Specific Issues in Translating and Excerpting the Johannine Passion Narrative for Liturgical Proclamation


On March 12, 2000 Pope John Paul II prayed for God’s forgiveness for Christian behaviors that "in the course of history have caused these children of yours ["the People of Israel"] to suffer."1 As the pope had earlier observed, "In the Christian world . . . erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people."2

This destructive capacity of certain New Testament texts is evident in the long history of Christian attacks on Jews during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday. The pope acknowledged this during his 1998 Good Friday meditations. "Oh no, not the Jewish people, crucified by us for so long," he observed, "not them, but all of us, each one of us [killed Christ], because we are all murderers of love."3

The Johannine passion narrative, proclaimed annually on Good Friday, poses particular difficulties. As one pastor wrote recently to the U.S. Bishops Conference, "The insistence on reading St. John’s Gospel with its many pejorative references to ‘the Jews’ diminishes the Church’s credibility when it claims it is not antisemitic. . . . The fact that there have to be explanations in the missalette (which not everyone reads), shows that the reading is confusing and capable of misinterpretation."4

At the 2000 and 2001 annual meetings of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, this issue was studied in great detail by the Continuing Seminar on Biblical Issues in Jewish-Christian Relations that is co-convened by John Clabeaux and myself.5  The conversation produced several strategies that future editions of the lectionary might employ to address such concerns. The lectionary could offer the celebrant a number of options for the Gospel Reading on Good Friday:

Option 1: proclaim the full Johannine passion narrative as currently defined with the instruction that the homilist must address those passages with the potential to promote anti-Jewish sentiments.

Option 2: proclaim a short form of the Johannine passion narrative thereby avoiding the most problematic passages. E.g., 19:16b ("So they took Jesus . . .") to 19:30 ("… he handed over his spirit").

Option 3: Proclaim a thematically constructed Johannine catena as a lection that is not limited to the passion narrative but instead draws together Johannine soteriological perspectives from throughout the Gospel. For example,

[Jesus said,] "I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and I will lay down my life for the sheep. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.

So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle. When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. So they said to one another, "Let's not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be," in order that the passage of scripture might be fulfilled [that says]: "They divided my garments among them, and for my vesture they cast lots." This is what the soldiers did. Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I thirst." There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, "It is finished." And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit. [John 10:11,15b,18; 15:12-13; 3:16-17; 11:51b; 19:16-30.]

Option 4: Proclaim a synoptic passion narrative in either a short or long form. Although none of them have the same difficulties with the term hoi Ioudaioi as the Gospel of John, care would need to be taken with their own anti-Jewish polemical features.

Option 5: proclaim a carefully excerpted lection that presents the Johannine passion narrative almost in its entirety but elides certain polemical elements. This option presumes the continuance of the tradition of reading the Johannine narrative more or less in its entirety. The Seminar undertook the preparation of such a full lection as an exercise in coping with the relevant issues. In addition to those principles for preparing lections of the passion in general, the Johannine text presents these particular challenges: 


Issues Specific to the Johannine Passion Narrative

The most problematic aspect of the Johannine passion narrative is its frequent use of the phrase hoi Ioudaioi, which the revised New Testament N.A.B. uniformly translates as "the Jews."

While hoi Ioudaioi can be used in a neutral manner (as in the "Jewish rites of purification" in John 2:6), it is often used polemically to refer to the forces opposed to Jesus in the Fourth Gospel’s dualistic cosmic drama of light vs. darkness, goodness vs. evil, truth vs. falsehood. It is a virtually unanimous consensus in Johannine scholarship that this polemical usage of hoi Ioudaioi is related to the separation of the Johannine community from the local Jewish community.6 As George Smiga explains, this polemical sense:

occurs in at least 31 of the 71 instances of hoi Ioudaioi within the gospel. The polemical use is characterized by a hostility towards Jesus. Those who are described in this sense try to slander, attack, and kill Jesus. Sometimes the stance is lessened to only skepticism or disagreement. But those who are described by the polemical usage are clearly Jesus’ opponents. They are never portrayed in a positive light. Moreover, within the text of John the polemical sense can suddenly emerge as a replacement for another more traditional Jewish group. The Pharisees can find themselves abruptly dismissed from a particular story and replaced by hoi Ioudaioi (8:22; 9:18). This same unexpected exchange occurs with the crowd in 6:41. Throughout the passion narrative, roles which within the synoptic gospels are played by the chief priests, elders and scribes are filled in John by hoi Ioudaioi. They are the ones who send their police to arrest Jesus (18:12), who call for his death (19:7, 12, 14) and into whose hands Jesus says he will be handed over (18:36).

