Part 3 - Seven Proofs the Book of John is NOT Antisemitic - though it feels that way!
There are many claims that the Jewish apostle, John, was actually an antisemite by the time he wrote his gospel. This week, we will cover the final 4 proofs I think show that John was NOT antisemitic...to the contrary, he longed for his people to know the Messiah of Israel, his Rabbi, and his friend, Yeshua.
4. "Your father is the Devil"
No passage has been used more greatly as a proof text to portray Jews as irreparably devilish than John 8:44.
You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44).
Just two days ago, someone who describes herself as a Christian who "has been studying the Word of God in depth for many years, and I love to share with all of you the truth, not doctrines and men's traditions" wrote to me: "Christians do not like the ones who pretend to be Jews. Christ warns us about them (John 8:42-44, Rev. 3:9). Semitism is not even in the word. The true Israelites are not the ones who live in Israel."
Of course, Semite does have a Biblical origin (it's a long story - but basically it refers to the sons of Shem, Noah's son, the family line that eventually produced Abraham). Wilham Marr thought it was enough of a word that he coined a new word, "antisemitism" in 1881 - to refer to the hatred of people with Jewish blood (no matter their religion or beliefs). Too bad Marr and Hitler didn't know we were "fake" Jews.
Jewish voices see this language as problematic, to say the least:
"The Jews willfully sought to kill Christ because they are not of God but of the Devil. Thus, in the New Testament itself, we already have a theological form of diabolizing the Jews, which would later be greatly expanded by the church fathers."1
Nevertheless, one must not ignore the bloody consequences of anti-Jewish sections in the New Testament, no matter if they had been part of a polemic debate or not—these texts will never be a haven of charity. 2
And antisemites have used it to justify portraying every Jew, tainted with demonic blood, as devilish in every way.
St. Jerome (and don't forget the St. stands for Saint!) said of the Jews:
"Saint Jerome, who vilified the synagogue in almost identical terms: "If you call it a brothel, a den of vice, the Devil's refuge, Satan's fortress, a place to deprave the soul… you are still saying less than it deserves." 3
John T. Earnest, who claimed to be devoutly Christian, referenced John 8:44 in his manifesto before committing his act of terrorism against a Jewish synagogue in Poway, California, killing one and injuring three. He wrote, "To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews—remember that you are secure in Christ."
In the Middle Ages, the Jew was constantly compared to the devil. "The billy goat, the devil's favorite animal and a symbol of Satanic lechery for the Middle Ages, was particularly associated with the Jew. The notorious image of the Judensau (Jews' pig) suckling her Jewish offspring in the presence of the devil"4 was quite popular.
(A sculpture of this Judensau with Jews suckling at the sows' teat while a Jewish man feeds at the animal's anus is shockingly still erected at Martin Luther's church in Wittenberg, Germany.) And Islam was more than willing to continue to promote this most racist of defamations. "Associating Jews with the Devil, while common in Christianity since antiquity, is widespread in contemporary Islamic polemics against Jews, although it was rare in early Islam." 5
What do we make of this? All this is based on the words of Jesus!
As I began to go into graduate studies, one of the first things I had to come to grips with about the Bible is the exaggerated hyperbolic language that is used not only in the Hebrew Bible but by the gospel writers, Paul, and even Jesus himself.No, it does not mean they are breaking the commandment against bearing false witness against your neighbor—it was an accepted style of communication in first century Near Eastern culture. As a 21st-century westerner who tends to be very literal, I struggled with this at first, but there are dozens of examples of exaggerated language in the Bible, 6 and that's okay. To the culture to whom it was written, that was acceptable.
History affirms that Caiaphas was a corrupt high priest in bed with hypocritical Pharisees, just as today there are pastors and preachers who are living in sin and getting rich off the donations of common people. In line with the style of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus rebukes them, just like Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Elijah would have. Even this contemporary non-Messianic rabbi sees it in this light.
Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Jesus can be seen as the conscience of Israel... In his confrontation with the leaders of the nation, Jesus echoed the words of the prophets by denouncing hypocrisy and injustice... As a prophetic figure, this image of Jesus should be recognizable to all Jews. —Rabbi and theologian Dan Cohn-Sherbok
There is nothing antisemitic about prophetically confronting sin, abuse, and hypocrisy in Israel, any more than it would be anti-Christian to expose a corrupt minister. Was it anti-Christian to shine the light on the abuses of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart? Neither was it anti-Jewish for them to confront their corrupt leaders. Sadly, every community must deal with some corruption.
As for using such strong language, it was also in line with acceptable, even if strong, communication of the first century. In his debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on whether or not the New Testament is antisemitic, Dr. Michael Brown argued:
Catholic professor Urban C. von Wahlde said this, "There are almost identical parallels between the language of Johns gospels and the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where rival Jewish groups are characterized as "sons of darkness" and "sons of the pit who are under the dominion of Satan and do his works." We must learn to listen to these statements with first-century ears, not twentieth-century ones."
