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Home page> Resources> Jewish-Christian Relations> SIDIC Periodical> 1977/2>Piet Van Boxel and Margaret Mcgrath

SIDIC Periodical X - 1977/2
The Pharisees (Pages 25 -27)

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Perspectives - Anti-Jewish Elements In Liturgy: A Challenge to Christians
Piet Van Boxel and Margaret Mcgrath


On April 17, 1976 a news item appeared in the New York Times under the heading «A Good Friday Hymn Being Questioned w. Several Jews and Christians were quoted as expressing concern about the continued use, in the Roman Catholic liturgy, of the ancient hymn called the Improperia or Reproaches n. A few months later, an Anti-Defamation League publication on the theme « Liturgy and Better Understanding )0 I dealt not only with the Reproaches » but the wider problem of the anti-Jewish tenor of Christian liturgical texts. Meanwhile, a group of Christian scholars in the United States, called the Israel Study Group, was discussing a liturgical interpretation of the Passion account prepared by Rev. John Townsend.' In time for Lent of this year, a British publication directed to Catholic clergy included the article a Reading the Passion in Holy Week ..3 And in various Catholic dioceses, commissions for ecumenical and interreligious affairs followed up previous efforts by offering their clergy material on the Jewish elements and background of the Lenten readings.' These examples indicate a deepening realization among Christians of the far-reaching influence of liturgical formulas on religious attitudes.' What are some of the issues involved?

The need for revision of liturgical texts and customs has been recognized for some time: the restoration (in 1955) of the genuflection at the Oremus preceding the prayer for the Jews in the Roman Catholic Good Friday liturgy (a gesture for which Jules Isaac had pleaded in 1949), and Pope John XXIII's suppression of the phrase perfidis Judaeis in 1958, are well known. Growing sensitivity to possible seeds of anti-Semitism in Christian writings has led to examination of such traditional textsas the Good Friday hymn mentioned above. This ancient hymn places in the mouth of Christ a litany of reproaches against the ingratitude of « his people », using the bihlical images of such blessings as the exodus from Egypt and the manna in the desert. On the one hand, the use of the « Reproaches » has been defended on the grounds that, properly understood, the Christian participant in the liturgy identifies himself as the ungrateful recipient of God's blessings. On the other hand, as John Townsend remarks, it is doubtful whether many worshipers in the church on Good Friday would have the theological sophistication to understand that The Reproaches are actually a self-accusation ».° In any case, the hymn is an optional element in the liturgy, not universally used, and its total suppression might not be too difficult to obtain.'

A more problematic area which can be a source of anti-Jewish attitudes is that of the Scripture readings to which church goers are regularly exposed. The Passion accounts read during the Holy Week liturgy give real cause for concern since they are an important part of the services and their frequent anti-Jewish references occur in the context of what is most sacred in Christian tradition. (In addition, due to the length of the Palm Sunday gospel reading in the Roman Catholic liturgy, there is frequently no homily accompanying the reading. The cumulative effect of years of uncommented use of Scripture have been graphically underlined by James Parkes?) In this connection the instructions in the 1975 Guidelines sent out from Rome are very pertinent:

With respect to liturgical readings, care will be taken to see that homilies based on them will not distort their meaning, especially when it is a question of passages which seem to show the Jewish people as such in an unfavourable light. Efforts will be made so to instruct the Christian people that they will understand the true in. terpretation of all the texts and their meaning for the contemporary believer.

This exhortation from the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews contains no small challenge. To be aware of the « true interpretation of all the texts » demands a knowledge of the background of the gospels. In connection with the Passion accounts, the reader, listener and preacher should at least he aware that the many passages laying blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews (while absolving the Romans) spring from the complex situation of the early Christian community. By the time the gospel of John was written, the schism between Synagogue and infant Church had been deepened by the introduction into the Shemoneh End, (Eighteen Blessings) of a prayer which Christians could not in conscience recite (we will not go into the much-discussed term « minim A). At the same time, in order not to antagonize their political rulers, Christians were anxious to minimize the part played by Roman authorities in the death of Jesus. A third element which contributed to anti-Jewish bias in New Testament writings was the frustration of the early followers of Jesus at the refusal of most of their fellow countrymen to accept him as Messiah.

To return to the specific problem of how to handle the Holy Week Scripture readings: Aware that an attempt simply to excise the anti-Jewish elements in the Passion readings would result in cutting away the very story the texts were meant to convey, some Christians have become convinced that the solution lies in re-writing the Passion accounts. For such an approach there is a certain amount of precedent in the oldest rites of the Christian Church. Biblical material has been adapted for liturgical use in order to heighten the drama, to provide commentary on the principal readings from Scripture, and to involve the worshipper (e.g. the Exultet of the Easter Vigil service)." It was with this in mind that John Townsend prepared A Liturgical Interpretation of Our Lord's Passion in Narrative Formil It draws from the various gospel accounts and pays special attention to those passages touching Jewish participation in the Passion. How well does it answer the need which inspired it?

