The work of a translator is much appreciated so that ideas can be shared across cultures. Translating the Bible is a wonderful service to the faithful and to all who are curious, but the task is fraught with challenges, which Ronald Knox described in Trials of a Translator (New York, Sheed & Ward, 1949).
In the mid-1950s La Bible de Jerusalem constituted a great service to the Church in Francophone countries, coordinated by the Dominicans of L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. The translation into English needed improvements so the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 gave way to the New Jerusalem Bible in 1985, under the supervision of the Benedictine scholar Henry Wansbrough. Recently he launched the Revised New Jerusalem Bible at St. Benet’s Hall in Oxford. Margaret Hebblethwaite reported in this event in The Tablet under the title “The search for the right word of God.”
This report, with the superscription “The Gospels and anti-Semitism,” focuses on the challenge to translators with regard to the Greek work ioudaios in the plural, used 70 plus times in John and traditionally rendered “the Jews.” The term usually refers to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, who investigated the identity of John the Baptist (John 1:19) and the reason for Jesus’ disruptive action in the Temple area (2:19). The polite tone of their inquiry gave way to intense hostility after Jesus healed the paralyzed man at the pool Bethesda on the Sabbath (5:15-18).
In October 1997 I gave a paper at an international intra-ecclesial conference in the Vatican on “Anti-Judaism in the Christian Environment.” I sketched the scholarly efforts after the Second Vatican Council to deal with this problem for translators, which you can access and download here.
Among recent contributions to this topic, I wish to draw attention to the judicious and irenic statements in The Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, second edition), especially to Joshua Garroway’s essay “Ioudaios” (p. 596-99) and Adele Reinhartz’s commentary on the Gospel according to John (p. 172-73). These succinct efforts to grapple with a thorny issue deserve our careful attention.
Another recent contribution to biblical scholarship with a pastoral and spiritual perspective is The Paulist Biblical Commentary, edited by José Enrique Aguilar Chiu and others (New York: Paulist Press, 2018). Francis J. Moloney’s commentary on John reviews the topic under “Special Issues” (p. 1109-10). “The expression ‘the Jews’ does not indicate an ethnic group, but those who make a theological and christological decision against Jesus of Nazareth… In the Gospel of John, ‘the Jews’ are not a race; such an interpretation must be rejected energetically.”
How can the pastor deal with the anti-Jewish bigotry that may be aroused among the people listening to the Gospel on Good Friday and on The Second Sunday of Easter (“for fear of the Jews” in 20:19)? A brief statement can be read before the Passion is proclaimed on Good Friday to recall the message of the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate): “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (John 19:16); still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” A clarification that in these texts “the Jews” means the religious authorities in Jerusalem can be made on other occasions. Of course, there should be opportunities for all the faithful to engage in Bible study so that their faith is enriched and the misinterpretation by generalization or stereotype is overcome.
Translators are to be praised for their attention to this problem, but education is the ongoing challenge for all teachers in the parish and school. To end on a benign note, I draw attention to the fine essay by Professor Otto Betz, “To Worship God in Spirit and Truth: Reflections on John 4:20-26” in the J.M. Oesterreicher Festschrift Standing Before God (New York: Ktav, 1981, p. 53-72). “Salvation is from the Jews” is understood in light of Genesis 49:10-11, pointing to Jesus as the Savior of the world (John 4:42).