By Hugh Mingard

John 6: 35-51

At 8.15 on the morning of 6th August 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped from an American bomber to explode about 600m above the centre of Hiroshima, a city of about 300-350,000 people. The blast completely flattened an area with radius 1.6km – the arial photograph[1] shows a portion of this. This can seem like a distant event; even at the time it was affecting a far distant enemy; but we can bring it home by making a comparison with our own city. Christchurch has about the same population; the area of complete destruction would be roughly from Bealey Avenue to Brougham Street and Deans Avenue to Fitzgerald, but much more densely populated; and in the Google image we can see the hospital (the Hiroshima bomb exploded directly above the Shima Hospital), the Art Gallery, Riverside market, cafes and shops….

In total, between 90-140,000 people were killed either in the immediate blast and firestorm, or dying within 2-4 months of the explosion from their burns and injuries.  The Japanese government refused to concede defeat, and at 11.02 am on the 9th August the horror was repeated on the city of Nagasaki, a city of about 250,000 people, and between 60-80,000 people were killed.

Although many thousands of people were working in the munitions factories, including students and Korean conscripts, the numbers of specifically military personnel accounted for only about 10-15% of the deaths.  The dropping of atomic bombs were not the only attacks causing mass civilian deaths in Japan. Japanese cities were targeted by fire-bombing using napalm and phosphorus munitions during this stage of the war, destroying more than 450 sq km of sixty-seven cities, with an estimated 300,000 deaths and more than 9 million people made homeless. About 100,000 people were killed in the firebomb raid on Tokyo alone over two nights in March 1945.

How could the world have reached a point where such immense slaughter could be justified as a means of shocking the Japanese government into surrender?  After more than three years of war with Japan, with more than 150,000 Amricans dead, and after many appalling atrocities committed by the Japanese military, the US leaders had de-humanised the Japanese people in their minds to the extent that “Japs” defined a nameless, faceless enemy. The US Army propaganda poster[1] says it all. The propaganda did not distinguish civilians from military. Fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, all were lumped together as “the enemy”. So let’s put faces to the faceless by contrasting the poster with photos of actual Japanese caught after the bitterly fought but successful US invasion of Okinawa[1]. Tired, scared, defeated human beings, men, women and children.

Mark Selden, a Senior Research Associate in the East Asia Program, Cornell University, and Editor of the Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus says: “Throughout the spring and summer of 1945 the US air war in Japan reached an intensity that is still perhaps unrivalled in the magnitude of human slaughter. That moment was a product of the combination of technological breakthroughs, American nationalism, and the erosion of moral and political scruples pertaining to the killing of civilians, perhaps intensified by the racism that crystallized in the Pacific theatre.”[2]

On the other side of the world, the first half of 1945 saw the European Allies liberating the concentration camps set up by the German Nazi regime and discovering the horrific scale of the slaughter. A total of about 6 million Jews (2/3 of the Jewish population in Europe) were killed between 1939-1945 in a systematic, state-sponsored, mass murder. An ethnic and religious grouping of people had been demonised by Hitler’s regime to the extent that millions were killed in cold blood, no longer considered individuals but as an “inferior race”, a danger to German racial purity. Again, we can contrast the image of the caricatured evil Jew on the propaganda poster with the angelic faces of the Frank sisters – real Jewish individuals, no different from any German child.[3,4]

Although the scale of Nazi atrocities was unprecedented, this was not the first time Jews had been targeted for persecution. For more than 18 centuries Jewish people had been repeatedly subject to forced-conversion, restricted from full participation in society, or actively persecuted and killed for their faith throughout Europe. While politics, envy, scapegoating and xenophobia were often the underlying motivation, religion was very often the explicit reason.

And there’s an uncomfortable truth here – it was very often Christian viewpoints that lead to this situation. As early as the Second Century, Christian writers such as Melito, the bishop of Sardis (in what is now Turkey) developed ideas from the texts of the gospels which portrayed the Jews as Christ killers. And if Christ were God, then the Jews had also killed God. By the Fourth Century, the term “deicide” (“God-killing”) was applied by John of Chrysostom, an early church leader with great influence on subsequent theology. And it was not until 1965 that the Catholic Church’s “Nostra Aetate” statement officially stated that “God holds Jews most dear” and that the Jews should not be held accountable for the death of Jesus. 1965!!

