A Note On The Term Jews In The Gospel of John

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John the Evangelist: Folio 209v of the Lindisfarne Gospels
A Note On The Term Jews In The Gospel of John

In the past century or so there has been much discussion about the term ‘the Jews’ in standard English translations of the Gospel of John and thus whether or not the Gospel portrays Jews in a negative way given such words about them as the following, from the translation known as the Douay-Rheims Bible:

You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he stood not in the truth; because truth is not in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. (8.44)

In the Gospel of John the term οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι first occurs in verse 19 of chapter one:

ὅτε ἀπέστειλαν πρὸς αὐτὸν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων ἱερεῖς καὶ Λευίτας ἵνα ἐρωτήσωσιν αὐτόν

In the Douay-Rheims Bible this is translated as: “when the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him.” In the King James Bible: “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him.”

In my translation of John – a work in progress [1] – I translated as: “when the Judaeans dispatched priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him.”

For, after much consideration, I chose – perhaps controversially – to translate ἰουδαία by Judaeans, given (i) that the English terms Jews and Jewish (deriving from the 13th/14th century words gyv/gyw and Iewe) have acquired connotations (modern and medieval) which are not relevant to the period under consideration; and (ii) that the Greek term derives from a place name, Judaea (as does the Latin iudaeus); and (iii) that the Anglo-Saxon version (ASV) retains the sense of the Greek: here (iudeas) as elsewhere, as for example at 2.6, æfter iudea geclensunge, “according to Judaean cleansing.”

Such a translation not only dispenses with the “portraying Jews in a negative way” discussion but also reveals a consistent narrative, with the Evangelist not writing that “the Jews” saught to kill Jesus, but only that some Judaeans desired to do so. In addition, as the story of the Samarian (Samaritan) woman in chapter 4 makes clear, it places into perspective the difference between Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee, and why the Evangelist narrates that it was “necessary” for Jesus to pass through Samaria on the way to Galilee, Ἔδει δὲ αὐτὸν διέρχεσθαι διὰ τῆς Σαμαρείας.

Given what follows (chapter 4 vv.9-10) this suggests a certain historical antipathy between the people of Judaea and the people of Samaria even though the Samarians – as is apparent from the Gospel – shared many, but not all, of the religious traditions of the Judaeans, as did most of the people of Galilee, including Jesus. Since the Evangelist specifically writes that it was Judaeans who saught to kill Jesus (5.18; 7.1; 7.19 et seq) it seems as if the antipathy by Judaeans to Jesus of Nazareth in particular and to Samarians in general – with the Evangelist stating that Judaeans would not share or make use of (συγχράομαι) Samarian things – arose from Judaeans in general believing that their religious practices based on their particular interpretation of the religion of Moses and the Prophets were correct and that they themselves as a result were ‘righteous’ – better than Samarians – with Jesus the Galilean considered by many Judaeans, and certainly by the priestly authorities, as having committed (qv. 10.33) ‘blasphemy’ (βλασφημία) and thus should be killed.

Such differing religious traditions, such internecine feuds, such religious fanaticism and intolerance on behalf of some Judaeans – an intolerance exemplified also when (qv. 10.22) one of the guards of Caiaphas the High Priest (Καιάφαν τὸν ἀρχιερέα) physically assaults Jesus for not showing the High Priest “due deference” – exemplifies why in this Gospel ἰουδαία should be translated not by the conventional term ‘Jews’ but rather by Judaeans.

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In respect of the term ἰουδαία, it is interesting to consider two writings by Flavius Josephus, and one by Cassius Dio Cocceianus (dating from c.230 CE). The two works by Josephus are conventionally entitled ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ (c. 93 CE) and ‘The Jewish Wars’ (c. 75 CE) although I incline toward the view that such titles are incorrect and that the former – entitled in Greek, Ιουδαικης αρχαιολογιας – should be ‘Judaean Antiquities’, while the latter – entitled in Greek, Ἱστορία Ἰουδαϊκοῦ πολέμου πρὸς Ῥωμαίου – should be ‘History of the Conflict Between Judaeans and Romaeans’, and this because of how Josephus, in those works, describes himself and that conflict.

Ιουδαικης αρχαιολογιας

In this work Josephus wrote:

1.4 τούτων δὴ τῶν προειρημένων αἰτιῶν αἱ τελευταῖαι δύο κἀμοὶ συμβεβήκασι· τὸν μὲν γὰρ πρὸς τοὺς Ῥωμαίους πόλεμον ἡμῖν τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις γενόμενον […]

1.5 διάταξιν τοῦ πολιτεύματος ἐκ τῶν Ἑβραϊκῶν μεθηρμηνευμένην γραμμάτων […]

1.6 δηλῶσαι τίνες ὄντες ἐξ ἀρχῆς Ἰουδαῖοι

a) 1.4. τὸν μὲν γὰρ πρὸς τοὺς Ῥωμαίους πόλεμον ἡμῖν τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις γενόμενον, “how that conflict between Romaeans and we Judaeans came about.”

