Christ Before Pilate, Hans Holbein the Younger, ca. 1538-40 (Wikimedia Commons)

Now comes Jim McDermott SJ, associate editor of the Jesuit magazine America, and suggests — in the headline, no less — “The Gospel of John has been used to justify anti-Semitism—so we should stop reading it on Good Friday.”

To which I say: Amen, preach, brother!

John’s gospel has always bothered me, and not just in the Passion stories. I love the first chapter — In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God … — and Jesus’ overarching commandment — love one another, as I have loved you — with a depth of feeling I don’t get from the other gospels. But, when John takes out after “the Jews” — not the scribes and the Pharisees but the Jews, all of them — I get really, really uncomfortable. As a Lutheran who is well aware of Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism, I’m especially uncomfortable.

McDermott parses the offending passages even-handedly, zooming in on John’s Passion story:

The term “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaoi in the original Greek) occurs almost 70 times in the Gospel of John. Not every instance is actively hostile; in the Passion story, for instance, Jesus describes the synagogue as a place where “the Jews” gather. But 29 times, including 11 within the 82 verses of the passion story, we see the term used specifically for those who want to do away with Jesus and his followers. So, in Chapter 19: “[Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” (Jn 19:15).

In The Oxford Handbook of Johannine Studies, the scholar Adele Reinhartz argues that the more hostile uses of hoi Ioudaoi “have a much stronger emotional impact” than other times the term is used. The reason is simple: They engage the audience’s imagination. “By describing murderous intents and extreme behaviour,” Dr. Reinhartz writes, “they capture the attention and emotion of the audience more than other types of references.”

Hence McDermott’s suggestion.

But the problem here isn’t limited to the lectionary readings for Holy Week. Nor, for that matter, is it limited to John. There are passages throughout the New Testament that have led otherwise devout Christians to commit anti-Semitic acts, at the very least to recommend them (as in Luther’s case), time and time again throughout the 2,000-year history of Europe. Luther wasn’t the only one. He wasn’t even the worst.

Most contemporary scholars, Christian and Jewish alike, find nothing like the racialized, murderous 20th- and 21st-century forms of anti-Semitism in the stories of Jesus and the early church. Jesus’ beef, they explain and we ought to remember, was with the religious hierarchy of his day. McDermott explains:

The Jewish Scripture scholar Wesley Howard-Brook holds this view. “Neither Jesus in John nor John the Baptist in Luke could imagine God wanting people to abandon the covenant,” he writes in The Jews Did Not Kill Jesus, an edited collection of essays from biblical scholars. “The opposite is true: they were calling people back to the covenant.”

Dr. Howard-Brook sees hoi Ioudaoi in John as “an ideological category.” In a Zoom interview, he said that the term describes “those who identify with the Jerusalem temple and its system under Roman imperial control.”

So it was with the historical Jesus. He was a devout Jew. I think we have to remember that.

And the early Christians, most scholars agree, started out as a breakaway Jewish movement in competition with the Pharisees, who also were breaking away from Second Temple Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. It must have been a time of bitter and unfathomable religious tumult, even by today’s tumultuous standards.

So it helps me, when I’m reading about the scribes and the Pharisees — or hoi Ioudaoi — to remind myself Jesus is talking about organized religion. He’s talking about me. When I’m reading John, I also try to make allowances for a community of believers who just got kicked out of the synagogue, probably in Ephesus, and weren’t too happy about it. (To give credit where it’s due: I’m following Raymond E. Brown’s Community of the Beloved Disciple here.) Says McDermott:

As to why John was so persistent and strident in his attacks on hoi Ioudaoi, Dr. Reinhartz identifies three possible interpretations, which are not mutually exclusive: John is trying to punish the Pharisees for expelling his community from the synagogue; John is trying to assert the distinctiveness and superiority of his community over that of the Pharisees; or it is a product of John’s overall dualistic rhetorical framework. Throughout the Gospel, John uses binary pairs to represent good and evil—light and darkness, life and death, above and below. As Jesus represents all things good, there needs to be some person or persons who represent entirely the opposite. That, for John, is the Ioudaoi.

Jon M. Sweeney, a popular Catholic author who edited Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews, suggests the anti-Semitic passages in John be framed in their historical first- and second-century context. McDermott isn’t sure how well that would work on Good Friday — the readings are so emotionally charged — but he agrees that it’s absolutely “the right solution” throughout the church year:

The church does need to explain these issues in John so that Catholics understand what he is actually saying. It also needs to continue to talk about its own historical culpability in anti-Semitism and to stand publicly with Jewish people in fighting against anti-Semitism.

I’m sure a great many Christian priests, pastors and ministers do exactly that. I know I regularly hear these disclaimers from my Lutheran pastors when the anti-Semitic passages come up in the lectionary. But it’s never enough — 2,000 years is a long time for problematic language to get deeply ingrained — and, especially since the horrors of the last century, we have much to atone for.

One theologian who grappled with the issue was Krister Stendahl, who at various times was bishop of Stockholm in the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden and dean of Harvard Divinity School in addition to writing significant New Testament scholarship early in his career. He came of age during World War II in neutral Sweden, and he was painfully aware that Luther’s writing, especially a 1543 polemic titled Of The Jews and Their Lies, was prominently used by Nazis to rationalize the Holocaust.

