Anti-Judaism and Holy Week

One of the central issues facing Christians during Holy Week (in fact it’s central to Christianity itself) is the pervasive anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition and in parts of the New Testament. It’s particularly prevalent in the Gospel of John and reaches its highest intensity in the passion narrative (John 18 and 19). It’s traditional that John’s Passion Narrative is read on Good Friday. The raw power of the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trials, and crucifixion that culminate with the silence of the tomb, combines with the larger liturgical context to confront worshipers with the enormity of the crucifixion and with human culpability in it. The concluding prayer includes this sentence:

we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death

As much as the overall liturgy seeks to make us participants in the drama of Good Friday, John’s Passion Narrative seems designed to leave us in the audience, observers of a drama in which the main actors are only Jesus, Pilate, and “the Jews.” Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charges against him, saying three times, “I find no case against him” (Jn 18:38, 19:4, 6). Each time, “the Jews” protest and force Pilate to reconsider. In the end, Pilate hands Jesus over to them for crucifixion (John does not explicitly state that Romans were involved in the crucifixion. “Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified” 19:16).

While the presence of “the Jews” as Jesus’ opponents is especially prevalent in the passion narrative, throughout John’s gospel, Jesus comes into conflict with “the Jews.” On one level, such a term is utterly meaningless because Jesus and his disciples were Jews just like those who opposed him. But John’s gospel reflects a later stage of historical development when it seems that opposition between some Jews and those Jews who had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah had become especially pronounced. Thus in 9: 22-23, the parents of the blind man whom Jesus healed were “afraid of the Jews” because they had already decided “that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

On careful reading, it becomes apparent that only “some Jews” were so opposed to Jesus that they sought his death. Others supported him; some of the latter were people like Joseph of Arimathea, who John says was a disciple of Jesus, but only secretly, “for fear of the Jews.”

Our preaching, liturgies, and reflection in Holy Week should include a healthy dose of repentance for Christian anti-Judaism. Whatever the historical context that gave rise to John’s portrayal of “the Jews” in his gospel, that portrayal has had a long and evil afterlife. Over the centuries, Christians have used the charge of “Christ-Killer” to oppress and persecute Jews. In the European Middle Ages, for example, Holy Week often meant increased incidents of anti-Judaism, including the blood libel and riots.

For more on John’s portrayal of “The Jews” read excerpts from Raymond Brown’s postumously published Introduction to the Gospel of John

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen many efforts by Christians to deal with past Anti-Judaism. An article on Christian philosemitism among Evangelicals is helpful.

A recent book examines the long history of Christian Anti-Judaism. R. I. Moore reviews David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition here:

The enduring legacy of the early Church, Nirenberg makes clear, was far more than the familiar stereotype of anti-Semitism: it was a language and a set of oppositions and associations in which any conflict could be framed, or any community, party or position attacked or defended by contrasting it with Judaism—irrespective of the presence, still less the participation, of flesh-and-blood Jews.

Martin Marty reflects on the Anti-Judaism in John and in Bach’s St. John’s Passion here:

but the Gospel of John, which provides the framework for Bach’s work, poses extremely harsh and judgmental accusations which turn “the Jews”—some Jews, since Jesus and his followers were all Jews—into primal and enduring villains. Being a Christian and a Lutheran, whose faith-communities include horrible records against Jews and Judaism—records finally being addressed with penitence and resolve in recent decades—I must deal with the “shadow” of this Passion. So: do we shun or evade the dark side, and make a big show of how uniquely righteous “we” and our contemporaries are? Or do we note the central, focal stream in Bach’s work, where in the classic Chorales and Arias the emphatic and even obsessive concern is for the contemporary disciples of Jesus to see that it was and is “they” who by their faults were and are guilty—until his death freed them from guilt. That’s Bach’s “bright side,” part of the allure of this transcendent musical work.