To be pedantic, Ῥωμαίους – Romaeans – implies those “of Rome”. That is, the word suggests those associated with a particular place, as does the term Judaeans. Which association of people with a particular place or region is historically germane.

b) 1.5. διάταξιν τοῦ πολιτεύματος τῶν Ἑβραϊκῶν μεθηρμηνευμένην γραμμάτων, “the decrees of our civitatium as expounded in the writings of the Hebrews.” Less literally, “the laws of our communities as expounded in the writings of the Hebrews.”

Thus he does not write about the “Jewish scriptures” or about “the scriptures of the Jews”, even though the consensus is that γραφῇ here – as throughout the New Testament – has the meaning ‘scripture’ rather than its normal sense of ‘that which is written’, with the English word ‘scripture’ (usually written with a capital S) having the specific meaning “the writings of the Old and/or of the New Testament”. However, this specific meaning only dates back to c.1300 and was used by Wycliffe in his 1389 translation, from whence, via Tyndale, it was used in the King James version. Prior to 1300, the ASV has gewrite – ‘what was written’, writing, inscription – with the Latin of Jerome having scripturae, as does Codex Palatinus of the earlier Vetus Latina. [2]  Classically understood, the Latin has the same meaning as the Greek γραφῇ: writing, something written, an inscription. [3]

c) 1.6 δηλῶσαι τίνες ὄντες ἐξ ἀρχῆς Ἰουδαῖοι, “to make known how Judaeans came about.”


Ἱστορία Ἰουδαϊκοῦ πολέμου πρὸς Ῥωμαίου

In the Προοίμιον of this book Josephus wrote:

a) Ἰώσηπος Ματθίου παῖς ἐξ Ἱεροσολύμων ἱερεύς

That is, Josephus describes himself as “the son of Matthias, a priest, from Jerusalem.”  He does not write that he is “Jewish” and nor does he write that he is from Judaea.

b) σχεδὸν δὲ καὶ ὧν ἀκοῇ παρειλήφαμεν ἢ πόλεων πρὸς πόλεις ἢ ἐθνῶν ἔθνεσι συρραγέντων.

A conventional translation would have πόλις as ‘city’ and ἔθνος as ‘nation’ so that the latter part would conventionally be translated along the following lines: “cities would have fought against cities, or nations against nations.”

However, the terms ‘nation’ and ‘city’ are or can be misleading, given their modern connotations, whereas a historical approximation for ἔθνος would be ‘tribe’, ‘people’, or ‘community’, and for πόλις – understood here as referring to a particular named place with a history of settlement – town, fortified town, burg, borough, municipality. Such choices would produce a translation such as: “municipality would have fought municipality, community with community.” The evocation is thus more parochial, more regional, as befits the historical past and the context: here, an insurrection, a conflict between the people of Judaea and the armed forces commanded by Roman citizens (those “of Rome”) duly appointed to positions of power.

Regarding The Term Ἰουδαικός

While the term is conventionally cited as meaning Jewish – although LSJ provides no sources, with the English words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’ not existing until the 13th/14th century CE – the sense of the term in Ῥωμαϊκὴ Ἱστορία by Cassius Dio Cocceianus (for example, 67.14.2, 68.1.2) is Judaean, referring to the people of Judaea and their customs and way of life, Ἰουδαϊκοῦ βίου, τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἤθη:

ὑφ᾽ ἧς καὶ ἄλλοι ἐς τὰ τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἤθη ἐξοκέλλοντες πολλοὶ κατεδικάσθησαν καὶ οἱ μὲν ἀπέθανον οἱ δὲ τῶν γοῦν οὐσιῶν ἐστερήθησαν (67.14.2)

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Conclusion

As noted in the Preface to my translation of The Gospel of John, I have endeavoured to avoid reading into the text the meanings that some of the English words conventionally used in other translations – and given in lexicons – may now suggest, or do suggest often as a result of over a thousand years of exegesis. In the matter of ἰουδαία the translation by the relatively recent term ‘Jews’ has suggested meanings which, at least in my fallible opinion, are irrelevant to the milieu of the Gospels and which thus distorts, or which can distort, the narrative of the Gospel of John.

David Myatt
July 2017

This article is based on, and includes quotations from, my commentary on John 1.19, 2.22, 4.4, et seq.
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[1] As of July 2017, the translation of and a commentary on chapters one to four of The Gospel of John have been completed, which partial translation and commentary is available at: https://davidmyatt.wordpress.com/gospel-according-to-john/

[2] For context, the verse in the Latin version of Jerome is: cum ergo resurrexisset a mortuis recordati sunt discipuli eius quia hoc dicebat et crediderunt scripturae et sermoni quem dixit iesus.

The Latin of Codex Palatinus, Vetus Latina: Cum ergo resurrexit a mortuis commonefacti sunt discipuli eius quoniam hoc dicebat et crediderunt scripturae et sermoni quem dixit IHS.

The Latin of Codex Brixianusis, Vetus Latina: cum ergo resurre xisset a mortuis recordati sunt discipuli eius quia hoc dixerat et crediderunt scribturae et sermoni quem dixit IHS.

[3] Qv. Tacitus: “non diurna actorum scriptura reperio ullo insigni officio functam.” Annals, Book III, 3.


Image credit: John the Evangelist: Folio 209v of the Lindisfarne Gospels
British Library Cotton MS Nero D.IV

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