Judaism and Jews in the Revised Common Lectionary

Mosaic detail from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna | Lawrence OP/Flickr


By Ellen T. Charry

The Beginnings of Christian Anti-Judaism

Two decades after the Nazi genocide, the Roman Catholic Church dropped its claim that all Jews are forever guilty of killing God. Of course, with Jesus’ death God did not die. “Deicide” is a misnomer. The charge intended was that Jews had killed Christ, although it was Romans, not Jews, who executed him. Of course, the Church believes that salvation came through that execution and named that Friday “Good” for that reason.

The anger driving the charge was utterly confused. Had Jesus died of influenza, would Gentiles have come to God through him? But none of that stopped Christians from hating Jews for the “crime” of “deicide” for nearly 2,000 years. In 1965, the charge was modified to say that only those Jews involved in the execution at the time were culpable. But that still perpetuates the self-contradictory confusion about Christ’s death that enabled the salvation of Gentiles. Rather than being angry at Jews, or even Romans, for that matter, perhaps the Church should have been celebrating whoever facilitated that execution all along.

In the 1970s, a handful of Christian theologians awoke to the destructive power of Christian theological scorn for Judaism as a way that one is properly related to God after Christ (anti-Judaism) and began writing. Previously Jewish and Christian historians had begun exposing the history of Christian maltreatment of Jewish people both for resisting conversion and for killing Christ (antisemitism). Christian anti-Judaism supports antisemitism. The former is theological, the latter is social, economic, and political. In the following decades, awakened Christians have courageously faced into the contributions of both anti-Judaism and antisemitism to Nazi ideology and its failed attempt at a “final solution” to “the Jewish question.”[1]

The scope of the Nazi genocide extended far beyond Jews, but Christianity was implicated in the murder of 6 million Jews, including a million children, in ways that did not apply to other Nazi victims. Some of Germany’s most influential theologians and biblical scholars were Nazis. Even the Confessing Church that protested Nazism said nothing about the systematic removal of Jews from society that preceded the 1,000 concentration camps, which in turn preceded the six extermination camps in Poland.

Theological anti-Judaism begins at the very dawn of Christianity. Texts that became Christian Holy Scripture by the third century struggle with what Judaism should be, considering Jesus and then considering the intense conflict among Jews after the burning of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. Paul’s letters in the 50s paved the way for the Gospels and Hebrews, along with materials that became the Mishnah that drew heavily from Phariseism. They all address the question “How shall we worship God now”?

Jews who accepted Jesus, along with Gentiles who came to know God through him, gradually had to separate from Jews who could not recognize God through him but through their heritage. The separation was gradual and bitter, each side arguing against the other that it alone constituted God’s people, the Israel of God. The competition proved irresolvable and was sustained in each succeeding century. Once Christians gained legal, political, and military power, they condemned Jews for worshiping God through rabbinic Judaism, which assumed final shape at about the same time that Christian orthodoxy emerged. As they separated, Christian voices claimed that the Church had superseded, displaced, or replaced Judaism and was “the new Israel” or even “the true Israel” of God.

Christians and Jews today inherit this painful history, along with the unrelieved competition for the identity of God’s Israel. Is God’s Israel defined as Jews who worship in the synagogue, or Christians who worship in the Church? Everything is at stake for both communities in this theological dispute.


Rethinking Christian Anti-Judaism

During the past six decades, Christian liturgies and teaching materials have been cleaned up. Biblical scholarship turned a corner with the work of E.P. Sanders, who read Paul through concurrent rather than later Lutheran lenses that shaped German biblical scholarship. There has been limited attention to anti-Judaism in preaching, however, so that denigrating Jesus’ opponents and honest questioners can be unrecognized as offensive.

