03 May, 2010

Essay - “The Jews” in the Fourth Gospel

Asses the role of "the Jews" in the Fourth Gospel, and their relationship to Christ and his disciples. What issues are raised by this portrayal for contemporary Christian faith?

Introduction – An unsolved riddle

Scholars have been closely examining the typically Johannine expression "the Jews" for the past decades in order to interpret what this might have meant for the original audience. As it stands, many are the possible different readings for hoi ioudaoi but all of them have so far failed to present a consistent, overarching reading; even in the case of Rudolf Bultmann's theory, one has to allow for exceptions or 'untypical usages' (Studying John, 1994, 55). Furthermore, recent studies have highlighted the 'fundamental Jewishness' (ibid. 36) of this Gospel and the ambivalence with which hoi ioudaoi is used, making this an unsolved riddle in which one has to balance seemingly positive affirmations such as 'salvation is from the Jews' (4:22) and harsh ones such as 'you are from your father the devil' (8:44). The Johannine hostility towards hoi ioudaoi was tragically used in anti-Jewish propaganda from the times of the medieval ghettos to Nazi Germany. For example, Der Vater der Juden is der Teufel ("The Father of the Jews is the Devil") (cf. The Books of the New Testament, 2007, 126) was a book aimed to German children and wrongly inspired by Jesus' quarrel with "the Jews" in John 8. Affirming the particular Jewish character of the Fourth Gospel is important in order to address previous manipulations of the text's message which gave to it a marked anti-Semitic nuance.
Being mindful of this caveat, this paper will first examine the role of "the Jews" in John's Gospel. Secondly, will concentrate on the reasons behind the hostility towards this group; thirdly, it will consider how recent scholarship might influence the Jewish-Christian relationships.

Who are hoi ioudaoi and what was their role?
As mentioned earlier, there are few different theories about the meaning of hoi ioudaoi. First, Bultmann saw "the Jews" 'as symbol of the world's obduracy and darkness' (Studying John, 1994, 55). In this case, the role of Gospel characters could be defined by their actions or in this case, by considering what they do not do, what they reject, what they do not believe. In other words, by defining what they are not. Their role seems mostly very negative and set over against Jesus and his disciples. "The Jews" persecute Jesus (cf. 5:16) and seek to kill him (cf. 5:18); they instil fear (cf. 7:13); they do not believe (cf. 9:18); they take up stones to lapidate Jesus (cf. 10:31) etc... Their actions – and in consequence their role – are a mirror-like opposition to the ones of Jesus and his disciples. Thus, Bultmann's theory is able to explain the use of this term in most cases; however, as John Ashton has noted, 'it reads too much in the Gospel' (Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2007, 69) and probably does not address the original meaning intended by the author. This is not to say that Bulmann was wrong, but rather that his interpretation was understandably biased by his modern Christian prospective.
Secondly, Malcolm Lowe argued against the usual rendering of hoi ioudaoi as "the Jews". Unlike Francis Moloney, who advocates the use of quotation marks whenever writing about the Johannine "Jews" (cf. The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, 1998, 10), Lowe goes further and holds that the correct translation for hoi ioudaoi ought to be "Judeans" (cf. Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2007, 66), thus erasing any possible misunderstanding of the traditional rendition. For Lowe hoi ioudaoi is used to define the people from Judea (cf. Studying John, 1994, 37) on two levels: on a merely geographical level – as defiance to Southern snobbery – and on a wider scale encompassing a political and religious frame of mind centred on Jerusalem and the Temple. Lowe's theory cannot generally be accepted as referring just to people from a specific geographical area because of the hoi ioudaoi references during Jesus ministry in Galilee (e.g. cf. 6:41). Therefore, building on this, the theory proposed by Daniel Boyarin sees hoi ioudaoi
both as Judeans and as the members of 'a religious group with adherents outside Judea'
(Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2007, 70).
Thirdly, Ashton holds that "the Jews" were a religious party which gradually assumed authority over the Jewish people after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD (cf. ibid. 70). According to Ashton, Modern Judaism could have originated from this group in which pharisaic influences would have been very strong. This is a very interesting interpretation of John's Gospel which builds on the works of Lowe and Boyarin. It also relates to the theories about a "community of the beloved disciple" and could explain better the history behind another typically Johannine expression uποσυνάγωγος. In this case, "the Jews" were a puritan group which dominated Judaism and they were responsible for isolating and rejecting the first disciples as well as anyone who confessed faith in Christ (cf. 9:22). Therefore, in Ashton's theory it is possible to find a newer reading for the whole Fourth Gospel where in the life of Jesus and his disciples are echoed the life and the struggles of the Johannine community. The Johannine community looked at its contemporary struggles and also retrospectively at Jesus' warnings of persecutions typing "the Jews" as the fulfilment of these admonitions. "The Jews" threw those who confessed Jesus out of their synagogues (cf. 9:22) in the same way in which the chief priests of the Jews rejected Jesus as King of the Jews (cf.19:21). However, even this reading of John has to allow for some apparently incoherent usages of hoi ioudaoi such as Jesus' claim that 'salvation is from the Jews' (4:22). In this case, Jesus represents the encounter of the God's revelation with a non-Jewish world. The Messiah is part of a long standing revelatory tradition which is fulfilled in him (The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, 1998, 128) and the early Church believed in the unique place of the Jews – without quotation marks! – in the history of salvation (cf. ibid. 132).

