Cambridge, MA. I at least was enthralled for the last six weeks by my series on Swami Prabhavananda on the Sermon on the Mount, and so have not commented on other issues. For the sake of catch-up, I did want to make one comment now — on the extract from Pope Benedict’s Holy Week: from the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, which Austin Ivereigh kindly posted for us recently. (I’ve not seen any other part of the book).
Namely, my attention was caught by the Pope’s comment that in the Passion Narratives the Evangelists did not mean the Jewish people in general when referring to the Jews who killed Jesus, and did not mean all the Jewish people when referring to the crowd who called down the blood of Jesus on their heads. Rather, the Pope writes, “the Jews” refers to the “Temple aristocracy,” and the crowd calling for the death of Jesus was by no means the whole people, but rather a small group, perhaps a “rabble,” brought in for this deadly purpose. Yes, indeed, and reading the narratives with sensitivity can be of great help in getting at what the Evangelists truly meant. I appreciate this reminder, even if it is not novel, as we look forward to Lent and Holy Week, and the question of how to proclaim and interpret the Passion narratives without lapsing, by our silence, into old anti-Semitic accusations and stereotypes.
But as our relationship to the Jewish people changes, so too should change our relationship to the wider array of religious people through the world, in history and now. Once we start noticing the literary style and rhetoric of Biblical texts and learn to narrow down the scope of what at first seem to be sweeping claims about Jews, then the Pope’s insights can be extended further, to other groups that were stereotyped in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament: namely, the nations, Gentiles, the Egyptians, the Moabites, and also those who worshipped their deities on high places, who worshipped the Baal, who made idols and worshipped them. Surely there were people in all these groups who were the enemies of Israel, who were blinded by worldly desires, who hated truth or who in their pride thought they could evade the will of God. Surely there were some who worshipped things thoughtlessly and in a demeaning fashion, and perhaps even people who really thought of carved wooden and stone objects as their deities. Surely there were some pagans — Athenians for example — who balked before the evident truth, refusing to recognize the evidence of the creator God’s presence and action in creation.
And yet we can say, following the Pope’s generous insight, that it would be a very great mistake to imagine that the Biblical authors were seriously attempting to characterize all non-Jews (and later all non-Christians), all Egyptians or Canaanites or Moabites or Greeks, or seriously claiming that all Baal-worshipers were blind and foolish, obsessed with blood sacrifices, etc. Just as “the Jews” did not mean all Jews, it seems appropriate to extend this generous insight to those who did (and do) venerate images carved of wood and stone: the idolaters who are dangerous and on a downward path are few, and no generalization can be made, rhetoric aside, about the much larger number of people in all the nations referred to in the Bible, who lived good religious lives, in Canaan, among the Moabites, with their Baals and the like. Let us not speak ill of idol-worshipers, even if you do not know any personally. Even the larger New Testament claims about the nations who do not know Christ seem, in the spirit of the Pope’s remarks, to be claims that need to be deciphered, but do not, at the start, offer reliable information about people outside of Israel and the Church. As we learn to rethink – and state in different words – our relation to Israel and the Jewish people, this opens the door to a less heated, more productive relation to the peoples we used to call heathens, pagans, idolaters, and the like. It is not just about dropping offensive language, but of reinterpreting, as the Pope does, the Biblical claims themselves.
This matters today because we still, and rightly so, turn to the Bible for guidance in thinking about our relations with people of other religious traditions. We are given the shorthands by which Biblical authors spoke of "others" near and far. Once we know that the New Testament did not give us the full reality of the Jewish people by talking about “the Jews" who sought the death of Jesus, we do well also to realize that neither does the New Testament give us the full reality of any religious group, anywhere in the world, simply by this or that Biblical label or shorthand reference. If we see this, we can become freer in refusing to stereotype Hindus and Buddhists and others, even the West’s atheists and humanists, merely by applying to them labels lifted from the Bible.
While the Pope’s insights are not new, it is good that he has reminded us not to underestimate the wisdom of the Bible — or the real-life complexity of the peoples about whom it speaks.