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Beauty and Anti-Semitism: The Gospel of John

Marsh Chapel dean’s new book on a great and troubling scripture


Can something be both vile and valuable? Supernatural and historically accurate? Yes, says the Rev. Robert Hill, whose latest book probes all aspects of the most unusual of the Bible’s four gospels—that of John.

The Courageous Gospel (WIPF & Stock, 2013) combines lectures and sermons—mostly from Hill, dean of Marsh Chapel, but from others also—that dissect the last canonical gospel, likely written in the 90s or early 100s AD. John’s Gospel is utterly unlike the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John is more mystical and more emphatic that Jesus was divine, was God, yet more accurate than the others, according to scholars, about Palestinian geography, Jewish feasts, the timeline of Jesus’ Passion, and other worldly matters.

His gospel also is laced with anti-Semitism, referring to Jesus’ enemies, clamoring for his execution, simply as “the Jews.” Hill notes that at the time it was written, John’s community of Jesus-following Jews was being expelled from their synagogues, as Judaism and Christianity finally sundered into separate religions. Hill, who is also a School of Theology professor of New Testament and pastoral theology, says it’s essential that “the tragic history of anti-Semitism in Christianity, and some of it is connected to the Gospel of John, is rooted up and understood, that John is understood, in its particular context.”

Although his book is written for theology students, Hill argues that average folks in the pews also profit from reading John: “Have you ever been disappointed? Have you ever experienced real dislocation? Have you ever known the pain of departure? Most people have. Here’s the glorious good news: these people discover in disappointment—not later, not ethereally, but right there—that they received a gift of freedom. These people right in the heart of dislocation, like students coming to college, found grace.”

BU Today spoke with Hill about his book and about John’s Gospel.

BU Today: Why do you call John’s the “courageous gospel”?

Hill: The community that developed the gospel faced squarely that the primitive Christian hope was wrong: the expectation that Jesus would return soon. He didn’t. John said, what we once believed is not so, but look!—in place of parousia, the second coming, we have the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit; in place of Armageddon, we have the adventure of every day. Every day is the last day. Also, courage to face dislocation. John’s community is a group of people moving out of Christian Judaism into Jewish Christianity. That dislocation from one religious tradition to another is very difficult, but they faced it with courage.

The third reason is, all the gospels face the departure of Jesus on the cross. But there’s something underneath it for John, not only the departure of Jesus, but the departure of the patriarch of the community (possibly the anonymous Beloved Disciple of the gospel, on whose testimony the writer bases his account), who finally, in old age, died. As hard as that was, this community found peace through that departure: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, not as the world gives.”Boston University BU, Marsh Chapel, Reverand Robert Hill, The Courageous Gospel, WIPF & Stock, lectures sermons Johns gospel

How do you reconcile, in words quoted in your book, the “soaring beauty of the Gospel and its harsh anti-Semitic character”?

This community that produced the fourth gospel was in a sibling rivalry—a harsh, family row—with people they had known and loved, and they got to using language that is really awful. That has to be faced and dispensed with. My interest in teaching the gospel is to do my bit against the long history of anti-Semitism and to try and move Christianity even further into embrace with our siblings in Judaism.

Some people might be put off by the mystical, theological aspect of this gospel, but on some historical points, it’s more grounded in reality than the others.

I have three responses: amen, amen, amen. This gospel, with the highest vision, also has feet closest to the ground. The big example, I would add, is: the story of the crucifixion in John is more accurate than those in the Synoptics, in terms of location, timing, and the main thing—the Gospel of John squarely puts the onus for the crucifixion on the Romans. It wasn’t just the Jewish Sanhedrin. The Romans historically held the power of capital punishment in their vassal states to themselves. The gospel shows that.

Also, the fourth gospel, almost alone, foresees that there’s a lot of truth that’s not in the Bible. [In John, Jesus says that] the Spirit will lead you into all truth. There are many things that I cannot tell you now, but I am leaving with you this counselor, the Holy Spirit, who will guide you. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”—that’s out of the Gospel of John. And that opens the gateway to 2,000 years of, at its best, faithful educational investment by the church.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

5 Comments on Beauty and Anti-Semitism: The Gospel of John

  • David Addison on 10.15.2013 at 9:53 am

    Can a Jewish person be anti-semitic towards another Jew?

  • Rubes on 10.15.2013 at 11:23 am

    Anti-Semitic? Ridiculous! According to all the gospels, and as prophesied in Isaiah and other Old Testament Scriptures, the Jewish religious establishment of the day wanted to murder Jesus, and they found a way to do it by using the Romans’ brutal system of “justice.” Why? Because they refused to recognize him as their long-prophesied Messiah and future King of God’s Kingdom promised to Israel in the Davidic covenant. They perceived Jesus as a direct threat to their high standing in the Jewish community, and in their ignorance, they totally rejected him and plotted to kill him. They were in fact his enemies. Anti-Semitism had nothing to do with it. And as David Addison points out, Jesus and his apostles were all themselves Jews!

  • Nathan on 10.15.2013 at 3:11 pm

    If you postulate the Gospel according to John as being written by a non-Jew 200-300 years later, then it could be both anti-Semetic and more in line with a dashed expectation that Jesus was not coming again right away and Armaggedon (predicted ‘later’ by Paul) was not going to happen in the near future. – In this scenario, this gospel is less prescient and more revisionist.

  • josh on 10.16.2013 at 4:40 pm

    @Nathan, if you read Paul’s writings, which form the basis for much of the development of the Church over the next 2-300 years along with the writings of the early church fathers, I think you’ll find that if the Gospel of John were written as late as you are positing that you would expect to find it much much more revisionistic than it is. The Gospel of John still pretty fully embraces the Jewishness of the early church, where by 300 years later the church was pretty well gentilized.

  • EMH on 10.16.2013 at 5:14 pm

    The body of Christ, since shortly after Jesus came, has been comprised of people of many ethnic/cultural/linguistic backgrounds, very much including Semites. I believe, as has been mentioned already, Semites (as I understand the term, and as I believe it is academically understood) comprised a large portion of Jesus’ early ministry and followers (including, I believe, most or all of the Disciples, as well as Paul). The gospel of John, however, depicts a battle between the light and the forces and principalities of this world. Jesus clearly says that no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him. Therefore, Semites, Europeans, Francs, East-Asians, Spanish-speakers etc. (however you would like to describe us) alike who are part of Christ’s body, having been called according to His purposes, have the light. It was not merely a small group of Semites that were at odds with Jesus and His followers, but an entire world/system that denied and rejected God’s only begotten Son (in modern times, I believe this stretches far past those who consider themselves Jewish and probably deep into what people consider “Christendom”). All of this being said, I love those who are Jewish, atheists, or deists, regardless of the fact that they do not have Christ (at least, not yet).

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