SBL 2000
Papers Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature
Nashville, TN - November 18-21, 2000

Jesus’ Jewishness in the Fourth Gospel: An Antidote to Anti-Judaism?
by Raimo Hakola
University of Helsinki

Presented to the SBL "Johannine Literature Section" on Tuesday 11/21/00
[Copyright 2000, by Raimo Hakola.  All rights reserved. This is a draft version of a work still in progress; please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]
[Note: To see the Greek terms below, you need to have the SSuperGreek font installed on your computer.]

 During the recent decades a significant shift has taken place in how biblical scholars assess the relationship of Jesus to the Judaism of his time. It used to be customary to present Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries and their religion in the darkest possible terms so that the superiority of Jesus and his message would become evident.[1] Jesus and his followers were detached from the contemporary Judaism, and the novelty of Christianity was emphasized. Everything that has a timeless value for all generations was seen to have entered the world with the birth of Christianity, whereas Judaism was seen as a religion bound to a certain time and people in the past.

Whether they realized it or not, many Biblical scholars in the late 19th and early 20th century continued the denigration of Judaism that had been a part and parcel of Christianity almost from the beginning. In Christian preaching, the Jews and Judaism had become a foil that highlighted the excellence of Christian faith. What was regarded as religiously or morally wrong was connected to the Jews and their religion. In this process, Jesus and the early Christians were seen more and more as aliens in their Jewish environment; however, with the rise of modern antisemitism and its racial theories, the Jewish origin of Jesus and Christianity was denied altogether. Jesus was not only seen as unique among his fellow Jews, as earlier Christian tradition had it -- he was not seen as a Jew at all. The so-called German Christians in Hitler’s Third Reich brought to a logical conclusion a development that had begun long before them in detaching Jesus from his Jewish roots. These pro-Nazi theologians developed fantastic theories of Aryan tribes in Galilee and eliminated the passages dealing with Jesus’ Jewish ancestry from their revised New Testaments. They tried to do away with everything that was Jewish in their Bibles and promoted a German version of Christianity -- as they themselves called it.[2]

In the post-Holocaust world, Christian theologians and scholars have become more and more aware of the anti-Jewish tendencies inherent in Christian tradition. They have asked how these tendencies might be resisted so that the terrible consequences of centuries of anti-Jewish propaganda would never happen again. As a result, it comes as no surprise that many scholars have welcomed warmly the change that has taken place in the study of early Christianity and first century Judaism in the late 20th century. Many scholars, Christians and Jews alike, have emphasized that Jesus and his followers should be understood in the matrix of the manifold Judaism of the first century.[3] This change is not only seen as a necessary historical corrective to the distorted results of earlier study, but also as a potential remedy for the anti-Judaism enbedded in Christian tradition. As Howard Clark Kee says in a book entitled Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament, “if Christian preachers and teachers are to overcome the anti-Judaism that pervades so many sermons and lessons in churches -- today and throughout the centuries -- it is essential to understand more fully the Jewish matrix from which Christianity emerged.”[4] If Jesus and early Christians can be seen as a part of the Judaism of their time, a significant step indeed has been taken in the fight against anti-Jewish interpretations of the New Testament. The more the Jewishness of Jesus is emphasized, the less room there is for interpretations that set Jesus apart from his backgound and denigrate Judaism. As James H. Charlesworth emphasizes, the discovering of Jesus’ Jewishness and the Jewish roots of Christianity can assist in laying the foundation for an honest and fruiful relationship between Jews and Christians.[5]

It is clear that the recent results of Biblical research have dealt a deathblow to the attempts to deny the Jewishness of Jesus. But are the attempts of the German Christians and their anti-Semitic predecessors really typical representatives of age-old Christian anti-Judaism? It seems that the Jewish origin of Jesus and Christianity became a problem only after the invention of modern racial anti-Semitism, which saw the Jews as an inferior race. But how was Jesus’ Jewishness understood in earlier Christian tradition, which was so often saturated with blatant anti-Jewish tendencies? And how is the Jewish origin of Jesus dealt with in the writings of the New Testament, writings that contain some devastating condemnations of the Jews but that still do not deny that Jesus was a Jew? The answers to these questions can help us to evaluate how useful a weapon the newly rediscovered Jewishness of Jesus is in the fight against anti-Semitism.

The Fourth Gospel offers a perfect case-study of the relationship between the portrayal of Jesus as a Jew and the criticism against the Jews and their religion in the the New Testament. On the one hand, the Fourth Gospel is often described as the most anti-Jewish writing of the New Testament. This is exemplified in an often quoted passage to the effect that the Jews are of the devil (8:44). On the other hand, Jesus is presented pointedly as a Jew in the narrative, and Jesus the Jew even states that “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22), a sentence that the German Christians eliminated from their revised Bibles.[6] If we ask what the function of Jesus’ Jewishness is in the Fourth Gospel, it is appropriate to start our analysis with this sentence and its narrative context.


To be sure, many scholars who have not been led by anti-Semitic motives have also found it difficult to connect the sentence “salvation is from the Jews” to the virulent criticism of the Jews that is evident in the rest of the gospel. They have taken the saying as a later addition to the gospel.[7] These scholars, however, have not succeeded in explaining satisfactorily why the saying was added to the gospel.[8] Therefore, some scholars ascribe the saying to a tradition that presented the relationship between Jesus and the Jews in a more positive light than did the evangelist.[9] But even in this case, it must be expained why the saying was taken into a writing in which Jesus’ distance from the Jews is so often emphasized.

