Why Would “the Jews” Want To Kill Jesus? (john 5.18)

18 This was why hoi Ioudaioi were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he “breaking” the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

(Please, make sure to read this post in the context of the overall study – you can find it here. Especially, the sections covered in John 5.2-17).

How can their strong negative language, expressing their intent to kill him, be explained?  We read that hoi Ioudaioi  (normally and incorrectly translated simply as “the Jews”) sought to kill Jesus (vs.18). It is known that in the vast majority of premeditated murder cases, the actions of the murderer were based on feelings of anger that eventually led to the murder itself. This is probably why Jesus taught that in some way anger towards a fellow human is the same as actual murder.

When people become (and stay very) angry for a long period of time they often cannot bear the heavy burden of their anger. They seek to take some action that will satisfy and nullify the anger that causes them so much emotional pain. They must end the pain that their own anger causes them. The stronger the anger; the stronger is the desire to end it. In the absence of a better way, people resort to evil actions such as violence and even murder.

The issue was not that Jesus did not abide by the Sabbath-keeping rulings of hoi Ioudaioi. Judaism in the time of Jesus was not monolithic. It is probably better to speak in terms of many Judaisms rather than one, given the wide variety of Jewish observance practices and scriptural interpretation that existed at that time. Only in the 5th – 7th centuries C.E. can we speak of Jewish rabbinic leadership solidifying its authority over the Jewish community. The rabbis were engaged in setting forth an authoritative corpus of rabbinic literature that would determine the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament for the rest of the Jewish community for centuries to come. They did very much succeed, but only centuries later.

Incidentally, the word in Greek translated here as “breaking” the Sabbath does not need to be translated this way. It is equally possible to speak of Jesus “setting the Sabbath free.” It is not that the author of John thought Jesus was breaking the Sabbath. He in fact was persuaded that Jesus could not break the command of his own, so by definition, Jesus could not be everything John said he was and at the same time to be a Sabbath-breaker. But, in John’s story, hoi Iudaioi accused him of breaking the Sabbath. Because they were seeking to discredit him in the eyes of the people whose heart-allegiance they did not possess and whose rebellion they still feared.

Jesus’ very presence (His person) as well as his teachings (His words) and his miracles (His deeds) were spelling trouble for the Jerusalem Temple elite and others who fed off the same budget and status. Jesus was gaining more and more popular following. He was performing miracles and giving prophetic speeches almost exclusively outside of Judea, (the headquarters of hoi Ioudaioi) where, for the most part, he was accepted and honored. He, as a matter of principle, did not respond to their requests to submit to their authority. He was rightly perceived by them to be a real threat; but most importantly, he was a threat to their personal status and their personal financial resources that were associated with the Jerusalem Temple.

In the chapter 5, however, the anger and plans to kill Jesus are only beginning. They pick up when Jesus will cross the red line of the patience and tolerance of the hoi Ioudaioi. The final threat of Jesus to the hoi Ioudaioi leadership will be his most spectacular miracle – the resurrection of the well-known and respected member of the hoi Ioudaioi, a man named Eliezar. (We know him as Lazarus.)

We read in a later portion of the Gospel that Jesus’ coming to Bethany (very near Jerusalem) and resurrecting Lazarus resulted in two significant events. Many members of hoi Ioudaioi placed their faith in Jesus. As a result, an emergency meeting of the top level of the leadership was called. In John 11:47-48, we read: “… the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

We will look at this story in detail when we get to chapter 11, but for now, it is clear that the accusations of hoi Ioudaioi in chapter 5 did not have to do with Jesus’ seemingly “liberal” Sabbath observance, but with his person, words and deeds.

It is not that his claims to be the Son of Man/Logos of God did not have a place in Judaisms of the time, but simply that Jesus was not allowed to take that place. Stop and think about it again. It was not because “divine Messiah” claim did not fit “the Jewish” thinking spectrum (see the links), it was precisely because it did. That was the problem!

The Jerusalem leaders did the math. If things continue “as is,” Jesus would surely have put them out of a job with his prophetic speeches that were validated by his great miracles. In the next sections we will see how Jesus’ roles will merge two normally separate concepts, the Son of God and the Son of Man. We will consider John 5.19-30 in its ancient literary and poetic context. I think you will be amazed!

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. R. G. Montgomery

    Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg; I received a link to your expository blog from eTeacher Hebrew. I think I’ll stay for the teaching and insights.

