Jesus Wasn't Killed by the Jews

Reflections for Christians in Lent

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Jon M. Sweeney
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis
    , January
     2020.
     128 pages.
     $19.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983526.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Language is a reciprocal tool: It reveals and at the same time is revealing. We use language to explain the things that define our world, but, by the same token, the way we use language also necessarily discloses how we explain and define ourselves within that world. In general, everyone can instinctively grasp how a given word or phrase is used to demarcate, even create, that small bit of universe that it encompasses in linguistic terms. So, for example, the centuries-old practice of calling Jews, a people formerly chosen by God, “perfidious” in the Good Friday liturgy may be viewed as anti-Judaism—opposition to/negating of Jewish ideas, theology, etc.—but it is not seen and thus condemned as racial antisemitism. Similarly, Torah-observant Jews view co-religionist active participation in Christian worship services as `avodah zarah (“strange work,” idolatry) for him/her but  Judaism does not condemn trinitarian worship by Christians for Christians.  

However, the subtle aspects of how the word “perfidious” might disclose a part of our own identities is less obvious and is less consciously considered in the old-new language of hate and violence. How and why language impacts our identities are questions addressed in Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews, a monograph of essays designed for Christian supplementary reading in the period of Lent that expounds on like and dislike of different groups, peoples, or religious identities, behaviors that somewhat parallel, contribute to, and prevail alongside the Sabbath attacks on the synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018 and Poway, California, in April 2019. These attacks are cited in the foreword by Rabbi Abraham Skorka as a major catalyst for this book, and Amy-Jill Levine insightfully develops these ideas with conventional wisdom and scriptural scholarship in the afterword. 

Since the 1970s, Jews and Christians in dialogue have cast as wide a net as possible in speaking about and correcting important facets of Christian Adversus Judeo (contra Judaism) teachings and the responsibility of the church to correct old/new  contempt for Jews in the teaching and portrayal of the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. This volume, a collective effort of Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars takes a different track; it focuses less on history and more on theology and presents articles that largely consider aspects of a singular ecclesiastical, scriptural, and Christological question: that is, can believing Catholics, Protestants, and other Christians affirm unequivocally that Christ Jesus is the savior of all humanity and not at the expense of the Jewish people’s covenantal life with God? Innately controversial and not easily resolved, the chapters are distinguished by a dual accomplishment.  

A selective reading of the hermeneutics and magisterial teaching tradition emanating from the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate suggest a context of Judaism and interaction with its classical teachings is primary in the Church’s affirmation, belief and teaching of Christ Jesus. Second, shared God talk and values, common morals and ethics, and the emphasis on the Jewish factor in the Church’s understanding of the legitimacy of Christ Jesus paves the road from Calvary to Auschwitz to Vatican and other Christian centers with teachings of teshuvah (repentance) and fulfillment not conversion nor replacement.  Also, Christian and Jewish interfaith dialogue affects self-identity and long-standing issues of redemption are challenged and determined by interaction with the other; of particular importance in this volume is the belief that Jews are “Christ-murderers,” the ultimate reason of the murdered Jewish millions referenced as “Holocaust” (burnt offering demanded by God).  

Although historians agree that the Endlösung,(final Solution) proclaimed at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, was the goal of the mass extermination of European Jewry and was linked to the attempts by the Nazi German state to destroy Europeans during World War II, they differ in how to evaluate Christian belief and teaching about Jews and Judaism in leading to a Passion-justified near extinction of European Jewry. Most noteworthy are the charges of Deicide and misanthropy (see Matt 27:11–26; Mark 14:1– 64; 15:11–15; Luke 23:1–25; John 8:42–47; 19:1–16; Acts 2:22–24; 7:51–53; 1 Thess 2:14–16). In Christian preaching and teaching on the Jews, Catholic Saints (e.g., Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas) and Protestant Reformers (e.g., John Calvin, Martin Luther) appear united in their teaching of contempt of the Jewish way  before God’s grace and love—teachings, I might add, that contributed to suffering, tragedy, and the near-successful extermination of European Jewry which was set within the chain of command that began and ended in the phrase, Es ist des Führers Wunsch, “It is the Fuhrer’s wish.”  

Editor Jon M. Sweeney engages this objective by parsing this scholarly reader into two parts. In part 1, Sweeney, Walter Brueggermann, Mary Boys, Nicholas King, and Richard C. Luv write on the foundations of Christian negativity regarding Jews and Judaism. In part 2, Sweeney, Robert Ellsberg, Wes Howard Brook, Massimo Faggioli, Richard J. Sklba, Greg Garrett, and  Sandy Eisenberg Sasso share trends of positive progress made by the Vatican and Protestants in relation to Jews and Judaism. Commendable, the book exposes scriptural passages, mean-spirited theology, and lethargic liturgy that contribute to a toxic view of Jewish peoplehood and religion. To correct Jewish caricature, damnation, and misinformation, practical, pastoral, belief, and practice are offered to help Christians move beyond a religion and teaching of contempt. For example, Jewish identity and practice, logistically interpreted and liberally practiced, is central to Jesus, his followers and New Testament authors; hence, negative referencing of Pharisees (the term occurs more than one hundred times in the New Testament, and the most vicious reference is in Matt 23) and Jews (cited seventy-one times in the Fourth Gospel) are interpreted as insider criticism and disagreement not intended to be supersessionist replacement theology nor eternal. damnation.  

In sum, an innovative Catholic-Protestant-Jewish attempt to reconstruct old-new corrections for the Christian remembrance and observance of scriptural, liturgical, and ecclesial lessons related to the season of Lent. It all begins with language. The Judean/Jewish Jesus was not suppressed by the Jews but by Christian replacement theology now being atoned. So it is claimed, so may it be.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Zev Garber is professor emeritus and chair of Jewish studies at Los Angeles Valley College, Valley Glen, California. 

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon M. Sweeney, the publisher of Paraclete Press, is the author of more than thirty books, including The Complete Francis of Assisi and James Martin, SJ: In the Company of Jesus. He has also edited Phyllis Tickle: Essential Spiritual Writings and Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essential Spiritual Writings in the Orbis Modern Spiritual Masters Series. A Catholic married to a rabbi, he sits on the board of The Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies in Milwaukee.

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