Roland Murphy, The Pontifical Biblical Commission, Jews, and the Bible

Roland Murphy, The Pontifical Biblical Commission, Jews, and the Bible – Book Review

Amy-Jill Levine


Roland Murphy’s understanding of the Old Testament both on its own terms and as interpreted throughout the history of the Church provides a helpful complement to the Pontifical Biblical Institute’s THE JEWISH PEOPLE AND THEIR SACRED SCRIPTURES IN THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE. This article expands on Murphy’s own critique of the document (BTB 32.3 [2002]: 145-49) in its analysis of seven issues: contextual understanding, historical criticism, use of the Old Testament to interpret the New, Jewish interpretation, comparing Testaments, Formative Judaism, and the Shoah. It concludes that Murphy’s ways of understanding the Old Testament provide helpful guides for correcting and improving the PBC document.


In his address given to the sixty-first annual meeting of the Catholic Biblical Association, Roland Murphy reclaimed and recuperated the historical-critical method from the dual accusations of theological irrelevance and abusive positivism. His arguments offered neither a naive recovery of past “biblical theology” projects seeking a textual “center” (Murphy: 2001) nor a wistful yearning for the days when “objective history” was not an oxymoron. To the contrary, in delineating the limitations of historical criticism as well as highlighting “the excitement that it produces when it displays the reality of Israel’s understanding of the mysterious” Deity (1998: 113), Murphy reveals how the method corrects earlier Catholic readings, comports with Catholic sensibilities, and offers guidelines for theological understanding.

In 2002, Murphy brought his approach to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s Document, THE JEWISH PEOPLE AND THEIR SACRED SCRIPTURES IN THE CHRISTIAN BIBLE (2002; henceforth, PBC). The result is to some extent a happy one. The PBC grounds its acceptance of the historical-critical method in Thomas Aquinas’s conclusion that “a valid argument cannot be constructed from the allegorical sense, [but] it can only be done from the literal sense” (SUMMA THEOLOGICA, 1a, q. 1, a. 10ad lum; cf. also QUODL. VII, 6); thus with Murphy it recognizes both the value of historical contextualization and the problems of reading the Old Testament through patristic allegory. At the same time, it affirms, as does Murphy, those Christian theological interpretations of the Old Testament that “avoid arbitrariness and respect the original meaning.” For example, speaking of the Psalms, it advises: “In appropriating the prayers of the Old Testament just as they are, Christians re-read them in the light of the paschal mystery, which at the same time gives them an extra dimension.” Murphy would agree. Describing the Psalms as “open-ended,” he observes how they can “be expanded to fit into a post-biblical context” including “Catholic devotional traits” (1998: 115).

Yet Murphy finds the Document lacking in terms of its understanding of the Old Testament (I use this term throughout, both since this is the language Murphy and the PBC utilize and since it indicates here a Catholic “Old Testament” that includes the Apocrypha) as a collection with its own contributions to make to theology, its confidence in downplaying the New Testament’s anti-Jewish polemics, and its tendencies toward promoting the very supersessionism it decries.

This essay expands upon Murphy’s critique by reading the PBC in light of his theological and historical-critical interests. The result is on the one hand a harsher critique of the PBC than Murphy’s own and on the other a set of caveats for those who would actualize in teaching and preaching the Document’s commendable conclusions. Although my criticisms, like those of Murphy, are occasionally sharp (see Levine: 2003), I think he would agree with me that the benefits of the Document–including its recognition that Christological interpretations of the Church’s Old Testament are retrospective; its averring that there are and will remain tensions between the two Testaments; and its direct statement that Jewish interpretations of the shared scriptures, including Jewish messianic speculations, are not in error–far outweigh the problems.

Thus, the following comments are offered not only as a tribute to the guide Murphy provides us all but also in appreciation for the efforts of the PBC.

