“The Jews” in John’s Gospel

I’ll be teaching a course on John’s Gospel next month for Logos for their Mobile Ed program. I’m looking forward to it although it will be a new experience. It will be an additional treat to go out to the Seattle area for a week.  I’ve been teaching John at NPU for as long as I’ve been there – 8 years. In preparation for the course, I picked up Lars Kierspel’s book The Jews and the World in the Fourth Gospel: Parallelism, Function, and Context . It has been a thought provoking read.  I met Lars for the first time this past November at the Wifp and Stock reception. He is a sharp chap, and embodies the best of the German approach to research and writing. You can always spot the German researcher because a number of pages in a monograph contain two or three lines of text and the rest of the page is footnotes!!

Lars’s argument is that previous scholarship in dealing with the question of the identity of the oi Ioudaioi (“the Jews”) in John since the Shoah have used faulty methodology in analyzing John’s usage of the term.  He offers a corrective by focusing on the narrative as a whole. He criticizes previous scholarship for atomizing the study by focusing only on vocabulary or small units of text. These approaches have led to unconvincing interpretations of “the Jews” in John. Lars puts the term into the frame of the whole gospel to seek an appropriate understanding. When this is done, according to Lars it favors an inclusive understanding of the term “the Jews” denoting an ethnic religious group, but avoids the history of interpretation’s strong anti-semitic, -Jewish tendency. Lars observes what he calls parallelism between the terms kosmos (“world”) and oi Ioudaioi (“Jews”). This parallelism is deep and intentional. The result of the analysis is the conclusion that the “world” is the frame for the “Jews”. The use of the “Jews” depends on the use of the “world”. Lars says, “the particulars of Jesus’ life are translated into universals via the use of kosmos” (153).

I have a few concerns about the methodology Lars used which led to his conclusions – well not so much the methodology but his employment of it. I actually applaud the narratological method. I have questions about the analysis of the distribution of the two terms, the narrative implications of the placement and what conclusions we are able to draw. Just one example will illustrate. A significant plank in his argument is the distribution of the two terms kosmos and Ioudaioi. I see two problems. One problem is his categorization of a “local” point of view for 1:19 through chapter 12. Lars makes this point based on the statistical comparison of the use of the terms in this section: kosmos is used 28 times, Ioudaioi 46 times. Now I’m no mathematician and I do see that Ioudaioi is used a significantly higher number of times. However, kosmos is not infrequently used here either. Lars’s description of kosmos as “not absent from the first twelve chapters” is quite an understatement to be sure. There is clearly a predominance of Ioudaioi but the number of times kosmos is used makes a fine distinction less convincing.

A second problem I have is the designation of two “literary gates” (1:1-18 and chs 13-17) which Lars argues are meant to interpret the events of the corresponding sections of narrative, 1:19–12 and 18-21 respectively. First, the observation of a  “prologue” so called is a modern invention and may not even be intentional. Michaels in his recent commentary has made a good case that the story is initiated at 1:6 not 1:19, with the mention of John the Baptist. It is not the case then that there is only a universal perspective here in the prologue in any event. Indeed there is a universal point of view, but also a particular one. And it seems that John’s narrative intention is bring the particular into contact with the universal. John engages the particular history of Jesus with the universal-creational work of God. This is an apocalyptic perspective. It is not a diminishment of the particular for the universal, but a way of looking at the particular. In other words, they can’t be so easily and almost surgically separated. What’s more, the other literary gate, 13-17, is a very long and wide gate, if a “gate” at all. I question if Lars has appropriately categorized this as only a preamble for the death of Jesus. I don’t debate the important point, which has been made by many previously, regarding the role of speech and event in John. Indeed Jesus’ speeches and dialogue/monologues are used to interpret the events on a wider canvas. But this is true in lots of places. And it is true here. The final sign of the gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus. The “second” part of the gospel is but one climatic sign (20:30-31). As such it will have a speech tied to it that provides an interpretation.

In the end, Lars Kierspel’s book has provoked my thought about the Fourth Gospel and particularly the identity and significance of  the “Jews” in the narrative. And I’m thankful. I always appreciate this experience. However, and in spite of the weaknesses of the interpretation – no interpretation is without them – I think the current consensus regarding the “Jews” in John is the best explanation. That is that they are Jerusalem and Temple based Jewish authorities. In this way, there’s both a geographical and religio-poltiical element in the term. But in good apocalyptic form, these are but examples, actualizations on the historical level, of the cosmic realities which the term “world” names. Which, by the way, is everything of created order, an order at war with its creator.

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  • Cliff Kvidahl


    Great post! I am looking forward to your visit to Logos. It will be a great treat to have you there, and your teaching a real blessing to the church.


  • Jason B. Hood

    “they are Jerusalem and Temple based Jewish authorities” i.e., one should translate Judeans?

  • Chad

    Do you think the term always refers to authorities in John’s Gospel? It seems like in many places he is referring simply to “religious” Jews in Judea (i.e., not purely ethnic, but includes more than just, say, priests and Pharisees, since John uses separate terminology to denote them?).

    • jwillitts

      Chad, yes, I overstated a bit. There are neutral uses of the term and cases where it refers to the ethnic group defined by practices and loyalty to the Judean Temple cult. My friend Wayne Coppins reminded me of what Andrew Lincoln said so well, “the term is the broad one of the Jewish people as distinct from other ethnic groupings but i can have a variety of specific referents” (71), especially, when used negatively, the Judean Temple based leadership.

  • Raymond

    An excellent resource to consult would be Stephen Motyer’s work “Your Father the Devil.” Christopher Probst also has an article at IIIM.

  • Patrick

    I think John is using that as a term as sarcasm for those who dogged Jesus’ every step. “The Jews” who are doing exactly opposite of what their purpose on earth was ,instead of welcoming, they missed the visitation of Yahweh. Kinda like Gentiles before then.

    They were exactly the opposite of an authentic Jew , if they had been authentic, they would have recognized Jesus as Messiah. That’s why I think John ridiculed their claims to be Jewish leaders.

    Definitely doesn’t mean “ethnic Jews” since every disciple and John and Jesus were ethnic Jews at that point in the narrative.