Shattering the Sabbath’s Peace

By Art Dewey | 10.29.2018

On Saturday morning the Sabbath peace (Shabbat Shalom) was shattered in the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh. The first reports were gruesome: at least 11 people were dead, several police officers wounded. A morning celebration of a bris with 60 to 100 people was devastated by gunfire. Some hours later the wounded shooter, captured by police, was identified as Robert Bowers, an avowed anti-Semite who police say announced his presence by shouting “All Jews must die!” before he opened fire.

Before his profile was taken down from the social media platform Gab, quite popular among neo-Nazis, it was clear that Bowers’ online persona displayed an abiding hatred for Jews. Posted just two hours before the shooting, Bowers declared that HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was bringing in “invaders to kill our people” and announced that he “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered” and thus was “going in.” On the upper left-hand corner of that page a very familiar biblical text was displayed: “Jews are the children of Satan (John 8:44).” Along with the coda: “the lord Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.”

Sadly, this is not new. Anyone familiar with the tragic relations between Jews and Christians down through the centuries is quite aware that the demonic charge against the Jews has played a significant part in justifying the persecution and killing of Jews (See E. Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, and J. Carroll, Constantine’s Sword). The text found within John 8, along with other New Testament texts, has been read again and again out of context, as if the text needed no questioning, no further concern. It seems clear enough. If Jesus said it, it must be so. And, since he is described as “Son of the Father,” this text carries divine authority. What else do we need to know?

Actually, this text, along with the entire Gospel of John, is hardly simple and clear. While the vocabulary appears self-evident, the Gospel is the result of a unique development by followers of Jesus in the late first century.

If we are to understand what John 8 was about, we need to become aware of the way in which the Johannine community was developing (for a critical reading of this, see R. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple). The community of John was a Jewish Jesus Community. It was similar to most of the other Jesus communities. However, this community apparently fell out of favor with their local synagogue (see John 9). Often, we think it was a simple matter of the community’s claim that Jesus was the Anointed (Messiah). But this would not get one tossed from a synagogue. In the second century Rabbi Akiba considered Bar Kokhba as Messiah. Despite Bar Kochba’s failed revolt against Rome, Akiba still stood in good stead.

No, for the Johannine community there was something more. This community came in contact with Samaritans. The Samaritans had their own understanding of Messiah: it was the Taheb, the one who knew the secrets of God. As such, this was a Messiah who exceeded the reach of Moses. But for Jews in the first century, Moses was the primary figure. Even if some Jews claimed that God raised Jesus, this would not mean the loss of Moses’ preeminence. It would actually demonstrate that Jesus was a Jew faithful to the covenant delivered by Moses. Raymond Brown and other Johannine scholars argue that it was this understanding of Jesus as Taheb that proved to be the breaking point between the Jewish people and the community of John.

It is also important to recognize the social reality of the first century. For a group to be ostracized from their synagogue meant to be put into social jeopardy. The synagogue was a center of village life. Where would people go to relate, to find tips on jobs, to share food, etc.? As such the Johannine community were thrown onto their own resources. It is at this point that they continued to explore the meaning of Jesus. The Johannine community are the ones to declare that Jesus is the Son of the Father. This title is not the same as son of God (which means that a person is thought of as a conductor of divine energy, i.e., a healer or shaman).

The community of John began to see that Jesus as Son of the Father disclosed a surprising God, for the very life that the Father lived was shared by the Son. Mutuality and intimacy characterized this relationship. This was totally different from the remote self-defined deity of Aristotle. Moreover, this Son of the Father shared such life with the community of John. In fact, there is not a vertical hierarchy (of Father, Son, Spirit); rather, there is a horizontal connection of intimate sharing by the Father, Son, Community (see the Vine and Branches passage in John 15:1ff.).

With this background let us turn to the Johannine text:

John 8 33 protested: “We’re Abraham’s descendants, and we’ve never been     slaves to anyone. How can you say, ‘You’ll be liberated’?”

           34Jesus answered them, “Let me tell you this: everyone who commits sin is a slave. 35No slave is ever a permanent member of the family; but a son is. 36So if the son liberates you,      you’ll really be free.

           37“I recognize that you are Abraham’s descendants, yet you’re trying to kill me because my teaching gets nowhere with you. 38I’m telling you what I saw when I was with the            Father, and you do only what you learned from your own father.”

           39“Our father is Abraham,” they repeated.

Jesus says, “If you really are children of Abraham, act as Abraham did. 40As it is, you’re           trying to kill me, even though I’ve told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham never     did that. 41No, you’re doing what your father does.”

They replied, “We’re not bastards; we have only one father: God.”

