“Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent,” edited by Jon M. Sweeney. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, New York, 2020). 128 pp., $19.
By Rachelle Linner
Don’t linger on the title — this fine collection of essays is useful for Christians in all seasons, not just Lent. It would be a good book to have in parish libraries, to inform adult faith formation, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults programs, homiletics and liturgical planning.
Sweeney has gathered an impressive group of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish Scripture scholars, theologians, academics and clergy who, in short, well-written essays, present a learned but accessible account of the many issues that fall under the rubric of Jewish-Christian relations.
The Lenten section — three essays by Sweeney about Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Passover Seders and the Passion reading on Good Friday — are targeted to the liturgical celebration of those days. Those chapters are bracketed by others that delineate historical context, theology, scriptural commentary and religious pluralism.
Sweeney takes pains to remind the reader that Jesus was Jewish, “plain and simple. He wasn’t just sort of Jewish, or temporarily Jewish. Jesus was born a Jew, and died a Jew.” And he “never once stepped foot in a church.”
A number of essays deserve special mention.
Sister Mary C. Boys, a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, provides a helpful presentation of Christianity’s “complicated origins” and contrasts the typical, supersessionist explanation (“Christianity fulfills the promises God made to Jews in the Old Covenant”) with one grounded in contemporary biblical scholarship.
It is important to understand the history of how the earliest Jewish “Followers of the Way” became a mixed Jewish/gentile community, with concomitant tensions between them and other Jewish groups. “Gospel writers integrated the disputes of their time into their narratives of the ministry of Jesus; the disputes of the late-first and early-second centuries CE found their way into depictions of what Jesus said and did.”
Richard C. Lux’s essay is a concise overview of supersessionism, the linchpin of Christian theological anti-Judaism, a depressing impressionistic litany of 19 centuries of hatred and contempt. The antidote was long in coming but is deftly outlined in Massimo Faggioli’s very fine discussion. He traces the history and reception of “Nostra Aetate,” which, despite ambiguities, “made an enormous step forward toward a new understanding of Jews by the Catholic Church.” He illustrates how the Second Vatican Council and its teaching on the Jews “are two fundamental, even if hidden, pillars of the acceptance by the Catholic Church of modern religious pluralism.”
Greg Garrett offers an autobiographical exegesis of John 20:19 (“the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews”) — to where he can now say that “instead of fear of the Jews, what has grown in me is fear for the Jews.”
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (“What Do We Say to Our Children?”) illustrates how contemporary Christian teaching inculcates and reinforces anti-Jewish prejudices. “The New Testament is often read and preached over and against Judaism. Jesus is identified with forgiveness and love, while the Pharisees and the rabbinic teachers who shaped the foundations of Judaism two millennia ago are identified with strict justice and rules. This is a misrepresentation of Judaism and a source of bigotry.”
Rabbi Sasso’s essay helps to refute the facile optimism of some writers. Yes, remarkable changes have come from Scripture and theology, but those changes have been slow to permeate formative preaching and teaching.
That reality is addressed in the book’s best essay, Amy-Jill Levine’s afterword, “If not now, when?” Her prose is direct, incisive and clarifying. She identifies the supersessionism that is “alive and well in pockets of Christian anti-Zionism.” She refutes the conventional wisdom that “tells us that the writers of the New Testament books were Jews” and is “doubtful that all New Testament invective reflects sibling rivalry.” She offers concrete suggestions so that Christian ministers “do not bear false witness against Jews and Judaism.”
In a striking image Levine suggests that when proclaiming or preaching on problematic texts, the homilist should “picture Jewish children in the front pew. To do this work, we need to listen to how texts sound in the ears of our neighbors.” That is holy advice for any historical conflict.
Rachelle Linner, a spiritual director, freelance writer and reviewer, has a master’s degree in theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.