Improving Christian Attitudes toward Judaism
Part II: Post-Biblical Relations between Jews and Christians
Editor's note: Part I of this article was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Koinonia
The first article in this series discussed changes in biblical interpretation that have sought to improve Christian attitudes toward Judaism and the Jewish community. This article will examine aspects of the later relationship between Jews and Christians, first the intertwining of Jewish and Christian paths in post-biblical antiquity and then efforts to improve Jewish-Christian relationships in recent decades.
Jews and Christians in Antiquity
In recent years there has been a revolution in historical scholarship on Jewish-Christian relations in antiquity. For centuries, many believers considered themselves to be Jewish followers of Jesus. Students of early Christianity have long been aware of Jewish Christians, but they were often seen as a relatively unimportant and marginal movement. Recent studies have documented that dual Jewish-Christian practice was far more widespread and long-lasting than had previously been thought. For Jewish Christians or Christian Jews, there was no contradiction between being Jewish and following the path of Jesus. As John Gager argues, “they insisted that there was no need to choose between being Christians or Jews. Indeed, for them it was an altogether false choice.” 
The very existence of the Jewish Christian community posed a grave threat to both the Jewish and the Christian elites. Gager notes that according to the sociology of conflict, “the rule holds that the closer the relationship between two parties the greater the potential for conflict. In other words, whenever we encounter polemical language or the rhetoric of separation, we should look close to home for its source."  Jews who believed in Jesus claimed to be the true Christians and the true Jews; because of this claim, they posed a threat to Jews and Christians who sought to draw clear boundary lines between these communities.
There were, to be sure, numerous Jews who were not in any way followers of Jesus, but increasingly Jewish scholars have recognized how important relations with Christians were for the formation of rabbinic Judaism.  There were also Christians such as Marcion and the Gnostics who radically opposed Judaism, rejected the Hebrew Bible, and denied that the God of Israel was the God of Jesus Christ. 
However, most Christians refused to follow Marcion or the Gnostics; the vast majority of Christians continued to read the Jewish scriptures, usually in the form of the Septuagint, as the First Testament of the Christian Bible. This set up a fierce, multi-sided debate over the interpretation of the Jewish heritage. During the first centuries of the Common Era, there developed a complex, overlapping, and troubled network of relationships between Jews and Christians. This provides a new context for understanding early Christian arguments against Jews and Jewish practices. The fierce rhetoric of John Chrysostom against Judaism was directed to members of his Christian congregation in Constantinople around the year 400 C.E. who were also attending the synagogue. Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin interprets the situation in relation to Chicanos along the Mexican-American border who maintain: “We did not cross the border; the border crossed us.”  Our histories for a number of centuries in antiquity are far more intertwined than we traditionally believed.
Dialogues and Studies in the Wake of Vatican II
In the aftermath of World War II and the Shoah, many Christians recognized how painfully destructive earlier Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism had been. As scholars re-examined the interpretation of the Bible and later history, there were also numerous efforts to bring the fruits of academic scholarship to the broader population of Christian churches and communities. After the Second Vatican Council, numerous dialogues of Jews and Catholics developed across the United States and around the world, from the grass-roots level to the international. The local Jewish-Catholic dialogue in Washington, DC, in which I am currently involved, is now over thirty years old, being founded by Rabbi Joshua Haberman and Msgr. Ralph Koehner. Across the United States there are numerous centers for Jewish-Christian studies attached to colleges and universities.
After the Second Vatican Council, a number of studies were done on the ways in which Jews and Judaism are presented in Christian catechetical materials; these materials have been revised in recent decades, often in collaboration with Jewish educators. Perhaps the most important means of communication for the general population of Christians is the homily. Catholic Church leaders, like many leaders of other Christian churches, have taken note of the changes in biblical scholarship and have issued statements and directives for Christian preachers and educators on how to approach biblical texts dealing with Jews and Judaism. Books appeared with titles such as Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit. 
In 1974, the Holy See issued Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration ‘Nostra Aetate’; about a decade later, in 1985, the Holy See issued Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis of the Roman Catholic Church. This document begins with the mandate from Pope John Paul II to Catholic bishops and catechists: “We should aim, in this field, that Catholic teaching at its different levels, in catechesis to children and young people, presents Jews and Judaism, not only in an honest and objective manner, free from prejudices and without any offences, but also with full awareness of the heritage common” to Jews and Christians. 
