Jews, Christians, and Holy Week

Note: this was taken from an informal, online share by David Armstrong and posted with his permission.

As we get closer to Holy Week, if you’re a Christian, you’re statistically very likely to hear a sermon or homily or hymnography at church that will misrepresent Jews and Judaism to various degrees. For many if not most Christians, this rarely registers as a problem, but for Jews, this has been a historic source of Christian violence against Jews (as Easter has often been prime time for pogroms and other forms of persecution). If you are, like me, a Christian who knows and loves several Jewish communities, Holy Week can prove a challenging time dependent on where you are celebrating. So, pre-empting that, some things to keep in mind.

Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jews, who did not understand themselves to be practicing something other than Judaism.

Jesus did not intentionally found a new religion called Christianity to replace Judaism as the “new Judaism” or “true Judaism.” Instead, Jesus’s understanding of his own apocalyptic mission to preach the Kingdom of God and repentance in synagogues was precisely to bring about what he believed would be the restoration of Israel.

Ancient Judaism was not a religion of “law” as opposed to a religion of “grace”; neither is Modern Judaism.

Jesus’s last week was spent in Jerusalem for Passover and going to the Temple, proving Jesus’s love for all three of these quintessentially Jewish things.

Jesus’s Last Supper was not a Passover Seder, a ritual construct that did not yet exist in the Second Temple period, but probably a meal held just before Passover that the Synoptics conflated with a Passover meal.

“The Jews” as an abstract collective did not crucify Jesus. Jesus was crucified by the Romans, and the charge of his crucifixion was a Roman mockery of Jewish aspirations for independence. Those Jews whom the Gospels identify as complicit are priestly aristocrats and landed gentry: in other words, an overwhelming minority of Jews in first-century Judea, at a time when the majority of Jews lived in the Diaspora anyway.

The authors of the Gospels are operative within Judaism and are competing with other late first-century Jewish groups for the claim to be the primary continuation of Judaism in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Their polemic against other Jews is intra-Jewish polemic in their own mouths, but in the mouths of later, non-Jewish Christians, these words easily descend into antisemitism. Christians should abandon what AJ Levine calls “Christian fragility” around acknowledging this and work for more responsible uses of our texts.

The text of the Gospels was in some cases edited by later Christian scribes uncomfortable with the ways that the NT itself either does not blame Jews or absolves the blame for Jesus’s death: Jesus’s words from the cross, for instance, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), was dropped from later manuscripts by Christians uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus forgiving those who executed them because they were Jewish. Which is to say, Christians choosing to read the NT antisemitically has an unfortunately long pedigree in Christian history.

Jesus’s resurrection and the preaching of the apostles includes promises of future restoration for Israel, meaning that the post-Easter community remained committed to promises of Jewish liberation based on the Hebrew Prophets and Early Jewish apocalyptic literature (e.g., Acts 1:6-11; 3:17-21). Several Early Christian writers in the second and third centuries retained similar hopes, though they reallocated their beneficiaries to themselves as gentile Christians rather than to the Jewish community. This change is regrettable, but also signals the strength of this belief in the earliest generations.

Paul unambiguously teaches God’s perennial commitment to Israel, its covenant with God, and God’s ultimate redemption of the nation (Rom 9:4-5; 11).

There continued to be Jewish followers of Jesus living lives based on Torah and their own traditions of Jesus’s teaching, falling all along the spectrum of emergent Christological Orthodoxy as it was known along gentile Christians, until at least the fourth century, and in some places as late as the rise of Islam.

Most Jews for most of the last two millennia, most of the time (whenever possible), have not actively hated Jesus but have simply ignored him. Jewish rhetoric against Jesus in Jewish literature (particularly Toledot Yeshu and the Babylonian Talmud) are as a rule responses to Christian persecution of Jews rather than independent attempts to deal with the facts of Jesus’s life. Modern Judaism, however, since the 19th century, has in some ways and places rehabilitated Jesus as a pious Jew, a good Jewish teacher, and a martyr for the cause of Jewish liberation. There is an impressive guild of Jewish scholars of the historical Jesus, the New Testament, and Early Christianity that has led the way in many of the most important developments of NT scholarship in recent decades.

