Anti-Semitism in the New Testament?
As I distribute literature on the streets, sometimes I meet Jewish people who claim that the New Testament is overtly anti-Semitic. They rarely want to stop and talk, and invariably they are not able to cite specific passages. It’s just something they have heard, and given the history of anti-Semitism in the church, they imagine the accusation must be true.
Occasionally a more knowledgeable objector will mention the Apostle Paul or John’s gospel as being slanted against the Jewish people and likely to incite anti-Jewish feelings. Of course this is not true, but admittedly at a first reading it might seem to be the case.
Traditionally the Book of John has been regarded as the most hellenized of the gospels. (The Word” of John 1 was thought to parallel the logos (word) of Greek philosophy; yet more recently the parallel between the phrasing of John 1 and Genesis 1 also has been emphasized.)
Generally it has been supposed that the Gospel of John was written to a Gentile audience because of the frequent use of the adjective Jewish to introduce religious customs and observances (e.g. John 5:1 or 6:4). Moreover, certain passages seem to sound anti-Jewish. In John 5:16, 18 we read, “the Jews persecuted Jesus” and “sought all the more to kill Him” and John 7:13 states, “no one spoke openly of Him for fear of the Jews.”
A straight reading of those passages does sound anti-Jewish, but a simple and accurate revision of the translation from the Greek (the written language of the New Testament) immediately and drastically alters the sense of the text. Judaioi, the Greek word for “Jews,” is the same as the word for “Judeans.” The maligned texts could equally be rendered the Judeans persecuted Jesus or the Judeans sought all the more to kill Him. Indeed, a number of commentators explain that the term “Jews” refers particularly to the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem. In fact, the translation no one spoke openly of Him for fear of the Jews would make more sense if it were translated no one spoke openly of Him for fear of the Judeans. After all, the “no one” refers also to Jews!
John 7:1 offers one of the clearest examples of text where the translation into English would be improved by using the word “Judean” rather than “Jews.” A commonly used translation (the NIV) states, “Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life.” The word there is not found in the Greek text, which reads simply, “Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews were waiting to take his life.” As Galilee was populated by Jews, the Bible translators understood very well that Jesus wanted to stay away, not from all Jews, but from the Jews of Judea. Hence, for clarification the translation adds the word there. It would have been more accurate not to have added the word there and to have translated Judaioi as “Judeans” rather than “Jews.”
A curious effect of the traditional translation is found in the same chapter in verse 2, where we read of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. Would the text not read better by referring to the Judean Feast of Tabernacles? After all, who has ever heard of a non-Jewish (say Greek or Philistine) Feast of Tabernacles?
These revisions to the translation of the one word Judaioi give a rather different feeling to the passage by removing perceived anti-Jewish sentiment and providing a realistic picture of the tensions that existed among the Jewish people at the time of Jesus.
During that era Israel was divided into very disparate and even separately-ruled territories. John 4:3-4 mentions Jesus’ trip from Judea through Samaria to Galilee. Geza Vermes, a Jewish lecturer at Oxford University, has succinctly brought out the tension between the homespun Jewish laypeople of Galilee, who were Jesus’ most ardent followers, and the Jews of Judea (represented by the elite religious leaders). He cites certain rabbinic literature that referred disparagingly to the Galileans as Am Ha-Aretz—people of the land (i.e. uncultured and not astute in religious matters)—and describes a struggle between those “ordinary people” of the north and the “bigshots” down south.
Of course, since both sides were Jews, neither of them was anti-Jewish. We might liken the situation to American or British history. No one would say that the Confederation’s struggle against the Union was anti-American, or that the Civil War fought by Oliver Cromwell against King Charles was anti-British. So the battle between Jesus and His followers and the religious rulers of that day was akin to a civil war, albeit a battle with no physical weapons. What to the outsider might appear as anti-Semitic writing in the New Testament is nothing more than the description of a “family dispute.” It was a struggle between Jesus, the Jew from Galilee, and the pretentious Jewish religious leaders of Judea.
A closer study of John’s gospel reveals that not only is it far from being anti-Jewish, but perhaps more than any other gospel it is Jewish in flavor. It revolves around the Jewish festivals, both biblical and post-biblical. Chapter 5 verse 1 mentions “a feast of the Jews;” Succoth (the Feast of Tabernacles) is the background to chapter 7; Hanukkah (the Feast of Dedication) is the background to the latter half of chapter 10; Pesach (Passover) is first mentioned in chapter 2, and is, of course, the background to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Not least, the Sabbath—the most important Jewish observance according to rabbinic tradition—is mentioned on a number of occasions (chapters 5, 7, 9 and 19). Also mentioned are the lesser sabbaths denoting special days during the festivals (chapters 5, 9, and 19).
Despite this obvious Jewishness of the New Testament, Sarah, a young Jewish woman I met, was having a problem with it. She had recently come to the Lord, but had been experiencing a number of doubts and struggles. Upon reading the New Testament, she felt a general unease that stemmed from a sense of anti-Jewish writing.
When Sarah visited us, I turned with her to John’s gospel and we talked about the correct interpretation of Judaioi as “Judeans” instead of “Jews.” As our discussion drew to an end, we examined the words of the Apostle Paul, of whom Sarah had heard it said that he was anti-Jewish. Together we read his words from Romans 10:1:
Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.
We agreed that this was written by one who cared for his people at least as much as he cared for his own salvation. Then we turned back to the previous chapter and read:
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites…”
As we read, Sarah not only saw the anguish that Paul had felt for his people. She also realized how much less we ourselves care for our own people than Paul did. We concluded that perhaps if more Christians felt for the Jewish people as Paul had, and if more of us longed for their well-being as Paul did, then more Jewish people might be made envious of the salvation we have in the Messiah, and more would turn to Him.