"A Reflection on "The Jews" in the Gospel of John"
“Away with Him! Away with Him! Crucify Him!” Proclaiming those words during Good Friday liturgy is always deeply moving for me. We’re thrust right into that moment when the crowds—having recently celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with palms and shouts of “Hosanna!” “the King of Israel!”—call for Jesus to be taken from their sight, to be put to death. Pilate asks incredulously, “Shall I crucify your King?” (John 19:15).
The liturgy plants us in that historical moment for the sake of our present lives. Our chant for Jesus’ death marks our own complicity in snuffing out God’s love-made-human in Jesus. The moment feels awkward: our goal is to become more fully Jesus-like, not to kill Him, right? Yes, indeed. That’s the goal of our lives.
However, the liturgy instructs us about something that we’d prefer to ignore but must confront. There is a tendency within us to stand with the crowds. When I turn my back on the opportunity to love one another, on the opportunity to love God, and, in turn, on the opportunity to love myself, I stand with the crowds calling for Jesus to be gone, to be destroyed. When I squelch the Holy Spirit’s call in my heart—that call to lift up others, to cross over class divides, to stop beating up myself, to turn to God with all of my heart—I conclude that I can just relax and go with the crowds. The crowds tell us that competition, not collaboration, is the way to happiness, that we’re not good enough, that one life doesn’t matter in the quest for a better society, that punishing or denigrating someone else severely will make me feel better. When I go with the crowds, I push Christ to the sidelines because his life and words are useless; they’re no match for the world’s wisdom. The beautiful irony is that the sidelines, the margins, is right where Christ wants to be.
It’s uncomfortable to embrace our participation in Jesus’ marginalization. Among other reasons, perhaps that’s why these gospel verses have been read by some Christians throughout history as justifying hatred of Jewish people. If I have someone else to blame—i.e.“The Jews,” not me, called for Jesus’ crucifixion—then I don’t have to respond to the spiritual call to recognize that I likely would have joined the rest of the crowd.
The problem of anti-Judaism is complex. The Gospel of John uses the Greek word “Iudaioi,” typically translated as “the Jews,” about 70 times. It’s used in different ways. For example, early in the Gospel we’re told that “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (2:13).Here, the term connects to Jesus’ own Jewishness. As an observant Jew, Jesus does what is commanded: he goes to Jerusalem for the Passover. In other places, the same term “the Jews” describes the subset of the Jewish people who are Jesus’ opponents. For example, after proclaiming himself the Bread of Life, whom we must eat, St. John tells us, “Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were lookingfor an opportunity to kill him” (7:1). In this second passage, “the Jews” is not an ethnic term. Since the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were in cahoots with the Romans who crucified Jesus, John uses “the Jews” as a narrower term for that specific group around the capital city.
We know that Jesus is Jewish, in the broader sense, and his disciples are Jewish. If the Gospel of John was written by the apostle John, he too was Jewish. And yet, St. John chooses the same term to describe those who are seeking Jesus’ death.
One of the most compelling explanations is that the gospel is shaped by the slow and painful process of the separation of the Jesus-followers from the rest of the Jewish people. Initially, those Jews who worshipped Jesus did so in the synagogues with other Jews. Separation did not happen overnight; it took decades and perhaps longer.
Thus, this aspect of John’s gospel is sort of like getting a peek into the exchange of divorcees in the process of divorce. Nice things aren’t always said. Sometimes nasty things surface, even such things as “You belong to your father the devil and you willingly carry out your father’s desires,” Jesus’ retort to “the Jews” in John 8:44. In the frame of a fraught community fracture, the more negatively first-century listeners perceive Jesus’ opponents, the more appealing Jesus and his followers look.
And yet, this was not the language of the entire New Testament. The picture that emerges from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is in fact that God does not cease in God’s concern and care for the Jewish people, the people of the covenant. In fact, St. Paul says, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Thus, while the boundaries of the Mystical Body of Christ remain mysterious to us, we should avoid the temptation to think that the Jewish people will not be saved by God unless they become Christians.
But well beyond the first century, when Judaism and Christianity had become distinct religious traditions, many in the Church fell into the trap ofpulling first-century tensions forward to justify hatred of Jewish people. Centuries of these reading practices and their abusive fruit, it must be said, formed fertile compost for Nazi anti-Semitism and Jewish scapegoating, which led to the heinous murder of 6 million Jews. More recently, Robert Bowers, who killed 11 and injured 6 in his 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, reaped from that same soil. In online musings, Bowers cited John 8:44.
In 1965, mere decades after the Holocaust, the Second Vatican Council strongly repudiated anti-Judaism: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (John 19:16); still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” Therefore, “moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, [the Church] decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” In 2019, Pope Francis expanded specifically on readings of “the Pharisees” in the gospels, “The history of interpretation has fostered a negative image of thePharisees, often without a concrete basis in the Gospel accounts. Often, over the course of time, that image has been attributed by Christians to Jews ingeneral. In our world, sadly, such negative stereotypes have become quite common. One of the most ancient and most damaging stereotypes is that of a ‘Pharisee,’ especially when used to cast Jews in a negative light.”
Even on Good Friday when we recognize that, in all likelihood, we would’ve been standing with crowds and not with Christ, we know that God doesnot abandon Jesus, but raises Him up from the grave! And the same is true for us. It turns out that God’s love is broader and deeper than our failures. Despite our betrayals, our more and less grievous faults, we arrive at Communion—even on Good Friday, the one day of year when we do not celebrate Mass—to receive the Christ whom the Holy Spirit makes present for us, to be made into the Body of Christ.
- Dr. Tim Gabrielli
(Timothy Gabrielli is Associate Professor; Gudorf Chair in Catholic Intellectual Traditions at the University of Dayton. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Dayton).