    Since the Gospel of John was originally written in Greek, the word translated ‘the Jews’ is not ‘hoi Iudaioi’, but simply ‘ioudaios’. (I don’t do much Greek yet.) However, from the context involved, clearly this refers to “Jewish leaders” rather than the general populace.

    The reasons for the antipathy of the ‘leaders’ is also well established in the text; you are correct, they wished to maintain their prestige, power and financial security. The framing of violations of the Mosaic Law were indeed merely excuses to discredit Jesus and provoke the Roman authority into acting against Jesus.

    From our temporal vantage, we can also look and see the sovereign plan of the LORD being carried out; invisible to and unsuspected by both the Jewish and Roman authorities.

    One other thing: One notes modern people have much the same attitude towards the LORD and Jesus Christ as the power brokers of His day. “We’re happy to see the LORD, as long as He fits into our expectations and plans.” As it is said, “Go figure.”

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Iudaios is not “Jews”, but a “Jew”. Hoi Ioudaioi (pl) is THE (hoi) Jews (Ioudaioi).

      Are you going to take our Greek course? (Starts in in May!)

  2. Marianna Albritton

    This discussion is very helpful. Especially the corrected meaning of “broke the Sabbath” sheds a great light in view of Jesus’ other teachings. This is why I am so glad to find a connection to the Hebrew meaning about words and customs. I’m glad to finally be able to find your site. Thank you, Shalom.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Marianna, just to clarify it could be that the translation should be “broke the sabbath” (meaning broke it from their stand point). Alternative translation is set the sabbath free, but it does not have to be translated that way. There several possibilities here.

  3. Christopher Herring

    I read your blog and the comments….what a wonderfully insightful message with several contextual and cultural considerations.
    I feel like I just read a “Paul Harvey summary”….now I know the rest of the story!
    Thank you for your thorough research and your concise depiction of the setting of this story in John 5.

    Sincerely, CHRIS
    Christopher Herring
    Louisville, MS 39339

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Chris, you are most welcome! If you have not yet, considering sign up for updates. I send this kinds of texts about once a week.

  4. Birdie Cutair

    My thought is that Jesus did not speak his words in Greek, but in Hebrew or Aramaic; so why is the New Testament always translated in the Greek. Some of the words in Hebrew have much stronger or different meanings than those of the Greek. I especially like the fact that you picked up on the “breaking” of the Sabbath as really meaning “freeing.”

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Jesus likely did also speak Greek. Roman Palestine in the first century was thoroughly Hellenized by the time of Jesus. Greek only and Greek type of Jewish education (merged) was very much present. The truth is that Jesus likely spoke Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew (yes Hebrew also according to the fairly recent but by now fairly well-substantiated research.)

      Now if you know immigrant communities you will also know that Russians in America often speak with Russinisms in English. Same with Hebrew and Aramaic, Jews spoke Greek with Hebraisms and Aramaisms. Could just have had this conversation in Hebrew or Aramaic? Of course he could, but we have very little info about that so if you ask me I would have to say I don’t know.

  5. Wendy Schild

    YES, Dr Eli. Best blog yet, I love that you talked about the Hebrew root words… So like our Father, whose foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom,(and that is cumulative)
    And He so loves the world He sent His only begotten Son so whosoever belies should never perish but have everlasting life.

  6. Tony Lanclos

    Thank you Dr. Eli for your intuitive study of the Scriptures. Your opening question was, “How can their strong negative language, expressing their intent to kill him, be explained? If I may, I believe the hoi Iudaioi were all the more angry at His claims for “calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” Breaking the Sabbath (which Christ came to fulfill; Matthew 5:17) was certainly a crime by their own admission and according to their own man made traditions; however, I believe the main gist of their anger was focused towards the Lord Jesus Christ claims concerning His deity (John 10:33).
    God bless you my friend in all of your studies in the Word of God.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Tony and thank you for posting your feedback. I agree, but I want to make one point that I don’t believe you are seeing just yet :-). The issue was not that Judaism/s did not allow for Divine Messiah, nor that Judaism/s did not allow for Jesus to be that Messiah. The issue was that they felt threatened to see Jesus in that role. Look if he was divine, what did it do with their “authority” over the Jewish people that were so desperately wanted to keep (Read also this http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/2012/08/john-11-3/)

