Can Christianity Be Purged of Anti-Semitism Without Changing the Gospels?
One evening a few years ago, I attended a forum on anti-Judaism in the text of Bach’s “St. John’s Passion.” It was Easter season, and the meeting was hosted by an Episcopal church in a Boston suburb and cosponsored by a chorus that was about to perform the piece. The speakers were the pastor; the chorus director; the paleontologist, Jew, and bass Stephen Jay Gould; and James Carroll, then known as a novelist and memoirist.
The choral director and pastor made well-intended efforts to reconcile great art and vileness, while Gould declared himself able to sing such lines as “away with him, crucify him!” with sufficient historical perspective that no sweat broke—and was convincing. And then Jim Carroll, in his earnest public manner, said that Christianity would never rid itself of the culture and sin of anti-Semitism until its scriptures were newly understood by all Christians as documents corrupted by the human failings of their authors.
At this point, an elderly woman seated behind me turned to the elderly woman seated beside her and whispered: “Oh, no. They’re not going to take that away from us.”
“They,” she was saying, may have had good reason for persuading Christian churches to abjure anti-Semitic preachings and teachings. “They” may have had good reason for convincing many Christians to change the way they consider Jews and Judaism. And “they” may even have been right about making certain Easter traditions conditional on crowding 250 people into church to consider the consequences of text. But “they” simply could not be allowed to change the way Christians, innocent in their beds and Barcaloungers and pews, read the Word of God and relate to the beloved, familiar, and inspiring locutions and stories of the New Testament.
Four years later, Carroll’s proposals for dealing with anti-Judaism in the New Testament (and in Christian history and theology) are a matter of very public record. In his best-selling Constantine’s Sword—The Church And The Jews, Carroll recommends that the Roman Catholic Church (in which he is a communicant) convene a historic Third Vatican Council to directly confront Christian anti-Judaism and its tragic consequences.
Regarding the New Testament, while Carroll does favor some “softening” language—the substitution of “leaders” for “priests” in the crucifixion narratives, for example—he is not for editing out the nasty bits. Rather, he wants the Vatican to call Catholics “to a more sophisticated understanding of God’s word” that would allow them “to read the foundational texts not as divine, but as ... a flawed gospel created by flawed believers” who attempted, in difficult times, to mediate God’s felt will and spirit.
In other words filled with error
In this way, he wrote, he hoped to bring his church to an honest understanding of its faults, of the dangers of triumphalist pride, and of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism.
Carroll’s book does advance some radical proposals—the election of Catholic bishops by democratic vote, for example—but in advocating that Christians be taught to read the New Testament with understanding of the document’s human origins, he is far from revolutionary. “This has been the standard approach since the late 1960s,” says Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College (a university where I work in administration). “Since that time we’ve been teaching Christians to bring to bear on the Bible what they already know from larger society: that books are shaped by individual authors.”
Cunningham has been a consultant to neighborhood churches as well as the Vatican, and he is a realist about congregational life. He does not advocate what he calls “pulpit seminars.” Rather, in his book Proclaiming Shalom (Liturgical Press: 1995) he recommends brief introductions for pastors to recite before the scriptural readings each Sunday at Mass. Says Cunningham: “A priest should introduce a reading by saying, ‘What Mark or Luke or Paul wants us to understand here is this’—so people start seeing the gospel text as a work created by human beings for a particular purpose within a particular community and time, and stop thinking of it as a straight transcript of Jesus’ activities that can’t be held up to critical examination or reviewed in light of new understandings.”
The deposit of Faith has a new appendix to it
Sister Mary Boys, who holds a chair in religious education at Union Theological Seminary, in New York City, advances a similar agenda. In Has God Only One Blessing? (Paulist: 2000) she compares the way Christians should understand the New Testament with the way Americans understand the Declaration of Independence, as a document full of truth mediated by individuals in a particular society. “Just as with some Biblical references to women or slaves, translation alone can’t solve the problem of text that appears hostile to Jews,” Boys told me, reflecting a sentiment I heard from a dozen theologians, Jewish and Christian, whom I spoke with for this article. In Mary Boys’s words, “Christians need to become a community of text interpreters.”
The focus of this proposed interpretation is a set of 27 books that together are about a quarter as long as the Tanakh, the three categories of books comprising the Hebrew Bible. They include 14 letters, attributed to Paul, that are addressed to fledgling Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean; the four Gospels; Acts of the Apostles; seven letters attributed to James, Peter, John, and Jude; and Revelation. Dating from the middle of the first century to the middle of the second century, these writings had coalesced as the Christian story by about 200 C.E.
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.” He shrugged. “It just didn’t trigger anything.”
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 “Jews” 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 “unofficial” faith within the Roman Empire lay with winning over gentiles to the cause. So why not turn “the Jews” into the historic opposition to Jesus? And while you’re at it, why not score some points with Roman authorities by setting up “the Jews” to take the fall for Jesus’ execution?
