Thursday, March 24, 2011

GJohn and Anti-Semitism?

I saw this on my Twitter feed last week. Piper is currently preaching through the Gospel of John, and as Richard Hays is the dean of the school I'm at, as well as the fact that I'm currently taking a seminar on the Fourth Gospel, it piqued my interest. I downloaded the message from this past weekend and listened to it on my way to/back from school. The text that he preached on I think is from John 8:30-59, and in one particular section, he quoted from something Hays wrote (he doesn't acknowledge which book it's from and as far as I can tell, the website doesn't either). In a section of the sermon he titles 'Scholars Slandering the Word of God', Piper says [Piper in blue, Hays in brown]:

We should be ashamed of this part of our history. But unlike so many critical scholars, we should not lay the fault of this history at the feet of the Gospel of John, which is what so many do. I mention this now in our series on John because chapter 8 is the climax of what the critical scholars see as the problem. For example, concerning our text today, Richard Hays, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, says:

Nowhere in John's Gospel does the superheated animosity toward the Jews come to more vigorous expression than in chapter 8. . . . The dialogue [of John 8:39–47] is the most deeply disturbing outburst of anti-Jewish sentiment in the New Testament. . . . John makes a fateful theological step: from the empirical fact of the unbelief of the Jews . . . . The Jews who do not believe must be children of the devil. . . . The conclusion of verse 47 articulates the chilling logic of this position: the reason they do not hear the word of God is that they are not from God. . . . One shudders to contemplate the ethical outworking of such a theological perspective on the Jews. . . . The Gospel of John really does adopt a stance toward Judaism that can only engender polemics and hostility.

This is a great sadness that ordained Christian teachers in the church should slander the word of God in this way. Let me mention four problems with this way of dealing with Jesus' very hard words in John 8—for though they are hard, they are especially offensive to modern, soft, pluralistic ears. Four responses, and the fourth one will launch us into an exposition of the text itself to let Jesus and John speak for themselves.

Someone could correct me but I'm guessing this is from his Moral Vision of the New Testament. Anyway, what Piper means as "this part of our history" is the often ugly animosity between Jews and Christians that have existed basically since the first century. The four responses that Piper has is this:

(1) If we want to excise from the Gospels any anti-Semitic language, we'll have to do far more than just John 8. Piper says, "Jesus' language toward the Pharisees is almost uniformly negative everywhere in all four Gospels, and often intensely so... If the Jesus of John has to go, so does the Jesus of all the Gospels."
(2) All unbelievers are labeled as "sons of the devil" by Jesus. Piper then quotes from Mt. 13:38-39 that describes the weeds as the sons of the evil one, that "Jewish people are not unique in their unbelief and their vulnerability to the blinding and distorting effects of the devil."
(3) Paul teaches that all unbelievers are under the "sway of the devil... [and that] the New Testament as a whole, not just John's Gospel, sees in the ongoing resistance to Jesus, whether in Jew or Gentile, the deadness and blindness of sin and the accompanying work of Satan. John 8 is not unique."
(4) Parallels in 1 John 3:8, that "sinning" is "of the devil."

I think on some levels, I commend Piper for his fierce convictions and willingness to go where the text may lead him, and while I'm definitely not a Piper-hater or a TGC-basher (do they go hand-in-hand?), I have a few comments:

First, it doesn't seem that Hays is commenting on anything beyond John 8 in the quotation. He isn't speaking about what does the rest of the NT say, or what does 1 John say, or even that we have to excise from our Bibles any seemingly 'anti-Semitic' texts. Hays' quote (unless Piper left out more of Hays' quote that actually touched on these issues) seems to be a simple comment on what is observable from the Gospel of John as it stands.
Second, Piper's statement that Jesus' comments toward Pharisees is basically negative is acceptable in the Synoptics, but it does not explain why the Fourth Evangelist decided to label them 'the Jews.' He is right to point out that everyone is technically 'a Jew', but if you read through the four Gospels, John by far outstrips the Synoptics in his use of the phrase οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι. By a quick scan, I would even venture to guess that John uses the term "the Jews" more than all three Synoptics combined. I appreciate how Piper urges his congregation to take the text seriously, and if that is the case, then I think we seriously have to account for this fact.

Anyway, that's just a couple quick thoughts I had as I was mulling over the sermon and the Gospel of John. What do you think? Is Piper right? Is Hays right? How do we locate the term 'anti-Semitic' on a given text?


jesse said...

I'm confused by your first point. Hays clearly sees anti-semitism in more than just the 8th chapter of the gospel, but in the whole gospel, since he writes, "The Gospel of John really does adopt a stance toward Judaism that can only engender polemics and hostility." But then your last sentence of the paragraph seems to acknolwedge this, which is why I'm confused.

Regarding your second point, you seem to assume that the term "the Jews" would have been intrinsically hateful/polemical. But why should that be the case? Why would that term be any more polemical on John's part than Matthew's use of the term "Pharisees" or "scribes." It was simply the name of the group. Sure, there may be negative connotations associated with the term that have developed over the last 2,000 years (which still, however, have not deemed the term itself taboo, in the way that the 'n' word itself is now taboo with reference to blacks--Jews today have not told us that they would not like to be called "Jews" anymore), but it would be anachronistic to read any such connotations back into the use of the term in the 1st century.


Mike S. said...

JP: Thanks for your comment. As a caveat, my post was a quick summary of my thoughts when I listened to the sermon so I have to apologize if some things were not clear. Anyway, you are right to point out the fact that Hays may be pushing towards reading the entire Fourth Gospel as an anti-Judaic polemic. But what I meant to say was, even if we grant that Hays is right about John, I don't know why Piper calls it "slandering" the word of God. I don't think Hays is trying to "slander" anything but is honestly wrestling with what the text says. Piper almost portrays Hays as someone who is deliberately trying to lead people astray with such "slanderous" words vis-a-vis the Gospel of John, but from what I can gather, he is a serious scholar but also very concerned about the Church. My words were meant as a check on too quickly dismissing someone's view and labeling them as being something they are not, which to me, seems like the real "slander."

Second, I'm not sure what you mean with respect to my comment on 'the Jews.' I don't think I'm assuming anything, but I'm merely following the logic of the Fourth Evangelist. That is to say, he seems to be using the word 'the Jews' as polemical, so I'm merely calling for a more seriously consideration of the reasons why he felt inclined to use that particular nomen to describe a specific group of people. If that ends up telling us that John was not anti-Semitic, that's fine, I can live with that. But to say at the outset that the Synoptics described the same group of people as 'Pharisees' and 'scribes,' and therefore that it's like spelling "grey" or "gray," is still begging the question.