Franz Mussner has tried to answer this question in a book whose subtitle, “The Significance of Judaism for Christian Faith,” already anticipates his answer.[10] According to Mussner, the saying is an ancient statement of conviction emphasizing “that the eschatological salvation of the world remains with Judaism.” The saying corresponded to the faith conviction of the evangelist, who through the positive reception of the saying confessed the Jewish roots of the Church. Mussner even states that “had Christendom never forgotten [the saying], perhaps a theological anti-Semitism with its fearful consequences would never have been possible. Sentences have their consequences.”[11]

Also Hartwig Thyen sees in the saying “salvation is from the Jews” a counterbalance to those passages of the Fourth Gospel where the Jews are presented in a hostile light. According to Thyen, the saying is not a logical part of the dialogue in ch. 4, which shows that it has a fundamental significance for the gospel and its relationship to Judaism.[12] The saying shows that the Johannine Christians did not deny theirs roots, although they were excommunicated violently from the synagogue. The saying shows, together with some other passages in the gospel, that the Jews have not ceased to be God’s own people for the evangelist, even though they have rejected their own king in an incomprehensible way.[13] A similar interpretation was recently formulated by Thomas Söding, who called the saying “the heart (Kernsatz) of the Johannine soteriology.” According to Söding, the Jewishness of Jesus is an application of the incarnation christology of the gospel, because the fact that Jesus is a Jew is an expression of his humanity.[14]

Unfortunately, it seems that the above-mentioned scholars overestimate the pro-Jewish potential of the saying “salvation is from the Jews.” That the saying does not necessarily contradict the hostile passages in the rest of the narrative becomes clear if it is interpreted as a part of its narrative context, a discussion between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Jesus’ Jewishness is an important theme in this discussion. The Samaritan woman wonders how Jesus as a Jew can ask her, a Samaritan woman, for a drink. The narrator explains that Jews have no dealings with Samaritans (v. 9). This information is crucial for the whole meeting. In the previous chapter the reader has learned how a representative of the Jews, Nicodemus, failed to understand that God had sent Jesus to save the world. In the beginning of ch. 4, Jesus leaves the land of the Jews and starts to Galilea through the land of the Samaritans. The conclusion of Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritans stands in contrast to his meeting with Nicodemus. After Jesus has stayed for two days in Samaria, the Samaritans from the woman’s village recognize him as the savior of the world (v. 42). In this context, the saying “salvation is from the Jews” has an ironic undertone: the Samaritans, who are not full members of God’s people from a Jewish point of view, receive Jesus, whereas the Jews reject their own Messiah.[15] The whole story in ch. 4 illustrates how Jesus moves away from the Jews to the non-Jews who welcome him. As Wayne E. Meeks notes, “salvation is from the Jews; they are God’s ‘own’ people. But it is the non-Jews, the Samaritans, who recognise and accept it.”[16]

The immediate narrative context of the saying shows that Jesus’ Jewishness is also an important theme for his teaching of the true worship of God. The Samaritan woman recognizes Jesus as a Jewish prophet after Jesus has revealed the secrets of her previous marital life. There is a clear progression in the woman’s attitude toward Jesus: at first she is suspicious of Jesus and regards him only as “a Jew” (v. 9), but later she is ready to accept Jesus as a prophet.[17] This progression is important for the following teaching of the true worship. A non-Jew, who at first was sceptical of Jesus, finds out that she is speaking with a Jewish prophet, and asks a question a prophet should be able to answer. The question of the right place of worship, an age-long matter of controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans, is closely connected to the woman’s confession that Jesus is a prophet.[18] The woman begins to realize that Jesus is the fulfilment of what has been promised. Because Jesus is presented as the fulfilment of past promises, he can be presented also as the one who surpasses these promises. The reader knows already on the basis of the prologue of the gospel that Jesus is more than was expected: he is God’s eternal word who became flesh. But because Jesus also fulfils the expectations of a prophet and the Messiah, he can determine in a new way how God should be worshipped.[19] The emphasis on Jesus’ Jewishness lays a foundation for his teaching that neither the Samaritan nor the Jewish form of worship is right.

The words “salvation is from the Jews” are well in line with the emphasis on Jesus’ Jewishness. As salvation is connected closely to Jesus’ person in the gospel, these words should be interpreted as a veiled messianic claim.[20] These words imply that Jesus, who is presented pointedly as a Jew in the story, is the one whom the woman is expecting. That the salvation is from the Jews creates a possibility that Jesus the Jew can indeed be the bringer of salvation.[21] And as the bringer of salvation he can teach with all authority that the previous ways to worship God have to give way to the true worship of the Father in spirit and truth.

The words “salvation is from the Jews” should also be seen in light of what Jesus says just before uttering these words. In the controversy over the right place of worship, Jesus seems to adopt the point of view of the Jews as he says to the Samaritan woman, “you worship what you do not know, we worship what we know.” According to some scholars, “we” in Jesus’ mouth refers to Jesus and all the believers who share his teaching of God (cf. Jn 3:11).[22] This interpretation, however, is not likely in this context, where the difference between the Jews and the Samaritans is a central theme. Jesus speaks here as a Jew, and he evaluates the religion of the Samaritans from a Jewish point of view.[23] He admits here that the Jews have knowledge of the content of their worship, even though he frequently states elsewhere in the gospel that the Jews lack even a very basic knowledge of his Father (5:37–38; 7:28–29; 8:55). But Jesus’ words about the Jews who know what they worship should be understood in light of what he says of the ignorance of the Samaritans.

