Wrestling with Johannine Anti-Judaism: A Hermeneutical Framework for the Analysis of the Current Debate

Reimund Bieringer, Didier Pollefeyt & Frederique Vandecasteele-Vanneuville (eds.), Anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel: Papers of the Leuven Colloquium, 2000 (Jewish Christian Heritage, 1), Assen: Van Gorcum, 2001.

By R. Bieringer, D. Pollefeyt, F. Vandecasteele-Vanneuville
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium
November 2002 

    The Catholic cathedral of Brussels, in the heart of Europe, is not only known for its splendid architecture but also for its magnificent stained-glass windows of the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, some of these windows represent a very unfortunate aspect of Jewish-Christian relations in the course of European history: the legend of host profanation. In 1370, some Jews in Brussels were accused of having stolen hosts and pierced them with knives. The legend goes on to claim that as a result the hosts began to bleed. For centuries to come, the cathedral was the place of pious devotion of this so-called miracle. For more than a century, the presence of these stained-glass windows in such a prevalent place of Christian devotion and artistic heritage has been an element of controversy. Particularly in a post-Shoah context, the question must be raised what to do with key elements of our cultural heritage that are contaminated with anti-Judaism. One option would be to purge all of public life from the traces of past anti-Judaism and thus to remove the stained-glass windows from the cathedral. Another option consists of providing information to the audience about the historical context and limitations of the story of the miracle, e.g., the role it has played in misguided attempts to illustrate the doctrine of transsubstantiation. A last option would be to ignore the problem and to hope that visitors will not perceive the anti-Jewish character of the windows. The leadership of the archdiocese of Malines-Brussels chose to draw attention to the legendary nature of the “miracle” by putting up a bronze plate with the following text: “In 1968, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and taking note of historical research, the leadership of the diocese of Malines-Brussels has drawn … attention to the biased nature of the accusation and the legendary character of the ‘miracle.’”

    Scholars studying the Fourth Gospel are confronted with a similar challenge. This gospel contains texts which shock the reader because of their anti-Jewish tendencies. The locus classicus of this problem is John 8:31-59 where, at the climax of the conflict, the Johannine Jesus refers to the Jews as children of the devil (8:44). We are confronted here with alleged anti-Jewish tendencies at the core of a central expression of the Christian faith, not just localised in one place of worship, but with universal impact. Here the question becomes even more pressing: What must we do with such texts at the core of our Christian heritage? Some scholars have gone as far as suggesting to leave parts of John 8 untranslated or even to remove them entirely from the gospel.1 Liturgically, this corresponds to the decision of the revised lectionary not to include John 8:43-50.2 Another option would be to include an extensive footnote in the text explaining the historical context that gave rise to this presentation of the conflict. Liturgically, this means that the Johannine text should never be read without a homiletic explanation. Finally, there are those who prefer to ignore the problem, hoping that the alleged anti-Judaism will be counterbalanced by positive presentations of Judaism in the gospel of John (see 4:22).

    On the basis of our research on the issue of “anti-Judaism and the Fourth Gospel,” we have arrived at three convictions: a) There are some dimensions in the way the Fourth Gospel treats Judaism and “the Jews” that we consider to be expressions of anti-Judaism (against those who propose escape routes). We find it impossible to relegate anti-Judaism to the marginal aspects of the text and to deny that, in one way or another, it reaches to the core of the Christian message. We find it hard to escape the conclusion that the anti-Judaism in the text of John is “intrinsically oppressive,” i.e., we are convinced that in these cases human sinfulness has in some way touched the core of Biblical texts. The expression “intrinsically oppressive” is not intended to mean that the Scriptures contain nothing but oppressive aspects. Rather, as we shall see, despite the all-pervasiveness of the consequences of human sin, we are convinced that the scriptures transcend their own intrinsically oppressive aspects. b) We count the anti-Judaism which we find in the Scriptures among the “intrinsically oppressive” dimensions and not among the revelatory dimensions invested with divine authority. They are, therefore, totally unacceptable from a Christian point of view (against neo-Nazis). c) Because of the all-pervasiveness of human sin, we do not find any solutions convincing enough to try to eliminate the anti-Jewish statements from Scripture by ascribing them to later redactions (against literary-critical solutions). We reject attempts to create a canon within the canon by only ascribing revelatory authority to the words of Jesus or to the texts of the original writers (as eyewitnesses?) and none to the later redactors.

    We thus affirm three convictions: (a) the Fourth Gospel contains anti-Jewish elements, (b) the anti-Jewish elements are unacceptable from a Christian point of view, and (c) there is no convincing way to simply neutralize or remove the anti-Jewish dimensions of these passages to save the healthy core of the message itself. How can we affirm these three convictions at the same time? This is only possible if one can accept that even these problematic texts can have a place within the very process of revelation. But this calls for a review of our theology of revelation. Many approaches to the alleged anti-Judaism in the gospel of John seem to continue to presuppose that revelation only consists in the imparting of the content of faith by the mediation of the scriptural text. This theology of revelation leads interpreters of the alleged anti-Judaism in the gospel of John to defensive and apologetic reading strategies. An understanding of revelation as dialogical communication between God and the human person opens up new avenues in dealing with John’s anti-Judaism.

