Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of all Israel
Though geared for a Christian audience, the question motivating the author is a deeply Messianic Jewish one. The challenge of the Gospel of John for a Jewish follower of Yeshua is this: if the Fourth Gospel is anti-Semitic, how can any Jew embrace its message?
The author reveals to us the existential problem which motivated his writing the book:
As a Jew who follows Jesus, and this may be a predicament unique to people like myself, I simply could not live with my favorite Gospel being an anti-Jewish Christian document. I was acutely and constantly conscious of this problem. I saw this aspect more often than others (Christian non-Jews) would.1
Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg clearly experiences the emotional tug-of-war common to all reflective Jews who embrace the One, who, though himself a Torah-keeping Jew, has been identified so exclusively with those who have used the Gospel of John as a bludgeon against the sons and daughters of Abraham. His goal, then, in writing The Jewish Gospel of John is to demonstrate that the Fourth Gospel is not anti-Semitic. Rather, it reflects a serious in-house disagreement among segments of the Jewish people concerning Yeshua’s true nature and identity.
One is impressed by the endorsements by scholars who have engaged his work. For example, Professor Daniel Boyarin, a favorite writer among many Messianic Jews, had this to say about The Jewish Gospel of John:
A genuine apologetic is one that is true to the texts and the history, akin to the speeches of the defense attorney with integrity. Using the best of scholarship in first-century Judaism and contributing much of his own, Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg has demonstrated that the Gospel of John is not anti-Jewish, but a thoroughly Jewish book.2
We would expect that a work praised by a scholar of Dr. Boyarin’s stature would have its fair share of references to the serious studies throughout. But this is not the case with The Jewish Gospel of John. The book was intended as a kind of inner conversation, without the distraction of critical voices:
My main audience is not the only reason this book is so light on secondary sources. I intentionally adopted a different approach from the one used by most scholars who write commentaries. I wanted to read John’s Gospel in the quietness of my own soul, heart and mind. I purposefully avoided knowing what other people thought about my subject. I wanted to understand it for myself and by myself. Of course, I had studied other scholars and read extensively for 25 years.3
The author’s awareness of the world of modern scholarship is evident. He also has a gift for thoughtful reflection and conversational engagement with the reader. So, what exactly is his unique perspective on the overarching motifs of the Fourth Gospel?
Yeshua and the Ioudaioi
Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg takes his place among those who seek to parse the relationship between Yeshua and “the Jews.” Renowned scholar Raymond E. Brown explored the issue, and concluded that the pejorative nuance of Ioudaioi belongs to a significantly later period of editorial work on the written Gospel:
I have contended that a good part of the relations between Jesus and “the Jews” described in the Gospel goes beyond what actually happened in Jesus’ lifetime. Rather, to a considerable degree the description reflected what happened to the Johannine Christians in their interactions with synagogue authorities.”4
For the author of our book, the Ioudaioi (the Jews) as presented in the Gospel surely are not a reconstruction from a later period of the communal development. Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg sees the Ioudaioi with whom Yeshua debated as a subgroup of the the multi-textured people of Israel, living primarily but not exclusively in Judea, and representing the ruling elite living in Jerusalem:
Those who acknowledged the Jerusalem-approved authorities in Kfar Nahum
(Capernaum) and Cana, which were far from Jerusalem, were also referred to by the principal name for the Jerusalemite formal rulers and leading sect—the Ioudaioi.5
In the author’s construction, Yeshua himself is a member of the Ioudaioi, not in the sense that he was part of this ruling elite, but as an adherent to the general outlook, cultural and theological identity of the group:
Why do I call this Israelite document Judean? Because it is especially in this Gospel that Jesus is shown as belonging to the Ioudaioi. As was already mentioned above, Jesus identified on a number of occasions with the Ioudaioi (Judeans/Jews). In John 1:11b the Ioudaioi are “his own.” In John 4:9 Jesus is called Ioudaios (Judean/Jew). In John 4:22 Jesus and his disciples affirm that salvation is from the Ioudaioi and in John 19:40 Jesus was buried according to the burial customs of the Ioudaioi.6
Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s understanding of John 1:11b is particularly interesting: “He came to his own (“the world”), and his own people (the Ioudaioi) did not receive him.”7 So, in the author’s conception, it was not the Jewish people in its entirety who refused him, but that subset with whom the Messiah identified. The Ioudaioi (Judeans) were “his people,” of whom few were interested in endorsing his lofty claims. With this interpretation, any grounds for imagining an anti-Semitic jab disappear from the powerful prologue of the Gospel.
