Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews
by Amy-Jill Levine ABC Religion and Ethics
4 Apr 2012
Jesus of Nazareth, charged by the Roman authorities with the sedition, dies on a Roman cross. But Jews - the collective, all Jews - become known as "Christ-killers." Still haunting, the legacy of that charge becomes acute during Holy Week, when pastors and priests who speak about the death of Jesus have to talk about "the Jews."
Every year, the same difficulty surfaces: how can a gospel of love be proclaimed, if that same gospel is heard to promote hatred of Jesus's own people?
The charge against "the Jews" permeates the pages of the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate literally washes his hands while "all the people" - all the Jewish people - clamour for Jesus's death: "Let him be crucified ... His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27.23, 27).
John's Gospel indentifies the Jews as "from your father the devil" (John 8.44) and blames them for backing Pilate into a corner and forcing him to kill an innocent man.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter charges "the entire house of Israel" (Acts 2.36) with crucifying Jesus and so having "killed the Author of life" (Acts 3.14-15). Paul then bluntly refers to "the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 2.14-15).
Perhaps this vilification was inevitable. Jesus's followers could not understand how the vast majority of Jews could not accept their belief in him as the Messiah. The majority of Jews, in turn, saw no sign of the Messianic age having dawned: no general resurrection of the dead, no ingathering of the exiles to Zion, no end to death, war, disease, or poverty. What was self-evident to one group was incomprehensible to other. Incomprehension turned to mistrust, and mistrust, on both sides, turned to vilification.
Today, interfaith conversation, in which Jews and Christians learn to appreciate their common roots and better understand the reasons for the gradual and often painful separation, can reverse the process.
Official (and unofficial) church statements facilitate healing as well: Nostra Aetate, the 1965 declaration of Vatican II, proclaimed that all Jews at all times should not be held responsible for Jesus's death, and Pope Benedict XVI, in the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, strongly reiterated the point. Christians from many (but not all) other branches of the tradition, generally agree.
But we still have to deal with our pasts, and with our Scriptures. Every time the Passion narratives are read, the threat of anti-Judaism reappears. There is no catch-all for resolving the problems in the New Testament - or in Tanakh/the Old Testament, for that matter; we all have difficult texts in our canons. But there are strategies. Here are six, in order of usefulness.
The first option is excision: take a pair of scissors to the offending passages - or, in today's parlance, hit the delete key.
Howard Thurmond recounts hearing from his grandmother how the plantation minister always preached, "Slaves, be obedient to your masters ..." and how she determined that if she ever learned to read, she would never read that part of the Bible. The story has morphed into the common sermon illustration that Thurman's grandmother, once both freed and literate, took a scissors to the text.
Had I suffered what Thurmond's grandmother suffered, I may well have taken the same approach. However, the destruction of a text considered sacred seems to me extreme. To erase offending texts is to erase memories of both the victims of those texts and those who struggled against them. Moreover, if we each design our own canons, we eliminate community.
A variant on the excision approach is to claim that Paul or Jesus never made the problematic comment and therefore, we can ignore them. For example, scholars commonly argue that Paul did not write 1 Thessalonians 2.14b-16 - it is inconsistent with his positive comments about Jews (such as, "They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises ... as regards election they are beloved ... for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" - Romans 9.4-5; 11.28b-29). The offensive passage can also be removed from the letter without harming the rhetorical flow.
Similarly, many scholars argue that Jesus's invectives in the Gospels stem not from the man from Nazareth, but from the later church in competition with local synagogues.
Comforting as such arguments may be, they are based in hypothesis, not fact. Paul may well have changed his mind; Jesus would not be the first Jew critical of fellow Jews. Moreover, Christian proclamation is not based on some scholarly construct of an original text or a "historical Jesus" apart from the Gospels. It is based in the words of the Bible as interpreted by the faithful community. Therefore, Christians must deal with those words.
The second option is to retranslate - or, bowdlerize. For example, some "progressive" translations read John's Gospel as condemning not "Jews" but "Judeans" or "Jewish leaders" or "religious leaders" or simply "leaders."
Such translations are well-meaning, and at least "Judean" is legitimate translation of the Greek term Ioudaioi. But to replace the New Testament's "Jews" by other terms is to have a judenrein text, a text "purified" of Jews.
Such bowdlerizing obscures part of the reason why Jews have been persecuted over 2,000 years, divorces Jews not only from Jesus and his earliest followers, and even serves to de-legitimate the relationship of Jews today from the land of Israel.
Hence, politically correct translations are not necessarily biblically faithful ones.
The theological answer to the question "Who killed Jesus?" is not "the Jews" but humanity. This is an excellent place to begin. The problem, however, is that those who see themselves as "Jews" on Good Friday then see themselves as redeemed "Christians" on Sunday morning. The Jews, by not accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour, remain in their guilt.
