Sunday, August 8, 2021

The "fake Jew" question

I'm never one to shy away from controversy. This post is not for the easily triggered.


In my original Notes on John 1, I confessed to being somewhat perplexed by the way Jesus greeted Nathanael: "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" (John 1:47) Even the use of the term Israelite seemed odd. "Did people still call themselves Israelites in Jesus' time?" I wrote. "The term strikes me as an archaism even the first century. Weren't they all Samaritans and Jews by then?"

A few verses later, Jesus is promising that Nathanael will see "the angels of God ascending and descending" (John 1:51; cf. Gen. 28:12), a very obvious reference to the story of Jacob's Ladder. My tentative interpretation of this was that Nathanael was a true Israelite -- a man like Jacob, who is Israel -- but one who (unlike the cunning deceiver Jacob) was "without guile."

Looking at Jesus' curious statement again, though, I don't see anything implying a but. The more natural reading is to see "in whom is no guile" as emphasizing "indeed." Jesus is saying, in effect, "Behold a true Israelite, not a deceiver" -- i.e., not a fake Israelite. He was identifying Nathanael as one truly of the blood of Israel, in contrast to others who lyingly claimed Israelite descent.

This interpretation sheds some light on the otherwise puzzling exchange that follows. Nathanael asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says he saw him under a fig tree, and Nathanael replies with, "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel" (John 1:48-49). Isn't that a bizarre response? Jesus himself jokes, "Because I said unto thee, 'I saw thee under the fig tree,' believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these" (John 1:50).

But suppose Nathanael was a true Israelite by blood, that this was not common knowledge, and that most of his fellow countrymen were fake Israelites. When Jesus declared him "an Israelite indeed," and said he knew it just by looking at Nathanael sitting under a fig tree, he was demonstrating a supernatural ability to discern true Israelites just by looking at them, without any knowledge of their family background. The "King of Israel" knew his own people by intuition -- and they him, as Nathanael's response shows.

Isn't this a rather farfetched interpretation, though? I mean, fake Israelites? And real Israelites whose identity as such was a carefully guarded secret? Bear with me.


The clearest reference to fake Israelites in the Bible is not in the Fourth Gospel but in the Revelation of John of Patmos -- a work which obviously has some connection to the Fourth Gospel, although I do not accept the traditional idea that they are the work of the same author.

In Revelation 2:9, Jesus is made to say to the angel of the church in Smyrna, "I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan." The theme is revisited in the same verse of the next chapter, addressing the angel of the church in Philadelphia: "Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee."

I had always interpreted "Jews" in these verses in religious terms, as "practitioners of Judaism," because the contrast is not with the goyim but with the "synagogue of Satan." However, I don't think this really works. The primary meaning of Jew, in Greek as in English, is ethnic rather than religious. Here's something no one would ever say: "Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud said they were Jews, but they lied; they were atheists." A Christian who becomes an atheist is no longer a Christian, but a Jew who becomes an atheist -- or even a Satanist -- is still a Jew.

In Galatians 2, ethnic Jews who have converted to Christianity are still referred to as Jews. Paul says to Simon Peter, "If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" (Gal. 2:14). Peter is still clearly considered to be a Jew even though he "lives after the manner of Gentiles" -- that is, no longer practices the Jewish religion.

With this in mind, I think we have to interpret Rev. 2:9 and 3:9 ethnically -- as referring to those who falsely claim to be Jewish by blood. The "blasphemy" in this, I suppose, has to do with the Jews' special status as God's covenant people.


In John 8:31-44, the fake Jew question comes up again.

They [the Jews] answered him, "We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, 'Ye shall be made free?'"

Jesus answered them, " . . . I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. I speak that which I have seen with my Father: and ye do that which ye have seen with your father."

They answered and said unto him, "Abraham is our father."

Jesus saith unto them, "If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father."

Then said they to him, "We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God."

Jesus said unto them, "If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."

Talk about hard sayings! Although Jesus does, confusingly, concede "I know that ye are Abraham's seed," in the rest of his speech he seems to say that the father of his interlocutors is neither Abraham nor God, but the devil. The reference to their father being "a murderer from the beginning" seems to allude to Cain -- who, according to Jewish tradition, was the son of Satan or of a fallen angel and thus only half-brother to Abel.

