Rethinking the Historicity of the Johannine Expulsion Passages

All this suggests that at times the early Christians, and already Jesus during his lifetime, experienced the synagogue as a site of potential violence and at times forcible expulsion….these passages were written in part to explain why Christians were withdrawing from the synagogue: they were withdrawing because the experiences of violence and exclusion made them feel quite unwelcome. It should not take much imagination to think that they might describe such experiences as the process of being made aposynagōgos, that is, put out of the synagogue. If Jesus was experiencing such practical exclusion during his lifetime and if his followers were experiencing something similar not long after his death it is not unreasonable to expect that some were already experiencing such also during Jesus’s lifetime.

See Also: Aposynagōgos and the Historical Jesus in John (Brill, 2013).

By Jonathan Bernier
Religious Studies
McMaster University
June 2014

In History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, first published in 1968 and now in its third edition, J. Louis Martyn argued that John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 (cumulatively known as the aposynagōgos passages, for they contain the only New Testament usages of that word) each narrate two stories: the most obvious, that of Jesus’ life; the other, an allegorical tale of the Johannine community, a hypothetical Christian group supposed to have existed in the late first-century and to have been responsible for producing John’s Gospel. As such, argues Martyn, these passages can be properly read only via a two-level reading strategy, one that looks both at what John is telling us about the history of Jesus and the other what John is telling us about the history of this putative community. On one level these passages tell us that some of Jesus’ followers at the very least feared expulsion from the synagogue during his lifetime and that Jesus predicted that such expulsions would also occur in the future, whilst on another that at least some members of the Johannine community experienced such expulsion during the late first century.

Although Martyn identifies two stories in the aposynagōgos passages he argues that only one of these describes events that actually happened. No one sympathetic to Jesus either experienced or even feared expulsion from the synagogue during his lifetime, whereas members of the Johannine community were indeed expelled in the late first-century. He makes the first judgment by arguing that there is no demonstrable mechanism by which anyone could be expelled formally from the synagogue during Jesus’ lifetime. He makes the second judgment by arguing that that there was such a mechanism in the late first-century, namely the Birkat ha-Minim, a rabbinic prayer of “blessing” against the heretics (minim). Such a movement demonstrates that far from envisioning two histories in the aposynagōgos passages Martyn considers the absence of the first history to be warrant for searching for the second.

I will deal with the second judgment—that there is a demonstrable mechanism for synagogue expulsion in the late first-century—first, as it has been the primary focus of discussion on Martyn’s hypothesis. In rabbinic literature it is said that if a man falters whilst leading the congregation’s recitation of the Birkat ha-Minim he is to be removed from the position, for he then would be considered suspect of being a min (on the principle that a min would not want to curse minim). Since certain recensions of the Birkat ha-Minim curse the Noẓerim (i.e. Nazarenes) as well as the minim, Martyn understood this to be a measure instituted against Christians, and argued that 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2 report the Johannine community’s experience of expulsion via means of the Birkat ha-Minim. He then proceeded to generalize such a reading strategy to the entirety of John’s Gospel, reading the text functionally not as an account of Jesus’ life but rather as an allegorical history of the Johannine community.

Such an approach has not gone without critique. Most radically, Richard Bauckham’s 1998 edited volume, The Gospels for All Christians, constituted a full-scale critique on the very idea that the gospels, John’s included, are to be read as allegories for the histories of the putative communities from which they originated. Whilst deeply sympathetic to the critiques contained within that volume my primary focus is upon the construal specifically of John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2. There are three matters in particular that render Martyn’s appeal to the Birkat ha-Minim problematic. First, on a narrative level, if the Johannine community experienced expulsion via the Birkat ha-Minim, then why resort to such circumlocutory means by which to report said experience? Why not simply write a narrative that tells the reader that “One day I was reading in the synagogue and I messed up on this prayer and they kicked me out”? Why embed the narrative in one that is ostensibly about events that took place fifty or sixty years earlier? The Acts of the Apostles demonstrates that the early Christians had no problem writing extended narratives explicitly describing their experiences following Jesus’ death and resurrection, including accounts of persecution. Why would they treat their experiences of the Birkat ha-Minim so differently?

A second concern regards the matter of analogy. The traditions surrounding the Birkat ha-Minim are nothing like what we see in the Johannine expulsion passages. In the former we have a prayer, upon which if one makes a mistake one is removed from the position of reader. In the latter we have expulsion from the synagogue due to suspected sympathies towards Jesus’ messianic identity. Thus Martyn’s position requires us to identify a scenario involving a prayer but no expulsion with a scenario involving expulsion but no prayer. These are not just apples and oranges. These are apples and anti-apples. There is no analogy between the two.

