“The Jews” in the Gospel of John

The work of a translator is much appreciated so that ideas can be shared across cultures. Translating the Bible is a wonderful service to the faithful and to all who are curious, but the task is fraught with challenges, which Ronald Knox described in Trials of a Translator (New York, Sheed & Ward, 1949).

In the mid-1950s La Bible de Jerusalem constituted a great service to the Church in Francophone countries, coordinated by the Dominicans of L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. The translation into English needed improvements so the Jerusalem Bible of 1966 gave way to the New Jerusalem Bible in 1985, under the supervision of the Benedictine scholar Henry Wansbrough. Recently he launched the Revised New Jerusalem Bible at St. Benet’s Hall in Oxford. Margaret Hebblethwaite reported in this event in The Tablet under the title “The search for the right word of God.”

This report, with the superscription “The Gospels and anti-Semitism,” focuses on the challenge to translators with regard to the Greek work ioudaios in the plural, used 70 plus times in John and traditionally rendered “the Jews.” The term usually refers to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, who investigated the identity of John the Baptist (John 1:19) and the reason for Jesus’ disruptive action in the Temple area (2:19). The polite tone of their inquiry gave way to intense hostility after Jesus healed the paralyzed man at the pool Bethesda on the Sabbath (5:15-18).

In October 1997 I gave a paper at an international intra-ecclesial conference in the Vatican on “Anti-Judaism in the Christian Environment.” I sketched the scholarly efforts after the Second Vatican Council to deal with this problem for translators, which you can access and download here.

Among recent contributions to this topic, I wish to draw attention to the judicious and irenic statements in The Jewish Annotated New Testament edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, second edition), especially to Joshua Garroway’s essay “Ioudaios” (p. 596-99) and Adele Reinhartz’s commentary on the Gospel according to John (p. 172-73). These succinct efforts to grapple with a thorny issue deserve our careful attention.

Another recent contribution to biblical scholarship with a pastoral and spiritual perspective is The Paulist Biblical Commentary, edited by José Enrique Aguilar Chiu and others (New York: Paulist Press, 2018). Francis J. Moloney’s commentary on John reviews the topic under “Special Issues” (p. 1109-10). “The expression ‘the Jews’ does not indicate an ethnic group, but those who make a theological and christological decision against Jesus of Nazareth… In the Gospel of John, ‘the Jews’ are not a race; such an interpretation must be rejected energetically.”

How can the pastor deal with the anti-Jewish bigotry that may be aroused among the people listening to the Gospel on Good Friday and on The Second Sunday of Easter (“for fear of the Jews” in 20:19)? A brief statement can be read before the Passion is proclaimed on Good Friday to recall the message of the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate): “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (John 19:16); still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” A clarification that in these texts “the Jews” means the religious authorities in Jerusalem can be made on other occasions. Of course, there should be opportunities for all the faithful to engage in Bible study so that their faith is enriched and the misinterpretation by generalization or stereotype is overcome.

Translators are to be praised for their attention to this problem, but education is the ongoing challenge for all teachers in the parish and school. To end on a benign note, I draw attention to the fine essay by Professor Otto Betz, “To Worship God in Spirit and Truth: Reflections on John 4:20-26” in the J.M. Oesterreicher Festschrift Standing Before God (New York: Ktav, 1981, p. 53-72). “Salvation is from the Jews” is understood in light of Genesis 49:10-11, pointing to Jesus as the Savior of the world (John 4:42).

The Events of Jesus’ Passion and the Divine Office

Seven times a day I praise you because your edicts are just (Psalm 119:164)

In the Biblical tradition the number seven symbolizes completeness. Each day sacrifice of a year-old lamb (plus flour, oil and wine) was offered in morning and late afternoon for the forgiveness of sins. Christians followed the Jewish practice of praying at the time of these sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. In Egypt and the Holy Land hermits and monks prayed the Psalms and Canticles throughout the day. In Italy St. Benedict (480?-550) organized those texts into a weekly cycle. This Divine Office, called Opus Dei (the work of God) was spread over the entire day, in seven “Hours” for the community to gather in worship. This begins in the very early morning (Matins), followed by Lauds (Praise), then Prime (6 a.m.) followed by the “Little Hours” (Terce, Sext and None) at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Vespers came in the late afternoon and Compline was the night prayer. The Gospel texts for Lauds (Luke 1:68-79 by Zechariah), Vespers (1:46-55 by Mary) and Compline (2:29-32 by Simeon) are the Lucan hymns, with the Canticle of the Angels (2:14 expanded) on Sunday and feast days.

