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 Alex Haiken on April 10, 2011 - 7:41 pm

    I see where you’re coming from and respect your conclusions. But as for myself, I think while those are all marvelous truths that are indeed indicative of the message of the NT. They are merely results or consequences of as opposed to the cause or reason for. The NT did not come down to us in a vacuum. It is the culmination of God’s great promises to us which began way back in Genesis. Fore example, if we looked at the entire Bible as one continuous grand story or narrative — which I believe it is — we might see the whole of Scripture as a six-act structure:

    Act 1: God Establishes his Kingdom – (Creation)
    Act 2: Rebellion in the Kingdom – (Fall)
    Act 3: The King chooses Israel – (Redemption Initiated)
    — Scene 1: A People for the King
    — Scene 2: A Land for the People
    Interlude: A Kingdom Story Waiting for an Ending – (Intertestamental Period)
    Act 4: The Coming of the King – (Redemption Accomplished)
    Act 5: Spreading the News of the King – (The Mission of the Church)
    — Scene 1: From Jerusalem to Rome
    — Scene 2: And into all the World
    Act 6: The Return of the King – (Redemption Completed

    If the above is true, then although the things you listed are indeed true , the coming of Jesus was the culmination of God’s great plan for how to fix what had become broken. It is the way in which he planned to bring redemption to a broken world. If so, the fact that Jesus is the promised redeemer would be the primary point — and the blessings that are ours because he is the redeemer are merely some of the wonderful results or consequences of the fact that the redeemer has come as promised.

    • #2 by Christian Beyer on April 10, 2011 - 10:57 pm

      I don’t quite see the story laid out in that way but even so, if Jesus is the culmination of God’s plan to fix what has been broken, then:

      Why does it not seem fixed?

      Why must he return?

      Was Jesus wrong when he uttered on the cross: “it is finished” ? Or did he mean something else?

      Sent from my iPod

  2. #3 by Alex Haiken on April 11, 2011 - 8:31 am

    Boy, don’t you know any questions that can be satisfactorily answered in a sentence or two? 🙂

    I’m going to try and answer this in two parts/posts as I believe your questions are both good ones and sincere ones.

    Part 1: Yes, I believe he did mean something else. in Luke 4, Jesus stood up to read from Isaiah and said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, release for the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll and said, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. This marked the ushering in of the kingdom of God. But it was not the full breaking in of God’s kingdom. With these words, Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promise and plan in himself since he is the figure described in the passage; he is proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of God that is already at work within him.
    The center of Jesus’ message and mission was the Kingdom of God. It was the hub to which the spokes were attached. Although most of Jesus’ teachings do not actually mention the Kingdom, if Jesus’ words and deeds had any animating center, it was his perception of the Kingdom of God. Yet the more we recognize the centrality of the Kingdom in Jesus’ ministry, the more we are puzzled but the fact that he never truly defines it, though the synoptics show him speaking of it in a variety of ways.

    In Luke 11:20, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God as something that moves toward people, for the Lord’s Prayer asks that it “come.” On another occasion (Mark 12:34), Jesus commends a person for being near the Kingdom implying the man has moved toward the Kingdom. Jesus also speaks of the Kingdom as a space one enters (Matt 5:20), as something that can be received (Mark 10:15), or can also be taken away (Matt 21:43). Jesus also identifies those to whom the Kingdom belongs, e.g., the poor (Luke 6:20); the poor in spirit (Matt 5:3), and the persecuted (Matt 5:10). Evidently, what Jesus had in mind when he referred to the Kingdom could not be conveyed with only one image.

    In Jesus’ time, the idea that God is king (or sovereign) was not news; for while the actual phase “the Kingdom of God” does not appear in the Old Testament, the idea that God is sovereign over all creation, and especially over the people of Israel, was deeply rooted in the Jewish faith Jesus inherited and shared with his hearers. What was news — good news — is the announcement that the time of waiting for God’s kingship to assert itself decisively has now arrived. God’s Kingdom “has come near” so near that whoever believes this message can, and should, respond by turning life Godward before the Kingdom actually arrives in fullness for all to see. Those who believe Jesus’ message respond by reordering their lives. Instead of living as they always had, out of the past, believers now live out of the future, by what is not yet actual but has come so near they begin by living as if it had arrived. Because the kingdom is not fully yet here, when everything and everyone will be right, those who live by the Kingdom are out of step with the present; they march by a drum they hear but cannot see. Believers live already in the not yet visible.

  3. #4 by Alex Haiken on April 11, 2011 - 8:32 am

    Part 2: Already/Not Yet

    We live between what’s often referred to in Scripture as “this age” and “the age to come.” The end of “this age” was the life, death and resurrection of Christ (when as you noted, Jesus declared, “it is finished”). “The age to come” will be marked by Christ’s return. The time between these two is the time of the “already and the not yet”. This present-day tension is often expressed in phrases such as the Kingdom of God is “already,” but also “not yet,” or “here, but not yet fully here.”

    During his first coming, the Messiah is prophesied to do four things. This is very clear from Jesus’ reading of the passage, described in Luke 4:18: (1) to proclaim good news (or the gospel) to men, (2) to proclaim liberty to the captives, e.g., free those enslaved to the curse of the Law, (3) to open the prison of them who are bound, e.g., Jew and Gentile need no longer fear death or be imprisoned by that fear, and (4) to proclaim the acceptable year of God’s favor, e.g., under the grace of God, our salvation comes purely from accepting that the Messiah died and rose again on our behalf.
    Because the Kingdom of God is already here, believers expect to see God actively working, sometimes even miraculously in the present day. Present day manifestations of the Kingdom of God include the presence of the Holy Spirit within every Christian, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, missionary activity and sometimes even divine healing and other miracles. Additionally, the role of individual Christians and of the Church as a whole is to represent the Kingdom of God to the world through evangelism, missions, and social action.