Jesus’ words that the Samaritans do not know what they worship reflect a Jewish anti-Samaritan tradition that is based on a reading of 2 Kgs 17:24–41. This passage tells how the nations that were brought to Samaria and that were later identified with the Samaritans did not at first fear the Lord, and so the Lord punished them (v. 25). The words in 2 Kings, “they do not know the statutes of the law of the god of the land” (v. 26 in the LXX:oujk oi[dasin to; krivma tou' qeou' th'" gh'") come very close to the words of Jesus in John, “you do not know what you worship” (uJmei'" proskunei'te o{ oujk oi[date).[24] In the scriptural story, the new residents in Samaria are instructed how to fear the Lord. They indeed begin to worship the God of Israel, but, at the same time, continue to make their own gods and serve them. The Samaritans are thus presented as worshipping both the Lord and their own gods, which means, from a Jewish point of view, that they have not understood what it means to worship the only God of Israel. In John, this is expressed by the words “you worship what you do not know.” This formulation also recalls those scriptural passages that speak of gentiles who do not know the God of Israel.[25] Jesus’ words in John, therefore, contain an implicit reference to the idolatrous tendencies among the Samaritans.[26]

Jesus’ attitude towards the Samaritans in John is well in line with 2 Kgs 17:24–41, according to which the Samaritans practised syncretism. This view was also expressed in later Jewish tradition according to which the Samaritans were ignorant[27] and liable to syncretism.[28] It should be noted that this view does not correspond to the nature of the Samaritan religion in the first centuries CE. In spite of his anti-Samaritan feelings, Josephus is not able to mention any examples of the Samaritans serving other gods than “the most high God.”[29] It is interesting also that earlier rabbinic traditions represented in the Mishnah do not mention any idolatry among the Samaritans.[30] It seems, therefore, that the implicit reference of the Johannine Jesus to idolatrous tendencies among the Samaritans is based more on a reading of 2 Kgs 17:24–41 than on the religion of the Samaritans in the first century CE. From the point of view of mainstream Judaism, the Samaritans were late-comers as the worshippers of the God of Israel; therefore, they lacked the right knowledge of what they worshipped.

From a Jewish point of view shared by the Johannine Jesus, the Samaritans were ignorant as late-born servants of God, whereas the Jews worshipped the true God right from the beginning. They are the original recipients of God’s statutes and laws, and all of God’s promises were made for them. As the bearers of God’s promises they have the knowledge of what they worship. If interpreted in this way, Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman are genuinely Johannine, as noted by Ferdinand Hahn.[31] According to the Johannine view, Jesus should be the fulfillment of the knowledge the Jews have; the scriptures of the Jews point to him, although the Jews in Jesus’ time do not understand this (cf. 5:36–47; 8:37–59). Thus Jesus’ words that the Jews “know what they worship for salvation is from the Jews” have to do more with the Jews as the historical people of God than with the unbelieving and even hostile contemporaries of Jesus.[32] From the Johannine point of view, the Jews are privileged as the people of God compared to the Samaritans and other non-Jews, but they may lose their privileged position. If they do not accept Jesus as their Messiah, they miss the hour of salvation that has already come with Jesus.[33] And indeed this is what the present passage implies: the Jews are about to lose their privileged position to those who receive Jesus as the savior of the world.[34] It is thus clear in the Johannine theology that the words “we know what we worship, for salvation is from the Jews” do not refer to the continuing priority of the Jews over the non-Jews.

This analysis has revealed that the controversial saying “salvation is from the Jews” is not necessarily contradictory to the portrayal of the Jews in the rest of the gospel as God’s own people to whom Jesus came. Jesus’ Jewishness is an essential part of the story in ch. 4. The Samaritan woman and her fellow townspeople meet a Jew who turns out to be the Messiah and the savior of the world. In this story, Jesus’ Jewishness is closely connected to his teaching that shows how the salvation he offers supersedes the earlier ways to worship God. Jesus’ Jewishness is used in a similar way in some other passages in the gospel as well.


At the beginning of the temple episode, Jesus acts like any other pious Jew: as the passover is at hand he goes up to Jerusalem (2:13). As Jesus comes to the temple, he finds people who are selling oxen, sheep and pigeons, and he also encounters the money changers (v. 14). The Johannine narrator is the only one of the four evangelists who tells that there were oxen and sheep in the temple area, and that Jesus drove them and the sellers out of the temple using the whip that was needed to control the animals. John’s portrayal of the conditions in the temple is historically very problematic. It is difficult to imagine how animals could have beeb traded in the temple and what would have been the purpose of doing so. A flock and a herd would have caused great disturbance among the worshippers, and, moreover, the excrement of the animals would have profaned the holy area.[35] Furthermore, an individual was not required to sacrifice an ox, and only a few people could have afforded to sacrifice an ox as a burnt offering or as a shared offering. It would have been of no use to keep a herd of cattle available for purchase. Many scholars note with good reasons that John’s description of the conditions in the temple betrays ignorance of the circumstances in the first century temple.[36]

John’s description may not be based on historical facts, but it is clear that the reaction of the Johannine Jesus to the arrangements in the temple was reasonable for a pious Jew. Had the quadrupeds been brought inside the temple area, every devout Jew would have had a reason to protest. As Ekkehard W. Stegemann notes, “The mere presence [of oxen and sheep in the temple] is so provocative that it does not need a particularly strong aspiration for the purity of the temple to understand Jesus’ action. Every Jew at every time should consider this action appropriate.”[37] The citation of the psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me” emphasizes that Jesus’ furious attack against the vendors of the animals and the money-changers is an expression of his zeal for the temple and its holiness. Jesus is presented thus far in the story as a keen reformer of the cult that is upset by the corruption of the present temple and wants to restore its sanctity.[38] The following dialogue between Jesus and the Jews gives a different picture of Jesus’ attitude toward the temple.

