But this regularity also causes us a perennial problem: what do we do about John’s references to “the Jews?”
By now it should be no secret to anyone that Christians have a pretty awful record when it comes to our treatment of the Jews. Marginalization and flare-ups of shocking violence have occurred with shocking consistency throughout our history. And while the Holocaust was perpetuated in the name of an insane form of neo-pagan revivalism, German Christians were a bit too eager to embrace scholastic traditions that sought to remove Jesus from His Jewish context**—part of an antisemitic tradition going back as far as (at least) Martin Luther.***
A significant part of this comes from the ways in which we have read John’s gospel.
John’s gospel, more than the others, makes numerous references to “the Jews.” Consider one of the early passages (John 2:13-25, where Jesus chases out the money-changers in the Temple):
‘The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.’
In this instance we see how the author of the gospel is using “the Jews” in an instructive way. John’s gospel is written late, probably in the year 86 CE or so. By this time, Christianity had taken a strong root among Gentiles. Saint John’s community was likely very Greek and, in some cases, the gospel bearing his name is trying to teach things.
But then the passage goes on:
‘The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”’
Here, “the Jews” is referring to a group of people. Taken baldly, it comes across as though Jesus is having a confrontation with a group of people who happen to be Jews. But the context is crucial because Jesus is not dealing with “Jews-in-general.” Instead, Jesus is dealing with Jewish religious authorities.
So, in some cases “the Jews” is shorthand for “Jewish religious authorities.” Why is this?
Well, remember how we already mentioned that John’s gospel was likely written in the late 80s of the Common Era? So, an important thing happened in Jewish history a little more than a decade prior. In the year 70 the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem as a result of a seditionist movement. And around this time a clear distinction between Christians and Jews came into being. So the author of John’s gospel is writing in such a way as to make a religious distinction between Jews and Christians.
The author is not considering ethnic qualities here. One of the major themes of John’s gospel is that Jesus is fulfilling Jewish prophecy and scripture. In fact, peeling back the layers, one could argue that John’s gospel is pretty deeply Jewish in terms of its theology.**** But the author is also writing to a community of people who are not Jews. The author is also coming off of a period of time where early Gentile Christians were being pressured into things like circumcision, having to basically become Jews in order to be Christians (arguing against this notion is pretty much the entirety of Saint Paul’s letters). So, it makes sense that the author would make distinctions in the text in order to maintain a line of demarcation between what was “Jewish” and what was “Christian.”
John’s gospel is quite nuanced. Unfortunately, nuance is not a human strong suit. Which brings us to passages like:
‘Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”’ (John 19:6-7)
‘[Pilate] said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.’ (John 19:14-16)
These references come from the NRSV, which still serves as the standard translation for many churches, ours included. And the way “the Jews” is used in these passages reads as though an entire race of people are to be blamed for the crucifixion of Jesus. But, given the context, “the Jews” is a term that refers to particular religious authorities—a relatively small group of people who have arrested Jesus and thrown Him in front of Pilate.
So, what are we to do? Do we exhaustively rehash this nuance every year?
One thing that we might do is to consider using different translations of the Bible.
I’ve been pretty vocal in my support of the Common English Bible translation and another good reason to embrace its regular use is that it quite masterfully renders “the Jews” in passages like John 19 as “Jewish leaders.” It might not be a translation that is accurate in terms of its adherence to the letter of the original Greek text, but it is a translation that is far more accurate in terms of the author’s intent (this is a conversation in translations circles about the merits of “dynamic” versus “formal” equivalence—it’s as thrilling a topic as you’re probably imagining).
Using the CEB will allow us to better address the tragic dimensions of the Passion narrative. Far from this being about an entire ethnic group being guilty of Jesus’ death, it’s rather about a group of religious leaders twisted into fearful individuals willing to let an innocent man die because it would mean a maintaining of a shred of the status quo. Remember, the Romans were actively crucifying Jews during Passover celebrations throughout history because it was a time where riots and rebellions would break out.† The Pharisees and Sadducees were well aware of this and the risk that the Romans would kill more Jews and restrict more freedoms. This sort of political oppression fostered the tendency toward capitulation that lead to Jesus’ arrest and death.
Yes, Jesus was handed over to the Romans by His own people—particularly the religious leaders of His own people. But they did so as the result of a deeply broken world defined by death and fear—a world lousy with, in a word, sin. This is why Jesus can say, as recorded in one of the other gospels, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Jesus recognizes how twisted up the world had become.
So, no. “The Jews” did not kill Jesus and we would do well to remember that fact.
* Something to keep in mind when we talk about the gospel entitled “John” is that we don’t actually know who wrote it. At no point does the gospel give us an author’s name—preferring instead the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” The “John” identification is the result of conjecture and historical tradition. At this point, the reigning scholarly consensus is that the Apostle John founded a community in Asia Minor (centered in Ephesus), and shared his stories of Jesus. John’s disciples later recorded and collected those stories. For this reason, some prefer the title “the Fourth Gospel.” For the purposes of the article I will be referring to “the author” instead of “John.”
** For a great book about this history, see Aryan Jesus by Susanna Heschel
*** Luther’s On The Jews And Their Lies is a terrifying work that is largely responsible for the deep German antisemitism that came to deadly fruition in the 19th and 20th centuries. In it, Luther calls for the burning of synagogues and schools in order to promote conversions among the Jews.
**** Consider the vaunted prologue in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel, which is rooted very much in the philosophy of a Jewish thinker named Philo of Alexandria
† This is because the Passover was a celebration of the time that God empowered Moses to lead Israel out of bondage. Hearing that story year after year would inevitably lead certain individuals to muster the people against the powers that be.