Anti-Semitism and the Fourth Gospel

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I've been in a discussion with someone about the Gospel of John and whether his use of 'the Jews' in a largely negative way is anti-Semitic. See Hyleninja's post on Mel Gibson's upcoming film for a good discussion from someone with absolutely nothing at stake about why it's pretty silly to say the Synoptic gospels are anti-Semitic. [For some reason I can't get the link to work to go to the post itself. If this happens to you, scroll down to the post directly above Feb 13. Oh, and Mark at Hyleninja is not the same person I've been discussing John with, though he was at least less willing to defend John on this matter and may have similar views.]

Here's my response to the charge against the Fourth Gospel, with specific reference to the comments of the person I'm responding to:

John's intention with his usage of "the Jews" is not to accurately depict the story of Jesus and his opponents. John's agenda is to reflect the hostility between Jews and Christians DURING JOHN'S TIME.

This doesn't fit with the internal evidence. Somtimes it's neutral (2:6; 7:1) or even positive (4:9, 22; 11:45; 12:11). These instances make little sense if the use of the term is only to make points about the people of John's own time. Some of them explain Jewish customs or geography unknown to John's Hellenistic readers. Some describe the Jews who believed. One makes clear that Jesus is one of the Jews (4:9), and one says that salvation is of the Jews (4:22). Someone doing what you're saying John does would not say such things.

Certainly John used this term at least in part because of his context, which is as you would describe it, but the fact that he does use it in diverse ways, even if the majority of those uses bring a negative attitude, shows that the context of application is Jesus' time and not John's own. If it was about the highly charged atmosphere of John's time you wouldn't have found those positive and neutral uses, since it would all have been polemic. So the evidence of how the term is used in the gospel pretty much demonstrates that it's not merely a polemic against the Jews of John's time but is about the Jews of Jesus' time.

The author of John separates Jesus and his disciples from "the Jews." He compounds his attack, deliberately encouraging his audience to see Jews as unfaithful and Judaism as invalid and both as part of the forces of evil and darkness. This author seeks to create an overwhelming aversion to the Jewish people and Judaism. As a result, there pervades this Gospel a constant harangue relentlessly directed against "the Jews," that is, the entire nation of Israel, not any specific faction. For example, all Jews are indiscriminately attacked in John 5:15-18, John 6:41, John 7:10-13, John 10:31, John 11:53-54, John 19:12, John 20:19. It is passages such as these that show the true target of the Gospel's malevolence is all the Jews.

What's right about what you say is that John is most definitely trying to show the failure of the Jewish leaders of Jesus' time (which continued into John's own time) to lead the people according to their own scriptures. The failures of the leaders of Jesus' time provide a warning to the leaders of John's time. That doesn't mean it's simply about the leaders of John's time. That's a fallacy of reasoning. Because something is for a certain purpose doesn't mean it's about that purpose. If someome said that the overwhelming majority of scientists are wrong on the issue of evolution in order to try to get people to avoid institutions of higher learning, that wouldn't mean the statement was about institutions of higher learning. It was about scientists and evolution. The purpose was about whether people should go to college.

Of the four gospels, John is probably second only to Matthew in terms of the importance of fulfillment of scripture -- the Jewish scripture. There's no way he saw that as a negative thing. He certainly had a negative opinion about the large numbers of Jewish people who didn't believe, but that's something that comes right out of their own scriptures. See the many rebellions of the people in Exodus and Numbers, Psalm 78 (which again reflects on those same times), the entire books of Judges and the Kings, and for that matter almost all the prophets for clear examples of Jewish people using the history of Jewish unbelief to make a spiritual point about what people should do now. John is in a long line of anti-Semitism from within the Hebrew people if that's all it takes to be anti-Semitic. All these same points are made by Jesus in the Synoptics as well, so it's not even particular to John among the gospels.

As a rule, whenever John's Jesus employs the phrase "the Jews" in a pejorative sense, the entire Jewish population is involved with no distinction between groups being made or intended in the text. The use of the generalizing description, "the Jews," shows the calculated effort undertaken by the evangelist to condemn the entire Jewish people in the eyes of his audience. It is used as a direct and calculated attempt to depict "the Jews," as a nation, as a villainous people. Its use is part of the author's campaign to show his audience that the Jews, as followers of the devil, are against not only Jesus but God Himself (John 8:44-47). Indeed, that is exactly how Christians have understood the contents of this Gospel throughout the centuries.

What's true about all that is true of Jeremiah as well. Was he anti-Semitic? Amos goes through a long rant about the evils of the nations and God's judgment against them. Then he moves to Judah and Israel and makes clear that he's reserved his harshest words for them. Was he anti-Semitic? The people of God were called to be separate, were given the revelation of God, and were given a purpose -- to represent God to the nations. They failed in that purpose in many ways, and in large numbers during Jesus' time had in fact rejected the one that all of that had looked forward to. Is it anti-Semitic to say that only the faithful Jews were faithful, that the faithful Jews and the Gentiles grafted in are the ones who have remained true to the promise and are now the legitimate people of God in spiritual terms? I don't see how John is doing anything different from what Paul does throughout Romans, and Paul's doing so is consistent with his longing for the rest of his people to be saved.

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ANTISEMITISM BLOG POSTS I from Digitus, Finger & Co. on July 12, 2004 5:00 AM

This is a very narrow list, and, mostly for my reference, but feel free to check out some of the links. There were many good sites that did not have search engines, so I could not include their links. If you�ve got some you�d like to suggest, please do. Read More


What you say about John in response to this other Mark sounds pretty sound. From what I can remember about John it lends itself slightly more to an anti-semitic interpretation, but I think a thorough thinking-through reveals that John has no anti-semitic message. Wasn't John written before the Pauline letters, and so at that time only Jews were allowed to become Christians, and in order to become a Christian you still had to be circumcised in the Jewish tradition? I could very well be wrong about this, but, if I'm right, this is just one more reason to think John not anti-semitic, and helps defeat your opponents initial claim.

It's not another Mark. The reason I was distinguishing you was because I put a link to your discussion and didn't want people to think you were the same person I was having a conversation with on the side.

Most scholars put John toward the very end of the New Testament writings, between 80 and 90. They generally think it was completed before the epistles of John and the Revelation, which most scholars think were from the 90s, so that argument won't help me here.

I do think John saw Christianity as the fulfillment of the true Judaism and that many still in Judaism had abandoned true Judaism. The fellow I've been in email discussion with responded to what I've posted here by saying that that's the essence of anti-Semitism because it's defining true Judaism as those one agrees with. The problem with that is that it's a positive attitude toward Judaism in general, seeing this guy Jesus as the fulfillment of all of the Hebrew scriptures. How can that be anti-Semitic? It's self-consciously dependent on Judaism for its very being.

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