This lack of analogy is compounded by a third concern, properly hermeneutical, namely that whilst Martyn proceeds on the supposition that the Johannine text cannot be taken at face value he proceeds simultaneously upon the supposition that the rabbinic traditions surrounding the advent and use of the Birkat ha-Minim depict precisely the events of the late first-century. It is left unclear how Martyn warrants this combination of a hermeneutic of suspicion towards one corpus with a combination of a hermeneutic of credulity towards another. It is moreover quite interesting to discover that rabbinic scholars themselves do not approach the traditions surrounding the Birkat ha-Minim with such credulity. In fact, consulting the most recent material on the matter it seems that most rabbinic scholars take for granted that these traditions are legendary and that the Birkat ha-Minim is a product not of the first but of the second or even third centuries. Although such a judgment is not itself beyond critique, one has good reason to be suspicious of an argument predicated upon a non-specialist’s reading of rabbinic literature when it stands at such marked variance from the readings advanced by specialists.

These concerns, particularly the third, have led a number of Johannine scholars more recently to conclude quite rightly that the aposynagōgos passages do not describe the experiences of the Johannine community in the late first-century. Adele Reinhartz is perhaps the most representative of this emerging school of thought, arguing that rather than constituting part of the history of the Johannine community these passages constitute part of the story that the community told itself in order to account for their separation from the synagogue. Stated as such I would find myself in close agreement with Reinhartz. Probably my only quibble would be that, as a result of Bauckham’s critique, I would be less sanguine in the use of the term “Johannine community.” With that modification in mind, I am quite happy to see John’s Gospel, the aposynagōgos passages included, as part of the collective effort undertaken by mid to late first-century Christians to define themselves and their identities.

Yet this reading, as it stands, fails to engage with Martyn’s judgment, already discussed, that the aposynagōgos passages cannot plausibly describe events of Jesus’ lifetime. This can be critiqued on grounds both of logical validity and empirical soundness. As regards validity the judgment rests upon an argument from silence that is itself grounded upon a circular argument. Martyn proposes that the aposynagōgos passages report that persons were expelled formally from the synagogue c. 30 C.E.; Martyn proposes that there is no evidence for persons being expelled formally from the synagogue c. 30 C.E.; therefore Martyn concludes that the aposynagōgos passages do not describe events that happened. The circular argument lies between the first and second propositions: if the aposynagōgos report that persons were expelled formally from the synagogue c. 30 C.E. then they constitute evidence that persons were expelled formally from the synagogue c. 30 C.E. As such these two propositions cannot both be true at the same time, or more precisely can only be true if the aposynagōgos passages are judged a priori not to constitute evidence for events c. 30; but that is just to lapse into circular argumentation, wherein the conclusion to be demonstrated is supposed before the propositions are advanced. Since Martyn does judge both to be true he does indeed lapse into circularity. The argument from silence occurs between the second proposition and the conclusion, when the already invalid statement that there is no evidence for events of this sort is taken as evidence that such events could not have happened. This is logical invalidity piled upon logical invalidity, and thus already sufficient warrant for rejecting the conclusion.

To this logical invalidity we can add the matter of empirical soundness. First notably, do the aposynagōgos passages actually say that the expulsions were the result of a formal mechanism? Not really. That is a possible interpretation but hardly a necessary one. Interestingly enough, in Luke 4:29-30 we see Jesus being quite informally expelled from the synagogue in Nazareth. One we dispense with the supposition that the expulsions in question must be formal then this Lukan passage also calls into question the proposition that there is no evidence for expulsions of some sort during Jesus’ lifetime. We can pile on to this further evidence. Consider Acts 7, when a dispute within the synagogue leads to Stephen being dragged out and stoned, or Acts 9, when Saul of Tarsus left for Damascus he carried with him letters from the high priest to the synagogues, instructing them to let him bind and bring any Christians that he might find to Jerusalem.

All this suggests that at times the early Christians, and already Jesus during his lifetime, experienced the synagogue as a site of potential violence and at times forcible expulsion. We can return to Reinhartz’s argument that these passages were written in part to explain why Christians were withdrawing from the synagogue: they were withdrawing because the experiences of violence and exclusion made them feel quite unwelcome. It should not take much imagination to think that they might describe such experiences as the process of being made aposynagōgos, that is, put out of the synagogue. If Jesus was experiencing such practical exclusion during his lifetime and if his followers were experiencing something similar not long after his death it is not unreasonable to expect that some were already experiencing such also during Jesus’s lifetime.

This hypothesis receives further support when we consider John 16:2, the third of the aposynagōgos passages, for in it Jesus first warns his followers that they will be put out of the synagogue and then warns them that they will be killed by those who seek to worship God. Here we see precisely the close correlation of expulsion from the synagogue and physical violence that we find in Luke-Acts. The cumulative data points at a pattern that can only be dissolved by the questionable procedure of raising doubts about each individual datum in isolation from the larger inferential web. Yet even if one can successfully raise doubts about each individual datum one must still account for the totality of the data. My account is quite simple: the totality of the data is as it is precisely because Christian identity was worked out in large part within a synagogue context, and that as this identity became more sharply defined over and against more normative forms of Judaism it almost inevitably ran into conflict with such forms.

