In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.
I’m continuing my study of John. Unfortunately, John is the most anti-Jewish-sounding Gospel, and that has been a tragedy for Jews over the centuries. My friend of blessed memory, Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Phoenix, wrote in his memoirs: “I am always concerned about religious anti-Semitism because unless the New Testament is interpreted correctly, you get a very hostile picture of Jews in the Gospel of John. He was not very friendly to us. Of course, John is the heart of Christian theology. John’s thinking and John’s teachings became the central focus in the historical development of Christianity. That was the one Gospel that took center stage, and all the Christian theological thinking and all of the passion plays come from John… The other Gospels are pro-Jewish… We have to overcome that hostility in some way. That is why I have worked hard at interfaith programs. i really feel that the answer has to come from greater communication between us. We need to understand one another… We need dialogue for many purposes because there are many non0Jews who do not understand Judaism, who have certain stereotypes about Jews and Jewish thinking and Jewish ideas about who we need to educate our community” (Rabbi Plotkin, Tempe: ASU Libraries, 1992, p. 123).
This is a helpful site that illustrates the anti-Judaism in John’s Gospel. John uses “the Jews” 71 times (compared to 16 in the Synoptics), almost always in a negative way, linking Jews to the devil (8:44), blaming them for Jesus’ death (18:3, 19-24, et al.), and holding them at a distance (21:13, 11:55, et al.) as if Jesus and his disciples weren’t observant Jews, too! The author notes that it’s hard to read John as a criticism of Jews as an ethnic group, and not what John’s Gospel was, a group of Jews who had been removed from the synagogue and felt oppressed as a new, “inside” group of Jews.
Here also is a helpful article, by D. Moody Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John." Smith has a number of good points about this problem. Toward the conclusion of the article, he reminds us that both Judaism and the new Christian movement were in a time of stress and entrenchment at the time (late first century). In the aftermath of the Roman War of 66-73 CE, in which the Temple were destroyed, the Jewish leadership addressed the future of Judaism (see my earlier summary of the Talmud) which, in turn, omitted sectarian groups from the character of Judaism. The Johannine community, on the other hand, was zealous about Jesus and Jesus Faith, and they saw themselves as possessors of the true kind of Judaism. (I’ve met Christians, fresh from an energizing spiritual retreat, who return to their congregations and think everyone is far less “spiritual” than they. These “newly spiritual” people can be quite intolerant and divisive!)
Smith writes: “Historical circumstances have changed, and continue to change. The setting of modern Judaism is in many respects both more diverse and more hopeful than that of its late first-century counterpart. Yet the continued threat to the existence of modern Israel is almost universally viewed by Jews as a threat to Jewish survival. The Holocaust, of recent and bitter memory, represented a more dire threat to Judaism than the Roman war. After all, the Romans only wanted the Jews to be reasonable--by Roman standards, of course; they did not want to destroy the Jewish people or their religion. The Nazis wanted to destroy both.
“There is something in the Johannine blacklisting of the Jews, the consigning of them to this world and to Satan, that in Jewish eyes foreshadows the Holocaust or the annihilation of Judaism. Such a dire, negative view of Jews and of the whole world is undeniably present in John. But, paradoxically, it is precisely John's Gospel that presents the motivation, meaning, and effect of God's revelation in Jesus as love. Furthermore, the love of God finds its true response in reciprocal human love that will lead to the unity of the community of love. It is a concept of revelation and response that is in principle universal. In the course of the vagaries and vicissitudes of history, the universal goal was jeopardized, and the dualistic division between truth and falsehood, light and darkness, seemed to be the last word.”
Smith continues that although we shouldn’t characterize the Johannine Community and Pharisaic Judaism as “liberal” and “conservative”—labels that oversimplify the situation—they do represent opposites, demanding loyalty to their respective positions—but opposites WITHIN THE JEWISH TRADITION. We Christians no longer need to feel competitors with Jews but can and should be friends and partners in witnessing to God.