After Jesus’ demonstration in the temple, the Jews appear in the story for the first time. They ask Jesus: “What sign do you show us for doing this? (v. 18).” The Jews have a clear case for posing this question, but Jesus does not answer it directly; he begins by speaking about the destruction and the raising up of the temple: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up (v. 19).” Jesus uses expressions that make the following misunderstanding of the Jews understandable and also make the reader aware of another level of meaning of these words. The verbs “destroy” (luvw) and “raise” (ejgeivrw) can refer either to a building or to the body of Jesus. And indeed the narrator later explains that Jesus is not speaking of the material temple anymore but of the temple of his body (v. 21). As many scholars have observed, Jesus’ body is presented here as a substitute for the Jerusalem temple.[39] But if this is the point of the story, why to describe in detail Jesus’ action in the temple? His behaviour there implies that Jesus is interested in the material temple and its purity, but this does not seem to be the case after all. Is Jesus’ action only a reminiscence of the tradition the point of which was different from the point of the evangelist?

I think that the story of Jesus in the temple and the teaching of Jesus’ body as the new temple are connected to each other. In the first part of the story, Jesus is portrayed as being furious at the ongoing defilement of the temple. In his zealous defense of the temple and its sanctity Jesus stands in the best Jewish traditions; as a matter of fact, he is more Jewish than his Jewish contemporaries who profaned the temple. The greater the defilement of the temple, the greater also the excellence of Jesus’ achievement. From the Johannine point of view, it is only natural that Jesus’ body is presented as a substitute for the material temple, because the Jews did not observe its sanctity. The portrayal of Jesus as more loyal to Jewish traditions than his fellow Jews lays a foundation for a teaching that shows Jesus as a substitute for the old temple. Jesus’ Jewishness is thus used in the same way as in ch. 4. Still another example illustrates what the function of Jesus’ Jewishness is in the Fourth Gospel.


In ch. 7 Jesus returns to a discussion that began in ch. 5, where he healed the lame man and was accused by the Jews of breaking of sabbath. Jesus defends himself by referring to the practise of the Jews to perform circumcisions on the sabbath (v. 22).[40] For Jesus this practise exemplifies the claim he made earlier in v. 19: “Did not Moses give you the law? And yet no one of you keeps the law. Why do you seek to kill me?” It is not likely that the willingness of the Jews to kill Jesus is presented here as a proof that they do not keep the law, even though this is claimed by some scholars.[41] Rather, the claim that “no one of you keeps the law” is as an introduction to the question “why do they seek to kill me.” The statement “no one of you keeps the law” can be taken as a general thesis that is shown to be correct by the following example of how the Jews perform circumcisions even on the sabbath (vv. 22–23).[42] Jesus refers to circumcision here because it serves as a precedent for breaking the sabbath in certain cases.[43] He accuses the Jews of acting in an inconsistent way: the Jews regard Jesus’ action on the sabbath as a transgression of the law although they do not regard what they do in connection with the rite of circumcision as such. They apply to their own actions different standards than to those of Jesus, which means that their judgment is not right (v. 24).

Jesus’ reasoning here resembles an argumentation used in certain rabbinic texts. The sages argued that if circumcision, which concerns only one limb of the body, is performed on the sabbath, all the more should the sabbath be set aside if the whole body is in danger.[44] There is a notable difference, however, between Jesus’ reasoning in John and the argument made by the sages. The rabbis refer to circumcision on the sabbath in passages that deal with the question whether it is permitted to save life on the sabbath or not. The situation, however, is quite different in John, where the man healed by Jesus had been ill for 38 years. This was clearly not a case of emergency.[45] In order for Jesus’ argumentation to be persuasive, circumcision and the miraculous healing of the lame man should be comparable acts.[46] As this is, however, not the case, Jesus’ reasoning in John is hardly compelling; his argument sounds like a cogent defense of his action, but if taken as such, it is not persuasive.[47] This suggests that the Sitz im Leben of Jesus’ argumentation is not an inner-Jewish debate on what is and what is not permissible on the sabbath.[48] Rather, sabbath and circumcision are viewed from the standpoint of an outsider in order to show that Jesus’ opponents also act against their law because it is not consistent.[49] Jesus’ way of using second person plural forms, when speaking of the law and circumcision confirms this conclusion.

A close parallel to this Johannine passage can be found in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (Dial. 27).[50] For Justin, the contradiction between the observance of the sabbath and the commandment to circumcise on the eighth day gives provides justification to abandon both circumcision and the sabbath. For the Johannine Jesus, practising circumcision on the sabbath shows that the Jews themselves do not keep the law in all circumstances. Both the Johannine Jesus and Justin see that there is a contrast between the sabbath observance and the practise circumcision on the eighth day. They both use this contrast to undermine the claims of their opponents. The way, in which these two principal pillars of Jewish identity are contrasted with each other betrays the detachment of both the Johannine Jesus and Justin from these institutions.