Therefore, in scenes throughout the gospel when there is opposition to Jesus, the evangelist shows remarkable freedom in inserting hoi Ioudaioi as a replacement for opposition groups which are described with much more specificity in the synoptics and even in other places in John’s own gospel.7

In a recent literary-critical study of the Fourth Gospel, Adele Reinhartz offers what she terms compliant, resistant, sympathetic, and engaged readings of the text. Her comments about the compliant approach are especially pertinent to the liturgical focus of this paper because "when the sacred scriptures are read in church, God himself is speaking to his people, and Christ, present in his word, is proclaiming his Gospel."8 Obviously, in the context of worship the congregation is meant to "comply with the directions that the implied author [of the Gospel reading] provides."9 By its very nature liturgy expects congregations to be "compliant" in their encounter with the lectionary readings. Reinhartz explains the significance of a compliant stance toward the Fourth Gospel:

The Beloved Disciple defines "good" as accepting the gift of eternal life and, through a rhetoric of binary opposition, labels as "bad" all those who refuse the gift. A compliant reader, by the very fact of his or her compliance with the Beloved Disciple’s perspective and acceptance of the gift, will take on this assessment as well. Within the narrative and discourse of the Gospel, those who refuse, and therefore are "bad," are also labeled as "Jews." . . . Even if the content of the label "the Jews" in the Gospel is deemed to be ahistorical, idiosyncratic, and even incorrect, the identification of the Jews with the negative pole of the Gospel’s rhetoric of binary opposition is dangerous precisely because there exists a "real" group that shares the same "Jewish" label. A compliant reader is not at all unlikely to transfer the negative assessment and hostility that he or she would absorb toward the Gospel’s Jews to that group in his or her own world that shares this label.10

This leads Reinhartz to make the literary observation that "It is difficult to imagine that these words and, indeed the manifold repetition of the term Ioudaios itself are not calculated to breed not only distance but also hatred, just as the words of rival political and religious groups do today."11

The possibility that the Johannine text may intend to promote hostility toward hoi Ioudaioi in the hearts of its readers or hearers poses vexing pastoral and liturgical problems for a Church that teaches its members "to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people."12 It raises an especially pointed challenge given the already cited formulation of Liturgiam Authenticam.13 Since it is the "task of the homily and of catechesis to set forth the meaning of the liturgical texts," in the case of the Johannine text that "ideal meaning," as Sandra Schneiders terms it,14 may in fact be contradictory to "the church’s understanding [of the] Jewish communities" of today.

More specifically, if the author(s) of the Fourth Gospel intended to encourage antagonism for Jews by using hoi Ioudaioi so often and so sweepingly, then a lectionary15 rendering of the phrase today in the sweeping manner of "the Jews" would, by its efforts to be faithful to the text, actually abet a purpose our community has condemned as "a sin against God and humanity."16  The more than a dozen polemical appearances of hoi Ioudaioi (not including its six additional mentions in the phrase "king of the Jews") in the Good Friday lection has demonstrably generated antisemitism in Christian history. It would appear to be an inescapable conclusion that we have no choice today but to translate hoi Ioudaioi in ways that reduce its sweeping and universalizing polemic, and least if we are to be faithful to official commitments to deplore "all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source."17

Therefore, in the model lection that appears below, hoi Ioudaioi has either been elided or rendered as "the chief priests" throughout. This is in keeping with the Johannine passion narrative itself, which occasionally almost alternates hoi Ioudaioi and chief priests in successive sentences (19:6,7; 14,15) and is consistent with the role these characters play in the synoptic narratives. Rendering hoi Ioudaioi in the Johannine passion narrative as "the chief priests" in no way compromises the text’s soteriology. It simply defangs its universalizing polemic.

