July 13, 2003


Capturing the Passion: A new film by Mel Gibson, to be released next year, depicts Jesus' last few hours. Jews and Catholics are raising concerns about its potential for stoking anti-Semitism. (Jane Lampman, 7/10/03, The Christian Science Monitor)
Some Jews and Christians suggest that the New Testament itself is anti-Semitic. So concerned are some over the continuing impact of historical interpretation that an October 2001 article in the Jewish magazine, Moment, asked, "Can Christianity be purged of anti-Semitism without changing the Gospels?"

While most people dismiss that idea, some Catholic scholars say the Gospels' human origins and historical context need to be emphasized more for regular churchgoers. Others researching the historical Jesus assert that the Romans, not Jews, killed him for political reasons.

Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, suggests the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other - from blaming all Jews to claiming no Jews were involved. "That's wrong, too," he says. The final responsibility lay in Rome's hands, but historical sources support the Gospel narrative that some Jewish leaders were involved in the prosecution.

"Flavius Josephus is one of the sources, and in fact, he reports a similar event, when Jesus' half-brother was brought before the Sanhedrin in AD 62," Dr. Maier adds. "In that case, they stoned him without waiting for the Roman governor to arrive."

The way out of interpretations that provoke anti-Semitism, he says, is to point out that "a tremendous number of Jews never turned against Jesus during Holy Week," as Luke reports.

It also helps to clarify that the Gospel use of the phrase "the Jews" referred to Jesus' Jewish opponents, not all Jews. It was a common construction of writing of the time, Maier says.

Can Christianity Be Purged of Anti-Semitism Without Changing the Gospels? (Ben Birnbaum, October 2001, Moment)
The New Testament is about many things, principally God?s covenant with man. But if one wished to reduce it to its anti-Jewish argument, the sentence would run: God used to love the Jews, but they became fixated on law and sacrifice, refusing to attend to God?s will and His prophets, and so God decided to replace Torah with Jesus, and Jews with Christian gentiles, and the Jews then killed God?s son who had been sent to bring this news to the world, and that is why God destroyed the Temple and scattered the Jews and condemned them to suffering on earth and in eternity.

This is the virus at its most powerful, distilled to its essence. Breathing it, however, is no guarantee of illness. Some Christians come away from scripture readings with philo-Semitic feelings. Many others have human hearts that simply and naturally find specious hatred of other human beings suspect. Over lunch recently, a Jesuit priest who is a friend of mine told me that while he certainly took note of cultural anti-Semitism in his youth in the 1940s, the anti-Jewish messages of the New Testament never registered with him. ?It was like hearing news stories about a sport that doesn?t mean anything to you.î He shrugged. ?It just didn?t trigger anything.î

Whether it catches or not, however, anti-Judaism is in the plain reading of the New Testament; and, generally speaking, the later the book, the stronger its presence. John?s gospel, for example, generally accorded a date ranging from 90 to 120 C.E., contains 71 references to ?Jewsî compared to 16 in the three earlier gospel recountings of Jesus? life. This is so because the author of John preached at a time (and in a place) when it was becoming increasingly clear that the Jewish rejection of Christ was probably absolute, and that the only hope for the survival of a fledgling ?unofficialî faith within the Roman Empire lay with winning over gentiles to the cause. So why not turn ?the Jewsî into the historic opposition to Jesus? And while you?re at it, why not score some points with Roman authorities by setting up ?the Jewsî to take the fall for Jesus? execution? [...]

At the simple end of things, context here means that a Christian believer must be taught to set aside, as invalid, certain scriptural sentiments?approval of slavery, for example?that we 21st century sojourners now know to be wrong-headed. A 1993 Vatican commission declared illegitimate any interpretation of scripture that could promote anti-Judaism. If you draw anti-Semitic ideas from scripture, the Roman Catholic Church now teaches, you have read it wrong. Period.

At the complex end of things, context means understanding that whatever the malignant import and consequences of certain New Testament passages as they were read in 1095 or 1933, the true intent of those words, when they were first set down in 70 or 110, was neither anti-Jewish nor threatening to Jews. Why? Because these sentences were written by Jews arguing with other Jews about an internal matter: what form their faith should take after the loss of the Jewish Temple. Secondly, the words these Jews used against their brothers and sisters, no matter how powerful they may seem to us, were in fact examples of standard issue polemic drawn right from the pages of Samuel, Psalms, and the later prophets?as common in ancient Israel as date palms, and nearly as banal. And finally, those Jews who, as Jews, believed in Yeshu ben Yosef as God?s moshiach numbered about 100,000 at the turn of the first century in contrast with an estimated five million Jews within the Roman Empire, and so had no more prospect or intent of drawing serious blood from their co-religionists than the Michigan Militia has today of bringing down the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Christianity begins as a kind of Judaism," says John Stendahl, a Lutheran pastor who serves on a national panel that advises his church on relations with Jews, "and we must recognize that words spoken in a family conflict are inappropriately appropriated by those outside the family." Eugene Fisher, who represents the American Catholic bishops in their relations with American Jews, compares New Testament polemics to Israeli parliamentary debate. "What people sling back and forth in the Knesset," he told me, "cannot be anti-Jewish, though in Nebraska those would be fighting words."

