The Johannine account of the incident in the Temple (John 2:13-22), which appears in the lectionary as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday, concludes by indicating that Jesus, the northerner from Nazareth in the Galilee, is intent on confronting the southern Judeans and their degrading of the Temple.
(I’ve done an earlier blog on the incident itself, at https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/01/righteous-anger-and-zealous-piety-the-incident-in-the-temple-john-2-lent-3/)
“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”, Jesus had said to his disciples (2:19); and the author concludes, “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).
Indeed, the previous story in this Gospel, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine whilst at a wedding in Cana of Galilee (2:1-11), also flags this confrontational aspect. It infers that the water of the Jewish purification system (2:6) is inferior to the “good wine” which Jesus offers (2:10).
The dynamic of confrontation continues in the scene in which a zealous Jesus, whip in hand, speaking with righteous anger, expels traders from the temple courtyard, quoting the prophets to support his actions (2:13–17).
The programmatic purpose of these two passages, placed at the very start of the long narrative section about the public activities of Jesus (2:1-12:50), is that they introduce this dynamic of conflict and opposition. This is a motif that runs throughout the whole of the book of origins.
The supremacy of Jesus
In the first Jerusalem controversy (5:16–47), Jesus makes a grand claim for himself in relation to Jewish history: by healing on the Sabbath, he continues to do “the works which the Father has granted me” (5:36). This controversy reaches its culmination with Jesus’ claim that no less an authority than Moses supports his understanding of his role (5:45–47); for indeed, “he [Moses] wrote of me” (5:46).
The issues in this first controversy are resumed throughout 7:10–10:39, and the claims of Jesus come to a further climax when he claims support from no less a figure than Abraham (8:53–58); indeed, “your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day” (8:56).
Then, a similar claim is made by the narrator concerning the prophet Isaiah at the very end of the first half of the Gospel, in the aftermath of the raising of Lazarus (12:36b–43). The response of many people to Jesus was one of disbelief, in direct fulfilment of the words of Isaiah, who “saw his glory and spoke of him [Jesus]” (12:41).
Thus, three venerable witnesses from Hebrew scripture (Moses, Abraham and Isaiah) give personal testimony to the supremacy of the words and deeds of Jesus.
Criticisms of Jesus
The situation which lies behind the recounting of these words, and the retelling of controversy narratives, is one of high tension between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish authorities. The cry of the crowd, that Jesus has “a demon” (7:20; 10:20), is repeated by the Jews at 8:48–52, with the added insult that he is “a Samaritan” (8:48). A demon-possessed Samaritan could not be more of an outsider!
A third criticism levelled against Jesus is that he was born illegitimate (8:41). The words of the Jews represent a tense argument which was taking place within the Judaism of the first century, as Jewish followers of Jesus debated with the authorities in their synagogues about the status of Jesus of Nazareth.
The threat of persecution
This tension is increased by the ever–present threat of persecution which runs throughout this Gospel. Jesus highlights this in his discourse on the sheep and the shepherd, with references to the threat posed to the sheep by thieves and bandits (10:1, 8, 10), strangers (10:5), the hired hand (10:12–13), and wolves (10:12). The menace posed by these figures leads Jesus to infer that some of his sheep will be “snatched” out of his hand (10:28–29).
A fuller and more explicit exposition of this theme is given in the second farewell discourse, under the rubric of “the world hates you” (15:18–25). Jesus here predicts that his fate will set the pattern for the fate of his followers; “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (15:20).
At this, the Jews prepare to stone Jesus for the second time (10:31; the earlier instance was at 8:59). This enacts the revelation made by Jesus in an earlier discourse, that his fate is to be hated by the world (7:7); and already in the Prologue the narrator has spoken of the rejection of the Word (1:10–11).
The Passion Narrative details the course of this rejection: betrayal (18:1–9), denial (18:15–18, 25–27), abandonment by his own people (18:38b–40, 19:7–8), and crucifixion (19:16–30). The ultimate fate of martyrdom, suffered by Jesus, is quite explicitly the same fate in store for those who follow Jesus: “They will put you out of the synagogues … whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (16:2–3). This, presumably, is what was meant by the allusion to their being “snatched out of the Father’s hand” (10:28–29).