First of all, it combats anti-Semitism by removing the possibility of anti-Jewish interpretation. Statements are qualified and the narrative is phrased so that the reader « will understand the events as a knowledgeable first-century Palestinian follower of Jesus might have understood them* (page 3). For example, the first paragraph includes the line: « The religious leaders who collaborated with the Roman occupation were conspiring against Jesus » (page 4), and the section on the trial of Jesus is introduced by: A Those who had seized Jesus brought him to Caiaphas, whom the Romans had made High Priest » (page 6). The text (itself very brief) is accompanied by twenty-four pages of notes on the historical background and the differing views of scholars in regard to these and other lines in the narrative.

The author writes: « Such a liturgical reading should in no way be construed as a factual, historical reconstruction » (page 2). However, the choice of material does often seem to be based on whether or not a particular event is considered historical. More to the point, such a conflation of material from the various sources leaves nothing of the particular literary structure of the different gospel accounts. The distinctive theology and christology of the individual evangelist is lost.

A further question arises in assessing such a re-writing of the gospels: is there no hope, through education, of forming a discerning Christian reader? If the only alternative is a re-writing of the Passion accounts, does this not imply — since the whole Bible is open to Christian misinterpretation n — that Sacred Scripture is unusable as it stands? In fact, Townsend recognizes this at least with regard to the New Testament: < The anti-Jewish passages within the New Testament are extensive enough [that] to "translate' them out would involve the complete re-writing of much that we hold sacred. »

Perhaps other alternatives could be pursued a little further. Although new translations will not in themselves remedy the problem, translation in the style of a Christian Targum might bring more clarity to ambiguous texts, with clarifications added to meet the pastoral needs of particular audiences. A safeguarding of the literary style of the evangelist — a presentation of John's Passion « drama », for example — might help the Christian to appreciate that the author's purpose was theological more than historical.

Furthermore, the Guidelines stress the necessity of seeing in the New Testament texts « their meaning for the contemporary believer ». The Christian faithful need more help to become aware, not only of the historical background of the Passion accounts, but the underlying aim of the gospel writers. « The evangelists had a theological purpose which they tried to fulfil through dramatic narrative. Because their narratives sound to the modern ear like history, the theological intent of the evangelists is largely thwarted. » " The « good news » that is being proclaimed is not that some Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus A out of sheer malice, worldly ambition, jealousy and mob hysteria »,'5 but rather, as one of the earliest Christian texts expresses it, A . . that Christ died for our sins that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures » (I Cor. 15:3-4). And the New Testament call to repentance and faith leaves the Christian conscious that he is the crucifier. not « the others”.

From what has been said above about the implications of seeing much of the New Testament as «unusable» in its original form because of its anti-Jewish tenor, it is obvious we here touch on a wider question than simply the liturgical readings in Holy Week. The whole problem of the Christian approach to the sacred writings of the New Testament — and indeed of the whole Bible — needs to be faced. (For a thought-provoking presentation of some controversial views in this area, see Rosemary Ruether's Faith and Fratricide" with the introduction by Gregory Baum.)

What do we think the Bible is? Have we not sometimes seen it as a book of history (in the modern sense), or a handbook of dogma, or even as an enlarged catechism containing all the answers? Has not its designation as a « book of revealed truth » often been too narrowly interpreted? Surely what we must strive to do is to retain the Scriptures that have been handed down through the centuries and let them speak to us, but with the realization that their accounts are colored by the pastoral and catechetical needs of the situation in which the authors were writing, as well as the bitter struggles and political milieu in first century Palestine. Sacred Scripture reflects life, life as it is. The Bible is the expression of a people's experience with God, of life lived and experienced before God. When faced with the influences which v Christians find very hard to admit . . . can be present in the Gospel of love », it might be fruitful to reflect that

the followers of Jesus were subject to the ordinary human reactions when faced with opposition. The Gospel did not automatically convert them once and for all to the ideal proposed in the Sermon on the Mount. . . . Like the early disciples, we too are not lifted out of our own time nor preserved from ordinary human passions and emotional reactions which limit our response to the Gospel demand. The Gospel in fact reveals our own need to repent and be pardoned

Rather than cut out the passages which embarrass them,

Christian believers must wrestle with the limitations imposed on the Scriptures by the circumstances in which they were written. . . They must reckon with the implications inherent in the fact that the word of God has come to us in the words of men. To excise dubious attitudes from the readings of Scripture is to perpetuate the fallacy that what one hears in the Bible is always to be imitated because it is « revealed* by God, the fallacy that every position taken by an author of Scripture is inerrant!

Piet van Boxel, a New Testament scholar, has been Assistant Professor of Scripture in Frankfurt and is presently doing research for SIDIC. Sr. Margaret McGrath is a staff member of the SIDIC center and assistant editor of the journal.


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