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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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