Time and time again, Stendahl said that put Christians, especially Lutherans, under a heavy obligation.

“Most acts of anti-semitism have indeed been isolated acts,” he once told a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who buttonholed him at a reception given in his honor in Boston. But that, he added, doesn’t let Christians off the hook:

[…] the question we need to ask is: To what extent are these acts occurring in a Christian culture that pictures Jews as despicable? Now when there is psychological need for scapegoats, you can never say that anti-Semitic acts are Christian acts. But they are not disconnected. Christians have a responsibility.”

Stendahl walked the talk, too. He was a lifelong advocate religious pluralism, “a Christian theology of religions” as he described it in a 1992 lecture at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. “[A]nd so,” he said, “I ask myself ‑- how to sing my song to Jesus with abandon without telling negative stories about others?”

Both at Harvard and as bishop of Stockholm, Stendahl championed the cause of women (in appreciation, his grad students called him “Sister Krister”). He was a leading advocate of Jewish-Christian dialog and later taught at Brandeis and the Osher Center for Tolerance and Pluralism at the Shalom-Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His advocacy grew out of his scholarship, and when Stendahl died in 2008, his divinity school obituary quoted him:

The Christian Bible includes sayings that have caused much pain, both to Jews and to women. Thus I have felt called to seek forms of interpretation which can counteract such undesirable side effects of the Holy Scriptures.”

Today Krister Stendahl may be remembered best for something he said at a 1985 press conference in Stockholm, when he stood up for Mormons who wanted to build a controversial temple there. Codified as “Stendahl’s Three Rules of Religious Understanding,” his observations are widely cited (quoted here from Wikipedia):

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.”

Wikipedia explains (or tries to explain), that last one: “By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.”

Pretty much what the evangelist John was unable to do for hoi Ioudaoi during the religious upheaval that followed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem!

I don’t know exactly what “holy envy” means to theologians, but I do know it’s an attitude I want to cultivate. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal-priest-turned-college-religion-professor-turned-best-selling-author, wrote a wonderful book in 2019 titled Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. In it she recalls field trips with her students to mosques, temples and synagogues in the greater Atlanta area. Students and prof alike returned to campus with their own faith enriched. Why? Holy envy.

“The minute I heard the phrase holy envy I loved it,” Brown told an interviewer for U.S. Catholic, “because it is an oxymoron. It takes one of the seven deadly sins and puts ‘holy’ in front of it.”

She didn’t try to define it, though. Instead she said:

I saw it at a mosque on a Friday afternoon during the Jummah [Friday midday] prayer. Students who knew nothing about Islam and had never been in a mosque listened to a sermon that made a great deal of sense to them about being the change they wanted to see in the world and treating others as they wanted to be treated.

They watched 600 people, including moms bending over their kids, grandmas in wheelchairs, and ordinary people bending to say their prayers. Those students came back to the classroom and wrote papers about how they needed to take their own prayer lives more seriously. They were so touched by what they saw.

At the end of the day, Taylor told her mostly-Christian students from North Georgia, it boils down to the “central teachings of their own faith: loving the neighbor as the self, with no fine print about the neighbor’s religion.”  

And that, of course, is one of the central teachings of the Jewish religion.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus said it, he was citing basic Jewish law (Leviticus 19:18). And Stendahl returned to the theme. When you’re trying to understand your neighbors, ask them, not their enemies. Don’t compare your best to their worst. Leave room for holy envy.

Wonderful advice. In fact, remembering Krister Stendahl — and Barbara Brown Taylor’s students visiting a mosque in Atlanta — might even help me reach back through the centuries; look for the best in the evangelist John’s struggling little faith community in first-century Ephesus; and discount the potshots they took at their perceived enemies in the Jewish diaspora that followed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Works Cited

Raymond E. Brown, Community of the Beloved Disciple (1979). See Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/16018.The_Community_of_the_Beloved_Disciple

Richard M. Harley, “Anti-Semitism: Christians Have a Responsibility,” Christian Science Monitor, June 4, 1981 https://www.csmonitor.com/1981/0604/060464.html.

Will Joyner, “Krister Stendahl, 1921-2008,” Harvard Divinity School News Archive, April 16, 2008 https://news-archive.hds.harvard.edu/news/2011/02/07/krister-stendahl-1921-2008.

Jim McDermott, “The Gospel of John has been used to justify anti-Semitism—so we should stop reading it on Good Friday,” America, April 14, 2022 https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2022/04/14/good-friday-gospel-john-jews-242822.

Krister Stendahl, “From God’s Perspective, We Are All Minorities,” lecture, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University, Feb. 27, 1992, ed. Arvind Sharma and Jennifer Baichwal, rpt. PluralismSunday.org https://pluralismsunday.wordpress.com/2008/07/23/krister-stendahl-on-religious-pluralism/.

Barbara Brown Taylor, “Make room for ‘holy envy’ when learning about other faiths,” A U.S. Catholic Interview,” U.S. Catholic, Aug. 20, 2019 https://uscatholic.org/articles/201908/learning-about-other-faiths-make-room-for-holy-envy-says-this-episcopal-priest/.

Wikipedia page on Krister Stendahl.

[Published April 17, 2022]

3 thoughts on “Uneasy with John’s bias against ‘the Jews’ in an age of religious pluralism? Here are a couple of ways to deal with it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s