- Exegeting the Jews: The Early Reception of the Johannine “Jews” by Michael G. Azar
The Bible in Ancient Christianity 10
Leiden: Brill, 2016
Pp. xii + 259. $135.00.
Post-Holocaust Christian scholarship now regularly revisits core texts hoping to treat the cancer of historic anti-Judaism and antisemitism in the body of Christ. The Fourth Gospel especially presents a thorny patch for scholars worried about anti-Judaism being possibly hard-wired into the tradition. But with some exceptions, scholars have found anti-Judaism not in the Gospel itself but [End Page 667] in later irresponsible misreading of it. That misreading, the story goes, began when Gentile Christians of the second and later centuries forgot the inter-Jewish debates of the apostolic era and used the texts to diminish and dismiss Jews.
This volume, a revision of Azar’s 2013 Fordham dissertation, contests a tendency in scholarship to blame supposed Johannine anti-Judaism on early Christian commentators. He quotes one scholar lamenting the “ghastly line” that extends from John’s portrayal of Jews through “the anti-Semitic statements of Cyril of Alexandria and of Chrysostom,” into medieval tracts and the outbursts of Luther, and on to “Nazi propaganda” (213). But Azar thinks this a facile judgment made without studying the literature, formed from a habit of “stereotyping and totalizing” (7) that leads scholars to “assume an entirely hostile Wirkungsgeschichte” (47) for the Gospel that is “simply and uniformly virulent” (215).
Like an alert defense attorney, Azar parses the exact charge in question, at the cost of some reductionism and repetitiveness. He keeps laser-like focus on whether these defendants reflected this degree of bias in those works on John. This specificity allows Azar to admit candidly that elsewhere these writers often did disparage Jews and so, broadly speaking, were anti-Jewish. However, as he continually recalls, the charge in question concerns not their general attitude but virulent anti-Judaism in reading John’s Gospel. The defendants are not guilty of that, he contends; rather, modern scholarship should answer for its superficiality in making such charges without studying the facts. Moreover, he can plausibly explain what these authors were really up to when treating “John’s Jews.” Despite their intense pastoral focus on contemporary issues, he contends, they did not use the Johannine Jews to attack Jews of their own day, but rather to cast them as types portraying Christian, not Jewish, targets for instruction, exhortation, and admonition. Though their purposes varied, they had “coinciding and remarkably consistent paranaetic concerns” (205). For Origen (Chapter Two), John’s Jews signified immature, fleshly-minded Christians whom he wanted to coach toward ascent to true spiritual consciousness. For Chrysostom (Chapter Three), they were types of Christians who give in to anger, greed, and lust whom he hoped to help toward virtue. For Cyril (Chapter Four), John’s Jews typified Christian heretics whose minds he wished to save from deadly errors that threatened salvation. According to Azar, this common “typological” intent and strategy clears these writers of the malicious charges often hurled at them; he moves that the case be thrown out of court for lack of evidence. “Whatever their ‘anti-Judaism’ is,” he concludes, “it is neither simple nor consistent; rather, it applies in different ways and not always as an attack on Jews per se” (212).
According to the questions posed and terms set, Azar’s case is clear, conclusive, and convincing. He rightly lances the embarrassing historical and theological self-satisfaction of scholars who settle for invoking biblical reception history they do not know and making claims about literature they have not studied.
Nevertheless, the volume seems still to be working its way from dissertation to book. Certain operative terms need greater definition and refinement. The book uses rather unsophisticated understandings of “type” and “typology” (never concisely defined, despite their central role in the argument, and some sophisticated discussions in recent literature; see, e.g., 52–53, 66–69, 183), and [End Page 668] of “rhetoric” (used only in the popular general sense of decorative language made “dramatic and exaggerated”  to persuade toward biased ends...