Time to put away John's fear of the Jews.

My last post, Notes for future Holy Week doings....Never again blame the Jewish people, provoked a range of comments.

Some questioned if I still held to my ordination vows. The answer is, yes, and I'm sticking to them.

Some asked if I had problems with the bible. My answer is, yes and no.  No problem with the bible as containing all things necessary for salvation. Lots of problems with confusing "The Word" for "the words," and the suggestion that every word in the bible is equally necessary for salvation. (I suppose if salvation is a really complicated thing in which the nuances of every word written is central there may be a case for complete equality of all words of Scripture... but salvation is not all that complicated.)

Some suggested that I didn't really get why the flow of Holy Week is the way it is. Actually I do. The suggestion that the Passion Gospel be read at the end has to do with the idea that ending with the Crucifixion and then...silence is of some interest liturgically.

Some reported the experience of knowing that we are all caught up in the effort to crucify Jesus because all of us are part of the "crowd" that can not bear the reality of God's presence in Jesus. Got it. Me too.

But there is still this: The Gospel of John makes reference to the fear of an unqualified "lump" of people, the Jews, and directly points to them as intending to kill Jesus.

The word  "The Jews" (  οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι) appears
5 times in Matthew
6 times in Mark
4 times in Luke
68 times in John

NONE of the references in Matthew, Mark and Luke make charges against the Jews concerning killing Jesus.  Matthew 27:25 "let his blood be upon us an our children" is usually understood to be the "whole" people gathered before Pilate, and by extension, the whole people of Israel, i.e. the Jews. But Matthew refers to "people" not "Jews."  John carries the full weight here in terms of specific reference to the Jews.

The Gospel of John moves in steps into a "fear of the Jews" motif: John 3:1 has Nicodemus a ruler of the Jews coming by night to see Jesus. Preachers often suggest that this is because of a fear of what might be said about him by other Jews.  In John 5:16 it becomes clear, the Jews want to kill Jesus because he acts outside Jewish law and claims to be God's Son.  By John 7:1 Jesus doesn't travel among the Jews because the Jews sought to kill him.  In John 9:22 the fear of the Jews is offered as an explanation for the odd testimony of the blind man's parents. In 10:31 the Jews attempt to stone Jesus, and in 11:54 Jesus no longer went out in the open among the Jews. All of these passages build the case for fearing the Jews. 

And then "the Jews" become integral to John's telling of the Crucifixion (chapters 18-19). Some sort of collective use of the term "the Jews" is used repeatedly, often as clearly adversarial, the Jews seeking Jesus' death.  About one third of all references to "the Jews" in John are found in the crucifixion narrative. 

At the close of John's Gospel there is a return to the theme of the fear of the Jews, the fear having been realized in his death.

So John's Gospel is the written source for two ideas that then make it into the mainstream of Christian consciousness: that the Jews are to be feared, and that the Jews wanted Jesus killed and caused it to happen.  From there it seeps out into our understandings of readings from the other Gospels. For example, as mentioned before, Matthew has the passage in which the people shout, "let his blood be upon us and our children" (Matt  27:25) but it is "the people" not "the Jews" there. Yet several commentaries take that and expand on this being the whole of "the Jews." 

In John's Gospel, the Crucifixion is couched in the context of the fear of the Jews, that they are out to kill Jesus and put to death, discredit or shun his followers.  Whether or not John's intention in this was really to reference the leadership of the Temple, the Temple police, or the leaders of the state, the shorthand "the Jews" became very quickly a reference to the Jewish people as a whole. The notion that the Jews are to be feared and the accusation that they as a people killed Jesus became core to the anti-Semitic horrors that have been a plague rampant in Christian communities and nations ever since.

So it is perfectly in order to raise the question as to what to do with the texts as they are written. They say what they say, and what they say has been terribly misused.  

It is argued that one could go through and use Judaean instead. But that is unsatisfactory because that does not seem to be what John was writing about. By the time John is writing the church was beginning to be separated out form the synagogue. That separation was accompanied by some rancor on both sides, and perhaps some of the stress on the Jews in John's Gospel reflect this. But whatever the situation, it seems to me that John is not referring to Judaeans, as the inhabitants of a particular geography, but the Jews, as a people of belief and practice.

What then are we to do with these texts? If we continue to use them as they are many people will use them precisely to support or confirm their own anti-Semitic attitudes.  Many, of course, will not. But I believe that there are enough bible thumpers in the world who are only too glad to reintroduce an anit-Jewish agenda at a moment's notice. 

On the other hand if we cut and paste our way through John's Gospel how will we agree to do so?

My sense as I stated before. 

".. this is the last time I will participate in Holy Week Services that intimate otherwise. I will not read, "may his blood be upon us and our children," and I won't read "for fear of the Jews" and I won't say "crucify him" with the weasel out that after all I am playing the part of a Jewish crowd.

I will perhaps be unemployed next Holy Week. That's OK. There are better things to do. We can push the Church to get beyond the early skirmishes with the community out of which we came. Just because the memories of that struggle make it into the writings doesn't mean they have merit as enduring claims."

I have another thought... perhaps in an act of contrition for the many centuries of shameful misuse of these texts we ought to revise them or drop them. 

