"Salvation Is from the Jews". (Cover Story)

By Neuhaus, Richard | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, November 2001 | Go to article overview
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"Salvation Is from the Jews". (Cover Story)


Neuhaus, Richard, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


   The Samaritan woman said, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our
   fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the
   place where men ought to worship. "Jesus responded, "Woman, believe me, the
   hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you
   worship the Father You worship what you do not know; we worship what we
   know, for salvation is from the Jews." (John 4:19-22)

Despite its suggestive power, the striking statement of Jesus that salvation is from the Jews is seldom encountered in the now voluminous literature on the Jewish-Christian dialogue. The reason may be that the exchange is entangled in another dispute about supersessionism between religious communities, a dispute entirely apart from the Jewish-Christian relationship. It will be remembered that the Samaritans--the shamerim, which means "observant"--claimed to be the true Israel who remained loyal to Yahweh when Eli allegedly seduced his brethren into constructing the apostate shrine at Shiloh instead of at God's chosen mountain, Gerizim, as recounted in 1 Samuel 1. After the fourth-century schism, Jews forbade Samaritans to make offerings in Jerusalem, to buy unmovable property, and to marry or circumcise a Jew. As John the Evangelist writes, "For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans." In short, Jerusalem Judaism had definitively superseded the cult of Gerizim. Thus the exchange with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well may be something of an embarrassment in a Jewish-Christian dialogue that is centrally concerned with the question of supersessionism.

Or it maybe that in the Jewish-Christian dialogue there is little reference to the statement that salvation is from the Jews because the dialogue is not centrally concerned with the question of salvation. In any event, our passage has not been treated kindly by Christian commentators. A recent ecumenical Christian commentary on the passage says that Jesus is acknowledging that "God's salvation to humanity came historically through the Jews as a point of departure, not as origin or source. Salvation comes only from God." "A point of departure"--it has a dismissive ring to it, almost as though Jews and Judaism are, for Christians, a dispensable accident of history.

Rudolf Bultmann, in a footnote in his commentary on John, gives our passage even shorter shrift. It is, he says, "completely or partially an editorial gloss," since the statement that salvation is from the Jews is "impossible in John [who] does not regard the Jews as God's chosen and saved people." "It is hard to see," he writes, "how the Johannine Jesus, who constantly disassociates himself from the Jews, could have made such a statement." An interesting question that Bultmann does not address is why a later editor, presumably at a time when the lines between Jews and Christians had hardened, would have inserted such a statement. It seems improbable that an editor was trying to rectify what Bultmann views as the anti-Jewish bias of Jesus. It is more likely, I think, that Jesus said what he is said to have said, and that Bultmann's view reflects his difficulty, and the difficulty of too many other Christians, in coming to terms with the Jewishness of Jesus, and of Christianity.

There is another reason for the neglect of this saying of Jesus. In some circles today, it is the accepted wisdom that the Fourth Gospel is impossibly anti-Judaic and even, it is anachronistically said, anti-Semitic. John therefore should have no place in our reflections, and certainly not in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Thus do we with our putatively superior wisdom nullify the normativity of the sacred text. Nothing so powerfully testifies to the Jewishness of John's Gospel as its vigorous, and sometimes disconcertingly aggressive, contention against opposing Messianic expectations held by other Jews.

In his 1955 commentary on John, the estimable C. IL Barrett offers what may be taken as a more conventional supersessionist understanding of these words of Jesus: "The saying does not mean that Jews as such are inevitably saved, but rather that the election of Israel to a true knowledge of God was in order that, at the time appointed by God, salvation might proceed from Israel to the world, and Israel's own unique privilege be thereby dissolved.

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