My Aland, et al, Third Edition of The Greek New Testament entitles John 10:22-42 as “Jesus Rejected by the Jews.” On the face of it, that’s an unhelpful superscription for us as Western Christians who live after the Nazi Holocaust. Because of the consistent and direct work and testimony of Amy-Jill Levine, among others, I find myself more and more aware of the casual anti-Judaism that creeps into sermons and Bible studies – mine included – unless we Christians pay particular attention to straining out such prejudicial and dangerous language.
The reading from John 10:22-42 is another Johannine lection which can easily lead us dominant-culture Christians into the kind of casual and unexamined anti-Judaism which sustains a discourse of contempt toward Jews. In the reading, Jesus is surrounded by a hostile group of Jerusalem religious authorities, labelled in the text as “the Jews.” That same group then, in verse thirty-one, takes up stones to punish Jesus for what they hear as his blasphemous self-identification with the God of Israel.
The labelling continues in verse 33 and in verse 39, although it is a pronoun in that latter verse. A casual reading by a lector or preacher can leave those hostile references hanging in the air without question. Given the ongoing and obvious anti-Jewish bent that has resurfaced in American culture, such a casual reading left without comment will, I fear, reinforce such unquestioned anti-Jewish assumptions and interpretations.
It may be that nearly every sermon based on a Johannine text must be accompanied by a clear disclaimer to dislodge such unquestioned assumptions. I think that is the least we as Christian preachers can do in such a time as ours. The introduction to Paul Anderson’s article makes a number of points that should be in such a disclaimer. “While it is a tragic fact that the Gospel of John has contributed to anti-Semitism and religious violence during some chapters of Christian history,” Anderson begins, “John is not anti-Semitic” (page 1).
Anderson points to a number of pieces of evidence to make the case. The Johannine author was clearly Jewish, as was Jesus. The first audience for the account was Jewish. The purpose of the Gospel of John was to demonstrate that the Jewish Messiah is Jesus. That Jesus, in the Johannine account, says that salvation is “of the Jews.” The “I am” sayings in the Johannine account would only make sense to and have an impact on Jewish listeners and readers.
It is, of course, the case, Anderson acknowledges, that “the Jews” serve sometimes in the Johannine account as stand-ins for the unbelieving world. As in the case of our text, they are “portrayed as primary adversaries of Jesus and his followers despite the fact that some are also presented as coming to faith in Jesus” (page 1). “The Jews” sometimes represent a group geographically distinct from “the Galileans.” They also sometimes represent the religious leaders in Jerusalem or in the countryside who oppose Jesus and his movement.
“The main problem is with interpreting John wrongly or with allowing flawed interpretations to stand,” Anderson writes. “When read correctly,” he continues, “the Fourth Gospel not only ceases to be a source of religious acrimony; it points the way forward for all seekers of truth to sojourn together, across boundaries of religious movements, time, and space” (page 1). I’m not sure I’ve portrayed that understanding of “the Jews” in the Johannine account very often in my preaching and teaching.
I continue to wonder if we post-Holocaust Christians can responsibly read the Johannine account out loud in settings of public worship. In speaking of both the Matthean and Johannine accounts, Anderson notes, “One’s first reaction might thus favor banning these or other religious documents from the marketplace of ideas altogether. Censorship, however,” Anderson continues, “would produce a new set of prejudicial disasters, as inquisitions and book-burning schemes always create more problems than they solve” (page 3).
That being said, Anderson pursues the question of whether there is anti-Judaism native to the Johannine text or if the fault resides completely with bad interpretations based on flawed readings of the text. He argues for the latter option. “The thesis of this essay,” he declares, “is that while John has played a role in anti-Semitism and religious violence, such influences represent a distortion of this thoroughly Jewish piece of writing, which actually provides ways forward for all seekers of truth and inclusivity if interpreted adequately” (page 3).
Some interpreters would use the Johannine document to make the case for Christian supersessionism. Anderson argues that the real agenda in the Gospel is not to challenge Judaism but rather to challenge all human attempts to manage God on our terms. The Johannine account does give voice to some regional tensions between northern “charisma-oriented” Judaism and southern “cult-oriented” Judaism in the first century. Seeing “the Jews” in John as the religious authorities thus has some legitimacy but is not the whole story. And the Johannine account may also reflect later struggles in the synagogues as Christians found themselves less and less in sync with ongoing developments in Judaism.
