Right now, I’m reading through Jean Zumstein’s 2014 commentary on John 1-12 for Review of Biblical Literature. So far I am enjoying it quite a bit, which is remarkable when reading a commentary straight through like a book, rather than consulting it a piece at a time.
Anyway, in his comments on John 1:19-28, Zumstein provides an excursus on the exegetical issues regarding the Johannine “Jews.” The problem with John is that it most often refers to “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi; lit., the Judeans) rather than narrower historical groups like the Sadducees, Pharisees, or scribes. “Jews” became the blanket Greek term that outsiders used to refer to Torah-observant but non-Christ-following believers in the God of Israel (rather than insider terms like, say, “sons of Israel” or “Israelites”), so John sounds to us like it is commenting on Jewish people generally, both when it says that “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22), and when John’s Jesus declares to a group of Jews (who had believed in him, though…), “You are of your father, the devil” (8:44). Antisemites, including the Nazis and our “Alt-Right” neighbors, gravitate toward the latter and ignore the former.
Zumstein’s reading incorporates aspects of narrative criticism, but acknowledges historical critical issues, including signs of editorial development in the text. He first acknowledges four senses detected by other commentators before giving his own list of what sort of characters are referred to by “Jew / the Jews” in John:
- People who are simply Jewish (e.g. 12:9)
- Unbelieving opponents of Jesus (e.g. 5:10)
- Representatives of an identifiable religious tradition (e.g. 2:6)
- …and sometimes of a positively assessed religious tradition (e.g. 4:22)
- Interlocutors of Jesus (e.g. 2:18)
- A group divided in the face of revelation (e.g. 6:52)
- Jesus sympathizers (e.g. 3:1)
- Jesus himself (4:9)
Zumstein concludes (my translation), “It is thus reductive to attribute a single significance to this term” (p. 73). The Johannine Jews are a literary construct of a particular text (the Gospel of John), referring to people who lived in a particular place (Palestine) in a particular time (first century), and yet still a group that shows remarkable diversity in its attitudes and behaviors.
This discussion reminded me of another book I reviewed last year for Reviews in Religion and Theology, Stanley Porter’s John, His Gospel, and Jesus (2015). Here, Porter surveys previous treatments of “the Jews” in John and criticizes them for being too reductive. To quote from myself (obnoxious, right?):
Porter’s next essay (chapter 6) is quite typical in its conclusion—that John uses the term “the Jews” in diverse ways, not in universal or only negative ones—while relying on false conflicts to strengthen his apologetic argument that John should not be considered anti-Jewish. After surveying the positions of a number of scholars, Porter claims that they “all appear to endorse the notion that there is a single referent for the term [the Jews]” (p. 159, emphasis mine), i.e. that “the Jews” indicate in every case hostile religious leaders, etc. Few if any of the scholars cited would agree.
In particular, I called Porter out for using a 30 year-old focused article by Urban von Wahlde which addressed the hostile uses of the term, rather than his 2010 commentary which highlights the various ways that John uses “the Jews.”
So despite, at the very least, von Wahlde’s 2010 commentary and Zumstein’s 2014 commentary (which also points to Schnelle’s catalogue of various meanings for “the Jews”) already acknowledging the diverse meanings of “the Jews” in John, Porter presents the same position as revolutionary and new. To me, it seemed clear that he had taken select positions out of context to heighten the apparent impact of his analysis.
Yet oddly one of his straw men, von Wahlde, accuses others of being reductive regarding “the Jews” in a 2017 New Testament Studies article against narrative criticism. His abstract begins, “Recent narrative critical studies of the religious authorities in the Fourth Gospel have proposed… that the term ‘Jews’ has only one meaning in the Gospel” (p. 222). As evidence, he cites Bennema (2009) and Zimmermann (2013). Neither Bennema nor Zimmerman seems to argue that John uses “the Jews” in only one way, even in the passages von Wahlde cites. Nearly every citation of Zimmermann highlights the variety of images given for the Jews in John, or in narrative critical terms, to the complexity of this group character.
The issue seems to be this: Zimmermann is comfortable with John’s complex characterization, von Wahlde is not. This is not surprising since von Wahlde’s methodology rests on the assumption that ancient authors are entirely consistent, so different uses of the same term must imply different authors. In other words, he acknowledges the same inconsistencies (or variety) in the use of “the Jews” in John that Zimmermann does, he simply accounts for them differently.
One method acknowledges that “Jews” could refer to the ethnos of the people of Judea, or more narrowly to a particular religious tendency within Judea, or more narrowly still, to the leaders of such a group. As characters, the Jews can signify any of these meanings, or can be put forward to represent the unbelieving “world.” Due to this polyvalency and functional diversity, the Jewish parents of a man born blind can be both Jewish and “afraid of the Jews” (9:22), just as Nicodemus, a Pharisee and the only ruler we know of who believed in Jesus yet did not confess it publicly, would remain silent “because of the Pharisees” (12:42).
The issue isn’t, “When John uses the Jews, he wants to communicate hostile disbelief,” which is the sort of statement some scholars want to make, but something more like, “When John needs a group to represent hostile disbelief, he often uses the Jews” (but sometimes uses the Pharisees, the crowds, or Pilate). In the same vein, the disciples are often the ones John uses to make profound statements about Christ (e.g. that he is the Christ, Son of God, King of Israel, etc.), but others can as well (e.g. the Baptist, the Samaritan), while the disciples as a group contain one betrayer, one denier, and a number of occasional idiots. John isn’t necessarily inconsistent in how it portrays the disciples, just not overly simple.
The other method acknowledges a similar set of uses for “the Jews,” but accounts for them without appeal to complex characterization. Rather, a complex authorial history is posited where three separate authors independently contributed to the Gospel. One author (rarely) refers to the Jews as an ethno-religious group, another as a group hostile to Jesus, and a third apparently just picks up whatever term the previous author used (and so is inconsistent in his characterization of “the Jews,” but only due to his carelessness and ignorance). While the implied author in narrative criticism may be simple and unified, but may create complex characters, the source critical model imagines a complex authorial history, but with each author creating very simple characters.
Porter’s method, meanwhile, favors any reading that makes the New Testament look good.
So we are in the odd position that almost everyone seems to recognize that the Gospel of John does not use “the Jews” in a simplistic manner, but they disagree about how to account for it. The difference is a matter of methodology. It would seem that these discussions would be more productive if they focused on methodology, rather than being tempted into creating a caricature of others’ conclusions.