Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Passion Narrative: Who Are These “Jews”?

The Jews, the Jews, the Jews—hoi Iudaioi in Greek—are everywhere in the Holy Week readings. But who they are is not as simple as the surface of the texts suggests.

Many, if not all preachers know that “the Jews” is used in many different ways. It doesn’t always mean the whole Jewish people. Very few parishes, however, use translations that make this clear, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Church-goers easily get the impression that "the Jews"en mass rejected Jesus. In past centuries, such distortions led again and again to religious murder. No less.

Diverse groups of "Jews"

Hoi Iudaioi means, in its most basic sense, the Jewish people as distinguished from other tribes and tongues. But those Jews who followed the Jewish man Jesus, of course, didn’t reject him. The “great crowds” of Jews at Passover “heard him gladly” and mourned his death (Mark 13, Luke 22; see blog #3 in this series). When the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel tells the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews,” he takes his stand firmly in the tradition of Moses and the Prophets, as remembered by the Jews, a.k.a. Judeans, who returned from the Exile (John 4:22).

But while “many of the Jews...believed in Jesus,” others reported the incident to the authorities, who are also called “the Jews” in many verses (John 11:45-46). These Iudaioi, those Judean leaders and their followers who get into verbal brawls with Jesus in John’s gospel, are the target group Jesus accuses of being blindly resistant to the light of God, not all those other Jews (1).  It is from this leadership group and their supporters alone that the disciples huddle behind barred doors after Jesus execution “in fear of the Jews" (John 20:19).

The Odd Rigidity of Most Modern Translations

While the Fourth Gospel clearly uses hoi Iudaioi in different ways, an oddly rigid refusal to paraphase these words seems to possess most translators. The NRSV translators, for example (who paraphrase a great many other words to aid reader understanding) stick doggedly to “the Jews” in these gospel passages. They know about the different uses, but refuse to indicate them. Is the weight of historic Christian scorn for "the Jews" so strong that it lingers still in their work, however unconsciously? Because of such bloody history, this matters.

Some, however, seek to make the truth clear. Consider the different message these two translations of John 7:11-13 deliver.

NRSV: The Jews were looking for him at the festival and saying, “Where is he?”...While some were saying, “He is a good man,” others were saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.” 13 Yet no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

New Living Translation: The Jewish leaders tried to find him at the festival and kept asking if anyone had seen him....Some argued, “He’s a good man,” but others said, “He’s nothing but a fraud who deceives the people.” 13 But no one had the courage to speak favorably about him in public, for they were afraid of getting in trouble with the Jewish leaders.

“Judean leaders” or even “the leaders” would be better, in my opinion. But these translations  support the historical and spiritual reality: Jesus wasn’t against Judaism as such, but against the hypocrisy, resistance to God and abuse of power that can arise in any religion, nation, or group. They too often flourished among Christians themselves! 

The New Living Translation is a giant step in the right direction, as are a few others.  Pray God the day comes when all the Holy Week lessons are read from translations that make clear what “The Jews” means. Soon.

Next: What to do with "The Reproaches"?

1.  John's version of Jesus' verbal brawls with opponents are most likely influenced by the violent hostility between some Jews and the emergent Jesus movement in the decades after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

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