The function of the Johannine discussion about circumcision and the sabbath is closely connected to the present narrative context of this discussion. The section where Jesus refers to the practise of circumcision on the sabbath is preceded by a section dealing with Jesus’ teaching (7:14–18). The Jews call the authority of Jesus’ teaching into question because he has not received a proper education to become a teacher. In his answer to the Jews, Jesus states that he has derived his teaching directly from God. He does not need any human permission for his teaching, which makes him unlike any other teacher. In light of this, the following scene, where Jesus develops a halakhic-like argument, is interesting. Jesus has just declared his independence from the categories of human learning, but he still uses these very categories to refute the claims made against him. He is presented as a sovereign master of scriptural interpretation. He may not have received any formal education, but he is nevertheless a better teacher than his opponents. Jesus’ treatment of the sabbath theme serves to show that he is superior to the Jews even according to the very standards of the Jews.[51] Jesus’ paradoxical attitude toward the teaching of the Jews is another example of how Jesus is portrayed in the gospel both as the one who cherishes Jewish traditions in a superior way and as the one who has superseded these traditions.


These examples show that Jesus’ Jewishness is an important part of the Fourth Gospel’s portrait of Jesus. Jesus is presented as the fulfilment of the promises given to the Jews, he is their Messiah. Salvation is really from the Jews, but the gospel also shows that salvation is now moving out of their reach if they do not abandon their old faith. The statement that salvation is from the Jews is not necessarily contradictory to the most hostile words of Jesus in the gospel, according to which the Jews are of the devil, who is their father (8:44). It is noteworthy that all the references to the devil in the Fourth Gospel and in the Johannine letters have to do with people who have had a special relationship to salvation.[52] Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve and chosen by Jesus, and yet the devil placed into his heart the thought to betray Jesus. Those who are antichrists and of the devil in 1 John are those who have parted from the Johannine community. And in a similar way, the Jews, from whom salvation comes, are described as the children of the devil. It has been difficult to understand the unbelief of these privileged groups, and so they have been associated with the source of all evil.

Jesus is indeed in many respects more Jewish than his Jewish contemporaries in the gospel. He is zealous in his defense of the purity of the temple, and he is a better teacher of the law than his opponents. The emphasis on Jesus’ Jewishness assists in presenting faith in him as a substitute for the former forms of Jewish faith. The old ways to believe in God are replaced by faith in Jesus, who is the only way to the Father. This kind of theology has often been called supersessionism, the notion that faith in Jesus supersedes Judaism, Christian church supersedes the Jews as the people of God. R. Kendal Soulen says, that such notions constitute “the heart of doctrinal anti-Judaism.”[53] The beginnings of many ideas that were significant for the development of later Christian anti-Jewish tradition are already present in John, even though we cannot speak of full-blown supersessionism in this connection. One of these ideas is the view of Jesus as the Messiah who was rejected by his own. This kind of doctrinal anti-Judaism is deeply embedded in Christian tradition, and it may sometimes be difficult for Christians to see any problems in it. But the hundreds of years of Christian hatred towards the Jews prior to the invention of modern racial theories show that theological ideas also have their consequences.

The above analysis of the Fourth Gospel reinforces the need to make a distinction between modern racial anti-Semitism and traditional Christian anti-Judaism. For the former, Jesus’ Jewishness became a problem, and it was denied that Jesus ever was a Jew. For the latter, however, Jesus’ Jewishness has never been a real problem. Jesus is regarded as a Jew, even as the Messiah of the Jews. According to Christian anti-Jewish theology, it is only right that God has rejected his people and taken to his own those who received Jesus, because the Jews rejected their own Messiah. This kind of anti-Judaism is much closer to the Fourth Gospel and other gospels than the modern racial anti-Semitic theories. Graham Harvey has aptly written:

The ‘Jewish’ Jesus is part of the Evangelist’s message precisely because it showed just how bad the Jews really were, it deepened their culpability. The Jews ought to have been, according to these texts, the primary followers of Jesus; instead they are the worst opponents. … The obvious historical point, that the writers and the first Christians themselves were all Jewish, is irrelevant in these books. Jewish responses to Jesus are made worse not better because he was Jewish.[54]

If we want to resist Christian anti-Judaism, we must clearly go beyond what is written in the New Testament about the Jewish roots of Christianity. Recent trends in biblical scholarship have given us a more accurate picture of Jesus and early Christians as a part of Judaism. But this historical information is not a sufficient anti-dote to theological anti-Judaism. What is also needed is a rethinking of those theological models that see Jesus, the Messiah of the Jews, as the fulfilment and supersession of Judaism. This rehinking is not possible if we are not ready to make decisions that sometimes bring us in conflict with what is told about the Jews and their religion in the New Testament.


