The Book of John and ‘the Jews'

Recent findings allow scholars to argue for an earlier date of authorship for the Gospel of John

dead sea scrolls site521 (photo credit: John M. Black/ICEJ)
dead sea scrolls site521
(photo credit: John M. Black/ICEJ)
In last month’s Jerusalem Post Christian Edition, we took a fresh look at the Book of John in relation to recent archeological discoveries in the environs of Jerusalem, which indicate that the author of the gospel likely had detailed knowledge of the city before its destruction by Roman forces in 70 CE.
These findings allow scholars to argue for an earlier date of authorship for the Gospel of John than previously thought, leading to a paradigm shift in “Jesus Research” – the study of the historic figure of Jesus.
Beforehand, when John was assumed to have a late authorship, it meant the fourth gospel was considered insignificant in historical studies of Jesus, but now it is becoming clear that John may be just as important as the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in understanding the cultural setting in which Jesus of Nazareth lived.
In a recent lecture in Jerusalem, Dr.
James H. Charlesworth – professor of New Testament language and literature, and editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary – claimed that this paradigm shift goes beyond the question of dating the Gospel of John and investigating the life setting of Jesus. The new archeological finds have also triggered a shift in thinking about the Jewishness of the Gospel of John and its perceived anti- Semitic and anti-Judaic polemic.
Late date, low view The Gospel of John has historically been considered the least Jewish of the four gospels. Instead, it was deemed to be a very Greek document, not simply because it was written in Greek but also due to the supposed influences of Heraclitus and Stoicism.
Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher from the fourth-fifth century BCE who was known for carefully playing with the various meanings of the term Logos (“Word”), like that in the first chapter of the Gospel of John (1:1, 14).
In addition, Stoicism was a school of Hellenistic philosophy from the third century BCE that prized virtue and responsibility, themes that surface in Jesus’s response to Nicodemus (John 3:19-21), the woman at the well (John 4:16-18), and perhaps most explicitly, to the healed man in chapter 5, when Jesus tells him, “You have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:14).
Moreover, the Book of John has been viewed by many scholars as openly hostile to the Jewish people as a race and to Judaism as a religion. Since the prevailing theory was that it was compiled as late as the second century, scholars held that it reflected the negative attitudes towards Jews held by gentile believers, who by then were coming to dominate the Church.
One of the sharpest statements in this regard was penned by Jon D. Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, in his 1985 article, “Is there a counterpart in the Hebrew Bible to New Testament anti-Semitism?” “The harshest anti-Judaism in the New Testament appears in John,” wrote Levenson. “[T]his gospel insists that the Jews do not know God. In fact, their denial of ‘the son’ is a denial of ‘the father’ (John 5:23). Moreover – and here we are surely entitled to speak of anti- Semitism alongside anti-Judaism – John’s Jesus demonizes the Jews. ‘Your father is the devil,’ he tells them (John 8:44), ‘and you willingly carry out his desires.’” No doubt this perceived anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic rhetoric in John served as a major catalyst for centuries of Jewish persecution by the Church.
“The Fourth Gospel, more than any other book in the canonical body of Christian writings, is responsible for the frequent anti-Semitic expressions by Christians during the past 18 or 19 centuries,” asserted Prof. Eldon Jay Epp of Case Western Reserve University in his work, Anti-Semitism and the Popularity of the Fourth Gospel in Christianity.
Given that the Gospel of John is one of Christianity’s key authoritative texts, its passages were not only seen as an intrinsically anti-Semitic, anti-Judaic literary work, it was also widely interpreted in ways that maligned the Jewish people and faith.
But is the text of John itself anti-Semitic and/or anti-Judaic? Did the Evangelist hate the Jewish race of the first century and thereby seek to instill this hatred among his readership? And did the Evangelist really hate the Jewish religion and seek to foster that sentiment among his increasingly gentile audience? Early date, high view One of the initial problems with maintaining that John was deliberately anti-Semitic and anti-Judaic is that it joined other books of the New Testament in testifying to a very pluralistic Judaism in the first century.
There were a broad spectrum of views tolerated within mainstream Judaism at the time, including the Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots. Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls add the Essenes into the mix. And even Hebrew Christians were still allowed to sit in the synagogues in the early decades of the newly founded faith. So when scholars conclude the Gospel of John is anti-Judaic, which Judaism are they talking about? Nonetheless, the charge that the text of John is inherently antagonistic to the Jewish people and faith is anchored in the Gospel’s use of one particular Greek phrase – hoi Ioudaioi. Appearing 70 times in John as opposed to 17 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke combined, the phrase is typically translated as “the Jews,” and more often than not in a pejorative sense. But who are hoi Ioudaioi in John? And how do they function within the gospel? Some scholars have argued that it narrowly refers to the Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem, such as the Sadducees who controlled Temple worship and the Pharisees who were the teachers in the synagogues. Yet others contend it encompasses the Jewish people in general.
Several decades ago, Dr. Malcolm Lowe proposed that John’s repeated use of the phrase “the Jews” reflected a certain geographical rivalry within the Jewish community between the Judean elite in Jerusalem and the Galilee Jews.
In most instances, he held, “the Jews” of the Book of John meant “the Judeans,” who tended to look down on the Galilean followers of Jesus, who after all were mainly uneducated fishermen. As such, this was an internal “family” dispute and should not be exploited by gentile Christians to then promote hatred of all Jews.
In the most recent study on the meaning of hoi Ioudaioi, Prof. Cornelis Bennema of the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies argued that during the first century CE they were “a particular religious group within Judaism – the (strict) Torah- and Templeloyalists who are mainly located in Jerusalem and Judea but could have also been present in Galilee,” having the chief priests and Pharisees as their leaders.
Furthermore, he argues, the Gospel of John depicts a shift of hostility occurring within this Jewish elite from the Pharisees to the chief priests. What was once a religious-theological conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees [e.g., over Sabbath observance] shifted to a religious-political conflict between Jesus and the chief priests who presided over Temple service.
The key point in Bennema’s study is that “the Jews” in John did not refer to the Jewish people in general, and thus precludes the use of this phrase to then declare the Gospel of John to be anti- Semitic and anti-Judaic.
Moreover, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, beginning at Qumran in 1947, has forced scholars to revisit the Jewishness of the Gospel of John.
Language in John once thought to be the result of Hellenistic influences has been shown to originate in the Holy Land after all.
For instance, the “sons of light” (John 12:36) and the idea of “walking in the light” (John 12:35) have parallels in Qumran literature (1QS 1:9 and 1QS 3:20, respectively). The scrolls, therefore, reveal Jewish, not Greek, influence on the Evangelist.
One could then argue that rather than an anti-Judaic polemic, John presents a pro-Judaic work. On the basis of archeology, Charlesworth concludes, John “is the most Jewish of all the gospels.”
“I often think that when the Romans burned Jerusalem, they burned early Christianity. They [also] burned the tremendous power of Judaism,” Charlesworth asserted in his recent lecture. “I think everyone... would agree with me that the greatest heresy within Christian theology is anti-Semitism.”