Anti-Jewish Rhetoric in the Gospel of John

Anti-Jewish Rhetoric in the Gospel of John January 25, 2011



As I wrote last week, I had the good fortune of co-leading the Solomon’s Porch sermon discussion on Sunday evening with Rabbi Joseph Edelheit — you can watch the full 50+ minute video here; it was streamed on UStream via my iPhone, so forgive the audio and video.

I had asked Joseph, who serves as a kind of resident rabbi to Solomon’s Porch, to join me because we were tackling the 18th chapter of the Fourth Gospel, in which Judas leads the Roman Guard to the garden to arrest Jesus.  We didn’t get through the whole chapter, being that Joseph and I — and many Porchians — are quite talkative.  In fact, we only got through 14 verses, and here are some of the points 0f interest:

John’s description of this event contains notable differences with the three synoptic Gospels, some of which I attempted to point out.  For instance, only John names the man whose ear (earlobe, actually) was cut off as “Malchus,” and in this Gospel, Jesus does not heal the earlobe.  Also, when Jesus says “I AM,” a bunch of guys fall over, in a Benny Hinn-esque moment unlike any other in the Gospels.

Did I just compare Jesus to Benny Hinn?  Forgive me.

Joseph brought up some points even more pertinent:

Judas is a name rife with significance for John’s readers/hearers.  Literally, “of Judah,” it’s clear that Judas plays a literary role in this Gospel.  Jew-das, you might say, is repeatedly referred to by John as the one who betrayed Jesus.  Indeed, Peter’s denials are seen by the Gospel writer, and by us, as an endearing part of his overall bumbling faithfulness.  But Judas is the betrayer and condemned to Hell.

Ever since, the rabbi reminded us, “Jew” has been an epithet, as in to “Jew someone down” on a price.  And he reminded us of Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Judas clawing the ground for the 30 shekels after they fell to the ground.

Further, Joseph challenged us about the traditional opening of the communion liturgy.  Across Protestantism and Catholicism, we begin that rite with the words penned by Paul, “On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he took a loaf…”  Of all the things that Jesus did that night, the rabbi asked, why do we thousands of times per day around the globe begin this liturgical activity with a negative?  And, moreso, with something that reminds us of Jesus’ betrayal by Jew-das?

As you might imagine, a rigorous discussion ensued at both worship gatherings on Sunday night.  But let it be known that the rabbi did not ask us to sterilize our sacred text.  He referred the the recent efforts to expurgate the “n-word” from Mark Twain’s novels, and he considers this a terrible mistake.  Instead of redacting the anti-Jewish polemics in John, the Synoptics, and Paul, he wants us to confront them head-on, to acknowledge them, and to recognize the complicity of the text in the anti-semitism of the Christian church, both historically and currently.

If you make it to the end of the video, you’ll hear Joseph challenge all of us to be radically inclusive.  “Christ is Lord,” he proclaimed, without a qualifier.  Not, “Christ is Lord for you.”  Just, “Christ is Lord.”

“But if I’m willing to say that, I expect you to say in return, ‘You, rabbi, are right with God.'”

I’m beginning to think that every church should have a rabbi.

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  • Good interesting conversation. I watched much a the sermon live. I’ve often thought of the instant found in John where Jesus says “I am” and soldiers fall to be some sort of indicator. That “I am” marks the eighth time Jesus makes such a claim in the book of John. 7+1. John Also Records 7 miracles and then records the resurrection as the eighth miracle or sign. 7+1. Since John obviously refers to the first week of creation (7) throughout his gospel I view the +1 as a sign of the inauguration of a new creation… “on the first day of a new week'” jesus rose. (John 20)

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  • Michael

    Two thoughts that occur to me as I read. First, it seems odd to me that Judas’s name would have any resonance for a Gentile hearer. The intent seems mainly directed at Jewish hearers. But if that’s the case, if it’s primarily Jewish Christians who are hearing that resonance, then the ‘antisemitism’ of John’s Gospel is of a wholly different sort than that of, say, Martin Luther. This isn’t contempt of one racial group for another, it seems to me; it’s a group of Jewish Christians who are questioning their own Jewish heritage.

