Good Friday Renews Focus on Roots of Anti-Semitism : Tolerance: Religious leaders say Christians should renew efforts to put Jews’ role in proper historical context.


As a boy growing up on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1950s, Rabbi Daniel Landes remembers his beatings and bloodied noses on Good Friday.

The same boys he played street football with the rest of the year would hurl taunts on Good Friday. They called him a dirty Jew. They accused him of crucifying their Lord. Then they kicked out one of his teeth.

“I didn’t know what crucified meant,” said Landes, who is senior rabbi at Temple B’nai David-Judea in Los Angeles and director of education at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which monitors anti-Semitism worldwide. “I knew the word Lord, but what could I possibly do against God?”


From the cruel taunts of children to pogroms, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, trial, abuse and crucifixion to be read today in churches throughout the world have served as a fountainhead of anti-Semitism.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, some biblical scholars and religious leaders say the time has come for renewed efforts by Christians to put the Gospel accounts in their proper--and Jewish--historical context.

If this is not done, they fear that the Passion Narratives will remain a source of latent anti-Semitism at best--and a warrant for a virulent, even fatal, strain of anti-Jewish hate at worst.

“It will be a smoldering fire in the forest,” said biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, whose book “Who Killed Jesus?” has just been published. “The right wind from the right direction can ignite it.”

Clearly, the vast majority of Christians today who revere the Gospel accounts are not anti-Semitic and do not see in the Gospels a license to hate Jews. Good Friday, for all its introspection and sorrow, is for Christians but the darkness before the dawn of Resurrection, the anticipation of God’s reconciling forgiveness and love.

Nonetheless, concern over the impact of the Passion Narratives comes at a time when Jewish agencies report disquieting signs of rising anti-Semitism in parts of Eastern Europe, as well as in Spain and South America.


Instead of the discrimination against Jews that has been officially sanctioned and promoted by the fallen Communist regimes, the latest expressions are welling up from the grass-roots level. Resurgent nationalism, economic hard times, racism and alarm over the pace of change are seen as the principal culprits.

But Christian and Jewish leaders say that such expressions of hate against Jews would not be possible without a history of anti-Jewish stories and religious imagery in Christian churches.

“New converts to Christianity as well as those who are rediscovering their Christian faith after decades of suppression in Eastern Europe are reading the New Testament as an anti-Jewish book,” said Irvin J. Borowsky, founder and chairman of the American Interfaith Institute, headquartered in Philadelphia.

Indeed, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, speaking last month on anti-Semitism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said that although many modern factors were responsible for the rise of Nazi Germany--including racism, economic greed and nationalism--the impact of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death cannot be ignored.

“There is little doubt,” Bernardin said, “that classical Christian presentations of Jews and Judaism were a central factor in generating popular support for the Nazi endeavor.”

To be sure, Christian churches have come a long way since the 9th through 11th centuries, when a Jew was brought into the cathedral of Toulouse each year and given a symbolic blow during Holy Week, which runs from Palm Sunday through Easter.


In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council issued a historic statement, Nostra Aetate, which declared that Jews as a people are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, and they should not be seen as accursed or rejected by God.

Protestant churches issued similar statements. Lutherans have repudiated the 16th-Century anti-Jewish statements of their founder, Martin Luther, who among other things called for the burning of synagogues, destruction of Jewish homes and the confiscation of their sacred writings. And just last month, the Alliance of Baptists urged its members to seek dialogue with Jews instead of trying to convert them.

In one of the most significant symbols of change, Pope John Paul II established diplomatic relations with the state of Israel in late 1993--a final sign that the Catholic Church had forever rejected the theology of “perpetual wandering,” which held that Jews were condemned to be without a homeland because of their role in the death of Jesus.

“The changes in the church have been real. I think they’re significant and I think there’s been a great deal of goodwill,” Landes said.

Today, for most Christians, the blame for the Crucifixion does not rest on Jews as a people, but on all humanity because of its sinfulness.

“ ‘Who was it, Lord, that crucified thee? I crucified thee!’ That is the hymn we sing on Good Friday,” said the Rt. Rev. Frederick H. Borsch, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.


Yet for all the progress in Christian-Jewish relations, a growing cadre of scholars and leaders of both faiths say much remains to be done.

Although overt anti-Semitism disappeared long ago from Good Friday sermons and official doctrine, the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ passion continue to convey powerful messages that remain open to anti-Judaic interpretation.

“The mythic statements of the narratives of the liturgy always speak louder” than the conciliatory messages ministers deliver from the pulpit, Landes said. “It’s not the (sermon). I’m a rabbi. I know what a sermon is and that’s really secondary.”

In Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, the stark symbolism of the Good Friday liturgy and symbols can be jarring for churchgoers.

Altars have been stripped of their ceremonial linens, a black or purple shroud is draped over the cross, and the sanctuary candle--which burns throughout the rest of the year to signify the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine--has been snuffed out to signify his death.

Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion is recounted aloud with the reading of John 18:1-19:37. The entire congregation, playing the role of the crowd, cries out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The phrase “the Jews” is used at least nine times to describe those hostile to Jesus and who want his death.


In some churches there is a mournful tolling of a bell and sound effects mimicking an iron hammer relentlessly driving nails through human flesh and history.