    Understanding revelation as shared life or loving communion between God and humanity has a number of important implications for our discussion. Revelation is not to be understood as simply coextensive with the content of the scriptural text. Rather, the scriptural text in all its dimensions (not only its content dimension) "constitutes a privileged possibility of revelation in the present."3 In the process of present revelation, the scriptural text as a human witness to God's self-communication in the past is a privileged medium, but by far not the only medium, of God's loving self-gift in the present. More precisely, the Scriptures are a witness to people's interpretation of God's self-communication to them. The Scriptures themselves, and in particular the gospel of John, do not claim to be the only place or the end of revelation. In the Fourth Gospel, we find clear evidence that its writer presumed God's communication and shared life with the believers to continue in the community of those who come to faith through the word of the disciples (cf. 17:20). This is most striking in the Farewell Discourses. The Johannine Jesus announces that the believers will do even greater works than Jesus (14:12). He also promises the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth who will guide them "into all the truth" and declare to them "the things that are to come" (16:13 NRSV).

    Since God enters people's lives in the historical conditions and limitations of real life, their interpretation is colored by these circumstances and shaped by their myopia and blind spots. The human authors of the Scriptures are at the same time virtuous and sinful. The influence of original sin on them was not rendered ineffective by God for the duration of their involvement in the writing of the Scriptures. When faith confesses the Scriptures to be inspired, this confession does not imply that the Scriptures are free from error, but that God can write straight on crooked lines. In our conviction, this writing straight happens mainly in God's promise of and invitation to a new, alternative world. Even though this alternative world is also expressed under the conditions of the limitations of this world, it does contain a new horizon that takes us beyond the conditions of this factual world. In the perspective of the future, we assume that God's alternative world has never been fully realized in the world. Christian faith confesses this alternative world to have been initiated in the coming year of the Reign of God in Jesus Christ. But in the Christian faith, the expectation of Christ's second coming and the awareness of a future dimension of eschatology (“the eschatological reserve”) is a reminder that there is more to come.

    Moreover, in this world we only know the alternative world of God by approximation and in the light of our own interpretation. Therefore, error and selfishness continue to mar our vision of the future. For this reason, understanding God's dream of our future is an ongoing community effort. On its pilgrim journey through time, the people of God (in its various subgroups) is called to ongoing conversion with regard to the image it has formed for itself of God's future for humanity. In this process, the alternative world that the Scriptures project plays a crucial role as a corrective. In its projected world, the text contains a truth claim in the name of which the limitations and sinful dimensions of the text need to be corrected. This correction takes place in the process of the text's effective history where both the world of the text and the imperfections of the world behind the text leave their traces. Sandra Schneiders comments: "This tradition is simultaneously purified by and purifying of the text."4 She illustrates this position with the help of a basic idea of the American Declaration of Independence (1776): "All men are created equal.” While it was certainly not the intention of its authors to include women, slaves, people of color, or children, by virtue of the qualifier "all" and of the possible inclusive meaning of the word "men," the text unfolded an alternative world of all-inclusiveness which shaped its effective history and by which its effective history was shaped.

    On the basis of these theoretical considerations, we now return to the issue of anti-Judaism in the gospel of John. Admitting anti-Jewish elements in the Fourth Gospel (or any Scripture text) and evaluating them as unacceptable from a Christian perspective do not make impossible our faith conviction of the revelatory character of the scripture texts in question. Rather, the anti-Judaism is for us evidence of the fact that the human author of John and the Johannine community were human persons under the influence of original sin. Anti-Jewish elements are expressions of their sinfulness that have found their way into the scriptural text. These are the crooked lines. But how does God write straight on them? The Fourth Gospel projects an alternative world; it contains the dimension of God's dream for the future of humanity. In John, God gives his only Son "so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (3:16). God sent the Son "in order that the world might be saved through him" (3:17). The Johannine Jesus says about himself: "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (10:10).5 God's ultimate concern is life and salvation for the world in an all-inclusive sense. We understand God's desire of salvation for all to be so strong that rejecting Christ as mediator of salvation is not necessarily a reason for excluding people from salvation. Johannine passages which, as for example 3:36, explicitly or implicitly contain statements to the opposite were formulated under the influence of human sinfulness because they can become an obstacle to the realization of God’s alternative world which the text projects.

