Sunday, December 12, 2021

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (7)

In Greek, the words “Jew”, “Jews” and “Jewish” (sometimes translated “Judean”) are all variations on Ioudaios. That term was discussed in what some might call excruciating detail in the second post in this series, the length being necessary because of confusion arising from the way “Jew” is used today in popular secular and religious parlance.

Unsaved folk often refer to Gentiles converted to Judaism as “Jews”. This is most likely an accidental byproduct of unfamiliarity with biblical usage and/or the preferences of actual Jews, as opposed to evidence of a hidden agenda. Real Jews draw a clear distinction between their fellow Jews and converts to Judaism, whom they call proselytes. (Certain well-known evangelicals also use “Jew” to describe Gentiles, but for very specific theological reasons we won’t get into today.)

Suffice it to say that the Bible doesn’t use “Jew” that way.

“Jew” is always used in an ethnic sense in scripture. However, there is a secondary way in which two of the New Testament writers use the term that is helpful to examine in a little more detail. It remains an ethnic designation, but singles out a very specific subset of the Jewish ethnicity.

Understanding which way the writers are using “the Jews” helps to shed light on certain otherwise-inexplicable features of the NT narrative. At very least, the distinction is worth keeping in the back of one’s mind when reading John’s gospel and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.

10. The Jews

Remarkably, Matthew, the most Jewish book in the New Testament apart from maybe James or Hebrews, uses the terms “Jew” and “Jews” a mere five times. Mark adds six more occurrences (mostly in the same historical situations as Matthew), and Luke adds another five. In every case, the writers of the synoptic gospels are using the term in the normal, purely ethnic sense. Expressions like “King of the Jews” make it obvious “Jew” is first and foremost a nationality.

A Sudden Spate of References to “Jews”

The gospel of John and the book of Acts are a different story. John uses “Jew” or “Jews” 71 times, while Luke, who used the term sparingly in his gospel, tops all the historical books of the New Testament with 82 references to the term in Acts. This drastic change in vocabulary is especially remarkable when you consider that Luke and Acts were probably written not much more than a year apart.

What accounts for the sudden intense interest in the term “Jew” in these two books? Well, many of Luke’s references to Jews in Acts might be explained by pointing out that much of the book’s narrative concerns Paul’s missionary journeys, where the contrast between Jewish and Gentile reactions to the gospel makes it necessary to constantly distinguish between the two groups, something that was quite unnecessary in the gospel of Luke, in which almost all the action takes place in Judea or Samaria rather than Syria, Asia or even Rome.

Such an explanation might not account for every reference to Jews in Acts, but it helps.

John, on the other hand, is utterly inexplicable, especially when we consider that he is writing about exactly the same person and many of the same events in the same times and places as the synoptic gospel writers, and yet finds the need to use a distinctive ethnic expression twelve times as frequently as in every other gospel. One suggestion that occurs to me is that John, more than any other gospel writer, is concerned with documenting the multitude of occasions on which Jesus tangled with the Jewish religious authorities.

Which leads into the point of the post.

Jewish in a Special Sense

Upon closer examination of the context in which the word “Jews” occurs in these two books, it becomes evident that both Luke and John frequently use the word “Jews” in a special sense best explained by an ESV footnote we find repeatedly throughout John and Acts:

“The Greek word Ioudaioi refers specifically here to Jewish religious leaders, and others under their influence, who opposed Jesus [or the Christian faith] in that time.”

This is most definitely correct. In addition to the regular ethnic usage, both John and Luke from time to time use “the Jews” in a special, distinctive sense; a sense which can only be determined with any certainty from context. Moreover, both writers flip back and forth between the general and specific usages of the term, sometimes only a few verses apart. It can be very confusing.

“The Jews” is not strictly a synonym for “Pharisees”. For example, John will often start a passage with the Pharisees asking a question that initiates an exchange with the Lord. Later in the same exchange the apostle will make reference to “the Jews”, possibly indicating the Pharisees, but possibly also including scribes, Sadduccees, lawyers, priests, etc. — basically anyone considered part of the Jewish religious leadership who happened to be present.

Three Types of References

So then, in both John and Acts there are three types of reference to Jews: (1) ethnic-only; (2) ambiguous; and (3) the ethnically Jewish religious leadership.

By “ethnic-only”, I mean expressions like “land of the Jews” and “land of Judea”, which are obviously general rather than specific. There is nothing religious about them, and no indication that they relate only to a subset of Jews entrusted with leadership.

By “the ethnically Jewish religious leadership”, I mean situations like this, in John:

The Jews answered him, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you.’ ”

Very obviously this is a not a reference to Jews generally as an ethnic group. The Lord’s disciples were Jews to a man, yet they were not picking up stones, and surely neither were the masses who followed the Lord Jesus, many of whom delighted in his words. No, by “the Jews”, John means a comparatively small group of the Lord’s dedicated religious opponents who had the authority to instigate a stoning.

Or take this example in Acts:

“When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him.”

