Book Review: Sonya Shetty Cronin, Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews’ and the Gospel of John

Cronin, Sonya Shetty. Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews’ and the Gospel of John: From Apologia to Apology. LNTS 504; London: T&T Clark, 2015. 232pp. Hb; $112.00; Pb. $39.95 (2013); PDF eBook $27.95.   Link to Bloomsbury  

Sonya Cronin’s monograph tracks a development in the thinking of one of the greatest Johannine scholars of the twentieth century, Raymond Brown. Her interest is focused on the development of Brown’s thought on John’s characterization of the Jews as responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Cronin’s thesis is that Raymond Brown changed his views over his career. Perhaps it is more accurate that Brown’s views on the issue were enlightened over his long cronon-raymond-browncareer. Brown himself was never anti-Semitic, but his sensitivity to the way John’s Gospel had been misused to justify anti-Semitic belief and actions developed considerably over time. In his earliest writings he offers an apologetic to deflect a charge of anti-Semitism directed at the fourth Gospel to an apology for how the church has used the Gospel of John to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus and the resulting persecution of Jews.

The Gospel of John has often been described as anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic based on the way the author of the Gospel uses the word Ἰουδαῖος, the Jews. For example, John 8:44 states the “Jews are of your father the devil” and John 19 lays the blame for the crucifixion on the Jews rather than Pilate and the Romans. Cronin does not devote any space to showing how an anti-Jewish reading of John developed in the early Church nor how blaming the Jews for the crucifixion became an invitation to abuse the Jews at various times in Church history. There are other books which trace the history and it is a well-known problem in Johannine Studies.

Cronin divides Brown’s work on John into four stages: from 1960-1970, including a short book on John and the Epistles and the Anchor Bible commentary on the Gospel of John; from 1971-1988, including the Community of the Beloved and The Gospel and the Epistles; from 1988-1998, including The Death of the Messiah and a short Retreat with John the Evangelist; and Brown’s posthumous works, including An Introduction to the Gospel of John (with Maloney). In each chapter she examines references to the Jews in works in each stage and describes Brown’s shift in thinking. Initially this was as simple as using quite marks for “the Jews” in order to indicate the Gospel writer does not have all Jews in mind when he declares the Jews “sons of the devil.”

In each chapter she provides some biographical information which may have influence Brown’s development on this issue. For example, when he moved to Union Theological Seminary in 1970, he came into contact with Louis Martyn. That relationship had an impact on Brown’s development of a Johannine Community hypothesis. During his time at Union Brown also had regular fellowship with Rabbi Dr. Burton Visotzky from Jewish Theological Seminary. According to Cronin, after this time Brown “did not publish anything on the Jews without allowing a Jewish scholar to screen it first” (76). An additional factor in each period of Brown’s work on John is developments in the Catholic Church and his participation in statements from the Church on the Jews. The 1965 document Nostra Aetate (In Our Time, Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council).

Of particular interest is Cronin’s account in Brown’s Death of the Messiah. Since this particular monograph was devoted to the death of Jesus, Brown includes a section on the responsibility and/or guilt for Jesus’ death. Both Rome and the Hews are to blame, but since Rome no longer exists, anti-Roman sentiment is meaningless. Brown did not “vindicate nor vilify” the passion narratives for blaming the Jews for the crucifixion (99). It is not the place of the exegete to judge historical attitudes and accurate historical research requires the recognition of hostility in the Gospels. But he also is quick to point out that Christians are also guilty of acting in the same manner as those who killed Jesus (104). Modern anti-Judaism is, therefore, morally wrong and historically misplaced (107).

For John Dominic Crossan, this was a failure to deal with the anti-Judaism of the Fourth Gospel. Crossan’s Who Killed Jesus? was written as a kind of response to Brown and argued Brown did not go far enough in condemning the what he considered anti-Semitism in the passion narratives. Crossan thought a fair historical assessment of the passion narratives necessarily led to anti-Judaism, which can is closely linked to the kind of anti-Semitism which led to the Holocaust (113). Brown is content to acknowledge anti-Judaism in the passion narratives as a historical reality and observe that “not everything in Scripture is to be emulated” (146). Crossan considers the passion narratives to be “defensive fiction” which perpetuate hatred and blames Brown for giving aid and comfort to that fiction.

