Anti-Judaism and the Gospel of John: Enoch Seminar Colloquiuum at #AARSBL19

Anti-Judaism and the Gospel of John: Enoch Seminar Colloquiuum at #AARSBL19 February 23, 2020

Here I am returning to a session that I didn’t manage to blog about at AAR/SBL in November. The Enoch Seminar meets before as well as during the conference, and this year had a session dedicated to Adele Reinhartz’s book Cast Out of the Covenant: Jews and Anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John. She is critical of the Lou Martyn hypothesis, suggesting that scholars have been inculturated into seeing John that way. Adopting a literary approach, she envisages how an ancient reader might have read/heard the Gospel, and more specifically explores how a Greco-Roman woman named Alexandra listening to the Gospel of John with friends in her home might have understood it. So much was said in the session that was thought-provoking that I initially envisaged myself writing an article from the thoughts I had there and the notes I took, but I soon realized that it would be impossible to disentangle my own insights from those who at least prompted them, nor to adequately give credit to those who had done so.

One thought I had was that Catholics in Luther’s time might well have said he was anti-Christian. It also occurred to me that Samaritans can be anti-Jewish without being anti-Israelite. Does the terminology depend on whether the group behind the Gospel of John was already outside the synagogue, or only partly so? Could the question of whether someone is “anti-Enoch Seminar” depend not only on how they talk about the group’s activities, but also whether their criticisms ultimately are accepted by the institution or rejected? Samaritans are not anti-Torah in the way Gnostics are – are both anti-Jewish? Note as well that one could say “not all Samaritans” were anti-Jewish just as “not all Jews” were anti-Samaritan. The question of stereotyping looms large in any discussion of a topic like this. If John was anti- most Jews, is that enough to say he was anti-Jewish? And conversely, if most Jews said the Johannine group were “not Jews” is that enough to say “Jews were opposed to them” even though a tiny subset of Jews were the Johannine Christians? And are Mandaeans and other Gnostics “anti-Jewish” if they have their roots in Judaism?
John can be both Jewish and anti-Jewish precisely because it reflects two (or more) levels, one reflecting Jesus and the community’s past within Judaism, another reflecting its experience of expulsion and mutual definition of self over against “the Jews.” It can also be both because it is within that process and connected as a result with a trajectory that leads to Judaism and Christianity being separate religions that stand over against one another and have at times demonized one another. We are still looking for a “theory of everything” that makes sense of all puzzling and paradoxical aspects of the Gospel of John, in a manner akin to physicists’ quest. But perhaps we need a diachronic solution with different answers to the question “Is John anti-Jewish?” appropriate at different times in the production of the traditions embedded in it, and perhaps even at different times that the Gospel is being read and interpreted. Can the text be anti-Jewish today even if it wasn’t initially, for instance?
Was the Judaism in John’s time, or the Judaism depicted in John’s Gospel, “anti-Christian”? Saying yes is at least terminologically anachronistic. It also groups the opponents, the undecided, the sympathetic, and secret believers together. The problem is that terms/words about identity inherently resist the constrictions we would put on them.
Compare “Are Jews for Jesus Jewish?” “Are Mormons (or Catholics or Jehovah’s Witnesses) Christians?” And we must never forget that the key issue is authority: who has the power to define?
During the discussion after various presenters had spoken, Adele Reinhartz suggested that the disagreement between her and some of her detractors is terminological. She herself agrees that the language of anti-Judaism is problematic, but is unclear what could replace it. She mentioned that John was “involved in Jewish stuff,” and that the Gospel never uses ioudaioi to refer to believers. I found myself thinking we could equally say that John was Jewish but “not involved in Jewish stuff.” Isn’t the issue the same one about apostates and those who were uncircumcised or atheists, ancient and modern, within Judaism – religion, ethnicity, and identity?
When it comes to terminological problems, this may not be quite the problem of being unable to speak accurately about God, but given that religion does that nonetheless, we as scholars of religion have good preparation to risk talking, with appropriate humility and qualifications, about Judaism, Christianity, and other categories/terms that we know are problematic.
Gabriele Boccaccini mentioned that he faced resistance to the inclusion of his classes on NT in Judaic studies. Jorg Frey pointed out that the Christian desire for John not to be anti-Jewish is also part of the issue. Bill Loader said that he doesn’t think you can say that Jesus or John the Baptist had an exclusive soteriology. “No one else” is a marketing slogan. Anti-Jewish language is marketing slogan language, not reality. Other soaps are not truly useless for cleaning. Sarah Emanuel of Colby College suggested that “John is anti-non-Christ-following-Jews.” This is the state of affairs and we all seem to agree on it. The rhetorical claim reflects the fact that the anti-Jewish Christianity “won.” Positionality is crucial. Craig Koester observed that Martha and Mary are Jewish, but John doesn’t call them Jewish. Does that matter? There is a nebulous mix around the term. The interesting experience of speaking in modern Hebrew about ioudaioi, and Jewish Studies, came up. Note that in the Gospel of John, Jews who believed in Jesus are the ones who were of their father the Devil! Perhaps they were those represented by the Synoptic tradition!
