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Jim McDermottApril 14, 2022
Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"), Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem. (Wikimedia)

Over the weekend, I saw a number of comments from Jewish Twitter users expressing concern about the week to come. The Christian celebration of Holy Week brings with it increased anti-Semitic comments, threats and violence, and it has for over a thousand years. The justification is always the same: “The Jews killed Jesus.”

Of course, that reading of the crucifixion is completely wrong. Popes have denounced it, mainstream publications like the The Daily Beast and Slate have decried it, and so have many Jewish and Christian writers and publications. America’s James Martin, S.J., wrote an article on the topic just last week.

But even so, you would still be justified in feeling confused about where the church actually stands on the issue, because every year in our Good Friday liturgy, we publicly proclaim the version of the Passion that over and over identifies Jesus’ murderers as “the Jews.” We have four Passion accounts to choose from, yet we continue to insist on using the version that most closely echoes the anti-Semitic argument that “the Jews killed Jesus.”

The Christian celebration of Holy Week brings with it increased anti-Semitic comments, threats, and violence, and it has for over a thousand years.

Reading John’s Passion on Good Friday causes real harm. And our practice is far more a matter of tradition than any theological necessity. We need to use a different Passion instead.

The Gospel of John and “the Jews”

The term “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaoi in the original Greek) occurs almost 70 times in the Gospel of John. Not every instance is actively hostile; in the Passion story, for instance, Jesus describes the synagogue as a place where “the Jews” gather. But 29 times, including 11 within the 82 verses of the passion story, we see the term used specifically for those who want to do away with Jesus and his followers. So, in Chapter 19: “[Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” (Jn 19:15).

In The Oxford Handbook of Johannine Studies, the scholar Adele Reinhartz argues that the more hostile uses of hoi Ioudaoi “have a much stronger emotional impact” than other times the term is used. The reason is simple: They engage the audience’s imagination. “By describing murderous intents and extreme behaviour,” Dr. Reinhartz writes, “they capture the attention and emotion of the audience more than other types of references.”

Whenever you are dealing with a passage from Scripture that does not seem to make sense, a good strategy is to dig a little deeper. Is our translation truly accurate to the time and culture in which the text was written? What did the passage mean within its proper historical context?

Reading John’s Passion on Good Friday causes real harm. And our practice is far more a matter of tradition than any theological necessity. We need to use a different Passion instead.

When it comes to John’s use of “the Jews,” such analyses center on two main questions: What did John mean by the term? And what might have been his reason for using it the way he did?

Scholars generally agree that despite how it sounds, John did not mean “all Jews.” Dr. Reinhartz notes how John uses the term interchangeably with the Pharisees, at one point even in the same passage. For John, “first-century Ioudaioi were not a monolithic undifferentiated group,” she writes. Indeed, he frequently alludes to the Judaism of Jesus himself. For instance, John says that after Jesus’ death he is wrapped in linen cloths “according to the burial custom of the Jews” (Jn 19:40).

[Related: No, ‘the Jews’ did not kill Jesus]

The Jewish Scripture scholar Wesley Howard-Brook holds this view. “Neither Jesus in John nor John the Baptist in Luke could imagine God wanting people to abandon the covenant,” he writes in The Jews Did Not Kill Jesus, an edited collection of essays from biblical scholars. “The opposite is true: they were calling people back to the covenant.”

Dr. Howard-Brook sees hoiIoudaoi in John as “an ideological category.” In a Zoom interview, he said that the term describes “those who identify with the Jerusalem temple and its system under Roman imperial control.”

This group of people, translated by Dr. Howard-Brook as “the Judeans,” see Jesus as a threat because he claims that he is the living Temple of God. If Jesus is the Temple, Dr. Howard-Brook explained, then “you don’t have to come to Jerusalem three times a year and spend all your money there. You can go anywhere and experience God.”

Throughout the Gospel, John uses binary pairs to represent good and evil. As Jesus represents all things good, there needs to be some person or persons who represent entirely the opposite.

Obviously, this threatened both the power base and pocketbooks of the religious elite. But Dr. Howard-Brook insists that hoi Ioudaoi also encompassed many of the ordinary people of Jerusalem. “Think of Washington, D.C., today,” Dr. Howard-Brook said. “If you run a restaurant or a gas station, you’re glad the government is there regardless of your politics. Without it, you have no business.” If no one has to come to Jerusalem, everyone from hotel owners to souvenir shop staff suffer, so they, too, wanted Jesus brought down.

As to why John was so persistent and strident in his attacks on hoi Ioudaoi, Dr. Reinhartz identifies three possible interpretations, which are not mutually exclusive: John is trying to punish the Pharisees for expelling his community from the synagogue; John is trying to assert the distinctiveness and superiority of his community over that of the Pharisees; or it is a product of John’s overall dualistic rhetorical framework. Throughout the Gospel, John uses binary pairs to represent good and evil—light and darkness, life and death, above and below. As Jesus represents all things good, there needs to be some person or persons who represent entirely the opposite. That, for John, is the Ioudaoi.

