The article below is reproduced from TIC TALK 24, 1993 (Newsletter of the United Bible Societies Translation Information Clearinghouse).

Translating Hoi Ioudaioi in the New Testament

Addressing the Issue of Sensitivity to the Ways the hoi Ioudaioi Passages Undergird and Encourage Anti-Jewish Hatred, and the Problem of the Credibility Gap between the 1st and 20th Centuries for the Modern Reader

by David G. Burke

By far the most common English translation of the Greek hoi Ioudaioi is "the Jews," sometimes occurring alone and sometimes in the woodenly formulaic expression, "x of the Jews" (e.g., "the Law of the Jews" or "the high priests of the Jews," even in such recent major revisions as NRSV and NAB2).

There are about 180 occurrences of hoi Ioudaioi in the NT, more than 150 of which are in John and Acts. In these two books the phrase is used to identify and characterize those who oppose Jesus and/or the movement begun by those Jews who became Jesus's followers. More and more, scholars acknowledge that this locution, especially as used in John and Acts, carries a bias that was born of the increasingly heated struggle for credibility between two strains of first century Judaism, the smaller of which accepted Jesus as Messiah and the larger of which did not. In spite of the fact that Jesus, his disciples, and almost all the central characters involved with Jesus or in the early NT Jesus movement are Jews (as is clear in such passages as John 4.09; 18.15), their opponents are systematically, broadly, and negatively cast as "the Jews."

The effect of these passages, especially as they accumulate relentlessly in these books, is to create a "good guy"/"bad guy" climate, with "the Jews" clearly appearing as the obstructionist "bad guys." A modern reader who has no grasp of first century realities may conclude that "the Jews" are some sort of all-inclusive power bloc that is somehow anti-God and always seeking to undermine nascent Christianity.

The problem is not how well the English locution reflects the Greek text or the escalating polemical realities of the first century situation, but rather its effect on the (poorly informed) modern reader. Few modern readers are equipped to sort out that "the Jews" opposing Jesus and the Jesus movement are in many cases just other Jews who happen not to have accepted Jesus's identity as Messiah—whether these are individuals, groups, local leaders, or religious or political authorities. Given the way the overall picture is painted, it is difficult for the modern reader to think this through in terms of real-life ambiguities that would have applied then as now; that is, to consider that many of these "enemies" may have been acting, in the events of the early (pre-synagogue expulsion) years, in order to be responsible and faithful to the tradition as they understood it by resisting and being suspicious of what they may have perceived as another of those Messiah claimants that get everyone worked up then fade away.

Another facet of the problem is that "the Jews," particularly in the form with the definite article in English, carries for modern readers a sweeping connotation that somehow all Jews were acting in concert in these events (or worse, that all Jews of all time are somehow implicated). While such leaps of logic may seem to stretch credibility, to know personally Jews who have been beaten up because they were said to be "Christ-killers" is all it takes to realize that such improbable leaps continue to be made with fearful consequences. Because the NT passages provide fuel for expressions of anti-Jewish hatred today, the question of how hoi Ioudaioi and related expressions get translated is a critical one.

Scholars do not agree on whether these NT writings can be called anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish (see, e.g., Beck 1985; Davies 1979; Evans and Hagner 1993; Gager 1983; Kaufman 1991; Kysar 1993; Sandmel 1978; and Smith 1990). Kysar and Smith agree that "anti-Semitic" does not accurately describe the attitude of John's Gospel, but "the reading of John has contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism among Christians and others" (Smith 1990:77, n.1; see also Kysar 1993:26).

Willis Barnstone (1993:65ff.) represents a growing school of thought that locates the problem in the early process of editing and transmitting and translating the oral and written sources that were to become the Gospels and NT. In his view, it is unlikely that hoi Ioudaioi was the operative term in the early stages of John and Acts, precisely because Jesus and his followers, as well as those who did not believe in him, were all Jews (Barnstone 1993:72). He concludes that, once the split became more heated in the last part of the first century, one Jewish group begins to get cast as obstructionist in the texts, while the other gets disguised as somehow not really Jewish. Characters who initially appear as people, groups, leaders, etc., in opposition to Jesus, in the end are cast in all-embracing terms as "the Jews." The result is documents that encourage hatred toward the opponents, and a demonized image that seems to extend to all descendants. In addition, they foster an image (in the minds of large numbers of Christians and Jews today) of Jesus as a Gentile who, together with what seem to be Gentile associates, goes about the Judean and Galilean countryside as the leader of a Christian group among hostile Jewish opponents (Barnstone 1993:73-74).