Paul Anderson asked what might happen if we just consistently leave ioudaioi untranslated. He observed that 1 John’s point is “stay away from idols.” The reason is that Gentile Christians doing that is driving Jewish Christians back into the synagogue. There is more than one crisis in the community’s history. Ziony Zevit pointed out that if we went back in time people would not understand our questions about “religion.” In second temple Judaism perhaps even “belief” problematic. Words have more than one meaning.
A key question is what it meant for a Jewish group, rhetorically, to talk negatively about ioudaioi. It is also important to ask about the rhetorical significance of a scholar today of any particular situatedness, to say that John is or is not anti-Jewish. Harry Attridge asked: Is John against kashrut, circumcision? We don’t know. Not explicitly. Is John against the priesthood? Sure, at least Caiaphas, but so was the Qumran community. Is John anti-Pharisee? Less so than Matthew.
I wondered: Does John know Paul’s metaphor of grafting in, and if so is he subverting it with his own vine imagery? Being involved in “Jewish stuff” without being Jewish is also possible. See the whole anti-Jewish polemical tradition in early church. Jocelyn McWhirter asked whether one could do a similar analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls to what Adele did with John? It is a matter of the rhetoric of affiliation and repudiation. These documents were not available in the marketplace, and were pitched to particular group.
Perhaps we need to speak of the positionality of the author of the Gospel, as well as the interpreters of what he wrote. As illustration of the necessity of a synchronic treatment, I pointed out that one could ask whether Adele Reinhartz is anti-the Martyn hypothesis. She is not paradoxically both, but reading her writings might make it seem so, because her view has developed and changed over time. Sarah Emanuel pointed out that we have terminology to talk about this: John was “anti-non-Christ-believing-Jews.” Perhaps our key concern and question is what the significance is that the author of John did not say that.
It is uncertain whether John was ethnically Jewish, but he was clearly “invested in certain Jewish things.” That could be true of someone who was not ethnically Jewish, as it clearly was for some Gentile Christians in later centuries and even today. Marianne Meye Thompson emphasized the need to distinguish between rhetoric and narrative. For example, John’s rhetoric is dualistic, but Nicodemus doesn’t fall cleanly in one category or another.  For Jimmy Dunn, John belonged among those exploring boundaries within the framework of Jewish monotheism. Shemayahu Talmon highlighted the usefulness of the terminology of outgroup, ingroup, and inner group. Other Jewish literature also distinguishes ioudaioi from “Israel.”
To what extent does the use of “the Jews” reflect a critique of Jewish identity understood in a manner that divides God’s people, excluding Samaritans and others? To what extent does the use of ioudaioi in John reflect a particular vision for Israel and its future? The strongest criticism is reserved for those who once believed but no longer do. In LXX Isaiah’s prophetic rhetoric, those who reject the LORD turn to demons. Jubilees calls detractors the sons of Beliar. Is John drawing a line between ingroup and inner group, or ingroup and outgroup? Jorg Frey emphasized that a completely inner-Jewish reading of John is problematic.
Meredith Warren raised the question of whether the long-term aftereffects of John’s rhetoric were intended by the author. He would then be more dangerous and sinister than we previously imagined. There is a place for emic reading rather than etic. It is the effect that the rhetoric had that matters. The parting may fully occur late, but the split must start somewhere, and so must supersessionism. An identity can be diluted and that can pave the way for erasure. Viewing this through the lens of cultural appropriation, we could say that John usurps Jewish identity and claims ownership of its institutions. Listening to indigenous scholars we are reminded of past representation of their people as monolithic, through one-dimensional stereotypes situated in the past. It is interesting to think of the Gospel of John as a monument of past hatred, as akin to a TV show featuring stereotyping, in comparison with representation of Native Americans in monuments, paintings, and television shows.
I was also struck by the relevance of this scholarship to undergraduate learning, where we try to help students understand that many readings are possible, but simultaneously that some readings may be better than others, whether literary or historical. Using this subject in the classroom might also help students think about positionality and identity.
The Gospel of John can be thought of as a colonizing text. It is colonizing on a different register, but there are nonetheless similar traits. Thinking about the text in these terms made me notice that if First Nation people write about “Canadians” or “Americans” when it isn’t everyone but government policy coupled with majority dominant views, we do not bristle at this “stereotyping” the way we do when the power dynamic is different. In interpreting John, we need to bring privilege and power into the discussion. That the powerless later becomes the powerful is relevant, but so is understanding the text prior to that shift. That is precisely the task of the historian.
Loren Stuckenbruck pointed out that our instinct may be to turn to the Dead Sea Scrolls for parallels, but sociological explanations are not the only way to approach this. The rhetoric of John is strongest and most exclusive in words attributed to Jesus. The Teacher of Righteousness on the other hand is not quoted, and so we are dealing with a different genre, i.e. pesherim.
