As we go through our Holy Week and Easter liturgies, especially readings from the Gospel of John, you will hear over and over again phrases about “the Jews” that are negative in their nature. Here’s what’s going on.
When the Gospel of John was written Christianity was a persecuted minority within Judaism and it was having an identity crisis. The writer of John’s Gospel is writing into his version of the Passion a contemporary issue in his church, namely Christ-followers being thrown out of the synagogue (cf. John 9:22), and his intention is to help his community form their identity apart from Judaism.
In context, the writer of the Fourth Gospel’s use of “the Jews” is understandable. However, with bad relations between Judaism and Christianity and Christians’ violent persecution of Jews of the past two millennia, our context is quite different from that of the first hearers of the Gospel of John. In this respect, the following facts deserve to be recalled:
- It is the same God, “inspirer and author of the books of both Testaments,” who speaks both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.
- Judaism in the time of Christ and the Apostles was a complex reality, embracing many different trends, many spiritual, religious, social and cultural values.
- The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded upon it must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor (cf. Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18, Matt 22:34-40).
- “The Jews,” especially in the Gospel of John and elsewhere in the New Testament, should be read as “Judeans” or “Temple leaders” rather than the Jewish religion and its adherents wholesale.
- The sin of humanity is responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, not a particular ethnic or religious group.