By Gina Christian
Catholics need to help guard against anti-Jewish interpretations of Christ’s passion, particularly during Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum, said experts on Jewish-Catholic relations.
“There is a temptation during Holy Week to start using language like ‘the Pharisees’ and ‘people of Israel’ and others to refer to our Jewish brothers and sisters,” said John Cappucci, principal and vice chancellor of Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario, where he holds the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair in Religion and Conflict. “The church has distanced itself from collectively blaming the Jewish people and holding Jews today responsible for the Crucifixion.”
“Accounts of the Passion proclaimed at the liturgies of Palm Sunday and Good Friday call all Christians to recognize and renounce our own sinfulness rather than unjustly cast blame on the Jewish community,” said Father Walter Kedjierski, executive director for the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
“Reflecting on our Lord’s sacrifice for all people should make us more compassionate and sensitive to the needs of others, most especially our elder brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith,” he said. “Hate has no place in the Gospel.”
In 1965 — 20 years after some 6 million European Jews were slaughtered during the Shoah (the preferred Hebrew term for the Holocaust) — St. Paul VI promulgated the Second Vatican Council’s teaching “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”). With it, the Catholic Church formally denounced “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone,” while affirming the “spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews.”
“Nostra Aetate” explicitly declared that “what happened in (the) Passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. … The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”
That language marked a seismic shift from centuries of what French historian Jules Isaac had called a “teaching of contempt” toward the Jewish community by numerous Catholic and Christian theologians, who over the centuries denounced Jews as accursed for having rejected and killed Christ.
Yet some six decades after the Second Vatican Council, antisemitism in the U.S. rose in 2022 to what the Anti-Defamation League called “historic levels” — up 36% from the year prior, the highest level since the group began tracking incidents in 1979. Similar spikes have been noted globally.
American Catholics largely have favorable or at least neutral opinions of Jews, but 11% believe Jews are responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and 13.3% that Jews were “cursed by God” or no longer the Chosen People, according to survey results released March 22 at the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
“This notion of ‘blaming the Jews’ for Jesus’ crucifixion is highly offensive and runs against Christian teachings,” said Cappucci, noting that St. John XXIII struck the phrase “perfidious Jews” from the universal prayer of Good Friday.
“We as Christians must remember that Jesus’ death and resurrection were divinely ordained,” Cappucci said. “I remind people that Jesus did not die and stay dead. He was gloriously resurrected triumphing over death — arguably the most important act in Christianity.”
The traditional Good Friday reading of the Passion narrative from John’s Gospel highlights the need to fully educate both clergy and faithful regarding the risks of anti-Jewish interpretation, said Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Hartford International University and co-editor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, a copy of which she presented to Pope Francis in 2019.
John’s use of the term “the Jews” — in Greek, “Ioudaioi” — occurs 70 times in his Gospel to “generally represent the opponents of Jesus and so of God,” Levine said.
Several common homiletic and exegetical approaches to the issue all prove inadequate, said Levine. Simply omitting the difficult verses creates “a choppy reading that lacks continuity,” while “confusing congregants who are following the reading in their Bibles.” It avoids having to wrestle with the texts, said Levine.
Substituting terms such as “Judeans,” “Jewish leaders” or “religious leaders” does not accurately translate the text, and ultimately works to erase Jews from the text while stripping Jesus of his Jewish identity, she said.
“Once the words are in the text, they must be addressed,” she said.
Adam Gregerman, co-director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, said references to the Jews in John’s Gospel must be contextualized, as “they reflect tensions between John’s community and other Jews in the late first century, when claims about Jesus’ status sounded to most Jews as if a second God was being announced.”
Levine suggested “placing commentary in the bulletin, adding notes to pew Bibles, and encouraging Bible study” as other means of countering anti-Jewish interpretations of Scripture, while ensuring that “attention to the cross, not the anti-Jewish fallout, (is) at the heart of Good Friday.”
Levine also has proposed changing the lectionary so that Good Friday services “draw from all four canonical Gospels,” or instead use Luke’s Passion narrative, which highlights the “daughters of Jerusalem” (Lk 23:27-31) and forgiveness.
The duty to guard against anti-Judaism in Catholic interpretation of Scripture is “not only for Holy Week or Good Friday, but really throughout the year,” said Philip Cunningham, also co-director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations. “The consistent positive affirmation of Jesus’ Jewish identity would do much to defang the unfortunate potential of reading or hearing the passion narratives without proper guidance.”