Avoiding a False Presentation of Jews and Judaism
Effective preaching is difficult. Not only must pastors know the scriptures, the ecclesial tradition, and current theology, they must also speak so as to address the real issues in the lives of their listeners. Understandably preachers do not welcome additional responsibilities. Yet the 1974 Vatican guidelines for implementing Nostra Aetate (the declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religions) warn preachers not to distort biblical passages by placing the Jewish people in an unfavorable light.
Busy pastors shake their heads in frustration. Avoiding a false presentation of Judaism in preaching is no small task. Not only has the Christian preaching tradition been molded upon a paradigm which promotes Jesus at the expense of Judaism, but the gospels themselves include tendencies which can reinforce this negative stereotype. Moreover the achievements of biblical scholars, who have worked diligently to form a new and more accurate paradigm, are still largely absent from the commentaries and preaching resources upon which pastors and catechists depend. As a result, often by default, Judaism is routinely denigrated when Jesus is preached.
What can be done to improve this situation? Minimally preachers should be warned where the pitfalls lie. Therefore, with apologies to David Letterman, I have outlined the Top 10 dangers of the traditional paradigm which threaten Christian preaching on Jews and Judaism. The statements are ranked in ascending order of frequency and harm. Each, as stated, is to be read as false according to current theology and historical research.
#10. Jews were united in their opposition to Jesus. The Judaism of which Jesus was a part was a vibrant and diverse community. It was comprised of various groups, including Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Each of these groups had their own interpretation of the law and to some extent disagreed with others. It is likely that some groups opposed parts of Jesus’ teaching. It is also likely that other groups shared much in common with him. The gospels tend to generalize all Jewish groups into a single movement in an attempt to emphasize the distinctiveness of Jesus. Preachers should be careful not to promote this generalization, lest it appear that the teachings of Jesus are somehow antithetical to a united Judaism.
#9. The Jewish leadership orchestrated Jesus’ death. Thankfully most Christians now understand that the Jewish people today cannot be held responsible for Jesus’ death. Yet it is also important to recognize that the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day were not the primary agents of his execution. Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment. Therefore the Romans were the responsible agents. Moreover, the diversity of Judaism (see #10 above) precluded any one Jewish group from having authority over the rest of Judaism and acting on its behalf. It is likely that some of Jewish temple authorities co-operated with the Romans and handed Jesus over to Pilate. However, most Jews and their leaders played no role in Jesus’ death.
#8. Jesus’ opponents were hypocrites. It was a common rhetorical device in the ancient world to vilify one’s opponent in the course of debate. To call someone a “hypocrite,” “blind fool,” “viper,” “murderer,” or “child of hell” did not necessarily indicate the person’s moral character. Such epithets were often used merely to tag another as an opponent. Remember that when Peter disagrees with Jesus over the cross, Jesus calls him “Satan” (Mark 8:33). When the gospel writers apply these descriptions to Jesus’ opponents, they are indicating a disagreement. Preachers should dispel the impression that those so labeled were duplicitous, corrupt, ignorant, or evil.
#7. The Pharisees were opposed to love and mercy. The presentation of the Pharisees in the gospels is misleading. Because the Pharisees are frequently in debate with Jesus and tagged as his opponents (see #8 above), it can appear that their teaching was radically opposed to his. Historically, however, Jesus was closer to the Pharisees than most other Jewish groups. He shared with them a belief in the resurrection of the dead, seeing God as a loving Father, and the centrality of love of God and neighbor. The Pharisees were reformers in Judaism. They sought to make the practice of charity as important as worship in the temple. Preachers should avoid describing the Pharisees as “hard-hearted legalists.” In fact they employed a flexible interpretation of the law to promote the practice of love and mercy. Jesus did as well. But in this approach, Jesus’ teaching is similar to rather than divergent from that of the Pharisees.
#6. Jesus alone cared for sinners and the marginalized. Jesus certainly preached the forgiveness and mercy of God to sinners and the marginalized. However, because the gospels so often show Jesus in debate with other Jews, the traditional paradigm falsely concludes that Jesus’ opponents were against such mercy and forgiveness. There is no historical foundation for this assumption. All Jews had access to God’s forgiveness through the sacrifices in the temple. The Hebrew Scriptures amply testify to a God who rejoices when a sinner repents and who is the protector of the marginalized. Jesus may have disagreed with his opponents over the means to attain God’s forgiveness. But preachers should resist giving the impression that Jesus’ opponents, and thereby Judaism itself, somehow rejected those who sinned, shunned the marginalized, or denied the mercy and forgiveness of God.
