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. […] came to Jesus at night, and in John 7.50-52 we read that when he questioned his own fellow Hoi Iudaioi about Jesus’ arrest, he was questioned for loyalty: “Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and […]

  2. […] to do what he does and to say what he says. As we are considering the way in which the author uses hoi Ioudaioi (the Jews) there is something else of importance for us as we move through the […]

  3. […] part of which were Israelite Samaritans. It may also explain why the author uses the Greek word Hoi Ioudaioi (translated usually as simply “the Jews”) in the way he does. To Israelite Samaritans, the […]

  4. Ruth Hirt

    The Jews whom Jesus and the Gospel (Jewish)writer(s) referred to as the negatively named ‘the Jews’ were simply the unbelieving Jews. And to that, I believe Jesus was most indignant over the learned unbelieving Jews whom He got in contact with.

    The Gospel so un-Jewish? It was just a matter of the Jews’ failure to recognize what covenantly belongs to them. (Isaiah 6:9-10) (Acts 28:25, 26, 27, 28)

    Please include me among your updates-subscribers. Thank you very much.

    1. Snowball

      God made the Pharaoh of the times of the Exodus stubborn so that he could bring about His plans there.
      Jesus(pbuh) said that Pilot could have no power unless God gave it to him, and that he had to go through with God’s plans. Jesus even had Iscariot go out and do what he had to do at the right time. So the crucifixion wasn’t a failure on anyone’s part, and I make that point because the subject here is a sensitive one touching on these things.
      Some people did believe in Jesus and the Gospels make that clear. However, those in charge who opposed him and what he was saying were put their by the regional leaders and were very much their men. If God had wanted Jesus to be king at that point, he would not have put him there when the Romans had banned rulership by anyone in the bloodline that the Messiah had to come from.
      Now for where you are right. Although God intended the crucifixion, you are right about a failure to recognise what covenantly belonged to them.
      When Jesus wept for those in Jerusalem, he said that, after all of the expectation that the Messiah would reveal all, resulting in tens of thousands finding him in the desert to hear what he had to say, it would remain hidden from them.
      This is why Isaiah and Daniel(pbut) and the biblical book of Revelation all referred to a book that is sealed, and that people cannot see and perceive – yet. All three say you will see it.
      Job 33:14 says that God says more than one thing at the same time, and that is why Jesus said that he was revealing things hidden from the beginning of time, in accordance with Prophecy that he would.

  5. Raul Maldonado

    I am very interested in receiving this blog for, learn about the connection of the biblical text with Christianity. I appreciate that you can receive the information they have available even for English speakers.

    Estoy muy interesado en recibir este blog para, aprender acerca de la conexión del texto bíblico con el cristianismo. Le agradezco que pueda recibir la información que tienen disponible aun para los hablantes en lengua inglesa

  6. Ryan Ruckman

    The author of the Gospel of John was, himself, a Jew. Jesus was a Jew, He is the King of the Jews, salvation is of the Jews, and believing Jews are disciples who continue in His Word. The Gospel of John is replete with evidence for a pro-Jewish, redemptive faith in the Messiah while maintaining an anti-religio unbelief stance. Taken in the context of the entire book, all the references to the “Jew” in the ancient Gospel are not anti-Jewish.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Ryan, it is not that simple. But you are right it is NOT anti-Jewish in terms of today’s meaning of the word anti-Jewish.

  7. daniel makumbe

    please update me on your next publication.
    what do we call the people of Israel, are tey Israelis,jews, please help for I am a little bit confused?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Its complicated. There are different meanings for different shades of this term.

  8. Luis Reinaldo Bernal

    Very interesting your point of view on the Gospel of John, and the differences continue to lie in the training acquired by the Jews that Jesus was a spiritual training with demonstration of power, and those who misjudged, together with authorities, they expected a Messiah to lead them to freedom earthy yet supported groups were reduced or that Jesus was persecuted, not the Jewish people.
    Salvation comes from the Lord and his Spirit to the Jews and Gentiles, Jesus and his 11 disciples revolutionaries. Now 2012 – 2020, the salvation of the Jews who receive it will materially and spiritually, just a few days by the same Jew who left and leave the history and comes to judge the nations and churches that have been enemies of his people.
    With love Luis

    Muy interesante su punto de vista sobre el evangelio de Juan, y las diferencias siguen radicando en la formación que adquirieron los Judios al lado de Jesús que fué una formación espiritual con demostración de poder, y los que juzgaron mal, en unión de autoridades, ya que esperaban un mesías que los condujera a la libertad terrenal; no obstante fueron reducidos grupos que apoyaron a Jesús o que lo persiguieron, no el pueblo Judio.
    La salvación viene de Jehova y su Espiritu a los judios y gentiles, por Jesús y sus 11 discípulos revolucionarios. Ahora 2012 – 2020, la salvación de los Judíos que lo reciban, vendrá material y espiritualmente, a muy pocos días, por el mismo judio que partió y partirá la historia de la humanidad y viene a juzgar a naciones e iglesias que han sido enemigas de su pueblo.
    Con amor Luis

  9. sirley

    great article, our christian church need to teach to their member things like that.
    l am looking forward to reading more things like this.
    thanks

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      You can promote this among your spheres of influence as well! 🙂

  10. Irene Maxwell

    Rabbi, it is interesting to me that we still, after all these centuries, argue the toss about whether one is a ‘Jew’, a gentile, a Samaritian…when Jesus strove his whole life to overcome these artificial, and indeed,nonsensical divisions – and to emphasize the unity of a God-given life.
    can’t we at least begin to see the unity in God’s manifest kingdom?
    As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well – ‘there will come a time, and that time is now, when we will worship God neither on the mountain, nor in the temple, but in spirit and truth…’

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Irene,

      The distinctions are necessary, I am afraid because without them we loose the basic meaning and therefore create our own – a meaning that was not intended first by the authors of the original Gospel manuscripts.

      Usually when a verse is quoted that in Christ there is neither Jew or Gentile, it usually intended to mean that in Christ there is no longer a Jew. :-).

      1. Wolf Paul

        Hello Dr Lizorkin-Eyzenberg,
        coming to this discussion rather late I hope my comment is still welcome.
        Can I clarify your second paragraph above in your response to Irene?
        Are you saying that
        — the NT authors intended the statement that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile to mean that in Christ there is no longer a Jew, or that
        — modern Christians quoting these verses intend to imply that there is no longer a Jew?
        In other words, do you think that “supercessionism”, the notion that the church has replaced Israel as God’s people, is inherent in the New Testament writings, or do you see it as a largely post-4th century BCE mis-interpretation due to the increased “gentilization” of the church and the growing anti-semitism?

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Wolf, hi. No, you are not too late :-). I reread it and in the words of Jack Sparrow you right what is said “is even more than unhelpful” :-).

          NT writers are not guilty of this I don’t think. Later theological reflection of many Christians is to be blamed for it.