Illumination from the 'Lindisfarne Gospels' or Gospels of Saint Cuthbert (page facing the Gospel of Saint John). British Library.

The cross-carpet page (ca. 720) of the gospel of John functions as a portal of prayer, a meditative map for the pious to contemplate the mysteries of the text to follow. Likely influenced by sacred rugs woven in Coptic Egypt, these “carpet pages” incorporate the design of Insular metalwork and jeweled reliquary crosses to create dynamic labyrinths of prayer. Illumination from the ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’ or Gospels of Saint Cuthbert (page facing the Gospel of Saint John). British Library.

Lincoln Reynolds is an Honors College senior studying supply chain management and economics. Alongside studying and practicing corporate supply chain activities, Lincoln spends much of his free time reading Christian and historical texts as an amateur theologian and historian, which coincides nicely with his work in Dean Lynda Coon’s Retro Readings course “Bible.” In this post, Lincoln unpacks the often detailed references to Judaism and Jewish practices in the Gospel of John.

The Gospel According to John is a Gospel surrounded with a continuing history of politicism, scholarly dispute and confusion. Particularly scrutinized is its relationship to First Century Judaism, a unique and divisive relationship which paradoxically positions John to be both “the most Jewish and the most anti-Jewish of the Gospels.”

The author of John displays a particular fascination with Judaism. John utilizes no other (identifiable) textual source material than the Hebrew Bible, and expresses a commendable familiarity with the city of Jerusalem, Jewish festivals (e.g. Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles and Hanukkah) and Jewish practices (major and minor, such as Sabbath laws and ritual hand-washing, respectively). The Gospel is so Jewish, it even serves as a first textual source for Jewish ideas and rabbinic traditions that would not appear textually for another two centuries.

One example of this is John’s prologue, which scholar Daniel Boyarin relates to Midrash, a rabbinic tradition of Biblical interpretation prevalent in the Talmud. Boyarin argues that John’s prologue employs Midrash in the first five verses to interpret the opening of Genesis 1using Proverbs 8:22-31as an “interpretive framework.” First- and second-century Jewish thought seems to have been permeated with the idea of a divine being (Greek Logos or Sophia, Aramaic Memra) embodying God’s manifest words and communicated will. Philo of Alexandria writes in support of such theology, and similar themes are present in some Biblical texts, namely among the Aramaic Targumim. This is notable since many accuse John’s author of using Hellenistic metaphysical ideas, while in actuality his usage of the Logos is quite Jewish—the author uses the Proverb, a picture of the divine Wisdom (Sophia) and its role in creation, to interpret that creation via the Word (Logos) and unite Judaism, as well as the fundamental beginning of mankind, to John’s Messiah. This pseudo-Midrash serves both as a Christological statement, and as an interpretative commentary on the ideas of Logos and Sophia, making it, as Boyarin states, “a piece of perfectly unexceptional non-Christian Jewish thought that has been seamlessly woven into the Christological narrative of the Johannine community.”

Despite this profound Jewishness, the Gospel never stops short of demonizing and/or distinguishing Jewish groups, presumably those which did not align with the Christian movement, or even the Johannine tradition specifically. he author refers to these people (abundantly) as hoi Ioudaioi, literally “the Judeans/inhabitants of Judea,” but commonly, “the Jews.” Most often, the author uses this term negatively to denote those opposed to Jesus (e.g. the Synoptic “Pharisees”) and those who rejected Jesus as Messiah, though there are some neutral/positive instances. However, the truly ‘positive’ designation used in John is “Israelite,” which the author uses to refer to commendable characters such as Nathanael, and even Jesus Himself; even the disciples are never referred to as hoi Ioudaioi.  As can be expected over two millennia, this choice of words has become skewed, politicized and even weaponized as it grows further from the author’s own context and intentions.  Throughout time, John has been accused of antisemitism, and, unfortunately, used to perpetrate antisemitism, though a careful reading reveals the author—though his intentions remain clouded—likely never sought to discriminate an entire racial group for the sake of his Gospel. 

Rather, one of the underlying aims of John appears to be an attempt to set Christians apart from “mainstream” Judaism; in the mid-first century, Christianity was little more than an offshoot Jewish sect.  Passages in John seem to establish a degree of distinction between “the Jews” and Christ-followers, some of which likely being future issues transposed backward into the story of Jesus.  These attempts at division make sense given the Gospel’s proposed dating of 80s-90s CE, since these final decades mark a time in Christian history where the Church attempted to deal with identity, ecclesiastical structure and long-term systematic principles. Among those writings, John stands out as a kind of theological (and Christological) case study for the unifying and organizing Christian religion.

Given the etymological implications and content (e.g. the removal of Christians from synagogues), it seems likely that John sought to define a ‘true’ Judaism—culminating in Jesus the Messiah—and markedly distinguish its community (Christendom, or a smaller sect therein) from anyone claiming association with First Century Jewish practice. The Gospel According to John is a Gospel which seeks to differentiate Christ-followers through skillful use of Jewish tradition and methods aimed against traditional Judaism, and thus create a superior Johannine-Christian Judaism—a “Judaism” without “the Jews.”

Flip through the visually striking pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, which include the Book of John, at the British Library.