One of the most volatile passages in the New Testament is the moment at which Jesus turns to some of His Jewish audience and declares point-blank, “You are of your father, the devil” (Jn 8:44). This sounds pretty ugly to modern ears and, particularly in the shadow of the Shoah, strikes many moderns as prima facie evidence for the alleged “intrinsic anti-Semitism” of Christianity, stretching all the way back to the New Testament and even to the very words of Jesus Himself. So, for instance, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz writes, “Hatred and violence are consequences of Christian Anti-Semitism, not the source. The source is the demonizing of the Jewish people. This comes as no surprise since New Testament passages, such as John 8:44, refer to Jews as ‘children of the Devil’” (www.jewishpassion.com/documents/ n_distortion.htm).
Many Christians, rightly sensitive to the dangers of anti-Semitism, have tended to respond to this and similar texts by trying to create some distance between Jesus and these words. This is usually accomplished by turning Jesus into the “Johannine Jesus” and attributing this and other sayings, not to Jesus Himself, but to the evangelist. On this showing, the claim is that John or the Johannine community is responding to the situation of the Church some 60 years after Christ, when the synagogue and Church had definitively and bitterly split, and the Christian community, full of recriminations against a hostile Jewish leadership, was then inclined to place its own curses in the mouth of Christ.
This is, however, to badly misread the text at a number of levels and to miss the real and incomparably rich meaning of John’s thought. But in order to see this—and get at the real meaning of this text—it is necessary for us to know a bit about the Church’s teaching on Scripture, the relationship between Jesus’ words and the evangelist’s accounts of them, and about the relationship between John and his audience.
How to Read the Gospels
The basic problem with the “John put words in the mouth of Jesus” attempt to explain away John 8:44 (and other troubling passages) is simply this: The Church does not teach that the Gospel passages that bother us can simply be explained away as the interpolations of disciples who put things into the mouth of Jesus that Christ never said:
Since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (Dei Verbum, 13).
In other words, the Gospels are not infinitely malleable texts. When the Gospel writers assert that Jesus said X, it is the Holy Spirit (who cannot lie) asserting it as well. When the Gospel writers tell us Jesus died on the cross and rose again, these are not fictional deeds attributed to a first-century rabbi by excited disciples who covered their grief with a resurrection fable in order to deny to themselves and the world that He had been eaten by wild dogs. When they relate a story, saying, or parable Jesus told, it’s because it’s a story, saying, or parable Jesus told, not because John or the Johannine community had a problem and had to cook up some cock-and-bull quote from Jesus in order to score a polemical point against contemporary foes.
That said, the Church is also cautious to remind us that we are Catholics, not fundamentalists. And so the Church teaches that the Gospels are the products of the Church and that the Gospel writers are, in fact, recording the words and sayings of Jesus for real theological purposes and with real editorial control:
The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus (Dei Verbum, 19).
Thus, the material in the Gospels, while not infinitely malleable, is typically flexible. Sayings get arranged by different evangelists in order to make different points to different audiences. Similarly, though the Gospels are trustworthy accounts of the real words and deeds of Christ, we needn’t trouble ourselves with the minutiae that often vex fundamentalist attempts to pin down “inerrancy” with obsessive mathematical precision. So we are not, for instance, obliged to believe that every saying recorded of Jesus in every Gospel passage is the ipsissima verbi—the “exact words”—of Jesus or some other biblical character. After all, Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic and many of His sayings were uttered in that tongue, not in the Greek of the New Testament writers. So the New Testament hits the ground running as a translation. Thus, Catholics are not plunged into a crisis of faith when Matthew tells us the sign on the cross read “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews,” while John tells us it read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” We know what they are getting at and don’t sweat the minor variations in the account.
In addition, many of the variations in the Gospel texts are probably due to the fact that even Jesus did not repeat Himself in exactly the same way every time He told the same parable in every little watering hole in Judea. Neither He nor His disciples were tape recorders; they were human. And like human beings, they varied their vocabulary, particularly when they preached the same things over and over and over again. So when one Gospel records Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor,” and another records Him saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” the “contradiction” is most likely resolved by considering the possibility that He said both, or that the writers are paraphrasing the essence of what He said. Such paraphrasing is obviously going on when one Gospel records the words of consecration at the Eucharist (which only occurred once) as “Take; this is my body” (Mk 14:22), while another records “Take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26:26). Such variations are a challenge to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy only to the most flatfooted literalist.
The point of all this is to say that when we read the Gospels, we are never reading a simple, tape-recorded conversation between Jesus and His apostles, or between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, or between Pilate and Christ. We are also always reading a conversation between the author of the Gospel and the community for whom he wrote—mediated through the historical materials the evangelist is working with. So, for instance, when Jesus declares in John’s Gospel that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5), we have to remember that this statement by Christ is not read in a vacuum, but in the context of a community that has already been baptizing new members for around 50 years. Thus, attempts by some Protestant exegetes to claim that “the water in this verse refers to the amniotic fluid that surrounds the baby in its mother’s womb” are simply preposterous. If John meant to inform his readers that Jesus actually meant “First, you are born naturally via amniotic fluid, then you are born supernaturally by asking Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and savior, and baptism has nothing to do with that,” he could not have chosen a more misleading way of getting his message across, given the universal experience of his audience. Every ancient reader of this text would—and did—read John 3:5 in light of the established practice of the apostolic churches as a reference to the waters of baptism. In short, John is not just teaching his community about the sacrament of baptism via the words of Jesus. He is also teaching what the words of Jesus mean by relating them to the practice of the community in baptism.
