Monday, November 11, 2013

Are Bad Guys, Bad Guys?

Today is the first day in our 45th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures this week are:

  •  Ezekiel 31-33; John 11
  •  Ezek 34-36; John 12; Psalm 86
  •  Ezek 37-39; John 13; Psalm 87
  •  Ezek 40-42; John 14
  •  Ezek 43-45; John 15; Psalm 135

This past Friday night, my wife and I went to see Thor: The Dark World in the movie theater.  While I do enjoy a good comic book movie, I confess that they can be overly simplistic.  On the whole, comic book women fawn over the male superheroes while the latter defeat not only their evil enemies but battle with their own inner issues.  And the bad guys in comic book movies, what's their motivation?  Well, they're just--bad.  In Thor, Malekith the Accursed tries to take over all nine realms of the universe, beginning with Asgard.  Why?  Because he's just evil.  Don't get me wrong--evil characters who are just evil because they're evil make for some quick story writing.  And certainly a purely evil nemesis makes the hero look all the more good.  But in reality it's just not that way.  People have motivations that they, at least, perceive as good.  Generally, even bad guys think that they're the good guys, and have some good in them, as well.  That might not be true in comic book movies, but it is true in real life.

Malekith Awakens

John 11:45-53 (ESV) gives us a glimpse into the motivations of the "bad guys" in the Jesus story.  Through this passage, we learn that those who sought to kill Jesus, though they intended evil, had good motivations.  This story clip comes after the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

Now that's good story writing!  John doesn't take the easy way out, to make the "bad guys" completely bad.  He understands that these folks had real fears that the Romans would completely wipe out their entire nation, if they didn't sacrifice one man in order to save the country.  

Some people suggest that John was anti-Semitic, depicting all Jews as the children of the devil.  In his blog, Good Reads, Rick Herrick refutes this claim of Johannine anti-Semitism.  His article "Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John," says:

The link between the gospel of John and anti-Semitism is well known. James Carroll, in a fascinating book entitled Constantine’s Sword, points out the profound consequences of the anti-Semitism which originates in the gospel of John. He demonstrates how Christian thinkers from Marcion in the second century, to Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther develop theologies that were anti-Semitic and inspired by the gospel of John. These theologies created a climate of opinion which explains the First Crusade of 1096 directed against Jews, the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century which led to the massacre of thousands of Jews, and the holocaust. The point Carroll makes about the holocaust is that Hitler killed the Jews, but the anti-Semitism originating in John created a climate of opinion making the holocaust possible.

I have recently come to reconsider the gospel of John on this issue. The evangelist refers many times to “the Jews” in his gospel. There are several places in the gospel where Jesus and “the Jews” engage in bitter verbal conflict. In chapter 18 when Pilate tries to negotiate Jesus’s release from the cross, “the Jews” insist on his being crucified.

However, as Paul Anderson points out in The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel, the Greek word Ioudaioi can be translated as the Jews or Judeans. If you take the second rendering, the conflict is redefined as between a Jewish prophet from the north and the upper class Jewish leadership (Judeans) in Jerusalem. History clearly supports such a conflict.

I recently reread the gospel of John with this in mind. It is clear that the author of John is a Jew. He writes using Jewish images, and he documents that Jesus had many Jewish followers. As a result, the anti-Semitism in John is most probably the result of a mistranslation rather than the intention of the author.

"Manga Messiah" - Comic book version of Jesus and Jewish Leaders
Though I've read other of Herrick's writings with which I disagree, I do agree with Herrick's position on this.  As many times as I've read the Gospel of John, I've never treated with any validity the idea that John depicts "The Jews" as "bad guys."  And when there are "bad guys" in John's narrative, it's the Jewish leaders (specific individuals) and not the Jewish people as a whole.  Rather than being anti-Semitic, John explains their motivations so that we can see that though they were misguided, they were actually trying to save their country.  

John shows that these guys weren't all bad.  Though they do some dastardly deeds, let's not forget that the high priest Caiphas, the same dude who we see condemning Jesus, also heard from God through a word of prophecy.  Granted, he misunderstood the prophecy that he himself delivered, but that doesn't negate the fact that the man was hearing from God.  Somebody who was ultimately evil wouldn't be able to hear from God in such a powerful way, would he?

We need to remember that the Bible isn't a comic book (though some have tried to convert it into one).  The "bad guys" in the Bible aren't any worse than you or I are, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 ESV)."  They have good motivations too, just as "good guys" in the Bible often have fatal flaws.  Neither John nor the other Biblical writers were trying to depict evil characters who are evil just because they're evil. Certainly they were wrong to seek to kill Jesus, though we must remember that they were trying to do what they thought was right for the nation as a whole. Really, the bad guys aren't bad guys.  At least, not any worse than other sinners who need a Savior.  You know--like you and me.

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