In attempting to understand the sources of the long and lamentable tale of Christian anti-Judaism, contemporary scholars frequently look to the Fourth Gospel and its unsympathetic portrayal of the “Jews” (Ioudaioi) as a major cause. It is often assumed that though the Evangelist himself may not have been invariably hostile towards Jews, the gospel still engendered the worst of patristic anti-Judaic trends. This paper, by investigating the rhetorical function of the Jews in patristic readings of the Fourth Gospel—focussing particularly on Origen’s Commentary on John—fills a lacuna oddly present in modern studies of the status and identity of the Ioudaioi in John.
Perhaps surprisingly, Origen did not read this gospel against his own Jewish contemporaries (with whom he had significant, and sometimes tense, interaction). Rather, he read the gospel typologically, conceiving of the Ioudaioi in John not simply as “Jews” (Jesus’ contemporaries or his own) but primarily as those within the Christian community who opposed the teachings Origen himself was proclaiming—that is, those opposed to the higher, spiritual doctrines of the Logos Saviour that Origen sought to elucidate. Through Origen’s exegesis, the Ioudaioi in John become literary representations of larger, spiritual realities and concerns, as Origen mimetically places himself in the position of Christ and reveals that his literalist opponents—those who remain at the fleshly level of the text—are the Ioudaioi of the gospel. They too turn away when Origen reveals the deeper things of the Logos. The significance of the Jews in the Fourth Gospel qua Jews appears considerably diminished as the context and referent of the text of the Fourth Gospel and the context and referent of the interpreter are completely collapsed.
To assume that this gospel, as interpreted by patristic writers such as Origen, led to anti-Judaic tendencies anachronistically applies later medieval situations and sensibilities and overlooks the complexities of patristic hermeneutics as well as the ambiguity of the relationship between Jews and Christians in the earliest centuries of the Common Era.