“John” is often described as most anti-Jewish of the four gospels and it certainly deserves to be recognized alongside “Matthew” for stridency as anti-Jewish polemic. But only “Matthew” places guilt for the death of Jesus also on the children, the eternal curse upon all Jews, everywhere. Still, as polemic inspiring Jew-hatred “John” does deserve recognition for “second place.” This gospel describes Jesus several times threatened with death at the hands of irate “Saducees;” and while “the Jews” appears 87 times in the combined gospels, 71 appear in “John,” typically as a pejorative. But the most damning accusation in the fourth gospel, that which inspired many stereotypes still current, which so effectively served Nazi propaganda to demonize Jews as justification for extermination was having Jesus damn Jews as,
“of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
“John’s” identification of “the Jews” as children of Satan became, alongside “Matthew’s” condemning future Jewish generations as Christ-killers, a common justification in the hands of generations of theologians describing and expanding upon the Jewish Problem. From Augustine to Luther and today these representations of Jews justified forced conversion, taking Jewish children from their parents to be raised Catholic (most recently Edgardo Mortara in 1858). During the centuries of the crusades it justified mass-murder of entire Jewish communities and later the Spanish Inquisition’s determined hunt for Catholic descendents of Jewish converts, the Marranos [Spanish for “pigs”], who were tortured to confess “heresy” and burned at the stake. But even before these more well-known atrocities, one century before the First Crusade (1096) European cities and towns already rounded up whole Jewish communities to be burned alive in a central public space.
The Holocaust as description for the twentieth century effort to exterminate “the Jews” was not a recent innovation. The term derives from the Greek word “holokaustos” ("burned whole") and applied to dealing with the Jewish Problem has been around for centuries!
Daniel Harrington, SJ, author of Jesus: a Historical Portrait and many other works of theology and history recognizes the danger to Jews represented by “John”:
“The basic problem before us is that John’s Gospel says nasty things about a group that it calls “the Jews.” When twentieth-century people hear such negative talk about “the Jews,” they may assume a direct relation between “the Jews” of the Fourth Gospel and their Jewish neighbors who attend the local synagogue. Thus, the Fourth Gospel can become a vehicle for increasing anti-Semitism.”
Harrington identifies directly this gospel as a scriptural source for eternal Jewish punishment, as Christianity’s Jewish Problem. Christian scripture is not just a group of stories with limited impact. It is considered by the faithful the inerrant Word of God. All negative references, from Paul through the earlier three gospels and “John’s” venomous description of “the Jews” are articles of Christian faith. From scripture as immediate “Word of God” to theology as “explanation of scriptural meaning,” Jews are transformed from “people” into a kind of caricature: “Christ-killers” and “children of Satan.” Embedded in Christian scripture and lore these malevolent stereotypes represented by the term “the Jews” enter the historical memory of the culture and society emergent from Christianity; and from the religion’s holy repository and guarantor of anti-Jewish images, the Jewish Problem.
At times of social turmoil, such as preceded the Crusades and the election of Hitler’s Nazi Party these stereotypes rise to the surface and target “the Jews” as anxiety-release. Persecution and pogrom had, over the centuries, already resulted in millions of Jews murdered. With the development of modern industrial technology efficiency in the process of murder has intensified the scope of threat. One need only recall the efficiency of exterminating six million Jews and millions of others deemed unworthy of life by National Socialism: the Holocaust.
In the end the priest cannot just abandon the fourth gospel based on antisemitism. “John,” he describes, was a Jew experiencing the end of Jewish sovereignty, the destruction of Jerusalem, the loss of its religious focus, the temple. “John’s” messianic faith was dismissed by normative Judaism resulting in a competition for converts and survival. By Harrington’s telling “John’s” rage is born of despair, not hatred. Harrington’s assertion of “John’s” religion is interesting, but neither convincing nor widely accepted. Still, his honesty in confronting what he describes as the “antisemitism” of the fourth gospel is refreshing.
“John” and Luther
I opened this chapter with a quote from Martin Luther’s The Jews and their Lies (1543):
“in John 8 [:39,44] he states: 'You are of your father the devil.' It was intolerable to them [“the Jews”] to hear that they were not Abraham's but the devil's children, nor can they bear to hear this today.’"
We will discuss Luther at length in a future chapter. For now it is worth noting that his last two books, written shortly before he died, were aimed at “the Jews” and represent a transition from traditional Christian anti-Judaism to its more modern guise, antisemitism. For now I will provide another quote from the 1543 volume, an assertion of innocence projecting perpetrator-guilt onto the victim:
"A person who does not know the Devil, might wonder why they [sic] are so at enmity with the Christians above all others; for which they have no reason, since we only do good to them." (emphasis added)