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by Doug Ward

One prominent feature of the Fourth Gospel is its repeated mention of ``the Jews.'' The Greek word Ioudaioi, generally translated ``Jews'' in our English Bibles, appears sixty-seven times in the Gospel of John. In many cases, the people so designated are opponents of Jesus; eventually, ``the Jews'' actively seek his death. As a result, some have charged that John's Gospel has a strongly antijudaic tone, and others have even dismissed it as antisemitic.

Does the Gospel of John intend to make a blanket condemnation of first-century Jews? A survey of all sixty-seven passages about ``the Jews'' implies a negative answer to this question. For one thing, some of these verses make positive statements about Jews. In John 4:22, Jesus (himself a Jew, as we read in John 4:9) states that ``salvation is of the Jews'' (KJV). Moreover, a number of the passages cannot possibly refer to the entire Jewish community of that day-e.g., those in which various Jewish individuals or groups are said to act cautiously ``for fear of the Jews'' (7:13; 9:22; 19:38; 20:19).

The above examples suggest that the Greek word Ioudaioi must have more than one meaning for John. The aim of this article is to elucidate the possible meanings of Ioudaioi in the Fourth Gospel.

Meanings of "Ioudaioi''

Scholar Malcolm Lowe [2, pp. 102-103] has identified three meanings of Ioudaioi in the New Testament and other ancient Greek sources:

(a) ``members of the tribe of Judah'' as opposed to members of other tribes of Israel;

(b) ``Judeans'' as opposed to, say, Galileans or Samaritans;

(c) ``Jews'' as opposed to adherents of other religions.

Under heading (b), the definition of ``Judeans'' varied. In Jesus' day, Judea could be

(b1) the region west of the Jordan River between Samaria and Idumea;

(b2) the procurate of Pontius Pilate-i.e., (b1) along with Samaria and Idumea;

(b3) the kingdom of Herod the Great and the last Hasmoneans, which included almost all of the historic Land of Israel.

Definitions (a), (b), and (c) are, of course, closely related. After the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms, the tribe of Judah was the dominant tribe in the southern kingdom, its territory corresponded roughly to Judea, and those who practiced the religion of Israel lived mainly in that territory. In those days there was little distinction among (a), (b), and (c).

Differences among these meanings began to arise after the Babylonian captivity. With the establishment of Jewish communities in Babylon and Egypt, people in categories (a) and (c) did not always belong to category (b). At this stage, a Jew was a person of Jewish descent, whether living in Judea or in the Diaspora.

A further distinction between (a) and (c) arose during the Hellenistic period. Before the time of Alexander the Great, people identified themselves mainly by ethnicity and place of origin. Things changed, however, when Alexander actively promoted the spread of Greek culture throughout his empire. According to Dr. Oskar Skarsaune,

``In the wake of Alexander's conquests, a new way of defining identity appeared. People who were not Greeks by descent began to talk like Greeks, dress like Greeks, live like Greeks, in Greek-style cities. This new way of life was called, in Greek, hellenismos-probably the first ``ism'' on record in history. As a response, Jews began to define themselves in the same way: they had their own way of life, iudaismos'' [3, p. 39].

The word ``Judaism'' (Iudiasmos) seems to have first appeared in print in the late second century B.C. in the book of 2 Maccabees (2 Macc. 2:21; 8:1; 14:38). In 2 Maccabees, Judaism denotes a lifestyle of obedience to the Torah [3, p. 40]. Some people of Jewish descent abandon Judaism in the face of heavy persecution, while others defend it to the death.

If not all Israelites practiced Judaism, it was also true that not all adherents of Judaism were Israelites. The Hasmonean kings sometimes forced conquered peoples to convert to Judaism [2, p. 108]. During the late Second Temple period, at least some segments of the Jewish community were very active in proselytization (see e.g. Matt. 23:15). The famous Pharasaic teacher Hillel the Elder (c. 70 B.C.- c. 10 A.D.) held ``loving mankind and bringing them nigh to the Law'' to be a high priority (Pirke Avot 1.12).  

