Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:24-25, John 1:1-4, 10-14
The gospel of John may have been written later than the other New Testament gospels, but unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke the fourth gospel does not seem to be an edited version of the gospel of Mark. The gospel of John has a different sequence of events, does not contain parables about the kingdom of God, and has Jesus crucified on Passover as the sacrificial Lamb of God rather than after eating the Passover meal with his disciples.
In addition, unlike the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the gospel of John does not tell a birth story about the baby Jesus, but begins by affirming that Jesus is "the Word made flesh" who, as the Word, gave birth to all creation. "In the beginning," the fourth gospel begins, "was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Greek noun being translated as "Word" is Logos, which might also be rendered in English as teaching, law, rule, or order.
Clearly, the reference here is to Genesis 1, which begins: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth . . . God said, ‘Let there be light.’" In the Genesis account, creation is caused by the words of God. The gospel of John identifies this verbal act of creation with the Logos. The gospel then asserts that this Logos "became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth."
We are so familiar with these words that we may not appreciate their audacity. The man, Jesus, who was born of a Jewish woman in "the sticks" of the Roman Empire, is here claimed to be the manifestation of the truth that was at the beginning of all creation ― a truth with God that also is God! Not surprisingly, we hear in the gospel of John that there is opposition to this claim. In the first three gospels the adversaries of Jesus are generally identified as Jewish leaders, who are accused of being hypocrites for not practicing what they preach. The fourth gospel, however, identifies the opponents of Jesus as "the Jews."
Some of "the Jews" rejecting the claims of the fourth gospel are disciples of Jesus. In John 6:53 Jesus is reported as saying, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." Seven verses later we read that when "many of his disciples" heard this, they said: "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" (Jn. 6:60) After Jesus tells the disciples, "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life," we hear — "Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him." (Jn. 6:63, 66)
This division among the disciples of Jesus is not confirmed by the other New Testament gospels. In the fourth gospel it reflects a conflict over the teaching that the Word made flesh must be eaten instead of the Passover lamb. In short, the gospel of John says that God in Jesus Christ has replaced the Jewish Passover with the Christian Eucharist. The fourth gospel not only promotes the church, but also condemns Jews who refuse to accept the church’s doctrine of the Eucharist. This is made explicit in John 8:44, which has Jesus telling the Jews who oppose him, "You are from your father the devil."
Unlike the gospel of John, the gospel of Matthew does not identify the adversaries of Jesus as "the Jews," but it does unfairly characterize Jewish teachings in order to promote Christian teachings. This is the pattern of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), where Jesus says repeatedly, "you have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you . . .." In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is presented as teaching a more spiritual understanding of the Torah than his fellow Jews. A more accurate description of first century Jewish faith would admit that it embraced a diversity of views about the law of Moses. In fact, Jesus interprets the Torah in ways that resemble teachings of the Pharisaic school founded by Hillel before Jesus was born. Even as Paul argues for a new understanding of Jewish scripture, he affirms he is a Jew and a Pharisee. (Phil. 3:5)
The gospels of Matthew and John, however, draw a sharp line between Jewish teaching and Christian teaching. Moreover, the gospel of Matthew records a judgment of Jews that has had catastrophic consequences. After Pilate orders the crucifixion, but says he is innocent of the blood of Jesus, the gospel of Matthew reports that — "The people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’" (Mt. 27:25) Even more provocatively, the Good News for Modern Man version of the New Testament has "the whole crowd" say, "Let the punishment for his death fall on us and our children!"
The gospel of John lays the kindling, and the gospel of Matthew strikes the match. Soon, when Christians have the power of the State behind them, they will justify for generations the punishment of Jews for being "Christ-killers." Gentile Christians will use statements made in the first century by Jews condemning other Jews to support Christian attacks on Jews. The result will be a horrific history of persecution that will stir up and seek to justify vicious acts of anti-Semitism.
The church must say that statements in the gospel of John made in the first century by Jews about other Jews should not be read as a condemnation of all Jews. The church must also say that Matthew 27:25 is not the word of God, but was written by a Jewish Christian to protect Jewish Christians just after the Roman legions had put down a Jewish rebellion (66-70 CE).
The New Testament gospels were conceived during the political turbulence of the first century. To protect the fledgling church from Roman persecution, the gospels of John and Matthew argue that Jesus was not a rebellious Jew. The strategy of the gospel of Matthew is to show that Jesus fulfills ancient prophecies, which the Jews have rejected. The gospel of John uses Greek philosophy to explain that Jesus is a manifestation of the Logos affirmed by Gentiles.
After the church became entirely Gentile, arguments among Jews in its scriptures were read as condemning Jews. In the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine embraced the church to unify his rule, the cross of Christ was transformed into a sword ― a sword wielded not only against pagans and heretics, but also against Jews.
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we must remember that our faith has been used for centuries to castigate the people of Jesus. The word made flesh has been understood by the church as condemning the Jews and their religion. This cannot be what Christmas means! We cannot allow this Christian lie to continue! The babe of Christmas is a Jewish child, born to Jewish parents, who was nurtured on Jewish love and Jewish scriptures. If we find in this Jew the Word made flesh, it is because the love of God was so fully manifested in his very Jewish life.
December 29, 2002