Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Good Life and the Gospel according to John Part 2

I just finished reading Life in Abundance: Studies of John's Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E. Brown edited by John R. Donahue. Father Brown's work colors my interpretation of The Gospel according to John more than any other author. Although I don't agree wholeheartedly with all of his views regarding the Johannie community and the stages of development of the Gospel, I think he is on to something with his studies in these areas.

Life in Abundance looks at Father Brown's contribution to Johannine scholarship and then tries to show where his ideas will go in the future. Of all of the articles, I found "Methodological Considerations in the Study of John's Interaction with First-Century Judaism" by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky and the response by Adele Reinhartz to be the most interesting.

John often gets accused of anti-semitism because of the way he portrays "The Jews" in his Gospel. On the one hand, I sympathize with Jewish readers of the Gospel who not only see anti-semitism in the work, but also point out that the readers of John have used the work as an excuse for their hatred. On the other hand, the work is thoroughly Jewish and it is almost universally accepted that the ideas originated with Palestinian Judaism. If the author and recipients were all Jewish, it is hard to see how the work could be anti-semitic.

The two articles in Life in Abundance dealt with the Greek term aposynagogos that occurs in John 9:22, 12:42, and 16:2. Many Johannine scholars of Brown's generation suggested that the Sitz im leben ("situation in life," or occasion) of the Gospel was that the Johannine community was beginning to be expelled from the synagogues because of their beliefs about Jesus. Brown saw evidence for Jewish hostility to Christians in the Shemoneh Esreh--a chief prayer recited by the Jews in the synagogues. In the twelfth benediction, there is a curse against heretics, likely targeted against Christians. Because Judaism was a legal religion, membership in a synagogue would protect a Christian from emperor worship. Expulsion would leave the Christian vulnerable to the accusation of atheism (disbelief in the Roman gods)--a capital crime.

If this was the Sitz im leben of John, it would explain the prominence of the "remain in Christ" motif. If staying loyal to Christ would lead to expulsion from the synagogue and would make one vulnerable to accusations of atheism, many followers of Jesus would be tempted to deny him to protect themselves from persection. Remaining in Christ would mean not denying Him. This would also explain John's emphasis on confession and his negative portrayal of people who were afraid to follow Jesus through tough times.

I have heard and read several scholars deny the probability that the synangogues expelled people for being Christians. The typical argument is that the assembly of Jamnia in 90 CE that confirmed the curse was not authoritative to most Jews of the time. Thus, they say, Christians likely started the hostility, left Judaism, and created the stories about their being kicked out.

This idea kind of rubs me the wrong way. If it can be established that there was hostility between the Johannine community and "The Jews," which is more likely--that they had reasons for such hostility or that they were simply racist? Given the fact that most of the early converts to Christianity were Jewish themselves, I think it is far more likely that hostility toward "The Jews" was a reaction. Further, even if the council of Jamnia was not authoritative in and of itself, a council would be some serious ammunition for people who already had a prejudice against Christians.

Ultimately, I think there is something going on with John's use ot the term "The Jews." I don't think he is talking about the race, but the leadership of his own people. In John's view, these leaders had rejected the Messiah and handed Him over to the Romans to be crucified.

It is unfortunate that John chose that term to describe his opponents, since so many have taken his words to justify hate. When I teach through John this year, I will go to great lengths to emphasize that "The Jews" are the ruling authorities who rejcted Jesus.

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