  7. James DeFrancisco, PhD

    It is interesting that the Syriac also agrees with your comment based on the koine Greek text and that actually “setting the Sabbath free” may be a much better interpretation of this verse. I hate to say it but the translators (not the author of John himself) may have had an anti-semitic bias toward the hoi Iudaioi which resulted in a stronger translation than necessary. There were obvious political, allegiance, and rebellion issues and perceptions between the Judeans and rabbi Jesus but not necessarily unique religious practices relative to keeping Sabbath. As you know the Aramaic word used in John 5:18 that is often translated “breaking” is SRA (shin-resh-alep) which primarily means to loosen, untie, unfasten, unbind, as well as a wide range of related meanings and usages: set free, unseal, break open, unharness, etc. Thank you for your informative commentary on John. This little insight alone sheds much light on Jesus’ practices and how they related to the “Judaisms” of his time as well as both Judaism and Christianity today.

    Unfortunately, I missed this important detail when I wrote a case study on Did Jesus Violate Torah Command Relative to Shabbat (see http://aramaicbibleperspectives.com/uploads/Case_Study_Did_Jesus_violate_Torah_12-12.pdf)

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Dr. DerFrancisco, thank you very much for your comments and insight.

  8. gilbert

    I have a problem! my problem is g-d & Jesus Is all the same and all In one. may g-d & Jesus condemn be to hell If I am wrong, I only report to these to guy’s or spirit’s and I have testimonies how they save me when I was close to death 4 times praise g-d & Jesus for this Amen

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Gilbert, I don’t understand what your problem is exactly. Be well. Dr. Eli

      1. gilbert

        Thank you Dr. Eli! Shalom, Gilbert

  9. Ramón Sánchez

    Recently I have been reading some books regarding the Gospels as history, as per their writing style and regarding the miracles. The sum of these readings goes parallel to your insight which is that Jesus, in fact, didn’t actually “break” with the Sabath but actually may have fulfilled it and this could have been the reason for his persecution and death intention from certain groups or factions.
    This reading stems from some facts which include that Jesus actions on Sabath were making good deeds to people including healings and miracles some of them in synagogues. The problem with this behavior is that by doing this deeds, Jesus confronted scribes and Pharisees with their intent of maintaining the social ostracism against sinners, pools and outcast of all types. The critical issue is not then that Jesus performed miracles but that Jesus reinstated those attended by him on Sabbath to full participation in life, that is, out from exclusion. The problem for the factions was that he did this restauration of people with portentous miracles which exponentially multiplied the social impact of His deeds.
    Then, Jesus was in the center of a revolution of those outcasted by the factions and his restoration of them to full participation pointed to the end of the holding power of these factions over them. If they didn’t intervene against Jesus, then they would be forced to act accordingly, that is, to act to end the outcast situation of marginalized thousands. This was a direct replacement of their power and authority and a substitution of them because Jesus refused to yield to their authority but called those restored to live in full restoration and almost all of them elected to follow Jesus.
    My reading is then that this is why most Gospels emphasize on multitudes following Jesus and this was a direct peril to the authority of the scribes, the factions and even the Sanhedrin.
    Thus, I agree with Dr. Eli, it was not a breaking with the Sabbath but on the contrary a fulfillment of the good deeds and restoration of the people of Israel which was indeed prescribed in the Law.
    The intent on killing him by the factions was almost a criminal intent judged as “self defense” against a powerful new prophet that was decisively turning the tables against them with the Power of God on His side.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, dear Ramon for your always thoughtful participation.

  10. Gaea Singer

    Wow! This was one of my favorite ones so far! I say that regularly for these post! 😀 In re-reading so I could tell you what I liked, I liked it all! So just keep expressing yourself as usual. Your opening comments were very insightful, especially paired with the word relationships for anger-pocket-chair. I also liked Jesus “setting free” the Sabbath. That rings true with His character for me. (hmm–Lazarus’ name was Eliazar? pls put how we know that when you get to that article.) I know those of Jewish background have insights and oral history that I as a Gentile don’t, and I cherish your studied thoughts.

    Thank you, Dr. Eli!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Gaea. Please, pass this post on to your many friends. Eliezer/Lazarus is a common knowledge connecion. Also, I don’t think that the issue for greater insight has to do with being Jewish; it has rather to do with having immersed oneself in ocean of relevant Jewish and Greco-Roman contextual literature. The context is crucial. I think that is what you are really enojoying here.

      1. Gaea Singer

        Thank you Dr. Eli. I will look that up. And I have enthusiastically emailed this link to all my friends. I hope you reached your 1000 mark!

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg