Although they recognize hostility between [the Gospel of John's] Jesus and "the Jews," some scholars question whether one may appropriately call this "anti-Jewish." They contend that we are hearing a dispute between one group of Jews and another, and therefore "anti-Jewish" is no more appropriate here than it would be if applied to hostility between the Qumran Essenes and the Jerusalem high-priestly family.
I agree that in its beginnings the hostility between Johannine Christians and Jews who did not believe in Jesus may have been comparable to to other inter-Jewish hostilities. Yet the situation changed. I know of no evidence that in their various intramural hostilities the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Sadducees ever said to the other, "You are no longer Jews" or spoke of their enemies as "the Jews." In its later stage, the Johannine community seems to have regarded expulsion from the synagogue as meaning that they no longer could look on themselves as Jews. Thus John can be be described as anti-Jewish in a qualified sense when through Jesus' words it attacks those whom it calls "the Jews," from whom the (Johannine) disciples of Jesus differ religiously, if not necessarily ethnically or geographically. And even the religious difference is narrowly restricted: The Johannine Christians and "the Jews" do not differ in venerating the Scriptures and the Jewish religious heritage but in their estimation of Jesus. (50)
I have contended that a good part of the relations between Jesus and “the Jews” described in the Gospel (although related to conflicts that did arise between Jesus and Pharisees and Temple authorities in the late 20s) goes beyond what actually happened during Jesus’ lifetime. Rather, to a considerable degree the description reflects what happened to the Johannine Christians in their interactions with synagogue authorities. For example, they faced charges that they were making Jesus equal to God and thus were introducing another God alongside the God of Israel (see 5:16–18); they were put on trial before the authorities and other opponents in the synagogue; they marshaled arguments from the Scriptures and the Jesus tradition to answer the authorities; they were expelled from synagogues and reacted in alienated hostility toward their former coreligionists (ch. 9).
50. Editor's note: Ashton points out that one must 'recognize in these hot-tempered exchanges the type of family row in which the participants face one another across the room of a house that all have shared and all call home.'
Apologetic against Jews Who Did Not Confess Publicly Their Belief in Jesus
By the time John was completed (ca. 90–110) the era of large Christian missionary inroads into Judaism has passed. Jesus had been preached to Jews both in Palestine and the Diaspora, and decisions had been made for or against Jesus. For the most part, the Jews who had accepted Jesus were now simply Christians and part of the church. If one agrees that the hostile attitude toward “the Jews” described above reflects pre-Gospel struggles, that is quite different from claiming that the purpose of the Gospel was to convert such “Jews,” or that it was a missionary document to Diaspora Jews.
There is no indication that the Johannine writers thought that “the Jews” hostile to Jesus would read the Gospel or be preached to from it. Moreover, the violence of the language in ch. 8, comparing the Jews to the devil’s brood, is scarcely designed to convert the synagogue. Rather John echoes apologetics; indeed, some of the discussions between the Johannine Jesus and “the Jews” anticipate the classic apologetic that Justin addressed to Trypho in the mid-second century. If the Gospel entered into any continued dealings with “the Jews” in the evangelist’s time, it would have been one of countering Jewish propaganda rather than of persuading Jews with a hope of mass conversions.
Yet there may have been a hope to reach and persuade one group of Jews. Having been expelled from the synagogues for what they regarded as the courage to stand up to the authorities and confess Jesus, the Johannine Christians could not help being critical of those who lacked that courage—those who believed in Jesus but did not confess it publicly. It is not implausible that in the 80s and 90s such Jewish crypto-Christians were undergoing a crisis as to whether to stay on as part of synagogue Judaism or openly to join one of the developing churches or communities.
56. I have spoken of expulsion from the synagogue because that is the way John describes it. It would not be surprising if the synagogue authorities looked on that as secession—voluntary to the extent that if the offenders had modified their divine claims about Jesus they could have remained affiliated with the synagogue. Most contemporary Johannine scholars would accept that expulsion from the synagogue(s) was part of the Johannine experience. It cannot but be the experience that generated 9:22; 12:42 and 16:2. However, they increasingly insist that this expulsion may have been a very local experience, and should not be linked to the inser-tion of the Birkat ha-mînîm into the Jewish prayer, the Eighteen Benedictions (the Shemoneh ‘Esreh), a thesis classically developed by Martyn, History and Theology.
Was at least a partial goal of the Gospel to persuade such Jewish crypto-Christians to confess Jesus publicly, even if they would have to leave the synagogue? Favoring an affirmative answer is the strong sense of Jesus’ mission in John, for in the same manner believers were sent with a missionary goal (20:21). Possibly, as believers in Jesus, the crypto-Christians might have been willing to read John—a gesture very unlikely on the part of the disbelieving “Jews.” The crypto-Christians should not have been unduly offended by the Gospel’s harsh attacks on “the Jews,” for it was precisely “the Jews” hostile to Jesus who were making it dangerous in the synagogue(s) for Jews with Christian leanings. The man born blind, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus can be seen as heroes held up to be imitated by crypto-Christians.
The Gospel’s strong emphasis on Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of God” (20:31) should have strengthened their faith in this crucial confession which had become the testing stone for their being removed from the synagogues. The theme of Jesus’ replacement or reinterpretation of Jewish institutions and feasts could have been an encouragement to them, for they would have to leave such practices behind if they withdrew from the synagogues. On the other side of picture, by condemning the crypto-Christians for loving human praise John makes no effort to understand sympathetically plausible better motives. Although the man born blind is held up as a hero for the Johannine Christians, was he also representative of the sarcasm with which the Johannine Christians answered synagogue authorities (9:27, 30)? The Jewish Christians who hesitated to go public may have observed that such effrontery was not likely to bring about understanding and acceptance and may have decided to avoid confrontation till a later, more opportune period. Weighing this evidence, I would allow at least a likelihood that an appeal to the Jewish crypto-Christians was a minor purpose of the Gispel.