[1] On this, see E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM Press, 1985) 23–58.
[2] For a treatment of the German Christians and the New Testament see D. L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 154–164.
[3] On this development see J. H. Charlesworth, “The Foreground of Christian Origins and the Commencement of Jesus Research,” Jesus’ Jewishness: Exploring the Place of Jesus within Early Judaism (ed. J. H. Charlesworth; New York: Crossroad and The American Interfaith Institute, 1991) 63–83; John P. Meier, “Reflections on Jesus-of-History Research Today, Jesus’ Jewishness 84–107.
[4] H. C. Kee, “The Issue: Historical Setting and Contemporary Methods for Dealing with Anti-Judaism in Christianity,” Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament (eds. H. C. Kee and I. J. Borowsky; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: American Interfaith Institute/World Alliance, 1998) 21–29, esp. p. 21.
[5] J. H. Charlesworth, “Exploring Opportunities for Rethinking Relations among Jews and Christians,” Jews and Christians: Exploring the Past, Present, and Future (ed. J. H. Charlesworth; New York: Crossroad, 1990) 35–53, esp. p. 53.
[6] Already Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an English racial theorist who later became a German citizen, said that the sentence “salvation is from the Jews” is not authentic. It was later explained that a pious Jew out of deviance wrote the sentence in the margin because it was impossible for the Jews to accept Christ, from whom salvation comes. A subsequent scribe brought the remark into the text. See Bergen, Twisted Cross, 156–7.
[7] H. Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel Interpreted in Its Relation to Contemporaneous Religious Currents in Palestine and the Hellenistic-Oriental World (Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1968) 171; R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971) 189 n. 6.
[8] Cf. D. M. Smith, “Judaism and the Gospel of John,” Jews and Christians (n. 5) 76–96, esp. p. 80. Smith agrees with “modern exegetes” who take the saying as a later editorial insertion but notes also that it is not immeadiately clear what purpose the insertion might have served.
[9] W. Bauer, Das Johannesevangelium (HNT 6; 3rd ed.; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1933) 70; Robert Kysar, “Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John,” Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity: Issues of Polemic and Faith (eds. C. A. Evans and D. A. Hagner; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 113–127, esp. p. 123 n. 28.
[10] F. Mussner, Tractate on the Jews: The Significance of Judaism for Christian Faith (Philadelphia and London: Fortress Press and SPCK, 1984) 26–28.
[11] Mussner, Tractate, 28.
[12] Hartwig Thyen, “Das Heil kommt von den Juden,” Kirche: Festschrift für Günther Bornkamm zum 75. Geburtstag (eds. D. Lührmann and G. Strecker; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1980) 163–184, esp. pp. 169–170.
[13] Thyen, “Heil,” 183.
[14] T. Söding, ”’Was kann aus Nazareth schon gutes kommen?’ (Joh 1.46). Die Bedeutung des Judeseins Jesu im Johannesevangelium,” NTS 46 (2000), 21–41, esp. pp. 39–40.
[15] For the implied irony of the scene see G. R. O’Day, Revelation in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Mode and Theological Claim (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986) 70.
[16] W. A. Meeks, The Prophet-King: Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology (NovTSup 14; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967) 41 n. 2.
[17] Cf. O’Day, Revelation, 67; T. Okure The Johannine Approach to Mission: A Contextual Study of John 4:1–42 (WUNT 31; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1988) 109.
[18] Cf. B. Olsson Structure and Meaning in the Fourth Gospel: A Text-Linguistic Analysis of John 2:1–11 and 4:1–42 (ConNT 6; Lund: CWK Kleerup, 1974) 187; O’Day, Revelation, 67–68; Okure, Mission, 114–115.
[19] Cf. E. Leidig, Jesu Gespräch mit der Samaritanerin und weitere Gespräche im Johannesevangelium (Theologische Dissertationen 15; Basel: Friedrich Reinhardt, 1981) 126: “Als Messias, der die Verheissung Gottes erfüllte, konnte Jesus Zäune und Trennungsvorschriften zwischen Juden und Samaritanern aufheben.”
[20] Thus E. C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (ed. F. N. Davey; 2nd edition; London: Faber and Faber, 1947) 244; B. Lindars, The Gospel of John (NCB; London: Oliphants, 1972) 189. For the messianic interpretation of these words see also O. Betz, “To Worship in Spirit and in Truth: Reflections on John 4, 20–26,” Jesus, der Messias Israels: Aufsätze zur biblischen Theologie (WUNT 42; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1987) 420–438, esp. pp. 433–435.
[21] J. E. Botha, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman: A Speech Act Reading of John 4:1–42 (NovTSup 65; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991) 146–147.
[22] Thus Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel, 170–71; Olsson, Structure and Meaning, 197; Thyen, “Heil,” 170.
[23] Cf. M. Pammel, “Is There Convincing Evidence of Samaritan Influence on the Fourth Gospel,” ZNW 73 (1982), 221–230, esp. p. 223: “In ch. 4, John presents Jesus judging Samaritanism from a Jewish point of view.”
[24] Thus I. de la Potterie, “‘Nous adorons, nous, ce que nous connaissons, car le salut vient des Juifs.’ Histoire de l’exégèse et interprétation de Jn 4,22,” Bib 64 (1983), 74–115, esp. p. 96 n. 37; Betz, “To Worship,” 423.
[25] Thus de la Potterie, “Histoire de l’exégèse,” 96; C. R. Koester, “‘The Savior of the World’ (John 4:42),” JBL 109 (1990), 665–680, esp. pp. 672–73.
[26] Thus Koester, “The Savior of the World,” 674. However, see B. Hall, Samaritan Religion from John Hyrcanus to Baba Rabba: A Critical Examination of the Relevant Material in Contemporary Christian Literature, the Writings of Josephus, and the Mishnah (Studies in Judaica 3. Sydney: Mandelbaum Trust, University of Sydney, 1987) 232. According to Hall, Jn 4:21–22 in no way suggests that the worship of any other gods than the God of Israel existed among the Samaritans. Hall is quite right in denying the worship of idols among the first century Samaritans (see below), but this is no ground for saying that John does not refer to syncretism among the Samaritans. What John writes about the ignorant Samaritans reflects rather the scriptural story than the contemporary situation of the Samaritans.