Cronin concludes her argument with a short survey of commentaries and articles which interact with anti-Judaism in John. Her interest is to compare this data to Brown’s developing sensitivity to the issue. For some scholars, the “Jews” are the Jewish authorities who attack Jesus (not all Jews), for others the “Jews” are a stereotype who function as the theological representatives of unbelief in John’s Gospel. Many scholars have been influence by Brown to argue the Jews serve as a kind of “intra-Jewish debate” with a Jewish Christian community. Brown developed this view in his Johannine Community view, and along with Louis Martyn, suggested some Jews were ejected from the Synagogue because of their faith in Jesus.

In the end, Cronin shows how Raymond Brown was able to move from only the most cursory interest in anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John to a defense of John’s gospel against the charge of anti-Judaism, and ultimately to an apology for the way John’s gospel has been used against the Jewish people in both scholarship and society. Brown did this, Cronin argues, first as a Catholic and secondly as a biblical scholar. Brown was, she suggests, a leader in the Church against anti-Judaism and a “significant voice in leadership” forming official Catholic documents and statements on the Jewish people.

See also my review of David A. Lamb, Text, Context, and the Johannine Community (LNTS 477; T&T Clark, 2013) and my comments on the Johannine Community.

NB: Thanks to Bloomsbury for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Sonya Shetty Cronin, Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews’ and the Gospel of John

  1. Your “quotation” of John 8:44 is just plain wrong. At most, “Jews” should be in brackets. Whether Jesus was speaking of “The Jews”–a group both he and his disciples belonged to, or merely of those specific individuals seeking to kill him is a matter of interpretation. You make the text sound blatantly racist by this spurious alteration. Please exercise sound scholarship. Interfaith understanding is not enhanced by misquoting the NT and then accusing the NT of being antisemitic based upon the misquotation. The sentence isn’t even grammatical. Who did this you or the author?
    > Lamont W. Cannon

    P.S. I have a number of your books and love them.

    • It was an allusion to John 8:44, so not exact quote. The verse says “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires,” the reference is “The Jews” (Brown usually put these words in quotes to avoid making the implication all Jews are in mind.)

      I do not intend to “make the text sound blatantly racist,” but John 8:44 is the one of the main texts often interpreted as anti-Jewish either by people who want to persecute the Jews or by scholars embarrassed by John’s apparent anti-Semitic rhetoric. For what it is worth, I do not think John was anti-Jewish and any hatred/persecution of Jews by Christians using this verse (and several others in John) is reprehensible. Justifying evil behavior with bad interpretations of Scripture is not acceptable.

      The point of the monograph under review is how the Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown dealt with how these statements in the Gospel of John that have been used to support hatred toward the Jews. Since he is a Roman Catholic, blaming Jews for the crucifixion had led to a legacy of persecution. Raymond Brown is not racist, nor is Cronin (the author of the monograph), nor am I. Her monograph simply tracks one scholar’s “enlightenment” in this topic.

      Thanks for your clarifying comment, but I suspect you took my description of “what other people say” for my own words. That is not the case.

      Also, I hope you are not under the impression I am V. Phillips Long, who has written many books on the Hebrew Bible. I am Phillip J. Long, a New Testament specialist with a sadly similar name. I did write one book (Jesus the Bridegroom). You are free to buy it and love it too .

      • My apologies for thinking it was a quotation. The quotation marks threw me off. It seems that you are saying that you were quoting an allusion by Cronin, or perhaps even by Brown, and that you are not responsible for the wording that you are reliably reporting. So the fault would lie somewhere other than with you. Allusions should accurately reflect the content of the original. Rewording an expression is no excuse for misrepresenting it. The original was ambiguous, leaving the interpreter to examine the context for the identity of the referent. This paraphrase seems to lack this quality. My point stands that John’s statement may be a particular one and not a general one–as you acknowledge pointing out that Brown tried to indicate this specificity with quotation marks. However, this possibility is significantly obscured by the alteration of John’s text into the form given.

        To clarify a point, I was not accusing anyone of being a racist. (Doing so is a despicable ploy all too frequently employed by despicable people.) I was simply pointing out that the altered version made the author of John sound more racist than the original text does. The facts remain that the new version, having generalized the referent in this manner, is grammatically incorrect and interpretatively suspect, but not necessarily wrong.

        I give a quick “amen” to the rest of your second paragraph above.

        I give a mea culpa for mistaking you with “the other Phillip Long.” I am quite embarrassed. Lucky (or unlucky) for me, no one will ever confuse my name with someone else’s.

        Thank you for your gracious response.

        Lamont W. Cannon

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