It is impossible to read According to John and not become aware of its dependence on the Old Testament, on the Torah. In the same way in which it is taken for granted that the reader knows its content before beginning to read, it is also assumed that the reader knows well the stories of the patriarchs and the books of the prophets and the Psalms.
For example, the image of the good shepherd (10: 1 -18) is a re-application of the reference to the shepherds of Israel that Ezekiel forcefully denounces (Ez. 34: 1 – 10). Due to the failure of the shepherds to whom God had entrusted the flock, God promises to become himself its shepherd from then on (Ez. 11 – 16). This promise, the gospel tells us, is being fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
The narrative of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is based on the story of the encounter of Eliezer with Rebekah (Gen. 24: 11 – 61). In both stories someone is at a well and in need of help. After a young woman provides the needed help and talks with the stranger she decides to go home to tell her folks what happened at the well. Thus, the local men come out to meet the stranger and invite him to stay with them. Once the stranger enjoys the hospitality that has been offered, he explains his mission, and the local people respond positively. Obviously, those who told the story of the Samaritan woman recognized that what had taken place was already written in the Scriptures, and recognized the similarity as a significant clue of God’s present plans.
It is not difficult to see the parallels between Nathanael, the true Israelite who sat under a fig tree and in whom there is no guile (1: 47), and Jacob, the one who by guile took the birthright from his brother Esau and had to flee the paternal home. Running from the angry bother who seeks vengeance, Jacob spends the night sleeping in the desert with a rock for a pillow. That night he dreams of a ladder that reaches from heaven down to the very spot in which he sleeps. On it angels descend and ascend making possible the exchange of offerings and gifts between two unbridgeable realms. When Jacob wakes up in the morning he builds an altar, and Beth-el becomes a worship center for his descendents.
To Nathanael, the one who lives protected and nourished by the family’s Israelite traditions (the fig tree), Jesus promises a vision that surpasses Jacob’s dream by far. He is going to see the heavens open and the angels who descend and ascend upon the Son of Man. Jacob’s ladder has been displaced by the Son of Man on a cross, the instrument of his ascension. He is the ladder on which any human may ever ascend to the heavens opened by the Son of Man. The true Israelites are those who see and believe in the Son of Man. But to understand this it is necessary to know the story of Jacob, the deceiver, whose name was later changed to Israel.
In my previous column I argued that the gospel is not an accurate account of what took place but the result of theological reflection on what took place by a community that “remembers” the past in the light of the Scriptures and the “teaching” of the Comforter (14: 26). I also pointed out in my column that the roots of the concept of memory as a theological faculty are nourished by the Old Testament. Even though According to John does not quote the Old Testament as frequently as the other gospels and does not, like According to Matthew, claim repeatedly that what is being narrated is the fulfillment of a specific prophecy, it is the gospel most firmly rooted in the traditions of the Old Testament.
In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus tells her: “Salvation is from the Jews” (4: 22). With these words the Jews are placed at the very core of God’s will to give life to humanity. The agency of the Jews as the chosen nation in history is essential to the divine purpose. In its immediate context this declaration privileges the Jews and leaves in limbo the Samaritans, who are put down for worshiping what they know not (4: 22). However, given the context, the declaration that privileges the Jews as the agents of salvation is somewhat diluted by the declaration that both the worship on Mount Gerizim, based on ignorance, and the worship on Mount Zion, based on knowledge, have been displaced by the worship of the Father “in Spirit and in truth” (4: 23).
The symbolic universe of According to John is built on the revelation of God narrated in the Torah. There the Jews are identified as the people chosen by God as the agents of salvation for all the nations. It is, therefore, surprising to find that throughout the gospel “the Jews” are identified as the agents of their “father the Devil”, who operates on the basis of lies (8: 44). The Law is derogatorily put down as “your law” (10: 34; 15: 25; 18:31) and “the Jews” own it as “our law” (7: 51; 19: 7). With characteristic Johannine irony, “the Jews” say: “We know God spake unto Moses, as for this fellow, we know not form whence he is: (9: 29). Moses is shown at a marked disadvantage by negative comparisons with Jesus. The one brought in the law, while the other personifies grace and truth (1: 18). The one is a District Attorney who accuses (5: 41), while the other is the Son or Man who gives life (10: 10). The disciples of Moses (9: 28) are blind (9: 41), while those of Jesus see (9: 37 – 38).
Among the first Christians there must have been Samaritans and “Greeks”, that is gentiles, but the majority of them, without a doubt, were Jews. The gospel recognizes that many Jews believed in Jesus (7: 31; 8: 31; 11: 45; 12: 11, 42), but these believers are overshadowed by the repeated references to “the Jews” who wished to kill him, especially the princes, priests and Pharisees (5: 16, 18; 7: 1, 25, 30; 8: 40, 59; 10: 31). All these references belong to a time during Jesus’ ministry that is well before his passion. The resurrection of Lazarus is the last drop making the glass overflow, and “the Jews” decide not only to kill Jesus (11: 53) but also Lazarus (12: 10).