This process of relating Jesus to the community goes backward in time as well as forward. Just as Jesus’ words about water and the Holy Spirit are inevitably linked with what John’s audience had lived in the sacrament of baptism, so they are inevitably linked with what John and his heavily Jewish readership know of the Old Testament. So when the evangelist relates John the Baptist’s acclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29), he does so with the assumption that his readers are completely aware of the sacrificial Passover Lamb and the whole story of the Exodus. Indeed, John, like all the New Testament writers, is presuming a full awareness of the entire Old Testament.
The Full Context
All this is important to remember as we approach John 8:44, because that verse lives in the middle of a very long and very subtle catechetical meditation, not on the peculiar wickedness of Jews, but on the meaning and effects of baptism. This means that the passage is not directed at singling out Jews as particularly evil, but is instead aimed at declaring the universality of original sin.
John, you see, has a pastoral problem. His audience consists, in part, of people who are influenced by a sect that elevates John the Baptist over Jesus. We can see abundant evidence for this in the fact that his Gospel addresses a considerable portion of material to disciples of John the Baptist who had heard only of his “baptism of repentance,” but not of his full testimony to Jesus. This is one of the reasons scholars think he is writing to the Church at Ephesus. For we know from Acts 18:24 and 19:1-7 that there was some sort of sect centered in Ephesus that fit this description, to whom the apostles repeatedly addressed pleas to follow the Christ whom John the Baptist serves. And so John has to emphasize again and again that the Baptist was not the Messiah (Jn 1:20), that he came only as a witness to the Light (Jn 1:6-8), that he was just the friend of the bridegroom, and that he must decrease even as Christ increases (Jn 3:28-30).
Not surprisingly, then, the Evangelist is tasked with showing the difference between John’s baptism of repentance and the sacramental baptism given by Christ. But being a first-century Jew and not a 21st—century abstract thinker, he does so via the medium of stories—true stories—and not theological jargon.
John’s instruction on the meaning and effects of sacramental baptism begins in John 7 and continues all the way to the end of John 9. As is his custom throughout the Gospel, he relates the teaching and work of Christ to a Jewish feast—in this case, the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast celebrated Israel’s living in tents in the wilderness (Lv 23:43) and the permanent abode given them in the Promised Land, particularly symbolized by the temple. Its two dominant motifs were water and light, recalling the water from the rock Moses gave Israel and the light of the Pillar of Fire that led Israel through the wilderness. In addition, the feast referred to the mysterious vision of Ezekiel 40-48 in which the prophet sees the restored temple after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and the Babylonian captivity. Accordingly, the Women’s Court of the temple was illuminated to recall the Pillar of Fire, and a curious rite was enacted: Every morning of the celebration a priest went down to the Pool of Siloam (a pool we shall hear more about in John 9) and brought back a golden pitcher of water to the temple (the successor of the tabernacle). This water was poured on the altar of holocausts amid the singing of the Hallel (Ps 112-117) and the joyful sound of musical instruments.
It is in the middle of all this that Jesus stands up “on the last and greatest day of the feast” and says: “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (Jn 7:37-39).
The odd thing is, the Old Testament nowhere says, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” John knows that. His readers know that. So why record Jesus saying that? Because John knows Jesus is alluding to—not directly quoting—Ezekiel 47’s vision of the restored temple that is commemorated in the Feast of Tabernacles:
Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate, that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.
Going on eastward with a line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the loins. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?”
Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea; from En-gedi to En-eglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing” (Ez 47:1-12).
Of course, the rebuilt temple never had any such river flowing out of it, so what was Ezekiel getting at? Jesus tells us: The water flowing out of the temple in Ezekiel’s vision, the water poured on the altar of holocausts in the Feast of Tabernacles is a foreshadowing of the sacrament of baptism. This should not surprise us. After all, Jesus has already made clear that His body, not a mere stone building, is the True Temple (“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” [Jn 2:19]). Moreover, as John is careful to note, water did in fact flow from that temple when the heart of Jesus was pierced (Jn 19:34-35). And the evangelist’s emphasis on this leaves no doubt that John himself saw this as the sign that the sacrament of baptism had been instituted by the Holy Spirit. That’s why he writes:
This is he who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree (1Jn 5:6-8).
So in John 7, the evangelist is using the imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles and the words of Jesus to liken His body and ours to a temple and linking the Spirit to baptismal imagery—baptismal imagery that is likewise all about water and light. In so doing, he sets the stage for all that is to follow in his instruction on baptism, whereby we drink the Living Water and have our eyes opened to the Light of the world (Jn 8:12).