Anti-Jewish polemic manifests itself in other ways in the Johannine passion narrative. These manifestations include the teaming of Pharisees with the chief priests (18:3); negative characterizations of Jewish figures in the third person plural (18:28,35,36,38,40; 19:16,18); references to Jesus being handed over by his own "nation" (18:35); and Pilate’s determination to release Jesus (18:38-40; 19:4,6,8,12). The 1988 NCCB document Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion cited the 1974 Pontifical Commission Guidelines when it advised:

The greatest caution is advised in all cases where "it is a question of passages that seem to show the Jewish people as such in an unfavorable light" (Guidelines II). A general principle might, therefore, be suggested that if one cannot show beyond reasonable doubt that the particular gospel element selected or paraphrased will not be offensive or have the potential for negative influence on the audience for whom the presentation is intended, that element cannot, in good conscience, be used.18

Now, while this admonition appears in an instruction devoted to passion plays, "The principles [it] invoked are applicable as the Guidelines suggest (ch. III) to ‘all levels of Christian instruction and education,’ whether written (textbooks, teachers manuals, etc.) or oral (preaching, the mass media)."19 The liturgical proclamation of the Johannine passion narrative would reasonably be included as one "level of Christian instruction."

Therefore, since the above Johannine features are polemical moves of dubious historicity that do not advance Johannine theology, and since they risk perpetuating hostility to Jews by being heard as "history" by today’s congregations, they have been partially elided in the following lection. As noted above, the existing lectionary omits certain verses from lections for pastoral and theological reasons, so this procedure has ample precedent.

John 19:7 presents particular challenges. The 1986 New Testament NAB renders it as follows. "The Jews answered, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.’" In addition to the sweeping use of hoi Ioudaioi, the verse can be readily understood to legitimate the ancient but now condemned deicide charge because it portrays Jews asserting that one claiming divine sonship should be executed.

The thorny problem is that the Johannine passion narrative is in reality a cosmic drama, but today’s congregations inevitably hear it as a historical chronicle. This verse anachronistically portrays people prior to the resurrection debating Jesus’ status as a divine being. Such disputes, however, really have their "historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community" in "Stage 3",20 and could not have contributed to Jesus’ death in "Stage 1".21

Perhaps more importantly, the passage portrays "the Jews" as motivated by a law to kill Jesus. Without careful explanation, the liturgical proclamation of this verse risks perpetuating Christian caricatures of Jewish fidelity to the Torah as well as casting Jews as murderous because of this fidelity. Therefore, following the admonition of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy cited above, this verse has been elided from the exemplar lection that follows.

John 19:15 ["They cried out, ‘Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, 'Shall I crucify your king?' The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar,'"] stimulated intense discussion during the Seminar’s deliberations. Some members pointed out that the text here depicts the leaders of Israel renouncing God has their king, thereby annulling Israel’s covenant with God. This narrative theological assertion is directly contradicted by numerous recent official Catholic statements, such as the papal description of Jews today as "partners in a covenant of eternal love which was never revoked."22 The verse was seen as instance in which slavish adherence to the text could promote theological intentions that today’s Church as renounced. Therefore, it ought to be omitted from lectionary proclamation. On the other hand, the dramatic climax to the narrative’s structure that the verse represents, together with the powerful pastoral challenge for contemporary congregations as to whether they worship other "gods," were potent arguments for its retention. Given the focus of the text on the chief priests and not on hoi Ioudaioi, it was decided by the Seminar to retain the passage in the exemplar lection.

Finally, it should be noted that the lectionary’s method of incorporating into a lection a passage from elsewhere in the same biblical book in order to establish the background is employed below in John 18:14. A phrase from John 11:48, "lest the Romans come and take away both the land and the nation" augments the already present Johannine reference back to Caiaphas’ counsel in the earlier passage. The expansion of the existing cross-reference provides the stated reason why Caiaphas thinks "it is better that one man should die rather than the people."