None of these perspectives is adequate by itself to account for the rhetoric in the Johannine account. Nor is it sufficient to see “the Jews” in John as merely stand-ins for any and all who might resist the message and person of Jesus. Such an abstraction takes the “flesh” out of the “Word made flesh” which arrives in a specific historic context. Some would see the Johannine Jesus as “pro-Jewish” rather than anti-Jewish, seeking to reach “his own” (see John 1) with the gift of abundant life.
“Adequate interpretation of John and Judaism would thus involve a synthesis of multiple factors,” Anderson argues, “and it is likely that at different stages of its development the Johannine tradition possessed distinctive approaches to the Ioudaioi in the Johannine situation” (page 7).
Anderson concludes that it is most accurate and helpful to see the negative references to “the Jews” in the Johannine account as “almost exclusively confined to particular Judean religious authorities who engage Jesus pointedly in adversarial ways” (page 32). That would certainly be the appropriate interpretation for the labels applied in John 10:22-42.
Anderson notes the accusation the authorities make that Jesus is a demon-possessed blasphemer who should be executed. This exchange should not be seen as either anti-Jewish or anti-Christian. Those labels are anachronistic and don’t represent the situation “on the ground.” Instead, “John’s story of Jesus – in tension with Judean authorities, some of whom indeed believe in Jesus – must be seen as an intra-Jewish set of engagements. Just as John’s narrative cannot be used as a basis for violence,” Anderson notes, “nor can it be read responsibly as advocating any form of anti-Semitism. It is radically Jewish in its self-understanding,” he continues, “even if that inference is contested” (page 32).
The Johannine account does, however “challenge religious and political bastions of power and authority,” Anderson argues, both in the first-century context and well beyond that Judean and imperial Roman context. This is, he urges, the real interpretive context for preaching and teaching on the Gospel of John. In the Johannine account, Jesus does not overturn Jewish religious structures and forms merely to replace them with Christian religious structures and forms. This is neither supersessionism nor triumphalism. Anderson asserts that “the Johannine Jesus challenges not only Jewish dogmatism and religiosity, but it also challenges Christian instantiations of the same” (page 33). This means, he declares, that the Johannine account is a source of universal inclusivism, not parochial exclusivism.
All that being said, Anderson wonders what we are to do with the anti-Semitism and religious violence that claim to find their justifications in the Johannine account? First, we must let the Johannine account be what it is – an intra-Jewish debate that seeks to fulfill Israel’s vocation rather than subvert or supersede it.
“It is not Jewish religion proper that the saving/revealing initiative of Jesus as God’s agent in John confounds,” Anderson declares, “it scandalizes all that is of creaturely origin, including the religious platforms and scaffolding of Christianity, political and social empires, and even irreligion as a human construct. The reader is thus invited to be a seeker of truth,” he continues, “and such is the means of liberation, the character of authority, and the center of our common commitments” (page 34).
What does this mean for the preaching of the text at hand? I think it means a bit of time spent on a disclaimer rejecting any anti-Jewish interpretation of our text. It also means reminding our listeners that Scripture is much more of a mirror than it is a snapshot of the past or a window into another world. Especially when we read this text, or any text, as people with power, privilege, position, and property, we need to see that we are more often than not in opposition to Jesus and his movement.
When we allow scripture to perform that diagnostic function for us, we stand a better chance of reading accurately and in ways that are not deadly to others. And we stand a better chance of trusting that the Messiah is Jesus and that in that trust we can have life in his name.
References and Resources
Anderson, Paul N., “Anti-Semitism and Religious Violence as Flawed Interpretations of the Gospel of John” (2017). Faculty Publications – College of Christian Studies. 289. https://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/ccs/289
DENNERT, BRIAN C. “Hanukkah and the Testimony of Jesus’ Works (John 10:22—39).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 2 (2013): 431–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488021.
Janssen, J. and Hartley, J. “Psalm 82 and the Trial Motif in John 10.” https://www.academia.edu/download/44574210/Psalm82_and_the_Trial_Motif_in_John_10_-_James_Janssen_2010-12-19.pdf.
Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust. HarperCollins, 2000.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.
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