Sunday, January 30, 2005


1/23 -- What does John mean by "Ioudaioi"?

1/6 -- Shem-Tob's Hebrew Matthew (1380)

Sunday, January 23, 2005


"Ioudaioi" is usually translated as Jews, but it can also mean Judeans. John uses it more than any other Gospel and about the same amount as Acts -- i.e., about 70 times. In John, it is almost a pejorative term. He seems to demonize "Ioudaioi" ("You are of your father the devil", Jn 8:44) and constantly portrays them as extremely hostile towards Jesus.

It has given John the reputation of being antisemitic. It is a black eye for John which many scholars would like to remove. So alternative suggestions have been made for the translation of "Ioudaioi". I think these are just attempts to whitewash John.

It is interesting that, while "Ioudaioi" can also mean Judeans, not too many scholars have gone for this possibility. I think the reason is that it does not do too much to save John from his bad reputation. If it means Judeans, then John is demonizing Judeans, so it is just another broad group whom he is tarring. It seems pretty obvious that some scholars are motivated to come up with something to make John look better; sound scholarship has nothing to do with it.

Thus, it has become a popular suggestion that by "Ioudaioi" John means Jewish leaders, not all Jews. This has been very appealing to conservative Christians because they can now use this idea to trumpet the news that John did not intend to vilify an entire people. The problem is that this is an absurd alternative for "Ioudaioi". It has nothing behind it.

In the first place, John was perfectly capable of referring to Jewish authorities as Jewish authorities when he wanted to. He did not need a circumlocution. Why would he use this word "Ioudaioi" when he could say Jewish authorities?

In the second place, John was not writing for clever scholars 2,000 years later. He was writing for the people of his time. By what right can anybody make the claim that John's contemporaries understood "Ioudaioi" to mean Jewish authorities? If there is any evidence that other writers of the time used the word this way, then you would have an interesting case. As far as I know, no such evidence exists.

Therefore, you are left with the argument that this was John's own private meaning of the word. But if it was his private meaning (and how do you prove that?), then how could people in the 2nd century have figured out what he meant? We have absolutely no reason to think that people back then read "Ioudaioi" in John as meaning anything other than Jews. And we have no reason to think that John wanted it any other way.

Giving "Ioudaioi" a secret meaning that only John understood is pretty bizarre scholarship. It defies all common sense. I understand the ulterior motives behind this suggestion, but this amounts to rewriting history and John. Such untruthful scholarship will not help us confront the past and solve our problems in the present.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


In 1380, Shem-Tob ben-Isaac Shaprut, a Spanish-Jewish writer, wrote a polemical treatise against Christianity. In it, he preserved a Hebrew version of Matthew. Georger Howard has published the Hebrew text along with an English translation in "Hebrew Gospel of Matthew" (1995). He also has a later article on this, "Shem-Tob's Hebrew Matthew and Early Jewish Christianity" in the 1998 Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Vol. 70, pp. 3-20.

In both the book and the article, Howard gives a number of arguments for why it is unlikely that the Shem-Tob Matthew is a translation from the Greek. It seems rather that it is, for the most part, an original Hebrew version of Matthew which goes back to the earliest centuries. I will give just a few of the more important reasons which Howard discusses:

1. Shem-Tob's Matthew differs radically from the Greek and Latin texts used in his time.

2. There are so many Hebrew wordplays which you would never guess at from the Greek text. It is like walking through a field strewn with diamonds. If somebody translated this from the Greek, they went to a lot of trouble to introduce all these wordplays which, as Howard says, beautify the text. More likely it is that these wordplays are original. (I will present just a few further below.)

3. John the Baptist is more exalted in Shem-Tob's Hebrew Matthew than in the Greek. This is an unlikely change that a translator would introduce. It is another sign that this goes back to an early tradition. (I have seen other scholars argue, for completely independent reasons, that John the Baptist was a more major figure in his time than the Greek Gospels indicate.)

4. In the Shem-Tob Matthew, Jesus is not called Messiah until 16:16. In the Greek, Jesus is referred to as Christ beginning with 1:1 and several times thereafter (1:17, 1:18, 11:2). Why would a translator eliminate all these mentions of Christ or Messiah but keep the one at 16:16? As Howard argues, the Shem-Tob Matthew seems to reflect an early Jewish-Christian tradition, perhaps that of the Ebionites, in which Jesus is a man who became the Messiah at a later point in his life.

This is not to say that everything in the Shem-Tob Matthew is a pure version of an early text. It does show signs of revision in places. For example, at Matt 27:16, Barabbas is called crazy and said to have been "taken in a case of murder". This is not in the Greek Matthew which gives no reason for Barabbas being in jail. Some ancient scribes were probably dissatisfied with Matthew's indefiniteness about Barabbas and decided to fix this up. (This also happened with a Syriac version of Mark.)

Now for just a few of those wordplays:

1. There has long been a Jewish tradition that, at the end of time, society will grow more anarchic and people will get very nasty with each other. Jesus expresses this a number of times. One of the more striking is at Matt 10:36. In the Greek, it says that a man's enemies will be from his own household. But in the Shem-Tob, it says that the enemy will be loved ones. The Hebrew words for "enemy" and "loved ones" are very similar. Just a little flip gets you from one to the other.

2. Also, noteworthy is that Matt 10:38 (about taking up a cross and following Jesus) is missing in the Shem-Tob. The result is that verses 35-39 (with 38 absent) in the Shem-Tob make the word "love" stand out more.

3. Matt 5:9-10 Blessed are those who pursue peace ... and blessed are those who are persecuted. In the Hebrew, "pursue" and "persecuted" are similar.

4. Matt 15:34-37, the miracle of the loaves. In the Hebrew, the words for "seven" (they had seven loaves) and "satisfied" are close to each other. This intriguingly suggests that this miracle story could have arisen from someone making a pun in Hebrew.

There is so much more to be gleaned from George Howard's work on this. It is worth studying in depth.

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