#5. Jews scrupulously followed the law so as to earn God’s favor. This misunderstanding flows from a particular interpretation of the letters of Paul. Paul has been traditionally read as rejecting the Jewish law because it was contrary to grace. Modern research has successfully overturned this understanding, insisting that Paul and other Jews of his time recognized the law was not a way to earn God’s love but a means to respond to it. Preachers should resist the temptation to read the traditional understanding of Paul into the debates between Jesus and his opponents. For Jews, following the law was not scrupulosity or empty legalism. It was an honest attempt to conform one’s life to the free gift of God’s covenant.
#4. Jesus opposed the Jewish law. Because Jesus is often shown in debate with other Jews about the law, it can be falsely concluded that Jesus was arguing against the law. As a Jew of his time, Jesus accepted the importance of the Jewish law as a means to respond to God’s love (see #5 above). Although later Christians revised the observance of the Sabbath and eliminated Jewish food requirements, it is likely that Jesus accepted and followed both. He most likely disagreed with other Jews about how the law should be applied, but such a debate was common among all Jews and demonstrated the importance of the law rather than a disregard of it. Preachers should avoid characterizing Jesus as an “anti-legalist” or suggesting that his mission was to free people from “the burden of the law.” Jesus was a legalist in the best sense. As a faithful Jew he interpreted the law in light of his own understanding of God’s kingdom.
#3. Jesus’ teaching was unique. There were certainly aspects of Jesus’ teaching which were distinctive to him. But to characterize Jesus’ message as a stark contrast to the positions of other Jewish teachers of his day cannot be supported historically. Practically every saying of Jesus can be associated with a parallel saying from either the Hebrew Scriptures or rabbinic sources. Jesus, of course, is unique for Christians because they accept him as the Messiah of God. Preachers, however, should be careful not to extend this uniqueness to the content of his teaching. His gospel is easily situated into the context of first century Judaism. Jesus shared with other Jews the belief in a loving and merciful God, the forgiveness of sinners, the care of the poor, the love of God and neighbor. When this common teaching is presented as unique to Jesus, Judaism is falsely characterized as the antithesis of the very gifts it has bestowed on Christianity.
#2. Jesus was crucified because of his teaching. There remains a persistent temptation in preaching to connect the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching with the motivation for his death. When it is falsely asserted that Jesus alone preached love and forgiveness to sinners and the marginalized and that Judaism was opposed to such teaching, the error can be compounded by asserting further that Jesus’ message was so radical and offensive to other Jews that it moved them to seek his crucifixion. Jesus emerges from this conflation as the victim of the “entrenched Jewish establishment” which was motivated by anger and jealously to kill him.
There were clearly Jews who disagreed with some aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Jews, however, did not kill one another over such disputes. Jesus was executed not because he offended Jews but because his actions threatened the interests of imperial Rome. His action of overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple raised the concern of Pilate that Jesus was a troublemaker who could incite a riot during Passover time. With the co-operation of a small number of temple authorities, Pilate would have moved quickly to crucify Jesus. Preachers should resist identifying the content of Jesus’ gospel as the reason for his death. In a true sense Jesus did die for the gospel. He went to the cross believing in the loving God who was his Father. But his belief was not foreign or offensive to Judaism but rather the gift Jesus received from his Jewish heritage.
#1. Christianity has replaced Judaism. For centuries preachers and catechists taught that the death and resurrection of Christ eliminated Judaism as a viable way to God and that Christianity had taken its place. This tradition stands in marked contrast to the teaching of Paul who clearly states that the gifts and call of God to the Jewish people are “irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Since Nostra Aetate numerous church documents and papal pronouncements have built upon Paul’s assertion. Today Catholic teaching asserts that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is still in effect and that Christianity and Judaism are linked together at the very level of their identity.
The danger of overlooking this dramatic development in Church teaching has given it the highest ranking in our Top 10, because it carries the deepest implications for Christian theology and pastoral practice. Though false, the traditional paradigm of replacement or “supersession” does have the advantage of simplicity: one faith displaces the other. The new paradigm is more complex: two living faith communities, each in true relationship with God. Clearly more theological reflection is needed to draw out the implications of this new understanding and its ramifications concerning role of Christ and the scope of salvation. Nevertheless, preachers should avoid statements which imply that Jews have been rejected or abandoned by God. Contemporary Jews continue to live according to their own covenant, maintaining an ongoing relationship with the same God whom Christians worship.
These then are the Top 10 dangers in preaching on Jews and Judaism. Extensive material is available to substantiate the claims made in each category. But, as a pastor myself, I realize how difficult it is to find time for such background research. Therefore, these blunt statements are offered as a limited guide to the dangers that Christian preachers should avoid. If you find any of these harmful impressions in your preaching, please stop repeating them. We who believe in Jesus Christ have an obligation to speak the truth regarding the Jewish people and their covenant with God. To do otherwise is contrary to the gospel we proclaim.