Fear of “the Jews”
Who is it that perpetrates this persecution? Running throughout the storyline of this Gospel is a refrain concerning “the fear of the Jews”. This note is first sounded after Jesus’ second visit to Jerusalem (5:1). Upon returning to Galilee, Jesus refuses to return to Judea (7:1); but when his brothers travel there, he follows “not publicly but in private” (7:10). Obviously his presence in Jerusalem is known, as there is a divided opinion about Jesus – again, in private, for “no one spoke openly of him for fear of the Jews” (7:13).
Later in this same visit to Jerusalem, after Jesus has enabled the man born blind to see once more, the parents of this man distance themselves from their cured son, claiming not to know of the details of the healing, “because they feared the Jews” (9:22).
Likewise, after the crucifixion of Jesus, his body is requested of Pilate by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is described as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38). Finally, when the disciples gather after the crucifixion, not yet aware that the tomb is empty, they meet with “the doors locked, for fear of the Jews” (20:19). In each case, fear of the Jews leads to deeds and words which take place in secret; any desired confession of allegiance to Jesus is muted and repressed, because of this fear.
Even Pilate, in the Johannine account of the trial of Jesus, trembles before the Jews; “he was more afraid than ever” (19:8). This would seem to be a highly implausible historical possibility, given what is known of the rigour of Pilate’s rule. It seems reasonable to conclude that the theme of the fear of the Jews is functioning as a significant Johannine motif at the level of the readers of the narrative.
Who are “the Jews” ?
The opposition to Jesus which runs throughout the first half of this Gospel often comes from the group described, indiscriminately, as “the Jews” (2:18–20; 5:16–18; 6:41, 52; 7:1; 8:31, 48; 9:18, 22; 10:19, 24, 31). Who are these people who evoke such fear?
The Greek word used (Ioudaioi) can point to a geographic entity (the Judeans, from the southern kingdom), or a religious entity (Jews, as opposed to Samaritans or Gentiles). The identity of the Ioudaioi in this Gospel is a critical matter. They appear to be clearly identified with the Judaeans at 7:1; but not every usage of the term must necessarily bear this geographical meaning.
Some scholars see this term as a typically Johannine symbolic cipher—a code word for “the world”, since “the world” parallels “his own people” at 1:10–11, and the actions of “the Jews” is consistent with what is said of “the world” at 15:18–16:4.
More plausible is the view that “the Jews” are simply to be equated with the Judaean leaders. Midway through the Gospel, the specific opponents of Jesus are identified as “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (11:57). Soon, this grouping broadens its opposition to Jesus, to include Lazarus (12:9–11).
Yet a clear contrast is drawn between the “great crowd of the Jews” who had come to see Jesus and Lazarus (12:9), and the “many Jews” who believe in Jesus (12:10), on the one hand; and the leadership of the Jews, who were planning the persecution: the chief priests who plot his death (12:10), and the Pharisees, who initially appear unable to act (12:19), but who ultimately join with the priestly group to effect the arrest of Jesus (18:3). The opponents of Jesus are here described quite specifically from the moment that Lazarus is raised from the dead.
Thus, it is clear that “the Jews” is a shorthand way of referring to the religious authorities in Jerusalem who are hostile towards Jesus. See more at https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/sites/partners/cbaa_seminar/Smith.htm
The Synoptic Gospels indicate that throughout his public activities, Jesus had engaged in controversy with the Pharisees (Mark 2:16, 24; 3:6; 7:1, 5; 8:11, 15; 10:2; 12:13 and parallels; Matt 5:20; 12:24, 38; Luke 7:30; 11:37–44, 53; 12:1; 15:2; 16:14). It was only from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that there was any priestly opposition (Mark 11:18 and parallels).
In John’s Gospel, the position is somewhat different. Opposition to Jesus from the time of his last visit to Jerusalem comes not only from the Pharisees, in particular (4:1; 7:47; 8:13; 9:13, 40), but also from the chief priests and the Pharisees (7:32, 45; 11:47, 57).
