Lay minister Dr Peter Harris explores the truth of the recent claim made by Rev Michael Cohen that John’s Gospel is anti-Judaist

The history of Christianity reveals that some Christians and some Christian societies have been anti-Judaist. Possibly the most famous Christian anti-Judaist is Martin Luther (1483-1546) who, in his disgust at Jewish people’s failure to accept the gospel of grace, wrote an invective called On the Jews and their Lies in which he called for, among other things, the razing of synagogues and Jewish schools. 

One of the worst manifestations of Christian anti-Judaism took place during the First Crusade (1096-1099) when Crusaders, marching to war against Muslims in the Holy Land, massacred Rhineland Jews. The cause of Christian antipathy towards Jews was not only the failure of Jews to convert to Christianity, but also was the consequence of the charge that it was Jews who judicially murdered Jesus and that all Jews since then collectively stand guilty of it. 

It is important to note at this stage why I am using the term anti-Judaism rather than anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism is hostility to Jewish religion, whereas an anti-Semite loathes Jews because of their ethnicity. The concept of race emerged from 19th Century science. Therefore, ancient and medieval Christian prejudice against Jews, which pre-dates racism, was directed against Jewish beliefs. In the modern age, anti-Judaism is part of anti-Semitism, which is an umbrella term for all prejudices against Jews, whether religiously or racially motivated. 


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A brighter history 

This makes for depressing reading for Christians. In response, it must be emphasised that Jewish-Christian relations have also been positive. Take, as an example, the series of 17 papal bulls named Sicut Judaeis issued between 1120 and 1447, which forbade Christians, on pain of excommunication, from forcing Jews to convert and harming them in any way. 

During the worst attack on Jews in history – that of Nazism during the 1930s and 40s – the Catholic Church, through diplomatic pressure and individual Catholics who hid Jews, managed to save the lives of thousands. 

Anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism are forbidden by Christian anthropology, ethics and biblical history. Christians traditionally have believed that all people are descended from Adam and Eve, and therefore, as affirmed by Pope Pius XI (1876-1958), believe there is only one human race. Jesus’ teaching that God’s law can be summed up as loving God and loving our neighbour (Matthew 22:37-39) prohibits any form of prejudice. 

Furthermore, Christianity is a faith founded by Jews: Jesus and his 12 apostles were Jews; so too were the first converts and evangelists. Probably all the books of the Bible, with the exception of Luke-Acts and possibly the book of Job, were authored by Jews. Jews over the centuries have, by their own decision, converted to the Christian faith. 

When Christians have fallen into the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, their own faith firmly calls them to repent. But what if it could be demonstrated that John’s Gospel is anti-Judaist?  

Is John anti- Judaist?

This is the argument made recently in The Spectator by my fellow Anglican minister, Rev Michael Cohen (Grappling with anti-Semitism at Easter). According to Cohen, the phrase “the Jews” – hoi Ioudaoi in the original Greek – is used over 60 times by John in his Gospel and that for more than two dozen of those times is used in an accusatory way. As an example of what he means, Cohen refers to Pontius Pilate saying “Here is your king” to “the Jews”, only for them to shout: “Away with him! Crucify him!” 

The conclusion Cohen wants us to draw is that John presents all Jews as in favour of Jesus’ unjust execution and therefore is an anti-Semitic text. As we have seen, it is more accurate to accuse John’s Gospel of anti-Judaism than anti-Semitism. However, it is true that the accusation that the Jews as a whole were Christ-murderers has been exploited by anti-Semites, such as the Nazis, as a justification for their persecution of Jews.

Those who agree with Cohen give what they think is further evidence of the phrase “the Jews” being used by the Gospel writer to indict all of Israel for Jesus’ death. It is “the detachment of troops and the captain and the officers of the Jews” who arrested Jesus (John 18:12). Later, it is “the Jews” who remind Pilate that only he can sanction a criminal’s death (v 31). When Pilate declares that Jesus is innocent, it is to “the Jews” that he makes his judgement (v 38).  


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A false accusation 

Let us be clear: the notion that John’s Gospel is anti-Judaist is false. Concluding that John is the writer of John’s Gospel, F F Bruce argues in Are the Gospels Anti-Semitic?, that John uses the phrase “the Jews” throughout his Gospel to mean a variety of groups of people and not necessarily the whole of the Jewish nation at the time of Jesus. 