Ioudaioi can be found in outposts throughout Israel. The little town of Cana, the place where the Messiah changed water into expensive wine, was such a village. This is why the stone pots containing mayim (water) soon to become yayin (wine) were described as “six stone water pots. . . for the purification of the Ioudaioi.”8 The author contends that the Judean-style water receptacles were not present by accident. These were specifically geared for the use of the Ioudaioi:
A geographical Judean location was not a necessary condition for people to be classified as Ioudaioi and John 2:6b is not the only example of this. Cana was in Galilee, and so were the Ioudaioi.9
Cana is very likely a Judean settlement in Galilee. We remember that when Jesus turned water into wine there that there were vessels for ritual purification according to the custom of the Ioudaioi (John 2:6). In other words, Jesus went to continue his ministry at “a home away from home.”10
The value of identifying “the Jews” as a subset of Israelites with which the Messiah most closely identified is clear: the Gospel is transformed from an attack on the Jewish people to an eyewitness account of an internecine conflict between Yeshua and the people with whom he had the greatest affinity. It will be up to the reader to decide if Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s understanding of the term Ioudaioi (which is left untranslated throughout the book) can fit the many occurrences of the word in the Gospel, but the general premise seems promising to this reader.
Ezekiel and the Samaritan Connection
How did Messiah conceive of his primary mission? According to the author, Yeshua understood his role to be the unifier of the disparate, scattered elements of the people of Israel. This was in counter-distinction to the evil shepherds of Israel who abuse God’s flock. Messiah Yeshua is presented as the ultimate Shepherd of the scattered sheep of Israel. His claim in John 10 derives very specifically from the prophetic picture offered in Ezekiel11:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of Man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. . . . Ah shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. . . . Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out.” (Ezek 34:1–24)
So, Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you. I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers. . . . The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:7–10)
And who are the unworthy shepherds of Ezekiel’s prophecy? To Yeshua, these are the leaders among the Ioudaioi who opposed him.
Messiah Yeshua is also the uniter of Israel according to prophetic vision of Ezekiel 37:15ff. In this passage God promises the reuniting of the “sticks” representing Judah and Israel. “One king shall be king over all of them, and they shall no longer be two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. . . . My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall have one shepherd.”
In John’s Gospel Yeshua acts as the one who brings together the historically antagonistic northern and southern segments of Israel. This explains the positive interest in the Samaritans which we find in the Gospel of John. In this construction, the “sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16) are not the Gentiles as is commonly understood. Rather, they are the scattered sheep of the nation of Israel. These include the Samaritans, the representatives of those of Israel who reside up north:
The case is clear—Jesus, in fulfillment of the above text [i.e. Ezek. 27:15–24] comes to unite Israel, and this includes all Israel: Samaritan Israelites as the local representatives of the Northern Kingdom, as well as those Israelites currently residing in the dispersion/diaspora. The time had come to place the two sticks of Judah and Israel together, and Jesus would do just that. Before the fulfillment of the reconciling and unifying vision of Israel’s God with all humanity, comes a mission of primary importance—the mission of Jesus to reconcile and unify all the house of Israel.12
The author does not suggest how on the plane of history this reconciliation has actually occurred or has begun to occur. Presumably, it will find its expression in the eschaton, as would the ultimate outworking of all of Messiah’s work. But, the value of these ideas from a Messianic Jewish perspective is clear:
1. “The Jews” are not the bad guys in the traditional Christian sense. Yeshua’s antagonists are the leadership of a segment of Israel, the leadership centered in Jerusalem. These were the first century misguided shepherds condemned by Ezekiel.
2. Yeshua’s primary reconciling work is deeply Jewish. It is particularistic. It focuses on Israel, the covenanted nation: “God’s reputation and therefore his faithfulness to his promises to the people of Israel are at stake. The Gospel of John is a Judean invitation to the rest of Israel in following the Messiah Jesus who has come to shepherd God’s sheep.”13
We have considered the two major distinguishing features of The Jewish Gospel of John. There are other interesting elements which we will just touch on:
- The courtroom motif: Who really is on trial in the fourth Gospel? It is not Messiah Yeshua, but the Judean leaders who oppose him. The witness of the Father, the works of the Son and the convicting Ruach (Spirit) testify on his behalf. The author points out that this courtroom motif is prominent in the Gospel of John, but largely absent from the Synoptics.
- Yeshua, the advocate for Torah: See his discussion of John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg stresses that the pitting of law and gospel against each other is unnecessary in this text.
- The relationship to the Synoptic Gospels: Notable is the absence of Yeshua’s primary identification with Galilee which is so evident in the other three canonical Gospels: “It is important to the author of the Gospel to show which calendar Jesus followed. For John, Jesus was a Judean (Ioudaioi) pure and simple.”14 The Synoptics rely on the calendar adopted during the Babylonian captivity. John uses a calendar which the Cambridge scholar Colin Humphreys describes as Israel’s pre-exilic calendar.15
- Validation of archeological details in the Gospel: These suggest that the writer was a first century eyewitness to the things he describes. For example, Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg notes recent archeological data concerning the discovery of the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2).16
- The importance of Yeshua’s waiting four days before visiting the grave of his friend Elazar (Lazarus): There is meaning to this delay rooted in early Jewish tradition.17
The Jewish Gospel of John: An Evaluation
Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg rightly deserves the credit he receives from the scholars who have engaged his work. He has taken a fresh view of the Gospel which sadly has been used for centuries as the religious justification for treating the Jewish people poorly. He has reclaimed the Fourth Gospel as a deeply Jewish chronicle of the Messiah’s life and teachings, and he has done so as a writer who expresses himself in simple and direct language, while still evidencing the disciplines of serious scholarship.