The Text on Its Own Terms

The PBC’s focus is not on the Old Testament per se, but on its interpretations and appropriations in the “Christian Bible” (an unfortunate term, since it may give the impression that the Old Testament is not part of the Bible of Christianity). However, since it does delineate, in detail, numerous themes from the Old Testament, Murphy’s critique of its lack of appreciation for that earlier material’s depth is warranted. “What is missing here? A feeling for the Old Testament … the interpretation of the Old Testament could have been more text-centered, in the sense of a ‘historical theology’ on the basic level, with or without the legitimate progression into the Christian perspective” (2002: 147). Otherwise put, the PBC does not take up Murphy’s invitation to find the “wonderment, awe, admiration” (2002: 147) present in Israel’s relationship to the G-d of the Tanakh.

One reason for this lack is likely the PBC’s (and the Church’s) inattention to the Ketuvim (the Song of Songs–a text Murphy finds consummate in showing how the historical-critical method can enhance theological appropriation [1998:117]–is silenced in the Document). Another is that the authors are not informed by Jewish scholarship: the PBC affirms that “Christians can … learn much from Jewish exegesis practised for more than two thousand years”; the problem is that it fails to show how. Murphy cites as exemplary in meeting his dual goals of historical and theological sensitivity the work of Abraham Heschel, Jon Levenson, Moshe Greenberg, and Michael Fox (2002: 147). A third explanation is the PBC’s lack of sustained engagement with ancient Jewish sources, especially those preserved by the Synagogue. While the PBC does state magnificently, “Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion,” it fails to note what those Jewish readings are. The Dead Sea scrolls and Philo receive as much if not more attention than Rabbinic texts. Given both the PBC’s explicit interest in facilitating better relations between Church and Synagogue and the extensive comparisons that can be drawn–generously rather than polemically–between New Testament and Rabbinic texts, between Jesus and individual rabbis, these omissions are regrettable.

For Murphy, historical criticism provides a major means to discover the theological implications of the Old Testament, for it looks to the heart of the writer and the text. It seeks “to discover at least approximately the sense directly expressed by the human author and conveyed by the written word” (1998:113). The discipline is no false objectivism designed to foreclose interpretation from the “living traditions of the church” (to use the expression Murphy [1998: 112] borrows from the PBC’s 1994 Document, THE INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE IN THE CHURCH). To the contrary, for Murphy historical criticism operates according to probabilities in order to reveal the “literal historical sense” of texts, and thereby it discovers again and again (his examples include Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and 30:15) “an unmistakable challenge to the modern reader” (1998:113). These challenges, moreover, encompass what is insoluble. His definition is consequently broader than that offered by Christopher Seitz, whom Murphy quotes: “Historical criticism establishes the genre, form, possible setting, and historical and intellectual background of the individual text” (1998:112); missing from the narrower definition is the “intended meaning,” or more colloquially, the theological punch.

While Murphy was aware of exaggerated and idiosyncratic applications of historical criticism, he remained sanguine as to the “reasonable insights” it can produce (1998: 113). Certainly the notion of “reasonable” readings, along with claims of “common sense” or “self-evident” conclusions, faces charges of ideological distortion: what is common sense or self evident is often rather the legacy of cultural conditioning designed to maintain power structures or orthodox dogma (e.g., Aristotle’s views on slavery; gender bifurcation). But in Murphy’s case, historical-critical rigor went well beyond solipsistic pronouncement or sociological vapidity. He was aware of how texts can (be used both to) inspire and abuse; he attended to studies outside the Catholic tradition as well as to work by feminists and liberationists; he saw how the historical and the spiritual could be complementary without being sacrificed or warped.

Murphy developed his own interreligious concerns by introducing Christian students to Jewish exegesis. His faculty position at Duke University Divinity School–a tribute to the sophia of the United Methodists of the time who hired him!–provided Murphy dialogue partners outside Catholic circles, and it granted Duke a scholar and teacher informed by traditions other than that of the Protestant majority. Murphy himself noted the import of the nonparochial context for appreciation of Scripture:

The projects and progressively high standards of the CBA

[Catholic Biblical Association of America] have contributed

immeasurably to the current excellence of Catholic

biblical scholarship…. In an ecumenical spirit the CBA

welcomes non-Catholics as members and also as authors in

its varied publications. In a spirit of true catholicity, it is

open to truth from every source, and this is as it should be.