Reasons behind the hostility – Family quarrels?
If "the Jews" are to be understood as the dominant religious party opposed to the Johannine community then the two factions can be seen as locked in a family quarrel 'facing one another across the room of a house that all have shared and all call home' (John Ashon in The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, 1998, 11). "The Jews", therefore, are accused of not being true sons of Abraham – denying both their national and family identity – (cf. 8:39-41). Jerusalem and the temple theology are seen as redundant whilst the Jewish observance of ancient festivals is supplanted by the coming of Jesus who is the 'true light' (1:9), 'the Lamb of God' (1:29) and the one in whom living water is found (cf. 4:10).
Judaism had to rethink and reshape itself after the destruction of the Temple. At this time the pharisaic movement assumed gradually control over the religious life of the nation which was adapting itself to the shift from the Temple to the synagogues (cf. The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, 1998, 164). At the same times the early Christian communities had to face similar changes and also acknowledge the great divide between them and Judaism. The Fourth Gospel testifies to the heinous debates between two communities; on one side the Jews where striving for the uttermost purity of belief in the face of dramatic change whilst on the other communities like the one of the beloved disciple, articulated their faith in Jesus the Son of God (Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2007, 84). This belief brought them to open the doors to the non-Jews who believed; a move in the opposite direction from late First century Judaism. Ashton defines this hostility as odium theologicum as well as comparing it to a family row; however, the Gospel interpretation of "the Jews" must have re-echoed to the original readers with the painful rejection of those who confessed Jesus as the Messiah (ibid. 85). For example, "The Jews" are responsible of handing over Jesus to the Romans (cf. 18:28ss) whilst in the synoptics this role is played by the chief priest and other key figures. According to Ashton the particulars usage of hoi ioudaoi in chapter 18 mirrors the events of the Johannine community; there is no hope of reconciliation as "the Jews" have condemned Jesus and are determined to get him killed (ibid. 84). In the same way, Jesus taught in the synagogues 'where all the Jews come together' and invites listen to those 'who have heard' but he is accused of preaching a false and blasphemous doctrine (cf. 18:21).

What now?
Recent scholarship is helping to respond many unanswered questions about the interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. It is important for Christianity to affirm its inherently Jewish roots as well as to address those texts which were used in the past to forge anti-Semitic propaganda or justify oppression. In this case, a fresh reading of hoi ioudaoi is particularly necessary in valuing the relationship of the contemporary Church with Judaism. Discriminating between the Johannine hoi ioudaoi and the Jews is therefore incredibly important. The Church has moved in this direction in her lex orandi lex credendi and tried to affirm the particular role of the Jews in the history of salvation. For example the Roman Catholic Church has amended several times the Good Friday prayer for the Jews which in its original form declared the Jews to be 'faithless'. In the latest amendment of this prayer reads 'Oremus et pro Iudaeis [...]Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui vis ut omnes homines salvi fiant et ad agnitionem veritatis veniant, concede propitius, ut plenitudine gentium in Ecclesiam Tuam intrante omnis Israel salvus fiat.' (L'Osservatore Romano, Wednesday 6th Feb 2008). Other churches such as the Episcopal Church of America and many others in the the Anglican Communion have followed this example.

It is clear from the works of all the scholars taken in consideration here that hoi ioudaoi does not refer to a nation but its meaning is much more difficult to articulate. For Bultmann "the Jews" represent the world's darkness and rejection of Christ. For Lowe and Boyarin they are Judeans as well as those connected in some ways to Jerusalem and Temple-theology. For Ashton and Moloney "the Jews" are a dominant religious group who opposed and rejected (uποσυνάγωγος) the Christ, his disciples and the first Christian communities. This pharisaic movement found itself diametrically opposed to the Christian communities which were open to the non-Jewish world and aimed to be at one with all the believers (cf. 10:16 and 17:11). The rupture was painful, unrepairable, unavoidable and announced from the very beginning of the Fourth Gospel.

John Ashton, Studying John, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1994)
――, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 2007)
Ian Boxall, The Books of the New Testament, SCM Press (London, 2007)
A. M. Hunter, The Gospel According to John, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1965)
Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina, The Liturgical Press (Collegeville, 1998)


Daniel Graves said...

Some interesting thoughts on an enduring problem. My former teacher, Steve Mason of York University has an article on this entitled, "Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History" in his book, "Josephus, Judea and Christian Origins: Methods and Categories" Hendrickson, 2009.
It may be a helpful additiont to your bibliography.
Fr. Dan Graves

Diego said...

Thank you, Fr Dan, for your suggestion. The book sounds very interesting.
It is a rather big problem to grapple with which only comes to the fore when one does start to pay attention to the wording of the Fourth Gospel. Without understanding, many people (probably even some close to myself) have take "the Jews" as a face value attack to all Jewsih people. Very sad.