This is an argument, of course, for the integral innocence of the New Testament?a matter of some importance for Christians, certainly, and probably a historic truth. But it does not, of course, render the New Testament benign. A Christian who opens his Bible this evening after dinner and reads Matthew 27:15-25 (Pilate's unsuccessful attempt to release Jesus rather than Barabbas, that concludes with Pilate's statement, "I am innocent of this man's blood," followed by, "Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!') has read a curse upon Jews and will sleep with its damning echoes. Will these dreams be filtered by an awarene's that the author of Matthew almost certainly believed himself to be as faithful a Jew as Moses? Will those dreams be gentled by an understanding that the author of Matthew may have had a beloved mother or aunts who put money in the pushke every Friday to support the rabbis at Yavneh?

I wonder if this is not entirely too limited a reading of the story and an, understandably, too Judeocentric one. After all, Christ dies alone. Even his adherents abandon Him. His blood isn't just upon a few Jews, but upon all of us.

It may be an idiosyncratic reading but it's always seemed to me that the New Testament can be summed in a less spiteful way than the version Mr. Birnbaum offers above: after many years of our vexatious behavior, God incarnated himself as a man to better understand His Creation. He, being God, was able to live a faultless life (at least relatively) and brought one simple message: love one another as He loves us. But part of being mortal is to experience not just death but terror and so He had to be rejected by the whole of mankind and crucified like the worst of criminals, the most horrible and degraded death then available. It is in the midst of the crucifixion that He intercedes with God (Himself)--"Forgive them Father, they know not what they do"--a passage which suggests that His experience as a human has reconciled Him to our incapacity to behave as well as He would wish us to. But then comes an even more shocking moment, especially for those who think God omniscient and omnipotent, for on the cross He cries out: "My Lord, My Lord, why hast thou forsaken me!?" This is quite the most remarkable scene in religious literature because God despairs. God loses faith in Himself. If He can suffer such a fate then how can men not despair and lose faith likewise?

At any rate, it seems obvious that no one, except maybe Christ, is blameless in this scenario. One--even God--cannot live as a man and avoid death. So the mere fact of His death is not blameworthy, but inevitable. And unless one is gripped by an egomania unbecoming a believer of any faith, it seems obvious that each and every one of us would have renounced Him too. What then is the anti-Semitism that blames the Jews alone for Christ's death but a form of self-deception and self-loathing? And, Christ having made it clear earlier in the story that He knows the Cross is coming (though perhaps not what His own reaction to it will be), what sense does it make to "blame" anyone at all for the Crucifixion?

On the other hand, even after disposing of the Jews-killed-Jesus canard, the mutual antipathy between Jews and Christians is perfectly understandable. Christians believe Jews reject the Messiah. Jews believe Christians follow a false messiah. How could the relationship between the two not be strained even strained to the point of periodic violence? The way out of this situation is clear enough: Christians could reject or Jews could accept Christ and the source of tension between the two would be removed. Two thousand years on, that seems unlikely at best. But the suggestion that the Gospels are anti-Semitic in and of themselves and that they should therefore be altered would seem to invite the logical response, that Judaism instead should be altered. That doesn't appear to be a fruitful path to head down, does it?

Father Richard John Neuhaus offers us an intriguing way out of this thicket in his book, Death on a Friday Afternoon , and in his essay, "salvation is From the Jews (First Things, November 2001):
The Samaritan woman said, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Jesus responded, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews." (John 4:19-22) [...]

"Salvation is from the Jews." Few thinkers have pondered that idea, if not that specific passage, more deeply than Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), who was, as it were, reconverted to Judaism after a very close brush with becoming a Christian. Rosenzweig's view is frequently, if too simply, summarized in the proposition that Christianity is Judaism for the Gentiles. Moreover, Rosenzweig was centrally concerned with salvation, as is evident in the title of his major work, The Star of Redemption. This touches on a perduring, and perhaps necessary, ambivalence in Jewish attitudes toward Christians and Christianity. In the historic statement of November 2000, Dabru Emet ("Speak the Truth"), signed by almost two hundred notable Jewish scholars, it is said that "through Christianity hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel." Then, toward the end of Dabru Emet, it is said: "We respect Christianity as a faith that originated within Judaism and that still has significant contacts with it. We do not see it as an extension of Judaism. Only if we cherish our own traditions can we pursue this relationship with integrity."