Revision seems difficult, since we have developed a canon of scripture and then made these scriptures sacred and unchangeable.  The shout "where will it stop" would suddenly spring from many noble lips. "Where will it stop?" indeed. And of course I would be accused of having tossed my ordination vows for sure.

So what about dropping them? Do the Synoptic Gospels tell the story well enough?  What does John's crucifixion narrative tell us that is central and yet different from what is given in the Synoptic Gospels?  We could retain the text, but not use it liturgically. And we would make this change as part of a determined effort at contrition concerning the misuse of the text to support shameful policies, prejudices and social actions. 

What then?


  1. Still seems to me you're overreacting.

    By "the Jews" John seems to mean the Jewish religious authorities, and there was undoubtedly hostility between the religious authorities and the Jewish followers of Jesus in Jesus' lifetime (more so the collaborationist temple authorities than the Pharisees).

    That the conflict was worse at the time the gospel of John was written shouldn't allow us to paper over the fact that there was in fact conflict in Jesus' lifetime between Jews and Jews.

    During the American revolution there was much rhetoric against "the British" and "the English"--even though the revolutionaries were largely people who, ethnically and culturally, were British and English. The term, in context, referred to the colonial authorities and the forces of coercian at their disposal--as with John's use of "the Jews."

    The inter-Jewish conflict highlighted by John's gospel is a fact of early Christian history. It is not the later anti-semitism that was read into it thereafter. It is an important point to make. And surely it's better to simply make that point than to suppress or ignore or bowlderize what is perhaps the most beautiful and profound book of the New Testament--even if, yes, the fundamentalists love it, too.

  2. Mark --I am confident that you are probably not over-reacting....

    The best book I have read on this very topic is written by a feminist Jewish new testament scholar, Adele Reinhartz. The book is: Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (Continuum, 2001)

    She gave me great liberty to sit with the texts, know and acknowledge my bias and approach, and just as we would for a friend, acknowledge our difference while accepting the 'other'.

    I am equally offended and disturbed by the patriarchy, the oppression of women and children and sometimes the outright misogyny of the texts --even taken as the word and not the words. I find little room in my faith for the violence and war...

    And I come full circle around --if I am not offended, something is wrong.

    If I am not outraged, offended, disgusted at the story of the crucifixion and its related human sins of oppression, violence, power, racism, ethnicity bashing, --much less the very clear statement that it was only women at the foot of the cross, and yet it seems the 'scholars' consistently translate the exchange with Jesus, his mother, and the "disciple" --why the hell is it the 'disciple' is still in the masculine --it's not that way in the Greek!!!!

    but, I think we are supposed to be outraged, offended, disgusted... . And to throw the verbiage of the "jews" in and all its given history makes me want to die....

    --and I think that's the point of Good Friday.

    If we white wash it --tone it down, leave it out, make it nice and palatable --whatever --I think we miss the whole point...

    The damn thing is a gut shot and a blow to the head.

    I hate Good Friday. But I would hate even more to try to make it palatable. I think Dr. Reinhartz would agree.

    Here is Dr. Reinhartz's page: http://www.cla-srs.uottawa.ca/eng/faculty/reinhartz.html

    Peace, dear friend.

  3. I think it is never helpful to simply ignore what is part of our past.

    Antisemitism is part of our past, indeed, as church and as gentiles, and informs our present, including the impulse to despise such racism. To pretend it didn't happen is to simply to rationalize one's own squeamishness and discomfort with something that has, however negatively, formed and informed us.

    Forgetting the past - or ignoring it - we will repeat it, no matter our noble ideals and rationale. We are humans, and pretending we're angels is dangerous.

  4. Dear friends: your comments are all very helpful. I think in part my desire to at least move the GF liturgy to use a synoptic gospel account rather than John is in part due to having taken part in a Holocaust Remembrance Service and knowing that "our kind" did indeed either murder or stand by while others murdered in systematic efforts to rid the world of Jews. Rightly or wrongly those who did or stood by drew strength from believing that the Jews, after all, killed Jesus and are to be feared.

    I know John's Gospel gives us an opportunity to reflect on all of this, listening and taking "parts"in the reading, etc. And on a deeper spiritual level there is no doubt that we can identify with the early church's conflicts, know them for what they are, and know too that we are sinners, as is John, etc., and that the real concern is to stop bashing the Jews now, etc.

    But the problem still remains: all of this is rather advanced stuff. The value of propaganda is that it does not invite in depth reflection, but immediate reaction. So no matter that there are good reasons for keeping John's Gospel before us (and not another one) on Good Friday. Those are reasons, and what we have here is remnants of propaganda. And the purpose of that is to excite us to action. As in : Fear the Jews, they killed Jesus, the prophets that went before, and are likely to do us harm.

    I believe we need to address the question, is John's take on the Jews meant to be a report of the situation on the ground, or is it meant to excite reaction and action? Is it history, or history twisted for propaganda purposes?

    If it is 'the situation on the ground' how come the Synoptic Gospels don't speak to it? If it is propaganda, how come we still stand by it?

    I think I am finished thinking about this for a while.



OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.