So we come to our reading from John’s gospel, and John’s contribution to the “Christian”, but most un-Christian persecution of the Jews over many centuries. The late Rev Dr John Townsend, a teacher of both New Testament and Rabbinic Studies at Harvard, writes[5]: “In telling of Jesus feeding the five thousand and then walking on the Sea, John 6 agrees with the Synoptic Gospels (Mk. 6:32-56, Mt 15:30) in referring to the people involved as a “multitude” (ochlos). Throughout the whole narrative section of the chapter and the beginning of the following discourse, the gospel portrays the multitude in a favourable light. Then, commencing from verse 31, the people begin to murmur against Jesus. At the same point also, they cease to be a “multitude” and become “the Jews”.

In an excellent podcast I recently heard[6], Helen Bond, the Head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, suggests that we need to think of the gospels as biographies. Each one was written by a different author at a different time and for a different audience, and all of them were written starting from the events surrounding Easter – in other words, with the benefit of hindsight. The authors did not follow Jesus around writing notes as they went; Jesus did not have a press secretary handing out notes on his preaching or discussions. Even in modern context, different biographies show different aspects of the subject – the writer is often not an independent and unbiased reporter.

Mark’s Gospel is our oldest biography: Its final form dates from around 70-75 CE and was written for a Greek-speaking community fairly remote from Jerusalem trying to come to terms with the destruction of the Temple, and the failure of the Jewish Revolt to bring about the apocalyptic expectations. Matthew and Luke’s gospels use Mark’s framework but both also draw on a separate tradition of sayings we call Q, which has not been preserved as a separate manuscript. Matthew’s gospel was written to a Galilean community with strongly Jewish background and emphasises Jesus’ pedigree to Abraham and teaching of the Torah. Luke’s gospel was written, probably in Rome, to more of a gentile (non-Jewish) audience. He attempted to reconstruct the life of Jesus and the Apostles (in Acts), as well as the significance of Jesus in a Jewish Messianic context, within a classical framework of miraculous birth, worthy deeds, and heroic death.

John’s gospel was the latest to be written (its final form dates from between 90-120 CE) and contains a much more developed Christian theology. Biblical historians generally agree that the gospel of John was compiled from several different sources, one of which was similar to the eye-witness accounts as seen in the other three gospels – you could consider this a collection of deeds and sayings. A second, which is completely absent from the synoptics, is interpreted to be a collection of “signs”.  The word “sign” is used in John’s Gospel to refer to a series of miracles and the term is used in a positive sense as a proof that Jesus was the Messiah. The synoptic gospels take a completely different approach to miracles and signs – for example in Mark’s gospel, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone he is the Messiah, rather than boasting proof of it (8:30), and Matthew’s description of Jesus has him refuse to perform any signs (16:4).

So, what was John’s context and purpose in writing his “biography” of Jesus and why does it differ from the earlier gospels?  The gospel was written for a group, possibly in Antioch (Syria), where Jesus’ followers were first identified as Christians but there was still a great deal of fluidity between the Christian and Jewish communities. John’s community had concluded that the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made complete sense within their framework of Messianic expectations, and they were in significant conflict with the mainstream Jews who rejected this. They felt marginalised from their own community but convinced they were right! Judaism was also evolving after the destruction of the Temple – study of Torah became the most important thing, rather than sacrifices at the Temple. The Jewish Canon of scripture was closed and around AD 90 an extra sentence was added to the “eighteen Benedictions” recited in the synagogues in which the “Nazarenes” and “heretics” were cursed. This matches the comment in John’s gospel that anyone acknowledging Jesus as Messiah would be thrown out of the synagogue (John 9:22, 12:42). No love was felt on either side!