Expulsion from the synagogue
In the Synoptic accounts, the Pharisees fade from view once Jesus enters Jerusalem, whereas in this Gospel, when Jesus is arrested, it is at the hands of the military police from the chief priests and the Pharisees (18:3), in conjunction with the Roman soldiers. The role of the Pharisees, as opponents to Jesus, is thus expanded in this Gospel. More than any other identified group, it is the Pharisees who become the focus of the opposition and persecution of Jesus.
J. Louis Martyn has argued that the Pharisees stand as representatives of the Jewish leadership in the situation after 70 CE, when the final form of this Gospel took shape. This was different from the situation at the time of Jesus’ earthly life. Scholars now refer to this period as the time of formative Judaism—a period when Pharisaic leadership began to form the kind of Judaism which could survive the destruction of the Temple.
This period was marked by sectarian dispute and division—including the development of the Jesus movement away from Judaism, towards its eventual identity as a predominantly Gentile religion. A vacuum had been opened up by the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, and this meant that the Pharisees were struggling to assert their dominance in a new, unsettled, and unfamiliar context.
The book of origins contains three references to the expulsion from the synagogue of the followers of Jesus (9:22; 12:42–43; 16:2–3). This is one point at which the “partings of the ways” begin, for believers within this stream of the Jesus movement became completely alienated from their Jewish religion.
Martyn argues that the experience of the man born blind reflects the situation of those Jews of some decades later on, who had come to faith in Jesus (9:38), in that when they attempted to declare that he was the Messiah, they were expelled from the synagogues (9:22). This expulsion was enforced by the Pharisees (12:42), who instigated persecutions of Jews (16:2) when they refused to adhere to the position which they were putting.
Thus, the beginnings of the development of a sectarian community can be seen; when Jews who confessed Jesus as Messiah were expelled from the synagogue, they formed their own community with their own developing beliefs. Into that context, decades after Jesus, the account of the book of signs is crystallised into a full Gospel.
Placing blame on “the Jews”
The Johannine passion narrative (18:1–19:42) contains further indicators of the sectarian nature of the community. Although Jesus dies by crucifixion, under Roman jurisdiction, the blame for his death is placed amongst the Jerusalem leadership, through a sequence of events uniquely highlighted in this Gospel.
First, the plotting of the priestly leaders, reported immediately after the raising of Lazarus (11:49–53), is briefly rehearsed (18:14).
Then the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem declare Jesus to be a criminal (18:30) and hand him over to the Roman procurator, Pilate (18:34), who is reluctant to accept the case (18:31). Yet Roman justice is not permitted to run its course; indeed, had this been so, Pilate would certainly have released Jesus (18:38; 19:6, 12).
The Synoptic version of the trial scene notes the interference of the priestly rulers in the “Barabbas” incident (Mark 14:8–15 and parallels). The Johannine version intensifies the role of the Jews by their persistence in calling for the death of Jesus (19:7, 12, 15).
It is only when Jesus hangs on the cross that Pilate is able to stand up to the priests—on a matter of negligible consequence (the wording of the inscription, 19:21).
Thus, the apologetic against the Jews is heightened in the Johannine passion narrative, giving clear reasons for the disciples’ later decision to meet behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (20:19).
And so, the book of origins provides fertile grounds for later developments that pitted Christians against Jews with such ferocity—and that led to medieval pogroms, then the development of ghettos, then the systematic persecutions leading to the horrors of the Shoah under the Nazis.
The thread of antagonism and conflict, present at the start of the book of signs (2:1-22), has grown and developed throughout the Gospel (and beyond). We must take great care in how we use and interpret this text.
This blog draws on material in JOURNEYING WITH JOHN: an exploration of the Johannine writings, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014)
On the importance of avoiding antisemitism, and negative attitudes and behaviours towards Jews and Judaism, see https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/resources/learn-more/item/download/1109_09f709cccf49d83607c92e31d650d581