The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus King of All Israel

Editor’s Note: Below is the Prologue to “The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel“. For more information about the book visit the website. Also click here if you are interested in purchasing a copy.

When I set out to write this book, which I later, after much thought and many other titles, decided to call “The Jewish Gospel of John”, I wanted to answer the question that had disturbed me for years: “How can this Gospel read so pro-Jewish (for example in Jn. 4:22) and anti-Jewish (for example Jn. 8:44) at the same time?” In this very important section of the book, I would like to present for your attention the conclusions I reached. Having read this prior to reading the book itself, you will be able to judge for yourself if my conclusions really do match up with the text of the Gospel of John verse-by-verse.

1) The Gospel of John was initially written for a particular audience consisting of a variety of intra-Israelite groups, one of the main ones being the Samaritan Israelites. To them, unlike for us today, the word Ἰουδαῖοι (pronounced Ioudaioi and translated as “Jews”) did not mean “the People of Israel,” i.e. “the Jewish people” as we call them today. For these people, the people I propose are one of the main audiences for the Gospel of John, the Ioudaioi, meant something different.

One modern example that illustrates this ancient dynamic comes from an Eastern European setting. The Ukrainians often called Russians, with whom they had an uneasy relationship to say the least, “Maskali.”1 The Ukrainian word “Maskal” comes from the name of the Russian Imperial Capital – Moscow. Those who were either of Russian ethnic descent, or who even as much as acknowledged Moscow’s authority or leading role in the region, could be referred to as “Maskal.” In fact, the Maskal did not have to be from Moscow or be ethnically Russian at all. The individual simply needed to be (or be perceived to be) a supporter of a Moscow-led political agenda. Other peoples outside of the Russian-Ukrainian political conflict, who were familiar with the issues, never used the designation “Maskali” themselves, knowing that it was a Ukrainian term for the Russians and Russia’s affiliates.

Therefore, using a similar analogy, those who acknowledged the Jerusalem-approved authorities in Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) and Cana, which were far from Jerusalem, were also referred to by the principal name for the Jerusalemite formal rulers and leading sect – the Ioudaioi. All members of the Jerusalem-led system became the Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John. This is very similar to the way “Russians” became “Maskali” to Ukrainians and to others who witnessed their polemic. So when the audience for John’s Gospel heard these anti-Ioudaioi statements (like John 7:1-2), whom did they think the author/s had in mind? This is the key question.

To Samaritan Israelites, whatever else the Ioudaioi may have been, they were certainly Judeans – members of the former Southern Kingdom of Israel who had adopted a wide variety of innovations that were contrary to the Torah as Samaritans understood it. Judging from this Gospel, the original audience understood that, as well as simply being Judeans, the Ioudaioi were: i) Judean authorities, and ii) affiliated members of this authority structure living outside of Judea. These affiliates were located both in the territories of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel (Galilee) and in the large Israelite diaspora outside the Land of Israel, both in the Roman Empire and beyond. In this way, the Gospel of John, like the other Gospels, portrayed Jesus’ antagonists as representatives of sub-groups within Israel, and not the people of Israel as a whole. In other words Ioudaioi (“the Jews” in most translations) in this Gospel are not “the Jewish People” in the modern sense of the word.

The translation of Ioudaioi always and only as “Jews” sends the reader in the opposite direction from what the author intended. While the translation of this word simply as “Judeans,” is a more accurate choice than “Jews,” it is still not fully adequate – for three reasons that come to mind:

a) The English word Jews evokes, in the minds of modern peoples, the idea of Jewish religion (i.e. Jews are people who profess a religion called Judaism) and therefore cannot be used indiscriminately to translate the term Ioudaioi, since, in the first century, there was no separate category for religion (Judaism, when it was used, meant something much more all-encompassing than what it means to us today). In a sense, it was only when non-Israelite Christ-followers, in an attempt to self-establish and self-define, created the category called Christianity, that the category called Judaism, as we know it today, was also born. Since then most Christian theologians and most Jewish theologians after them project our modern definition of Judaism back into the New Testament.

b) On the other hand, the English word Judean evokes in the minds of modern people, oftentimes, an almost exclusively geographical definition (a Judean is the person who lives in Judea or used to live in Judea) and hence cannot be used indiscriminately either, since today it does not imply everything it intended to imply in late antiquity.

c) The word Judean, without clarification and nuancing, does not account for the complex relationship of the outside-of-Judea affiliates with the Jerusalem authorities either.
Because of the lack of a perfect word to describe what was meant by Ioudaioi in the Gospel of John, I suggest that the word is best left untranslated.

