Discussion Of Whether The Gospel Of John Is Anti-semitic

Is it fair to describe the Fourth Gospel as ‘anti-Semitic’? If not, what would be a better description? Introduction John is widely regarded as the theological pinnacle of the gospels for its high Christology. It also has an unfortunate reputation for being anti-Semitic leading to a difficult relationship with the work of the fourth evangelist for both Christians and Jews. Dr Eli Lizorkn-Eyzenburg describes his personal issues regarding John “seemingly portraying Jews as the enemy of Jesus” yet I disagree. Whilst it is true that the term “the Jews” or “ludaioi” is used discriminatingly in John it is anachronistic to brand the gospel as Anti-Semitic before considering who the author of John means with the benefit of historical context and literary interpretation. A more appropriate characterisation of the gospel of John would be “anti Jewish”. 

The key distinction being that anti Semitism denotes hatred or contempt of Jewish people as an ethnic group while “anti Judaism” is criticism based on theology rather than blind hatred. Edward H Flannery regarded it as “purely a theological reality, it rejects Judaism as a way of salvation but not Jews as people”. This essay seeks to identify aspects of John considered Anti- Semitic and clarify the theological intent with the aim of proving that the gospel may be “anti Jewish” but that it is not “anti Jews”. Anti-Semitic? From an outside perspective, the fourth gospel could easily come across as vilifying of the Jews such as when Jesus says to his Jewish audience “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out the desires of your father”. It is essential firstly to note that the author of John is himself Jewish as evidenced by his detailed knowledge of Jewish festivals and laws (John 7:22). Thus the criticism he offers is not from an outside perspective but is inner faith rhetoric. When taken out of the context of an “intra-Jewish factional dispute” is when the Gospel of John becomes “easily read as an anti-Jewish polemic and becomes a tool of anti-Semitism”. 

Secondly, a reader must understand that when “The Jews”are referred to within John the author is referring to a specific group. If we took it to mean any descendent of Isaac and Abraham then the gospel would indeed be anti-Semitic and prejudiced. However the real target of these criticisms are the political opponents of Jesus (Sumney,2014,270). The phrase is used not to refer to all members of the Jewish faith but to specifically criticise the civic and religious leaders of Jerusalem, specifically the Pharisees who, amongst other persecutions, sought the death of Jesus (John 11:47-53). With understanding of whom the gospel refers to we must now consider the issue of why they are regarded in such negative terms. To understand the treatment of the group characterised as “the Jews” we must understand what the author was trying to reflect. It is important to note in terms of historical context that the fourth gospel was written at a time of growing schism between the “Synagogue Jews” and the Jewish followers of Jesus (Novak,1989, 3). While the author of John was Jewish he was also part of the pioneering Christianity movement and his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah “who is himself God” (John 1.18) was considered blasphemy by the civic Jewish powers of the time. We will now turn to consider how the representation of this dispute has contributed to the misconception of the fourth gospel as anti-Semitic Expulsion from the Synagogue and response After the destruction of the temple in 70CE Jewish communities felt compelled to emphasise their traditional identity which resulted in the excommunication of those who recognised Jesus as the Messiah.

Thus members of John’s own church experienced expulsion from their synagogues as evidenced by the phrase “aposynagogos” (John 9:22, 12:42). Scholars such as JL Martyn discuss John as having a two level nature, I.e- while the story is about Jesus the gospel relates events that happened to the community after the death of Jesus. This literary device allows the author of John to project the experience of his church into the life and story of Jesus. Therefore the gospel of John details both the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish civic authorities and the fallout between Johannine followers and the Synagogue (2003, 46).The most relevant example of this is the account of Jesus healing the blind man in John 9. When the blind man’s parents are questioned they appear reluctant to answer which John explains as being because “they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the Synagogue” (John 9.22). In this extract John’ s vernacular does not pertain to all Jews but the phrase could be used interchangeably with more specific words such as Pharisees. This suggests that the term is kept deliberately general or vague so as to avoid incurring the wrath of these powerful groups. The author makes reference twice more in the gospel to expulsion from the Synagogue. On the last occasion Jesus tells his disciples “they will put you out of the synagogues” (John 16:2). Again displaying backwards projection of John’s churches experience into the life of Christ. It is understandable in theological terms why the expulsion of these pre-Christians from the synagogues was necessary as the divine presentation of Jesus by John raised questions for Jews about the relationship between Jesus and God. However, from the perspective of John and his followers they were experiencing persecution for their devotion to God, hence the cynical portrayal of the Jewish authorities. The response of the Johannine community to its excommunication was to develop theology that was not dependent upon institutions such as the Synagogue. 

