As Christians, when we read John’s Gospel, we do come across some passages in which the language about “the Jews” does, and should, make us uncomfortable. And there is no question that the history of European ‘Christendom’ down the centuries is littered with horrific examples of hostility towards, and persecution of, Europe’s Jews. This unsavoury past is something that we, as a society, must actively remember and must face up to squarely, precisely so that we don’t repeat the horrors of the past.
Does this mean that John’s Gospel itself is anti-Jewish, or anti-Semitic?
Without a doubt the most difficult reading in John’s Gospel, for anyone sensitive to issues around anti-Semitism, occurs in John’s Gospel chapter 8. Here is a sample:—
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning…”
Jesus (John 8:44)
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:42-44
Passages like this make uncomfortable reading for us — and they should.
However, I believe that John’s Gospel isn’t intrinsically anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic — even if passages such as the above have been pressed into the service of anti-Semitism in the course of history. Here is why I believe this.
First of all, we should recognize two important considerations about John’s Gospel as a whole:—
i.) John’s Gospel is written by a Jew
Of this I have absolutely no doubt.
Although it doesn’t bear the author’s name, the Gospel is of course traditionally assigned to John the disciple — and with good reason.
“John’s Gospel is clearly written by a Jew who was familiar with Jerusalem prior to its destruction in A.D. 70. This is obvious when we read passages describing the Jerusalem temple in detail.”
However, whether the book is the work of John the disciple or not, it is clearly written by a Jew who was familiar with Jerusalem prior to its destruction in A.D. 70. This is obvious when we read passages describing the Jerusalem temple in detail:—
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. John 5:1-2
If passages such as John 8 were written by a Gentile — say, a Roman — then they would sound quite different. As it is, whatever we have here is a Jew speaking about other Jews.
ii.) “The Jews” is sometimes used in a positive sense in John
“Salvation is from the Jews.”
Jesus (John 4:22)
Another important thing to note is that the phrase “the Jews,” although it sometimes carries a negative connotation in John’s Gospel, sometimes carries a positive one.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in John 4:22, when Jesus — himself, of course, a Jew — tells the Samaritan woman, “salvation is from the Jews.”
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” John 4:21-22
This is really important, because it shows that both Jesus and the writer of John do not have an intrinsically negative view of “the Jews” — as you would expect given they are both Jewish.
Chapter 8 in particular
Chapter 8, some of which we quoted earlier, deserves our special attention because it contains the most hostile language about “the Jews” — and that straight from the mouth of Jesus himself.
However, when we examine even this passage more closely, a number of important observations emerge:—
Jesus’ accusation that “you are of your father the devil” (John 8:44) comes in the midst of a heated altercation between Jesus and his adversaries.
The adversaries here are described by John as “the Jews who had believed in him,” i.e., were following Jesus. Hence anything Jesus says to them in this altercation is not a generalization about all Jews.
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” [emphasis mine]. John 8:31-32
The issue that Jesus has with “the Jews who had believed in him,” which causes him to refer to them as children of “your father the devil,” is not to do with ethnicity. Rather, it is because they are in fact not so much believing in him, as still relying on their own, Jewish ethnicity to save them. Also, Jesus reveals that their real desire is to kill him, a man who tells them the truth. This is clear from the verses following:
They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” John 8:33
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.” John 8:39-40
So the issue for Jesus, is not Jewish identity or ethnicity.
“The issue for Jesus is not Jewish identity or ethnicity. It is whether his Jewish hearers are going to trust in him to be set free from sin.”
The issue for him, is whether his hearers are going to trust in him to be set free (from sin), or whether they are going to try to rely on their Jewish parentage and ancestry — apparently a common attitude among Palestinian Jews of the first century.
These, then, are the principal reasons why I believe John’s Gospel is not anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic.
This does, of course, leave us with the question why the writer, a Jew, would so consistently refer to a separate group of people as “the Jews” (in Greek: hoi Ioudaioi)?
I believe that the writer John is making a theological point here. Although he himself is a Jew, his entry into the kingdom of God is not predicated on his Jewishness.
“Jesus has redefined the terms on which one enters the kingdom of God. No longer is it anything to do with one’s ‘Jewishness’ — rather, it is now everything to do with whether one trusts in Jesus the Messiah. In so doing, Jesus has opened up the kingdom of God to everybody, worldwide, regardless of ethnicity.”
Jesus has redefined the terms on which one enters the kingdom of God. No longer is it anything to do with one’s ‘Jewishness’ — rather, it is now everything to do with whether one trusts in Jesus the Messiah (John 20:30-31).
In so doing, Jesus has opened up the kingdom of God to everybody, worldwide, regardless of ethnicity.
And so John’s identity is no longer so much ‘a Jew,’ as ‘in Jesus.’
And this is precisely the reason that John, a Jew, can refer to a separate group of people as “the Jews” — to show that being ‘a Jew’ is no longer what identifies a person as belonging to the kingdom of God.
These are just a very few thoughts on why I believe John’s Gospel is not anti-Jewish.
For a much more thorough treatment of this question, may I heartily recommend the podcast below by Dr. Andy Byers (29 minutes):
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.