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Befriending the Beloved Disciple:
A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John
Adele Reinhartz
(New York: Continuum, 2005)

Unfortunately over the years the New Testament has often been used to justify anti-Semitism. But is that because people who used it that way distorted it, or are parts of the New Testament indeed anti-Jewish?

There are a number of New Testament passages that give cause for concern, but none more than the Gospel of John. In that Gospel the term “Jews” is used pejoratively, to designate those who refused to accept Christ, who sought to kill him, and whose “deeds were evil” (John 3:19). The tension climaxes in John 8:44, where Jesus confronts the Jews directly and calls them children of the devil. Even if the author of John is Jewish as most believe, he never identifies himself or his own community as “Jews” but reserves that designation for the enemies of God.

Jewish New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz, who has done expert work on this Gospel, is very sensitive to this problem. “My problem was the permanent and often hostile presentation of Jewish characters, Jewish laws, and Jewish practices. Each of the seventy references to ’the Jews’ in the Gospel of John felt like a slap in the face” (p. 13). She considers some theories that have been proposed to minimize or eliminate the problem, such as translating “the Jews” as “Jewish leaders” or “Judeans.” She shows convincingly that the text will not support such renderings, as well-intentioned as they may be. There is no easy way out.

Nevertheless Reinhartz refuses to walk away from this text. She continues to wrestle with it from several angles: as a “compliant,” “resistant,” “sympathetic,” or “engaged” reader. Each of these four perspectives yields distinctive insights (the “resistant” reader in particular reminded me of Howard Zinn’s account of the American frontier expansion from the point of view of Native Americans). Unfortunately none of these perspectives succeeds in removing the ethical taint that John’s language carries; the text is what it is and we must find a way to live with it. Nevertheless Reinhartz proposes to keep the dialogue going: “Despite the gap in worldview and in ethical sensibilities, I look forward to future meetings with the Beloved Disciple, and to ongoing conversation” (p. 167). She is determined to befriend the Beloved Disciple, as flawed as that friendship may necessarily have to be.

Two groups of readers will benefit from this book: Jewish readers struggling to make sense of the New Testament, and Christian ones who may not have fully appreciated the depth of the problem. Jews may justifiably wonder how a Christian can read this Gospel and not be tempted to hate Jews as a group. Reinhartz’s exploration of issues in Johannine scholarship provides a basis for discussion and dialogue. And most important of all, Reinhartz’s persistence in wrestling with this text offers a model to the reader who may view the text as sacred and there is certainly much spiritual depth in John but who may too easily gloss over its ethical problems. Whether we are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, there are difficulties in our sacred scriptures with which we must always continue to struggle, for our own sake and for the sake of others. Reinhartz deserves much credit for presenting that struggle as a moral imperative.

March 2016