There are many claims that the Jewish apostle, John, was actually an antisemite by the time he wrote his gospel. New Testament scholar Eldon Jay Epp claimed in 1975 that,
The attitude toward the Jews that finds expression in … the Gospel of John coacted with the extraordinary popularity of that gospel so as to encourage and to buttress anti-Semitic sentiments among Christians from the second century C.E. until the present time. This leads to the conclusion that the Fourth Gospel, more than any other book in the canonical body of Christian writings, is responsible for the frequent anti-Semitic expressions by Christians during the past eighteen or nineteen centuries, and particularly for the unfortunate and still existent characterization of the Jewish people by some Christians as ‘Christ- killers.’1
Rich Barlow, in reviewing The Courageous Gospel, by Robert Hill, writes,
[John’s] gospel also is laced with anti-Semitism, referring to Jesus’ enemies, clamoring for his execution, simply as “the Jews.” Hill notes that at the time it was written, John’s community of Jesus-following Jews was being expelled from their synagogues, as Judaism and Christianity finally [split] into separate religions. Hill … says it’s essential that “the tragic history of anti-Semitism in Christianity, and some of it is connected to the Gospel of John, is rooted up and understood, that John is understood, in its particular context.”2
Messianic Scholar Dr. Jen Rosner talks about how John became a “go-to place” for antisemitic theology, and it “played out in very destructive ways. The Gospel of John is taken at face value to be this horribly antisemitic document. So then, antisemites…can say, ‘Look, [Jew hatred is] in the New Testament.'”
Over the next few weeks, I will share with you seven points to dispel the idea that John and his Gospel are antisemitic (It’s a lengthy piece but if you want to jump ahead and read ALL of it at once, we have the PDF available for free here).
Hill is most likely correct that John and his Messianic community had finally been driven out from the synagogue. But they are not forsaking their Jewishness, even if highlighting the deep divide between them and their Pharisaical brothers. John does not mention any other sects of Judaism except the Pharisees because, at the time of his writing, more than a decade after the destruction of Jerusalem, the only two sects of Judaism that survived were Pharisaical Judaism and Messianic Judaism.3 The Zealot movement was destroyed by Rome. And the Sadducees ceased to exist.4 The Essenes also disappeared around this time. If John did this intentionally, it was because, for his Yeshua-following Jewish community that was dealing with rejection from the larger Jewish world—now exclusively Pharisaical Judaism—the other groups were irrelevant, obsolete.
The 19th Blessing was a Curse!
I maintain that his audience was primarily Jewish and was dealing with the results of the 19th benediction. This was a prayer added to the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, prayed three times a day, that was inserted much later to weed out heretics. But not just your garden variety heretics, but also Notzrim. Notzrim is thought to be the name that Jewish Jesus followers took for themselves.5 When someone in the synagogue prayed this prayer, they would call down a curse upon themself. A Messianic Jew could not pray such a prayer and thus, Messianic Jews were pushed out of the synagogue. There is a lot of scholarly debate regarding the veracity of this view, but I believe it to be accurate.
So it is against this backdrop, Jewish believers being separated from the Jewish synagogue, that John decides to write down his account of walking with the Messiah—his best friend. Many scholars believe this was the beginning of the parting of the ways, but where they err, in my opinion, is in viewing it as a parting of the ways between Christians and Jews, when in fact, it was between Jews and Jews. You have to see John, a significant Jewish leader, writing to his community of Jewish believers who are being persecuted by Pharisaical Jews. Some were no doubt turning their back on their faith as they understood the cultural repercussions of being kicked out of the synagogue. This is one reason that Hebrews was written—to encourage the Jewish believers not to reject their faith.
As a young Messianic Jew, I remember going to Brooklyn to meet with two rabbis. They told me I could have everything that I had found in Yeshua in a Judaism without Yeshua. I desperately wanted them to be correct. As I walked around the Orthodox area of Brooklyn, and I saw the pizza guys wearing kippa (heading coverings), I wanted to be part of them. I was tired of being rejected. I had become a laughingstock to my parents’ friends. If only I could return to Richmond as an Orthodox Jew, I would win their respect. I would no longer be seen as a traitor or unstable. Of course, I concluded that I had found the Pearl of great price, and I would not trade him for anything. I understand the pressures that John’s community was under.
John writes his testimony to encourage his community that they have indeed found the truth. He frames the argument between the Jewish Jesus and his exclusively Jewish followers and the Pharisees. John never dreamed that less than a century later, people would reframe the argument, as Christian versus Jew, God versus the Devil, truth versus lies, and then be used later as a proof text for persecution, coerced conversions, expulsion, and ultimately genocide.
