Was John Anti-Semitic?
First I'd like to point out that the following viewpoints are not
MINE. I simply thought that Wittgensteinians might want to discuss it.
Although I've heard many glowing statements about this Book from
Episcopaleans to Fundamentalist, I've also heard of some rather disturbing
ideas concerning the Gospel of John. In particular, I've heard a theory
that conjectures John was written by the more Gnostic wing of Christianity.
[TankNote: The issue of the alleged dependence of the NT on Gnosticism often
comes up in popular circles, but is growing less credible in scholarly
circles, as the dating for the NT gets earlier and as dating for
gnosticism grows increasingly later. But more on this later...]
Also, this theory maintains that John, being written after the Fall
of Jerusalem and, therefore, after widespread racism in the Roman Empire
against Jews, reflects an Anti-Semitic tone common throughout the Roman
world after the uprisings in the late 60's of the first century (continuing
after the 2nd rebellion under Hadrian). The emphasis of "Jews" as the killers
of Christ, as opposed to the corrupted Temple hierarchy, is the issue here,
The merits of claims against John are only of academic interest,
since it's a part of the Bible and no scholar is likely to be able to pull
it out. I thought you and/or your readers might have some additional information
on the John business that might be enlightening. Again, I want to point
out that the viewpoints I wrote of in the last paragraph are not MINE --
I've only heard about them.
Thanks, and God bless Wittgenstein.
Thanks for the question...
I have seen this slur against John once or twice before, and had not
taken it very seriously until you raised the question. So, I decided to
study it carefully and see to what extent it might be true, and if not,
where the mistake was in the accusation.
So...here is what my study came up with...
Let's look at the data...Remembering--first of all--that every verse below (except those from Luke's writings) was written by a 1st-century Jew ...
Who killed Jesus?...and Who said it...
The term "Jews" can refer to either the leadership (strictly) OR to
the people (more generally)
Matt 27.1 - "all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to
the decision to put Jesus to death". (Matthew)
Lk 23.13-20 - "the chief priests, the rulers and the people," (Luke)--obviously
not ALL the people; just the 'crowd'
Acts 2.36(w 14) - "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem," (the
Acts 10.39 - "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the
Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree (Peter)
I Thess 2.14 - You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those
churches suffered from the Jews, 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets
and also drove us out. (Paul)
Act 13.27 - The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize
Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that
are read every Sabbath. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death
sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. (Paul) Notice 'people'
is restricted to those in Jerusalem who asked for the execution--the 'crowd'
Mt 26.3 - Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled
in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they plotted
to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. (Matthew)
Mt 27.1,20 - But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to
ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. (Matthew)
Acts 5.27 - Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the
Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 "We gave you strict orders
not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with
your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood."
29 Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than
men! 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead -- whom you had
killed by hanging him on a tree. (Peter, accusing the Sanhedrin--a mixed
priestly and lay aristocratic ruling body)
Conclusion: the leadership--both civil and religious-- of Jerusalem
The data indicates that 'Jews' referred to something broader than the simple
'corrupt temple hierarchy':
in John 1.19,24 - the Jews 'sent' the religious leaders to discover what
was going on
a comparison of John 18.14 with 11.49 indicates that Jews referred to the
Sanhedrin (generally considered to be a group composed of the priestly
aristocracy and lay nobility)--see ZPEB, "Sanhedrin".
Luke 23.13 ("Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the
people") and Mt 26.47 ("sent from the chief priests and the elders of the
people")show that the 'rulers' involved with distinct from the 'priests'.
Conclusion: "Jews" in a leadership sense, was broad enough to include the
Many of the "Jews" became believers--Jn 11:45 and 12.11
There are numerous passages that indicate that the "Jews" were DISTINCT
FROM the common people (many of whom accepted Christ as their messiah):
John 7. 13 (But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of
the Jews.)--the common folk were afraid of the "Jews" (=> NOT THE SAME)
John 9.22 (His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews,
for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus
was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue.)
John 12.12 -- the Triumphal Entry -- the crowd accepted him!
Mt 23.37 ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone
those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together,
as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.)
- the difference between the leadership ("you") and the people ("your children").
John 2.23 - (Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many
people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.)
John 7.25 - (At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask,
"Isn't this the man they are trying to kill? 26 Here he is, speaking publicly,
and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded
that he is the Christ?)--Note the difference between the 'people of Jerusalem'
and the 'authorities'.
The data is VERY strong that when the term "Jews" is used of the PEOPLE,
it is a good (or at least, neutral) term--indicating that it is not a 'racial/ethnic'
slur, but a term used for specific identification (in context) of that
ruling community that violently rejected their King.
So, how did the term 'JEWS' get expanded from solely a reference to
the people (a la Ezra, Neh) to pick up a SECOND meaning of 'hostile leadership'?
John 4.22 - Jesus affirms: "You Samaritans worship what you do not know;
we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews."