This essay highlights problematic texts in the Revised Common Lectionary, which originated in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. It was adopted by many Protestant denominations in 1974 as the Common Lectionary. The Revised Common Lectionary appeared in 1994. It revised the presentation of women and, to a very limited extent, egregious presentations of Judaism and Jews. Nevertheless, it remains laden with texts that celebrate Jesusites at the expense of Judahites who remained faithful to God by following their heritage. When “Jews” and “Christians” are retrojected onto characters to promote Christian superiority to Judaism, the Church can become smug.

The pulpit is a “bully.” It is the only place remaining in our society able to speak to people. Preaching is a daring and delicate responsibility suitable for only the stout-hearted. Responsible preaching must become sensitive to the presentation of Judaism and Jews. One group, Readings from the Roots, is retranslating the RCL with this concern in view.

To address the danger of Christian smugness, TLC offers my comments on selected problematic texts from the RCL. The task is daunting for many reasons, chief of which may be that troubling texts are deeply loved and embedded in Christian consciousness. Seeing a problem with the source of our comfort and strength stretches us in ways that may rub roughly. But Jesus taught us to remove the beam from our eye before casting out the mote from another’s (Matt. 7:3-5; Luke 6:41-42). In this spirit of self-criticism, my comments on the RCL lections aim to equip preachers, teachers, and counselors to avoid possibly harmful applications of beloved texts.

There are, of course, many ways of treating texts that can easily distort “Christians” and “Jews” into texts that depict Jews arguing with one another, given an evangelist’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching. Before I offer one strategy for approaching difficult texts, four orienting observations will frame the endeavor. One is that the lectionary exposes people to about 20 percent of the Christian Bible, while popular texts appear multiple times. The lectionary is skewed toward the Gospels and Acts, which displaces Hebrew Bible lections for a considerable stretch of time each year. That leaves people with little or no liturgical exposure to huge swaths of text. Intensifying this skew is the prevalent practice of preaching primarily on the Gospel lection, in which case other lections for the day also gray out.

Another observation is that when the grayed-out texts are from the Hebrew Bible, God’s life with Israel loses its voice and becomes the prelude to what really matters. The Apostles’ Creed, for example, jumps from creation to “and in Jesus Christ,” silencing two-thirds of the Bible and leaving the impression that God’s long life with biblical Israel has nothing to teach us on its own terms.

A third observation comes from the Christian desire to have the Bible say but one thing. Paul anachronized Scripture when he read Isaiah 11:10 as being about the anointed Savior (Rom. 15:12). Following him, Christians both Christologize and otherwise Christianize Scripture’s many voices using allegory and typology. If preachers aren’t careful, the author, his location, theology, concerns, and audience disappear, and the text comes to mean something other than what it says.

Hebrew Scripture and rabbinic literature also cite Scripture out of context, and read fresh meanings into it for later contexts. But as it became clear that animosity made separation of what were becoming Judaism and Christianity, hostility became engraved in stone, and the “old” was preserved only as it made way for the “new.” Hebrew Scripture lost its voice on the view that the Bible says only one thing and it is hidden in the texts, because God has only one thing to say to us. Appending the Gloria Patri to the recitation of a psalm in worship is yet another anachronizing of the text.

A fourth and final observation comes from considering the four lections for any Sunday as a unit. Some units sustain a single theme. When that is the case, the Israelite texts are selected to support the Christian text, usually the Gospel. Here, the centuries of God’s life with biblical Israel speak a message unknown to their immediate authors.

With these four observations noted, I suggest one of many alternative strategies for preaching delicate texts. Preaching without contempt requires acknowledging the text’s distance from us. But it is sacred because the author of a pericope may speak directly to us. For example, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20, like the story about the angry faithful son in Luke 15:11-32, depicts God as favoring dubious characters. In Luke, God prefers the wastrel and in Matthew he treats latecomers equally with hard-working, faithful people. The reality of justifiable anger at God jumps off the page. The exhausted elder brother and the sweaty laborers are us. The preacher’s task is to help parishioners deal with righteous indignation for the sake of the common good.