    But because the Kingdom of God is not yet here in its full expression, the works of this present broken age continue, though not as unlimited as it would have without the presence of the Kingdom of God. Although Christians have eternal life, we still get sick and die. Although we have been freed from sin, the temptation to sin, and sin itself, continue to plague our lives. Although God dwells within us, our knowledge of God at times seems quite limited. As the Bible reminds us, we only “know in part” and “see through a glass darkly” right now (1 Cor 13:12).

    • #5 by Christian Beyer on April 14, 2011 - 11:21 am

      Sorry, I’ve been a little busy with some illness in the family. I haven’t even had a chance to look at your responses but I look forward to doing so ASAP. Thanks.

  4. #6 by lurid tales of doom on June 11, 2011 - 8:01 am

    I’ve been following the discussion stemming from this post with fascination, though I have not felt qualified to really engage with it. I find the anti-semitism in John to be troubling, what stands out for me especially is, not the blame placed on the Jews for Jesus’ death or the insinuation that the Jews are to be feared, but rather the notion that the Jews are sons of the devil (8:44). Other problematic parts of John are limited by their context in the time and place of John’s narrative, but that is a essentialising statement that I could see fueling anti-Jewish feeling today.

    Recieving these ideas as a passively absorbing audience is dangerous and can lead to violence; just as the bible’s depiction of the land of Canaan being given to the children of Abraham forever has fueled conflict in the middle east, and proclaimations that witches, homosexuals and those of other faiths should be put to death have provoked numerous murders and hate crimes. So it’s reassuring to see people here that have been studying these texts(Perhaps you will disagree with me as an athiest, but I have always considered the Bible as a library of texts rather than as one book) as an active audience, analysing what they mean then and now.

    meh.. waffling on sorry. 🙂

    • #7 by Christian Beyer on June 11, 2011 - 2:45 pm

      Not qualified. Based upon your remarks, I would say you are highly qualified. And I heartily agree. The Bible is not a “book” it is an anthology. Seeing it otherwise is the beginning of many problems.

      Sent from my iPod

  5. #8 by Alex on June 18, 2011 - 12:11 am

    The Gospel of John does NOT say that Jews are sons of the Devil, nor does it give such a notion. Read more closely.

    • #9 by Christian Beyer on June 18, 2011 - 8:11 am

      The implication in 8:44 is that those who do not accept Jesus do so because of their father, the devil (words Jesus likely never uttered anyway).

      Your more accurate understanding of the scriptures, Alex, is based upon scholarship. The typical butt in the pew on Sunday cannot be bothered with such study hence they take the words for what they seem to mean in plain English. The (maybe) more knowledgeable pastor can use this to his advantage and have scriptures make all sorts of points that may never have been intended. Like antisemitism.

  6. #10 by Alex on June 18, 2011 - 12:25 am

    “Surprise? Not really”

    The scriptures used by the earliest Christians were the books of the Tanakh. The Church has always seen itself as Israel, just as those Jews who did not become Christians saw themselves. Reinforcing my point, St. John the Evangelist was one of the pillars of the Jerusalem Church, which was Jewish not only in theological self understanding as the nation of Israel, but also in its culture and membership.

    As you pointed out, it’s made clear in John’s gospel that everyone in the scene is Jewish. I am sure that the Jewish St. John had a reason for identifying one group out of that scene as ‘The Jews’ as distinct from the others, but I don’t know what it is. What is very clear is that it is not a case of anti-semitism, and that the reference is indeed to a group of the leaders.

  7. #11 by Alex Haiken on June 18, 2011 - 10:48 am

    In this instance, the distinction is simply being made between the believing “Jews” and the non-believing “Jews”. Both groups are Jews. However, one group of the Jews have had their eyes opened to the fact that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel that the Hebrew Scriptures had prophesied about, whereas the other group did not. Nothing anti-Semitic here, just yet another illustration that, to use the Apostle Paul’s words, the gospel is foolishness to those (Jew and Gentile alike) whose eyes have not yet been opened. “But a natural man [non-believer] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them for they are spirtually appraised.” (1 Cor 2:14)

    -Alex
    http://jewishchristiangay.wordpress.com

    • #12 by Christian Beyer on June 18, 2011 - 11:20 am

      You are missing my point. Without this additional information, without the back story, this easily taken as condemnation of the Jews (who by conventional definition do NOT accept Jesus as messiah). These are the seeds of the Churdh’s history of antisemitism. These words should not be studied without access to additional information. It’s like playing with a loaded gun.

  8. #13 by Alex Haiken on June 18, 2011 - 11:58 am

    Yes, indeed. I would agree that your directive is, by and large, an excellent general rule in the study of any passage of scripture. Our goal is always to try and get at what the text meant to the author and to the original intended audience — without reading into it the many traditional interpretations that may have grown up around it. I was actually responding to the comment made in the post above by the gentleman who identifies himself as “A twenty something Orthodox Christian living in the U.S.”

    -Alex
    http://jewishchristiangay.wordpress.com

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