So, let’s once and for all dissect this and get to the heart of John the beloved and his testimony of his best friend and Messiah, Yeshua.
The phrase “The Jews”
Did John, a Torah-observant Galilean Jew, present Yeshua as an antisemite, as someone who hated his people? A careful reading with first-century Jewish lenses would suggest “of course not!” Still, reading today, one cannot help but feel that John is being more than a little ill-mannered with his constant reference to “the Jews” (see the last paragraph on point six).
Heard in modern ears, it can sound like your typical antisemitic trope.
The Jews control the media. The Jews control the banking system. The Jews are responsible for communism (or capitalism).
The author of an article I read about ten years ago entitled “Jesus and the Jews” used the phrase “the Jews” over fifty times in his commentary. Mostly, he is referring to the small group of men who brought Yeshua to Pilate, but makes it seems that “the Jews” are all Jews. But let’s examine who “the Jews” actually were.
John 18:12 makes it clear that it was not “the Jews” who brought Yeshua to Pilate, but “Jewish officials,” “officers of the Jews,” or the “Temple guards,” just to quote a few modern translations.
The problem with the way the phrase “the Jews” sounds today is that it feeds into antisemitic claims that all of the Jews, for all time, were involved in Jesus’s death. It is true that in the Greek, John, at certain times, simply writes the phrase “the Jews” (John 18:14; 19:7, 12), or ho Ioudaioi, but there can be no doubt that he is referring to the Jewish leadership. In fact, at least 14 modern English translations 6, such as the NIV, TLV, CJB, and NET, translate those passages using the phrase “the Jewish Leaders” as opposed to “the Jews” even though they know that the Greek says, “the Jews.” How can they be so bold?
Take a look at John 18:14: “Now it was Caiaphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people” (NKJV). In this passage, it states clearly that Caiaphas was speaking to “the Jews”; he advised, “the Jews.” However, if we turn back a few pages, we can actually peer into this conversation:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.… Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:47, 49-50).7
So “the Jews” of John 18 and 19 are clearly the Jewish leaders—t”he Sanhedrin”, not the all the Jews of Israel.
Let’s look at John 9—the healing of the blind man.
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Yeshua to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. (John 9:18- 22)
Who are “the Jews” here? The blind man was Jewish. His parents were Jewish. Jesus was Jewish and all of his followers, including John, who was taking notes, were Jewish. And the resisters were Jewish. In fact, everyone we see in the entire book, except for John 4 in Samaria, John 12 (though these were probably Greek-speaking Jews since they came to worship in Jerusalem for Passover), and the Romans at the end of the story, is Jewish.
It is quite easy to determine to whom John is referring when he says the Jews here. They are the ones with the power to “put out of the synagogue” (see also 12:42) those who followed Yeshua. And that would be the local synagogue, or at most, the Jerusalem region, as most scholars agree, this took place at or very close to the Temple. But it would not include the Galilee and certainly not the millions of Jews scattered abroad who had never even heard of the Galilean Rabbi.
We con conclude that “The Jews” in John is a term used for a group of Jewish leaders who exercise great authority among their compatriots and are especially hostile to Jesus and his disciples. A recent study of the gospels’ use of Ioudaioi (Jews) confirms the view that when it is used in a peculiarly Johannine sense, it is not in reference to Judeans or to Jewish customs, feasts, and so forth, but it refers to certain Jewish leaders, rather than the people as a whole.8
1 E. J. Epp, “Anti-Semitism and the Popularity of the Fourth Gospel in Christianity,” Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 22 (1975) 35
3 Yochanan Ben Zakkai received permission from, soon to be emperor Vespasian to reform in Yavne, in southern Judea. There, he contributed greatly to codification of the Oral Law in what is known as the Mishnah. The (missing the ref number) Messianic Jews had fled as the Romans surrounded the city, remembering Yeshua’s words from Luke 21:20. For more, see https://www.roncantor.com/post/audio-message-the-fascinating-history-of-the-first-messianic-jews
4 “Their lives and political authority were so intimately bound up with Temple worship that after Roman legions destroyed the Temple, the Sadducees ceased to exist as a group, and mention of them quickly disappeared from history.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sadducee
5 For more info on Notzrim, see https://www.roncantor.com/post/was-matthew-a-false-prophet
7 While Caiaphas was speaking prophetically, his understanding of what he was saying was that it would be “better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation to perish,” was about the Romans seeing Yeshua as a revolutionary. In times past, and as the future would testify, Rome would be ruthless in dealing with revolutionaries. This was his concern.