Since it is Lent and the Church’s readings are more Johannine than usual this time of year, and since the purpose of those readings are ordered toward preparing catechumens for the sacrament of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist in the rites of initiation, it seemed to me good to reprint a piece I wrote long ago discussing one of the most misunderstood and misread passages in the entire Bible: John 8:44. If you are not Catholic, I hope it helps remove a stumbling block in understanding the theology of the New Testament. If you are Catholic, I hope this helps enrich your faith and see the subtle genius of St. John, as well as grow closer to Our Lord. Imma parse it out over the next three days since it is a lot to process:
One of the most volatile passages in the New Testament is the moment at which Jesus looks at some of his Jewish audience and declares point blank, “You are of your father, the devil” (John 8:44). Not unnaturally, this sounds pretty ugly to modern ears and, particularly in the shadow of the Shoah, strikes many moderns as prima facie evidence for the alleged “intrinsic anti-semitism” of Christianity, stretching all the way back to the New Testament and even to the very words of Jesus himself. So, for instance, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz writes, “Hatred and violence are consequences of Christian Anti-Semitism, not the source. The source is the demonizing of the Jewish people. This comes as no surprise since New Testament passages, such as John 8:44, refer to Jews as ‘children of the Devil.’”
Many Christians, rightly sensitive to the dangers of anti-semitism, have tended to respond to this and similar texts by attempting to create some distance between Jesus and these words. This is usually accomplished by turning Jesus into the “Johannine Jesus” and attributing this and other sayings, not to Jesus himself, but to the Evangelist. On this showing, the claim is that John or the Johannine community are responding to the situation of the Church some sixty years after Christ, when the synagogue and Church have definitively and bitterly split and the Christian community, full of recriminations against a hostile Jewish leadership, is now inclined to place its own curses in the mouth of Christ in order to give divine sanction to its rage and disappointment at Jews who refused to accept the gospel.
This is, however, to badly misread the text at a number of levels and to miss the real and incomparably rich meaning of John’s thought. But in order to see this–and get at the real meaning of this text–it is necessary for us to know a bit about the Church’s teaching on Scripture, the relationship between Jesus’ words and the Evangelist’s accounts of them, and about the relationship between John and his audience.
The basic problem with the “John put words in the mouth of Jesus” attempt to explain away John 8:44 (and other troubling passages) is simply this: the Church does not teach that gospel passages which bother us can simply be explained away as the interpolations of disciples who put things Christ never said into the mouth of Jesus.
[S]ince everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (Dei Verbum 13).
In other words, the gospels are not infinitely malleable texts. When the gospel writers assert Jesus said X, it is the Holy Spirit (who cannot lie) asserting it as well. When the gospel writers tell us Jesus died on the cross and rose again, these are not fictional deeds attributed to a first century rabbi by excited disciples who covered their grief with a resurrection fable in order to deny to themselves and the world that he had been eaten by wild dogs. When they relate a story, saying, or parable Jesus told, it’s because it’s a story, saying or parable Jesus told, not because John or the Johannine community had a problem and had to cook up some cock and bull quote from Jesus in order to lie their way out of a corner or score a polemical point against contemporary foes.
That said, the Church is also cautious to remind us that we are Catholics, not Fundamentalists. And so the Church also reminds us that the gospels are the products of the Church and that the gospel writers are, in fact, recording the words and sayings of Jesus for real theological purposes and with real editorial control:
The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. (Dei Verbum 19)
Thus, the materials in the gospels, while not infinitely malleable, are typically flexible. Sayings get arranged by different Evangelists in order to make different points to different audiences. Similarly, though the gospels are trustworthy accounts of the real words and deeds of Christ, we needn’t trouble ourselves with the minutiae that often vex fundamentalist attempts to pin down “inerrancy” with obsessive mathematical precision. So we are not, for instance, obliged to believe that every saying recorded of Jesus in every gospel passage is the ipsissima verbi–the “exact words”–of Jesus or some other biblical character. After all, Jesus spoke Aramaic primarily and many of his sayings were uttered in that tongue, not in the Greek of the New Testament writers. So the New Testament hits the ground running as a translation. Thus, Catholics are not plunged into a crisis of faith when Matthew tells us the sign on the cross read “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”, while John tells us it read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” We know what they are getting at and don’t sweat the minor variations in the account. In addition, many times the varying texts of the gospels are probably due to the fact that even Jesus did not repeat himself in exactly the same way every time he told the same parable in every little watering hole in Judea. Neither he nor his disciples were tape recorders; they were human beings. And like human beings, they varied their vocabulary, particularly when they preached the same things over and over and over again. So when one gospel records Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor” and another records him saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit” the “contradiction” is most likely resolved by considering the possibility he said both, or that the writers are paraphrasing the essence of what he said. Such paraphrasing is obviously going on when one gospel records the words of consecration at the Eucharist (which only occurred once) as “Take; this is my body” (Mark 14:22) while another records ” Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). Such variations are a challenge to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy only to the most flat-footed literalist.
The point of all this is to say that when we read the gospels, we are never reading a simple, tape-recorded conversation between Jesus and his apostles, or between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, or between Pilate and Christ. We are always also reading a conversation between the author of the gospel and the community for whom he wrote–mediated through the historical materials the evangelist is working with. So, for instance, when Jesus declares in John’s gospel that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5), we have to remember that this statement by Christ is not read in a vacuum, but in the context of a community that has already been baptizing new members for around fifty years. Thus, attempts by some Protestant exegetes to claim that “The water in this verse refers to the amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby in its mother’s womb” are simply preposterous. If John meant to inform his readers that Jesus actually meant “First, you are born naturally via amniotic fluid, then you are born supernaturally by asking Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and savior and Baptism has nothing to do with that” he could not have chosen a more misleading way of getting his message across, given the universal experience of his audience. Every ancient reader of this text would–and did–read John 3:5 in light of the established practice of the apostolic churches as a reference to the waters of Baptism. In short, John is not just teaching his community about the sacrament of Baptism via the words of Jesus. He is also teaching what the words of Jesus mean by relating them to the practice of the community in Baptism.