Getting the Audience Wrong
As the narrative of John proceeds, the crowd debates whether Jesus is a prophet. Some (particularly among the authorities) reject Him. (By the way, skip the whole section about the woman caught in adultery in John 8:3-11. It’s basically a chunk of apostolic tradition that John probably did not write, but that the Church could never bear to part with. It’s been attached to different Gospels in different manuscripts of the New Testament and eventually was inserted here for want of a better place to put it, but it’s not really part of the original narrative of John.)
As the conversation continues, we discover that not all reject Him. Some “believe in him.” And this is where the plot thickens. For notably, it is not to the Jews who reject Him, but to “the Jews who had believed in him” (Jn 8:31), that Jesus addresses His next remarks, including the shocking statement, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (Jn 8:44). In short, it’s “interested inquirers”—people like the unbaptized catechumens and “inquirers” in the evangelist’s own community—not hostile Pharisees and “outsiders,” who are told they are children of the devil.
Why does Jesus address ostensibly friendly people in this way? Because there is belief, and then there is belief—as every catechist who has had to teach cafeteria Catholics knows. Some people come to believe in Christ in humility. Some come to “believe” in Him in profound pride. Such people need a wake-up call. They need to know exactly what Paul had told the same Ephesian community decades earlier: that apart from Christ we are
dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:1-3).
Note once again that this is “devil talk,” arraigning the reader as a slave of Satan (the “prince of the power of the air”). Yet it is not directed at Jews, but at Paul’s own Christian readership, reminding them of what they were before “having the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened” (Eph 1:18).
Note how both Paul and John use “enlightenment” and “baptism” interchangeably (as do the Fathers after them). John gets the habit from Jesus who, speaking to “the Jews who had believed in him,” warns starkly that they are slaves to sin and children of the devil. The “believing” Jews take offense and appeal to their heritage as children of Abraham. What is John’s point in recording this? Not that Jews are peculiarly demonic, but rather that we are all in bondage to sin, of course, and that this bondage infects the whole human race without regard to ethnicity.
And that’s the point. Jesus’ strong language is the same language that could be (and is) applied to any catechumen from any ethnic background who tries to insist that he doesn’t need freeing from any sin: He is speaking a lie from his father, the devil. In short, John 8:44 presupposes a doctrine of original sin that afflicts the whole human race—a belief that all, not just Jews, are under the dominion of the “prince of the power of the air” and require enlightenment from darkness and washing from sin. Jesus does not teach that there is something peculiarly satanic about Jews. He simply points to the fact that humans are, apart from Him, in bondage to sin, and that the purpose of baptism is to free them from that. Mere physical descent from Abraham cannot save any more than being a true-blue American can.
Those “who believed in him” are scandalized at this, and the conversation quickly disintegrates when Jesus chooses to test this “belief” by challenging it with the full import of His claims. He will not let “those who believed in him” settle for believing in Him as a mere prophet, nor as a prop for feeling good about themselves (people become Catholic for such reasons to this day). He insists that they are slaves to sin, not because they are Jews, but because they are human. They retaliate by calling Him demon-possessed. He ratchets up the ante even higher, with an explicit claim to be God (“Before Abraham was, I am” [Jn 8:58]). In short, John points out the full meaning of what the catechumen is signing on for when that catechumen lightly decides to indulge his pride with a little religious enthusiasm. Result: “Those who believed in him” (shallow catechumens, not His Jewish enemies in the Sanhedrin) try to stone Him. In short, it is the catechumens who are most offended by the promise that they will be freed from sin.
The Water That Saves
John then continues his meditation on baptism and dilates on the themes of water and light with the story of the man born blind. In that story, the man’s eyes are opened and the “eyes of his heart” are enlightened to see Jesus by—you guessed it—baptism. He is told to go to the Pool of Siloam (the same pool used for the rite at the Feast of Tabernacles) and wash. For the first time, he sees not only physical light, but Jesus. In the course of the entire controversy beginning in John 7, he is the first person to acknowledge that he cannot see, and the first to be enlightened. That enlightenment takes place by degrees. First, Jesus is called a man (Jn 9:11), then a prophet (Jn 9:17), then Lord (Jn 9:38).
Unlike the prideful catechumens, this man recognizes that he is blind. But note this: All are Jews. What distinguishes the man born blind from “the Jews who had believed in him” is not his ethnicity, but his humility and their pride. What keeps “the Jews who had believed in him” slaves to “the prince of the power of the air” is not some peculiarly demonic ethnic trait, but the simple refusal to acknowledge their need of cleansing from sin through the sacrament of baptism.
That is precisely the point of the coda at the end of the story:
For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind . . . . If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say “We see,” your guilt remains (Jn 9:39-41).
The “devil talk” of the New Testament is not meant to say that there is something uniquely wicked about Jews but to pound home the doctrine that all humans are bound by original sin, that mere ethnicity cannot save, and that baptism is the sacrament that frees us from sin.