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Jews or Judeans?

When reading John’s Gospel aloud – especially the Passion on Good Friday – I suggest, if your translation uses the word “Jews”, you change this word to “Judeans”.

If you, like me, have been using the Daily Eucharistic Readings (the most-used daily Bible reading system in the world), then starting at Lent’s Week 4, we have been reading through John’s Gospel – this will culminate in the reading of the Passion according to St John (John 18:1–19:42) on Good Friday. Christians have been reading John’s Passion on Good Friday since at least the Fourth Century.

Noticeable in the reading of John’s Gospel is the constant, and let’s be honest, negative use of the word – in most English translations – “Jew” and “the Jews”. These words occur in each of the other gospels about half a dozen times. In John’s Gospel, these words occur seventy one times! In this Gospel “the Jews” consistently conspire to execute Jesus – the blame is shifted away from the Romans.

On Good Friday, after reading John’s Passion, Christians prayed for the perfidious (deceitful) Jews that God might remove the veil from their hearts. Christians then venerated a crucifix whilst The Reproaches were sung: God accusing the Jewish people of rejecting Christ and crucifying him. Violence by Christians against Jews, especially on Good Friday, is part of Christian history.

Whilst most have revised their Good Friday liturgy’s prayers and revised or removed the Reproaches, the reading of John’s Passion with its “Jews” in its English translation is still relatively common. And antisemitism is still with us.

What is translated as “Jews” is the Greek word Ἰουδαῖος (ioudaios). The word obviously connects to Ἰουδαία (ioudaia) – “Judea” the geographic area [and that is connected to the Ἰούδα, Judah – the fourth son of Jacob, and the tribe that takes his name].

The simplest solution – if you are reading John’s Passion (or other parts of John’s Gospel) aloud, change the (mis)translation of “Jews” to “Judeans”.

This makes far more sense of the story. Jesus came from Galilee – a mixed area since the Exile. There was antipathy between Galilee and Judea (understanding the place of Samaria between these two areas is also important). In the sense that we now understand the word “Jew”, Jesus was a Jew – so blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death, and omitting that Jesus was himself a Jew, makes little sense of the story. The idea of world religions – with Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. being akin – is an at-times unhelpful construct. Travelling Europeans, when visiting abroad, would look for what functioned akin to Christianity in Europe. We end up with trying to squeeze Buddhism, for example, into Christian categories. We can do the same to “the Jews”, reading into the New Testament what is not there. Both contemporary Christianity and contemporary Judaism can be seen to have evolved in different ways with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Reading “Judeans” rather than “Jews” in John’s Gospel improves understanding of the text.

There are good translations that already use “Judeans” where others have “Jews”: NT Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament; David Bentley Hart’s The New Testament; David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible – to name three. The copyright issues and canonical church questions are beyond the scope of this post.

At the very least we need to be clear to declare, as I suggest: “The term “the Jews” in St. John’s Gospel whilst generally at that time a title for Judeans, applies in this context to particular individuals rather than the whole Jewish people. Insofar as we ourselves turn against Christ, we are responsible for his death.” (Good Friday Liturgy from Celebrating Eucharist).

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4 thoughts on “Jews or Judeans?”

  1. Good essay. “Judeans” also helps make a bit more sense of the regional conflicts between “Galilee of the Gentiles” and the area around Jerusalem. There is a strong sense of regional allegiance in the various parties and personalities in the Gospel; people are often identified by their city or region of origin (“the Nazarene” “of Nazareth” “of Bethany” etc.).

    For my parish presentation of the Passion, I’ve drawn on the Common English Bible version, which for the most part uses neutral language: (“the crowd” “they”) with the context providing greater identity. For a liturgical presentation it makes more sense, though not for a more scholarly examination.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks, Tobias, appreciated. I must look at my CEB on my shelf – I haven’t paid attention to this in there. Blessings.

  2. Br. Jeffrey Shy, CoS

    Since we are having this annual discussion and many of us are planning (in my case musically) for Holy Week, I have been reviewing again the various arguments. I had been thinking that the better choice was “Jewish Authorities” for iudaios. In a closer reading of chapters 11 and 12 of John, however, I wonder about the “one solution,” choosing any of the options for translation and making a blanket application. Clearly, at times, when the persons referred to are the Pharisees and Chief Priests – “Jewish authorities” seems best. At other times, not so good. The “Judeans” might work in many places, but it tends to over-simplify the diversity amongst the persons coming for the Passover in Jerusalem. Clearly, not all were easily classified as “Judeans.” We can speculate about the identity of the Greeks who had come to “worship at the feast” and “would see Jesus,” for example, as being perhaps “interested” Gentiles, but could they not also be Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora? I think, for these more complex reasons, that we might have to be careful with each occurrence of the word that we can translate as “Jew” or “Judean” or “Jewish Authorities” carefully, and choose the best in each setting.

    1. Agreed, Br Jeffrey – a simplistic “find and replace” is simply not going to do. To do so would, for example, make no sense at John 4:9. Blessings.

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