1 John 3:10-12 (probably by the author of the Fourth Gospel) also connects Cain with the idea of being a child of the devil.

In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother.


If many of the "Jews" of New Testament times were not really Jews at all, then what were they? Roger Hathaway proposes that they were Idumaeans, or Edomites -- that is, descendants of Jacob's brother Esau.

Edom’s descendants settled a region south of the Dead Sea, whose capital was Petra, and whose famous mountain was named Mt. Seir. About 312 BC, the Nabateans evicted the Edomites from that region, so they migrated not very far to the region of Idumea (named after Edom, also) which was in southern Judea (the land of the tribe of Judah). The Edomites created such problems for the Judeans that in 132 BC, the king of Judea, John Hyrcanus, compelled them to be circumcised and join the Jerusalem Temple religion of Judaism. They responded enthusiastically. In less that a century the Edomites had taken political control of Judea under their own Herod (appointed by Rome in 47BC), and they took over the Jerusalem Temple. They oppressed the Israelite Judeans and forced many into suburbs of poverty and small nearby towns. When Jesus was born, it was Edomites who ran the Temple and the priesthood and the entire political scene.

It was the Edomite oppression that the true Israelites from Galilee (Jesus’ home) and Samaria complained about. The word Judean is translated into English Bibles as Jews. The Edomites became the Judeans, and by following Jesus, the true Israelite sheep became Christians, never to be called Judeans again.

This more or less checks out. It is true that the Edomites were forcibly converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus in 132 BC, and it is true that the Herods were an Edomite family. It is certainly possible that a large percentage of the "Jews" of Jesus' time were at least partly of Edomite ancestry.

If what Jesus meant in John 8 was that his "Jewish" interlocutors were in fact Edomites, there remains the question of why he would say that they were not the children of Abraham, since Esau/Edom was no less a grandson of Abraham than his twin brother Jacob/Israel. The Edomites would be less purely Abrahamic than the Israelites, though, since Esau married foreign wives, while Jacob married within the Abrahamic family. Well, Jesus did concede, "I know that ye are Abrahams' seed," while maintaining that they were more truly the sons of their other ancestor, the devil (presumably by way of Cain).

Roger Hathaway speculates that Esau's foreign wives were of Cainite descent, but I think there is a case to be made that Esau himself may have been the son of a Cainite, and perhaps even of Cain himself. Certainly Jacob and Esau were very different physically, suggesting that they were only half brothers. When Esau was born, he "came out red all over like an hairy garment" (Gen. 25:25). Later, when Jacob wished to disguise himself as Esau in order to steal his blessing from their blind father Isaac, he faced the problem that "Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man" (Gen. 27:11) -- a problem he solved by covering parts of his body with hairy goatskin.

There is a persistent legend -- I had thought it peculiar to Mormonism until I encountered it in the Divine Comedy also! -- that Cain was cursed to be "a fugitive and a vagabond" forever and that he still lives today. Most Mormons will have heard the story of early Mormon apostle David Patten's 1835 encounter in Tennessee

with a very remarkable personage who had represented himself as being Cain who had murdered his brother Abel. I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me for about two miles. His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark … He said he had no home, that he was a wanderer of the Earth. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he earnestly sought death, but could not die and his mission was to destroy the souls of men … I rebuked him in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the virtue of the Holy Priesthood and commanded him to go hence and he immediately departed out of my sight.

From this story -- quoted by Spencer W. Kimball in the once widely read Miracle of Forgiveness -- comes the Mormon folk belief that Bigfoot is Cain. I do not believe that Patten made up the story. If he had, he would have described Cain rather differently, in keeping with the then-current belief that Cain was the ancestor of the Negroes. Although Patten does say that "his skin was very dark," being "covered with hair" is scarcely a feature one associates with that race. (As Joe Biden famously pointed out, black kids find "hairy legs" something of a novelty!)