Again, it is obvious this refers to a subset of the nation in religious leadership. Other Jews were Paul’s friends, and some went out of their way to protect him.

The ambiguous cases are many, especially in Acts. These could go either way, and in some cases how you read the text probably matters slightly more than others.

The following table breaks down the three types of references to Jews in John and Acts:

Ethnic-only 12x 3:22; 4:9, 22; 18:33, 35, 39; 19:3, 19, 20, 21, 21, 40
Ambiguous 31x
Jewish religious leadership 28x 1:19; 2:18, 20; 5:10, 15, 16, 18; 7:1, 11, 13, 15, 35; 8:22, 31, 48, 52, 57; 9:18, 22, 22; 10:19, 24, 31, 33; 11:8; 18:12; 19:38; 20:19
Ethnic-only 18x 10:22, 39; 13:6, 42, 43; 14:1; 16:1; 18:2, 4, 24; 19:10, 17, 34; 20:21; 21:21; 21:39; 24:24
Ambiguous 59x
Jewish religious leadership 5x 9:23; 12:3, 11; 20:19; 21:11

So why does it matter if we distinguish the oppositional Jewish authorities from Jews generally? Well, I certainly find it changes the way I look at the subtext of certain passages.

At the Tomb of Lazarus

For example, in John 11 (the raising of Lazarus) there are nine references to “the Jews”. I have always uncritically assumed John meant Jews generally. It never occurred to me to make a distinction between the townspeople who came to comfort Mary and Martha, and the enemies of Christ, who may well have done the same.

But the passage begins with an unambiguous reference to the Jewish leadership: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Shortly afterward, we are told “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother”. Technically this usage is ambiguous, but I now see very little reason to assume it is intended to refer to Jews only in terms of their ethnicity. In the same context, we are told the town in which Lazarus lived and died was “near Jerusalem”, so there is no need for John to specify the ethnicity of those present for his burial, which in a warm climate was done as quickly as possible because of decay. Of course the vast majority available to mourn with the family in the first few days after Lazarus died would be ethnically Jewish; any Galilean who knew and loved Lazarus had to come forty miles by foot. It would be more than redundant to specify the ethnicity of the mourners; it would be downright odd.

So then, the Lord Jesus deliberately and knowingly walked into a situation that was not just dangerous because of its proximity to Jerusalem, where the Lord’s most virulent opponents were headquartered, but was made even more hazardous because some of these same religious opponents were in town visiting and mourning with the family. That fact was surely not unknown to the Lord, and it may lead us to view his attendance at the tomb of Lazarus as not just courageous but provocative.

What else is said about these Jews? Well, first we find that some believed because they saw the Lord Jesus raise the dead. This is all the more powerful if it turns out they were previously violently opposed to the Lord and engaged in plotting his death, but it also makes the next statement more comprehensible, which is that “some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done”. Of course there would be those among the Lord’s enemies who would see his presence in the area as an opportunity to act out their conspiracy.

It’s not a huge change to how I read the passage, but if it better reflects the dynamics of the situation the writer intended to communicate, it’s probably worth observing.

At the Feast of Booths

Another example: John 7 is peppered with references to “the Jews”, several of which unambiguously denote the Lord’s enemies, including verse 1, which sets the stage. Jesus has gone up to the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem secretly, knowing full well the hostility he faces. Once again, unless John had some kind of ethnic fixation, there is no good reason for him to mention Jews at all unless he has the Lord’s religious opponents in mind. Jesus was going to Jerusalem. Of course there was a significantly Jewish component to his audience, and those who were not Jewish could hardly have been easily distinguished from those who were.

So then, there is little reason to argue that John means the term in a merely ethnic sense when he tells us, “The Jews therefore marveled, saying, ‘How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?’ ” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say John is telling us the Lord astounded even his enemies. He faced them up with a contradiction they couldn’t process.

Again, small, but interesting. To me anyway.

Back at the Temple

One more: John 8 starts with a reference to “Pharisees” and continues with five references to “the Jews”. Jesus is at the temple teaching, so a strong presence of Jewish leadership is very likely, and once again, the need to specify ethnicity is nonexistent.

I have always been baffled at the way “the Jews who had believed him” (in verse 31) turn on the Lord in only a few moments (by verse 48 they are calling him demon possessed and by verse 59 they are trying to kill him), but this is only because I used to read “Jew” in the ethnic sense rather than in the religious-leadership sense. The flow of the passage, and especially the ending, is a whole lot more coherent if these are former enemies temporarily and intellectually won over by the unexpected depth and understanding in the Lord’s teaching. This becomes even more obvious when we see what the Lord is doing, and why he is deliberately driving “believers” away, poking at their religious and ethnic pride until they snap. He starts with “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples”, then promptly gives them a bunch of words they just can’t “abide” in, forcing them to show their true colors. Their real allegiance is to their forms and traditions.

It reminds us there is a significant difference between believing and receiving, and on that difference hangs life and death.

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