Anti-Semitism in the Gospel of John?

by Ray Mayhew 

Liberal theologians have long asserted that the Gospel of John is anti-Semitic and since the production of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, those asserting such charges have done so in increased numbers and with renewed vigor.

It is true that John uses the phrase “the Jews” far more than any other gospel writer (Matthew, 5 times, Mark, 6 times, Luke, 4 times, and John 61 times). It is also true that John’s use of the term is frequently set in a negative context or it is used in such a way that it could almost be interpreted that Jesus is distancing himself from them almost as if they were the enemy.

For instance, to mention just a few:

 “The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this? (John 2:18)”; “you are of your father the Devil” (the Lord addressing the Jews in John 8:44); “Then the Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48); “Then the Jewstook up stones again to stone Him (John 10:31); “ As soon as the [Jewish]chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die” (John 19:6-7). However, despite such references, when we understand the background, it is abundantly clear that John’s use of the word “Jew” (or, John’s references to Jesus using the word Jew) is not in any way anti-Semitic.

James Huston makes it clear that the term “the Jews” as used in John, is in no way an ethnic slur. Indeed, to do so would be to denigrate the race to which Jesus and John (the author of the Gospel) both belonged.  Rather it is a description of those in Israel who rejected Jesus and eventually crucified him. It has to do with belief, not ethnicity. Because they were rejecting the one who was among them as God in the flesh, they are in fact denying what it is to be a Jew and often the word “Jew” reflects this. They are “the Jews” who “loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

The Gospels and Acts make it very plain that there were many in Israel who did accept Jesus as the Messiah (and did so while retaining their Jewish identity) and these Jewish believers were, of course, the vast majority of all believers until the gospel went beyond the boundaries of Israel. Such a believing group would not, of course, fall within this negative categorization of “the Jews”. 

It is also interesting that in Acts 21:20 a reference is made to the number of Jews who had believed, and the word “myriad”, a unit of 10,000 in Greek, is used. (This was the largest numerical unit they had. They did not use millions or billions.)  And in Acts 21:20 “myriads” is in the plural. So it would be an error to think that almost all of Israel rejected Jesus as the messiah as there were many thousands who had.   

Also, we need to remember that the word “Jews” was an abbreviation of “Judah” (as Judah comprised by far the majority of those who came back from exile). Most of the other tribes stayed in dispersion or were assimilated into the nations. For this reason, eventually the whole nation was called “Jews” or “Judeans”, even if technically they came from another tribe. 

But sadly, as we know, the Jews, or Judeans, came to despise people like the Samaritans (and some of the Galileans). This was particularly because the Samaritans were of a mixed racial origin and most could not prove their pedigree as Israelites. For this reason, Jesus, particularly in the Gospel of John is often talking about ethnic pride and the unbelief when he uses the word “Jew” in a negative way.

It was a way of categorizing those who prided themselves in the purity of their pedigree and so  Jesus at times intentionally goes out of his way to call them “Jews” but in such a way that hints that that such attitudes actually disqualify them as being the true children of Abraham.         

Tom Wright makes the point that within the New Testament documents we have a dispute going on among the people of Israel as to who are the true inheritors of the covenant: those who accepted the renewal of the covenant in Jesus the Messiah or those who rejected it. And by the way, Paul says that on five occasions he received from the Jews 39 stripes (2 Cor 11:24). What we often fail to realize is that if Paul had simply said “I am no longer a Jew”, he would not have had to submit to any of these punishments, It is only because he refused to be ejected from the community of Israel and claimed that the covenant had now been renewed in himself as the messiah that he was persecuted. 

And I should also add that in this sense, Paul was not “converted” on the road to Damascus, he was “completed”.  He did not join a new religion (which technically is what conversion is); he simply continued to identify himself as a faithful Jew who had encountered Israel’s messiah. Personally, I needed to be converted as I was a twentieth century British pagan. I had to renounce what I formally believed and embrace Christianity. But this was not the case for Paul and the other Jewish leaders in the early church. The thought of joining another religion simply because they had discovered Israel’s messiah would have been anathema to them. 

 And John’s use of the phrase “the Jews” (and remember, he is writing in the second half of the first century) falls within this intramural dispute about who were now the true sons of Abraham. As I said, for John the word “Jews” in his Gospel is referring to those who did not accept Jesus as Messiah”. It is a theological statement, not an ethnic one. John, as an Israelite quoting Jesus, had every right to be passionate about the issue (we know for sure that the opposition was!). 

It is also interesting to note, by way of illustration, that Paul uses the word “gentile” in a similar way to how he uses the word “Jew”. An example would be Ephesians 4:17, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” The church at Ephesus was full of Gentiles and he is obviously not only speaking to the believing Jews in the congregation. Thus, by using the term “Gentiles” he is not speaking of ethnicity but of the immoral lifestyle of the unbelieving Gentiles. In other words, “Gentile” here is not an ethnic description, but represents a lifestyle that everyone in the church should have rejected. And in this sense Paul is doing a similar thing with the word “Gentile” as John does in his Gospel with the word “Jew”.

So while we abominate anti-Semitism in all its forms, we can be confident that John did also.  He would wholeheartedly join Paul in Romans saying :

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, 4the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.  Theirs are the patriarchs and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. (Romans 9:1-5)

Sadly, John’s epithet “the Jews” and other statements in the Gospels have been used through the ages by gentilesto denigrate the Jewish race and label them as “Christ killers” (e.g. Matthew 27). When Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent, the Jews answered “His blood be on us, and on our children” (27:25). Paul lived in the grief of knowing that the Jews had denigrated the person of Christ by regarding him as a renegade Jew who had betrayed his own people and was justly crucified as a criminal. 

There were, of course, many names given to the people of God from Abraham onwards; Hebrews, Israelites, Jews, and then, after the incarnation, Followers of the Way, Nazarenes, and Christians (meaning, of course, “Christ’s ones” or “the Messiah’s ones”—the nickname given to believers in Antioch that eventually stuck.)  But it is crucial to realize that in the NT we don’t have two religions: Judaism and Christianity. The new covenant people of God were made up of believing Jews and the gentiles that joined them.

And what is important here is that as gentiles, who, in Paul’s words, have been grafted in to the covenant family, we do not replace the Jews, but rather we join them. We become, as it were “honorary Jews”. We become part of the covenant people of God and again, as Paul says in Romans 4, Abraham becomes our “father”.

Therefore to think that any Jewish writer like John would denigrate the people of Israel to such an extent that he could be labeled anti-Semitic is unthinkable. In his eyes he was still a true “Jew”, but one who was now “completed” by embracing Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. 

So if we understand scripture correctly, rather than capitulating to those who lay charges of anti-Semitism at the feet of those like the apostle John, we should rather join with Paul in saying and praying that “ [We] have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [our] heart[s.  For [we] could wish that [we] were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [God’s ancient] people, the people of Israel.” This should motivate us to be committed in prayer that their eyes will yet be open to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus their Messiah.