More about the Bible

Is the Gospel of John Anti-Semitic?

Most translations of the gospel of John pit the Jews against Jesus and His disciples, leading some people to think that John is anti-Semitic. I maintain that this is an illusion caused by a bad judgment call on the part of the translator.

John was written in koine Greek, in which the word Ιουδαιος means both “Jew” and “Judean.” This is an important distinction, because “Jew” refers to an adherent of a religion, while “Judean” is a citizen of a country. In most translations, the word Ιουδαιος is mostly, if not always translated “Jew.” We get passages such as the following:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
—John 20:19, NRSV

I picked this verse because it makes absolutely no sense as it is translated. At the time of the disciples locked themselves in the room and at the time the gospel was written, the people we would call Christians considered themselves a sect of Judaism with a liberal policy on gentile converts. The people on both sides of the door considered themselves Jews. It wasn’t until much later, especially after the rabbis banned the followers of Jesus from the synagogue, that Christians had a separate identity.

The translation, not the text, informs us that the Jews locked the doors for fear of the Jews.

There is a historic reason why it is translated this way. Before the twentieth century, the view was current that the gospels weren't written until the second or third century, at which time Christians and Jews had separate identities. If that were true, the writer would be using the terminology of his context as an aide to the reader. We do that also. Americans distinguish between a lift (which is for freight) and an elevator (which is for people), while the British do not. A British travel writer, writing a travelogue, might write about the “lift” in an American hotel lobby, even though everyone in that hotel would have referred to it as an elevator.

However, the scholarly consensus today is that John's gospel was in its final form sometime before the period of AD 90-100. That's not the unanimous view. Dr. Reginald Fuller, a renowned liberal New Testament scholar, told me personally that they were all in final form by AD 80. That's because the gospel of John had to have been written before anyone could quote from it, and those dates are the latest it could have been written to account for the quotations. That means that John was written at the same time that the leaders of the Christian movement were Jews and still identified themselves as Jews, as Paul did in Acts 21:39, Acts 22:3, Romans 11:1, and Philippians 3:5.

“Locking the doors for fear of the Jews” is a traditional rendering that is based on a nineteenth understanding of the date of John's gospel that was no longer current at the time of translation!

Since the text says the doors were locked to protect the people inside from the people outside, there must be a way to differentiate them. John says the people outside were Ιουδαιοι (plural of Ιουδαιος), so what were the people inside? Were the two groups Christians and Jews? Or were they something else?

Jesus and His disciples were from Galilee. When they were in Judea, people could recognize them by their Galileean accents, as we find out in Matthew 26:69 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke. Since Jesus came from Galilee, it's easy to imagine that all Galileans who had come to Judea for the Passover would be afraid that they would be suspected of being Jesus' followers. Before they were emboldened by the Resurrection, Jesus' disciples had good reason to be scared. Their Galilean accent would make them identifiable as suspects. After they were in custody, the authorities could easily interrogate them, interview witnesses, and reconstruct their movements, which would identify them as Jesus' followers.

The distinguishing factor between the people inside the door and the people outside the door is not religion, because they are all Jews. The distinguishing factor is nationality. The people inside were Galileans and the people outside were Judeans. A Galilean could be identified as soon as he opened his mouth, but a Judean who followed Jesus could easily pass for a Judean who did not, just by being circumspect. The disciples had more reason to fear as Galileans than as followers of Jesus.

Therefore, I maintain that the passage must be translated as follows:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the [Judeans], Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
—John 20:19, NRSV

Earlier in John, Jesus preached in synagogues in Galilee. Do we have to state the obvious? I'll do it anyway. The congregation of a synagogue is made up of Jews. In those days, the leaders of the synagogue would not let a gentile even enter the building, since it was prohibited for Jews to associate with gentiles (Acts 10:28). It is hardly conceivable that they would let a person teach who was did not have credentials to teach. The term for a qualified teacher is “rabbi,” and that is what people called Jesus. Therefore the congregation was Jewish, the leadership was Jewish, and Jesus is not only Jewish but a rabbi. So how does this verse make sense?

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.
—John 7:1, NRSV

It makes no sense for Jesus to stay in Galilee to avoid Jews, since there were Jews all over the place and He was a Jew Himself. Therefore, I maintain that this passage should read:

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the [Judeans] were looking for an opportunity to kill him.
—John 7:1, NRSV

In John, the word Ιουδαιoς sometimes means “Jew,” but most of the time it means “Judean,” especially when the action takes place in Judea.

To be anti-Semitic, John would have to be prejudiced against himself.