I was listening to a Radiolab podcast this week called “Loops”. In it the story of three mathematicians’ work was briefly described. Gottlob Frege was as much a philosopher as he was a mathematician. He was convinced that math could inform logic, and logic could essentially eliminate the need for intuition and mystery in life. Everything was explainable if you just worked your pencils hard enough. He was largely overlooked during his life, but was later celebrated for his contribution by other well known mathematicians, including Bertrand Russel, who valued Frege deeply even though he came up with a scenario that Frege’s axiom could not handle, illustrated in the story of a town where all the men were clean-shaven. Those who did not shave themselves were shaven by the town’s barber. The logic works for every many in town but one: the barber. If the barber shaves himself, he does not get shaved by the barber. Wait a second… Another mathematician/logician, Kurt Gödel, worked to address the unsolvable with mathematical references. For instance, it is a held mathematical truth that every even number is the sum of two prime numbers. And yet, it is impossible to know for sure because we can never get to the end of numbers to test the theory! Like the Barber story, he simplified the problem with a single sentence: This sentence is untrue. See the problem? His work opened the door for thinking in news ways with the freedom that some troubling axioms cannot be disproved.
We humans like to keep things nice and orderly. It helps us feel like we’re in control. We’ve done a lot with this regarding religion. Gödel was a theist who read the Bible every Sunday morning. He said that he thought religion itself was good, but that religions were bad. Why? Likely because religions have a way of defining themselves so clearly that they leave no room for God. Jesus was devout in living out the Jewish faith, and yet it was the living out his faith that eventually got him killed. He favored religion over religions; he had room for God to be God – a great freedom that eluded the many who were content with their defined, exclusive religions.
In one dense exchange, Jesus spoke with a mix of Jewish people in Jerusalem – some who believed in Jesus and others who did not. One thing he said makes its way now and again into graduation and political rally speeches alike. It’s a good stand-alone statement, but, as is the case nearly always, knowing the context brings greater understanding and depth. See if you can pick out the phrase in the exchange:
Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
“But we are descendants of Abraham,” they said. “We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.”
“Our father is Abraham!” they declared.
“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.”
They replied, “We aren’t illegitimate children! God himself is our true Father.”
Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! Which of you can truthfully accuse me of sin? And since I am telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me? Anyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.” – John 8:31-47 (NLT)
Like so many in John’s Gospel, we see once again a group of people who aren’t on Jesus’ wavelength. This particular group has become comfortable in their understanding of religion as being secured by the results of their 23 and Me results – they are genetically Jewish. Moreover, since they follow the traditions of Judaism, they are surely legitimate. Yet Jesus here is calling them to see themselves differently. He is suggesting that they have adopted a different father than the one of their genes. Rather than following God, they have unwittingly been following the way of the world. The way of the world was “home” to them – they had built their identity on it even though it was a false one. Unfortunately, because they associated their nation and their faith with God, and assumed God endorsed both, they naturally felt quite justified in whatever they did. Kind of like some in our country who are so convinced that the United States is a Christian nation, so that God must surely be blessing us wherever we go and in whatever we do, even if that means horrible things for the people we meet. Slavery, genocide, imperialism, followed by systemic inequality and inequity for select “browner” citizens – all endorsed by God? I don’t think so. I don’t think Jesus thought so for his contemporaries, either.
Of course, we must remember that this Gospel was written from the perspective of a group of Jesus followers who had been ousted by their Jewish community. Surely that informs their remembrance! From their vantage point, they understood at a different level just how prescient Jesus’ words were about the truth revealed in their killing him. Their religion would lead them to tear Jesus apart instead of honoring the heart of God who longs to brings things together, to re-ligament – the true goal of religion.
It’s not that Jesus was anti-religion; it was that he understood that God was the point of it all, and where religion was supposed to always point. Sometimes, however, religion itself makes itself the focal point of worship. When that happens, a whole lot of ugly follows. The historical examples of this are too numerous to recount here.
