“The Jews” (in John)

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The meaning of this term in John is enigmatic. The issues are complex and the literature is vast, with sundry proposals to resolve the conundrum. Jesus’ invective against “the Jews” (hoi ’Ioudaioi), especially 8:44, has produced tragic Christian persecution of Jews. This occurred already in the early centuries and later. In the year Columbus “discovered” America (1492), Spain expelled the Muslims and the Jews. Martin Luther’s 1543 tract, Concerning the Jews and Their Lies, contains damning statements against Jews (see TLC for John 8).

In his article, “Martin Luther and the Jews,” Hillerbrand points out that in his early 1523 tract, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, Luther breathes a different air, hoping for conversion of Jews and counseling kindness to Jews. Hillerbrand demurs on any direct connection between Luther and the Holocaust (the Shoah). He sees the development of anti-Semitism as quite complex, with nineteenth-century Catholic Austria a seedbed for anti-Semitism (138) as well as for the development of ghettoes. Whatever one’s interpretation of the intervening centuries and their influences, German Lutherism was “unprepared for the challenge of Nazi racial ideology” (143). Using John to support anti-Semitism is sin; it contradicts John’s major themes of light, life, and love. It makes the Gospel exclusive, opposing John’s open invitation. It undermines the universality of John’s Gospel (cf. Kysar 1976: 111–18).

This topic is complex and sensitive (cf. Bieringer, et al.: 3–37; Ashton 1985). This essay consists of four parts: (1) a textual analysis, examining the argument between Jesus and “the Jews”; (2) the “referent”: to whom does the Jews refer and why? (3) narrative analysis that seeks to determine the sense of the term in John: How does it function in relation to other characters and themes in John’s narrative (symbolic) world? The term does not occur in the Johannine epistles because the community is no longer in significant relationship with the synagogue (McDermond: 143–49); and (4) the hermeneutical and theological issues: is John’s theology anti-Jewish? Is it anti-Semitic?

1. Textual Analysis. The Jews (hoi Ioudaioi) occurs 70 times in John (NRSV; 71 if the variant reading in 3:25, hoi Ioudaioi, is accepted). The term occurs only five times in Matthew (cf. Lieu 2008: 171), seven times in Mark, and five times in Luke. Subtracting duplicate uses in Synoptic parallels, it occurs only four times in the Synoptics, including “king of the Jews.” These uses are mostly on lips of outsiders who refer to the Jews (Cook: 262–63). Only Acts uses the term more often (82 times in the singular and plural). The total NT use is 198 (11 times in Rom and 8 in 1 Cor). Even though other designations for Jesus’ interlocutors, such as Pharisees, rulers, chief priests, and even Jerusalemites are employed, whenever the Johannine “narrative moves toward hostility it also moves toward use of hoi Ioudaioi” (Lieu 2008: 171). The term occurs in the singular only twice (4:9, in the Samaritan woman’s response; and 18:35, in Pilate’s response). It is distributed unevenly in the narrative. It occurs 46 times in 1:19–12:11. It does not occur in the prologue and only once in Jesus’ farewell speech (13:33: Jesus reminds his disciples of what he said to the Jews). In the passion narrative the term occurs 23 times, but only once in the resurrection narrative (20:19, for fear of the Jews).

All but seven uses are by the narrator. These seven are 4:9 (the Samaritan woman), 11:8 (where the disciples reiterate what the narrator said earlier in 8:59; 10:31), 18:35 (Pilate), and four uses by Jesus (4:22; 13:33; 18:20, 36; Lieu 2008: 174). Of these four by Jesus, only two occur in direct discourse, one of which has a positive connotation. Over one-third are non-hostile in connotation. Thus, not all references in John to Jews are adversarial (e.g., 11:31). Except for the Samaritan woman, the (likely Roman) official, the Greeks who come to see Jesus in 12:20, and Pilate and the Roman soldiers in chapters 18–19, all of the characters in the Gospel, including Jesus and the disciples, are Jews, many of whom emerge in positive light. Smith (2008: 8) identifies the NT texts where Jews occurs. The term Jews is absent in the Catholic epistles, even in the Johannine epistles (!), the Pastorals, Hebrews, Ephesians, Philippians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. First Thessalonians 2:14-16 comes closest to John’s usage.