So by the time of Jesus, a reference to ``Jews'' could mean one or more of (a), (b), and (c), depending upon the context. Lowe [2, pp. 104-106] presents examples from each category, including excerpts from Josephus in which more than one meaning is used within a single passage. On the basis of his research, he concludes that ``the geographical senses of Ioudaioi . . . formed the primary meaning of the term in New Testament times . . . ''(p. 105). In fact, there was a fairly widespread belief in the Gentile world at the time that the Ioudaioi ``were certain Egyptians or Indians who had obtained their current name by emigrating to the already existing country of Judea.'' Josephus took pains in his book Against Apion to clear up this misconception [2, p. 106].

Meaning (b) has not remained prominent, however. The disastrous Bar Kochba revolt (132-135 A.D.) and the ensuing Roman persecution resulted in the death or deportation of much of the Jewish population of Judea. Thereafter, (c) became the primary meaning of ``Jews,'' as it is to this day.

This historical shift in definition from (b) to (c) helps explain the problems often encountered by modern readers in understanding the identity of ``the Jews'' in John's Gospel. It is easy for us to read meaning (c) into the text where another meaning is intended. But with the foregoing background information in hand, we can approach the text more carefully and identify the intended meanings in specific cases.

Feasts of the Jews

Both Christian tradition and the text of the Fourth Gospel point to John the son of Zebedee as the author of this Gospel (see e.g. [1, pp. 68-81]). John, like Jesus and the rest of the inner circle of Jesus' disciples, was from Galilee, a region north of Judea. Over the course of Jesus' earthly ministry, Jesus and these disciples made several trips between Galilee and Judea. John often notes the locations of the events that he records in his Gospel.  

As observant Jews, Jesus and his disciples regularly traveled from Galilee to Judea for the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Exod. 23:14-16). John describes these festivals as ``Jewish feasts'' or ``feasts of the Jews'' (John 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55). Commentator D.A. Carson [1, p. 176] observes that some modern readers-assuming meaning (c)- infer from this language that John ``is writing from a dismissive and censorious point of view, setting `the Jews' over against Jesus and the church.'' Carson points out, however, that such conclusions are unfounded, since John actually ascribes value to the festivals when he demonstrates how their rich symbolism finds fulfillment in Christ.

It is much more likely that these references to ``the Jews'' are geographical. In describing Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles as ``feasts of the Jews,'' John is saying that they are celebrations held at the temple in Judea, thus explaining why Jesus travels to Judea in order to observe them. Such trips are mentioned in John 2:13, 5:1, 7:2-10, and 11:55. The only exception is John 6:4. In John 6, Jesus speaks at a Galilean synagogue (6:59) at a time shortly before a Passover trip to Jerusalem would take place. In this case, John points out the time of year because the events and teaching recorded in John 6 are so closely tied to the meaning and symbolism of the Passover.

Judeans and their Leaders

The Gospel of John describes a number of potential and actual confrontations between Jesus and ``the Jews.'' In some of these instances, there is no doubt that ``Jews'' means ``Judeans'' because Judea is mentioned explicitly. For example, in John 7:1 we read,

``After this Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life'' (NIV).

Another obvious example is John 11:7-8, where Jesus says to his disciples, ``Let us go back to Judea,'' and the disciples answer, ``But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?''

Lowe [2, pp. 120-124] contends that in the vast majority of situations, John's references to ``the Jews'' are geographical. Consider the following examples:

(i) John 11:19, 31, 33, 36, 45.    Mourners come to Bethany to comfort Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus. Bethany is in Judea, very close to Jerusalem, so John's intention in mentioning that the mourners are ``Jews'' must be to identify them as Judeans.

(ii) John 10:19, 22, 24, 31, 33.    Here Jesus is in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah. This was not a season when many pilgrims were in Jerusalem, so again these Jews were probably Judeans.

(iii) John 7:11, 13, 15, 25, 35.    At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jerusalem's population swelled with the presence of many pilgrims. However, verse 25 singles out ``the people of Jerusalem,'' so Judeans seem to be mainly in view in this case as well.

(iv) John 5:10, 15, 16, 18.    John 7:1 (an obvious reference to Judeans) may refer back to John 5:18, when Jesus faces opposition at the time of a previous festival in Jerusalem.

(v) John 7:13; 9:22; 19:38; 20:19.    In these verses, people who are Jews according to meaning (c) experience ``fear of the Jews.'' Here ``the Jews'' are apparently religious authorities in Jerusalem. There is no evidence in the Gospels of anyone outside Judea being afraid to openly follow Jesus during this time.