2) The Gospel of John was not composed as a pro-Samaritan or a Samaritan document. It was neither authored by Samaritan followers of Jesus nor sought to portray the Samaritans as more faithful to Torah than Judeans. It is a Judean-Israelite document that was originally composed to reach Samaritan and other Israelites with the gospel.

Why do I call this Israelite document Judean? Because it is especially in this Gospel that Jesus is shown as belonging to the Ioudaioi. As was already mentioned above, Jesus identified on a number of occasions with the Ioudaioi (Judeans/Jews). In John 1:11b the Ioudaioi are “his own.” In John 4:9 Jesus is called Ioudaios (Judean/Jew). In John 4:22 Jesus and his disciples affirm that salvation is from the Ioudaioi; and in John 19:40 Jesus was buried according to the burial customs of the Ioudaioi.

On the other hand, if this Gospel is not Samaritan, but Judean in origin (ideologically and not necessarily geographically), what then explains such an acute interest in Samaritan Israelites?

This Gospel was authored by a certain kind of Judean (or more accurately a group of Judeans). He/they expected the coming redemption of Israel to include the return of the Samaritan Israelites (Jn. 4:35) as well as all the Children of Israel dispersed among foreign lands. (Jn. 10:16; 11:52) The Gospel was probably written in the aftermath of the apostolic mission to the Samaritan lands (Acts 8) and probably provided an alternative to the Gospel of Matthew’s anti-Samaritan views. The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of John display similar tensions to those in the Books of Kings and Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The Books of Kings represent a Judean-centered narrative, telling, in many ways, a story similar to that of the Chronicles. One of the main differences was that the Books of Chronicles, though likely also of Judean authorship, had an “All Israel” perspective at the center. (1 Chron. 9:1; 11:1, 4, 10; 12:38; 13:5, 6, 8; 14:8; 2 Chron. 1:2; 7:6, 8; 9:30; 10:1, 3, 16) They refused to define Israel only as the Southern Israelites, later termed Judeans. Similarly, it seems that the Gospel of John (and most probably the Gospel of Luke) was the alternative to the Gospel of Matthew’s Judean anti-Samaritan views. (Matt. 10:5) John’s Gospel, like the Books of Chronicles, called for all Israel to be united under the leadership of God’s anointed king. In John’s case, he envisioned Jesus as the King who came to unite representatives/descendants of both Southern and Northern tribes wherever they may be. (John 10:16) Just like the Gospel of Luke, this Gospel declared its firm belief in the coming “Messianic Reunification” that was promised by the prophets of old.

3) The Gospel of John, like the three other Gospels, is technically an anonymous document. Later Christian tradition branded all four Gospels to associate with one of the great figures of the early Jesus movement. What can be said, however, is that the Gospel of John was authored by one for whom the Book of Ezekiel was particularly important. There are an overwhelming number of connections between these two Israelite works. This is, of course, not to say that Ezekiel is the only background for this Gospel; certainly other books, like the Book of Daniel, are also extremely important. The use of Daniel in John’s Gospel, however, is almost always connected with the night visions of Daniel (Dan. 7:13-14); while the Book of Ezekiel is alluded to throughout the Gospel by a multiplicity of themes. One of these key themes in Ezekiel, just as I think in John, is the reunification of Southern and Northern Israel under the leadership of God’s anointed King. (Ezek. 37:16; John 10:16) Some other compelling examples include: the Good Shepherd of Israel coming in judgment against the evil shepherds who neglect and exploit the sheep under their care (Ezek. 34:1-31; Jn. 10:11); the vision of the Temple bursting open with streams of running water which reach to the Dead Sea and beyond with revitalizing power (Ezek. 47:1-12; Jn. 7:38); and the Son of Man commanding God’s Spirit to come and resurrect the people of Israel. (Ezek. 37:9-10; Jn. 16:7)

4) Half of the Gospel (chapters 1-12) seems to cover three years of Jesus’ ministry, judging from the three Passovers, while the second half (chapters 13-21) is concentrated on his Passion alone – roughly one day, culminating in his death and subsequent resurrection. I conclude, therefore, that the last half of the work is very important to the author’s argument, with the chapters 1-12 serving as a disproportionate introduction to the Gospel’s crescendo.

