The common lectionary: antisemitism in John’s Gospel. Surprise? Not really.

Like most Christians who went to church last Sunday,  I found myself listening to the  familiar story of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9,  But for the first time this jarring line leaped out at me:

“His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”  (John 9:22) NRSV

Now, in Protestantland most people are probably reading out of the NIV, which has politically sanitized this verse to say “Jewish leaders” rather than just the “Jews”.   But in the ever popular King James bible it is even worse than my NRSV:

“These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue.”

Just in case anyone missed it, the Early English authors used the words “the Jews” twice,  to ensure that we all understand who the bad guys were.  You could almost forget that the blind man and his parents were Jewish too.  Or that everyone in this particular passage were Jewish, last but not least, Jesus himself.

Am I nitpicking here?  Is this just a bit of trivia?  Well, not when you consider that throughout the centuries this is how Jesus, his disciples and his adversaries have been depicted, I don’t think you can deny that this Johannine depiction of  “the Jews”  has shaped much of the Christian world view. Even to this day, as seen in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” or the Millinialist’s championing of Israel for the purpose of advancing Armageddon,  antisemitism is thread throughout the fabric of the church.  To the detriment of all Christian and, of course, to the detriment of our Jewish neighbors. And to the detriment of world peace.

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  1. #1 by Dan Wilkinson on April 6, 2011 - 2:03 pm

    No, you’re not nitpicking here. There’s a body of scholarly work that deals specifically John’s use of the Greek hoi ioudaioi (“the Jews”). Simply translating it as “the Jews” may be the easiest approach, but it fails to capture the range of meaning and nuance that the word held: it can refer to the Jewish people in general, to the Judeans who lived in and near Jerusalem, to people hostile to Jesus, or to the authorities in Jerusalem. I don’t think there’s necessarily an anti-Semitic bent to English translations that simply use “the Jews” nor do I think changing it to “Jewish leaders” is necessarily an attempt to sanitize an offensive text. The fact of the matter is that we’re living almost 2000 years after the Gospel of John was written in Greek, and so we must not only seek to translate the words themselves, but also the ideas and culture surrounding those words. Sadly, most Christians don’t want to take the time to understand the historical and social context of a text, and many readily twist and distort the words to serve their own agenda.

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on April 6, 2011 - 2:18 pm

    Right. So ( I believe) that the NSRV and the KJV are the more accurate renditions. But unless there is some understanding among the congregation of the back story of the times as well as the supposed authorship of John’s gospel, it could easily be misunderstood in dangerous ways. And has been. I really hate to say this, but my choice of the above caricature was no accident because I remember seeing very similar things when I was a child and in family surroundings. My mother still spells out in a whisper “the J.E.W.s” in casual conversation. And I am always amazed at how, in this day and age, I meet people who are astonished when I tell them Jesus was a Jew.

    So I have to give the nod, at least this time, to the NIV.

  3. #3 by Dan Wilkinson on April 6, 2011 - 3:27 pm

    The BDAG lexicon also warns against translating it as “the Jews” because “many readers or auditors of Bible translations to not practice the historical judgment necessary to distinguish between circumstances and events of an ancient time and contemporary ethnic-religions-social realities, with the result that anti-Judaism in the modern sense of the term is needlessly fostered through biblical texts.”

    I agree that antisemitism is still very much a problem within Christianity, and it’s a problem that seems to receive very little notice…so thanks for drawing some attention to it!

  4. #4 by logiopath on April 8, 2011 - 5:09 pm

    Hoi Vay!

  5. #5 by Alex Haiken on April 9, 2011 - 9:33 pm

    I think we need to remember that the NT — just like the OT — was written by Jews, for Jews and about Jews. So for anyone to imply that the text is Anti-Semitic would be ludicrous from the get-go.

    One need not be a scholar to know — and as a Jewish believer, I am personally aware — that the history of Jewish objections to Jesus is a long one, dating back 2,000 years to the days of Christ as clearly evidenced by this passage from John. By then some of the Jewish leaders had decided that anyone who believed Jesus came from God would be put out of the synagogue (John 9:22). When the blind man testified that Jesus was indeed from God (John 9:30-33), the leaders put him out. Things have not changed. Like the blind man whom Jesus healed, Jewish believers are often excluded from the Jewish community now as they were then.