The Jews appears first in John as those who send priests and Levites from Jerusalem to inquire about John’s identity (1:19). But then 1:24 says they were sent by the Pharisees. In the temple cleansing (2:12-22), “the temple authorities or leaders are identified as the Ioudaioi (2:18, 20)” (Carter 2006: 68–69). This collision between Jesus and the temple authorities sets the stage for continuing distinction between those who are for Jesus and those who are against him. John puts the temple cleansing at the beginning of the Gospel, perhaps to expose the divide between belief and unbelief early in the narrative. As it progresses, the dividing lines become clearer. Usually the Jews—whoever they are—are located in Jerusalem, but in 6:41, 52, they are in Galilee.

In chapters 5–8, where feasts structure the narrative, the Jews are the chief but not sole interlocutors. They become increasingly adversarial toward Jesus. Striking shifts in Jesus’ dialogue partners occur:

  • chapter 5: the Jews throughout
  • chapter 6: shift from the crowd (v. 22) to the Jews (v. 41)
  • chapter 7: the Jews appears interchangeably with the crowd (11-24), then some of the people (v. 25), then Pharisees (v. 32, alarmed by many in the crowd who believed, 31); then some in the crowd in conflict with others in the crowd (40), then temple police who report to the chief priests and the Pharisees
  • chapter 8 [7:53–8:11: the Pharisees]; the Pharisees (12-21); then the Jews (22-30); then the Jews who had believed in him (31-47); then the Jews (48-59)
  • chapter 9: The narrative has a striking interchange between Pharisees (9:13-17) and the Jews (18-23); they, when used, appears to blend the Pharisees (inferred from quizzing the blind man “a second time”) and the Jews (24-34); and then in v. 40, some of the Pharisees). The Jews and the Pharisees appear to be interchangeable in principle. The Pharisees play a major adversarial role and appear to be conflated with the Jews, as Rensberger has noted (1988:42). O’Day implies the same: “The authorities . . . have the dual identity of Pharisees/‘Jews’ in this scene, underscoring the fluidity of levels in the telling of the story” (1995: 658).
  • Chapter 11, Jews console Martha and Mary and are not adversarial (v. 31). The adversaries are the chief priests, Pharisees, and the Council (the Sanhedrin) (11:19, 31). Here Jews represent the broader landscape of Jews; virtually all the characters in the Gospel (see below).

2. The referent. The recurring references to “the Jews” and to specific parties also adversarial to Jesus raises the question of referent. To whom does the Jews refer? Proposed solutions differ:

  1. Judeans (a minority but confident voice)
  2. The religious (temple) authorities (widely held)
  3. The elite returnees from Babylon who controlled the temple, thus representing an intra-Jewish division between returnees and those who never went to Babylon (Boyarin)
  4. Those who persecute and put believers in Jesus out of the synagogue
  5. Those who charge Jesus with blasphemy (Truex).

The various arguments in favor of these solutions are long and complex. If blasphemy is the rationale for the Jews putting Jesus believers out of the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; and 16:2), then John in principle concurs with the synoptic Gospels, since Jesus’ opponents in Mark 2:7 and 14:62 explicitly accuse Jesus of blasphemy. This would reopen the question of whether Mark’s, Matthew’s (9:3 and 26:65), and Luke’s (5:21) views differ that much from John’s symbolic world view regarding what led to Jesus’ death. While Mark never mentions expulsion from the synagogue, two features are somewhat analogous: already in 3:6 the Pharisees and Herodians collude to kill Jesus. Thereafter Jesus never returns to the synagogue, except in his home town of Nazareth, where he encounters unbelief (6:1-6)! Second, in his apocalyptic discourse, Jesus prophesies that his followers “will be beaten in synagogues.”