And the fact is, everyone born from Adam is a son of the devil in some sense. That is why Jesus said to Nicodemus, who humbled himself and came to Yeshua looking for answers, "You must be born from above" (John 3:3). You were born once, into sin, through Adam. Now, through Yeshua, you will be born again, spiritually, and become a true child of God. 7
If these were debates between other Jews, other Muslim leaders, or even within Christianity, one would clearly see it as an interfamily argument—even if intense by all standards. Jesus cannot be seen here as antisemitic. It is simply impossible because he and all of his followers were Jews. One could label him anti-Pharisee (though I would not), but they were just a tiny fraction of the Jewish population in 1st century Israel.
Let me give you an example in U.S. politics. Have we not seen leaders inside the same party attack each other, even viciously? Do we then take those words and use them as a proof text to label everybody in the party a devil or say there worthy of death? But in our situation, the argument was recast, not as two Jewish groups having a disagreement, but as the one true Church of God condemning those devilish Jews.
That is how many Christians have read the book of John for almost two thousand years, and it certainly is how white supremacy groups read John today. In order to understand John, one must become a 1st-century Jew, not someone from the 20th century trying to understand them through what we think is acceptable communication—particularly in our woke culture.
5. A Family Squabble
It is important to look at the book of John as an intrafamily disagreement. If you're not Jewish, and you're constantly seeing this confrontation between Jesus and his followers and "the Jews," it is easy to come away thinking that the New Testament is antisemitic. But if we come to that conclusion, then we would have to conclude that Jewish groups are also antisemitic, which they clearly are not.
Different Jewish groups, not only in the 1st century but even today, particularly the more religious ones, are quite colorful and aggressive in the way that they attack each other. Jesus and his followers confronting the Pharisees is no different than to Jewishsects today confronting each other. Brown claims in his debate with Rabbi Boteach:
The conflicts and disagreements we read about are largely inside the family. Just like conflicts between Satmar and Lubavitch (Chasidim [Orthodox Jews] in New York).In years past, when they attacked and condemned each other in the strongest of terms, were they being anti-Semitic?
Of course, he's asking rhetorically, and the answer is no. Brown then asks, when the Jewish Josephus branded the Sacarii, a particularly lethal group within the Zealot movement, as "imposters and brigands, salves, the dregs of society and the bastard scum of the nation (a view held by many in Jerusalem regarding this group that would bring down Jerusalem and the temple by challenging the Romans)," if he was being antisemitic? In other words, there are a plethora of intrafamily debates that became quite heated going all the way back to Moses, stretching into modern times, but because the Jesus movement ended up being almost an entirely Gentile movement within two centuries, theologians wrongly saw it as Christians versus Jew debate, rather than Jews confronting Jews. Brown says that if we put back on our first-century glasses and see the confrontations in context, the charge of antisemitism is diffused.
Go back into the prophets. Read the words of Jeremiah against those who would not hear him. Read the words of Isaiah as he described all the Jewish people of his day, not just a few Pharisees in Jerusalem.
Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things … they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider's web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their feet rush into sin; they are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue evil schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. (Is. 59:2-5)
Certainly, we would not conclude that Isaiah was antisemitic, despite the fact that this is just a small sampling of the very harsh words written not only through the prophets but Moses himself (Deut. 28). The same God who spoke these harsh words also spoke hundreds of promises of restoration for the Jewish people and confirmed his covenant of love towards them over and over (Jer. 31:35-37).
A year after coming to faith, I met with Rabbi Shochet. He was dishonest and was even willing to kidnap Jewish believers to deprogram them. I used to jokingly call him the butcher (Shochet means butcher in Hebrew). We met for four hours until 2:00 AM one night.
On another occasion, my parents took me to meet two rabbis, Scott and Yehuda, in Brooklyn. They were different but also not honest with me. They spoke like Christians, using Christian lingo to make me think that I could have everything I found in Yeshua in traditional Judaism without him. Scott tried to manipulate me by telling me that if I would come and spend time alone with them in Brooklyn, they would tell my father that I had a real experience with God. It was all a ruse to get me to deny my faith.
In speaking with them, I might have very harsh words. But in speaking about them to you—I would tell you that my heart breaks for them. I understand why they did what they did, and like Saul of Tarsus, they thought they were doing a service for God. I can say without a doubt that I love them—deeply. But I am also angry. Our quarrel is within the Jewish family.
When we birthed Shelanu TV—the first Messianic Hebrew-speaking cable channel in history—we were opposed by the Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. They pressured the government to pull our channel. We issued a press release as Messianic Jewish citizens of Israel, saying they had no right to deny us our freedom of speech, religion, or expression. But we were also very careful, in a way that John could not understand.