While he is less confident about what those earliest pieces of the tradition may have said, James Charlesworth points to the same two central factors that combined to produce the anti-Jewish tone that permeates the Gospel of John: the process of redaction of the text material, and the escalation of internecine conflict over the issue of Jesus's identity, particularly in the last third of the first century (Charlesworth 1990:54).

Many scholars now agree that the writing of John's Gospel was prompted by the need to respond to the expulsion of the Johannine community from the synagogue, and the resulting isolation from Jewish roots. The community's language became polemical as its members sought to establish a new place for themselves within a society they perceived to be increasingly hostile to them. And, since these Johannine followers of Jesus had always understood themselves as part of the long tradition of the people of God, their natural human response to being cut off from those roots and dismissed as inauthentic was to reject Judaism and all things Jewish in their effort to define their identity and authenticity in relation to God and what God had now newly done in Jesus (Kysar 1993:27). But the background gets lost; in Kysar's words, the Gospel "is now read and interpreted outside of its original situation and beyond its original purpose. With the passing of centuries, the historical origin becomes more and more remote, less and less known or knowable" (Ibid.).

In the synoptic Gospels hoi Ioudaioi or its equivalent occurs only 16 times, almost always in the title "king of the Jews." The synoptic situation is different because it is taken for granted in those texts that everyone is a Jew unless otherwise indicated. In the synoptic milieu—events in the Jesus story being played out within the ordinary world of first century Judaism—there is little sense in using hoi Ioudaioi. Parties or groups, not "the Jews," interact with Jesus, notably Sadducees, Herodians, scribes, Zealots, Pharisees, chief priests, and disciples of John the Baptizer. Of these various groups the first four do not even appear in John's Gospel (Smith 1990: 79).

A comparison of 15 recent English translations or major revisions reveals that the CEV is the most sensitive to this issue in its translation of hoi Ioudaioi. It frequently uses "leaders" and "Jewish leaders" and other locutions. TEV, already in the late 1960s, had pioneered the way toward a more nuanced handling of hoi Ioudaioi with "leaders" and the like. Interestingly, the LB frequently has opted for "Jewish leaders" in John and Acts. At the other end of the scale, RSV and NAB are the least sensitive to this issue; there are only slight adjustments in NRSV (e.g., "elders of the Jews" > "Jewish elders" in Luke 7.03) and not a single change in NAB2. All other translations compared fall at the same end of the scale on this question, either close to RSV/NRSV or slightly more sensitive. It is enlightening to see in this comparison, that some translations, by means of more nuanced translating of hoi Ioudaioi, have been able to move toward "hate-free" handling of these passages, while other very recent English versions of high regard appear not to have even had this concern on their horizon.

Select Bibliography

See also Roger Omanson's bibliography in "Translating the anti-Jewish bias of the New Testament," TBT 43/3 (1992) 301-13.

Ashton, J. 1985. "The Identity and function of the Ioudaioi in the fourth Gospel," NT 27, 40-75.

Barbi, Augusto. 1993. "The Use and meaning of (Hoi) Ioudaioi in Acts," in O'Collins, 123-42, 243-45.

Barnstone, Willis. 1993. The Poetics of translation: History, theory, practice. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Beck, Norman A. 1985. Mature Christianity: The recognition and repudiation of the anti-Jewish polemic of the New Testament. London: Associated University Presses. (esp. pp. 248-74)

Beker, J. C. 1990. "The New Testament view of Judaism," in Charlesworth, ed., 60-69.

Brawley, Robert L. 1987. Luke-Acts and the Jews: Conflict, apology, and conciliation. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. 1990. Jews and Christians: Exploring the past, present, and future. New York: Crossroad.