After the Second Vatican Council, there came a major change in the Divine Office of the Roman Rite. The Psalms are recited on a four week cycle and people may choose one of the “Little Hours” rather than all three. This is an acknowledgement that the diocesan clergy need not be held to the ideals of the monastic community.

Christian piety began early to develop a deep sense of devotion to the suffering and death of Jesus (see Galatians 2:19-21; 6:14; 1 Peter 2:21-25). Thus, Friday was a day of fast and abstinence from meat (see Mark 2:20). Every Sunday was “the Lord’s Day (Dies Dominica),” celebrating Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week.

The hymns for the “Little Hours” commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit at the third hour (9 a.m.; see Acts 2:15) and the time Jesus spent on the cross, when darkness covered the land from the sixth to the ninth hour (Mark 15:33 and parallels). Tradition-ally the special Liturgy on Good Friday begins at 3 p.m. In many places from noon to 3 p.m. the Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross are the subject of a communal meditation, with homilies and sacred music, the latter composed by renowned European musicians.

In addition to the Liturgy, Christians developed many practices to cultivate their devotion to the work of salvation accomplished by Jesus. Pilgrimage to the Holy Land began in the second century, with a focus on Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Repentance for sins led to forgiveness as God’s gift through the sacrifice of Jesus. The Way of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary were prayers of the laity to meditate on the events of Jesus’ life.

The Benedictine Pope St. Gregory I (Pope from 590-604) is credited with prayers that link the Seven Hours of the Divine Office with the stages of the Passion (see below).  Note the last line of verse one: The reference to Jews should be limited to the Priestly leaders and those who followed them, not to all Jews then alive, nor to Jews of later times (Vatican Council II, Declaration on the Church’s Relation to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate of October 28, 1965). Another prayer from the same manuscript addresses Jesus through the five wounds of the crucifixion. Thus, did Christian unite the passing hours of each day with the “Hour” of Jesus in the Paschal Mystery of his death-and-resurrection.

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The Death of Jesus

Lamentation over the Dead Christ by Anthony van Dyck / Public domain

The Gospel for the Passion (Palm) Sunday for Year A of the three year cycle of Sunday readings is from Matthew. The dramatic proclamation of the Passion Narrative evokes the profound realization in the congregation: our faith emphasizes that Jesus died for our sins and rose for us to be brought into right order with God the Father (see Romans 4:25; Corinthians 15:3-5).

In the Good Friday service, each Christian is invited to adore Jesus as the crucified Lord, again recalling that he died for our sins. The traditional chant during this ceremony was the “Reproaches,” often misinterpreted by the commentators to be an indictment of the Jews. Indeed, the choir sings the verses in biblical terms but the choir’s response to each verse concludes, “Have mercy on us.” See my and J.F. Henderson’s essay in The Liturgy of the Medieval Church (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2005) p. 187-214.  The comment of Bishop William Durand (1230-1296) on the Palm Sunday liturgy shows the true Christian approach to the liturgical commemoration of the sufferings of Jesus:

We must rejoice concerning the fruit of his Passion, and suffer with him, because he suffered for us.  We rejoice, therefore, of the love which he showed for us on the cross, and we are sad because of our sins, which are so many, on account of which the Son of God had to suffer. (Rationale Divinorum Officiorum VI.37.11)

Extending the liturgical experience of divine forgiveness, various practices and devotions developed over the centuries to reinforce our sense of gratitude for the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ death-and-resurrection. However, even here the anti-Jewish prejudices might be asserted. When in Copenhagen overnight in 2006, I was surprised to hear Angelus bells early in the next morning. I found the Sacred Heart church nearby and paid a visit. The Stations of the Cross were painted very nicely with a feature that I hope was never found elsewhere. In the corner of the first station, Jesus being condemned by Pontius Pilate, was a figure with a scroll. The words in Latin were visible: “Sanguis eius super nos et super filios nostros – His blood be upon us and upon our children” (Matthew 27:25). A small version of the same person holding the scroll was incorporated into each of the next 13 stations. What a distortion of the pious purpose of this substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem!

