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. Jesiel Monteiro de Miranda

    Enjoyed your article, “Who are the Jews in the Gospel of John.” I had already realized that there is indeed a distinction between John and the other Evangelists when he says “Jew.” It is very evident that the distinction of Jew is generally presented as an adversary of Jesus. But one should consider that Jesus speaks about salvation come from the Jews.
    In fact John is the most Jewish gospel all of them can talk about what is wrong between their and that is good.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Invite you to explore my Jewish-Samaritan Journey through the Gospel of John (you can find it on every page of the blog). Dr. Eli

  2. Andreas Stutz

    I’ll try to write in English even though it isn’t my native language. 🙂 I found the Article very interesting. While reading it, anouther thought came up in my mind. Since the Gospel of John is written later than the other Gospels and the Schisma between Rabbinic Judaism and Messianic Judaism became stronger – isn’t it possible that John isn’t using the Term “the Jews” in a religious-polemic way, so it would simply mean the Oppnents of Jesus? The Adjective “jewish” would then still remain neutral, since it is used unpolemic (e.g. specifying Places or Customs).
    תודה על תשובתך

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Before I can get to part two of your point. I have to object! 🙂 I do not think we know anything about the date of John’s composition. It could be the earliest or the latest of the Gospels. Please, read introduction to the commentary. Let’s keep thinking together. And, Andreas, welcome to our group. It is good to have you with us! Dr. Eli

  3. […] were from Nazareth, the village where Jesus’ family resided after returning from Egypt. The Hoi Ioudaioi asked how was it possible that Jesus came down from heaven, since they knew his parents from […]

  4. Jane Neal

    Interesting comment from Ruth on Aug 13. We have not by any means taken over, and should remember, we are merely grafted in to the Root, as wild olive branches. However, this is an interesting discussion, as I see it from a very simple perspective, that the Jews referred to as being “of the devil” or anti Christian and definitely the ones referred within the context of the story of the Raising of Lazarus, and Mary realising that they were reporting them to the authorities, were the authorities of the Synagogues at the time, the Pharisees and the Saducees. I have always thought that these were indeed the people with whom Judas dealt, in his act of selling out Jesus to them, and the High Priest Caiaphas being the leader. In some versions we are told that they even incited the crowds at Jesus’ Trial and subsequent crucifixion. Maybe I am wrong, and have got my contexts in the above discussion a bit skewed, and apologise if so, but is this a valid point? God bless and this is so interesting.