Dealing more closely with particulars, I argue that the aposynagōgos passages do not stand as evidence for formal expulsion from the synagogue either c. 30 C.E. or c. 85 but rather for less formal practices evidenced elsewhere in the apostolic literature. This entailed violence or at least the threat of violence (as suggested by John 16:2), hence why the possibility of being made aposynagōgos evoked such fear (as suggested by John 9:22 and 12:42). For the most part this violence appeared to have had a legal basis comparable to that of lynching: it is the reason of the mob, not the courthouse. As such one is as likely to find a legitimately legal basis for the sort of events reported in the aposynagōgos passages as one is likely to find a legitimately legal basis for any vigilante activity. The closest one gets to such a legal basis are the letters that Saul took with him to Damascus (Acts 9:2), but since the high priest does not appear to have enjoyed formal control over any synagogues anywhere it seems best to interpret these in terms of moral suasion rather than legal authorization. The high priest, that is, is using the currency of his office to persuade Damascene synagogue leaders that it is a good thing to let Saul root out the Christians who fled to their city. Again, a formal mechanism is neither a requisite for proper nor the most probable interpretation of the aposynagōgos synagogues.

The above argument might raise in the mind of some readers the awful flag of anti-Semitism. That is, am I not in effect saying that “the Jews” persecuted “the Christians” (or, as they should more properly be termed during Jesus’ lifetime, “followers of Jesus”), and could this not support the tired yet remarkably durable anti-Semitic trope that “the Jews” thus deserved subsequent persecution at Christian hands? In response to this existentially quite valid concern I would make the following observations. First, I am not saying that “the Jews” persecuted “the Christians.” Rather, I am saying that certain persons two millennia ago engaged in extra-legal vigilante action against certain other persons, that all these persons just happened to be Jewish, and that the victims happened to also be followers of Jesus. Second, such notions of collective guilt are irrational and perverse. It is grotesque to hold all Jewish persons perpetually responsible for the actions that some Jewish persons took so long ago against some other Jewish persons. Third, I would suggest that the grotesquery that is anti-Semitism cannot be addressed by manipulating the historical data so as to produce a historical narrative more conducive to one’s own sensibilities. Precisely because anti-Semitism represents in significant part a distortion of historical truth it cannot be resolved by another distortion but rather by correcting that which is distorted. That is the most ethically judicious response that a historian can make to such matters.

Comments (3)

I am a Bible Believer, and it appears that Mr. Martyn is not.
The Holy Bible relates both bad and good about people.I would hope that Mr. Martyn would read the Holy Scriptures for what they truly are; the inspired Word of the Living God!
Thomas E. Morris
SFC./ U.S. Army Retired

#1 - Thomas Edward Morris - 06/11/2014 - 18:58

Mr. Morris, I don't see how your proclamation impacts Mr. Martyn's reading of the relevant NT passages and his detailed arguments based on them. How does being or not being a believer affect his entire line of argument?

#2 - Peter D Miscall - 06/12/2014 - 11:29

There doesn't seem to be much evidence for any network of organised congregations, with some idea of an obligation to join in their activities or listen to teachers based there - in the pre-70 Jewish world in Palestine. I don't see how there could have been when all obligations and all forms of religious authority centred on the Temple. Jesus has of course caused violent turmoil in the Temple early in his career in John by comparison with the Synoptics so it's no wonder that he and his followers are, according to John, ever afterwards subject to hostility in places where Jewish people came together, even informally: we could take 9:22 to refer to a sort of general understanding that they were unacceptable. This picture is reinforced by the way Jesus is shown as speaking in very harsh terms even to those Jewish people who do believe in him (8:31), though slightly relieved by the mention of diverse opinions in 10:19. So far an informal understanding of 'aposynagogos' seems valid to me, but the final one, with a prediction of a dangerous and violent future, is rather different. As synagogues and churches did become organised in the post-70 period there must have been some sort of inability to maintain membership in both. Perhaps the Birkath ha-Minim formalised this situation finally, though I find it's not easy to know when it was introduced. Later Christians complained of being cursed by the Jews but I think it's notable that the prophecy in John's gospel refers to expulsion and violence but not to the outrage, as John would have seen it, of a formal curse. Which would be my reason for not wanting to explain John by the B.h-M..
I agree that we Christians do not want to believe in hereditary guilt or hereditary feuds. But it's also true that according to 'our own' story the initial act of violence was by Jesus in protest at the Temple and much else followed from that.

#3 - Martin Hughes - 06/12/2014 - 15:02

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