John did not realize that Jew-haters (or Jesus-loving Christians) would be reading his words centuries later. He did not know he was writing the Bible!
But we knew that people around the world would read our press releases. So we went out of our way to make sure that we were not too aggressive, lest we give antisemites a reason to rejoice.
When they finally pressured the cable company to drop our station because they knew it would be illegal for them to simply pull our channel, we chose not to sue but to forgive (and we relaunched that day online!). But if I were John, before the Internet, before I understood that the Messianic message would spread to every nation of the world, that my words would be read by people for centuries, maybe we would have sued. But the last thing we wanted to do was to cause Christians around the world to be angry with Israel—for the actions of a few religious leaders and a few politicians—just like in the book of John! The average Israeli really had no problem with our obscure cable channel.
I think that if John understood how people outside the family would perceive his words, he would've written differently. But God in his sovereignty allowed it to come forth as it did.
6. The Jews loved Jesus
It would have been strange for those who flocked to hear Him teach— many of whom were healed—to suddenly call for His execution. Scripture makes it clear that a very large number of Jews followed Yeshua, even some high-profile leaders like Nicodemus, who not only sought him out to question him (John 3) but along with another Jewish man, asked for his corpse, to give him a proper Jewish burial (John 19:38-42).
When he had come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, "Who is this?" So the multitudes said, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth… (Matthew 21:10-11 NKJV).
Many of the people believed in him and said, 'When the Messiah comes, will He do more signs than these which this Man has done?" (John 7:31 NKJV).
Nevertheless, even among the [Jewish]rulers, many believed on him…" (John 12:42 NKJV).
John records it was the leaders who shouted for Him to be crucified. "As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, 'Crucify! Crucify!'" (John 19:6).
In the other accounts, where it mentions the crowd joining in, it seems clear they were manipulated by the leaders. As Matthew writes, "But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed" (Matt. 27:20).
We are not told the means by which they persuaded the crowd, but bribery would have been the common resource of the time. (They had paid witnesses to turn in false evidence at the trial the day before.) Clearly, this persuaded crowd did not represent the people of Israel, as there were approximately 100,000 Jews living in Jerusalem, and because it was Passover, there could have been upward of another 500,000 visitors in Jerusalem at that time. Do you really think there were 600,000 Jews at Pilate's Jerusalem Palace? Most of them had no idea who the rabbi from Nazareth was.
7. Conclusion - Yeshua and Paul
Some may find this article nitpicky. Hopefully, it will be lifesaving. How many Jews have been killed in the name of Christianity for the sin of deicide? How many Christian pontificators throughout the centuries twisted the words of the Jewish John as a pretext for persecuting "the Jews"?
The real Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). He longed for the day that his own brothers would recognize him as Messiah (Matt. 23:37-39), even as Joseph's brothers finally recognized him as their savior. While there is no question that Messiah's ultimate goal was to reach the nations, it would be a grave mistake to miss His love and compassion for his own physical brothers. As one of the first Messianic Jews put it at the end of the 19th century, Joseph Rabinowitz, Jesus is the elder brother of the Jews.
Paul in Romans 9 is willing to trade his salvation if only his fellow Israelites would believe in this Yeshua. And then he calls upon Gentile believers all over the world to do their utmost, through acts of kindness and the grace-filled preaching of the Word, to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom. 10:14-15, 11:11, 12).
May it happen in our lifetime.
1 Robert Wistrich, Random House New York, Apple Books
2 Klaus S. Davidowicz, “The Demonization of Judaism” in Comprehending and Confronting Antisemitism, eds. Armin Lange Kerstin Mayerhofer, Dina Porat, and Lawrence H. Schiffman, (De Gruter), 300.
3 Ibid. Wistrich.
4 Ibid. Wistrich.
5 Armin Lange, Kerstin Mayerhofer, Dina Porat, Lawrence H. Schiffman, “General Introduction—An End to Antisemitism!” in Comprehending and Confronting Antisemitism, eds. Armin Lange Kerstin Mayerhofer, Dina Porat, and Lawrence H. Schiffman, (De Gruter), 8.
6 Jesus tells his followers to hate their family members (Luke 14:26), and to cut off their hands and gouge out their eyes if they cause them to stumble (Matt. 5:29-30). Paul wishes that the Judaizers, who were urging the Galatians to be circumcised and become Jews to be saved, to go even further and emasculate themselves. (Gal. 5:12) And clearly the stars will not fall to earth, but that is language to emphasize cataclysmic activity in the skies. Revelation 14:20 seems to say that Israel (1,600 stadia is about the length of Israel) will be covered in blood up to a horse’s bridle. Clearly, it points to a very bloody battle.
7 For this point, I relied heavily on Dr. Michael Brown’s presentation in his debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EazONRsqIME