John 12.9-11 - ( Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was
there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he
had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus
as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus
and putting their faith in him.)
Mt 27.11 - ( Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor
asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus
Acts 2.5, 14 - (Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from
every nation under heaven.) and (Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised
his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live
Acts 14.1 - (At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish
synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews
and Gentiles believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up
the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.) - NOTE: BOTH
usages (hostile leadership, believing people) present in the SAME passage.
Acts 21.20 - (Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands
of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.)
It is worth noting that John's gospel is deliberately evangelistic,
and the general trend of scholarship today is to view his intended audience
as not just Jews, but SPECIFICALLY the Jews of the Diaspora--the ones Paul
used the terms "JEWS" on so strongly!
The NT shows the development of the term to parallel Paul's experiences
with hostile Jewish leadership OUTSIDE Jerusalem! (And these experiences
were such that the hostile leadership had much more 'control' over the
general Jewish populations--due to the smaller numbers). The "Jews" (hostile
leadership) swayed the "Jews" (the people at large)--as well as the Gentiles
(see Acts 14 above!)-- against Paul's message. But the culpable ones were
There is absolutely NO evidence within the NT to suggest that the term
was IN ANY WAY related to a general anti-Semitism of the Roman empire!
(It is serious conjecture to 'read in' some Roman anti-Semitism in NT passages).
And, even as Paul experienced the hostility of the dispersed leadership,
even then many 'Jews' believed (Act 17:12 - Now the Bereans were of more
noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with
great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul
said was true. 12 Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent
Greek women and many Greek men.)
This general motif of the "Jews" (hostile aristocratic leadership) constraining
the "Jews" (the general Jewish populace) from their experience of God's
goodness is a surprisingly dominant theme in the teachings of Jesus:
Mt 23: 37 - ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone
those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together,
as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.
38 Look, your house is left to you desolate.")
Mt 23: 15 - ("Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes
one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.)
Mt 23: 13 - ("Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter,
nor will you let those enter who are trying to.)
As Carson notes in his Intro to the New Testament, p 171.:
The constant allusions to the Old Testament show that John's
intended readership is biblically literate; his translation of Semitic
expressions (e.g., 1:38, 42; 4:25; 19:13, 17) shows he is writing to those
whose linguistic competence is in Greek. His strong denunciation of the
"the Jews" cannot be taken as a mark against this thesis: John may well
have an interest in driving a wedge between ordinary Jews and (at least)
some of their leaders. The fourth gospel is not as anti-Jewish as some
people think anyway: salvation is still said to be "from the Jews" (4.22),
and often the referent of "the Jews" is "the Jews in Judea" or "the Jewish
leaders" or the like. "Anti-Semitic" is simply the wrong category to apply
to the fourth gospel: whatever hostilities are present turn on theological
issues related to the acceptance or rejection of revelation, not on race.
How could it be otherwise, when all of the first Christians were Jews and
when, on this reading, both the fourth evangelist and his primary readers
were Jews and Jewish proselytes?
[And, btw, the New Testament is REPLETE with anti-Gentile
statements--especially moral slurs (if you thought the Gospel
of John verses were such!):
When "Jews" is used of the hostile aristocratic leadership, it is appropriate
and truthful to ascribe the primary responsibility (see John 19:11 for
the relative roles of Pilate and the High Priest - "Jesus answered, "You
would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore
the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.") for His
execution to them.
When "Jews" is used of the general populace, it is used in a VERY POSITIVE
sense (and in some passages, in a neutral sense), but is NEVER used in
an 'anti-Semitic' slur.
THEREFORE--to assert that John (and the wider Christian community) attributed
the death of Jesus to the GENERAL POPULACE known as "Jews" is FUNDAMENTALLY
MISTAKEN; and that to accuse certain first-century Jews of being 'anti-Semitic'
because of some general Roman cultural trend is entirely without foundation.
“And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others?
Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Mt 5.45, Jesus)
And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the
Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many
words. (Mt 6.7, Jesus)
“Do not be anxious then, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we
drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ 32 “For all these
things the Gentiles eagerly seek; (Matt 6.31, Jesus)
And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses
to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and
a tax-gatherer. (Mt 18.17, Jesus)
But Jesus called them to Himself, and said, “You know that the rulers
of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority
over them. 26 “It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great
among you shall be your servant, (Matt 20.25, Jesus)
For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated
and spit upon, (Lk 18.32)
It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality
of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles (1 Cor 5.1,
No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice
to demons, and not to God (1 Cor 10.20, Paul)
We are Jews by nature, and not sinners from among the Gentiles;
This I say therefore, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk
no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind,
(Eph 4.7, Paul)
that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and
honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God
(1 Thess 4.4, Paul)
For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out
desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts,
drunkenness, carousals, drinking parties and abominable idolatries.
(1 Pet 4.3, Peter)