Volume 23 - Issue 2

Is John’s Gospel Anti-Semitic?

by Steven Motyer

Jesus’ words to ‘the Jews’ in John 8:44, ‘You are of your father the devil, have a sad history of horrible anti-Semitic re-use. Lillian Freudmann writes that they ‘make anti-semitism respectable and encourage aggression against Jews. With “inspiration” like this, pious churchgoers have considered it acceptable at a minimum, and perhaps even their Christian duty, to join in massive attacks on Jews.’1

Can we argue that anti-Semitic use of John 8:44 is a dreadful misuse? Or is the Fourth Gospel itself guilty as charged? We must bear in mind, of course, that in this Gospel ‘the Jews’ are fairly consistently portrayed as spiritually blind and hostile to Jesus.

We are challenged here by a great need for definition. What exactly is ‘anti-Semitism’? And what exactly was the semantic content of Jesus’ charge against ‘the Jews’ in John 8? This second question in turn needs to be divided in two: what might this charge have meant within the context of Jesus’ ministry? and what might have been its intention and force as included within John’s Gospel, in its original life-setting? Only if ‘anti-Semitism’, as generally defined, denotes ideas and attitudes which we identify either in Jesus himself, or in the Fourth Gospel, can we justly call John 8:44 ‘anti-Semitic’.

Anti-Semitism is widely defined as ‘the hatred and persecution of Jews as a group; not the hatred of persons who happen to be Jews, but rather the hatred of persons because they are Jews’. This definition by Charles Glock and Rodney Stark as cited by Graham Keith, Hated Without a Cause? A Survey of Anti-Semitism (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997, p. 2f), reveals (a) the centrality of attitude in anti-Semitism: for whatever reasons, the Jews are hated, and it is the hatred, rather than its varied causes and settings, which makes anti-Semitism a continuous historical phenomenon. It reveals (b) that there is a certain overlap between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. ‘The hatred of persons because they are Jews’ means that that hatred is directed first at their religion and culture, and then at the persons themselves. However, there is a vital difference: anti-Judaism does not have to be expressed by hatred, while anti-Semitism can only be expressed in this way. Anti-Judaism is consistent with a wholehearted love both for Judaism and for Jews, while anti-Semitism is not.

Rosemary Ruether’s famous book Faith and Fratricide: The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism(Minneapolis; Seabury, 1974) which includes a powerful attack on the Fourth Gospel, refuses to distinguish (as its title suggests) between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. She argues that, simply by portraying the Messiah and his followers as the true Israel, the NT commits itself to an anti-Judaism inseparable from later Christian persecution of Jews. So even If anti-Judaism may be compatible with love for Jews, Ruether charges that it has actually given rise to deep hostility, so that in practice Christian anti-Judaism Is deeply anti-Semitic. Christians need therefore to repent, not just of the Holocaust and all that preceded it, but also of NT Christology as its ultimate root.

As far as Christian history is concerned, we must probably agree that the overlap between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism is almost total. Only with the rise of Puritanism did a more positive, less bleak attitude towards Jews begin to appear, the role of Israel in prophecy was emphasized, and missions to Jews were proposed. But Ruether rejects even such conversionist attitudes as alike demeaning and hostile, barely distinguishable from overt persecution. On her account of the matter, all true dialogue between Christianity and Judaism as stand-alone religions must cease. At best, Christians must simply repent of being themselves. If they are not willing to do this, then a second best will be to recognize the full validity, before God, of the Jewish way and covenant. But this causes great theological problems. (a) It apparently compromises the unity of God: how can he say such different things to the two groups? And (b) it fundamentally undermines the notion of ‘Christian Scripture’: for at the heart of our sacred texts, prominent among them the Fourth Gospel, lie attitudes and teaching which we must now reject.

For the Fourth Gospel certainly portrays the Messiah and his people as the true Israel. ‘I am the true Vine’ (15:1) says it as clearly as possible. But we must say firmly: this portrayal only qualifies as anti-Semitic if it is said with hatred, either by Jesus or by the fourth evangelist. So we need to be as clear as we can about the other two definitions—what this statement may have meant for Jesus, and for the fourth evangelist. I focus in this brief editorial on its meaning within John, rather than for Jesus—not because I hesitate to believe that Jesus said it, but because our access to Jesus is through John, and space is limited!

For nearly 30 years the Sitz im Leben proposed for the Fourth Gospel by J. Louis Martyn in his book, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), has commanded general agreement. And, if he is right, then hostile anti-Judaism conditioned the Fourth Gospel at its very genesis. He pictures its origin in the aftermath of the forcible expulsion of the Johannine community from its parent synagogue. The Gospel replays the story of the expulsion in terms of the story of Jesus, reflects the arguments that preceded and followed it, and rehearses the reinterpretation of their Jewish heritage whereby the Johannine community claimed it for themselves as the true Israel, over against unbelieving Judaism. Martyn himself maintained that the relationship was still quite cordial, and conversation was still continuing; but some of those who have developed his theory maintain that connections had been severed, and replaced by hostility and suspicion, even by hatred?

If this theory is correct, then it is hard to rescue the Fourth Gospel from the charge of anti-Semitism. ‘You are of your father the devil’ was more likely said with anger and hatred than with tears. So we will be faced with a Gospel which did indeed begin the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, albeit expressing an anti-Semitism of Jews against fellow-Jews. Several scholars have sought to limit the force of the language by describing it as an ‘argument within family’. But we must admit that, if Jews can be guilty of anti-Semitism, then it makes little difference if they are within or without the ‘family’. In any case, according to this theory, the Johannine community had left the family.