Jewish rabbis, theologians, and thinkers of the last century have made impressive overtures to Christian communities for articulating new understandings of Christianity’s status vis-a-vis Judaism, particularly in the wake of the Shoah and the reversal of historic Christian teachings about Judaism’s obsolescence and perfidity in major sectarian groups. These include acknowledging that Christians worship the same God as Jews.

Internally, Modern Judaism is a very diverse world. Modern Christians are often ignorant of the differences between Ancient Judaism and Modern Judaism and are often ignorant of the many differences that Modern Jews have from one another. Modern Jews might be Orthodox (with a variety of options), Conservative (Masorti), Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, non-denominational, or secular. Most Jews today live in either Israel or the United States, where secularism (Israel) and more progressive denominations of Judaism (US) are the majority. This modern diversity emerged from medieval and early modern trends that in turn descend from ancient and late antique forms of Judaism, but in many cases trying to compare the two leads to talking about very different iterations of the same ethnoreligion. Comparing Judaism in Jesus’s day to Modern Judaism is often like comparing apples and oranges.

One consequence of this is that Christians often don’t realize when they and their Jewish interlocutors, real or hypothetical, are talking past one another. A favorite Christian phrase around this time of year, for instance, is that Jesus was not “the messiah the Jews were expecting” in the ancient world. Several assumptions motivate that kind of rhetoric. First, Christians assume when they speak this way that there was a singular “messianic idea” in Ancient Judaism that Jesus either stacks up to or doesn’t. Instead, there was a pluralism of messiah talk in Ancient Judaism; while the hope for a Davidic warrior-messiah could very well have been the majority expectation, it was not the only kind of messiah known to Ancient Jews. Second, Christians who talk this way are assuming that the warrior-political messiah ben David is not something that Jesus or the NT authors have interest in. But that’s mistaken, given that the NT does repeatedly project onto Jesus expectations that he will in the future do the Davidic messiah stuff he did not accomplish in his lifetime, including eschatological warfare, liberation, political rule, etc. Third, this rhetoric encourages Christians to think that the main difference between Christians and Jews is the identity of the messiah. But, compounding Christian ignorance of the diversity of Modern Judaism, this misses too that messiahs in general are not a significant part of Modern Judaism for most Jews. Again, most of the world’s Jews are either members of progressive denominations (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist), secular, or somewhere in between, and in none of these communities is belief in a personal messianic liberator necessary or normative. If messiah talk happens at all outside of Orthodox Judaism, it is usually understood as a metaphor for the collective task of repairing the world.

Consequently, Christians and Jews may be united by worship of the same God, but they are otherwise divided by many differences (including in many cases how necessary they understand belief in God itself to be). Jews are a historic ethnic group with shared ancestral religious customs and beliefs; Christians are a missionary creed comprising many ethnic groups whose customs they have displaced. Christians primarily read the Greek Bible as an extended story that happens to include things like Law or Wisdom; Jews read the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible and prioritize the Torah, the “teaching” of the Pentateuch as a guide to communal and individual Jewish life in the world. Christians read the Bible with the apparatus of an extensive tradition of theological commentary focused on the person and natures of Jesus Christ; Jews read the Bible with the apparatus of rabbinic literature whose primary focus is legal and moral reasoning and only secondarily has to do with theology (usually as a matter of legal reasoning about appropriate worship). Jewish-Christian dialogue that acknowledges these differences and seeks to learn, share, and receive what each finds useful in the other rather than that which proceeds on the basis of debate and Christian anxieties to convert will be successful.

Finally, Catholic Christians have a responsibility to acknowledge a.) that Judaism is a divinely revealed and valid religious lifeway that b.) has continuing claim to covenantal priority in God’s eyes and c.) that Catholics themselves are obliged to respect and celebrate Judaism’s flourishing. Christian ”witness” should be in the act of dialogue itself; Christians should not seek to proselytize Jews. Instead, committed to dialogue and to shared works of justice, repair, and charity, Christians should seek to partner with Jews on social and political projects of benefaction for the poor and the oppressed, should support local Jewish communities in whatever way they can, and should seek learning opportunities wherever possible. We have many historic and contemporary examples of Jewish and Christian leaders, thinkers, and prophets of justice, as well as many communities, who have partnered in exactly these ways. It is in this way that together Jews and Christians can work for the Kingdom of God that, Christians believe, Jesus died for.

Crucify Him (1994) by Ivan Glazunov (currently аt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow)

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