The same romantic approach today is best exemplified in the celebration of Passover seders in churches, usually on Holy Thursday. While there are educational benefits to introducing Christians to Jewish ritual, holding seders in churches is not necessarily a good idea, and here's why:
It is not clear that the Last Supper was a Passover meal; it is not, in John's Gospel, which at this point has better claims to historicity.
The seder is a rabbinic invention which then developed over the centuries; Jesus did not eat matzoh ball soup or gefilte fish, sing "Dayenu," or say "next year in Jerusalem" - for Jesus, the seder would have consisted of a lamb sacrificed in the Temple and eaten in Jerusalem, not a brisket cooked in Nashville.
The Passover at the time of Jesus was limited to Jews, because one needed to say "My ancestors came forth out of Egypt."
In John's Gospel, Jesus is the Passover offering, crucified at the time the lambs are sacrificed in the temple, so for the church to celebrate a seder would be theologically retrograde.
Not only is the Christian seder historically compromised, it is also a problem in interreligious relations. Today messianic Jewish seders teach that the perforations on the matzah (only present since the baking of matzoh by machine, by the way) represent Jesus's wounds; the afikomen, the matzoh hidden until dessert, represents Jesus' body in the tomb, and so on.
Baptizing Jewish symbols in Christian terms is not a strong move in interfaith sensitivity. Nor do Christian seders remove the problem. To the contrary, the performance serves to absolve the congregation: how could they be anti-Jewish if they are doing something so Jewish as having a Passover seder?
The fourth option is to allegorize: to say that the text really doesn't mean what it says. For example, we take Matthew's blood-cry (27.15) not as a self-curse, but as a plea for redemption: the people are ironically asking to be redeemed by Jesus's blood.
While this approach redeems the verse theologically, it also suggests that the Jewish crowd wanted and needed this redemption, so that Judaism apart from the Christian message is ineffective. The move turns Jews into crypto-Christians.
The fifth approach, the darling of the academy, provides historical rationale and often justification, for the problematic statements. For example, we claim that Matthew is a Jew writing for a Jewish community; therefore his words cannot be anti-Jewish - as if Jews cannot be anti-Jewish, which is a silly idea.
Also complicating this view: we know neither who wrote the Gospels, which were originally transmitted anonymously, nor the community to which they are addressed. It is a dirty little secret in biblical studies: we determine, based on the contents of the Gospels, both author and audience. Then we interpret the text on the basis of our reconstruction. This is a circular argument.
Similarly, we note the historical unlikelihood of "all the people" saying, "his blood be on us and on our children" - that all of us Jews would say the same thing, ever, is a tad unlikely. Then, we see how Matthew understands the destruction of Jerusalem, witnessed by the "children," to be punishment for the Jews' refusal to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Therefore, so the argument goes, since the people never said the line, we can ignore it. But the line remains in the text; ignoring it is not an option.
Another variation on the historicizing approach is to claim that the anti-Jewish language is reactionary: invective would be quite natural from the pen of those excommunicated from the synagogue.
The problem here is, first, that we have no evidence, other than John's attestation (John 9.22; 12.42; 16.2) of synagogues tossing people out. If some synagogues did expel Jesus's followers, we should ask why.
Because they wanted to replace Torah with Jesus? Because they were seen as compromising monotheism? Because they told synagogue members that unless they worshiped Jesus they would go to hell? Because they put the community in danger, given Roman distrust of the new messianic movement? Because they cherished their own traditions, which they found completely fulfilling? Any of these would be quite good reasons, and would likely result in censoring in my synagogue today.
Finally, if we define this polemic as reactionary, again we blame the Jews for the problem. Finding history behind the text can help. But we cannot be secure with the history we posit, and when all the historical work is said and done, we still have to address what the New Testament actually says.
Admit the problem
We come finally to our sixth option: admit to the problem and deal with it. There are many ways congregations can address the difficult texts. Put a note in service bulletins to explain the harm the texts have caused. Read the problematic texts silently, or in a whisper. Have Jews today give testimony about how they have been hurt by the texts.
Those who proclaim the problematic verses from the pulpit might imagine a Jewish child sitting in the front pew and take heed: don't say anything that would hurt this child, and don't say anything that would cause a member of the congregation to hurt this child. Better still: educate the next generation, so that when they hear the problematic words proclaimed, they have multiple contexts - theological, historical, ethical - by which to understand them.
Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when "we were slaves in Egypt," should hate Egyptians.
We choose how to read. After two thousand years of enmity, Jews and Christians today can recover and even celebrate our common past, locate Jesus and his earliest followers within rather than over and against Judaism, and live into the time when, as both Synagogue and Church proclaim, we can love G-d and our neighbour.
Amy-Jill Levine is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Graduate Department of Religion, and Program in Jewish Studies. Her most recent book is The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.