[27]Sir 50:26 speaks of “the foolish people that dwell in Shechem”; according to T. Levi 7:2, Shechem shall be called the “City of the Senseless.”
[28] In Ant. XII, 257–264, Josephus tells how during the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes the Samaritans approached Antiochus and denied their kinship with the Jews and wanted their unnamed temple to be known as that of Zeus Hellenios. From the point of view of Josephus, the action of the Samaritans was dubious and totally unacceptable to any true Jew. See R. J. Coggins, “The Samaritans in Josephus,” in Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity (eds. L. H. Feldman and G. Hata; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987) 257–273, esp. pp. 265–6. According to Coggins, Josephus emphasized the culpability of the Samaritans on purpose. According to 2 Macc 6:2, the dedication of the temple on Mt. Gerizim was to Zeus Xenios. This title meant “the protector of the rights of the strangers” and was probably less offensive than the one mentioned by Josephus. See also J. A. Goldstein, II Maccabees (AB 41a. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1983) 272. Goldstein notes, that the naming of the temple would have been inconsequential to most of the Jews; different hellenistic designations for God were not alien to the Jews of the second century BCE. See J. A. Goldstein, I Maccabees (AB 41. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. Goldstein 1976) 137 and 142. Although Josephus here implies that there were syncrenistic tendencies among the Samaritans in the second century BCE, he is not able to present any clear evidence of these tendencies on his own time (see next note below). It is not until in post-tannaitic rabbinic tradition that we encounter the explicit accusation that the Samaritans practised idolatry. Rabbis took as their starting point the story that tells how Jacob hid all the images of the foreign gods in his family under the oak near Shechem (Gen 35:4); according to them, the Samaritans lusted for these images and, therefore, regarded Mt. Gerizim as their holy place. See Gen. Rab. 81; y. Abod. Zar. 5:4.
[29] See Hall, Samaritan Religion , 166. According to Hall, it is “quite unlikely that Josephus … believed that the worship of any other god than “the most high God” existed among the Samaritans of the first century AD, for had he believed that such worship existed, he would almost certainly … have made a statement to this effect.” See also F. Dexinger, “Limits of Tolerance in Judaism: The Samaritan Example,” Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, vol 2: Aspects of Judaism in the Graeco-Roman Period (eds. E. P. Sanders, A. I. Baumgarten and Alan Mendelson; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) 88–114, esp. p. 106: “The Samaritans of his (Josephus’) time were definitely not syncretists.”
[30] Thus Hall, Samaritan Religion, 208. Hall notes that the Samaritans do not receive a single mention in the tractate devoted to idolatry (Aboda Zara), although this is what one would expect had the practise of idolatry existed among the Samaritans of Palestine.
[31] See F. Hahn, “‘Das Heil Kommt von den Juden’: Erwägungen zu Joh 4.22b,” Die Verwurzelung des Christentums im Judentum: Exegetische Beiträge zum christlich-jüdischen Gespräch (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1996), 99–118, esp. p. 115.
[32] Thus de la Potterie, “Histoire de l’exégèse,” 92.
[33] Thus Hahn, “Das Heil,” 116.
[34] Leidig, Jesu Gespräch, 119.
[35] For the historical problems of John’s description see E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practise and Belief 63 BCE – 66 CE. (London/Philadelphia: SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1992) 87–88. Sanders refers to a passage in Philo (Spec. Leg. 1.74f.) that shows how serious a problem excrement would have been in the temple area. Philo explains that one of the reasons why there is no grove in the temple is that “the excrement of human beings and irrational animals” needed to fertilize the trees cannot be brought in without profanity.
[36] Thus S. Mendner, “Die Tempelreinigung,” ZNW 47 (1956), 93–112, esp. p. 104; J. D. M. Derrett, “The Zeal of the House and the Cleansing of the Temple,” The Downside Review 95 (1977), 79–94, esp. p. 83; E. W. Stegemann, “Zur Tempelreinigung im Johannesevangelium,” Die Hebräische Bibel und ihre zweifache Nachgeschichte: Festschrift für Rolf Rendtorff zum 65. Geburtstag (ed. E. Blum, C. Macholz and E. W. Stegemann; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1990) 503–516, esp. pp. 507–8; M. Davies, Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel (JSNTS 69; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992) 277.
[37] Stegemann, “Tempelreinigung,” 510. See also Sanders, Judaism, 87–88: “Everyone would have seen the pasturing of herds and flocks in the temple as a profanation.”
[38] R. J. McKelvey, The New Temple: The Church in the New Testament (Oxford Theological Monographs; Oxford: University Press, 1969) 77–8: “[Jesus’ words in v. 16], if taken by themselves, might convey the impression that nothing more than a reform of the cult is in mind; but clearly John’s understanding of the cleansing is much more far-reaching.” Davies, Rhetoric and Reference, 233: “[V. 17] could imply that Jesus will be concerned about the safeguarding the Temple itself. This possible interpretation is corrected by what follows.” T. Söding, “Die Tempelaktion Jesu,” TTZ 101 (1992), 36–64, esp. p. 47: “Vers 16 ist in der Sprache prophetischer Kultkritik formuliert. Für sich genommen deutet das Wort darauf hin, daß Jesus den Tempel heiligen will, indem er seine Profanierung durch den schwunghaften Handel auf seinem Terrain unterbindet. Der Fortgang der Erzählung zeigt aber, daß dies nicht eigentlich die johanneische Pointe ist.”