As stated above, it is hoped that the following lection will be of service to the competent ecclesiastical authorities when the lectionary is next revised. To summarize the procedures used below:

  1. The lection offers the full passion narrative from the Gospel of John according to its traditional use during the Good Friday liturgy.
  2. The lection has been designed to present and respect the text’s theological characteristics and insights and the dramatic structure and interactions within the text without the distractions of anti-Jewish or potentially anti-Jewish phrases that do not add to its theological import.
  3. Anti-Jewish or potentially anti-Jewish phrases are addressed as follows:
    1. The recurring polemical expression hoi Ioudaioi has been rendered in the passion narrative lection as "the chief priests" or elided.
    2. Polemical or ambiguous use of the third person plural pronoun "they" has been made specific according to context.
    3. Certain polemical or apologetic passages of dubious historicity have been elided. These include explicit declarations of Pilate’s determination to free Jesus and Jesus described as "handed over by his own nation."
    4. In one case a phrase from elsewhere in the Gospel of John has been added to provide additional Johannine background.



  1. "Service Requesting Pardon," in Origins 29/40 (March 23, 2000: 647.

  2. Pope John Paul II, "Speech to Symposium on the Roots of Anti-Judaism," 31 October 1997, 1: L'Osservatore Romano, 1 November 1997, p. 6.

  3. Private correspondence to Eugene J. Fisher, Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, NCCB, dated May 29, 2001.

  4. The following seminar members contributed to this Johannine project: Regina Boisclair, Patrick Castles, John Clabeaux, Robert Connolly, Philip A. Cunningham, David P. Efroymson, Lawrence Frizzell, John Gilchrist, Marie Goldstein, Dennis Hamm, Judith Kolasny, Amy-Jill Levine, Kenneth Morman, Brian M. Nolan, James Polich, Gilbert Romero, Richard J. Sklba, Gerard Sloyan, George Smiga, Linda Taggart, and Anthony Tambasco.

  5. See for example: Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves, and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York/Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1979); J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology of the Fourth Gospel (Rev. ed.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979); and Jerome H, Neyrey, An Ideology of Revolt: John’s Christology in Social Science Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988). Adele Reinhartz, Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (New York: Continuum, 2001) questions the current scholarly consensus that there was a historical "expulsion" of Johannine Jews from the local synagogue in the last decade of the first century. She suggests that "the exclusion passages may have provided the Johannine community not with a direct reflection of their historical experience but rather with a divinely ordained etiology in the time of Jesus for a situation of separation which was part of their own experience [p. 50]. However the separation of the two groups may have occurred, Johannine polemic is still the result of tensions between Jews who are adherents of Jesus Christ and those who are not.

  6. George Smiga, unpublished manuscript offered for the August 6-8, 2000 meeting of the Continuing Seminar on Biblical Issues in Jewish-Christian Relations, the Catholic Biblical Association of America.

  7. General Instruction on the Roman Missal, II, 9.

  8. Reinhartz, 54.

  9. Reinhartz, 79-80.

  10. Reinhartz, 78.

  11. Pontifical Biblical Commission, Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, IV, A, 3.

  12. Liturgiam Authenticam, 29.

  13. Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (2nd ed.; Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999), 144-148.

  14. The lectionary rendering should always be distinguished from biblical translations where footnotes can be more effectively employed

  15. E.g., John Paul II, "Address to the British Council for Christians and Jews," November 16, 1990.

  16. Nostra Aetate, 4. These words were reiterated by John Paul II during his historic visit to the chief synagogue of Rome on April 13, 1986.

  17. Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1988), C,1,d.

  18. Ibid., Preliminary Considerations.

  19. Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), 21, A.

  20. The language of "stages" of Gospel development comes from the 1964 Pontifical Biblical Commission, Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels.

  21. John Paul II, "Address to Jewish Leaders in Miami" (September 11, 1987) in Fisher and Klenicki, Spiritual Pilgrimage, 105-109.