Jews in the Gospel of John

You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.

John 4:22
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nicodemus and Jesus on a Rooftop, 1899, Wikimedia Commons

The Gospel of John uses the term “the Jews” frequently (66x), whereas the other Gospels hardly ever use it (Matt 5x, Mark 6x, Luke 5x, mostly in reference to whether Jesus is King of the Jews). “The Jews” in John’s Gospel are almost always negative characters. Some of the Gospel’s statements about “the Jews” appear extremely harsh, such as when Jesus calls them children of the devil (8:44). But these statements are balanced by other, more positive assessments: “salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). In order to understand the role of the Jews in the Fourth Gospel, one must identify who exactly these Jews are and recognize how thoroughly Jewish is this Gospel and the Jesus it depicts. 

Jesus the Jew 

Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (1:11). It becomes clear later in the Gospel that it is the Jews who are “his own” and who did not receive him. The Samaritan woman recognized that Jesus was a Jew (4:9), and Pilate refers to Jesus as “king of the Jews” (18:33, 39; 19:14, 15, 19)  and identifies the “nation” of Jesus as that of Jews (18:35). But, Jesus can also distinguish himself from “the Jews”: “…as I told the Jews…” (13:33); “…so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews” (18:36). Indeed, John’s Gospel, more than the others, establishes at the beginning that Jesus comes from no particular people but comes from heaven, where he existed as the eternal Word of God who created all things and all peoples. 

Nevertheless, the incarnation located Jesus among a particular people, and those people were the Jews. Jesus acts like a Jew in this Gospel. He participates in the festivals. While the Feast of Weeks (= Harvest or Pentecost) never appears in the Gospel, we do read about the other two “pilgrimage festivals,” i.e., festivals for which Jews were required to travel to Jerusalem for the celebration (Exod 23:14–17; Deut 16:16). These two other festivals are Passover and Booths. 

John’s Gospel describes three Passovers (2:13; 6:4; 12:1). The Gospel does not describe Jesus going to Jerusalem for the Passover mentioned in 6:4, but Jesus did observe the other two Passovers in Jerusalem. This festival commemorated the deliverance of Israel from a foreign oppressor by the powerful action of God manifested in a human leader. Its celebration no doubt fostered hopes that God would repeat this act of salvation. Passover provided the backdrop both for the crowd’s desire to make Jesus king (6:15) and, eventually, for his death. Jesus celebrated the festival of Booths (7:2) in Jerusalem (7:10). At this autumn festival, the Law is read (Deut 31:10–12) and the temple was dedicated (1 Kings 8:2). There is a water pouring ceremony (cf. John 7:37–39) and a candle lighting ceremony (cf. 8:12); Josephus even calls the festival “Lights” (Antiquities 12.325). During this festival, people wondered whether Jesus might be the Messiah (John 7:25–31, 40–44). 

Jesus also celebrated the Festival of Renewal (or Dedication = Hanukkah, John 10:22), which commemorated the defeat of the pagan overlords (= Greeks) by the Maccabean warriors and the consecration of the temple (165 BC) after its defilement. Little wonder that during this festival also, Jews wondered whether the Messiah might be in their midst (10:24). 

A Jewish Gospel

The Gospel of John assumes some knowledge of Judaism on the part of its readers. With regard to the festivals, again, the Gospel offers little explanation about rituals of light and water that formed the background to some of Jesus’ statements (7:37–39; 8:12). The Gospel’s many connections to Israel’s scriptures also demand some prior knowledge from readers. On the other hand, the Gospel explains words like “rabbi” (1:38) and “messiah” (1:41), that stone jars were used for Jewish purification (2:6), and differences between Jews and Samaritans (4:9).

The Jewish Opponents

Characters in John’s Gospel that do not belong to Jesus’ followers might be designated “the world” or “the crowd” or “the Jews” or “the Pharisees” or “the chief priests,” and various Roman officials and soldiers. (Greeks are mentioned once, 12:20; the Gospel never mentions Sadducees or Herodians.) It is the designation of a group as “the Jews” that is distinctive to John’s Gospel and somewhat confusing. After all, Jesus and his followers were also Jews, but they are not included among “the Jews.”

“The Jews” are not identical to any particular group, and certainly not identical to the Jewish nation as a whole.

Sometimes it seems that “the Jews” are specifically Pharisees; for example, in chapter 8, Jesus first talks to the Pharisees (8:13), but then only “the Jews” are mentioned (8:22, 31, 48, 52, 57). There are other example, such as in chapter 9, about the blind man healed by Jesus.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.

John 9:13

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight.

John 9:18

Another example:

His parents said this 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

Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.

John 12:42

All of these examples link “the Jews” very closely with the Pharisees. At other times the Pharisees seem to be distinct from “the Jews.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.

John 11:45–46

Some of “the Jews” believe in Jesus in some fashion: e.g., Nicodemus (ch. 3); cf. 8:31; 11:45; 12:11. However, “the Jews who had believed in him” in 8:31 are soon ready to stone him (v. 59). 

Perhaps the Gospel does not always intend to indicate the same group of people under the term “the Jews.”

Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews. 14 About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. 15 The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?”

John 7:13–15

Are “the Jews” in 7:13 the same as “the Jews” in 7:15?

Jesus does not have conflict with “the Jews” until chapter 5, when he healed a paralytic man on the Sabbath (5:1–9). “The Jews” were concerned with keeping the Sabbath law (5:10, 16). [Here “the Jews” may be the Pharisees (compare 5:33 with 1:19, 24).] The Sabbath law also becomes a point of contention when Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath (9:14–16). “The Jews” believed that Jesus’ transgressing (their definition of) the Sabbath law proved that he was not from God (9:16) and that he was a dangerous sinner (9:24), despite his signs (cf. Deut 13:1–5). [Jesus interpreted the Sabbath law differently; cf. 7:22–24.] “The Jews” also considered Jesus a blasphemer (8:56–59; 5:17–18; 10:30–33). They thought they were acting in the best interests of their nation (11:48), though they also acted out of self-interest (12:43). The conflict involved religious matters, but turned political at 11:45–53, at which point the Pharisees recede from view and the chief priests become dominant. All of this suggests that “the Jews” in John’s Gospel should be identified with religious leaders broadly, who are concerned, first of all, with preserving God’s law, and secondly with maintaining their own power. “The Jews” are not identical to any particular group, and certainly not identical to the Jewish nation as a whole. 

Conclusion 

While Jesus and his disciples were Jews, they experienced a mixed reception among other Jews, especially those committed to some traditional expressions of their religion and who, therefore, were unwilling to consider Jesus’ claims and actions as potentially from God. 

Questions for Discussion

Whom did Jesus call children of the devil in John 8:44? Why did he call them that? 

John 9 talks about “the Jews” and it talks about “the Pharisees.” What is the relationship between these two groups of people, based on your reading of this chapter? Does this same answer hold good also for 11:45–47? 

John 12:37 mentions that despite Jesus’ many signs, “they did not believe in him.” Who is John talking about? How does this assessment relate to 12:11, where “many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus”? 

Does Jesus consider himself one of the Jews or separated from them? See 4:22; 13:33; 18:36. 

Jesus participates in the Jewish festivals, a fact more apparent in John than in the other Gospels. How does the symbolism of these festivals, particularly Passover (2:13; 6:4; 12:1) and Booths (7:2), contribute toward expectation regarding the coming salvation of God. Consider what these festivals commemorate from Israel’s history.

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