The Pope, the Jews - and the Pagans

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.

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Robert O'Connell
7 years 10 months ago
Scripture tells us that Jesus once taught something which not only reminds me that Jesus is magnanimous in His love of humanity but also which guides me with regard to dealing with the relious ideas of others: Mark 9:40 quotes Him as saying, ''whoever is not against us is for us.''  Some might argue about the context in which He was speaking but does not the teaching that we love our enemies reinforce the paramount importance of love of our neighbor as opposed to nit-picking adverse judgment?  
PJ Johnston
7 years 10 months ago
Thanks for this.  The OT genre known as "idol polemic" has been bothering me since I was an undergrad.
7 years 10 months ago
I think  there is some confusion here.  Pagans were not atheists and they did see a  creator, just not the Christian God.  So they might better be compared to latter day Deists.  The difference is that Deists did not think the creator(s) ever revealed himself to mankind and essentially kept away from their creation and let it be one it came into existence.  Atheists are quite another thing and from my understanding, there were few true atheists in old testament times.  So we should make the distinction between pagans (gods actively involved), Deists (gods not actively involved), Christians,  Jews and Muslims (revealed religion) and atheists.

Now I am aware that many in Athens did not pay much attention to the Athenian gods, but that does not mean they were atheists, only that the particualar gods such as Zeus, Athena and Apollo may not really exist.   To get to the Christian God and the Trinity one cannot reason to it but one needs revelation.  At least that is how it was explained to me.
Crystal Watson
7 years 10 months ago
As JR Cosgrove mentions, there's no reason to think Athenians didn't believe in God(s) or failed to see evidence of that in the world - that's why Augustine and Aquinas so liked Plato and Aristotle.
Kang Dole
7 years 10 months ago
Thanks for this; I feel strongly about the importance of contextualizing biblical texts, as well as recognizing the rhetorical strategies that inform them.

From a historical perspective, I think that the importance of this is rather obvious. I think that it should be equally important to canonical or theological perspectives, even if it requires more flexibility or even ambiguity.

The need for contextualization of the Bible makes more sense, especially when it comes to its unfavorable representations of certain people groups, when the Bible is compared to other texts that do similar things. For example, if you want to learn about Marcion, you don't have many sources apart from the heresiologies of the Fathers. Critical thinking, however, necessitates that you recognize that a polemic is hardly the ideal source of information on its object. (Critical thinking isn't the only factor; fairness and honesty also play a role). The same often holds true for biblical texts.

I think, though, that contextualization isn't necessarily enough. You can uncover and then disperse a better understanding of what John (for example) means when it talks about "the Jews," but it is still necessary to recognize the damage done and the damage that will continue to be done. John Allen Warrior has a great (and oft-anthologized) essay called "Cowboys and Canaanites" that discusses this point. He successfully argues that even if scholars can prove that something like the invasion of the Land as described in Joshua and Judges never actually occurred, and can also explain the social and rhetorical reasons behind the stories, they can't undo the conquests of the Americas and like places that used the biblical stories as models and as justification. They also cannot make such stories liberating texts for indigenous peoples (who must instead identify always with the Canaanites). Educating (which includes self-educating and owning-up: critically important goals.

(By the way, while a qualifying adjective such as "many" or "some" might have been helpful, I think that we can give Father Clooney the benefit of the doubt with respect to his knowing that not all Athenians were atheists.)

Comment: Indeed! Thanks! I was attempting to capture a) the caricature, and b) the arguments about natural reason, the specific idea of a creator deity. Not to deny belief in the gods altogether! FXC
Kang Dole
7 years 10 months ago
Correction: The Warrior article is titled "Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation Theology Today"
William Atkinson
7 years 10 months ago
Its interesting when playing the blame game, who's fault for any autrocities on individuals or groups.    I like the popes way saying that the peoples of a certain race, nationality, language, sex, or religion are not responsible for terror and ruination of others.   So Grman Natzies were not to blame for holocast, nore Romans for burning of Rome, or Americans for destruction of Indian Nations, or whites americans for their so called inborn national predjudice, bias, and bigotry against blacks.  the idea that a whole social group of any type would be at fault for actions of few, especiaslly their leaders is not a factual actuality.    I wonder how the pope decifers the idea that God has a "chosen people"  and the inference is that the rest of the worlds people are second or lower than Gods Chosen Peoples (the Isralites, the Jews, the Hebrews).....


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