I wish to draw attention to the recent commentary on Matthew’s Gospel by Father Brendan Byrne, S.J.  This quotation is taken from the Paulist Biblical Commentary (Paulist Press, 2018) p. 967:

No single verse in Matthew’s Gospel needs more careful consideration than the cry of “the whole people” in verse 25.  There is no need to labor the injury it has caused to Jewish people since the earliest times.  Where Matthew has previously referred to the “crowd(s)” (ochlos [oi] [27:15, 20, 24]), at this point he writes “the whole people” (pas ho laos), a term principally used in the Gospel (albeit mostly in scriptural quotations) of the nation (of Israel) as a whole (1:21; 2:6; 4:16, 23; 13:15; 15:18), though often in the stock phrases “scribes/elders of the people” (2:4; 21:23; 26:3, 47; 27:1).  It is by no means clear, however, that “people” (laos) in verse 25 refers to the nation as a whole, let alone Jewish people for all time.  Since Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem there has been a distinction between the crowds who accompanied him and the people of Jerusalem itself (see 21:8-11), Jerusalem that he has already characterized as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (23:37).  It is likely, then, that “people” here refers specifically to the populace of Jerusalem.

Likewise, the final phrase, “and on our children,” is to be interpreted strictly.  Along with Luke (23:27-31) and the author of the Fourth Gospel (11:47-48), Matthew sees the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and burning of the temple in 70 CE as divine punishment for the city’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah.  The generation that would be alive to suffer these events would be precisely the “children” of those who had accepted responsibility for Jesus’ blood some forty years before.  It is to this generation, then- and to no other beyond it- that the phrase “and on our children” refers.  The text provides no justification for a “blood guilt” passed on down subsequent generations within the whole of Judaism.

I thank him for this succinct and pertinent interpretation of the passage that has been the basis of accusations against the Jewish people of later times. Rather, we should recall the words of the Second Vatican Council: “The Church always held and continues to hold that Christ out of infinite love freely underwent suffering and death  because of the sins of all people, so that all might attain salvation” (Declaration of the Church’s Relations to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra aetate 4).

The Genius of Jan Van Eyck

The Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck (circa 1390-1441) is celebrated in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, with an exhibit “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution” until April 30, 2020. The Wall Street Journal features an essay, “’An Optical Revolution’: Truer than Life,” by Judith Dobrzynski. She notes that the Ghent altarpiece, with the central panel still in restoration, remains in the Saint Bavo Cathedral nearby. “The restoration of the main panel revealed, among other things, the original human-like facial features of the mystical Lamb of God, particularly his eyes…”

One may consult the large book by Fabrici Hadjadj, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb: The Ghent Altarpiece, Painted by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck (New York: Magnificat, 2015), for a careful study of this multi-faceted painting.

On the Museum’s website the description of the exhibit is limited. See www.mskgent.be/en/exhibitions/van-eyck.

However we may also enjoy zoomable images at closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be/ and at the Van Eyck page of the Google Art project at artsandculture.google.com/entity/m0ck2w.

The Plague and Art

Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo by Anthony van Dyck / Public domain

The Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art (Oxford University Press, 1996) by Peter and Linda Murray has an entry, “Plague Saints,” of whom there are 19. They mention Saints Roch (Rocco), Sebastian, Cosmas and Damian, Anthony Abbot and Charles Borromeo.

In 1624, Anthony van Dyck painted St. Rosalia while he was quarantined in Palermo, Sicily. One of these paintings is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and Jason Farago recently published this essay about it in The New York Times on March 26, 2020: “The Saint Who Stopped an Epidemic Is on Lockdown at the Met.”

Moses with Horns

Moses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tomb (1505-1545) for Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome).

