Friday, March 29, 2013

Addressing Christian Anti-Judaism

As we hear again the Passion stories from the four Gospels in Holy Week, we need to recall also how the very construction of these stories in their times and places have come out of conflict between Christians and Jews, and have directly caused terrible violence over the centuries by Christians against Jews. This hatred has been institutionalized into the Church from its first days. It does dishonor to Jesus the Jew, and to our Jewish neighbors, and to our own Jewish religious roots to behave as though this is not the case – as though our sacred texts describe history with faciticity rather than through the lens of ancient conflict. Whether by footnotes, or by preaching and teaching, we must change our thinking about our relationship with Jews present and past if we are not to repeat the pogroms, genocides, and holocausts of history in the future.

The Greek word judaios (Ioudaios) might refer to Jews or to Judeans – residents of Judea whatever their religion. This substitute may work in some places. But changing the English word doesn’t address the issue adequately. Roman Catholics and members of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith consulted together to make changes in the famous Passion Plays of Oberammergau who noted that the high priests in Jesus’ time exercised their power at the behest of the Roman government and were not well-liked by their own people. Also, that Jesus had supporters in Jerusalem who caused some hesitation by those in power in acting against him (Mt. 26:5; 23:27); and that the Gospels were written when Rome was at the height of its power and Judaism was at a state of almost constant civil war with it. There were uprisings 60-70CE, 112-115, and 132-135 CE that met with fierce retaliation by Rome. Romans did not always differentiate between Jews and the followers of Jesus’ Way (hodos) who later came to be called Christians. They were easily lumped with Jewish followers of the Way (halacha in Hebrew) of Yochanan ben Zakkai, a leader who opposed the Sadducees, survived the emperorship of Vespasian and helped protect the town Jamnia (Javne) where a new school of Jewish sages arose after the destruction of the Temple to rebuild a Phariseeic Judaism centered on Torah not Temple. Jews and Christians who originally worshiped together in the early first century drifted apart and finally fell into enmity and polemic from both sides. As Christianity eventually became a majority religion, this polarization led to official policies of violence against Jews.

It does disrespect to our Gospel texts to simply expurgate parts that distress us. When Pilate had the notice nailed to the cross that satirically proclaimed (in 3 languages) Jesus as “King of the Jews”, it was the Jewish people indeed to which that Roman would have referred. The Sadducees and Levites– so connected with the cult of the Temple – were largely wiped out when the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Sages of the law (Pharisees and scribes) survived in larger numbers though many fled into the diaspora of the empire and beyond. There is little doubt that there were Jewish collaborators with Roman authority among them: people appointed to collect taxes from their own communities, people appointed to religious leadership offices to keep order, and those who may have sought to line their pockets or protect their interests by siding with power. If the imperial representatives opposed Jesus, so would they. And some quite likely opposed what they may have seen as a fringe rabbi questioning some of the practices and commitment of their own leadership. Other Jews either followed Jesus, or didn’t consider him of any importance one way or another. There may well have been some Jewish leaders who conspired to stop Jesus and who may have called for his arrest and execution, but only Rome had power and authority to condemn to death and crucify someone.

Jesus was a Jew by birth and upbringing and remained so through his death. As a young adult, he read Torah in the synagogue as should any young Jewish male, and interpreted and preached about the texts. In all four Gospel accounts, Jesus is constantly worshiping and learning and teaching and healing in the assemblies of his Jewish people. As Mark says: 1:39 And Jesus went throughout Galilee proclaiming the message in their synagogues”, and Matthew says 4:23 “Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues…” and in 26:55 Jesus says to his arresters: “Day after day I sat in the Temple teaching and you did not arrest me.” He went up to Jerusalem for festivals, and blessed the bread and cup at meals at home with friends, just as would any Jew at table. It is pretty certain he quoted the Psalms and prophets from memory as he taught, and was natural that the Gospel writers (the likely-Jewish Mark and Matthew, and even Luke who seems to have written for a Roman Gentile audience) would also quote the Psalms and Prophets as they reconstructed the story of his life and death. Jesus is inseparable from his Judaism.

One reasonable approach – particularly when we adapt the Gospel texts for dramatic reading in Holy Week – to help us hear the texts differently would be to substitute religious officials and elders of the community for the Gospels’ punching-bag generalization the scribes and the Pharisees, the chief priests. When we get to Matthew 27:25 where the Jewish crowd shouts “His blood be upon us and upon our children”, there is no easy remedy. Matthew’s particular spleen is that of an insider Jewish author who was evidently angry that, from his view, his own people rejected the one he believed to be the Messiah when they should have known better. Because of his vindictiveness, the whole Jewish people ever after have been saddled with the entire blame for rejecting and crucifying Christ. Not until very recently has the Vatican publically acknowledged the role of Roman empire and the harm done by blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death – and this despite a theological understanding that the suffering and death of Jesus became the occasion for the exceptional and salvific outpouring of grace, mercy and forgiveness for the “whole world” (kosmos) by God.

So as you hear the Hebrew Scripture lessons that we call “the Old Testament” each week, and especially when you hear the stories of Jesus, including the Passion stories, pray for our Jewish neighbors who live beside us. Remember that – as Paul taught and has always been the case – faithful Jews keep the irrevocable covenant God made with them through Abraham and Moses, and God still keeps with them. We Gentiles have the privilege, through Christ, to be grafted onto the vine rootstock of Judaism by adoption. We are not the only people God loves and saves.

Written by the Rev. Jennifer Phillips, Lent 2013 (posted with permission)

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