Michael Azar, Exegeting the Jews: The Early Reception of the Johannine “Jews.” Leiden: Brill, 2016.
In the Gospel of John, slanderous comments are leveled at Ioudaioi (traditionally translated “Jews”). For example, Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest urges that Jesus be killed since “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50, JANT translation). To “Jews” who neglect his teachings, Jesus says “you are from your father, the devil” (John 8:44). Scholars have grappled with such statements, interpreting them as products of a playful sibling rivalry or outright supersessionism. But decoding slanderous language is not just a complicated task for modern scholars; the Gospel of John’s earliest interpreters also chewed over the anti-Jewish language in the text. In Exegeting the Jews, Michael Azar examines the earliest reception of John’s anti-Jewish language. How far was such language related to antisemitism, broadly defined as antagonism either toward the gospel’s Jews or Judaism outside of the gospel?
The particular challenges of studying the Gospel of John in light of its depiction of Jewish leaders shapes Azar’s approach the patristic reception and application of this canonical text. Azar respects the call of many biblical interpreters such as Adele Reinhartz and James Charlesworth to acknowledge that readings of the Fourth Gospel cannot ignore the Holocaust. In fact, biblical interpreters frequently refer to the Holocaust by its Jewish appellation, the Shoah. Thus, Azar repeatedly mentions the work of French scholar Jules Isaac, who narrowly escaped arrest by the Nazis and managed to continue his work.
Azar relies heavily on the Dead Sea Scrolls for his project. He follows D. Moody Smith in recognizing the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for interpreting Judaism. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls made the idea of a Gospel of John that was connected to Judaism possible for scholars. Here, Azar mentions specifically the common motif of “witness” and the work of Johannes Beutler. This acknowledgement of previous scholars is one of the highlights, and it is not meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it is meant to give the reader an idea of the study’s intellectual history.
Azar focuses on three prominent ancient interpreters: Origen of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria. He concludes that the anti-Jewishness of these authors is not consistent within their writings. Moreover, there is no overarching anti-Jewish position of nascent orthodoxy. Rather, the three men achieved positions of ecclesial prominence and found themselves needing to interpret scriptures to address problems in very different times and places.
Azar gives historical background for each ecclesial leader. He records that Origen encounters few Jews in Alexandria but many more in Caesarea. There, Origen tries to dissuade Christians from continuing Jewish practices. Likewise, Chrysostom encounters an Antiochene community influenced by wealthy Jews. Chrysostom objects to Christians participating in Jewish feasts, reaffirming Jewish traditions and negating the necessity of Christianity as an independent religion. Cyril, writing a few centuries after Origen, has adversarial relations with Jews in Alexandria. Cyril has a threefold project of opposing Christian heterodoxy, developing the Jewishness of characters in the Gospel as part of his opposition to Judaism, and yet not blaming all Jews for the death of Jesus.
Though Azar differentiates his three examples as a whole, he does see similarities among them. All three figures regard Jews as too “flesh-oriented” like those “from below” (John 8:23). This tendency in Origen seems particularly puzzling. It appears also in his interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew. When discussing Jesus’ final entrance into Jerusalem (Mt 21:5-7), Origen observes that his Jewish contemporaries are correctto reject literal readings of Zechariah’s prophecy in this New Testament passage. Reading the passage allegorically, Origen interprets the ass Christ rode as the Old Testament whereas the colt is the New Testament. Only the ass is the beast of burden that shows what a burden the Old Testament is to those who do not read it properly – that is, without reading it alongside the New Testament.
Azar’s study makes an important contribution to the history of early Christian reception of the Gospel of John. In spite of Azar’s close readings, it is sometimes difficult to know where the anti-Judaism in these church fathers’ thinking was related to the Gospel of John and where it is connected to other Christian literature and liturgy. Azar does not necessarily delineate this question fully. Moreover, the reader may wish to see the post-Shoah discussions of the introduction and conclusion woven more thoroughly into the central chapters as well as further development of the author’s arguments about totalizing discourse and boundary formation. Azar concludes with another homage to Jules Isaac, by noting that Isaac did not wish to stoop to the Nazi’s level even though the Nazis killed his wife and child and drove him into hiding. Isaac “wanted to avoid doing what he had argued the Christian tradition had done to the Jews” (214). The references to Isaac, however, seem to function as bookends rather than as continuous lines of inquiry. Nevertheless, the book makes for clear and succinct reading. The condensed nature of each section equips readers to identify areas of interest without having to slog through lengthy close readings. In sum, Exegeting the Jews is a useful and informative discussion on how Origen, John Chrysostom, and Cyril both interpret New Testament representations of Jews and depict their Jewish contemporaries.
Janelle Peters has a forthcoming book with the University of Pennsylvania Press (Paul and the Citizen Body). She has authored numerous scholarly articles and chapters, and her public scholarship appears in America, The Atlantic, Bust, Busted Halo, Paste, and the Washington Post. For more, see her webpage (www.janellepeters.org).