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. Ted

    Interesting. In all my reading of the Gospel of John, the phrase “the Jews” has never come to the forefront. but now that I think about it it is obvious.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Its amazing how many evangelical Christians simply do not think there is a problem with anti-jewish statements in John :-). My only conclusion that they don’t read it careful enough and that their are no my-in-large no sensitive enough to the Anti-Judaism in general.

      1. Rafael

        I don’t know if you are using a translator, but that last paragraph makes no sense. Or perhaps my brain is tired.

  2. fabian francisco videla

    Thank you. Excellent commentary on John. Only in its Jewish context the term “Jews” can be understood in this Gospel.

  3. James DeFrancisco, PhD

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

    Very nice commentary as well as blog comments. Please keep these ideas coming on John and other parts of the Christian Scriptures. Your commentary is vitally needed to share ideas and create bridges between Jews and Christians. Since the majority of Jesus’ disciples were “Jews” in the national sense, it seems to be obvious that “the Jews” as used in the gospel of John is a prejorative term related to Jewish authorities in Jerusalem that were hostile to Jesus and his followers. However, rather than making a dogmatic statement to that effect I look forward to your work and the comments in this blog. Thank you for this wonderful work.

  4. katherine

    Keep writing and I am understanding more and more why I have always been drawn to the Jewish faith, though raised Christian.

  5. Faye

    Interesting.

  6. Laila Klaszus

    Thank you for your insights.

  7. Valter da Silva Reis

    Very interesting and appropriate placement of the word “Jews,” I have observed in some sermons, which does not explain who these “Jews” leading many people to understand that we all were to see Jesus crucified were Jewish and who consented to his death. These people who preach without knowing, often do so driven by emotion and not they measure the results, thank you for this opportunity to assist in multiplying the understanding that a serious and deep study, which collaborate to grow in grace and knowledge.

    thank you

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Valter, I am privileged and honored to help the Christian community at large to grow in this area of their biblical study. Unfortunately, it is not only the lack of passion that is responsible for this, there is a lot of passionate miss-preaching that goes on as well.

      1. Snowball

        You are so right. Some Christians have openly acknowledged that preachers in the past have been rabble rousers. It is shocking to see that it happened, and it follows that I completely understand why this subject is so important.
        One point that I like to make when anyone says anything sounding anti-Jewish is that Jesus(pbuh) was Jewish, and that it can only be the case that anyone who uses the term “the Jews” as though they have a problem with Jewish people as a whole, must also have a problem with Jesus.
        Since both Moslems and Christians are waiting for his return, it tends to silence that kind of talk.
        Any suggestion that anyone murdered Jesus meets the response that he repeatedly said that he had to make sure that it happened, and even stopped someone who attempted to defend him with a weapon, pointing that out to him again.
        Clearly, if any Christian could travel back in time now and try to stop Jesus from being crucified, Jesus himself would be telling them off, just like he did where there was any objection, or attempt to stop it from happening.
        Of course, if people read the book properly, it wouldn’t be necessary to point things like this out.

  8. Scott Janney

    I worked at a Catholic hospital with a Jewish woman who was the Director of Annual Giving. Once we attended a special Mass together & she left – feeling very upset – because of all of the very negative references to “the Jews” in the Gospel lesson from John.

    Although you don’t suggest rewriting, but rereading, in your piece, I’ve always wondered if “the Judeans” would be a better translation and description of what John is saying in his context. Not perfect, but since Jesus was regionally a Galilean, and religiously a Jew in the way we use that word, it makes some sense.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I think what happened at that mass is that she had a very hard time (and rightfully so) reconciling your love and acceptance of her, with the anti-Jewish message (albeit misunderstood) of John’s Gospel in today’s translation with newly invested meaning of Hoi Iudaioi as the Jewish People.

      I agree with that using Judeans as many have done makes a lot of sense and, boy, it would help solve major community problems! 🙂 The difficulty, however, can be seen in at least several passages that hoi Iudaioi are also located in Galilee.

      I, therefore, conclude that though helpful there seems to be either another main factor or at least other factors/aspects that would have to define the hoi Iudaioi in this Gospel more accurately. I approach the Gospel as anti-current-shepherds-of-Israel polemic by the followers of the Good/True Shepherd of Israel. I also understand that a major part of the audience in this Gospel may have been Israeli Samaritans (see my posts in appendix of the Gospel) Therefore, those who are in Diaspora and in Jewish Galilee are under their system umbrella. They are, therefore, their affiliates.

  9. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    I will address it at some point in the introduction some time in the future. But the short answer is – we do not know for sure. It is usually assumed that because the Gospel is so anti-Jewish it already reflects the Christian-Jewish divide. But this logic is circular, because it is based on a particular interpretation of who the Jews in John are. (Then it is assumed that it is anti-Jewish because it was written later when there was already (presumably) such a divide). I do not know when it was written and where it was written (the Gospel). I could have the fourth, third, second or first Gospel to be written.

    There is no doubt that Gentiles were around, but I think it is clear that Jesus was always hanging out and talking with and to other Jews like himself. Gentiles are highlighted as exception to the rule in the Gospels. The example with Mary you provided is excellent, because there we see that “the Jews” went to Pharisees.

    I think Paul does not use the Jews in the same way that John does. Its one book now, but it was not so in the first century. We’ve got to take into the account! Keep your comments coming they good and thoughtful ones.

  10. Margaret Comstock

    In discussing what John meant when he used the term “the Jews” it would be helpful to know just when this gospel was written. Was it near the end of his life, in the 90’s CE or was it earlier, even before the destruction of the Temple as some claim? If later in life, after his exile, he would almost certainly have developed a more articulated theology. However, since we will probably never know for sure, I have taken a more simplistic approach (maybe too simplistic) to the question of what did he really mean when he referred to “the Jews.”

    In examining the various references given I find that there is usually a crowd of people around Jesus. I speculate that this crowd would consist of both Jews and gentiles. If so , He was probably referring to the reaction of the Jews in the crowd. In the incident at the pool where the cripple was healed, Jesus also “…called God his Father, making himself equal with God” which would probably not have bothered the Gentiles, but would certainly have horrified the Jews who would have wished that He be put to death.

    Similarly, when Lazarus was raised some of the Jews who had been there with Mary believed, but others went to the priests and Pharisees who took it to the Council. In that passage it is clearly the Council who plotted His death.

    Similar episodes happened with Paul, who used his Hebrew name Saul until he stopped even trying to convert the Hebrews in his travels. Some Jews believed – some didn’t.

    Does this approach to understanding make sense? It does to me……. (Personal note: I am not used to this kind of research. My experience has been in mathematics and the teaching of mathematics. In teaching issues I have preferred an ethnographic approach rather than a statistical approach.)