However, fresh thinking must stand the test of time and further scrutiny before we can subscribe without reservation to its particulars. We think that Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s construction concerning the role of the Samaritans deserves further reflection. While it is plausible that the Gospel writer’s emphasis on this group of outsiders is meant to be understood as the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision of a unified Israel, this proposal needs to be critically evaluated against other interpretations of the Gospel’s emphasis on the Samaritans. Another claim needing scrutiny is Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s suggestion that the Pool of Bethesda was actually an Asclepion (as no first-century evidence for the pool serving as a pagan shrine exists).
Despite the author’s expression of solidarity with the challenge posed by John’s apparent anti-Jewishness, and Messiah’s essential Israelite identity, he offers very little insight into possible implications for modern Jewish Yeshua believers. While
Lizorkin-Eyzenberg expressly states he is writing for Christians, the absence of any insights by a Jewish writer for fellow Jews robs the book of some of its value and potential. That audience wants to consider insights that flow from the Gospel of John and which can inform Messianic Jewish self-understanding, practice and theology (especially, ecclesiology). The author clearly articulates a deep level of sensitivity to the very Jewish concern about the Gospel of John’s alleged anti-Jewishness. He wrote the book to bring coherence to his inner world concerning this conundrum. But beyond insight into his existential challenge, this reader wishes he had said more.
Again, on the positive side of the ledger, the author’s “Jewish reclamation of Jesus” is presented without the all-too-common tendency to present the Messiah as a kind of enhanced rabbi or mere prophetic figure. The Jewish Gospel of John embodies a high Christology, expressed without recourse to Christian theological language but rich in biblical imagery and allusion. The Messianic Jewish world generally appreciates this approach.
Another dimension of the book which this reader found quite endearing was that the author evidences real empathy, not only for the Jewish people as a group, but for specific characters in the Gospel story. For example, his portrayal of the Samaritan woman in John 4 runs counter to the standard narrative which reads: a woman of ill repute finds God’s chesed (grace) through her private encounter with the Messiah at Jacob’s well, and this leads to blessing for the people of her village. Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg presents her not in the usual way—that is, as a woman with loose morals who had a series of live-in lovers. Rather, she had lost several husbands because first-century life was tough. (Maybe it was a combination of war, or disease, or the younger woman, we just don’t know.) Her conversation with others from her village recounts: “Many of the Samaritans in the town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony: ‘He told me everything I ever did’ ” John 4:39).
Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg comments:
I think once again, we are so preconditioned to think in Christian terms . . . that we are unable to read the sentence positively. In other words everything I ever did, may be just that—a simple statement that the entire life of the woman was known to Jesus (not necessarily a life of sexual immorality).18
Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s gracious reconstruction of the Gospel account extends even to Judas Iscariot. He surely did betray the Master to those seeking his life, but his motivation went beyond mere greed: Judas wanted to ensure Yeshua’s arrest in order to force God’s hand so God’s kingdom would come without delay. His sin was that he was tired of waiting for divine justice. While it is up to the reader to decide whether this interpretation is convincing, we simply note that Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg tries to find a touch of nobility even in a very dubious character like Judas.
Finally, the picture of the Messiah which emerges in the author’s reading of the Gospel of John is coherent. Readers feel that we are encountering a real, first-century personage. The archeological detail reflects pre-70 Jerusalem; the teasing out of known Jewish cultural norms fits the times; the psychological dynamics of Yeshua’s friends and foes ring true, and so on. The author does readers a service by presenting a New Testament picture of Messiah in this respect.
The Jewish Gospel of John is a refreshing, thoughtful and responsible treatment of the fourth canonical Gospel. It is fair to say that Dr. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg’s unique interpretations are wonderfully suggestive. His writing style is accessible and bathed with a warm tone throughout. He manages to achieve a sense of connection with his readers. A high Christology is evident, adding a gilded edge of grandeur to the narrative. Most notably, the Yeshua—Jesus—who emerges is a coherent individual who lives and loves as a truly unique Jew and the King of Israel.
We look forward to more scholarly discussion about The Jewish Gospel of John. It is a work worthy of our interest.
1 Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, The Jewish Gospel of John: Discovering Jesus, King of all Israel. (Tel Mond, Israel: Israel Study Center, 2015), ix.
2 Ibid., Endorsements, vii.
3 Ibid., Disclaimer, xviii.
4 Raymond Brown, An Introduction To the Gospel of John (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 171.
5 Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Introduction, xi.
6 Ibid., xiii.
7 Ibid., 6–8.
8 Ibid., 25.
9 Ibid., 24.
10 Ibid., 63.
11 Ibid., 160ff.
15 Colin Humphreys, The Mystery Of The Last Supper: Reconstruction the Final Days of Jesus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 150.
16 Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, 62.
17 Ibid., 174.
18 Ibid., 61.