What was Jesus getting at, then, with his Abrahamic conversation? Abraham wasn’t devoid of cultic practices, but he did sense a call from God to leave his comfortable homeland behind him to start something new and different. He was trusting the voice of God who was leading him, not a script or the orthodoxy he was leaving behind. This new thing was based on a relationship with the Divine who was not bound by geographical constraints. God was faithful everywhere. God was with Abraham everywhere. God was faithfully good everywhere. Following the voice of God led to good things for him and those under his care.
Jesus was living out a similar reality. The truth that set him free – and anyone else – is that this God is deeply with us, in us, for us, guiding us, energizing us, comforting us, and so much more. This inner relationship led to faithful expressions on Jesus’ and Abraham’s part. Jesus’ practice of the Jewish faith had things in order – the religion was made for humanity to become more connected to God. Humanity was not made for religion, as if it was ever meant to be the constraining straight-jacket so many find it to be when the cart gets before the horse. This is why Jesus was so often in trouble with religious folks who recognized his breaking rules. Jesus was called by God – a higher authority than the Law. To freely live the way Jesus lived, however, means we become more open, more stretchy in our understanding of God, relying on the indwelling of God to guide us.
The Apostle Paul never met Jesus, but he surely encountered Christ. He understood that they whole point of religion was to connect people to God in relationship, not religiosity, not dogma, not exclusivism. Read some of the things Paul said:
In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 (NLT)
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. – Galatians 1:16 (NIV)
Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? – 2 Corinthians 13:5 (NRSV)
Paul was beaten repeatedly for daring to live in this new reality. Freedom always challenges forms of oppression. When we let go of our limited thinking about God, we find life. More from Paul:
…recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We're free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. – 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 (The Message)
If we aren’t paying attention, our relationship with God (as with other important relationships) will drift into mechanics and lose the heart, the life that we once enjoyed. We will find ourselves going through the motions, still caring, but not animated like we once were. When we find ourselves there, we will be comfortably at rest in religion, which is not the same as being alive in Christ with Christ alive in us.
Where are you in this regard? How do you monitor your spiritual health? Do you know that God is within you? How are you living as though it were true? How are you allowing that reality to change the way you see yourself, value yourself, care for yourself? How are you letting the reality that God is also in the people we encounter affect you? How are you thinking and behaving is if it were true?
Bob Goff let this reality really sink in, and it changed him. Because it changed him, incredible good is happening in more and more people around the world. In a chapter about making the most of the time we have with people – even if only three minutes at a time – he offers the following insights:
When we draw a circle around the whole world like grace did and say everybody is in, God’s love gives us bigger identities than we used to have. With our newer, bigger, identities, we can draw even bigger arcs around people’s lives. We start to see that our time here isn’t meant to be spent forming opinions about the people we meet. It’s an opportunity to draw the kind of circles around them that grace has drawn around us, until everybody is on the inside.
We don’t decide who in line is in and who’s out, and we don’t need to waste any more time engaging in the kinds of arguments some people get sucked into. People who are becoming love don’t swing at every pitch. We start by meeting people just three minutes at a time. – Bob Goff, Everybody Always
To conclude, a benediction from Paul:
Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! – Romans 15:13 (The Message)
Reflections from Gail O’Day (New Interpreters Bible)
John 8 presents the reader of the Gospel of John with some of the Gospel’s most difficult interpretive issues. The Jesus who emerges from these verses speaks with staggeringly sharp invective to his opponents and holds nothing back in his attack on his theological adversaries. It is very difficult to harmonize this picture of Jesus with the images of him that shape our theological imaginations: Jesus as the one who eats with outcasts and sinners, who cares for the lost sheep, who is the model of how we are to love. Complicating this picture of Jesus is the fact that he speaks this scathing language to a group John identifies as the “Jews,” so that Jesus’ words in this chapter have become a pivotal text in discussions of Christian anti-Semitism.