Charlesworth, James H. 1990. "Exploring opportunities for rethinking relations among Jews and Christians," in Charlesworth, ed., 35-59.

Charlesworth, James H. 1992. "Christians and Jews in the first six centuries," in H. Shanks, ed., Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A parallel history of their origins and early development (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society) 305-25.

Cunningham, Philip A. 1993. "The Synoptic Gospels and their presentation of Judaism," in Efroymson, ed., 41-66.

Davies, A. T., ed. 1979. Anti-Semitism and the foundations of Christianity. New York: Paulist Press.

Efroymson, D., E. Fisher, and L. Klenicki, eds. 1993. Within context: Essays on Jews and Judaism in the New Testament. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Efroymson, David P. 1993. "Jesus: Opposition and opponents," in Efroymson, ed., 85-103.

Ellingworth, Paul. 1993. "Understanding and applying the Bible today: Two test cases," Epworth Review 20, 80-90.

Epp, Eldon J. 1975. "Anti-Semitism and the popularity of the fourth Gospel in Christianity," Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 22, 35ff.

Evans, Craig A. and Donald A. Hagner, eds. 1993. Anti-Semitism and early Christianity: Issues of polemic and faith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Gager, John G. 1983. The Origins of anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in pagan and Christian antiquity. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaston, Lloyd. 1986. "Anti-Judaism and the Passion narrative in Luke and Acts," in Richardson, 127-53.

Katz, S. T. 1984. "Issues in the separation of Judaism and Christianity after 70 C.E.: A reconsideration," JBL 103, 43-76.

Kaufman, Philip S. 1991. The Beloved disciple: Witness against anti-Semitism. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Kysar, Robert. 1993. "John's anti-Jewish polemic," Bible Review 9/1, 26-27 (excerpted from Evans 1993).

Luz, Ulrich. 1992. "Matthew's anti-Judaism: Its origin and contemporary significance," Currents in Theology and Mission. 19, 405-15.

O'Collins, Gerald and Gilberto Marconi, eds. 1993. Luke and Acts. Tr. by M. O'Connell. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Perelmuter, Hayim Goren. 1989. Siblings: Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity at their beginnings. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Przybylski, Benno. 1986. "The Setting of Matthean anti-Judaism," in Richardson, 181-200.

Richardson, P. and D. Granskou, eds. 1986. Anti-Judaism in early Christianity, vol. 1. Waterloo, ONT: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1992. "Interpretation of Luke-Acts and implications for Jewish-Christian dialogue," Word and World 12/1, 37-42.

Saldarini, Anthony J. 1993. "Within context: The Judaism contemporary with Jesus," in Efroymson, ed., 21-40.

Sandmel, Samuel. 1978. Anti-Semitism in the New Testament? Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Segal, A. F. 1986. Rebecca's children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Slingerland, D. 1986. "The Jews in the Pauline portion of Acts," JAAR 54, 314-19.

Smiga, G. M. 1992. Pain and polemic: Anti-Judaism in the Gospels. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Smith, D. Moody. 1990. "Judaism and the Gospel of John," in Charlesworth, ed., 76-96.

Tannehill, Robert C. 1985. "Israel in Luke-Acts: A tragic story," JBL 104, 69-85.

Townsend, J. T. 1979. "The Gospel of John and the Jews," in Davies, 72-97.

Tyson, Joseph B., ed. 1988. Luke-Acts and the Jewish people: Eight critical perspectives. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.

Wahlde, U. C. von. 1993. "The Gospel of John and the presentation of Jews and Judaism," in Efroymson, ed., 67-86.

Wilson, S. G. 1986. "The Jews and the death of Jesus in Acts," in Richardson, 155-64.

David G. Burke received the Th.M. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1964 and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1974. From 1974 to 1982 he was Lutheran university pastor at Rutgers University, and taught in the Department of Religion. From 1983 to 1987 he served as Director for Studies in the USA National Committee for the Lutheran World Federation, in which capacity he coordinated the USA Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue during those years. From 1987 to 2001 he served as Director of Translations for the American Bible Society. From 2001 to 2003 he served as dean of the Eugene A. Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society in New York City.