Following the call of Pope John Paul II, the document stressed, “Because of the unique relations that exist between Christianity and Judaism—‘linked together at the very level of their identity’ (John Paul II, 6th March, 1982) —relations ‘founded on the design of the God of the Covenant’ (ibid.), the Jews and Judaism should not occupy an occasional and marginal place in catechesis; their presence there is essential and should be organically integrated.”  The guiding principle is taken from Nostra Aetate: “Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred Synod wishes to foster and recommend mutual understanding and respect” (ibid.).
Statements by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
In the wake of the Vatican statements, in September 1988, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its own programmatic statement, “God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching.”  In opposition to the traditional stereotype of the Pharisee, this statement suggests that “Jesus was perhaps closer to the Pharisees in his religious vision than to any other group of his time.” In opposition to the notion that Jesus rejected Torah, the bishops note that “Jesus was observant of the Torah . . . , he extolled respect for it (see Mt 5:17-20), and he invited obedience to it (see Mt 8:4).” 
Regarding the Passion Narratives and the celebration of Holy Week, the bishops recall that the Second Vatican Council rejected any notion of collective guilt, and they state:
Because of the tragic history of the ‘Christ-killer’ charge as providing a rallying cry for anti-Semites over the centuries, a strong and careful homiletic stance is necessary to combat its lingering effects today. . . . The message of the liturgy in proclaiming the passion narratives in full is to enable the assembly to see vividly the love of Christ for each person, despite their sins, a love that even death could not vanquish. . . . To the extent that Christians over the centuries made Jews the scapegoat for Christ’s death, they drew themselves away from the paschal mystery. (p. 4)
Regarding the most problematic passages, the bishops note that these are not common to all four gospels but reflect the distinctive concerns of a particular vantage point:
Many other elements, such as the crowds shouting ‘His blood be on us and on our children’ in Matthew, or the generic use of the term ‘the Jews’ in John, are unique to a given author and must be understood within the context of that author’s overall theological scheme. Often, these unique elements reflect the perceived needs and emphases of the author’s particular community at the end of the first century. (p. 4)
The bishops then urge, “Christian reflection on the passion should lead to a deep sense of the need for reconciliation with the Jewish community today” (p. 4).
Regarding public presentations of the death of Jesus, there has also been development and change. The U.S. Catholic bishops issued another statement in 1988, “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.” The bishops’ Committee acknowledges “the many difficulties facing those attempting to dramatize the gospel narratives.”  The bishops state the core principle for interpreting the death of Christ: “Christ in his boundless love freely underwent his passion and death because of the sins of all, so that all might attain salvation (cf. Notes IV, 30)” (73). They argue further:
Therefore, any presentations that explicitly or implicitly seek to shift responsibility from human sin onto this or that historical group, such as the Jews, can only be said to obscure a core gospel truth. It has rightly been said that ‘correctly viewed, the disappearance of the charge of collective guilt of Jews pertains as much to the purity of the Catholic faith as it does to the defense of Judaism’ (Statement of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 20, 1975) (73).
The bishops note that the central Christian creeds mention only one person as having direct legal responsibility for the death of Jesus, and that is Pontius Pilate (74).
The Oberammergau Passion Play
In earlier times, the Passion Play performed every ten years at Oberammergau in southern Germany was notorious for presenting the drama of Jesus’ death in a way that emphasized Jewish guilt and responsibility. In 1979 Rabbi Leon Klenicki asked Catholic scholar Leonard Swidler to join him and a team from the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith (ADL) in reviewing the Passion Play that would be presented in 1980; Swidler in turn invited my Georgetown University colleague Gerard Sloyan to join them as well. After seeing the play, the team made a number of recommendations. In subsequent years, the awareness of the organizers of the Passion Play developed and changed.