In sharing comments I began by saying that I was disappointed no one had made a 3 Enoch joke yet, since this was in fact the Third Enoch Seminar Colloquiuum. I didn’t have a good one and so my disappointment was greatest with myself. I pointed out that John could be not Jewish but “involved in Jewish things” or Jewish but “not involved in Jewish things.” I highlighted the importance of considering and discussing the positionality, intersectionality, identity, and privilege of John as well as of the scholars talking about John and Judaism. Going forward, we need to emphasize more as scholars the rhetorical significance of the Gospel saying “Jews” and not “Jews who do not believe in Jesus.” Rhetoric and positionality matter and are connected, both for John and for us writing about John, “Christianity,” and “Judaism.” This, I think, is the heart of the challenge for us: we are scholars trying to be precise about an ancient author whose identity is uncertain but who used broad generalizing rhetoric that had dire historical consequences. Need for (or at least appropriateness of) a synchronic, historical explanation. The fact that we cannot achieve certainty is not a reason not to pursue a historical reconstruction, nor a reason not to pursue literary analysis. Verbalizing the thought I had earlier in the session, I asked whether Reinhartz is “anti-Martyn hypothesis.” How might the way we speak about that topic do justice to change over time, and to the fact that she does not necessarily reject everything, or reject all parts of it as adamantly or to the same extent? And what would happen if Reinhartz’s writings were edited into a single “Gospel”? Doing justice to identity is controversial as identity is not static.
Coleen Conway mentioned our desire to pin John down. Another John contests the term ioudaioi as well: the author of Revelation, who writes of those who say they are Jews but are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. That John doesn’t want to let go of the term, this John does.
Urban von Wahlde said that the Jesus followers want to be in the synagogue, and their opponents don’t want them to be. Are they anti-synagogue? No, because they want to be there. They are anti those who are in charge in the synagogue. Luke Timothy Johnson said that what John wrote doesn’t mean the same thing in an ancient context as if a Catholic priest says it in our time in Illinois.
Why is there no explicit reference to Gentiles in John? The text can be read a certain way by Gentiles but does not demand to be. Alan Culpepper asked Gabriele Boccaccini: Are all NT works sectarian Jewish? Is John sectarian Jewish in a distinctive sense? Boccaccini responded that John is “more sectarian.” He pushes it to an unprecedented level, but the Jesus movement was also a sect. Bill Loader said the exclusivity of some early Christian authors makes a difference. Jorg Frey made the wonderful pun, “sectmentation.”
Sarah Emanuel said that John is anti-ioudaioi in terms of however he defines and conceptualizes ioudaioi. But we must also follow the line that leads from there to anti-Jewishness in later times. That makes a both/and answer necessary. We as scholars must also be careful because many of us have discovered in the case of our own words that language can be repeated later by others who use it for purposes the initial speaker did not intend.
Adele Reinhartz pointed out that, while some think stereotypes do not matter, they are most often the ones who engage in them rather than experience them. Victims feel bullied. It is a matter of rhetorical impact. Ron Herms asked whether John denies something that is still a point of continuity for other early Christians. I wondered: When a minority of Jewish authors categorize Samaritans as “Jews” is that akin to Christians defining some as “Christians before Christ” or implicitly Christian?
Gabriele Boccaccini use a familial metaphor: John doesn’t reject his parents. Hating one’s brother doesn’t make one more or less a member of one’s family. That led me to think further along those lines. One can be denied acceptance as family members by siblings after one’s parents die. The question is one of genetics vs. a practical definition of family identity, and once again also of whose perspective we think is definitive if any. Does John get to answer the question? The synagogue leadership from his time? Do we, and what gives us that authority?
Towards the end of the session, Marianne Meye Thompson asked about terminology that wasn’t the focus of attention in our otherwise terminologically-focused conversation: What do we mean by “anti-“? Adele Reinhartz emphasized in response that it is important to define our terms, but it remains unclear what else we could say than “anti-Jewish.” Even then, however, we need to define our terms. For her it is not just critique but distancing, telling people not to be part of a community. “The text itself tantalizes us to imagine its background.” The aim of her book is to encourage exploration of different ways to imagine that background. It does that very successfully, as can be seen by the vigorous discussion that resulted.
I was struck by how similar this rhetoric is to later Gentile Christians trying to persuade Gentiles not to frequent the synagogue.

You can see now what I meant when I said that I could envisage an article emerging from the discussion, and more precisely I could envisage myself writing one exploring the thoughts and observations the conversation prompted, if I thought there were any chance of clearly and consistently identifying who deserved credit for prompting and inspiring the thoughts. Ultimately all of our conversation was inspired by Adele Reinhartz’s fantastic scholarship. But the thoughts others had in conversation with her also inspired me. And so I’ve share this in a blog post so as not to keep the thoughts and benefits I reaped from being present in the colloquiuum to myself.

On a related note see “Overturned Tables” in Jewish Review of Books as well as:

When the Bible is Used to Justify Hatred

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