Luke has Paul calling together the Jewish leaders in Rome for his last defense (Acts 28:17)! Luke differs from Mark and John on Jesus’ relation to the temple (Luke 24:53!) and to the synagogue leaders. Jesus’ words about (against?) the temple are crucial in Mark, Matthew, and John. They lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. (Luke speaks, however, of his claim to be the Messiah and Son of God in 22:66-70—even more Johannine—with the charge of blasphemy implied in 22:71.) John puts the temple cleansing first, as a lens through which to read the narrative. The Jews understand on one level, but Jesus means otherwise. This illustrates John’s narrative skill with misunderstanding and double meaning. The other two charges of blasphemy in John differ from the Synoptics, though John’s equal with God charge is parallel to “forgiving sins” in Mark and Matthew. The rancor against the Jews (John 5–8) has no parallel in the Synoptics.

The similarities between the Synoptics and John raise the question of whether John’s negative portrayal of the Jews has its roots in Jesus, since conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders occurs in all four Gospels (note especially Matthew’s woes against the Pharisees in chapter 23, which reflect conflict in Matthew’s time and in Jesus’ time).

Notably, the terms scribes and Sadducees occur nowhere in John, given that 7:53–8:11 is not original to the Gospel. The scribes were teachers of the law. Since proper understanding of the Law of Moses lies at the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the Jews in John’s Gospel, perhaps the Jews refers primarily to the role of the scribes as interpreters of the law. In the first charge of blasphemy against Jesus in the Synoptics, the scribes are the foremost accusers (Mark 2:6; Matt 9:3; Luke 5:17). Jesus does what is only God’s prerogative: he forgives sins (something Jesus does not do in John!). The scribes oppose Jesus, and in coalition with other groups, seek to kill him—as do “the Jews” in John. John’s parallel to the synoptic “Sadducees” may be the Council in 11:47-53.

3. Solutions from the sense of the narrative (i.e., relational features of the narrative in characters or themes). In seeking the identity of “the Jews” based on their narrative role, differing proposals emerge. Four considerations shape the debate:

  1. Unbelief is a primary feature characterizing “the Jews.” Related to this, “the Jews” may be a cipher of John’s negative use of world. To some extent, the terms are interchangeable.
  2. Issues of Torah, temple, and purity mark the tiff between Jesus and “the Jews.”
  3. Most of the cases where “the Jews” oppose Jesus are subtly ironic.
  4. John’s dramatic literary features suggest stage production script. “The Jews’” dramatic role is not actual life. Therefore, don’t castigate Jews, and certainly don’t demonize them.

The search for better solutions continues, which O’Day calls for (1995: 507). Given the varied explanations of the term in “referent” and “narrative sense,” Hakola contends that John intentionally makes the identity of “the Jews” ambiguous. While this is true, it is the chief priests and the Pharisees who call the Council to determine Jesus’ fate (11:47) and this combo also authorizes Jesus’ arrest in 18:3. But not all “authorities” are included, since many believe in him (12:42)! Any definitive solution appears elusive. Von Wahlde (2010.1: 63–68, 91–93) solves the problem by allocating different meanings to hoi Ioudaioi in his proposed sequential editions of the Gospel. But this does not satisfy since his proposed editions are hypothetical.

4. Hermeneutical and theological issues. Whichever solution we espouse, the hermeneutical and theological ramifications are important. Hakola thinks the purpose of the designation was to “distance” Johannine believers from Judaism: “Christians were adopting a non-Jewish identity” (226). Hence distinction between the Jews in authority and other Jews is not clear (cf. Culpepper 1983: 126). Concurring with Reinhartz and Culpepper, Hakola holds that the blurring of distinctions of hoi Ioudaioi within the text leads to a “generalization” of Jewish identity as the author stereotypes those who reject Jesus. This results in an “elevated . . . bitterness and hostility of the polemic to a new level” (226), which inspires alienation of Christians from Jews.

While this appears true, there are no Christians nor church in John. Believers remain part of Judaism. Only thus does threat of being put out of the synagogue make sense (9:22). All the people in the Gospel narrative are Jews unless otherwise specified. John’s Gospel witnesses more to continuity than discontinuity with the Judaisms of the first century.