Sometimes, it is indeed the case that John’s phrase “the Jews” refers to the Jewish people as a whole, such as when John refers to the Jews’ religious feasts (2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55; 19:42) and customs (2:6; 19:40). Sometimes “the Jews” are groups of Jews whom Jesus is teaching (8:31; 11:45; 12:11) or are witnessing his miracles such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:19). These are friendly or neutral references to “the Jews” and do not denote the whole nation.  

After John 18:9, which is the verse that heralds the beginning of Jesus’ trials and execution, the phrase “the Jews” does not refer, as Cohen would have us believe, to the whole of Israel condemning Jesus, but means the Sanhedrin and the priestly elite. It means also their leader, the High Priest Caiaphas and his influential father-in-law Annas (19:12-15). It means too the mob who yelled, ‘“Crucify him, crucify him!”’ (19:6) who do not represent the whole of Israel.

That John uses the phrase “the Jews” to refer to the Jewish authorities rather than the whole nation is seen in John 1:19 in which he writes: “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him ‘Who are you?’” Clearly here, the phrase “the Jews” does not refer to the whole nation for to assert that the whole nation gave permission for priests and Levites to question Jesus is absurd. Only the theocratic elite would have had the authority to send priests and Levites on the long journey north to challenge Jesus. 

The Gospels make it clear that the ultimate responsibility for Jesus’ execution is Pilate’s, a Gentile ruler. This is particularly the case with John’s gospel for John gives the Romans a greater role in Jesus’ death than any other Gospel writer. 

The soldiers who accompanied the Sanhedrin’s officers were from the Roman garrison stationed at the Antonia fortress (18:3). John devotes six verses to Annas’ interrogation of Jesus (vv 19-24), whereas Pilate’s first interrogation is told in the space of eleven verses (vv 28-36). Jesus is then returned to Pilate for a second interrogation after he has been scourged (19:1-2) and three more verses are devoted to this (vv 9-11). 

Pilate, admittedly, makes a better impression on the reader than the Jewish leaders. It is Pilate who tries to release Jesus on the grounds of his innocence (18:39-40; 19:12-14), but the crowd gathered outside the Praetorium aggressively protest this (18:40; 19:7, 12, 15). Nevertheless, it is Pilate who delivers Jesus to be crucified (v 16), a decision only Roman rulers and magistrates could make.  

It has been contended that when in John 19:16 Pilate hands Jesus over “to them to be crucified”, John means that Pilate hands Jesus over to the chief priests and their mob to be crucified by them. This is absurd for the sequel makes it clear that it was Roman soldiers who crucified him (v. 23). More accurate is the translation of the New English Bible: “Then at last, to satisfy them, he handed Jesus over to be crucified.” 

It is Pilate not the Jewish authorities who supervises the crucifixion for it is he who determines that a sign with the message “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is affixed to the cross (v 19), gives permission for Jesus and the other criminals’ legs to be broken to hasten their death (v 31) and permits Joseph of Arimathea to take Jesus’ body away for burial (v 38). Knowing Pilate’s authoritarian approach to his Jewish subjects, it is unlikely Pilate would abdicate his responsibility to them for the supervision of capital punishment. 

Who is to blame?

What we see in John’s narrative is therefore the judicial murder of an innocent man incited by the Jewish leaders and their allies, agreed to by a Gentile Roman who is nevertheless fascinated with who Jesus is and conducted by Roman soldiers in their typically gruesome fashion. Though John places blame for this on Caiaphas (19:11), the ultimate responsibility in John’s eyes lies with the Roman governor. 

If there is any verse that refutes the charge of Johannine anti-Judaism it is John 4:22, which reads “salvation is of the Jews”. These are Jesus’ words as he speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well. It is from the Jewish people that the world’s Messiah would come (Numbers 24:17, 19). Many Jewish people have recognised Jesus as the saviour, and they call themselves Messianic Jews. 

There is no warrant from the pages of John’s Gospel for Christians to persecute Jews. Contra Luther, our attitude towards unbelieving Jews ought to be that of our Jewish brother in Christ, the apostle Paul, who because of his great love for his people, declares that his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1).


Dr Peter Harris is a lay minister in the Church of England and a freelance writer.