    John's intimation that the only possible reason for not accepting Jesus as mediator of God's salvation is moral corruptness (being murderers and liars, see 8:44-45 and 55) is unacceptable. In Romans 9-11, Paul shared John's view of God's desire for the salvation of all (see 11:26.32). But with regard to the rejection of Jesus as the Christ by many Jews, he arrived at a very different conclusion. He suggested that it was a temporary reality in God's plan in order to incite early Christian missionaries to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (esp. 11:11.25-26.32). It is not moral corruptness, but the deliberate temporary hardening of hearts of a part of Israel by God that, in Paul’s view, keeps them from believing in Jesus. While this view could be subjected to critical evaluation on a number of counts, we find in it an important testimony to the fact that John's perspective is not the only one in the New Testament. We do not consider John or Paul's explanation of Jewish unbelief in Jesus as the last word. In both texts, we rather see God's will in the expression of God's concern of salvation for all as the ultimate horizon of the text. While it was not the intention of the original authors that all will be saved independently of the question whether or not they accept Christ as mediator of this salvation, we are convinced that this is the meaning that the text projects into the future.

    In a final step, we will make an attempt to apply this hermeneutic to John 8:31-59, the text which undeniably contains the most anti-Jewish polemic of the entire gospel. We do not find interpretations convincing which use John 4:22 to deconstruct the anti-Jewishness of 8:44. For one, however positive the content of 4:22 might be considered, it cannot make 8:44 go away. Then we need to face the fact that 4:22 has a different focus and scope than 8:44 and, therefore, cannot neutralize it. Finally, more research is needed to clarify whether 4:22 is indeed as positive toward Judaism as many authors uncritically assume. The statement "salvation is from the Jews" in 4:22 might be used as a sharp reproach against "the Jews," accusing them of not recognizing and accepting Jesus although He is one of them and, therefore, should have easily been recognized by them. We find those positions more helpful which point out the expressions of inclusive love in John as deconstructing the expressions of exclusive hatred. But here we need to face the challenge of those who wonder whether in John it is not the other way around, namely, whether hatred does not deconstruct love. This is why we need to investigate whether "texts of terror" (Phyllis Trible) like 8:31-59 do not project an alternative world, God's dream of all-inclusive love. The alternative world of 8:31-59 is one in which all know the truth which makes them free (8:32), in which all do what they have heard from the Father (8:38), in which all recognize God as their Father (cf. 8:41), in which all are from God and hear the words of God (8:47), in which all receive salvation and life and, thus, "never see death" (8:51). Both parties in the conflict between Jesus and “the Jews” ultimately agree that these are the goals of human longing and yearning. Neither one of the parties excludes the other on principle from these goals. The Fourth Evangelist does not say anywhere that "the Jews" are excluded from them on "racial" or other unrelated grounds. Indeed, the specific reason why there is a conflict at all is because the Johannine Jesus makes an attempt that is as passionate as it is desperate to include "the Jews" in reaching these goals. Despite John’s positive inclinations towards the Jews in trying to include them in salvation, the fact that he condemns radically everyone who does not accept Christ as mediator of salvation remains very problematic.

    Our efforts to identify the projection of an alternative world in 8:31-59, which is different from the everyday reality of the Johannine community, must not be misunderstood as an apologetic attempt to save the Johannine text. Our conviction of the presence in John 8:31-59 of a proposed world in no way mitigates or takes away the evangelist's ethical responsibility for the real and the potential anti-Judaism of his gospel. It, however, raises the question why there have not been more readers throughout the history of reading and interpreting John, who allowed themselves to be touched by the text's alternative world.6 Disappointing as it may be, the most effective eye-opener for the "world of the text" seems to have been the horror caused by the realization of the inhumanity and cruelty to which anti-Judaism can lead and, in fact, did lead, especially in the 20th century.

    We cannot escape the recognition that there are anti-Jewish elements in the Fourth Gospel. But this may not lead us to reduce the gospel to its anti-Jewish elements. For Christians, the Fourth Gospel is more than its anti-Judaism and its anti-Jewish potential. Even Jewish faith might be able to acknowledge that. Even if we cannot help but admit that the entire gospel is affected by an anti-Jewish attitude, the text projects an alternative world of all-inclusive love and life that transcends its anti-Judaism. It is the world of the text, and not the world of the author, that is a witness to divine revelation.

1 See Tina Pippin, "For Fear of the Jews": Lying and Truth-Telling in Translating the Gospel of John, in Semeia 76 (1996) 81-97.

2 In the post-Vatican II lectionary of the Roman Catholic Church, John 8:43-50 never occurs as a reading.

3 Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, San Francisco: Harper, 1991, p. 46.

4 Schneiders, The Revelatory Text, p. 8.

5 A universalist perspective is also found in John 1:7; 6:39; 10:16; 11:54; 12:32.

6 Research is needed to bring to light those readings and interpretations throughout history which did engage the text's alternative world instead of allowing themselves to be infected by the anti-Jewish elements of the world of the author.

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