Instead of distancing the Johannine community from Judaism, a different function of this generalized, ambiguous use of the Jews in John may be considered. The fuzziness of the identity of the Jews complements the anonymity of the beloved disciple, who is also a Jew. Since most all the characters in John are Jews, the Gospel narrative calls readers to identify themselves on a continuum of Jews: from the Jews, Judas, the Pharisees, Nicodemus, the Bethany family, Peter, Nathanael, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, to the beloved disciple. The beloved disciple is bonded heart-to-heart with Jesus in love (13:23). Whoever he was historically (and Bauckham provides a viable answer: 2006, 2007, 2008a), his elusive identity in the narrative, like that of “the Jews,” calls readers to emulate the distinguishing quality of his identity: love. This tones our attitude toward the “other,” whoever that is in our setting. This is the best hope of Christians to atone for the bloody history of Christian persecution of Jews.

In Girardian theory (Swartley 2000), “the Jews,” no more or less than other groups, fit within the cultural desire that imitates and leads to conflict that spirals into violence and scapegoating, unless checked by law or another religious imperative. In this approach John’s Gospel exposes human violence and the means of redemption from that violence, namely love for one another and welcoming the enemy (whether Samaritan or otherwise) into that circle of love. In the face of hostile threats to kill him, Jesus sharply castigates his opponents, but this is no sharper than that of the OT prophets and the Qumran covenanters (Evans 1993a: 3–8). Some—even many—change, but many do not. Readers must choose with whom they desire to emulate in character identification: whether Jews who, like “the Jews,” hate, or whether Jews who, like the beloved disciple, love.

Peter’s restoration hinges on Do you love me? a crowning climax of the Gospel. If so, follow me. Love (friendship love and self-giving love) is the best bridge between Jews and Christians in today’s world. Hostility has ended (Eph 2:11-22). This is the hermeneutical road we must travel as we bracket this aspect of John, not regarding it morally normative, as we do with OT war texts (see Swartley 1983: 229–34, with the twenty-two points of hermeneutical learning, especially 5, 9, 15, 16, and 17). John’s portrayal of the Jews must be put into intra-canonical dialogue with other NT biblical texts, notably Paul’s treatment in Romans, where Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ and God’s covenant with Israel is binding. Gentiles are grafted in. Some hold John (and Paul) to be supersessionist (the church replaces Israel) and some contend John is not supersessionist, since the controversy is intra-Jewish. In either case, Christians today must censure the hostile language of both the Jews and Jesus in John, seeking rather to emulate the beloved disciple.

Using the translational principle of dynamic equivalence, the CEV and NLT translations attract. In all cases except 4:9 and 18:35 (texts spoken by the Samaritan woman and Pilate), hoi Ioudaioi is consistently translated the people. The “excommunication” texts are softened. The term Jewish leaders is preserved at appropriate places. (Contrast the LB, which uses “Jewish leaders” for “the Jews” in all cases.) The CEV and NLT translations disarm the universal scapegoat mechanism and merit consideration in halting the disastrous history of effects this Gospel has had for Jews.

Hakola’s conclusion, similar to other scholars, is persuasive: “I believe that we should not take what John says of Jewishness and the Jews as a foundation for building Christian identities in relation to the Jews and Judaism in today’s world” (242). One caveat, though: Jesus’ word to the Samaritan woman is, Salvation is from the Jews (4:22).


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  • Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of John and the Jews.” Review and Expositor, 84 (1987): 273–88.
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  • Griffith, Terry. “‘The Jews Who Had Believed in Him’ (John 8:31) and the Motif of Apostasy in the Gospel of John.” The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, ed. Richard Bauckham and Carl Mosser. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. Pp. 182–192.
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  • Motyer, Stephen. Your Father the Devil? A New Approach to John and “the Jews”. Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 1997.
  • Schoon, Simon. “Escape Routes as Dead Ends: On Hatred towards Jews and the New Testament, Especially in the Gospel of John.” In Judaism and the Fourth Gospel, ed. Bieringer, et al., 144–58. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
  • von Wahlde, Urban C. “Literary Structure and Theological Argument in Three Discourses with the Jews in the Fourth Gospel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 103 (1984): 575–84.

Willard M. Swartley