Reviews of

Exegeting the Jews

In Brill, Gospel of John, Michael G. AZAR, Patristic exegesis, review, Simeon Burke on July 24, 2017 at 11:40 am

2017.07.16 | Michael G. Azar, Exegeting the Jews: The Early Reception of the Johannine “Jews”. The Bible in Ancient Christianity 10. Leiden: Brill, 2016. ISBN: 9789004308893

Reviewed by Simeon Burke, University of Edinburgh.

Following the Second World War, and particularly since the 1960s, scholars have simplistically described two millennia of Christian use of the “Johannine Jews” as “anti-Jewish”. This is the central claim of Michael Azar’s published Fordham doctoral thesis, Exegeting the Jews. Against this scholarly consensus, Azar enlists a trio of patristic authors – Origen, John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria – each of whom applied John’s narrative of Jesus and the Johannine Jews in ways that do not easily conform to the categories and conclusions of the last fifty years of scholarship. The apparent hostility exhibited by the Fourth Gospel toward “the Jews” “did not function for Origen, Chrysostom and Cyril primarily as grounds for anti-Judaic sentiment, but rather as a scriptural resource for the spiritual formation and delineation of their Christian communities” (51). In other words, it was not “anti-Judaism” that fuelled their exegesis of the “Johannine Jews” but internal Christian concerns related to reading practices, ethics and orthodoxy. Origen, Chrysostom and Cyril did not simply read the Johannine drama of hostility between Jesus and the Jews as a historical account of first century realities but mapped it onto their own exegetical battles with a variety of Christian opponents (literal readers of scripture, the morally lax, Arians).

The book opens with a brief introduction that provides a roadmap and justifies the scope of the study. Azar is careful to note that he is not presenting the patristic reading of “the Johannine Jews” (6). Rather, he selects Origen, Chrysostom and Cyril on the criteria of completeness (their works contain the only surviving and reasonably complete examples of commentaries/homilies on John), relevance (the three authors, and particularly Chrysostom and Cyril, receive the most accusations of hostility towards the Jews from modern scholars) and internal similarities (all three share an “allegorical” approach to reading scripture and bear parenetic concerns for their ecclesial communities). Azar’s decision to exclude Theodore of Mopsuestia and Augustine on grounds of translation difficulties and radically different historical circumstances is reasonable, although it might have been interesting at points to note the extent to which the trio selected were picked up by later patristic authors. In fairness, Azar does note the significant “afterlives” of the three authors in the twentieth century (7), yet it might have been helpful to briefly record the extent of their influence on subsequent patristic and medieval thinkers.

Chapter 1 offers a lengthy 40 page exploration of the modern problem of the Johannine Jews. Azar traces the development of historical consciousness with regards to the origins of Christian anti-Judaism during the mid-twentieth century and particularly in the 1960s. The chapter is divided between five representative twentieth century “theologians and historians of Jewish-Christian relations” (James Parkes, Jules Isaac, Fadiey Lovsky, Gregory Baum and Rosemary Ruether) and an overview of New Testament scholarship between 1960 and the present. The latter treats the pursuit of the historical referents of the Johannine Jews in the 1960s-70s (attributable largely to the influential work of J.L. Martyn), the rise of a literary approach to “the Jews” (e.g. John Ashton) and finally, “the crescendo” of scholarship on the Johannine Jews, the Leuven Conference in 2000, which Azar also describes as a “microcosm” of twentieth century scholarship on the subject. Despite its length, Azar does not presume to provide a comprehensive survey of history of scholarship on “the Jews”. Rather, he selects examples that demonstrate “the overwhelming motivations and assumptions… stem from a vision of the Fourth Gospel’s Wirkungsgeschichte that is entirely negative, especially when its earliest, Gentile readers, more specifically those of the fourth century, are considered” (46). Such a generalisation, “as with all generalisations…has obscured almost as much as it revealed” (49). Azar provides a wide range of views to evidence this point, but takes specific aim at the comments of Eldon Jay Epp, Mark Goodwin and Andrew T. Lincoln.

Chapters 2–4 form the heart of the study with each chapter providing a treatment of the patristic author’s use of the Johannine Jews. The works addressed include the Commentary on John for both Origen and Cyril, and the Homilies of John Chrysostom. Each chapter begins with historical and hermeneutical prolegomena which provide the context for the author and his works. Azar dedicates the bulk of the discussion to the function of “the Jews” in each work. He highlights “typological” parallels that the patristic writer draws between Jesus and/or John the Evangelist, on the one hand, and the patristic exegete, on the other, as well as correspondences between Jesus’ interlocutors, the Jews, and the patristic author’s own audience. Finally, Azar relates the authors’ portrayals of the Johannine Jews to their depiction of the Jews more generally in their writings. Azar adeptly argues that Origen, John Chrysostom and Cyril “incarnate” the Gospel narrative within the lives of their congregations so that the hostility between Jesus and the Jews comes to represent the more general and spiritualised concepts of “literal reading” (Origen), “vice” (John Chrysostom) and “heresy” (Cyril) (p.207). As throughout this monograph, Azar presents a well-nuanced case that insightfully anticipates objections to his central argument. He notes the well-known opposition of these authors to Judaism which makes their use of the “Johannine Jews” for intra-Christian purposes all the more surprising. Even here, Azar duly records distinctions between the three authors. In contrast to Origen and Chrysostom, Cyril comments at length on the Jewishness of “the Johannine Jews”, particularly in his depiction of their rejection of the Messiah in favour of the Law of Moses (175, 195). Yet Cyril is not as modern scholars have made him out to be. “The Jews” Cyril blames are the leaders rather than the Jewish people in toto (189, 195). Cyril’s exegetical decision to single out the “leaders of the Jews”, Azar contends, can be explained by the Alexandrian author’s dispute with so-called heretical leaders and his desire to protect the masses from their false teaching (178).

