Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot

March 30, 2020

As we near the end of the Lenten season, appropriately we focus on the shift from Jesus being in the midst of his ministry to entering into Jerusalem where he would face betrayal, a show trial before the powers that be, and crucifixion. It is a time to watch and pray. We practice denial and reflection. For forty days, we yearn for the glory of Easter Resurrection Morn and its joyful Alleluias.

The Lenten season and Holy Week recall gospel lessons and other passages of Scripture appropriate to the season, yet we need to ask if we read these sacred texts of “Old” and “New” Testaments with awareness of the history that has unfolded over the past two millennia, particularly in ways Christians and Jews found themselves at odds, or often bearing the brunt of one religion (predominantly Christianity) having greater power and socioeconomic advantage over the other. And at the core of these fractured moments, texts and their teachings as well as beliefs and their practices have added sediment to the religious bedrock that has added more negative elements to the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. 

The Lenten season and Holy Week recall gospel lessons and other passages of Scripture appropriate to the season, yet we need to ask if we read these sacred texts of “Old” and “New” Testaments with awareness of the history that has unfolded over the past two millennia.

In January 2020, a group of elderly people gathered at a place some thought they would never leave seventy-five years previously. They survived. Let us never forget that 6 million did not.  This group, in particular, represented those who survived Auschwitz and returned for a ceremony to remember the dead as well as the Nazi-led atrocity that killed so many. For some of these survivors, it was a first visit back, alongside those who had returned previously. All remembered the harrowing firsthand experience of the camps, the rending of families and communities that had taken place there after the long train trip uprooted and displaced so many Jews and others for being suspect or “other.”

Talking to the Guardian (UK) newspaper, Edith Gluck, age 92, told of her experiences as a young girl growing up as “an ethnic Hungarian, from Borsa, Transylvania [Romania].” She recalls,

I realised, looking back, that there was a lot of hatred towards us way before our deportation. I remember one Easter, some young guys coming from the church and how one of them came over to my sister who was sitting on our front step, and slapped her in the face saying: “our priest just told us, you killed Jesus.” We accepted the animosity as a part of normal life but had no idea what was in store for us.

Here we have an example of past generations perpetuating a narrative of enmity, where generations since the New Testament era offered fewer efforts to live alongside one another and a sense that a certain interpretation of the past would be the blueprint for how one faith looked at and acted towards the other. 

Prompted by the mass shootings at synagogues in recent years and the rhetoric of demonstrators in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” a group of authors (Catholic, Protestant and Jewish) agreed to write a book in time for the 2020 Lenten season, sharing their insights in biblical studies, history and contemporary issues in the hope that more Christians take up the challenge to review, reflect, reconsider, and reframe their suppositions about Judaism. They chose the provocative title “Jesus Wasn’t Killed By the Jews” for this collection of short essays in hope that the tangled knots of Scripture, history and belief might lead to a better outcome than what we have seen before, what we see at hand now and hope to see as a different future.

In the first section, five contributors explore the issue of “foundations”: upon what do we suppose the reading of biblical texts and the New Testament/early Church era to say about how we should read of our Christian origins and how does Judaism of the time intersect? Often, the authors observe, we look for ways that cleave apart the two traditions, whereas modern scholarship has shown the closer ties and intertwined traditions of the New Testament and early churches more so than scholars of generations past. 

In the second section, nine contributors ask questions of how a change of perspective might influence and critique the “practices” that we commonly explore during Lent. Contributors ponder the ways that we might rethink elements of Ash Wednesday, the practice of offering a Seder meal as the Maundy Thursday observance, or how in our efforts to live out the fullness of Easter, we create interpretations or abide and abet actions that lead down a more discriminatory path in Jewish/Christian relations.

For example, on Good Friday, the Book of Common Prayer recommends a reading of John 18:1-19:37, aka, the Gospel of John’s recounting of the Passion narrative. I have participated in an ecumenical service where this was acted out as a staged reading, clergy and congregation taking the various parts. However, it can be jarring and troubling to read even the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation with its repetitive reference to “the Jews.”

In his essay, scholar Wes Howard-Brook reviews the translation commonly rendering Greek into English and notes that this translation is imperfect. At the heart of this Good Friday reading is the Greek word Ioudaioi, aka “the Jews.” Howard-Brook has written extensively on the Gospel of John (cf. his excellent commentary Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship, Orbis, 1994), yet in the brief pages allocated to him in this volume (p. 76-83), he reviews the history leading up to the time of Jesus’ ministry to show that such a term was not meant to be a “blanket statement” on all Jews. 

Instead, Howard-Brook observes, “in the narrative context of the Gospel of John, the Ioudaioi are those who are the ideological defenders and economic beneficiaries of the Roman-Judean collaboration” (p. 81). We would be better served as English readers to remember that translations from Greek (and Hebrew) can be just that, a matter of translation. Further, imagine the different way the average worshiper would hear the word translated as “the Temple authorities” or “the powers that be” rather than “the Jews” over and over and over, alongside the long and fraught history that has built up around understanding the relationship of Jesus with the Judaism of his day and how it may valorize certain attitudes or actions discussed above.

In reading this book, its brief page count does lend itself to the feeling that some essayists needed extra pages to continue making their case. Certainly, I believe readers will differ on which essays they resonate with and the ones that they disagree with. I found sometimes the short form essays also led to necessary sleight of hand in writing to make a point but not give the fuller argument to come to the necessary conclusion in a few pages. I would suggest readers go in search of other works by these authors and explore the sources cited in the small number of footnotes in most essays. 

For the Protestant audience, some essayists refer to key Vatican II and post-Vatican II writings that may be unfamiliar. Learning how a major Christian tradition continues in the modern era to wrestle aright with what it means to believe in the Gospel yet not discard love of God and neighbor on a conditional basis or articulate faith convictions that may lead to the expense of the “other,” is worth the need for further learning about said documents.

Ultimately, people of faith have the imperative to think about how foundations and practices lead to outcomes, whether intentional or unintentional. At stake particularly are the Jewish communities we live alongside together in the pluralism and promise of the United States. We need to show good neighbor love, speak up when violence happens (or is threatened, as nineteen Jewish Community Centers nationwide were threatened via anonymous emails as I prepared this review), and remember our past has much to atone and our future cannot be better without such memory and examination. 

Otherwise, persons may grow up similar to the Holocaust survivor Edith Gluck, who learned even at an early age, to “accept the animosity as a part of normal life.”

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Sweeney, Jon M., editor. Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent.  (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2020). ISBN # 978-1-62698-352-6. 128 pp.

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