In the N.J. Jewish News of March 9, 2020, the Touch of Torah column on Exodus 30:11-34:35, “How a biblical mistranslation led to anti-Semitism” by Rabbi Joyce Newmark, discusses the translation of the word “karan” into Latin as cornuta / horned rather than “ray of light.” She draws attention to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses and links it to anti-Jewish bigotry so tragically evident again in our day.

I draw attention to the work of art historian Ruth Mellinkoff, The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970). A distinction should be made between the bull’s or ram’s horns as a symbol of authority (for example, over the ear of a ruler depicted on a coin) and the goat’s horns, which in the Middle Ages and later were a symbol of the devil. In a positive way royal power is symbolized by a horn in the divine promise: “I will make a horn sprout from David’s line” (Psalm 132:17). The goat’s horns were applied to the Jewish people by those who misinterpreted the New Testament, especially John 8:44.

Michelangelo had great esteem for Moses as Mediator of the Sinai Covenant.  On the spandrels of the Sistine chapel ceiling he depicted Moses as one of four who delivered Israel from grave danger.

May the people who seek divine guidance in the vicissitudes of life in our time find light from the principles of the Biblical heritage! I thank Rabbi Newmark for drawing attention to the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church and for the teachings that build upon the Declaration of the Church’s Relation to the Non-Christian Religions (Nostra aetate)!

Anti-Jewish Bigotry in the Classroom

On March 5, 2020 the M.A. Program in Jewish-Christian Studies sponsored a Teachers Study Day, with financial assistance from the New Jersey Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Education. The topic was “Jewish Education during the Nazi Period and Holocaust Education Now.”

The first speaker, Dr. Marion Kaplan from New York University, asked participants if they had seen an article in the New York Times of March 4th. A few raised their hands. Here is the text, a report on an elite high school in southern New Jersey by Susan Otterman: www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/nyregion/new-jersey-antisemitism-high-school.html.

For younger generations, the Nazi period may seem to be ancient history. But as Dr. Kaplan presented the ways primary and secondary education took place in Germany from 1933, the shock of a current scene in New Jersey was evident. Then, the blatant discrimination was ordered by the highest authorities in the land and resonated on every level in the schools. The small Jewish population in Germany was well integrated into the general culture, but children were segregated easily and made to feel that they did not fit.

In contrast, the education system in this state includes study of the Holocaust and related crimes of genocide. Efforts are made to alert young people to the danger of bullying and other forms of discrimination. How to explain the crude forms of bigotry that lurk under the surface among teenagers who should know better? Should their homes be blamed, or are the students simply guilty of braggadocio?

Administrators of schools must be alert to signs that a gang spirit is developing under their noses. Among all the elements of an approach to offer a solution before anyone is hurt would be the simple reflection on the Golden Rule. The website of Scarboro Interfaith Dialogue describes this principle as the universal basis for promoting human dignity. Surely teenagers can come to see that they should deal with others as they would want to be treated.

Anti-Jewish Bigotry in Stone

Anglican Lincoln Cathedral. U.K. By JThomas, CC BY-SA 2.0

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Bishops in several European countries have led the effort to remove the carvings and paintings that portray the vicious canard that Jewish people used the blood of a Christian boy to make the maṣṣah (unleavened bread) for the Passover meal. For example, the Anglican Lincoln Cathedral has a plaque repudiating the case of “Little Hugh,” dating back to 1255.

Recently another statue in Wittenberg, Germany, the Judensau depicting Jewish people suckling a sow, has been in the news.

The laudable effort to contrast this insulting image with an information board message and monument commemorating the six million Jewish victims of the Nazis seems inadequate. Why? Because bigots could ignore the educational message and focus on the fact that a Christian church fostered and even now seems to endorse the idea of ridiculing the Jews.

It would be better to place this and other manifestations of such hatred in a place where a direct explanation by docents can deal with the enduring challenge to human decency. I hope that this can be accomplished by local leaders!