Contrary to Christian supersessionism, in neither story does God abandon the hard workers. The question is whether they can respect God, who favors the undeserving. These texts must be allowed to challenge us, when Paul’s teaching that God chopped limbs off his olive tree in Romans 11 has given rise to much Christian disdain for those in the situation of the elder brother and the sweaty laborers.


Truth in Advertising

Who am I to undertake this delicate work? I am a Christian theologian who taught theology in Christian theological schools for nearly three decades. Further, I am both a Jew and a Christian. Quite on my own I wrestled with the Jewish-Christian conflict, beginning at age 3. My Jewish identity taught me that regardless of what individual Christians may think, Christianity wants Judaism to disappear, because after Christ it has no theological purpose. That would most easily be accomplished by converting Jews to Christianity. That never happened on a large scale, and Christians did not pause to ask themselves if there was a theological reason for that.

I went to the baptismal font as an adult for a purely theological reason — not in compliance with that Christian desire or because I was morally or spiritually lost and was found by Jesus. God must love more than Jews. He must love Gentiles too. In an act of pastoral mercy, I permitted myself to be baptized to stand with Gentiles whom God has taken to himself through one of my kin. My blood is Jewish; my bones are Christian. Although Christians have harassed us and sought to put an end to us by various means, I believe that God loves them even in their sinfulness.

At my baptism, the liturgy would have had the congregation say, “We receive you into the household of God” (BCP, 308). That is the case when baptizing Gentiles, but it was not so in baptizing me. Indeed, it is I, a Jew who welcomes Gentiles into the household of God, as did Peter (Acts 10.34–48). I was never apart from God. I have known only life guided by God from birth.

Having wrestled with the Christian-Jewish clash all my life, I now invite you, faithful readers, to wade into these “hot” waters with me. As challenging as facing Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism are, the reward of secure Christian integrity is the promise on the other side of searching self-examination. The Church has been strengthened by careful self-scrutiny throughout its life, the fourth century being perhaps the most decisive. The Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the 16th century are other major renewals. Modern critical biblical scholarship was yet another. Each was controversial as it unfolded, yet each taught the Church that judicious self-criticism is for its well-being. This reform of the Church is essential.

With Jewish encouragement, “Nostra Aetate” (1965) inaugurated the current reform of the Church regarding Judaism and Jews. The Church is slowly turning from saying No to Judaism and Jews for two millennia to saying Yes to the complete and permanent faithfulness of God to Jews apart from Jesus Christ. This reform is as far-reaching and significant as any of the others. Penitential turning from disrespect to respect, even friendship, is nothing less than the work of the Holy Spirit with, in, through, and for us.

Prayers of repentance for the corporate sins of the Church are warranted, and tenderly offering them to local synagogues is appropriate. To participate in this work of the Spirit, Christian leaders must be knowledgeably prepared to take ownership of derisive Christian history, worship, hymnody, sacred choral music, preaching, and teaching. They must also take the further step of learning about Judaism on Jewish terms. Jews study history carefully. They may be more aware of Christian anti-Judaism than are Christians. Soul-searching can begin by tending particularly to sermons when denunciation of scribes, Pharisees, the law, and “Jews” are ready to hand. Preachers may want to seek guidance from a knowledgeable Jewish mentor.

The commentary on the RCL here at TLC invites Christian preachers and teachers to join the Church’s repair of its unpretty side. That will not be easy, but the effort is to the glory of God.

Dr. Ellen T. Charry is the Margaret W. Harmon Professor of Theology, Emerita, at Princeton Theological Seminary.

[1] In 1843, Bruno Bauer wrote The Jewish Question, arguing that Jews should only be granted political emancipation if they gave up being Jewish. The question was hotly debated, including by Karl Marx. Precedent for the discussion came from Martin Luther, who had written a 65,000-word rant, On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), in which he recommended that Jews be exiled from German lands. That treatise was widely disseminated by the Nazis in celebration of its 400th anniversary. Hitler’s Mein Kampf laid out the “final” solution to the Jewish question, which he would begin carrying out once he was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933, but it was ignored.


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