Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jesus and Jews

I once called my mother a “Yankee”. I was quickly corrected. Though she was born and raised in upstate New York (and to a southern-by-choice guy as myself, that means a Yankee), she insisted that the Yankees, to her and her upbringing, were Protestants. Living in Northern Virginia, just a few short miles from the Nation’s Capital, I may be considered a Yankee to anyone from Fredericksburg, Virginia to further down south. It’s an elastic term, especially considering that the British call all Americans Yankees. Labels are difficult to pin down at times.


But, it made me think, especially after seeing “The Passion of the Christ”, and particularly the scene where Simone of Cyrene is made to carry the cross. The Roman soldier calls him, in Latin, “Judaeus”, translated as “Jew” in the subtitles. I won’t quibble with the lack of the vocative case in this instance, but that led me to consider the use of the term “Jews” in the Gospel of Saint John.

There are dozens and dozens of articles online that talk about this use of the term “Jews” in this Gospel, and it comes up in quite a few books on the fourth Gospel. Was John (or the “authors” of the fourth Gospel) anti-Semitic? Several possibilities are proposed, and of the articles I read, only one suggested the idea that John was referring not to the Jews as the race of Israelites but to Judeans. As you may know, Israel itself was divided for centuries between the northern Kingdom of Israel which split off from the southern Kingdom of Judah in the late 10th century B.C. after the death of Solomon. That northern kingdom was exiled by the Assyrians in the late 8th century B.C. The little kingdom of Judah was all that was left, to carry on the promise of God to Israel. Yet, this kingdom, too, was exiled to Babylon near the beginning of the 6th century B.C., returning a few decades later with the defeat of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian. Calling the people of Israel “Jews” first occurs in the Book of Esther, for they were from the kingdom of Judah. Makes sense.

Over the course of the next 500 years, they would spread out over all of ancient Israel, and beyond, all the way up to the border with Syria. Galilee was the general area towards the north, so the inhabitants of that area came to be known as Galileans. This distinguished them from Judeans, living in the south and around Jerusalem. Saint Luke mentions the sons of Herod the Great as being tetrarchs of various parts of a now divided nation.

Pontius Pilate was the procurator of all of Judea, a general term the Romans used for the entire area. So anyone from that province, to a Roman, was a Judean, or, a Jew. Yet, if you were from Galilee, you might have the reaction my mother had at being called a Yankee; and vice versa, to call a Judean a “Galilean” would have been an insult. Take note of the discussion by the Sanhedrin in John, at the end of chapter 7, when Nicodemus tries to defend Jesus. They reply to him, “Are you from Galilee, too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.” The ruling class considered them hicks and half-Gentile.

Now, many “scholars” look at the Gospel of John and try to come up with an array of explanations of who is the real author, questioning if the text even gives historical details, and whether or not it was really some sort of an apologetic text to give quasi-historical reasons for the later rupture between the “Jews” and the early Church. On the historical nature of the fourth Gospel, I have other things to say, especially when one compares it to the other Gospels. But for now, I’d like to address the reasons why, in my opinion, there is nothing anti-semitic about the Gospel at all, and indeed, that the use of the term “Jews” shows the Galilean point of view of the author, who I believe certainly was the Apostle John, who was from Galilee.

John draws a distinction in many places between the crowds and the leaders of the people and even the Jews. From a global perspective, they were all “Jews”, even Jesus, in the sense that they were children of Israel. To a guy from the north, the Jews would have been those from Judea, or rather, Judeans. Take note of the passage in chapter 4, where the disciples of John (the Baptist) have a discussion with “a Jew”. Hello? The disciples of John were “Jews” in the larger sense. Why the difference? We’re not sure who this fellow is, but he was probably not a Galilean.

One of the issues, as noted above, that the Jewish leaders had against Jesus was that He was from Nazareth. Even Nathanael has an issue with this, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” And then Jesus, when He sees Nathanael coming, calls him a “true Israelite, there is no guile in him.” After Jesus’ cryptic response to him (to be explained at a later time), Nathanael then is moved to say, “You are the King of Israel!”

More can be said about this whole matter, but much more to the point is the way that the Passion narrative takes its course. Religiously, the Jewish leaders wanted nothing to do with an upstart from Galilee, especially one that “made himself equal to God”, but politically, they needed a reason for Pilate to crucify Him. They condemned Him for blasphemy, but made the case before Pilate by accusing Jesus of wanting to make Himself a King, a crime for which Pilate ought to crucify Him. Jesus is again cryptic in His responses to Pilate, declaring His kingship only after making sure Pilate knew that the Kingdom was not of this world, and therefore no threat to Caesar.

When Pilate finally gives in the demands of the chief priests and the officers (note: John does not call them “Jews”), it is only after they declare, “We have no king but Caesar!” The people did not make this claim; the chief priests did. If the people were “responsible” in any way for the death of Jesus, it was only in the general sense of ALL people being responsible for His death. We might also note that part of the plan of the chief priests was to humiliate Jesus by having Him crucified so that the people in general would no longer be moved by Him. They were, after all, jealous of Jesus, as Saint Luke notes, and the Pharisees decried after the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.” Only a humiliating death at the hands of the hated Romans would scandalize the people away from any hope that Jesus was the Messiah. The Messiah, after all, was to be a conquering hero (which Palm Sunday seemed to demonstrate), so to be scourged, crowned with thorns and presented in mockery by Pilate was too much for the crowds to handle.

The final nail in the coffin, pardon the pun, was the actual crucifixion and the title placed above the head of Jesus on the cross. It shows the absolute cruelty of Pilate and his mockery of the people he was burdened with ruling: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Now, let’s look at this more carefully. Pilate must have been aware of the bumpkin image of those from Galilee, and had firsthand knowledge of the haughty personalities of the Judeans, especially the chief priests and elders. So in placing this title above the head of Jesus, in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, was a reminder to all of the scorn with which Pilate looked upon his subjects. A Nazarene being called a king of the Judeans? The insult was complete. But so was redemption. “It is accomplished.”