The American Identity- Crisis at the Border

The “Great Minds Dialogues” is a series of lectures that complements Seton Hall University’s celebration of students who have shown great initiative in their studies and other activities, laying a foundation for a stellar future.  The School of Diplomacy and International Relations relates the call for excellence to be completed by seeing leadership as service.

Within this series, Sister Norma Pimental addressed the “Crisis at the Border” on February 6th in Bethany Hall.  Her qualifications and a video of her lecture can be found here. As Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma has led in the organization of this service of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas.

Sister Norma could have presented data to show the accomplishments of her team in terms of efficiency and cost-effective use of resources. That would impress people celebrating “Great Minds.”

However, Sister Norma’s approach was anecdotal, describing the great effectiveness achieved when the heart is touched. Then the attitude of people “just doing their job” may be lifted to recognize the innate humanity of those depicted from afar as invasive hordes. Could Sister Norma be permitted to visit the children herded into prison cells?  She asked to go into a cell to pray with the children. This simple act had the potential for the guards to see these children from a different angle. Did they recall the parable of the “least of my brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:31-46)?

The opening prayer by Msgr. Anthony Ziccardi, Vice President for Mission and Ministry, places the challenge of our time in the proper prospective:

Almighty God,
long ago you commanded Abraham, our father in faith, to leave his homeland
and promised him and his descendants a new country.
You accompanied your elected people’s patriarchs in their migrations
and protected them in their wanderings.

You provided for them on their journeys
and in their long sojourn in a foreign land.
But suffering bitter oppression, they called out to you,
and you led them out of slavery with mighty hand and outstretched arm.
You settled them in the land of your promise
and commanded them both to fidelity and to welcome:
they were to remain true to their unity and identity as your people,
but they were are also to welcome the immigrant and the sojourner among them,
for thereby they would become a reflection of you in the world,
as Moses explained: “The Lord your God loves the alien,
giving him food and clothing. Love the alien, therefore;
for you yourselves were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

Having received from you the whole wide earth as its temporal habitation,
humankind remains through time both settled and on the move.
Whenever and wherever conflicts arise between residents and sojourners,
turn the minds of both to thoughts of peace
and move their arms to open wide in mutual embrace
in the assurance
that peace, not enmity, is your will for us
and in the conviction
that none of us has here an enduring homeland or fixed abode,
but that such is to be found only in heaven,
the place of our true citizenship,
that home of countless mansions prepared by Christ your Son
where we have all been invited,
as your children and as brothers and sisters of one another,
to sit with all patriarchs at your one abundant table in the eternal kingdom.
We pray through same Christ our Lord.

The Ghent Altarpiece

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution
Museum of Fine Arts Ghent (MSK)
February 1 – April 30, 2020

Hubert (died 1426) and Jan (1390?-1441) van Eyck created the wonderful paintings whose centerpiece is “The Adoration of the Lamb,” completed in 1432. Peter and Linda Murray offer a description of this central panel as follows:

In the NT the vital words are those of the Baptist (John 1:29, 36), when he recognizes Jesus as the Christ: ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ These are the words of the AGNUS DEI, said daily in the Mass, always with the invocation ‘have mercy on us, give us peace’. In Rev. (Apoc) 5:6, 12; 12:11; and 22:1, the stress is on salvation emanating from the Lamb, since amid the Beasts and the Elders ‘stood the Lamb as if it had been slaughtered’ and ‘the river of water of life flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb’. This is the theme of van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb, where the pilgrims approach the altar on which stands the Lamb with blood flowing from his breast into a chalice. (Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art (Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 388)

The painstaking work of restoration of the panels began in 2012; this is described in “Realism and Revelation” in The Wall Street Journal, from which I quote:

A few weeks ago, the most recent phase of the restoration was unveiled, including the large front panel showing a bleeding lamb on an altar, surrounded by Christian martyrs, Jewish prophets and pagan writers. The panel—from which the altarpiece takes an often-used title, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”—has been transformed by its cleaning, with the lamb’s face revealed to have an intelligent, nearly human expressiveness.

The Ghent Museum of Fine Arts will have an exhibit, “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution,” from February 1, 2020. The Museum’s website offers an introduction to this masterpiece of the Belgian Cathedral of San Bavo.