           42Jesus responded, “If in fact God were your father, you’d love me, since I’ve come from            God and am here—not on my own initiative; God sent me. 43Why don’t you understand          what I’m saying? It’s because you can’t hear my message. 44You are your father’s             children all right—children of the devil. And you are bent on satisfying your father’s       cravings. He was a murderer from the start; he is far from truth. In fact, there’s no truth      in him at all. When he tells his lies, he is expressing his nature, because he is a liar and    breeds lying. 45But since I tell the truth, you don’t believe me. 46Who can                     charge me with sin? If I speak truthfully, why don’t you believe me? 47Everyone who   belongs to God can hear God’s words. That’s why you don’t listen: you don’t belong to God.”

If we read the entire chapter of John 8:12-59 (John 8:1-11 is a fragment from the tradition that has been inserted in John 8. The language is not Johannine.). We begin to see that the language can be characterized as a legal dispute. Jesus is accused of making claims without evidence or witnesses (8:13). Jesus’ response entails bringing in the “Father who sent” the Son. The debate continues as each side talks over the other in typical Johannine fashion, as the commentator adds “They didn’t realize that he was talking to them about the Father” (John 8:27). But the dispute continues to heat up. The claim to lineage and legitimacy became paramount (“Our father in Abraham…We’re not bastards” John 8:39, 41). Such language seems harsh and quite uncharacteristic for one who urges his listeners to “love their enemies” (Matt 5:44).

Indeed, if one were to juxtapose the language of John 8:42-47 with Matt 5:45 (The “Sun and rain” aphorism, where God is imaged as providing benefits in the present without condition to all indiscriminately), one would be hard pressed to argue that it is the same person saying both passages. In fact, John 8:12-49 displays the concerns of a later community in dispute with its Jewish neighbors. The language is competitive and agonistic. It betrays the common assumption of the first century, namely, that one gains an advantage, one wins at the expense of the other. In this language there is no crossing of boundaries, where one can imagine a God who gives to both just and unjust, where one can imagine the possibility of falling into the hands of the enemy (a Samaritan) and come out the better for it.

Instead the language in John 8 presents the defensive attempt of one group against the threats of another (the other side would be calling the Johannine group: “illegitimate,” “bastards,” “Samaritans”). Indeed, here we see that, instead of imagining the enemy as a helper, the enemy is conceived of as demonic. In fighting for its social life and legitimacy against fellow Jews the Johannine community uses the typical means of verbal combat in the first century. It too tries to denigrate the honor of the opposition. It responds to what probably was a mutual name-calling with increasing severity. If one group claimed Abraham as the start of a long and honorable lineage, then the Johannine group debated that by arguing that the real paternity of the opposition rested with the lying Devil.

A further note. In John 8 the name of the opposition changes. Its starts with the Pharisees but in v.31 the opposition becomes “the Judeans.” The term is often translated “Jews.” The Greek Ioudaioi must be understood in its historical sense. In the Gospel of John, the term Ioudaioi is found 72 times. Only two times is it used in a neutral fashion. The bulk of its usage has a pejorative ring to it. It is important that we recognize that the Johannine community was Jewish. Then why would they call their opponents Ioudaioi? First, for a person living in Israel in the first century Ioudaios would not be one’s first way of describing oneself. One would be “of the tribe Benjamin” or a child “of Abraham” or an ‘Israelite.” Ioudaios or “Judean” would be used when talking to a foreigner. Foreigners would use it simply to designate the territory from which the person came.

Thus, for a first century person of Israel to call another a “Judean” would have a possible foreign bite to it. Consider the term “Yankee.” It originally referred to a person who lived in Yonkers (as the Dutch would have it). Then it meant a person from the New York-New England area. By 1861 there were “damn Yankees.” But in 1918 the “Yanks were coming” to aid Europe. Of course, we still have the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. In short, to call a fellow Israelite a Judean is to see that person as other. Another way of debasing the opponent.

What can we then say about John 8 and the synagogue shootings? There is a deep and lingering tragedy at work here. This text emerged from the late first century debates over the meaning of Jesus. Words were spoken and disputes grew. In essence a religious divorce triggered this scene. We hear one side of a devastating debate in this passage. But the cacophony of both sides can be felt. What has been lost in all of this are the words and wisdom of the historical Jesus who did not imagine a God who would takes sides but would shower benefits on all. This passage never touches on the advice to love the enemy nor does it imagine the enemy as ever being human.

Christians over the centuries have failed to place this Johannine passage in historical perspective. Some have resolved the discrepancy between the challenge to love the enemy and the demonization of the enemy by assuming that Jesus said both and was providing “tough love” in order for those lost ones to see the true light. Indeed, Augustine will follow this up by saying that one can love the enemy by forcing the enemy to recognize the truth. How would one do this? Augustine advises to do just what one does to get slaves to admit the truth: torture them.

But such an uncritical accommodation no longer works. Scripture scholarship demands an understanding of context and language. We can no longer entertain inconsistencies and contradictions in the Gospels without an historical analysis. Unfortunately, it is clear from that jarring web page of Robert Bowers that he had little interest in the particulars. Everything from his perspective was clear. The script had been written and he went out as a stout Christian soldier on a Sabbath morning filled with the righteousness of God.

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary. 

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