Coming back to Nathanael, I have said that one interpretation of his conversation with Jesus in John 1 is that Nathanael's identity as "an Israelite indeed" was a secret, and that Jesus' seemingly supernatural ability to discern Nathanael's ancestry is what convinced Nathanael that Jesus was the Son of God and the King of Israel.

I have discussed a similar case, of Israelite ancestry as a carefully guarded secret, in my 2014 post "Lehi's people." In the Book of Mormon, the patriarch Lehi does not know his own ancestry until he obtains the brass plates from Laban. So important are these brass plates that Lehi's son Nephi eventually resorts to murder to obtain them. Here is the secret they contain:

And it came to pass that my father, Lehi, also found upon the plates of brass a genealogy of his fathers; wherefore he knew that he was a descendant of Joseph; yea, even that Joseph who was the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egypt, and who was preserved by the hand of the Lord, that he might preserve his father, Jacob, and all his household from perishing with famine.

And they were also led out of captivity and out of the land of Egypt, by that same God who had preserved them.

And thus my father, Lehi, did discover the genealogy of his fathers. And Laban also was a descendant of Joseph, wherefore he and his fathers had kept the records (1 Ne. 5:14-16).

We are not told how closely related Lehi and Laban were, only that they were both descendants of Joseph -- something that Laban knew but Lehi did not. It appears that Laban's family had kept genealogical records not only for their own line of descent from Joseph, but for other branches of the family as well. They knew Lehi's ancestry better than Lehi himself did -- and were willing to go to extreme measures to keep that information out Lehi's hands!

And [Lehi's son Laman] desired of Laban the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, which contained the genealogy of my father.

And behold, it came to pass that Laban was angry, and thrust him out from his presence; and he would not that he should have the records. Wherefore, he said unto him: Behold thou art a robber, and I will slay thee (1 Ne. 3:12-13).

Just as Laban was willing to kill to keep the secret out of Lehi's hands, so were Lehi's children willing to kill to obtain it. In one of the most shocking scenes in the Book of Mormon, Nephi decapitates the unconscious Laban and steals the plates, believing that God has justified him in so doing.

In my post about Lehi, I point to evidence that both he and Laban were Egyptians, descendants of the half-Egyptian sons of Joseph, and that their ancestors were left behind in the Exodus. Lehi's family apparently later converted to Judaism without realizing that they were Israelites by blood, whereas Laban's family had kept careful records and knew who they were and who their kinsmen were. Lehi's family would have remained ignorant had Lehi not had a dream from the Lord telling him that Laban had a record of their ancestors and that they needed to obtain it.

All this happened about 600 years before Christ, centuries before the forced conversion of the Edomites, and in that way is not directly relevant to Nathanael's situation. Still, the similarities are striking. Nathanael, like Laban, seemed to be privy to secret information about his own Israelite ancestry.

Why would Israelite ancestry need to be kept secret? And why, like Laban, attempt to keep the secret even from fellow Israelites? And does it really matter that much who's an Israelite by blood and who isn't? I don't have answers to those questions, but they're certainly worth thinking about.

3 comments:

Sean Fowler said...

I think the fake Jews are trying to destroy the true israelites.

Ben Pratt said...

This post might have been for me, but I'll be a bit coy.

A day or two ago I was reading in 3 Nephi about the remnant of Jacob who would be among the Gentiles in the last days as a lion among sheep, destroying from the inside. For the first time it occurred to me that perhaps the embedded remnant of Jacob doing the destroying of the wicked Gentiles could also be wicked themselves, and that suggested some candidate assignments of some of these groups in our day. That didn't sit quite right, so I decided to come back to it.

Last night reading more I was again persuaded that the remnant under discussion would be righteous tearing through the wicked. Now your post coming today confirms to me that my candidate assignments of roles in this prophecy were definitely incorrect, for additional reasons.

Bruce B. said...

"We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God."

I've heard people say that this statement was Jesus' opponents referring to his illegitimacy through Mary's "sin"* (as they would have assumed). That it represented an escalation of the verbal sparring that was taking place in this passage.

I don't know if this is true.

* It feels blasphemous even putting that in quotes. For the record I believe in the virgin birth.

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