Leonard Swidler recently attended the 2010 performance and wrote a report. Swidler comments: “Perhaps the most amazing change in this production is the positively blatant Jewishness of Jesus and all his followers. He and his followers often pray—in Hebrew!—covering their heads with a talis and holding the Torah scroll up high. At one point the crowd of hundreds on stage with Jesus in the lead all sing the central prayer of Judaism in Hebrew, the Shema Israel.” Swidler’s final summation is: “All together, the 2010 Oberammergau Passion Play is as positive an esthetic/spiritual experience as possible for Christians of the suffering and death of their Founder as a Jewish Rabbi who had both supporters and opponents among his fellow Jews, and finally was murdered by the Romans in typical Roman execution manner—crucifixion.”
One of the most encouraging signs of the new situation is the collaboration of Jewish and Christian scholars. Increasingly, responses from the Jewish community are also part of the transformation of Christian attitudes. To advance the conversation between Jews and Christians, in 2000, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, and Michael Signer issued a statement entitled “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity.” Dabru Emet begins by noting the significant changes in Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism in recent decades. The scholars state that “we believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response. Speaking only for ourselves—an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars—we believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.”
They then propose a number of brief statements, affirming that “Jews and Christians worship the same God” and further that “Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book—the Bible.” They affirm that “Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel” and also that “Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah” (202-203). They state that “Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon” (203), and they acknowledge that “The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture” (204). They hopefully proclaim, “A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice,” and they urge, “Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace” (204). As you might expect, other Jewish scholars took exception to the statement, and a vigorous debate ensued.
As a means of developing the conversation, Tikva Frymer-Kensky and four Jewish colleagues edited a very thought-provoking book, Christianity in Jewish Terms, in which Jewish scholars wrote essays on various Christian beliefs and perspectives. The editors then invited Christian scholars to respond to the Jewish statements about Christianity. The discussion is a model of respectful dialogue that honestly notes both points of convergence and of divergence.
Reflections on Sukkoth
The feast of Sukkoth—the 8-day harvest festival commemorating the temporary shelters used by the Jews during their wandering in the wilderness—is a celebration that touches deeply the Christian tradition as well as the Jewish. Sukkoth is a festival of joy, a joy that can radiate to Christians as well. The fragile dwellings are reminders of the long, perilous journey from slavery to freedom, perhaps reminders also that in this world we have no lasting dwelling place. As Jews recall the long, arduous journey through the wilderness, Christians can join with them in solidarity.
According to medieval Catholic theology, our condition in this world is that of viatores, wayfarers. The condition of a wayfarer is in-between, on the road toward a destination that is anticipated but not yet reached. Christians since the early centuries have made pilgrimages to sacred places, often as penitents seeking God’s forgiveness for the sins of the past and praying for absolution and a new start toward a better future. Christian wayfarers today can welcome Jews as companions for the journey. While respecting the important differences between our traditions, we can hope that our journeys bring us close enough to each other that we are within the range of conversation. Interreligious partners and companions can give us hope and sustenance for the journey.
Sukkoth is also a festival of the future. The prophet Zechariah, in a context of catastrophic cosmic strife, looked forward to Sukkoth as a time when various peoples will come to Jerusalem and join with Jews in worshiping the one God and celebrating the festival together. I would like to conclude with the hope that the words of the prophet Zechariah will be fulfilled:
All who survive of all those nations that came up against Jerusalem shall make a pilgrimage year by year to bow low to the King Lord of hosts and to observe the Feast of Booths (Zech 14:16).
Leo D. Lefebure is the Matteo Ricci, S.J., Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.
1 John G. Gager, “Did Jewish Christians See the rise of Islam?” in The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 370.
3 Israel Jacob Yuval, Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jes and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, trans. Barbara Harshav and Jonathan Chipman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
7 Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church,” www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrsuni/relations-jews-docs/rc_pc, p. 1.
8 Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church,” www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrsuni/relations-jews-docs/rc_pc
9 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “God’s Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching,” www.usccb.org/liturgy/godsmercy.shtml.
11 Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,” in Bishops’Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents (Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004), 73.
12 Leonard Swidler, “Oberammergau Passion Play ‘interreligiously triumphant,” National Catholic Reporter, Sept. 13, 2010; http://ncronline.org/print/20199; p. 2.
14 “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity (2000),” in Mary C. Boys and Sara S. Lee, Christians and Jews in Dialogue: Learning in the Presence of the Other (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2006), 202.