(vi) John 11:33.    This verse distinguishes eleven Galilean disciples of Jesus, who of course are also Jews by definition (c), from ``the Jews.'' Jesus here refers to a statement made in John 8:21 during an earlier visit to Jerusalem, implying a geographical meaning for ``the Jews'' in 8:22, 31, 48, 52, 57. (John 8:33 could also help identify Jesus' opponents in John 8 as Judeans. With the words ``we are Abraham's descendants,'' the speaker may be implying that the Israelite pedigree of Judeans is superior to that of Galileans.)

In a number of other passages, ``the Jews'' are Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (e.g., 1:19; 18:14, 36, 38; 19:7, 12, 14, 31). Since the jurisdiction of these authorities did not extend beyond the procurate of Pontius Pilate [2, p. 123], they could rightly be called ``Judean authorities'' in these verses.

Judeans and Galileans versus Samaritans

We have seen that in many cases, ``the Jews'' in John's Gospel are Judeans, sometimes viewed in contrast with Galileans. There are also times when John presents a different sort of contrast and hence speaks of ``the Jews'' in another way.

In John 4, Jesus travels through Samaria on the way to Galilee and has a conversation with a woman at Jacob's well. The woman refers to Jesus as a ``Jew'' (4:9), which is certainly true in senses (a) and (c). To a Samaritan, all who followed the religion centered at the Jerusalem temple in Judea would have been lumped together as ``Jews.'' Lowe [2, p. 126] suggests that a Samaritan definition of ``Jews'' would have been something like ``people who are Judean in the sense of belonging to the aberrant Judean version of the true faith of Israel'' or simply ``Judean by religion.'' Jesus adopts the same usage in verse 22 when he tells the woman that ``salvation is of the Jews.''

Jesus spent two days in Samaria, during which time many came to believe in him (vv. 39-42). 1 Then he went on to Galilee. John notes parenthetically in verse 44 that ``Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.'' In this context, ``his own country'' does not just refer to Nazareth, as in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6; Luke 4:14-24). Instead, John implies a contrast between Samaritans and ``Jews'' in the sense of 4:9, 22, which includes both Galileans and Judeans [1, pp. 234-236]. Jesus was initially welcomed in Galilee because of miracles he had performed in Jerusalem at the Passover (4:45; 2:23). However, chapters five and six show that Jesus' subsequent teaching in both Judea and Galilee met with disbelief and even hostility. In 6:41, 52, the contrast between Samaritans and Jews continues when ``the Jews'' at the Capernaum synagogue struggle with the words of Jesus.

Finally, there is one more instance in John's Gospel when ``the Jews'' surely has meaning (c). In the account of the wedding miracle at Cana in Galilee, the jars containing the water that was turned into wine are described as ``the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing'' (2:6).


We have seen that the Fourth Gospel usually speaks of ``the Jews'' in reference to Judeans or their leaders. There are some exceptions, most notably in chapters four and six where the response of Judeans and Galileans to Jesus is compared to that of Samaritans. However, in no case does John intend some sort of sweeping indictment of all first-century Jews or their customs.

This conclusion is consistent with what can be inferred about John's goals in writing his Gospel [1, pp. 90-92]. John tells his readers that he writes so ``that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name'' (20:31). This statement shows that John's purpose was evangelistic, and that his original intended audience was composed of people with an interest in the identity of the Jewish Messiah-i.e., Jews and Jewish proselytes. The content of the Gospel also backs up the idea that its target audience was Jewish. With its constant references to the Hebrew Scriptures and the festivals of Israel, the Fourth Gospel assumes a high degree of ``Jewish literacy.'' Moreover, John is said to have written his Gospel while serving in Ephesus, so it is likely that he was thinking especially of Jews in the Diaspora. If so, his criticism of Judean and Galilean Jews was intended to encourage Diaspora Jews to respond more positively to the message of Jesus than many of their brethren in the land of Israel had done. As Carson writes, John was ``not motivated by a desire to destroy what he understands to be right and good in Judaism, but to controvert those who have so failed to appreciate their own heritage that they have failed to see its fulfillment in Jesus Christ'' [1, p. 142].


1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991.

2. Malcolm Lowe, ``Who Were the IOUDAIOI?'' Novum Testamentum 18 (1976), no. 2, 101-130.

3. Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2002.


1Jesus' teaching in Samaria probably laid the groundwork for the successful trip of Philip the evangelist to Samaria recorded in Acts 8.

Issue 15


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