Notice the revisionism. The preaching to the Gentiles was purely a matter of expediency
These anti-Jewish themes remained Christian wallpaper until the 19th century, when some Protestant theologians began working on textual analysis of the New Testament. With some rare exceptions, the work of these scholars was not directed at lowering the temperature of anti-Semitism among Christians. That Jews were sinful, cursed, and “perfidious”—as the Catholic liturgy expressly said—remained a matter of fact supported not simply by Christian scripture, art, and the pious divinations of a thousand theologians, but by the visceral evidence of Jewish life under the heel of Christendom. And then along came the Shoah to trim out the worst consequences of those teachings in white bone.
Since the Shoah, scholars have filled miles of library shelves with works that dissect and recalibrate the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Since that time, “mainstream” Christian churches have taken pains to reject and repent of the anti-Semitism that they’ve been able to identify in their teachings, heritage, and practices. In the new imagery adopted by these churches, Judaism and Christianity are no longer, respectively, the broken branch and the new shoot of the olive tree. Rather, they are sisters, or mother and daughter, or branch and branch.
That this contradicts 1,900 years worth of theological conviction has not been much of a problem for the churches. Theology is, after all, a human tradition. As for the awkward fact of a received scripture that contradicts these new truths about Judaism and Christianity, Christian scholars and churches have tried to solve the problem by teaching the contextual understandings advanced by Cunningham, Boys, Carroll, and many others.
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 awareness 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?
Meanwhile, in the waking world of 2001, Charlie Ward, a basketball player, looks up from his Bible study group with fellow Knicks in a Milwaukee hotel room and says to a New York Times reporter, for] now is very simple: education. The churches need to implement, at the level of every local church, what their theologians have been writing for years about the New Testament in official church documents.”
Irwin Borowsky wants a bit more and a bit sooner from Christians. A retired Philadelphia businessman, he has written that “the common understanding of the New Testament” was and is “the most potent factor fostering anti-Semitism” and that following a century that has seen “the murder of two out of five Jews,” Christian leaders have an urgent responsibility “to remove hateful and inaccurate references to Jews from their Bibles.”
“I published 24 [different] magazines before I decided to remove anti-Semitism from the world,” Borowsky tells me over the phone in a line that feels worn with use but still warm with ardor. “I felt there would be more pogroms,” he continues, “so I made a major decision.” The decision, in 1982, was to sell his publishing business and found the American Interfaith Institute (AII), a foundation “committed to modifying the anti-Judaism in Christian theology,” according to its Web site. In addition to conferences, educational programs, and a museum, the institute has underwritten 17 books, eight of which are completely or predominately about the portrayal of Jews in the New Testament. And the list of contributors to those books reads like a who’s who of contemporary Christian and Jewish contextualizers. But Borowsky is also known for a more quixotic and daring volume, the American Holy Bible (AHB).
Originally published in 1984 as the American Family Bible, the AHB represents what is probably history’s first serious attempt to “retranslate” the New Testament so that it cannot be used to support hatred toward Jews. It does so through some standard-issue “softening,” such as the substitution of “meeting place” for “synagogue,” and 71 substitutions of “people” for “Jews” in John. But not all ideas can be softened, and where they can’t, the AHB takes the next necessary step.
For example, in Matthew 23:37 (Jesus’ blast against the scribes and Temple priests), the sentence about murderous Jerusalem (“Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her”) is gone. Verse 37 now comprises only its comparatively innocent second sentence. Similarly, passages that deal with conflict between Jews and followers of Jesus have been changed, while references to Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death have been removed.
Bowdlerization has its costs as well as benefits, however. St. Stephen’s nasty speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:51–52 is rendered this way in The Jerusalem Bible—an authorized, plain-speech Catholic Bible published by Doubleday:
“You stubborn people, with your pagan hearts and pagan ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Can you name a single prophet your ancestors never persecuted? In the past they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”
Here’s the American Holy Bible retranslation:
“Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised, you do always resist the Holy Ghost. Which of the prophets have not been persecuted? [A]nd they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the just one.”
While this may not quite serve to take the heat off Jews (who else, after all, would one be trying to insult with the word “uncircumcised”?), its combination of passive verbs and blind-box pronouns renders the action simply nonsensical, which may be an improvement over offensive, but which is false to the spirit as well as the words of the text. And is a scripture that has been falsified still scripture?
Christians take their sacred text seriously (as seriously as Jews take their own texts), and no theologian I spoke with for this article, Jew or Christian, could imagine any mainstream Christian denomination that would authorize a text like the American Holy Bible—that is, a text altered for social and not scholarly reasons.
“Any attempt to change the New Testament text is an invitation to anarchy,” said Rabbi Klenicki. “Tomorrow the Marxists might like to change the text, and the day after that the Republicans. The text is sacred—just as the Tanakh is sacred for Jews—but it sometimes needs an explanation, just like ours does.”
More successfully, Borowsky’s foundation did influence the translation and dissemination of the American Bible Society’s Holy Bible—Contemporary English Version. Familiarly known as the CEV, this Bible uses traditional softenings (“council” for “Sanhedrin” in the story of St. Stephen, the first martyr, stoned by Jews), and some translations aimed at children (the Pharisees in Matthew 23 are “show-offs,” not the traditional “hypocrites”). And the book contains respectful footnotes: “Many of the Jewish people prayed in their homes at regular times each day and on special occasions they prayed in the Temple.”
