Why Address anti-Judaism in the Sunday Readings?

The motivation behind this website is a concern expressed by many—scholars, religious leaders, and ordinary people—and shared by us, about how certain New Testament readings, used in the Christian Lectionary, can promote antagonistic attitudes and even contempt toward the Jewish people.

What concerns us is the appearance of perhaps 50-60 passages with an anti-Jewish potential in several Sunday NT readings, especially in the Gospels and Acts, over the three-year cycle.  Usually they constitute only a word, a phrase, or a verse, but a few are longer. Some are more hostile, more disparaging and therefore more dangerous than others. However, the cumulative effect over the three years of readings cannot be beneficial.  The texts in question tend to reinforce, or even to introduce, negative, antipathetic attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, and to undermine the effort that the churches have invested for at least a generation in attempting to remove the scourge of anti-Judaism from our teaching.

These passages have considerable weight: they are not simply less-than-careful statements in a religious textbook, nor off-hand comments by clergy.  The readings are received as the Word of God, solemnly proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word, to be taken seriously by those who hear them.  Most listeners are unaware of the harm such texts have done in the past: Holy Week readings especially have led to pogroms and have supported other kinds of evil against the Jewish people. The long and tragic history of Christian anti-Judaism (fueled, among other things, by liturgically proclaimed scripture readings) has been well documented. One might examine, for such documentation, the histories (included in the Bibliography) by Edward Flannery, Malcolm Hay, Friedrich Heer, and William Nicholls (all Christians), and that edited by Shmuel Almog (a Jew). We are concerned especially with the ordinary church-attending lay person, not particularly well-equipped biblically, and apt to take the potentially anti-Judaic passages proclaimed from the pulpit as literal historical and theological truth.

The most effective remedy probably would seem to be a thoughtful revision of the Lectionary readings, with pastorally more carefully chosen texts.  Suggestions for such revisions have been advanced, but none seems to be on the horizon.  The system of readings in the current Lectionary, especially the choice of texts from the Gospels and Acts, was put together in the late 1960’s, well before the Church’s attempt to re-think and re-work its historically poor relation with Jews and Judaism had sunk in very deeply. The resulting selection of such texts was not at all attentive as to the way Jews, Judaism, Pharisees, etc., were treated.

So we propose a temporary solution. When the preacher can address the issue directly in the homily (how and why the problem arises in the narrative, and how Christians today might deal with it), that will usually prove to be the primary resolution. We hope to offer suggestions for addressing such texts. However, there are times when the preacher must deal with another issue in the homily. For these situations, we will suggest slight alternatives for a questionable word, phrase, or sentence. In these modest alternative wordings, we will strive to be faithful to the original meaning of the text while removing any possible anti-Judaic tone or phrasing.

We are aware that many, perhaps most, New Testament scholars (including some Jewish scholars) do not think the texts should be “tampered with,” any more than any other classic or historical text.  Some think that the healthier approach is to confront and deal with the text as it stands.  As we stated above, we generally agree. But in situations in which the problematic passage cannot be confronted directly, we believe that these important concerns must be weighed against the actual harm which can be done–and has been done–by proclaiming texts that carry an anti-Jewish potential.

In those instances in which competent interpretation is not possible in a given Sunday’s homily, we will offer, as a last resort, slight alternative wordings for those who are willing to use them. For example, John 20:19, which appears in Years A, B, and C on the Second Sunday of Easter, has the words, “. . . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.” In this case we might suggest either deleting the phrase completely or substituting just one word, “for fear of the authorities,” since it can be argued that this rendering would be both more accurate historically and certainly less subject to an anti-Judaic interpretation.

We also hope eventually to offer suggestions on a paragraph or two that might be inserted in the Parish Bulletin, or on ways of dealing with the text in a Bible discussion group, an adult class, or by means of a visiting speaker.

Not everyone will agree with our identification of which texts (again: usually only a word or a line) are problematic; not everyone will agree with our suggested alternatives, and may well choose not to use them.  Some, alas, may think that this whole endeavor is ill-advised. We expect a range of responses, and hope that a “Reader Response” discussion section on the site will help: to offer the opportunity to disagree, to offer alternate solutions, etc.

We are not in the business of telling people what to do. We want to help, and hope this website proves helpful.

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