Because this text has played such a controversial role in shaping Jewish-Christian relationships, it is the interpreter’s moral responsibility to look the language of this chapter and the image of Jesus squarely in the face. It does no good simply to whitewash the intensity of the invective, nor does it do any good to continue to treat the anti-“Jews” language in this text as if it were license for anti-Semitism. The interpreter is called to ask hard questions of this text in order to discover what it is saying and what it is not saying. The interpreter must work diligently and carefully to understand the text in its original social and historical context in order to avoid making simplistic and destructive extrapolations to contemporary church settings. The commentary has attempted to provide the interpreter with some of the historical, social, and cultural contexts necessary to begin this work. This Reflections section will begin by reviewing the historical and social data as they pertain directly to the appropriation of this text and then, on the basis of this review, to examine the critical issues with which this text confronts the interpreter.
Two historical/social issues bear directly on the appropriation of John 8: the relationship of the Johannine community to establishment Judaism and the role of invective in first-century intra-Jewish debates. As has been noted many times in this commentary, the relationship between Johannine Jewish Christians and Judaism is one of the decisive issues for the shape and perspective of the Fourth Gospel. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ antagonists are regularly identified as the “Jews.” The work of J. Louis Martyn and others has helped us to see that a rupture(s) with the synagogue occurred sometime in the last quarter of the first century that decisively changed the fabric of Johannine Christians’ religious lives.
Prior to the decisive break, Johannine Christians were able to hold together their participation in the liturgical and cultural world of Judaism and their faith in Jesus. (It is important to note that this joint identity was not unique to Johannine Christians. For example, in Acts 2, Luke depicts the developing Christian community as participating in temple worship as well as conducting their own worship services.) The exact course of events that led to the break cannot be charted, but the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE was one of the pivotal factors.
Without the Temple, Judaism was forced to reconstitute itself around a different center, and the Jewish Scriptures became that center. The synagogues, therefore, took on more importance, because they were the sites where Scripture was taught and preached. Moreover, those Jews who professed faith in Jesus also took the Scriptures to be of the utmost importance, because they understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of God’s promises as made known to God’s people through Scripture. The conflict was joined, therefore, around the question of who could lay claim to God’s promises and to the status of God’s people. This conflict is apparent in the adversarial language of Matthew 23, for example, but the group of Christians who seemed to have experienced this conflict and struggle most intensely in their day-to-day lives was the community of Christians for whom the Fourth Gospel was written. The Fourth Gospel makes repeated reference to Christians’ being cast out of the synagogue (9:22; 12:42; 16:2) and the fear and danger this produced in the community’s life.
The Johannine Christians thus understood themselves to be outcasts, people whom the Jewish establishment no longer considered to be Jews, a community forcibly removed from its roots and the symbols that formed its identity. Their self-identity was as a marginalized community that stood powerless in the face of the power of the dominant religious group, the Jews. The Gospel of John contains many attempts by the Fourth Evangelist to reclaim his community’s relationship to its Jewish roots. The Fourth Evangelist makes repeated references to Jewish feasts and demonstrates the ways in which Jesus is the true fulfillment of those feasts (e.g., 7:37–38; 8:12). Most of the Fourth Evangelist’s primary metaphors and images are drawn from the language of the Jewish Scriptures, and John 4, 6, and 8 revolve around comparisons between Jesus and Jacob, Moses, and Abraham, respectively. The wealth and depth of Jewish scriptural allusions in the Fourth Gospel show that the Fourth Evangelist is not antagonistic to Jewish traditions. Rather, he is antagonistic to the Jewish power structures and political forces that have attempted to cut his community off from these traditions.