Is this theory right? In my recently published book Your Father the Devil? A New Approach to John and ‘the Jews’ (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997), I have sought to reassess the whole question. The issue cannot be tackled just by reinterpreting a verse here and another there. I believe the time is ripe to rethink the whole relationship between the Fourth Gospel and Judaism. Focusing on the essential points relating to anti-Semitism—and not rehearsing all the necessary argumentation—we must say the following:

(1) The rhetorical background is crucial. Luke T. Johnson in his article, ‘The New Testament’s anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic’, (JBL 108 [1989], 419–441), has helped us with a study of rhetoric within Judaism, revealing that it was possible to use very strong language about opponents within ‘the family’, without losing a sense of common belonging. John 8:44 is matched by language used at Qumran and by Philo. In particular, we must reckon with the tradition of prophetic rhetoric. Several scholars have pointed out how the prophets could denounce Israel and her leaders in the roundest terms without thereby laying themselves open to the charge of anti-Semitism. ‘Hatred’ was certainly not the motivation of their language—quite the opposite.

John 8 stands in this tradition. The chapter seems to owe much in particular to the language of Hosea, and to the wider prophetic notion of the lawsuit of the Lord against Israel. It is in dialogue form, but its portrayal of Jesus draws on this prophetic background, ironically casting ‘the Jews’ in the role of the Gentile nations ‘who do not know God’. The language in itself, therefore, does not step outside what was possible in the prophetic tradition.

(2) We may develop this point as the charge is ethical, not ontological. The scholarly literature is littered with comments to the effect that John 8 ‘diabolizes’ the Jews—locates their essential nature and the origin of their being in Satanic activity and motivation. Such comments mistake the rhetorical force and setting of this saying. When the patriarch Dan told his sons, ‘Your prince is Satan!’ (Testament of Dan 5:6), he was not making a statement about their ontology. The rhetorical function of this charge was to warn them against the apostasy and idolatry which the patriarch foresaw. He goes on immediately to predict salvation and restoration ‘from Beliar’ (5:11), and tells them: ‘Fear the Lord, my children, and protect yourselves from Satan’ (6:1).

Exactly the same is true of John 8:44. ‘The Jews’ are contemplating murder, and are rejecting ‘the truth’ from Jesus. They are not doing the works of Abraham, who welcomed the heavenly messengers, but are spurning this man from God (8:39–40). Insofar as they commit themselves to such actions, ‘the Jews’ are ‘of your father the devil’, and are ‘not of God’ (8:47). But at this stage, no final decision has been made. Ironically, it is one of Jesus’ own disciples who takes the next step, and commits himself to doing Satan’s desires by murdering Jesus. As a result. Satan ‘enters’ Judas (13:27). ‘The Jews’ in John 8 have not gone that far.

(3) First-century Jewish readers would recognize the Fourth Gospel as an appeal to them. This point follows from the last. In line with Martyn’s hypothesis, it has become common to treat the Fourth Gospel as a Christian expropriation of Jewish symbols and Scriptures—investing them with new ‘Christian’ significance and even poking fun at figures like Nicodemus who fail to understand the new meaning. Traditional Jewish terms receive new, Christian meanings hidden from Jewish readers. But this is simply untrue. More and more studies reveal the true location of its ‘universe of discourse’: the Fourth Gospel is perfectly at home in first-century Judaism, not just in its imagery and modes of debate, but more particularly in its engagement with the needs and concerns which pressed upon every Jew in the last three decades of the century.

The destruction of the Temple in AD 70 has not figured sufficiently in discussions of the Gospel’s background and setting. Martyn ignored it. But 2:19 refers to it, with a deep irony which would not be lost on readers, both Jewish and Jewish-Christian, who had lived through that dreadful trauma or sought to come to terms with it. And, having announced at the start that the Temple, as Jesus’ body, is to be rebuilt, the Gospel then systematically works this out in terms of the festivals, of the location of God’s presence, and of the identity of God’s people. Jesus is now the focus of God’s presence and people, the one in whom the festivals and indeed the whole OT find their true subject.

This message would have been crystal clear to Jewish readers in the late first century. The destruction of the Temple, and its aftermath of social confusion and theological uncertainty, form the context within which this Gospel speaks very powerfully indeed. Jews would not have felt themselves vilified by this Gospel, but rather challenged—as they were by other voices, offering other recipes for the recovery of the nation. The point about the Fourth Gospel as a voice ‘within the family’ is quite right, in fact, for this is a Jewish-Christianresponse to the trauma which affected all Jews, thus taking its place alongside 2 Baruch, and 4 Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Abraham, and Sybilline Oracles Book 4, and the new rabbinism of Yavneh, and the Zealot movements which eventually produced the rebellion in AD 132—all of which gave different and competing answers to the disaster.

[4] This leads to our last point: ‘The Jews’ were just one group in late first-century Judaism. This insight again arises from letting the text become three-dimensional against the background of the late first century. The way in which ‘the Jews’ are portrayed makes them readily identifiable as the Jews of Judea, those who were committed to the intense religion of Temple and Torah which could not be practised elsewhere—and which therefore was deeply affected by the loss of the Temple. Some have suggested ‘Judeans’ as an alternative translation of ‘Jews’ in the Fourth Gospel, which is appropriate but too broad. Judaism was highly diverse in this period, and differences were accentuated by the disaster of AD 70. In this setting, ‘the Jews’ with whom Jesus debates certainly do not represent all Jews, but rather a precise group (albeit the group which gradually won the day through the growing power of the Yavneh academy).

These four points need careful argumentation and support!—which I have tried to supply in my book. But it will be obvious that, if this is the right picture, then no charge of anti-Semitism will stick. Quite the contrary: this is a Gospel deeply committed to the peace of Jerusalem, which longs to see Jews finding the true centre of all God’s purposes for them through faith in Jesus the Christ.

Steven Motyer

Lecturer in New Testament and Hermeneutics at London Bible College