During Lent, many of the readings from the Gospel of St. John referred "to the Jews" in a negative way. It sounds anti-Semitic. How should we understand this?
In the Gospel of St. John, the term "the Jews" appears frequently and identifies the opposing forces against our Lord Jesus. Here are two examples: First, in the story of the man born blind (Jn 9:1-41), Jesus cures the anonymous blind man. The Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath law and harden their hearts to any suggestion that such a cure identifies Jesus as the Messiah as foretold by the prophets. After verse 17, the Pharisees are simply referred to as "the Jews": "The Jews refused to believe that he had really been born blind" (18); and "His parents answered in this fashion because they were afraid of the Jews, who had already agreed among themselves that anyone who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue" (22). If a person were not careful, upon first hearing and without critical insight, he could conclude that the term referred to all of the Jews. Yet, the blind man, his parents, and our Lord Himself were also Jews. So, the term "the Jews" refers to the opposition.
In another passage, Jesus identifies Himself as "the light of the world" which prompts a dialogue with the Pharisees (8:12-59). As the dialogue progresses, the opposition is simply identified as "the Jews." Here again the term "the Jews" corresponds to the Jewish authorities.
Such an interpretation is important in reading the rest of the New Testament. For example, St. Paul in his First Letter to the Thessalonians wrote, "You suffered the same treatment from your fellow countrymen as they did from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and persecuted us. Displeasing to God and hostile to all mankind, they try to keep us from preaching salvation to the Gentiles" (I Thess 2:14-16). Clearly, St. Paul is referring to the Jewish authorities, who took great efforts through intimidation, imprisonment, beating, and murder to stop the preaching about Jesus, as recorded particularly in Acts of the Apostles. A person would be wrong to think that St. Paul is indicting all Jews.
The late Father Raymond Brown, a scholar of the Gospel of St. John, posited in The Community of the Beloved Disciple (p. 41): "In the evolution of the term [the Jews] it is helpful to note that John can refer interchangeably to the Jews and to the chief priests and Pharisees (compare 18:3 and 12; 8:13 and 22), and that John speaks of the Jews where the Synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] speak of the Sanhedrin (compare Jn 18:28-31 with Mk 15:1). But this interchangeability is not to be interpreted benevolently as it is by those who wish to remove the term the Jews from the Fourth Gospel by substituting Jewish authorities. John deliberately uses the same term for the Jewish authorities of Jesus time and for the hostile inhabitants of the synagogue in his own time. During Jesus lifetime the chief priests and some of the scribes in the Sanhedrin were hostile to Jesus and had a part in His death I would judge that bedrock history. Those who expelled the Johannine Christians and put them to death (16:2) are looked on as the heirs of the earlier group. Thus, on the double level on which the Gospel is to be read, the Jews refers to both." In sum, the term "the Jews," as used in the Gospel of St. John, highlights the opposition to our Lord and His followers, specifically that opposition based in the authority of the scribes, Pharisees and Sanhedrin.
Therefore, a person must not read or hear the term "the Jews" and misconstrue it as a blanket condemnation of all people who practice Judaism or are of Jewish descent. The Second Vatican Councils Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions addressed this very point: "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during His passion. It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the Word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ" (no. 4).
An interesting point though must be made concerning those who have misinterpreted "the Jews" and used it to justify persecution: Our Holy Father has repeatedly asked pardon and forgiveness for the sins of the Catholic Church in the past. He did so especially at the Mass of Pardon on the First Sunday of Lent, 2000. Here he specifically mentioned acts committed by members of the Church against people of the Jewish faith. Hopefully no Jew would place a generalized blame on every Christian at a certain time for actions of individuals, or of government or Church authorities. On the other hand, sadly, nobody to the best of my knowledge has ever asked for pardon and forgiveness for the atrocities committed against Christ, the Catholic Church, or Catholic Christians in general.
Saunders, Rev. William. "Is the Gospel Anti-Semitic?" Arlington Catholic Herald.
This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope parish in Potomac Falls, Virginia. He is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns, and Straight Answers II.Copyright © 2002 Arlington Catholic Herald
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