To my mind, Azar’s monograph stands out as a worthy model of effective-history, admirably demonstrating how one can assemble aspects of the history of interpretation to challenge simplistic, even damaging, histories of scholarship. Azar does not simply re-state the conclusions of ancient texts but marshals his evidence to make a cogent contribution to the understanding of the “Johannine Jews” and the history of Jewish-Christian relations. It would be fair to say that reception-history, effective-history and the history of interpretation of certain biblical texts are among the “hot areas” of contemporary biblical research. Among studies of this kind, Azar’s work stands out for maintaining a balance between descriptive discussion and the kind of cutting edge analysis which can all too often go missing from reception-historical studies. Azar’s choice to single out three patristic authors (a choice which he also justifies well in practical terms) allows him to make a cogent argument without the burden of attempting encyclopaedic coverage of patristic interpretations. Azar’s selection of a limited number of case studies might serve as a reminder, perhaps even as a useful antidote, to those keen to pursue comprehensiveness within reception-history at the expense of detailing the significance of exegetical findings. That detailed description is a necessary task is certainly a point borne out by Azar’s own argument (it is one of the burdens of his study). Yet Azar goes beyond mere assemblage of data to demonstrating the deficient nature of previous conclusions, thus offering a genuine way forward to a problem in scholarship.

What is also impressive about the book is the author’s handle on several complex fields. Azar displays an awareness of the current trends within New Testament and Johannine scholarship, patrology (and within this Origenian, Cyrillian and Chrysostomic studies) and the history of Jewish-Christian relations in the twentieth century (there is a fascinating footnote, 38n113, on the impact of the 1970 TV series Holocaust on the rise of public consciousness towards Nazi atrocities). Azar has the measure of each of these areas which gratefully leads to a balanced, genuinely interesting and clearly structured argument.

As further proof of this fact, Azar’s work ventures beyond the confines of reception-history and meaningfully advances the understanding of patristic hermeneutics. Chapters 2-4 provide not only a negative conclusion (early Gentile readers were not uniformly anti-Jewish in their treatment of the Johannine Jews), but a positive one as well. Azar presents the parenetic concern that led three early Christian authors to employ the Johannine Jews typologically for internally Christian purposes. Admittedly, Azar’s use of the terms “typology” and “allegory” (73, 80, 108, 155, 171, 204-5) to describe the exegesis of the three authors, and Origen particularly, might have benefited from the distinction drawn by Peter Martens in his 2008 JECS article. This small quibble aside, Azar clearly and convincingly demonstrates the tendency among these three authors to employ the details of the “Johannine Jews” passages to address the needs and arguments of Christian communities. The discussion of Cyril’s use of the Johannine narrative in his disputes with Arians stands out here as a particularly rich example.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book arrives when Azar places modern and ancient readings side-by-side, thereby reconstructing a hermeneutical conversation across the centuries. Surprising similarities emerge between the ways J.L. Martyn and the three patristic authors read John as a two-stage drama involving an historical reality read through a present situation. Although there is an undeniable difference in how far that “ecclesiological tale extends”—to the late first century for Martyn and into the present of the third, fourth and fifth century for the three patristic authors—nevertheless, both sets of authors require a similar level of allegorical reading on the part of the interpreter. Attention to similarities does not mean that Azar glosses over uneasy differences. The author is careful to pinpoint the central importance of the historical referent of the text as a uniquely modern concern. By contrast, the patristic prioritisation of community identity formation over and against other Christian groups shaped the exegetical output of these three authors.[1] A crucial distinction unravels; whereas for modern exegetes, the harsh words of Jesus against “the Jews” are not words of Jesus precisely because they are about “the Jews”, for Azar’s trio they are authentic words of Jesus because they explained their contemporary situation of intra-Christian conflict (208). Yet for both sets of exegetes, and this is a fascinating outcome arising from Azar’s work, ethical concerns undeniably have played their part in driving the exegetical endeavour.

At the meta-level, Azar’s work provides a deeper reminder concerning the ethics of scholarship and the virtue of fairly portraying the viewpoints of one’s predecessors. The concluding epigram from Jules Isaac, the mid-twentieth century Jewish French historian, sums this up well: “Thus do the texts speak. But every historian knows that there is more than one way to make them speak, the most advantageous in certain regards being to refer them or paraphrase them, without quoting them”. Azar has allowed the voices of Origen, Chrysostom and Cyril to be heard because he has allowed them to speak. This is a worthy contribution to the Bible in Ancient Christianity Series edited by D. Jeffrey Bingham. Azar has done a great service to the interpretation-history of John’s “Johannine Jews”, as well as to patristic hermeneutics.

Simeon Burke
University of Edinburgh
s1023483 [at]

[1] On the importance of biblical texts for intra-Christian identity formation in the patristic period, see Karl Shuve’s work on the Song of Songs (The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity, Oxford: OUP, 2016). Shuve uses the helpful image of the Song of Songs as a key unlocking certain insights rather than the text as a lock requiring a key to open it (he uses the terms explans, a thing that explains, and an explanandum, a thing requiring explanation, respectively). Shuve’s image mirrors Azar’s conclusion that Origen, Chrysostom and Cyril were primarily interested in the text from the perspective of “what it says about us” (207, echoing Paul’s own phrase, “this was written for us”, 1 Cor. 9.10).


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