In John 4:21, Jesus speaks to a Samarian Woman and states that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father”. Here, Jesus clearly expresses that a person does not need to be in a specific holy place to worship, evidently relating to both the people of John’s Church who were cast out of their Synagogues and the destruction of the Temple. This issue is addressed in John 2:18-22 when Jesus replaces the temple with his body. This issue illustrates why the gospel uses the broad phrase “the Jews” as it would be politically dangerous for the Johannine community to aggravate the Pharisees who had already persecuted them. Furthermore it explains why they are criticised so harshly as the fourth evangelist felt that the excommunication of Jesus’ Jewish followers was an injustice. However the negative references towards these authorities “must never be taken to mean all Jews in Jesus’ day, and even less so to all Jews of all times” Anti Jewish? Thus we can deduce with the benefit of insight into the Johannine setting and Religious schism that John was written within that the gospel cannot be branded anti-Semitic. It addresses its criticisms at the religious authorities responsible for the groups excommunication rather than all Jews as a people. The text itself is naturally engaged with Jewish tradition, the author using Jewish feasts as structuring devices (John 5:1, 6:4) and Jesus himself being referred to as “Rabbi” (John 1:49). However, while the Gospel is not Anti-Semitic in its true nature, it does exhibit a theological attempt to replace Jewish institutions and traditions. In John 10, Jesus is referred to as “the door to the sheepfold” which reflects the depiction of Jewish leaders in the Torah as Shepherds (Numbers 27:16), suggesting that Jesus has displaced those authorities. Furthermore, the fourth Gospel uses the fulfilment of traditional Jewish scripture to prove the identity of Jesus. For example in Ezekiel 47:1 it is stated that fresh water will spring from the temple in Jerusalem but John 7:37-39 makes it clear that Jesus is the fulfilment of this prophecy, once again displacing the temple and replacing the established religious authority. John even has Jesus allude to himself in the same manner as God in Israelite tradition, the phrase ego eimi meaning “I am” to the Greek speaking Gentiles reading translations of the Septuagint. A clear example of the gospels attempt to vest authority in Christ as opposed to traditional Jewish authorities. We have observed that the Fourth Evangelist actively promotes Jesus above the teachings of the Torah.

Upon reflection it becomes clear that this is a deliberate attempt to develop from organised Judaism into the new movement of Messianic Judaism. Now expelled from the Synagogue the community had no choice but to progress their own theology. In light of the manner of their expulsion from the temple it may be unsurprising that they do so at the expense of Jewish theology. The clearest examples of this occur in John’s three Passover accounts.On the first occasion Jesus replaces the temple which has become “a house of trade” (John 2:16), on the second he replaces Moses with several references to the Exodus narrative, Jesus ascends the mountain in the same manner as Moses in Exodus 24:12 (John 6:3) and his feeding of the five thousand is a direct parallel of the manna that Moses fed the Israelites. Thirdly, the other three gospels feature the death of Jesus the day after passover while John states that it occurred on Passover, thus Jesus fulfils the role of the sacrificial lamb, superseding that which came before him. 

Through these examples we have witnessed the anti-Jewish approach of the gospel of John. This theology was necessary for the evolution of messianic Judaism into what would eventually become Christianity. Closing thoughts The majority of hostile uses of the term “the Jews” occurs in reference to the Jewish authorities (John 5:16) while there is little polemic to criticise in the rest of Johns engagement with the word. The term is used to convey ethnicity though not in a discriminatory sense (e.g John 2:13) and there are positive references to the relationship between Judaism and salvation (John 4:22). It is worthy of note that John contains the longest Passion Narrative of the four Gospels yet is the only one that ultimately posits Pontius Pilot as responsible and complicit for the death of Jesus. While the Synoptic Gospels feature a Jewish crowd hungry for the death of Christ (Mark 15:11-15), John makes it clear that only the priestly delegation are present and the trial is depicted as a much more political than religious issue. 

To conclude, it is clear that the gospel of John is not an anti-Semitic work when the context of persecution and inter religious schism is considered. Anti-Semitism was arguably not observable during this period of antiquity at all from the newly messianic Jews as they were too integrated in the culture of Judaism to renounce it completely. In this sense there is nothing discriminately “anti-Semitic” but there is certainly theology which is “anti-Jewish” as the author portrays Judaism as inferior to the word of Christ (John 5:39). The Gospel of John is a literary response to the exclusion of Johannine followers from the synagogue and the rhetoric between these two separate and competing factions. It has been a historical misinterpretation that the language used within John reflects a polemic against Jews as people when its true spirit is a theological dispute over the nature of Jesus and his messianism. 


  • Carson DA(1991) The Gospel According to John, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Michigan, 96 
  • Dunn, J G (1989) Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135, Tubingen: J.C.B Mohr publishing, page 203 
  • Eyzenburg EL (2015), The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of Israel, Independent publishing, 6 
  • Flannery EH (1973) Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism: A Necessary Distinction, JES 10, 582 
  • Green JB (2013) Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Inter varsity Press, Illinois, 536 
  • Hill RA (2013) The Courageous Gospel: Resources for Teachers, Students and Preachers of the Fourth Gospel, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Oregon, 51 
  • Karrer, M, edited by Kraus, W and Wooden, RG (2006) Septuagint Research: Issues and Challenges in the study of the Greek Jewish Scriptures, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 335-355 
  • Kruse CG (2003) The Gospel according to John: An Introduction and Commentary, Wm B Erdmans, Michigan, 50 Martyn JL (2003) History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky, 46 
  • Novak D, (1989) Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification, Oxford University Press, New York, 3-23 
  • Sumney Jl (2014) The Bible, An Introduction, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 269-275 
  • Yee, GA (1989) Jewish Feasts and the Gospel of John, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Oregon, 57-70
16 December 2021
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