Who Are “the Jews” In The Gospel Of John?

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hroughout Christian history, the Gospel of John has stood among the most favorite books of the Bible, alongside perhaps only the Psalms, Isaiah and the book of Romans. This gospel has also been a source of debate. One of the main reasons for this is its “anti-Jewish” rhetoric. The problem here is that the harsh words to “the Jews” were not addressed to a particular Jewish group as in other Gospels. After all, harsh rhetoric is also present in the so-called “most Jewish” of all the four gospels, the gospel of Matthew (Matt. 23) and is consistent with the standards of speech that were acceptable for the Israelite prophetic tradition (Is.1:2-4). However, in Matthew, as well as in Mark and Luke, in most cases it can be clearly seen that Jesus argued with Jewish groups like Scribes and Pharisees, but not with all Jews. It is peculiar that only in the Gospel of John is the un-nuanced “the Jews” (in most English translations) used repeatedly, usually referring to the opponents of Jesus who were often seeking to kill him (5:18; 7:1-10; 8:1-22, 8:40; 10:29-33; 11:8; 18:14; 18:28). Most-strikingly, it is to “the Jews” who initially followed him in this Gospel alone that Jesus said: “Your belong to your father, the devil.” (8:31) So, are Christian Bibles translating the Greek words “Hoi Iudaioi” accurately as “the Jews” in today’s sense of the word?

It looks like the Gospel author is operating within a context of intra-Jewish factional dispute, although the boundaries and definitions themselves are part of that debate. It is beyond doubt that once the Fourth Gospel is removed from that original context, and the constraints of that context, it could and was easily read as an anti-Jewish polemical document. However, the difficulty, with this Gospel, is not that it is the most “Anti-Jewish” Gospel, when it comes to the rhetoric used, but that it is also most Jewish of all the four gospels as well. For example, it is only in this Gospel, that Jesus says that “Salvation is from the Jews” (Jn.4:22) and that Jesus was buried as a Jew (Jn.19:40). So, yes as you can see, it’s complicated.

One example that illustrates the insufficiency of today’s terminology to understand the context surrounding the Gospel of John can be seen in John 11:53-54. There we are told that upon a threat on his life, Jesus withdrew to a village called Ephraim for fear of the people the author calls – Hoi Iudaioi:

“So from that day on they plotted to take his life. Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.”

From this text it is clear that unless we acknowledge we are currently operating with labels and categories that were foreign to the evangelist, we cannot possibly make sense of the use of the term “the Jews” in this Gospel. Think about it, if we continue to interpret this Gospel using traditional translation terminology, this verse would totally confuse us: The “Jewish” Jesus moved away from “the Jews,” into a “Jewish” village Ephraim, with his “Jewish” disciples.

Our point is simple: the Bible does not need to be re-written, but it needs to be re-read.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Cecil Price

    Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg,

    Thanks for your responses.

    Is Jesus referring to the same group who believed in Him in John 8:31, who He refers to their father being the devil in John 8:44? If so, true believers would have God as their Father instead of the devil.


    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      It is my humble (or not so humble opinion) 🙂 that we are approaching this ancient text through the lenses of 2000 of inner-Christian theological debates. In this case it seems eternal debate (though naturally is not) between the Calvinists and Armenian. What we should try to do as much as possible (and its not possible to do it fully).

      All of this is to say that we read 1st century John and we think Calvin, Luther vs. others. 🙂 The Reformers ought to be viewed in their own context, John in his own. Since John lived before these debated I think that he is very simplistic in his reasoning. Jesus called these people – children of the Devil, but he was addressing the group that “early believed in him”. So, what is going on? I think Jesus calls hoi Ioudioi system/domonion and therefore those who take part in that system are also – the children of the Devil. So in this case some could be for a time or at the time believe in Jesus on some level, but still part of the system that makes them in some way – the children of the devil in Jesus terminology. (Just to clarify I do not mean here Judaism vs. Christianity). I know that this answers sounds like Eli is thinking out load. I agree. 🙂

      1. Rafael

        The whole debate between Calvinists and Armenian disappears completely when you understand time. God created time when he created the space-time continuum. But God is not limited by his creation, not even time. He is omnipresent throughout the space-time continuum. It is difficult to get away from the boundaries of temporal terms. But God exists simultaneously in our future and in our past (not to mention our present). Today, I choose Him. After I do this, He then has a relationship with me. Since He also exists simultaneously before the foundation of the earth, he (back then) already knows me intimately, before I exist. How can that be written in simple temporal terms? He foreknew me. He didn’t just know about me. He had intimate knowledge of me long before I was even conceived. All this Calvin vs Armenian debate, and many other debates are rendered moot when we understand that God is timeless, and not limited to its boundaries, except where He chooses to be, such as when He says that He inhabits eternity, and when He sheds His power to become bound by time in a temporal body.

  2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    Well put.

  3. Bishop Betao

    There’s no citizenship when we come to talk about spiritual opposition.
    Unfortunatelly many tradionally christians have develop prejudices against races,colours,backgrounds.
    Jesus was just preventing that his time to die come in the right moment thru the right hands. We may never condem Jews or no one else about persecuting Jesus,although we may discern motivations and choices as individuals concerning Jesus life.

  4. Judson Stone

    This morning reading in Jeremiah 32:12 I came across “and all the Jews.” It made me think of the debate about the Gospel of John’s references to ‘the Jews.’

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      The key question to ask is not what does the word mean today, but what it meant when the author wrote it down? Then you can go back and see the original meaning and ONLY then applying for today.

