Book Review: The Jewish Gospel of John

The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of All Israel  by Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eysenberg makes a very convincing case that a primary audience for the Gospel of John was the Samaritan community, who were considered outcasts and heretics by both Judean and Galilean Jews. He makes a strong case that the word Judean, or Judeans, referred to the particular religious ruling class in Jerusalem, and their emissaries throughout Israel.  Back in 1981, Geza Vermes wrote Jesus the Jew, where he successfully argued that the Gospel of John preserves an inter-religious conflict between Judean (which is translated into the English word Jew) and Galilean Judaism. In other words, Jesus did not have a problem with his fellow Jews as such, but with the religious and political hierarchy based in Jerusalem, which was Judean.

Dr. Eli refines and extends this thesis, explaining that politically and morally corrupt Judean leadership saw Jesus as a threat to their power structure. Although Jesus himself was from the tribe of Judah, his political allegiance was Galilean. So when Jesus spoke of his opposition among “the Jews,” he was not speaking of the race or the religion, but of the ruling class based in Jerusalem.

Post-resurrection, the evangelists wrote their Gospels to reach different communities: Matthew wrote to the dispersed Hebrews, Luke to the greater Roman/Gentile world, and John targeted the Samaritans. Dr. Eli points out the significance of the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4, where she is not only the first person to believe he is the Messiah, but she leads her whole town to the same conclusion. Jesus stays for several days with this outcast, even untouchable, community, where he is gladly received, in sharp contrast to his rejection by his own country’s leadership. Whereas most Galileans and Judeans would take extra days of travel to avoid going through Samaritan territory, Jesus traveled freely through it. The book provides many more examples of both the political and the religious conflicts surrounding the Samaritan and Judean divide and how John hoped to bridge that gap.

Dr. Eli’s major point is that Jesus saw the Samaritan community as part of the “lost” tribes of the Northern Kingdom, or of Greater Israel. And Jesus had come as King and Messiah for all Israel.

I read and enjoyed the book and agree with its main theme, but I think there is more to it than only a Samaritan Gospel. What Dr. Eli under-emphasizes, I believe, is just as important.  While definitely a Samaritan outreach, I believe the Gospel was also written as an outreach to the Greeks, and not simply the God-fearers.  While the God-fearers clearly play a key role, there are elements of the book that are so clearly written in a Greek milieu that the Greek unbelievers also have to be clearly in mind.

I read a book back in seminary  which showed how clearly John used the Greek tragedy-drama format in the story of the man born blind (John 9). (History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel by J. Louis Martyn) I found two more recent resources that focus on the Greek dramatic elements in the structure of the Gospel.

Dialogue and Drama: Elements of Greek Tragedy in the Fourth Gospel 


My argument basically is as follows:

1. The Greek of the Gospel is so thoroughly Greek and so elegant that it relies upon double-entendres only available to the Greek-speaking audience.  The classic phrase “you must be born again” in Greek also means “born from above.”  (John 3) The confusion of Nicodemus relies upon this misunderstanding of what Jesus is saying, missing the point that he must be born from above by the Holy Spirit.

2. While Jesus is the light that has come into the World, darkness has not apprehended, overcome or comprehended the light (John 1:5), all those meanings are translations of the single Greek word.

2. “In the beginning was the Word…” The use of the Word/Logos/Memra, while thoroughly Hebrew in its origin (showing John 1 is related to Genesis 1 and creation by the Word), the use of the Greek word, Logos (or Reason), is also written to answer Greek philosophy within the cultural context of the Greek worldview.

3. The use of Greek dramatic structure in the Gospel points to an audience entirely familiar with Greek tragedy and Greek cultural life.

4.  Finally, the attempt by Greek God-fearers to see Jesus provides the pivot point of the Gospel wherein Jesus realizes that in order to fulfill his mission of being a Light unto the Gentiles, he must die. It is this very encounter that causes him to say:

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12: 20-24).

So, my conclusion is that Dr. Eli’s thesis is right but so is the thesis that the Greek audience as part of the intended purpose.  Since this Gospel is most likely the last one written, the barrier between Hebrew and Greek would already have been broken. Paul has had converts all over the place and John is living in a multi-cultural city by this time. It would make sense to want to reach the Samaritans, but it seems clear that the wider Greek and Gentile culture was also in mind.

I would definitely recommend this book, however, for the strength of what it offers in understanding the additional dimensions of John’s Gospel.

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