Yet it would seem that, if through Christianity hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel, Christianity must be, in some important sense, an extension of Judaism. Moreover, Dabru Emet makes clear that this relationship is one of worshiping "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," underscoring that the God of Israel is not separable from the people of Israel. It follows that to be in relationship with the God of Israel is to be in relationship with the people of Israel. As is well known, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, a favored phrase for the Church is the People of God. There is no plural for the people of God. Certainly there are distinct traditions that must be cherished and respected, but one may suggest that they are traditions within the one tradition, the one story, of salvation. That story is nothing less than, in Robert Jenson?s happy phrase, "the story of the world."

Our distinct traditions reflect differences within the one tradition of witness to the God of Israel and his one plan of salvation. It is misleading, I believe, to speak of two peoples of God, or of two covenants, never mind to speak of two religions. While it was not specifically addressed to Jewish-Christian relations, this was the truth underscored also by the statement in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus. It is not Christian imperialism but fidelity to revealed truth that requires Christians to say that Christ is Lord of all or he is not Lord at all. From the Jewish side, when after the Council the Catholic Church was formalizing its conversations with non-Christians, the Jewish interlocutors insisted that they not be grouped with the Vatican dicastery designed to deal with other religions but be included in conjunction with the secretariat for promoting Christian unity. There were political reasons for that insistence, not least having to do with the politics of the Middle East, but that arrangement has, I believe, much more profound implications than were perhaps realized at the time.

The salvation that is from the Jews cannot be proclaimed or lived apart from the Jews. This is not to say that innumerable Christians, indeed the vast majority of Christians, have not and do not live their Christian faith without consciousness of or contact with Jews. Obviously, they have and they do. The percentage of Christians involved in any form of Jewish-Christian dialogue is minuscule. Not much larger, it may be noted, is the percentage of Jews involved. In addition, significant dialogue is, for the most part, a North American phenomenon. It is one of the many things to which the familiar phrase applies, "Only in America." In Europe, for tragically obvious reasons, there are not enough Jews; in Israel, for reasons of growing tragedy, there are not enough Christians. Only in America are there enough Jews and Christians in a relationship of mutual security to make possible a dialogue that is unprecedented in two thousand years of history. The significance of this dialogue is in no way limited to America. The significance is universal. There is one people of Israel, as there is one Church. Providential purpose in history is a troubled subject, and the idea of America's providential purpose is even more troubled, but I suggest that we would not be wrong to believe that this dialogue, so closely linked to the American experience, is an essential part of the unfolding of the story of the world. Isaiah 43:19: "Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" [...]

Christians believe that the redemption that is surely yet to come has appeared in the Redeemer, Jesus the Christ--although, to be sure, the appearance of the Kingdom, and therefore of the Messianic King in the fullness of glory, is not yet complete. Christians speak of the first advent and the second advent of the Christ, but there is another sense in which we may speak of his advent in the singular. And, if we think of his advent in the singular, we are still awaiting the final act. In the End Time, however, the Messiah will not appear as a stranger. Along the way, we have known his name and named his name. Yet Novak's sense of heightened expectation of something new--as distinct from the confirmation of a completely foregone and foreknown conclusion--seems to me the appropriate mode of eschatological hope also for Christians. Knowing that we do not yet know even as we are known, we know that there is more to be known. Dialogue between Jews and Christians should be marked by an element of curiosity, by shared exploration of what we do not know, and perhaps cannot know until the End Time.

For this reason, too, I believe our passage from John 4--"Salvation is from the Jews"--should have a more prominent place in the dialogue than has been the case. The passage nicely combines the "now" and "not yet" of life lived eschatologically. The "now" is unequivocal. The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming and when he comes he will show us all things." Jesus answers, "I who speak to you am he." The "now" and "not yet" are then exquisitely joined in the words of Jesus: "The hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him."

Here one can agree with Bultmann in recognizing in these words an intimation of the vision of Revelation 21:22-26: "And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never shut by day--and there shall be no night; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations." That is the mission of Israel fulfilled as lumen gentium.

Along the way to that fulfillment, Christians and Jews will disagree about whether we can name the name of the Lamb. And when it turns out that we Christians have rightly named the Lamb ahead of time, there will be, as St. Paul reminds us, no reason for boasting; for in the beginning, all along the way, and in the final consummation, it will be evident to all that the Lamb--which is to say salvation--is from the Jews. There will be no boasting for many reasons, not least because boasting is unseemly and there will be nothing unseemly in the Kingdom of God. But chiefly there will be no boasting because then all glory will be to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus for His inclusion of us, all undeserving, in the story of salvation. Salvation is from the Jews, then, not as a "point of departure" but as the continuing presence and promise of a point of arrival--a point of arrival that we, Christians and Jews, together pray that we will together reach.

The basic ecumenical idea here--that through Christianity the million, now billions, have entered into a relationship with the God of Israel and with the people of Israel (the Jews) and that this prepares all to head into the future together, striving all the while to understand each other better--is extremely powerful and I think worth sharing.

Steve Martinovich has news about the trailer for the film. Posted by Orrin Judd at July 13, 2003 5:29 AM
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