Jews or Judeans: Who brought Jesus before Pilate?


Christian Life

Evert van Vlastuin, CNE.news

Many Bible translations speak about Jews in the New Testament where actually Judeans is meant. According to Dr Haaland, this is not completely innocent. Photo Getty Images

Was it “the Jews” who brought Jesus before Pilate? Or would it be better to read “the Judeans” here? According to Norwegian scholar Dr Gunnar Haaland, an alternative translation could prevent damaging misunderstandings.

After Christ’s resurrection, the disciples hid themselves, the evangelist John tells us in 20:19: “for fear of the Jews.” Actually strange, says Haaland from Oslo. “After all, the disciples were Jews themselves.” Haaland teaches Religious Studies at Oslo Metropolitan University.

In the Gospel of John, the chief priest and other authorities in Jerusalem are often called “the Jews”. This language is far from innocent, Haaland says. “We read that the Jews put Jesus before Pilate and demanded His death. This vocabulary invites antisemitic abuse. Enough people in history have held the Jews as a group responsible for the death of Christ. Of course, if we are used to this wording, we know how to understand it. But it still opens for misunderstanding.”

Haaland. Photo OsloMet

According to Haaland, there is another translation option. “You can also render the Greek word ‘Ioudaioi’ with Judeans. Sometimes that makes more sense. In John, ‘the Jews’ almost always refers to the Jewish leaders in Judea, whereas Jesus and his disciples were from Galilee. The only exception is John 6, which says that ‘the Jews murmured’ after the miraculous feeding. For example, we read in John 7 that Jesus did not want to go to Judea ‘because the Jews sought to kill Him’, and that the people in Jerusalem would not speak openly about Jesus’ for fear of the Jews’. So even if we read about ‘the Jews’, it is not really about all Jews in general. In the other gospels, the Jewish leaders are described more precisely as ‘the chief priest and the elders’ etc.”

Why does the Gospel of John speak about the Jews and Judeans in this manner?
According to Haaland, this has to do with geography and power: “The distinction between the leadership in Judea on the one hand and Jesus and his disciples from the Galilee on the other is clearly at play. Whereas we do not find this usage in the other gospels, Paul employs similar language once in First Thessalonians 2:14–16. He speaks about the Jews in the church of Judea who killed both Jesus and the prophets.”

In the Old Testament, Haaland sees both translations. “In Ezra and Nehemiah, they speak of the Judeans, in Esther of the Jews.”

The discussion of “Jews” versus “Judeans” is not, however, restricted to the Gospel of John and First Thessalonians. “Some scholars of Jewish antiquity argue that “Judeans” corresponds better to the ancient perception in which geographical origin was at the core, and where culture and ritual worship were closely related to geographical origin. In that sense, all Jews were most of all Judeans.”

Not everyone is in favour of an innovated translation, Haaland knows. “There are some very prominent Jewish scholars, for example, who strongly argue against the attempts to ‘improve’ problematic language within the Christian tradition. After all, Christian antisemites have invoked these texts throughout the centuries. We should confront these interpretations rather than rewriting the texts.”

Would it be possible to leave these translations and just provide better teaching on these Bible texts?
“Certainly. That is why the Norwegian Bible Society placed footnotes on these texts in the 2011 translation. I was involved in that myself at the time. But of course, these notes are omitted during readings in church. And the text speaks louder than any teacher or preacher. The Norwegian Bible Society is currently revising this translation, and the question about “the Jews” in the Gospel of John is on the table. Another issue is, for example, whether it should be ‘servant’ or ‘slave’.”

Yet it would not be the first time that a Norwegian Bible used the word ‘Judeans’ for the antagonists of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Already in 2007, such an edition appeared. “But that was not a Bible version published by the ‘official’ Bible Society, but even an alternative from the conservative side.”

In English, there is quite some difference between Jew and Judean. That can vary from language to language. To what extent, then, can the decision be different?
“In some languages, the origin of the word ‘Jew’ is easy to grasp. In German, for example, it is fairly obvious that ‘Jude’ is derived from ‘Juda’ and ‘Judea’. In English, Norwegian and Danish, this link is far less obvious. In short, you have to answer this question for each language separately.”



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