The apostle John describes the disciples hiding in a house for fear of the Jews. If Jesus and his disciples were Jews, then what does the apostle John mean by the Jews? For many centuries, Christians used the gospel of John to justify oppression of the Jews and making them responsible for killing the Lord Jesus. In the 19th century, the term anti-Semitism was invented and meant specifically prejudice against Jews. We thought that anti-Semitism is over, but unfortunately anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks are increasing across Europe. More traditional forms of anti-Semitism have re-emerged in the United States. We are upset by the anti-Semitic attack on Chabad of Poway synagogue in California. All of us remember the attack at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018.
Some Christians and Jews claim that Jesus and his disciples were anti-Semites. For example, the apostle John is anti-Semite because he describes the enemies of Jesus collectively as "the Jews.” The harshest anti-Semitism in the gospel of John is where the Jews are demonized as children of the devil. Jesus says, “ You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires” (8:44).
How do we understand the usage of the term Jews in the gospel of John? The gospel of John uses the term “the Jews” 70 times. The expression frequently refers to the opponents of Jesus who rejected his mission and did not believe that he is the Messiah. Jesus and his disciples were Jews and the apostle John does not deny the Jewish identity of Jesus and his disciples. To understand the expression of anti-Jewish sentiments, we need to understand the context of the gospel of John.
The Gospel was written "in response to the exclusion of the Johannine church from the synagogue and the subsequent dialogue between these two religious parties”… the hostile quality tells more about "the evangelist and the Johannine community than it witnesses to the ontological status of the Jews or Judaism."
The gospel of John is intended to be a theological gospel reflecting the theology of John community. It does not intend to provide historical information. For this reason, we find lots of dialogues in the gospel as the Jews and Christians talking to one another. Who were the Jews whom the disciples were afraid?
The first point I need to make is that the term “the Jews” in the gospel of John does not necessarily refer to the entire Jews. It is a more exclusive term than inclusive.
The apostle John employs the term “the Jews” in four ways. Firstly, the ethnic usage of the term relates to Jewish practice such as the Festival of the Jews, or a Jewish person. In this case, the apostle John uses it positively.
Secondly, the term is used to designate the residents of Judea, particularly the Jews who lived in Jerusalem.
Thirdly, “the Jews” refers to “ordinary individuals who are hostile or authority figures who are hostile.”
The final usage of the term is to designate to the hostile Jewish authorities, particularly religious authority in Jerusalem. Most of the 70 references to “the Jews” in the gospel of John is to the religious authorities.
Not all the Jews wanted to kill Jesus; to the contrary, the followers of Jesus were Jews who believed that he is the Messiah. Therefore, instead of stating that the Jews were Jesus’ enemies, we need to assert that Jesus’ enemies were among the Jews.
The religious authorities do not represent the whole Jews. The phrase anti-Semitism refers to the discrimination against the Jews based on their race much more than their faith. The apostle John is criticizing the Jewish leaders and their followers because of rejecting the Christian faith.
The disciples hid in a house after the crucifixion of Jesus because they were afraid of the Jewish religious leaders and their followers. The disciples supposed that the religious leaders would harm them as they harmed Jesus. The disciples were not afraid of all the Jews as a race.
The gospel of John and the three epistles of John emphasize the divine love, agape. The apostle John encourages his community to love one another. He does not exclude the Jews from this love. Jesus’ resurrection teaches us that love is stronger than sin and death. Jesus commands us to approach our sisters and brothers who are different than us with love, agape love, which means to have the best interest in our mind toward our neighbor.
Most Christians belong to two groups. The first group is afraid to be labeled anti-Semitic, so they do not challenge Jews when they express hostility toward their neighbors. Unfortunately, we are in a time where labeling a person as an anti-Semitic becomes a convenient way to deal with people you want to silence.
The second group is aggressive toward the Jews because they are Jews. They think they are doing a favor to Jesus if they are hostile toward the Jews.
These two groups do not represent Christianity. Jesus defeated sin and death, and he calls to implement this victory by resisting the sin of anti-Semitism and calls us to love one another. This love entails to speak up against any attempt to deprive any person of their dignity. All of us are created according to God’s image, including the Jews and non-Jews. Arabs, Africans, and Americans are created according to God’s image and deserve love and respect.