Last year at a wedding, I was chatting with a guy at my table about what I do (Religious Studies, specifically New Testament). The conversation turned, as it usually does, to whether I myself practiced any religion. When I said that yes, I was Catholic, he said, “Oh, you must get really annoyed at bad homilies, since exegesis is your thing.” I automatically started to say yes, but then I caught myself, because of all the things that inspire less than charitable thoughts in me on any given Sunday–and there are many–biblical interpretation is rarely one of them. In my experience, bad homilies–say for instance ones that are homophobic or offensive to women–happen not because a priest is bad at historical criticism, but because he is homophobic and sexist in general.

I know I didn’t always feel this way. For many years I was sure that my field of study was what could “rescue” the Bible and turn it from a terrifying text into one that was inspiring and not, it turns out, harmful to certain groups. But now it seems to me that it’s the process that biblical criticism forces you to go through (alienation from the text, second-guessing common sense, critical empathy, suspicion, identification of ideology and change over time), more than historical data itself, that leads to less oppressive interpretations.

So I was surprised a few months ago when I found myself annoyed, on historical grounds, by part of a homily I heard. The Gospel reading was one of those passages where “The Jews” are the antagonists who set the stage for Jesus to speak some word of wisdom. The priest (who I should say is an excellent, educated person) changed the wording of the translation as he was reading it. Instead of reading the NAB’s “The Jews etc., etc…,” he read, “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people etc., etc…”. Though this was the first time I heard him actually reword a reading, he often takes a moment in his homilies to explain that when the text reads “The Jews,” we should understand it as saying, “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people.” Since the Gospel authors and the first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, goes this explanation, it’s unethical, but primarily anachronistic, to read the text as referring to “The Jews.”

I’m curious to hear what WIT’s readers think of this approach. I go back and forth on it. On the one hand, a preacher has only a few minutes to ensure that his audience doesn’t come away from Mass more anti-semitic than when they arrived. Changing “The Jews” to a different phrase seems like an efficient, clear, historically-defensible way to do that. It’s a good soundbite that has a high chance of remaining with the listeners.

On the other hand, the switch makes the text seem more innocent than it is. The reading doesn’t say, “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people.” It says, “The Jews.” And whatever the historical identity of the Gospel writers, it’s significant that they are using a shortcut, catch-all phrase to create a monolithic “other” in contrast to themselves. If someone today, for example, said, “The blacks are lazy and violent,” it would not do any good–and in fact would miss the nature of racism entirely–to say, “He means to say, ‘Some of the leaders of black gangs are lazy and violent.'” Swapping out “The Jews” for “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people” (or even, as many scholars do, reading it as a geographical description, i.e., “The Judeans”) can give the impression that these texts are problematic only because we mistake the referent of certain words, not because Christian anti-Judaism is built into the very language of our sacred texts.

But on the other (third?) hand, would such an explanation be appropriate in a homily? Homilies are not academic papers or classroom lectures, after all, and perhaps the most ethical course of action is to give the audience a concise, memorable line that they can easily retrieve when encountering this text on their own, or in conversations with other people. What do you all think? What are your experiences of preaching on texts about “The Jews,” or hearing them preached?

8 thoughts

  1. I started attending church again for the first time in years, and have found this to be one of the most difficult problems for me. I went to Bible study on a morning where we were reading Matthew 12 about healing on the Sabbath and the smug “We’re so much better than the Pharisees” attitude was pretty hard to bear. I’ve also pretty much decided to never go to a Good Friday service ever again. I went while I was at ND, and they had the choir singing the crowd parts of John – so basically there were 30 or more people shrieking “and the Jews said kill him,” repeatedly. It was so clear how the Good Friday service had inspired violence against Jews in the past. I felt sick.

    Dealing with it in sermons/homilies is hard. I go to a liberal church with a well-educated congregation, but I’m not sure how people would react to the idea that “Christian anti-Judaism is built into the very language of our sacred texts.” If I was in charge I wouldn’t change the wording of the translation, but I can totally understand why a priest/minister would want to throw in a quick line to mitigate the anti-Judaism without having to give a whole lecture on 1st century Judaism and early Christianity – even mentioning the issue opens up such a big can of worms. There’s also probably a certain amount of complacency around the issue of Christian anti-Judaism. I don’t think it’s at the top of the priority churches. Would be curious to know if anyone has heard this addressed at all in church.

    I think the issue is that fundamentally if you start to deal the fact that 2nd Temple Judaism didn’t suck – that it was rich and interesting and insightful – you eventually run into the question of why Christians left Judaism to begin with. And that’s a whole other conversation :)

    I’ve actually thought about messaging you a couple of times to see how you deal with this – so glad you posted!

    1. “…you eventually run into the question of why Christians left Judaism to begin with….”

      My understanding is that sometime after 70CE (destruction of Jerusalem) all those Jews who would not recite “cursed be the Nazarene,” were thrown out. The pluralism that had existed within Judaism prior to 70CE was gone and all those who followed Jesus were now being scapegoated. (It should be noted that this “shunning” meant you lost your job and all contact with your family. IMHO, that’s probably where a lot of the anger in Matthew comes from).

      As I understand it, that’s why the gospels had to be written. Up until 70, Paul’s Greek converts were (uncircumcised) Jews following Jesus. Paul’s dead by now and suddenly, they can’t go to Temple. The leaders of the Markan (Rome), Matthean, Luke/Acts, and 4th Gospel communities have to create a new religion based on the memories of those who knew folks who knew Jesus, Peter, ….. Making things tougher is that followers of John the Baptist keep pointing out the uncomfortable fact that Jesus submitted to John’s baptism.

      What really made things tough, however, was the crucifixion. Try selling a savior in the Roman Empire world who died the most horrible, slow death imaginable, a fate so horrible it was reserved only for the worst enemies of Rome.

      The problem with explaining that to Xtians is that they’re left with the truth, Jesus of Nazareth died a pious and observant Jew. There’s no credible evidence (imho) that Jesus thought his message was for the gentiles. If that had been the case, he likely would have been stoned to death. That comes from Paul who can be argued imho was critical in re-shaping what was essentially a Jewish message for Jews.

  2. The thing is, I think “the Jews” really did refer to “some of the Jewish leaders” originally, so to me there’s nothing at all wrong with this formula. I mean, clearly, Jesus’ own followers were also Jewish, so the phrase simply can’t, logically, be referring to “all the Jews.” That is just not a reasonable assumption to make, considering the facts of the story itself.

    I think these passages should be read exactly as is, and that the preacher should always make this very point from the pulpit, on the basis of the historical events that followed. The problem, IMO, is not in the Scriptures; it’s in the people who later used these passages for their own anti-Semitic polemics (the awful John Chrysostom comes to mind), thus – in my opinion – setting the church on its millennias-long anti-Semitic attitudes. The problem originates in human beings; we simply adore creating scapegoats and enemies.

    So, this problem is in the church, too, which is of course run by human beings who bought into this narrative. Christian teachings themselves should have prevented this, but didn’t. Another problem is that once institutions (or people) acquire power, they almost always abuse it.

    These passages should be correctives to the human psychological tendency towards suspicion and hatred of outsiders – and, IMO, a constant reminder that we should ourselves always be suspicious of ourselves and of institutional religion on that account. None of this has gone away, and it won’t; we need to be reminded of it, and to repent of it regularly, on an individual and collective basis.

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