    (Yet ironically if Christ is indeed the Jewish Messiah, promised and prophesied throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the most Jewish thing anyone could do would be to follow him. In actuallity it is you Gentile people who are following a faith that is in nature and substance a Jewish one!)

    But if what’s going on today is the same as what was going on in the gospel of John and has been going on for 2,000 years, why should you be so surprised and why attempt to soft soap and cover it up with translation and lexicon mumbo jumbo?

  6. #6 by Christian Beyer on April 9, 2011 - 11:24 pm

    Welcome Alex.

    Although the scriptures were written defiinitely about Jews and most likely all written by Jews does not mean that there were not kernels of anti-semitism within some of the New Testament writings.

    Most scholars do not believe that the apostle John wrote the gospel bearing his name and many believe this gospel’s audience was gentile. Though the Jesus movement was very defiinitely Jewish, by the time the gospel of John likely was written there existed some well established tensions between orthodox Jews, “Christian” Jews and “Christian” gentiles. These tensions were what Paul’s letter to the church in Rome addressed. Though I personally doubt that all the words on the pages of John’s gospel today were the original ones, those in question generalize the Jewishness of Jesus’ opponents to the point where the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples seem to disappear. This aspect of thes Gospel has certainly been promoted in this way over the centuries.

    I am far from surprised. I’ve been fully aware, and trying to share with others, the idea that antismetism has its roots in the early church. As I said, I am still surprised when I meet Christians who are seemingly oblivious to the Jewishness of Jesus and the scriptures. And I am dismayed at the bigotry of many people who claim to follow Jesus. Since most people are ignorant of Biblical history, and that there is little tendency on the part of most clergy to enlighten their congregation in that area, then I think it is essential that some of this material be edited (not censored) to take this into account, or the meaning of the message will be lost. As history has shown.

    Besides, editing or modify scriptural texts to take into account the current cultural situation of the times is hardly a matter of applying soft soap and mumbo jumbo. I think it is interesting how many people object to this, saying it is a threat to the purity of the scriptues, when it is obvious that the scriptures are hardly pure and unadulterated.

    It’s not that the original texts or even the translations are antisemitic per se (though I believe parts definitely are) but that the way they are written can easlily be used to support antisemitism (and they definitely have).

  7. #7 by Christian Beyer on April 9, 2011 - 11:34 pm

    After having checked and read your profile I am chastened. I was tempted to go back and delete my comment, as I am not qualified to be ‘lecturing’ someone with your bona fides. But I’ll let it stand, with all due respect, as this is what I’ve come to believe.

    As you have a masters in theology from Westminster you’ve surely heard all this before, but likley wouldn’t agree. I have friends who are Messianic Jews, who feel that their position is the logical summation of being Jewish, and I have friends who are Jews who say that Messianic Jews are not Jews at all. And I have conservative Christian friends who say that the term Messianic Jew is oxymoronic, that once one converts to Christ he can no longer be a Jew.

  8. #8 by Alex Haiken on April 10, 2011 - 7:17 am

    These are not tensions that were developing or developed around the time the gospel of John was written. These tensions existed from the get-go. The Jews were killing Jewish believers way before Paul even became a believer himself. In fact, he was one of the people involved in the killings and the persecutions (See Acts 8:1-3). The persecutor became the persecuted. As the church grew, the persecutions increased. But they were never nonexistent, not ever. There were always Jews who got that Jesus was the Jewish messiah prophesied by the Hebrew prophets and there were always Jews who did not. But this too had been prophesied from the get-go.

    There is a multitude of reasons why many Jews did not get it, both now and then. First, there is an element of obscurity that characterizes biblical prediction. Even those to whom prophetic visions were granted often did not know what they meant. Daniel, for example, was told by the angel who appeared to him, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are closed up and sealed until the time of the end” (Dan 12:9).