The virulent language of chap. 8 must be read against this backdrop of being cast out of the synagogue, of being excluded from the religious centers that had once helped to define one’s religious and communal identity. The language of this chapter is the language of the minority group spoken in protest to the majority culture. The Johannine Jewish Christians had no way to back up this language—that is, they had no power to take any actions comparable to their own exclusion from the synagogue. They were outnumbered by the Jewish community and had no political resources at their disposal. Their only “power” rested in the force of their rhetoric, in their ability to denounce those who had excluded them.
In the Commentary on 8:44–47, Qumran texts were cited in order to place the invective of these verses in their full cultural context. The Qumran community, too, used very strong language to speak against other Jews whom they sensed were depriving them of their religious heritage and polluting God’s promises to God’s people. One important difference between the Qumran sectarians and the Johannine community is that the Qumran sectarians initially chose to exclude themselves from the Jerusalem community, whereas the Johannine community was forcibly excluded. The persecution that the Qumran community endured after their separation, however, was not of its choosing and positioned them as a community oppressed by establishment Judaism, like the community for which the Fourth Evangelist wrote. The Qumran analogue is important, because it helps the interpreter to see how the language about the Jews in chap. 8 functions as intra-Jewish invective in its own cultural and historical setting.
What is the significance of this historical context for the contemporary interpreter of John 8? First, it reminds the interpreter that one must attend to the specific situation of a biblical text in order to make the move to potential contemporary appropriations. The issues in John 8 have a very specific cultural context, and the only way that this text can have a place in the life of the church is if the specificity of that original context is honored. One must understand the originating context and then look for modern analogues to that context. That is especially critical with a text, like this one, that has had such a disturbing place in the history of interpretation.
Second, attention to the historical and social contexts of John 8 compels the interpreter to work more carefully at assessing the function of the negative language for the original readers and thus assists the interpreter in distinguishing among the many painful issues with which this text confronts the modern reader. It helps the interpreter to see that simple condemnations of Johannine anti-Semitism, for example, do not begin to touch the complexity of this text. In order to honor the complexity of this text, the interpreter must begin to think separately about two distinct issues that are often treated as one issue in contemporary conversations about this text: (1) the relation of John 8 to Christian anti-Semitism; and (2) the social function of religious invective. It is to the contemporary dimensions of these two issues for the life of Christian faith that we now turn.
1. As the historical review made clear, the Fourth Evangelist understood his community to be persecuted by the power and theological politics of the Jewish establishment. Moreover, this community was itself without power in the face of what it understood to be its oppressors. The harshly negative language about the Jews in this chapter, then, needs to be taken first and foremost as the language of a group without the means—economic, political, military (note the references to the police sent by the Pharisees in 7:32, 45; cf. also 18:3)—to act out its virulence. It is the language of a Jewish-rooted minority that is no longer allowed to claim its Judaism, speaking against those who have denied them their heritage.
When the words of John 8 become the weapons contemporary Christians use in a crusade against Judaism, this critical social fabric is overlooked and, indeed, distorted. First, contemporary Christians have come a long way from the intimate ties with Judaism that shaped the Johannine community. The majority of Christians today are Gentile by heritage, not Jewish, and so the language of John 8 belongs to a context foreign to contemporary Christian experience. When Jesus speaks about the Jews the way he does in John 8, giving voice to the Johannine community’s needs and anger, it is intra-family language. Contemporary Gentile Christians who use this language against Jews are not members of the family and hence their language carries a different weight. Contemporary Christians have not been hurt by the Jewish religious establishment the way the Johannine Christians perceived themselves to be, rejected by those they took to be their brothers and sisters in faith, so that the pathos that drove this language in its own context is missing in ours.
Second, and more crucially, Christians, particularly in North America and Europe, are no longer the minority group, rejected by the Jewish religious establishment because of their beliefs, but are the majority group whose religious practices and values dominate contemporary culture. The balance of power between Christians and Jews is the exact opposite of the situation in which the Fourth Evangelist lived and wrote, and for contemporary Christians to point to John 8 as justification for their attitude toward Judaism is a false and dangerous appropriation of the biblical text.
