I mentioned in my previous post Tony Burke’s reference to “anti-Semitism” in the Gospel of John as one of the “objectionable” elements in the canonical Gospels. (In context, he was arguing that we should not characterize the Christian Apocrypha on the basis of such objectionable elements any more than we should characterize the canonical writings on such a selective basis.) A thorough treatment of this question in a blog entry is out of the question, so I will offer some brief comments and then recommend some further reading on the subject.

Although many people have charged the Gospel of John (and much of the rest of the New Testament) with anti-Semitism, the charge simply will not stick. No doubt anti-Semites have often appealed to various statements from John or other canonical texts as warrant for their hostility toward Jewish people. I would argue, however, that such appeals are abuses of the texts, not faithful adherence to the teachings or perspective of the texts.

As is well known, the Gospel of John often speaks in an unqualified way of “the Jews” in contexts where they, whoever they are precisely, are being criticized. What does not seem to be as well known is the fact that John also speaks of “the Jews” in a positive light. Perhaps the most telling of these occurrences is Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22 NRSV). Even when scholars who view the Gospel as anti-Semitic comment on this verse (which some do not), they sometimes trip over it. A good example is Robert Kysar, who claims that in this text “an older tradition in which Jesus clearly identifies himself as a Jew and affirms Judaism as the source of salvation (4:22) slips past the watchful eye of the evangelist-redactor to confuse the reader.”[1] The bumbling redactor is as much a stock character in biblical scholarship as the hypocritical preacher is in American television and movies. Whenever a scholar resorts to this plot device, it is a dead giveaway that his insightful theory has run into an inconvenient fact. The only way Kysar could see to avoid trying to force the square peg of John 4:22 into his round hole of Johannine anti-Semitism was to speculate that it just didn’t belong.

The notion that John is anti-Semitic has been aided and abetted by scholars eager to recast the Gospel as a Hellenistic interpretation of Christianity that recast the Jewish Messiah Jesus of earliest Christian belief into a Gentile god. Of course, even if that were true, it would not mean that the Gospel was anti-Semitic. Various scholars, sensitive to what they describe as the “anti-Judaic” qualities or perspective of the Fourth Gospel, carefully distinguish anti-Judaism from anti-Semitism. The Gospel may well be described as expressing opposition to Judaism as a religion, specifically the establishment Judaism that rejected Jesus as Messiah and eventually ejected Jesus’ followers from their ranks. But religious opposition is a flimsy pretext for ethnic oppression, and anyone who has cited the former as expressed in the Gospel of John as justification for the latter has misread the book on a massive scale. In any case, the claim that the Gospel abandoned a Jewish way of understanding the significance of Jesus for a Gentile, Hellenistic understanding is absolutely false. In recent decades a mountain of academic research into the Gospel of John has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt its pervasive Jewishness (Old Testament and Second-Temple), including the thoroughly Jewish background and context of its Christology.[2] Some scholars—including some who were themselves Jewish—knew this long ago. Israel Abrahams, an orthodox Jewish scholar at Cambridge, stated in 1924, “To us Jews, the Fourth Gospel is the most Jewish of the four!”[3]

Ironically, some of the apocryphal gospels make the canonical Gospels look positively pro-Jewish by comparison. Bart Ehrman, himself inclined to find some anti-Semitic sentiments in the New Testament writings, states candidly that the Gospel of Peter “is far more virulently anti-Jewish than any of those [Gospels] that made it into the New Testament.”[4] Theologically, the writings commonly labeled Gnostic are far more distant from the Jewish monotheistic worldview and theological traditions of first-century Judea and Galilee than any of the New Testament writings. This is another substantive point that conservative Christian scholars routinely make about the majority of the apocryphal Christian writings. N. T. Wright, for example, says that a key feature of the Gnostic writings was a “relentless hostility to the main lines of ancient Judaism,” that is, the Judaism of the Old Testament and the Second Temple Jewish traditions. The Gnostics were not all necessarily anti-Semitic, either, but the textual evidence for antipathy toward Judaism is at most quite mild in the Gospel of John compared to what we find later in the Gnostic literature.

Much more could be said on this subject, but let me close with recommending some good reading on the subject. Let me first cite three books that offer careful and thorough examinations of the issue:

Bauckham, Richard, and Carl Mosser, eds. The Gospel of John and Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007. Includes a section of four essays on “John and ‘the Jews.’”

Kierspel, Lars. The Jews and the World in the Fourth Gospel. WUNT 2/220. Mohr Siebeck, 2006. Revision of Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Thorough academic study of John’s view of “the Jews,” arguing that it is not anti-Jewish.

Motyer, Stephen. Your Father the Devil? A New Approach to John and “the Jews.” Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1997. Argues that the Gospel is anti-Judaism but not anti-Semitic, and that its purpose was to present Jesus as “good news” for Jews toward the end of the first century.

For those who would like to read some shorter treatments online that go beyond what I have said in this brief post, the following should be helpful:

Bruce, F. F. “Are the Gospels Anti-Semitic?” Eternity 24 (November 1973): 16-18. Brief article by renowned conservative New Testament scholar, arguing against the claim of anti-Semitism in the Gospels (and focusing on John).
www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eternity/anti-semitic_bruce.pdf

Smith, D. Moody. “Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John.” In The Theology of the Gospel of John, 169-73. Cambridge University Press. Mediating position that John’s Gospel is anti-Jewish but not, fairly read, anti-Semitic.
http://www.fathom.com/feature/122099/index.html

 

NOTES

[1] Robert Kysar, “Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John,” in Voyages with John: Charting the Fourth Gospel (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), 147-59 (155).

[2] The literature on this subject is legion. See, in addition to recent exegetical commentaries and standard introductions, such works as Aileen Guilding, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship: A Study of the Relation of St. John’s Gospel to the Ancient Jewish Lectionary System (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960); James H. Charlesworth, ed., John and the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Crossroad, 1990); Anthony Tyrrell Hanson, The Prophetic Gospel: A Study of John and the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991); Craig A. Evans, Word and Glory: On the Exegetical and Theological Background of John’s Prologue, JSNTSup 89 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993); David Mark Ball, “I Am” in John’s Gospel: Literary Function, Background and Theological Implications, JSNTSup 124 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996). Each of these is merely one of many works exploring the same themes.

[3] Quoted in Gary M. Burge, Interpreting the Fourth Gospel, Guides to New Testament Exegesis 5 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 20.

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 18.

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