The Wartburg Project

February 28th, 2019

51. The Term "The Jews"

In John’s Gospel the enemies of Jesus are frequently called “the Jews.” Won’t this foster antisemitic
hatred of Jews? Could the term be translated Jewish leaders so that blame is not placed on all Jews?

Our EHV rubric concerning the use of the term Jews states: The New Testament territory is Judea. Judeans are the residents of the province. Jews are the ethnic/religious community in the post-exilic period.

This translation issue is especially prominent in John’s Gospel, so the EHV treats the topic in the introduction to John. This FAQ is adapted from that article.

The Gospel of John repeatedly calls the bitter opponents of Jesus simply “the Jews.” (John 5:18; 7:1-10; 8:1-22, 8:40; 10:29-33; 11:8; 18:14; 18:28, and others). As a result, fears have been expressed that this common usage in John’s gospel will encourage anti-Jewish bias or hatred when it is read in the context of modern antisemitism. It is certainly possible that the New Testament could be misused in that way unless its context and intent are understood. It, in fact, has been misused that way by some people. The question then becomes what is the best way to combat this danger: changing John’s terminology or explaining his theological point?

John’s use of the term is balanced by a number of points: Of the approximately sixty times John uses the term, many of the examples are in positive or neutral contexts. There are many positive statements about Jews. Jesus’ loyal followers were called Jews (John 8:31; 12:11). Only John’s Gospel reports that Jesus says that “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Jesus, the King of the Jews, was buried by Jews according to Jewish burial customs (John 19:40). In short, John, who was himself Jewish, often uses the term Jews in a neutral sense of Jewish people in general (John 2:6; 4:9; 11:19; 12:9; compare Matthew 28:15, Luke 7:3). The term Jews is also used this general sense in other biblical books, such as Esther. Context determines whether the term Jews is used in a context which is negative, neutral, or positive. For John, the term itself is not negative.

Yet it must be granted that in the majority of his uses of the term, John is speaking about those Jews who opposed Jesus. John’s reason for doing this is to reflect on the tragedy that he states already in the opening of his book: “He came to what was his own, yet his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). At times, John’s use of the term the Jews is intended to make this specific theological point, the tragedy of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah, whom God sent for them.

John records a number of instances in which the hostility toward Jesus was expressed in terms of his relationship to the Jewish religion. Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah were declared to be non-Jews by being put out of the synagogue (John 9:22). Jesus himself was labeled as a Samaritan, that is, an outcast from Judaism (John 8:48). In John 11:54: “Jesus no longer walked about openly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew into a region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim. And he stayed there with his disciples.” If our identification of the location of Ephraim is correct, Jesus had to leave Jewish territory for the time being and move to Samaritan territory to escape the hostility against him.

If John has an anti-Jewish agenda, it is striking that he does not record the curse that Jesus’ enemies pronounce on themselves in Matthew 27:25. This curse is reported in Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospels. John’s concern is with the tragedy of Israel’s rejection of Jesus the Messiah. John has no ethnic, anti-Jewish agenda. His message is not the anti-Jewish bias of a Gentile. It is a continuation of a warning already stated by Hebrew prophets such as Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.

The problem is not the use of the term Jews. My experience living among Jews in Israel and belonging to societies with a large percentage of Jewish members from every part of that religious spectrum is that changing the translation of the term the Jews will not remove the offense. The objection to the Gospels (partly justified) is not to the term “Jews” but to a fear that the words, “His blood be on us and our children” has been and will be used to justify persecution of the Jews as a race. A second objection is to the Christian belief that Christianity is in one sense the continuation and completion of Old Testament Judaism. Removing the term the Jews would not address either of these issues.

The proper attitude of Christians toward Jews is discussed at length in Romans 9–11. It is summarized in the statement, “My heart’s desire and prayer to God on behalf of the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). John was deeply grieved, as was Paul, about the tragedy coming upon the people of Israel, but they both confronted the problem in a two-fold way. They stated clearly, “Salvation was from the Jews and is still for the Jews” but they also dealt honestly with Israel’s rejection of Jesus and the fact that this brought judgment on them. There are two poles of danger to Jewish people today from Christian attitudes: One is hateful attitudes of some Christians, which embitter Jews against Christianity. The other is the attitude of liberal Christians who try to silence the Bible’s testimony against the tragedy of Israel’s rejection of their Messiah and the need for faith in Christ for both Jews and Gentiles. We have to keep both the law and the gospel in our testimony. We have to energetically oppose antisemitism but also to state clearly that Christ is the only way to salvation and that rejection of him brings judgment. This belief will be offensive to many Jewish people no matter how the term the Jews is translated in the New Testament.

Some years ago I was participating in what was becoming a rather emotional debate/argument among Bible scholars and archaeologists about Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ. Those who hated the movie the most were liberal Catholics, who thought that the movie gave the impression that God was an angry judge against sin and that the movie put Catholicism in a bad light. Jewish participants were concerned that the movie could foster antisemitism. I commented that Christians who paid attention to the quotation from Isaiah 53:5 at the start of the movie (he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed) would see this account of Jesus’ Passion as a condemnation of their own sins, and also as an affirmation of forgiveness for all people. An elderly, well-respected Jewish scholar responded to me, “You seem to be saying that the message of the film is that a holy God cannot tolerate sin. I agree with that.” The Old Testament prophets vehemently warned of the judgment flowing from Israel's rejection of the Lord. John is simply following in the same tradition. The quotation from Isaiah 53 sets a balanced tone for the whole movie. We cannot lose that prophetic perspective.

When all these factors are taken together, it seems best, not to re-write the Gospels, but to understand them correctly in context. A good tool for understanding this issue is Paul’s thorough, balanced treatment of the topic in Romans 9–11. Paul, who was himself a Jew and a former enemy of Jesus, wrestles with the tragedy of Israel’s history. Both his love for Israel and his sorrow at the rejection of Christ by the majority of Israel are very clear. We can try to be careful in our language and use appropriate footnotes to the text to guard against misunderstanding or misuse of the biblical text, but we cannot censor its message. We cannot remove what God’s law says in warning against unbelief, and we cannot fail to make clear that the gospel is for all.