The danger of the misappropriation of the Fourth Gospel’s type of invective in a situation where the power relationships between Christians and Jews are reversed was tragically evident in the actions of the Third Reich toward Europe’s Jewish population. In that situation, the Germans had the military, economic, and political power to act out the language of hate. It was no longer a question of a minority group’s using strong language to defend its right to exist and worship as it chose, but the majority culture’s exercising its might to exterminate a less powerful group it found offensive and falsely perceived as a threat.
For the Fourth Evangelist, the situation was one of a spiritual and theological battle, in which the Jewish religious authorities were dictating the shape of the Johannine Christians’ faith lives. No such situation holds today; Christianity is not at risk because of Judaism, and for contemporary Christians to overlook this critical social distinction is to do misservice to the gifts and promises of God that Jews and Christians share. The Fourth Evangelist experienced his community as being on the verge of losing access to those gifts, and so the Johannine Jesus speaks with intensity about the Christians’ claim to those gifts and promises as distinct from Jewish claims. Jewish-Christian relations are completely different today, however, and the Fourth Gospel’s invective against the Jews has no meaning in a world where Christian claims and practices rest secure.
2. When the questions of anti-Semitism and religious invective are distinguished from one another, it becomes possible to look at the social and theological function of the language of John 8 as an issue in its own right. One then can ask how this language serves the needs of this religious community. What does this language accomplish? What are its implications for contemporary Christian communities?
As noted earlier, the primary theological function of the invective in John 8 is to defend the Christian community’s claims against the perceived assault of the Jewish religious establishment. Its closely related social function is to establish the identity of this faith community over against those who deny the community’s right to exist. The absolute character of this language and the sharp lines it draws between those who share the community’s beliefs and those who do not are frequently pointed to by scholars as evidence of the sectarian quality of Johannine faith. That is, the Johannine community understood itself as a minority religious group at odds with the dominant religious culture. If Johannine sectarianism is perceived as a primarily intra-Christian phenomenon, then the description is not altogether apt, because Johannine christology and theology are not wholly distinct from other early Christian traditions. If, however, Johannine sectarianism is perceived as Jewish sectarianism, as the above discussion would suggest, then the designation is both apt and helpful in clarifying the social function of the invective in John 8. The way in which the minority, religiously oppressed community of the Fourth Gospel grounded its identity was to reject those who had rejected them first and so establish the boundaries of their community.
The social intent that drives the invective of John 8 is not an isolated phenomenon. On the contrary, the rigidity of community identification it reflects and the language of hate that often accompanies it is evident across the globe in racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts. The divisions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland is an excellent example of the odd mix of religion, power politics, and community identity that fuels the invective of John 8.
The invective of John 8 confronts the interpreter with very disturbing questions—questions whose answers may be even more difficult to determine than the questions about John 8 and the “Jews.” The primary question is this: Is it necessary to exclude others so absolutely and hatefully in order to establish community identity? This may have been the only avenue that presented itself to the Fourth Evangelist and his community, but is it the only avenue available to us? The NT contains a variety of models of community formation. Paul, for example, who also struggled earnestly with the relation of the developing Christian community and Judaism, developed a model of community formation that attempted to break down barriers rather than to strengthen them (e.g., Gal 3:28). Contemporary Christians, therefore, have a rich set of options as they think about their identity as a faith community, options that move beyond the strident language of John 8.
For an oppressed community like that for whom the Fourth Evangelist wrote, the language of John 8 may have restored a sense of their own power and dignity in the face of persecution. It may be that for communities in similar situations, this language still presents a viable model of community. Yet even when the language is contextualized that way, one still feels a sense of pain and regret at the damage that language like that found in John 8 can cause. The invective found in John 8, and the misuse that later generations of Christians made of it, may bear its most powerful witness as a cautionary tale for present and future Christian communities.