But for all that, the CEV remains a translated—not bowdlerized—Bible, and so it contains passages that will be sorely offensive to Jews, such as Galatians 3:16, where Paul notes that, “The promises God made [to Abraham] were not made to many descendants but only to one, and that one is Christ,” or as in Matthew 23, where in spite of the editors’ kindly efforts to turn Pharisees into kids who won’t give up the playground ball, Jesus still howls: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you … And now your temple will be deserted.”
Recently I heard Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, principal of Boston’s New Jewish High School, tell a gathering of Christian and Jewish scholars that Christianity needed to develop a midrashic—or interpretive—tradition to deal with difficult scriptures. Afterward I asked him how he thought Judaism would interpret one of its own problematic passages—Exodus 17, the story of the Amalekite attack on the wandering Israelites, concluding with God’s vow to “blot out Amalek”—if the Amalekites were still around. “We’d say, ‘The real Amalek was back then, but these people today, they’re not really Amalek.’”
It’s an elegant midrash, but not available to Christianity. Jews are still around and Christianity needs real Jews and Judaism to be whole. For good and for ill, this fact is reflected in nearly every sentence of the New Testament, with all its references to Shabbat, tefillin, tzedakah, Pharisees, and priests. No rendering of “Temple” as “temple” and no elimination of “synagogue” can disguise this, can hold the line against, for example, the more than 500 quotes from Tanakh woven into the 408 verses of Revelation, or the fact that Jesus’ final words are lifted from Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), or that Judas, however vigorously Christian theology teaches that he stands for all Christian sinners, is not named Frank or Bill or even Gamliel.
“It’s a Christian moral responsibility not to allow people to come to these texts without context,” says Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, “but there are many challenges.” Each Christian denomination has its own educational system and curriculum, for example, and many rely on volunteer lay teachers—sometimes lightly trained and supervised only with gratitude. Additionally, says Lee, “It’s hard to provide historic context to children, whether Christian or Jewish, when they are faced with a problematic text.”
Amy-Jill Levine is a professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Theological Seminary, an interdenominational Protestant institution. A woman of great spirit whom I once heard declare in the midst of a debate with other scholars, “Listen, I know Matthew better than Matthew,” Levine has her doubts about contextualization.
Responding from Europe to questions I put to her by email, she wrote: “I fear that attempts to contextualize are simplistic excuses that seek to exculpate Christianity. For example, if the NT [New Testament] is seen as only presenting ‘in-house’ polemic, then the fault of the anti-Jewish material must lie with Jews. Worse, the contextualizations are presented often as fact rather than as a theory. We do not know who comprised the audiences of John or Matthew’s gospels, so the argument of Jews talking to Jews is at best hypothesis.” For Levine, “text-taming” is not a solution either. “I do not think the word of God, in anyone’s religion, should be domesticated.” She suggests, rather, that appropriate treatments for anti-Jewish text will of necessity range from history lessons to “apology and repenting.” She concludes, “I find especially helpful the exercise of having Jews and Christians read together, so that the Jew can see that most Christians do not read with anti-Semitic eyes, and so that the Christian can see that the references to Jews in, say, John 8 [when Jesus says to some Jews, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires”], can have a very personal impact on real people and real lives today.”
Jim Carroll seems to feel the same way. Ultimately, he writes, the church “must help Christians learn to read anti-Jewish texts as if they were themselves Jews.” This is, of course, the ultimate contextualization: reading as the other would read and feeling as the other would feel.
“Five generations,” said one religious educator when I asked how long it might take to change the way American Christians read anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament. Another guessed one generation. Another guessed 50 years. Another asked: What can be done for the majority of the world’s Christians, who read their Bibles and listen to their liturgies in Africa and Asia, and have never seen a Jew?
Meanwhile, efforts to change the nature of the New Testament’s authority and use continue. Klenicki told me that he had just completed a book for use in Christian seminaries that he called, with bright irony, “the first rabbinic commentary on John.” Gene Fisher, last I saw him, was walking around with a letter from a Catholic priest in Los Angeles who had informed his diocese that he could not preside at Easter masses so long as there were required readings from John or Matthew 23. The gist of the priest’s argument was: I may understand the context, but the parishioners don’t, and I can’t give them context along with everything else I’m supposed to teach them in the seven minutes I’m allotted for my homily. Fisher was in absolute sympathy. “There is no reason to use certain problematic liturgical readings,” he said, except for traditions overseen by Rome. Several knowledgeable Catholics told me that the Vatican was in fact quietly reviewing the required Mass readings for anti-Jewish content, and would soon be making the first changes in liturgical practice since the late 1960s.
Meanwhile in Nashville, Tenn., Levine, afflicted with the resoluteness of a Jewish mother as well as that of a scholar, once a year stands her young son, in kippah and tzitzit, at the front of the classroom before her seminary students. “Don’t ever say anything that would hurt this child,” she tells the future pastors, “and don’t ever say anything that would cause a member of your congregation to hurt this child.” It’s a contextualization of the New Testament that she hopes they will remember all their Christian lives.