“For Fear Of The Jews”
Just five words – yet, so much trouble. This nineteenth verse from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John is just one example of similar sayings in all four gospels and The Acts of the Apostles: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20:19-31
Early Christian preachers and theologians used such sayings to condemn the Jewish people. This marked the beginnings of modern anti-Semitism. One result was the Holocaust – the genocidal murder of 6 million Jews, including one and one-half million children each of whom represents a poem never written, a painting never painted, a symphony never composed, an invention never invented, a dream never dreamed.
Nevertheless, every Second Sunday of Easter throughout much of Christendom, John 20:19-31 is read. It concerns a second appearance to the disciples of the risen Jesus and Thomas who had not been present on the first occurrence. Thus, it is often regrettably called Doubting Thomas Sunday simply because he desired to have a personal experience of the Risen Jesus similar to that which the others had experienced a week earlier.
My concern is with the translation of the Koine Greek word, ‘Ioudaioi. Translation from one language to another is always difficult, especially when the word under consideration is itself an attempt to put into Greek a word, a concept, from the native Aramaic or Hebrew of the first century. Unique among the four gospels is John’s use of this word over 70 times, most often to identify Jesus’ adversaries and opponents. It is translated simply as, “the Jews.”
In its original context ‘Ioudaioi most likely means “Judeans,” those who lived in the southern region of Roman Syria-Palestine. It distinguishes those inhabitants from, for instance, inhabitants of the northern region of Galilee, known as Galileans. The inhabitants of both regions were a mix of peoples, ethnicities and religions from all over the ancient world.
Jesus lived and carried out most of his ministry in the region of Galilee. The majority of his followers were Galileans. The heart of the story concerns a pilgrimage they make together to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover – the annual festival that recalls the escape from slavery in Egypt recorded in Exodus. People from all over the ancient world, those who practiced the monotheistic religion of the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and interested gentiles and religious seekers of all kinds attended this annual festival.
Judeans, and particularly those Judeans who lived in Jerusalem, the very heart of Judea, were merchant class traders and artisans, the priestly caste who operated the Jerusalem Temple (the cultic center of Hebrew sacrificial religion), and whatever constituted an aristocracy at the time. Galileans, on the other hand, were much more of an agricultural class – farmers and fishermen – as evidenced by Jesus’ constant use of agricultural parables and metaphors when teaching in the regions around Galilee. The Judeans saw themselves as more sophisticated, and viewed the Galileans as inferior country bumpkin types who talked funny – with some sort of accent peculiar to the region. When Jesus is identified as coming from Nazareth in Galilee early on in John’s gospel, Nathanael quips to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
It may be safe to assume that Galileans visiting Jerusalem on any occasion might feel uncomfortable, seeing as though they were often the butt of such prejudice, sniggering, and frequently made fun of. Now add to that the fact that in the week before our passage they had together with Jesus staged a political demonstration outside the gates of the city (Palm Sunday), Jesus had precipitated an economic crisis and disturbance of the peace in the Temple courtyards (turning over the tables of the money changers and drove out the animals necessary for the Temple sacrifices), and Jesus had been arrested and tried for treason against the Roman Empire. He was executed by the Empire just a few days prior to this week’s reading from John.
In a Jerusalem under military occupation, with Temple and local leadership employed by the Empire to maintain peace during the large festivals, it is not difficult to understand why several days after the execution by crucifixion of their leader, their master, their Lord, that this tattered group of Galileans might in fact be hiding behind closed doors – fearful that all in the local population, Jews and non-Jews, that is Judeans of all stripes, would want to expel them at the least, or crucify them as well. They were all associated with these public acts of political and religious defiance.
Whatever the religionists of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were at that time, on that day they were not “Jews” as we understand that word to mean today. “Judaism,” or more correctly Rabbinic Judaism as opposed to Priestly/Sacrificial Judaism, was reborn as a virtually all-new ritual, ethnic and ethical religion long after the time of Jesus – specifically sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 – coinciding with the separation of those who followed Jesus from their Hebrew origins.
No matter how one chooses to interpret the events of that week in first century Jerusalem, the Jewish people as constituted today, and even as late as the 5th and 6th centuries, were not involved. It is that simple. The Church has a lot to answer for in its implicit as well as explicit scapegoating of the Jews. The good news is that acknowledgement and renunciation of nearly 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism is finally being addressed.
The bad news is that thanks to the internet and events throughout the Middle East and Asia, and the steady growth of Aryan Supremacy groups in American prisons, anti-Semitism persists to this day. And reading texts such as John 20:19-31 in church every Second Sunday of Easter without placing it in its historical context remains a dangerous tradition. There are those who argue against changing the translation. To do so, however is also a tricky business. The Open English Bible suggests replacing “Jews” with “the religious authorities,” but that pretty much retains the status quo reading of the text. To change it to Judeans might force preachers and teachers to pay more attention to the historical context of the passage and all of the Fourth Gospel.
There is another ironic textual problem. The Risen Jesus depicted as saying to the disciples, “Peace be with you,” is an attempt to render into English the Aramaic/Hebrew word, “Shalom.” The biblical concept of Shalom means more than “peace.” It understands that peace, or shalom, is only possible if there is justice and peace for all people. Shalom demands respect and dignity for every human being. How ironic that the passage that historically has been used to foster anti-Semitism has Jesus commissioning his disciples to usher in an era of God’s Shalom, God’s justice and peace for all persons – envisioning world, as that first New Testament witness Paul would write, in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, free nor slave, but that all persons would be respected, honored and served as if they were God’s Christ himself. [Galatians 3:28] God’s Shalom envisions us as all being One People in the world of God’s Shalom.
As we read and hear this Gospel of Easter 2 may we be moved by the Spirit of Shalom that is at its heart, and is at the very heart of God’s invitation to love others as God loves us. All others. Amen.