In this section, Jesus is on trial before the Judean and the Roman authorities. Yet, from the perspective of its author, the entire Gospel shows that it is the Judean authorities who are on trial. It is Jesus who has come as the covenant prosecutor to press charges against the evil shepherds of Israel. Not the other way around, as it may seem. While Jesus stands before his accusers and before Pilate, it is Jesus who has full power and authority. (Jn. 10:18; 19:11) From the very beginning, Jesus methodically worked his way to his goal, orchestrating and carefully controlling all the events surrounding his life (Jn. 11:6; 11:17; 12:14-15) and his Passion. (Jn. 19:28) The idea of a court motif is everywhere present in John. Throughout the Gospel, we see many witnesses. Everyone and everything seems to be testifying in favor of Jesus (John 1:7; 4:39; 5:32; 19:35; 21:24); mounting evidence, piece-by-piece, is methodically presented. The inadequacy of the current Ioudaioi as leaders of God’s people Israel is increasingly emphasized. (Jn. 3:9-10; 6:31-32; 8:21-22) Ultimately, their opposition to God’s Anointed One (Jesus) is exemplified by their attempt to preserve Judea’s Temple worship and therefore to prosper for themselves, their families and their sects, under the terms dictated by the Roman occupation. (Jn. 11:48) Such aims disqualify them to be the proper leaders of the Children of Israel.

Even though seven miraculous signs (Jn. 2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-18; 6:5-14; 6:16-24; 9:1-7; 11:1-45) together testify to Jesus’ power and divine authority, in the end, the ultimate justification of Jesus’ person, words and deeds over against the formal rulers of Israel, is set forth – the resurrection of the Son of God as manifested by the empty tomb and three post-resurrection appearances. (Jn. 20-21)

5) John’s Gospel has a very interesting use of the word world (κόσμος) throughout its narrative and it does not seem to be what we traditionally understand it to mean. The basic working definition of the term, “the world,” in this Gospel seems to be the order that opposes Israel’s God. (Jn. 7:7; 9:39; 12:31; 15:18-19) This opposing order is nevertheless an object of his redemptive love, attention and restoration, (Jn. 1:29; 3:16; 6:33; 14:31; 17:23) because it was once created by God through his everlasting Word. (Jn. 1:1, 10) The primary identity of the world in this intra-Israelite Gospel is, not surprisingly – the current Ioudaioi and their leadership structure, especially. (Jn. 7:4-7; 8:23; 9:39; 14:17-31; 18:20)

In summary, answering my own original question directly (How can John’s Gospel seem pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish at the same time?), I can state the following: This Gospel was written from one of the first century Judean perspectives, where Jesus’ identity and mission was intimately tied up with the Ioudaioi, as a sub-group within the nation of Israel. This affiliation of Jesus with the Ioudaioi was paramount for John’s Gospel. Although Jesus is rejected by his own group, it belonged to him (Jn. 1:11; 4:22; 19:40). References like these, among many others, in my mind explain the pro-Ioudaioi statements in the Gospel.

At the same time, I propose that this first century Judean perspective included a vision for the restoration of the Northern (Samaritan and Galilean) Israelites, as well as those residing in the Judean and Samaritan diaspora centers outside of the Land. To the author of this Gospel, Jesus was nothing less than the King of Israel in its entirety.

It is especially for those Israelites (whether Samaritan, Galilean, or residing in diaspora) that this Gospel was first written. This, in my mind, accounts for the anti-Ioudaioi statements we find in this Israelite Gospel. The anti-Ioudaioi statements would not be understood by these late first century Israelites (or Gentile God-fearers for that matter) as criticizing Israel as a whole. In spite of what Christian and Jewish theologians after them have assumed about John’s Gospel, it was not originally meant to be read by everyone. It may even be said that the composition of John’s Gospel constituted a significant lack of foresight on behalf of its (human) author. Had the author imagined (and the fact that he also didn’t give us insight into the first century Jesus movement) that, just few centuries later, it would be primarily non-Israelites who would read and interpret his magnificent Gospel, being removed culturally and socio-religiously from its original setting, he might have been much more careful with the use of his terminology.

So, how can the Gospel of John seem/be pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish all at the same time? Because: i) It is a Judean Gospel at its core, and ii) It was originally written to Israelites who understood that Ioudaioi were but a sub-group within Israel and not “the Jewish People” as a whole.

Although the idea that John’s Gospel was at first meant only for Israelites may be threatening to some people, there is absolutely nothing to fear. Most of the books in the Bible had a specific audience, even if most of the time we can only guess who that audience really was. The message of these sacred texts, after being properly understood, can and must legitimately be applied to other contexts as well, and this, my friends, includes everyone who would be willing to hear the message of this Gospel.

Are you ready? If so, let us begin and walk through the Gospel of John, so that we too can believe and in so doing have everlasting life. (Jn. 20:3)

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One of Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg's greatest passions is building of bridges of trust, respect and understanding between Christians and Jews, overcoming centuries of difficult, but almost always joined history. He strongly believes that both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament scriptures have much to teach both communities. Outside of his expertise in the ancient languages (Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, Syriac and Old Church Slovanic), he has a command of three other modern languages (English, Russian and Hebrew).