“…keep me from
being handed over
to the Jews.”
This will turn up in the Gospel reading two weeks from now, on November 22nd, and will be heard in tens of thousands of churches around the world. It is one of some 70 references to the Jews in the Gospel of John, a great many of them casting the Jews in the role of Jesus’ opponents, even his enemies.
But I’ll bet few people, if we asked them afterward whether they heard this negative reference, will say yes. Supposing we heard, “handed over to the the Blacks, or the Muslims.” That’s a different story! Many church-goers would be incensed, seeing quite rightly how it engenders prejudice against a minority group.
Why are we not incensed at the reading as given? Perhaps after nearly 2,000 years of hearing the Jews maligned as Jesus’ antagonists, we have so absorbed this as fact, that it rings in our ears along with “rain is wet” and “snow is cold.”
I don’t fault the Gospel writers. [I use the plural, because recent scholarly opinion seems to hold that “John” is a composite of sources.] At the time the Gospel was being written, two different Jewish groups were struggling to establish their identity over against each other: the Jesus movement and the Rabbinical movement. Invective flew both ways, and was typical of controversy at that time.
Where does the fault lie, and what is it? It lies somewhere in recent times, when it became clear to scholars that the Gospels are not history, not factual, but represent the theological intentions of the evangelists.
What is the fault? It is not disseminating this knowledge to the church at large. It is not offering up-to-date translations of the New Testament, translations that refuse to single out the Jews for censure. Since almost every character in all the gospels is a Jew, Jesus’ opponents might be characterized as the religious authorities, or at times the Romans, or just the mob.
As far as the reading we will hear on November 22nd goes, we might want to break up that perennial pairing, Jews = Jesus’ foes. Historically it might be more accurate if Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to you Romans.” Or more simply, “… my followers would be fighting to keep me safe.”