Indeed, the Rev Dr John Townsend describes the separation of Christianity from Judaism as “a religious divorce”[5]. The gospel of John was written to make the case for Christianity as superseding Judaism. John Townsend suggests that bread, light, water and wine were amongst typical symbols for the Law of Moses in rabbinic circles. According to John, Jesus is the living bread from heaven (6:32-38) and the light of the world (e.g 8:12); Jesus transforms water to wine (2:6-10) and offers to provide living water in contrast to the water at Jacob’s well (4:12-15). John’s gospel deliberately sets Jesus’ statements at odds with some of the foundations of Judaism and generally portrays his arguments as with “the Jews”, rather than the Jewish leadership. The terms “Jew” or “the Jews” occur in each of the other gospels only five or six times;  John uses them seventy-one times, far more often than specific group identifiers such as “Pharisees” (JT, as above).

So, was the author of John’s gospel anti-Jewish? John does not hesitate to affirm the Jewish setting of his narrative. He readily indicates that Jesus himself was a Jew (eg 4:9), and has him, along with John the Baptist (3:26), addressed as rabbi (eg 1:38; 4:31). John’s gospel also makes liberal use of the Hebrew Scriptures and affirms the importance of the Jewish people in God’s plan for salvation (4:22) (JT, as above). An article on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum website[9] explains it well:  “This late first-century writing features bitter internal Jewish argumentation. Hard fighting and harsh words were no strangers to religious strife among post-70 Jews.” (Gerard S. Sloyan, Professor Emeritus Of Religion at Temple University). However, as Christianity separated from Judaism and gentiles became the majority of converts, this local setting was no longer understood and an entire ethnic grouping was labelled

OK, you may be wondering, how does this affects us today? We still have problems of biblical interpretation which are resulting in some parts of the Christian church being oppressive and demonising “others”, whether religious or social groupings. Part of the problem is considering “The Bible” as a single book; and more than that, a single “Holy” book. Not to denigrate those who consider it Holy, but it is holy in the sense of containing wisdom and interpretation of things that are holy to us, rather than in itself. We do not worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Bible!

The starting point for too many Christians is an interpretation rather than the facts. Too often we end up with a jelly-mould Jesus, pressed into a form which fits with whatever our doctrinal starting point is. If religion is the opium of the people, John’s gospel is the drug of choice of many modern evangelical churches. If you start with John’s view of Jesus you reinterpret everything in that light. But progressive Christians can also be guilty of starting from the model of a revolutionary prophet found in Mark’s gospel and pushing roughshod through or ignoring the more spiritual aspects of John’s gospel.

I have found it rare to hear this perspective view of bible preached in church, “the bible” is still generally treated as a single book and “the gospels” are homogenised in our lectionaries into a seamless story.  Perhaps minsters think their congregations are too traditional, perhaps ministers are too orthodox (I don’t think we have that problem here in Durham Street!), perhaps their training or supervision pushes them in that direction.

So, on Lay Preacher’s Sunday, let us encourage “the laity” (us!) to spend more time understanding the background to the bible, let us discover more about the complexity and diversity of our faith traditions, and acknowledge Christianity’s faults as well as profess its strengths.

And on Peace Sunday, let us promise never to let ancient grudges direct our way of thinking about our neighbours in the world, create scapegoats for modern problems, or make those we have never met into faceless enemies.

  1. Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Wikipedia
  2. A Forgotten Holocaust: US Bombing Strategy, the Destruction of Japanese Cities & the American Way of War from World War II to Iraq | The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (apjjf.org)
  3. What conditions, ideologies, and ideas made the Holocaust possible? | Holocaust Encyclopedia (ushmm.org)
  4. Anne Frank Biography: Who was Anne Frank? | Holocaust Encyclopedia (ushmm.org)
  5. The Gospel of John and the Jews (bc.edu)
  6. Helen Bond: the First Biography of Jesus… PS it is the Gospel of Mark (trippfuller.com)
  7. White, L Michael, 2004 “From Jesus to Christianity: how four generations of visionaries and storytellers created the New Testament and Christian faith”, Publ. HarperCollins
  8. Frend, WHC, 1984, “The Rise of Christianity”, Publ. Darton, Longman and Todd
  9. Christian Persecution of Jews over the Centuries — United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (ushmm.org)
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