      1. festus im darlington

        The real christians are the blacks hebrews, not those who does’t knew their colour, I believe in Jesus christ, (Jesus says in Romans 3:29
        For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. who you thinks, he is talking to

  5. Jeffrey Feinberg

    Inspiring commentary on the book of John. Please keep the blogs coming!

    You might find that the translation of the Tree of Life New Covenant (Destiny Image, 2011) offers helpful perspective on the rendering, in context, of Ioudaioi (as “Judeans,” “Judean leaders,” and even as an alternative “Galileans” in a footnote to Jn. 6:41).

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Yes, I think its complicated, but certainly various Israelite (we would say in today’s language – Jewish – groups) were all in the mix. Galileans – certainly, Samaritans-no doubt, Essene, etc. One can not simply say as was suggested before that hoi Iudaioi are the Judeans, simply because they are also found in Galilee. Question is what are they doing there and what is their relationship to the Jerusalem power structure of the day.

  6. Dr. Greg Waddell

    Great article but it left me hanging. So, how was John using the term? 🙂

  7. Dr. Lawrence Cameron

    Yes, yes and more yes! Thank you. See my blog at blog.claritycentral.com

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you.

  8. Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    Dear Dr. Bivin. Thank you for writing and thank you for your contribution to the field in starting and leading the Jerusalem School of Synaptic Research! I tend to agree with Buth’s theory as you are describing it.
    However, one day you will have to explain to me something. I am obviously failing to see – the importance of teaching Koine Greek as a living language vs. how it is usually taught in Seminaries.
    I am still not sure as to why I should be able to tell you in Koine Greek: “May I please have a glass of water with sirup?” If I simply want to be able to read and understand the Scriptures.
    Please, point me in the right direction with my no doubt faulty logic here.

    1. Cheryl Durham

      I agree with your response. Would it not be better to teach how GREEK was used in the LXX and the connection to Hebrew? It seems that there are so many words and phrases that were altered to accommodate the differences in Worldview that it hardly seems necessary to understand Greek. It seems more efficient to understand Hebrew and find those words and phrases used in Greek to articulate the Hebraic concepts.

      1. shelly

        I agree.

    2. Dr. Sheri Klouda

      I appreciate your insights. I visited a Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC several years ago and had the opportunity to attend a class where it became very clear to me that the portrayal of “Jews” as those who singlehandedly crucified Jesus in contemporary films was wholly inaccurate, and caused a great deal of worry to Jewish students, who were concerned that movies like this would cause a resurgence in persecution. It was enlightening to me, and I seek to convey to my primarily Christian students the pervasive Jewish-ness of the gospels and Jesus’ reliance on the Hebrew Bible as his authority.

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Dear Dr. Sheri Klouda, welcome to Jewish Studies for Christians. Thank you very much for your comment. I think what is amazing (and telling) to what degree most Christians today are not even aware of the Anti-Jewish problem in New Testament interpretation. There is so much love for Israel and the Jews today (uncharacteristic for Church history as a whole) that when confronted with the white big elephant it is hard to get Christians to admit that even have a problem here. I personally think that it can and must be resolved, but at least I am aware that this an issue for anyone who reads the Gospels (especially John) carefully enough. Yours, Eli

        1. Rafael

          I began attending a messianic synagogue in San Diego almost two years ago. A few months ago, I learned that my own father believed that the NT had replaced the OT, and that the church had replaced Israel. He asked me, in light of that, why I would want to convert to judaism. I told him that I wasn’t converting at all, but enriching my understanding of the Jewish roots and heritage of the NT and of christianity.

          I told him that Jesus Himself stated quite emphatically that not even the tiniest little mark in the entire OT would pass away until ALL be fulfilled. And I told him that if there’s even just one prophecy in the OT yet unfulfilled, then according to Jesus, the OT cannot pass away. I then told him that the OT has prophecies regarding the millennial kingdom, such as the lion eating straw like an ox and sleeping next to lambs, children with bears on a leash, infants playing with adders, and a man of a hundred years being considered to be a child. I asked him when have these things ever been commonplace.

          But because my response had not dealt specifically with his charge that the church has replaced Israel, I later sent him a text message stating the prophecy of Zechariah 14:16-21, and asked him several questions:
          – can God lie?
          – can God be wrong?
          – can God make a prophecy that does not come to pass?
          – and how can the OT be dismissed, contrary to the words of Jesus, if it still has prophecies not yet fulfilled?
          – and when has the church ever observed the feast of sukkot?
          – and why would it ever start?
          – and this prophecy says that the defeated enemies of Israel would go up yearly to Jerusalem, but if the church has replaced Israel, then where is the Jerusalem mentioned here?

          I never got a response from my father about that message. Months have passed. I don’t know if the topic will ever come back up. Time will tell.

  9. David N. Bivin

    I read with great interest your “‘The Jews’ in the Gospel of John.”

    Nice writing! And nice thinking!

    Please keep writing on John. I’m very interested in your commentary, not because John helps me very much in reconstructing the Hebrew behind the synoptic gospels, but because I’ve become fascinated by the gospel as I’ve read and reread John for the last 3 years as a way of gaining fluency in Koine Greek. According to Dr. Randall Buth, the simple Greek of John’s gospel may be the result of it having been penned in spoken Koine Greek, as opposed to literary Koine (the style used by Paul). Whether or not Buth’s suggestion is correct, the gospel is certainly very repetitive, thus its use as the basis for many introductory Greek courses in seminaries and Bible colleges.

  10. Dr. Harrison

    Thank you very much for your posts, I enjoy them a lot. Keep it up!