A solution that doesn’t quite work: Explaining it.

In Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews, Jon Sweeney, the book’s editor, argues that one strategy for solving the problem of using John on Good Friday would be to take a moment before the proclamation of the Passion and contextualize the account in the ways that I just did. John isn’t talking about all Jewish people. The church condemns any such interpretation and also any scapegoating of Judaism, and it teaches that Jesus underwent his death freely, “in order that all may reach salvation” (“Nostra Aetate,” No. 4).

“It would take three minutes,” Mr. Sweeney told me in a phone interview. But only once in his life has he seen a priest attempt this. Honestly, that is more times than I have seen—and that includes the few times I have presided at Good Friday services myself.

“The Good Friday reading is not usually just a reading,” Mr. Sweeney notes. “It is a performance,” something that is meant to stir us at the deepest level.

But I wonder if we do not see that happen on Good Friday because even though explaining the context is the right solution, it comes at the wrong moment. The church does need to explain these issues in John so that Catholics understand what he is actually saying. It also needs to continue to talk about its own historical culpability in anti-Semitism and to stand publicly with Jewish people in fighting against anti-Semitism.

But on Good Friday, we are meant to confront the murder and self-giving sacrifice of the Son of God. Most homilists I know will tell you it is not a day where you really want to say much at all; the service itself speaks so eloquently.

This highlights another problem with simply accommodating our use of John’s passion: “The Good Friday reading is not usually just a reading,” Mr. Sweeney notes. “It is a performance,” something that is meant to stir us at the deepest level.

“Is there any other moment in the church year where we are so trying to identify with the suffering Christ?” Mr. Sweeney asked me in our conversation. “I’m there with him, I’m sorrowing, I’m in pain.... There’s a whole emotional identification component to Good Friday that’s different than any other experience of church.”

From the Middle Ages, there are examples of Passion plays ending with Christians throwing rocks through synagogue windows and attacking Jewish people.

That makes Good Friday “the worst possible day of the year in the church” for a seemingly anti-Semitic text, he said. He compares it to visiting a friend who has just been seriously beaten up and then running into people who fit the description of his attackers. What are you going to do? “You kick their a**,” Mr. Sweeney says.

And historically, this is exactly what has happened. From the Middle Ages, there are examples of Passion plays ending with Christians throwing rocks through synagogue windows and attacking Jewish people.

A better solution: Use a different Gospel.

Why do we continue to use John’s Passion when we have three other choices? Mr. Sweeney wonders if it is actually because of its theatricality. “Maybe it lends itself to dramatic performance in a way that the others don’t,” he said.

According to John Baldovin, S.J., a sacramental theologian, John’s text is generally seen as “the most triumphant.”

“John has this paradoxical approach to the crucifixion,” Father Baldovin explained. “Jesus is very much in control, much more so than the other Gospels. So it’s usually thought of as the Gospel that best leads into the resurrection.”

But the tradition of reading John on Good Friday comes out of historical traditions that have nothing to do with theology. In the seventh century, the earliest days of the Lectionary, Christian practice was to read all four passions during Holy Week, Father Baldovin said. The choice of which Gospel to read when was simply a matter of publication order. “Sunday was always Matthew, Monday was always Mark, Tuesday was Luke, and Good Friday was John.” John was read on Good Friday “because that was the order of the New Testament,” said Father Baldovin.

On Good Friday, the point is not to wonder who should be blamed for the crucifixion, but how far Jesus was willing to go for us, the depth of his love.

I asked Father Baldovin if there was anything preventing the church from changing which Passion gets read on Good Friday. For instance, could we use the Gospel of Luke, which we heard on Palm Sunday this year? “Theoretically, there’s no reason,” he said. “But it would take a lot to change it.”

He also notes that the church has already made some changes to the Good Friday liturgy out of concerns that it came across as anti-Semitic. In 1962, the liturgy was changed to eliminate the term “the perfidious Jews” from the prayers of petition, but there are more recent changes as well.

In 2008, after authorizing a new edition of the Roman Missal the previous year, Pope Benedict again changed the prayer. “It’s quite beautiful,” Father Baldovin notes. “We pray for those who share the ancient faith with us.” Among the solemn intercessions, we ask: “Let us pray also for the Jewish people, to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.”

But the fact that we have changed other elements in the Good Friday liturgy does not solve the problem posed by a yearly dramatic reading of Christ’s murder in which we are repeatedly told that “the Jews” are his murderers. And changing the translation may not work either, as scholars have a range of opinions on who exactly was meant by hoi Ioudaoi.

The Gospel of John certainly has its place in the church and in our liturgical life. But on Good Friday, the point is not to wonder who should be blamed for the crucifixion, but how far Jesus was willing to go for us, the depth of his love. The Passion we choose to read on this most holy and solemn of days should reflect that.

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