    Second, I’m right there with the rabbi, with one condition; namely, if he says, “Jesus Christ is Lord”. That specificity, naming a particular dude as Christ, seems to me the dividing line in the New Testament.

  • John Edmonds

    Your attempt to paint the Gospel of John as being antagonistic towards Jews is just as disgusting as Benny Hinn’s ministry.

    Did I just compare your ministry as disgusting as Benny Hinn’s? I’m sorry.

    Because Judas was a common name at the time, John’s gospel was the only gospel to give Judas’ full name, “Judas the son of Simon Iscariot.” One would think that if John was wanting to emphasize the “Jew-das” he would have redacted “the son of Simon Iscariot.” But John’s the only one that gives Judas’ full name. Go figure.

  • Justin

    Without condoning or in any way downplaying how badly the Church has treated Jewish people over the years, I still think some of these arguments are weak.

    “Indeed, Peter’s denials are seen by the Gospel writer, and by us, as an endearing part of his overall bumbling faithfulness. But Judas is the betrayer and condemned to Hell.”

    On the night of his arrest, Jesus wasn’t only betrayed by Judas but also by his friends who had promised to stick with him to the end. All of those disciples–who were all Jewish–found forgiveness and redemption. These are the same people who went on to establish the early church, which was also primarily Jewish. I’m not convinced that John’s gospel is anti-Semitic because one member of the Twelve didn’t receive redemption when the other 11 betrayers did.

    “Of all the things that Jesus did that night, the rabbi asked, why do we thousands of times per day around the globe begin this liturgical activity with a negative?”

    This is about remembering God’s efforts to reconcile us and how He suffered. It’s not a way to keep pointing the finger at our Jewish friends and neighbors.

  • Dan Hauge

    I do want to hear these arguments, and of course I affirm the horrors of how organized, state-endorsed Christianity has persecuted Jewish people over the centuries. But I too scratch my head a little over this idea that Judas’ name should be understood purely as anti-Jewish rhetoric (I do affirm that the way that John’s Gospel signifies the religious leaders at the time as simply “the Jews” counts as polemic. Not to mention Matthew’s infamous ‘his blood be on us and on our children!’). Are we affirming a view that the gospel narratives are after-the-fact fictions, or is it possible that the disciple responsible for tipping off the authorities did indeed have that common name? (And how exactly do the gospel writers see Peter’s betrayal as “endearing”? I certainly never read them that way, and remember moving sermons, from childhood on up, about the gravity of what Peter did, and how in many ways the only difference between him and Judas was that Judas tragically killed himself before allowing Jesus the chance to forgive him, too.)

    Also, the rabbi’s points about the eucharist are interesting (why play up the betrayal itself?) but I have to say, after decades of hearing the opening words of the liturgy, it never once occured to me that the fact that “Jew-das” betrayed Jesus was somehow important. Maybe because in my church I was taught from childhood about the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples, and how the break between the two religions must never lead us to see Jews as ‘less-than’ in any way.

    That said, it is undeniable how these narratives, taken out (I would argue) from their original context, have been used in the name of state-sponsored murder and terror, and this certainly needs to be acknowledged and grieved.

    • Dan, what the rabbi said to that objection — voiced by someone during the sermon — is that it’s just as insidious that the “betrayal” is repeated so often and Jew-das isn’t named. He argued that it’s getting into your subconscious.

  • Justin


    I agree with most of you what you said. Personally, I don’t see the “blood on our hands” quote from Matthew as anti-Semitic. I understand that this passage has been abused, but I don’t think anti-Semitism was the original intent of its inclusion in that gospel (and certainly it wasn’t a command from God). That’s why I don’t classify it as such.

    That being said, good thoughts.

  • Justin


    Does he have any proof for this happening? Because this still seems far-fetched to me.

  • jchenn

    It is written that the Levites were unable to stand in the temple was filled with G-d’s glory. It was also written that Daniel was left on the ground with no breath left in him when an angel appeared to him. The Gospels purport that Jesus was from the tribe of Jew-dah. Must I go on?

    If one wants to frame a case of anti-semitism from the Gospel of John, certainly there are more scholarly examples. The intellectual laziness here is astounding.