“It’s those scenes, once they get into your imagination, (that) have to be cauterized very carefully and the only way you can cauterize them is to try to understand exactly what was happening,” Crossan said.

What does the term “the Jews” mean? Jewish religious leaders? All Jews of that time? Jews for all time?


Few scholars--either Christian or Jewish--dispute that Jewish religious leaders were implicated in the arrest and execution of Jesus, which was carried out by authorities of Imperial Rome.

“That the Jewish authorities or Jews were not involved is a modern idea,” wrote Raymond E. Brown, a noted Roman Catholic scholar in his critically acclaimed “The Death of the Messiah.”

Even Jewish writings outside the Christian tradition strongly point to a belief by ancient Jews that their ancestors “were involved in and even responsible for the death of Jesus,” Brown said, citing an ancient passage from the Babylonian Talmud, completed in the 6th Century.


But should all Jews for all time be blamed? Officially, no. Catholic and Protestant churches alike since the mid-1960s have rejected the charge of “deicide”--the killing of a god--against the Jews.

Yet, the Gospel accounts remain open to anti-Judaic interpretation.

A large part of the problem is that many Christians today do not realize that the Gospel accounts were written by Jews about other Jews in the midst of inter-religious disputes.

“First-Century Christians, whether you like it or not, were a Jewish group,” said Crossan. “Jewish groups were fighting one another for the future and leadership of their own people. They said nasty things. They called one another names. . . .” But it was hardly anti-Semitism.

“It is like you and I might say, ‘Gee, Americans are just too violent.’ We don’t really mean we’re not Americans. We’re meaning other Americans except our group,” Crossan said.

But problems developed as the early church severed its Jewish roots. Non-Jewish Christians read the same scriptural passages from their own perspective, and ‘the Jews” became someone “other.”

Of all the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Passion, John is cited most frequently as appealing to anti-Semitism because it appears to condemn the Jewish people as well as their religious leaders. In one passage (John 8:44), the writer has Jesus telling Jews that their father is the devil.


“Christians today must come to see that such teachings, while an acknowledged part of their biblical heritage, can no longer be regarded as definitive teaching in light of our improved understanding of developments in the relationship between early Christianity and the Jewish community of the time,” Cardinal Bernardin said in his Jerusalem speech.

Crossan--one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar, which has questioned the authenticity of many of the biblical sayings attributed to Jesus and most recently denied that a bodily resurrection ever took place--goes even further.

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death are not “history remembered, but prophecy historicized,” he contends. They were created by early Christian writers, who shaped the stories to conform to ancient Jewish Scriptures so that Jesus would appear to fulfill Jewish prophecies about the promised Messiah.

The details of Jesus’ trial, Crossan contends, were based on passages in Psalms 2:2 of Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament. And, he said, accounts in Matthew 26:67 of Jewish priests and others spitting on Jesus recall the ancient Jewish tradition of the scapegoat--whereby a goat was physically abused and literally spat upon and driven into the desert, bearing away the sins of the people.

But for those unacquainted with that Jewish custom, the Gospel picture of Jesus’ abuse and humiliation is not a metaphor but an indictment of Jews as “those kind of people” who would do such a thing.

“Those are the lethal stories--and they are stories-- that grab your imagination,” Crossan said.

Whatever the conflicting scholarly views of the Gospel accounts and their origins, few disagree that the church must do more to explain the historical context of the Passion narratives that for nearly 2,000 years have inspired the faith of millions of Christians and tested the endurance of millions of Jews.


The sooner the better, so far as Rabbi Landes is concerned.

“This is the last opportunity for the (Christian worship service) to be sensitized . . . because we’re the generation after the Holocaust, because there are still survivors, because there is a Pope that knows what Krakow (Poland) looked like before (the Nazi defeat),” he said. “The next Pope is not going to. This is the time for it to happen.”


Religious Views

Christian and Jewish religious leaders say that churches have made great strides in stemming Christian anti-Semitism since the 1960s. Following are excerpts of a sampling of official statements.

‘We reject the charge of deicide against the Jews and condemn anti-Semitism.’

--General Convention of the Episcopal Church, October, 1964

‘The Jews still remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for he does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues.’

--Vatican II Nostra Aetate, October, 1965

‘Neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his (Jesus’) Passion . . . . The Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture.’

--Vatican II Nostra Aetate, October, 1965

‘In the long history of Christianity there exists no more tragic development than the treatment accorded the Jewish people on the part of Christian believers. . . . In the spirit of truth-telling, we who bear (Martin Luther’s) name must with pain acknowledge also Luther’s anti-Judaic diatribes and violent recommendations of his later (16th-Century) writings against the Jews . . . . We reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations.’

--Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, April, 1994

‘In recognition of a past and present among Baptists that is complicity in perpetuating negative stereotypes and myths concerns Jews, we confess our sin of complicity, our sin of silence, our sin of interpreting our sacred writings in such a way that we have created enemies of the Jewish people. (We) confess our sin of indifference and inaction to the horrors of the Holocaust, confess our sins against the Jewish people, (and) offer this confession with humility and with hope for reconciliation between Christians and Jews.’


--Statement of the 121 member churches of the Alliance of Baptists, March, 1995