Gospel of John. Credit: Creative Commons

We all read texts, ancient and contemporary, from where we stand. I’ve been reading the Gospel of John for the past quarter century as someone raised Jewish who loves Jesus and his Way of peace. When I first encountered the Gospel’s apparent hostility to “the Jews,” I was shaken. As someone born within a decade of the Holocaust, I am and have always been deeply aware of how Christian hostility to “the Jews” has been exclusionary and murderous. I was taught by my mother from as long as I can remember to be proud of my Jewish heritage and not to betray it by “selling out” or trying “to pass” as my father did, changing the family name from “Horowitz” to “Howard” and having a nose job (as was the fashion at the time) to “look less Jewish.” I believe that my four decades following Jesus have made me more, not less, grateful for my heritage and the gifts of the Jews to the world.

So, this encounter with “the Jews” in John’s gospel has always been at the heart of my work, as a New Testament scholar and disciple. In my 1994 book, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis), I argued that the Greek Ioudaioi in John’s gospel referred not to “Jews” but to “Judeans.” This usage reflects first geography (“Judeans” are people from “Judea,” just as “Galileans” are people from “Galilee”), but more importantly, ideology. Throughout John’s gospel, the Judeans are those, both among the elite and the ordinary people, who defended Jerusalem’s relationship with the Roman Empire, including the temple and its authority. The Johannine Jesus, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel before him, condemns not his kindred in general, but those who betray Abraham, Moses and the prophets by, in the words of the Gospel’s chief priests, proclaiming “we have no king but Caesar” (John 19.15). Jesus, in the prophetic tradition that persists to this day, sharply critiques his own people for collaborating with the oppressor.

My views fell at first on the deaf ears of people unwilling to change the familiar echoes of texts heard since childhood. But in more recent years, scholars have begun to come around to consider that, not only in John’s gospel, but in all ancient Greek texts, Ioudaioi refers not to “Jews” but to “Judeans.” (See the excellent and comprehensive survey article by Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38 (2007) 1-56, which Reinhartz engages.)

Into this fray comes the esteemed Jewish scholar of John’s gospel, Adele Reinhartz. In a recently published piece, she argues vehemently that this move “inadvertently creates confusion and misunder-standing and merely sidesteps the issue without addressing the anti-Jewish or even anti-Semitic potential of texts such as the Gospel of John.”

I could not disagree more.

Whether as “Jews” or “Judeans,” we are necessarily rendering an ancient Greek word in English terms. Perhaps the only “correct” translation is none at all: to transliterate rather than translate Ioudaioi, as we do with many other untranslatable biblical words, such as “Pharisees” or “Paraclete.” But this solution only pushes off the problem. There were people known as Ioudaioi then and there are people known as “Jews” now. The question remains: how are these two people related, if at all?

Reinhartz is clear in stating her goal: “Let us not rupture the vital connection – the persistence of identity – between ancient and modern Jews.” I’m glad to state my own goal just as clearly: let us separate the identity of Jesus’ first century opponents from the “Jews” of today. My goal, however, is not based on a denial of the meaning of John’s gospel, but on an engagement with John’s gospel on its own terms and in its own cultural context.

This is not the place to walk through the 71 uses of Ioudaios/Ioudaioi in John’s gospel. What is important is to explore the clear discontinuity between the first century world and our own. For the Ioudaioi, the Jerusalem temple was the key symbol of authority and identity which Jesus threatened, named explicitly at John 11.48:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.

From Deuteronomy 16 forward, “place” was a euphemism for Jerusalem and the temple. For example:

You shall offer the passover sacrifice for the LORD your God, from the flock and the herd, at the place that the LORD will choose as a dwelling for his name. (Deut 16.2)

Credit: Creative Commons

Today, of course, there is no temple in Jerusalem. Whatever it means to be a “Jew” today, one thing it doesn’t mean is centralized worship at the Jerusalem temple.

Another difference: the key context for the argument between Jesus and the Ioudaioi in John’s gospel is the presence and power of the Roman Empire. Messianic hopes centered on the prospect of God sending a military or prophetic leader who would liberate God’s people from foreign domination and restore the Jerusalem-centered monarchy in the lineage of David. Again, there is no imperial domination of Jerusalem today, and no hope among Jews for a restoration of the Davidic monarchy.

These contextual differences are central to who the Ioudaioi in John’s gospel are. Earlier in biblical history, God’s people were known as “Israelites” or “Judahites.” Sometimes they were known as “Hebrews,” although Israeli scholar Meir Sternberg has made an exhaustive argument for why “Hebrews” should almost always be considered an ethnic slur word in its original context. That “Hebrews” was later not heard in this pejorative way underscores the discontinuity of group labels across the long arc of time.

I don’t hear Reinhartz or any other scholar arguing for the “vital connection” between ancient “Israelites” and people today, at least in terms of group identity. Time passes, and people change how we identify ourselves. The Ioudaioi in John’s gospel should be seen as what they were: a function of the first century world and its contexts, not the lineal predecessors of today’s “Jews.”


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