin (Emeritus) and the late Samuel Sandmel, alav hashalom, both of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH, as well as others, for much of my thinking about the New Testament and the environment of First Century Judaism which produced it. These ideas, as well as others, are contained in my paper, “Rethinking Jewish-Christian Relations Because of the Shoah” Littell, Marcia Sachs, Geldbach, Eric, and Colijn, Jan G., eds., The Holocaust: Remembering for the Future II (Stamford, CT: Vista InterMedia Corporation, 1994), CD-Rom Edition.
6. Evans, Craig A. (1993), “Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic or Anti-Jewish,” Explorations: Rethinking Relationships Among Jews and Christians, 7 (2): 3.
7. Blu Greenberg offers a somewhat different suggestion: “The conclusion that I draw from the Holocaust and from the four decades following it is that Christianity needs a Talmud and Midrash that deal with the foundation documents of its faith; that Christians of the next two thousand years ought not to read or teach or understand first century Christianity without these hermeneutic texts of canonical status; that in the year 2500 a Christian child standing at any point along the religious denominational spectrum will not and need not know where Scripture leaves off and quasi-Scripture begins. – Why do I use terms such as Talmud and Midrash, so particular to the Jewish tradition? In order to precisely convey the notion of power and sacredness, as Talmud and Midrash have done for Jews for so many centuries until this very day.
Greenberg, Blu, “The Holocaust and the Gospel of Truth,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 4 (3), 1989, 273-274.


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