The Jews of the time of Jesus did not distinguish themselves by being one monolithic block of people. Among them there were Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Nazarenes, Herodians, Therapeutai, Zelots, Sicarii, Covenanters, am ha aretz, etc. With the exception of the Covenanters (of Qumran and other localities), who organized themselves in sectarian communities in opposition to the temple hierarchy, and the am ha aretz, the irreligious populace, all Jews had two things in common: their adherence to the temple of Jerusalem and their dependence on the Pentateuch as Scripture. The Acts of the Apostles makes clear that Christians continued to participate in the services of the temple and the annual feasts of Judaism after the resurrection of Christ.
This situation changed radically with the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. The only Jews able to survive without the temple of Jerusalem were the Christians and the Pharisees, and to do it they had to forge institutions with new identities.
The Pharisees gave new importance to the Scribes and the Rabbis as interpreters of the law and constituted the Council of Jamnia to start the process that brought forth the Mishna toward the end of the second century, and centuries later the Talmud. The Council of Jamnia also established the cannon of Tanakh, what Christians call the Old Testament. The Council of Jamnia also began to establish the order of services at the synagogue and eventually constituted them as worship services with the ark of the covenant containing the rolls of Tanakh as the focus of attention. Archaeologists have not found synagogues with arks prior to 250 C.E. It was only then that synagogues became places of worship in place of the temple.
The Bar Kochbah revolt (132-135 C.E.) which enjoyed the support of Rabbi Akiba, one of the most prominent rabbis of the time, put an end to the hopes harbored by many who wished to reestablish official services at the temple. There is evidence indicating that between the years 70 and 135 Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the ruins of the altar. In 135 the Romans converted Jerusalem into a Roman colony and named it Aelia Capitolina. According to John tells us that the destruction of the temple means the collapse of a cosmology. The new temple is the body of the Risen One, and true worship is now rendered “in Spirit and in truth” rather than upon an altar.
The Council of Jamnia brought about the institutionalization of Pharisaism and established the parameters of the identity of Rabbinic Judaism. The Eighteen Benedictions became part of the services at the synagogues. One of these “benedictions” pronounced a curse on Christians. No doubt the references to “expulsion from the synagogue” (9: 22, 34; 12: 42; 16: 2), and to “fear of the Jews” (7: 13, 19) which caused some to be “secret” disciples (20: 19) have to do with the situation the Johannine community was confronting when the gospel was in the last stages of its redactional process toward the end of the first century. This also explains the negative references to the Mosaic law and Moses’ disciples, as well as to “the Jews” as the unbelievers who reject the revelation of Jesus as the One Who Descended to bring life to the world.
With the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the Judaism of Jesus’ times ceased to exist. This means that the references to “the Jews” in According to John in reality identify the members of the Rabbinic synagogues that emerged toward the end of the first century. Rabbinic Judaism and Emergent Christianity were at that time engaged in a ferocious fight to be recognized as the one legitimate heir of the wealth of their dead mother, the religion centered on the temple of Jerusalem. Their battle was primarily concerned with the authority to be the true interpreter of the Law and the Prophets. The rabbis produced the haggada and the halacha. The first was intended to foster the life of devotion by highlighting the spiritual meanings of the biblical stories. The second was intended to apply the laws of the Pentateuch to the life situations encountered in Hellenistic urban contexts. Christians, for their part, continued their use of the Scriptures to give form and content to their understanding of the life and death of Jesus as the One Sent by the Father to give life to the world.
This fight is given dramatic heights in chapters 7 and 8 of According to John where the desire to kill Jesus underlines the narratives. From the beginning Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon (7: 20). Then reasons are given as to why his claims to be the Messiah are incredible. Since it is known where he is from (irony), he cannot be the Christ (7: 27). He is a Galilean, therefore he cannot be the Christ (7: 41, 52). No one with authority has believed his claims, therefore he can be ignored (7: 48). He is the only one claiming to be what he obviously is not (8: 13).
These disqualifications are followed by a characterization that must have had its origin in the first century and eventually became standard in the Talmud: Jesus is a bastard, a son without a known father. The question is: “Where is your father?” (8: 19). In other words, “Who are you?” ( 8: 25). On their part, “the Jews” claim: “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one” (8: 33). Jesus grants them their claim: “I know that you are descendants of Abraham, yet you seek to kill me” (8: 37). This means that you are servants of sin (8: 34) and that you will die in your sins (8: 24). At this “the Jews” put out their ultimate insult and make their ultimate claim: “We were not born of fornication [like you]; we have one father, even God.” To this accusation Jesus answers: “You are of your father the Devil” (8: 44), “You are not of God” (8: 47).
The dialogue has descended where arguments are absent and insults take their place. “The Jews” then say: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (8: 48). Given the theological context of these dialogues we can understand why here the father rather than the mother is mentioned. The atmosphere of these dialogues would have been the same, I think, if the discussion had been about his mother rather than his father.
Unfortunately, the vitriolic polemic between “the Jews” and Christians of the latter part of the first century created the conditions that inform the history of these two communities during the next twenty centuries, a history that reached its climax in the Holocaust. A poorly informed reading of the gospels According to Matthew and According to John, where this anti-Judaic (not anti-semitic) animosity is on the surface, is to a large extent responsible for this tragic history. It is high time for us as Christians to recognize the origin of this animosity and thereby learn to live with our cousins who also believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.