[39] See C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: University Press, 1953) 301–2; R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (AncB 29; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966) 124–5; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text (2nd ed.; London: SPCK, 1978) 195; L. Hartman, “‘He spoke of the Temple of his Body’ (Jn 2:13–22),” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 54 (1989), 70–79.
[40] The axiom “circumcision overrides the sabbath” was accepted widely at the latest at the end of the first century CE. There is a discussion in m. Shabb. 19:1–3 about what one may do in connection with circumcision on the sabbath. R. Eliezer was for the most liberal view, according to which one may do anything at all in connection with circumcision on the sabbath. According to R. Aqiba, however, only those things which cannot be prepared in advance on the eve of the sabbath can be done on the sabbath. The point of departure for both of these conflicting views was the axiom that circumcision overrides the sabbath. For this discussion see J. Neusner, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Appointed Times. Part One: Shabbat (SJLA 34; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981) 169–173.
[41] Cf. Brown, John, 316; Lindars; John, 289; Barrett, John, 319.
[42] Thus J. H. Bernard, The Gospel According to St. John (2 Vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. T. Clark, 1928) 261; M. Kotila, Umstrittener Zeuge: Studien zur Stellung des Gesetzes in der johanneishen Theologiegeschichte (Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, Dissertationes Humanorum Litterarum 48; Suomalainen tiedeakatemia: Helsinki, 1988) 40. According to C. K. Barrett, this was perhaps the meaning of the passage in the source used by the evangelist who, however, connects the transgression of the law with the attempt to kill Jesus. See Barrett, John, 319.
[43] Lindars, John, 291; J. H. Neyrey, “The Trials (Forensic) and Tribulations (Honor Challenges) of Jesus: John 7 in Social Science Perspective,” BTB 26 (1996), 107–124, esp. p. 112.
[44] See t. Shabb 15:16 ; Mek. Shabbata 1; y. Yoma 85 b.
[45] Cf. Brown, John, 313; Barrett, John, 320; S. Pancaro, The Law in the Fourth Gospel: The Torah and the Gospel, Moses and Jesus, Judaism and Christianity according to John (NovTSup 42; Leiden: E. J. Brill.1975) 163; Kotila, Umstrittener Zeuge, 41; J. D. M. Derrett 1991, “Circumcision and Perfection: A Johannine Equation (John 7:22–23),” EvQ 63 (1991), 221–224, esp. p. 219.
[46] Cf. Derrett, “Circumcision,” 220–221: “Rules, whether derived from the written or the oral law, can be developed in this way to fill a gap in information about rules; and this is acceptable because inference from one situation to another like it is known from daily life. … In our case circumcision, though it enables a Jew to live by other commandments (Lev. 18:5 etc.), is neither more important than, nor less important than miraculous healing of paralysis, for the two are not comparable.”
[47] Cf. Pancaro, Law, 167: “At 7:23, the words of Jesus would be, at best, a specious argument, at worst, an argument with only a semblance of reason, were we simply in the presence of a ‘humanitarian’ motive.” This is the reason why Pancaro seeks for a more profound interpretation of the passage. According to him, Jesus is presented here as the fulfillment of the purpose of circumcision. Circumcision is not, however, the main theme here, and it would be surprising if Jesus’ allusion to it should contain a subtle teaching regarding the original purpose of this practise. Cf. also Davies, Rhetoric and Reference, 308: “The reference [to circumcision on the sabbath] forms part of Jesus’ justification of his own practise, but it is not a very convincing argument. Both circumcision on the eight day and Sabbath observance were required by the Law, whereas Jesus’ healings, which did not prevent death, could easily have been postponed to the following day. The argument would therefore have convinced no Jew.”
[48] This is, however, claimed by Kotila, Umstrittener Zeuge, 42; H. Weiss, “The Sabbath in the Fourth Gospel,” JBL 110 (1991), 311–321, esp. p. 314; M. Labahn, Jesus als Lebensspender: Untersuchungen zu einer Geschichte der johanneischen Tradition anhand ihrer Wundergeschichten (BZNW 98; Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1999) 254.
[49] Thus I. Dunderberg, Johannes und die Synoptiker: Studien zu Joh 1–9 (Annales Academiae Scientiarum Fennicae, Dissertationes Humanorum Litterarum 69; Suomalainen tiedeakatemia: Helsinki, 1994) 107.
[50]Justin Dial. 27.5: “Or did He [God] wish that they who received or performed circumcision on that day [on the sabbath] be guilty of sin, since it is His command that circumcision be given on the eighth day after birth, even though that day may fall on the sabbath? If He knew it would be sinful to perform that act on a Sabbath, could He not have decreed that infants be circumcised either a day before or a day after the Sabbath? And why did He not instruct those persons who lived before the time of Moses and Abraham to observe these same precepts; men, who are called just and were pleasing to God, even though they were not circumcised in the flesh, and did not keep the Sabbath?” Translated by Thomas B. Falls in The Fathers of the Church 6.
[51] Thus Dunderberg, Johannes, 106.
[52] Cf. G. Baumbach, “Die Funktion des Bösen in neutestamentlichen Schriften,” EvT 52 (1992), 23–42, esp. p. 38.
[53] R. K. Soulen, “Removing Anti-Judaism,” Removing the Anti-Judaism from the New Testament (eds. H. C. Kee and I. J. Borowsky; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: American Interfaith Institute/World Alliance, 1998) 149–156, esp. p. 149.
[54] G. Harvey, “Jewish Christians, Jesus and Now,” Theology 98 (1995), 461–6, esp. p. 465.

Click here for other SBL 2000 Sessions and Papers

[Copyright 2000, by Raimo Hakola.  All rights reserved. This is a draft version of a work still in progress;
please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]

For questions or comments about the content of this paper, please e-mail Raimo Hakola.

The Johannine Literature Web was created and is maintained by Felix Just, S.J.
This page was last updated on 10/01/01.
Copyright © 2000