In the Gospel of John, the term “the Jews” carries a polemical edge and sounds like a pejorative. The reader quickly gets the impression that whoever “the Jews” were, they were not very nice and that Yeshua and His disciples were not Jews. In the Gospel of John, it almost sounds as if “the Jews” are the opposite of Yeshua’s disciples.
How does one explain the “us-versus-them” tone in the Gospel of John, which seems to depict “the Jews” in antithesis to Yeshua? The Johannine community of the late-first century and early-second century consisted primarily of Gentiles, perhaps still bitter over their recent expulsion from the synagogue. That social situation might color the way the story gets told, but originally, there was no such distinction. Yeshua, John the Immerser, the disciples, and all the earliest believers were also Jews.
In his Jewish New Testament, Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern suggested that we should translate the Greek Ioudaioi (“Jews,”) as “Judeans.” Judeans were Jews from the Roman territory of Judea and under the political authority of Pontius Pilate. In that sense, the term “Judeans” can be understood in contrast to Jews of Galilee and Perea. Yeshua and His disciples were all Galileans. Galileans were also Jews, but they were not Judeans.
David Stern’s explanation doesn’t work in every instance, but most of the time it’s spot on. The Gospel of John tends to group the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem under the broad label “the Jews,” i.e., “the Judeans.” In that sense, John’s use of the term “the Jews” is not a description of Jewish people in general; instead, it refers specifically to the political and religious leadership of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, including the Sanhedrin. For example, John 1:19 says “the Jews sent to [John] priests and Levites from Jerusalem” to interview him. Obviously the term “the Jews” does not apply to all the Jews but rather to the religious authorities in power in Jerusalem. John later clarifies the matter, “Now they had been sent from the Pharisees” (John 1:24).
Even with this understanding in place, we need to guard against anti-Semitic theological assumptions. Not all Pharisees were hypocrites, and not all of them opposed the ministries of John the Immerser and Yeshua. Josephus describes the Pharisees as esteemed by the common people and known for their careful explanations of Torah. Unlike their theological opponents the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in man’s free will, the survival of the soul, the resurrection of the dead, and reward and punishment after death. The Pharisees also anticipated the coming of Messiah. They hoped for the advent of the Messianic Kingdom.
That explains why the Pharisaic leadership of Jerusalem was curious about the ministry of John the Immerser. John seemed to speak their language and represent their theological concerns. They sent a delegation to Bethany beyond the Jordan to inquire into the man’s calling and ministry and to determine whether he was a messianic pretender or, perhaps, really sent by God.