    Interpretation of prophecy in advance is almost completely foreign to biblical thought. Predictive prophecy is for confirmation, direction and understanding at the time of its fulfillment and not a moment before. That’s why prophets like Isaiah [29:11] also indicated that the prophecies were like the words of a sealed book to his generation.

    Even those who witnessed their fulfillment did not always comprehend what was taking place. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. They had to be instructed about the significance of Jesus’ death, in the light of prophecy (see Luke 24:25-27). John also declares the disciples’ lack of perception regarding the significance of the triumphal entry (see John (12:16). The Hebrew prophets and the psalmist predicted he would be stumbling stone to his own Jewish people. (See Isa 8:14).

    Were the Hebrew prophets and Jesus also Anti-Semitic? Of course not. This was not “Anti-Semitism,” this was God working out his plan exactly as he planned, predicted and foretold!

    • #9 by Christian Beyer on April 10, 2011 - 8:39 am

      I used to accept this as well, even used to believe this for a fairly brief time. My “conversion” from post-Catholic atheism occurred in a fundamentalist community. But I always had the nagging feeling that we Christians merely backed Jesus into these predictions and co-opted them to suit our theology. It is an apologetic cliche to tout the astronomical odds that all these conclusive OT predictions could be true. But the facts are that these predictions are hardly conclusive and are subject to various interpretations. With all due respect, the idea that those who don’t see scriptures in the light of Christian “orthodoxy” are in some way blind, is fairly arrogant and scripturally unsustainable.

      Reminds me of the famous fallacy of Lewis’ Trilemma. There is at least a fourth option: Jesus did not actually say everything attributed to him. Of course this calls into question Biblical inerrancy, which is a tough pill to swallow. It was for me, but I am glad I did. Prior to this I struggled with a cognitive dissonance that I could not quell with a faith in (or forced belief of) Biblical doctrine and have since been able to develop a stronger faith (or trust) in God.

      Sent from my iPod

  9. #10 by Alex Haiken on April 10, 2011 - 8:29 am

    BTW, I’m not quite sure why my profile is linking to a deleted blog, but if you’re interested in checking out some of my musings, my blog is at:

  10. #12 by Alex Haiken on April 10, 2011 - 8:50 am

    Would love to hear more re your thoughts about this. Even, the NT aside, you would agree that the OT contains hundreds of prophecies concerning this messiah who was to come, no? Prophecies concerning his pre-existence, his ancestry, his birth, the time of his appearance, his character, his ministry, his dual nature, his heath, his resurrection, etc. Do you think the NT writers just made up the story of Christ to fit these patterns? Seems to me that the primary point of the NT is that Jesus is the Jewish messiah of the OT.

    • #13 by Christian Beyer on April 10, 2011 - 9:06 am

      Gotta be brief or I’ll be late for church. :)

      To me, a Christian, who has found salvation through Jesus, he is the Christ, the long awaited Messiah. But what kind of a messiah? And a savior from what? He certainly did lead the chosen people in triumph over their oppressors and enemies. He did not fulfill those very satisfying prophesies (this messiah is so unsatisfying that an entire Christian subculture has been built up around Revelations, Daniel and a few lines from Paul).

      And what about the ‘prophesies’ ( I like to think of prophesy as a rebuking, warning and instruction to those who claim to honor and follow God) that did not come ‘true’?

    • #14 by Christian Beyer on April 10, 2011 - 9:16 am

      “Seems to me that the primary point of the NT is that Jesus is the Jewish messiah of the OT”

      No me. I’m unsure what the primary point might be, but one that trumps that is the good news that we are loved by God and need not spend our lives in fear of God nor in subjegaton to those who use claims of divine access in order to supress us.

      Another might be that we can never truly be free, never truly recieve the love and mercy of God until we are loving and merciful to ourselves and others.

      Another is that God requires no sacrifce from us (Micah 6:8) – the age of sacrifice is over – but this means we must cease the ways in which we sacrifice others in order that we might prosper. The whole Rene Girard scapegoating idea. And Jesus sacrificed himself to make this point. The Romans and those Jews that feared him found no victory in his execution.

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