That, too, is part of Catholic biblical scholarship” [1998:


This openness, likely facilitated by Murphy’s American context, contrasts with PBC’s more provincial mood. Had ON THE JEWS AND THEIR SACRED SCRIPTURE attended to Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh, it would have found numerous additional points of contact between Church and Synagogue even as it would have supported its own thematic presentations. Had the committee worked directly with Jewish biblical scholars, potentially damaging comments or phrasings might have been eliminated. The Document on its own terms and contexts is a Catholic text written by and for the Church; once put into the public realm (once it becomes “canonical”–although the matter of who will read it and how it will be implemented remains fuzzy), it becomes subject to other interpretations. What sounds benign to the insider can sound much less so to those outside the intended contextual walls.

Murphy indicates, for example, how the PBC’s rhetoric underlines the sense of a Judaism whose life and thought remained confined to the Old Testament. Commenting on the statement, “it is also clear that the radical replacement [of various laws such as restrictions concerning food, ritual cleanness, etc.] in the New Testament was already adumbrated in the Old Testament and so constitutes a potentially legitimate reading,” Murphy confirms only the legitimacy of the New Testament reading, not the adumbration in the Old Testament. The historian insists, “Literary expressions and religious institutions are not shadows. They have a meaning and importance all their own that deserve skilled and balanced interpretation” (2002: 146). More directly stated: what the texts (may have) meant in their original contexts is, unfortunately, of little concern to the PBC; what they mean to Jews today is less so.

The Historical-Critical Method

Perhaps, in contradistinction to New Testament studies, it was easier for Murphy to appeal to historical-criticism given his focus on Wisdom literature (a “timeless” genre) and, more broadly, his Old Testament specialty. For Murphy, historical-critical questions became, substantially, questions of how ancient audiences interpreted their texts or even what an ancient author “intended” and less so questions of source with their concern to highlight the earlier over the later, the reconstructed original over the canonically conceived. While there remain debates over the date of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, over how to translate phrases in Job and the Song of Songs, little theological angst is created by them. Whatever anxiety may develop because of historical-critical readings Murphy precludes by acknowledging the validity of earlier interpretations. For example, historical criticism facilitated the reading of the Song of Songs as “inspired love poetry between a man and a woman that functions as a blessing upon the sexual relationship of G-d’s creatures” (1998:117). But this reading “does not cancel out the age-old interpretation that finds G-d and humans in intimate relationship” (1998: 118). Although historical-critical efforts have been fierce in Old Testament study (e.g., minimalist vs. maximalist reconstructions of Israel’s history) the understanding of the Wisdom literature does not rise or fall over such matters.

For Murphy, historical criticism supports theology, and it does so considerably because the object of the criticism is the text an sich, the text as it stands in the canon. Conversely, for many scholars of early Christianity, the canonical product does not attest to, but rather hides, theological truth. For the Gospels, “minimalist” and “maximalist” readings transpose into a new key. Minimalist historical criticism strips away layers of what it deems pious supernaturalism, theological orthodoxy, and vested appropriations to locate a pristine “historical Jesus.” The Gospels become less important, if they remain important at all, than the recreated Jesus; the canon yields to “lost” texts such as the hypothetical Q or to “external” texts such as the Gospels of Thomas and Peter. The maximalist finds no distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of Faith. There is little “stripping away” of sources to get to the core, because the core and the sources are fully implicated. The occasional maximalist appeal to lost or external texts bolsters readings already developed from the canonical material, and this ancillary status given to the noncanonical works matches well with the use of Ancient Near Eastern materials in work on the other Testament.

The PBC on the whole follows the maximalist reading, which should comport well with Murphy’s interests and discipline. However, whereas for Murphy historical-critical insight helps recover the richness of the text in its own historical context, for the PBC, it is employed too often as an apologetic to support what is already believed from a theological rather than (although perhaps in addition to) historical investigation. Otherwise put, on occasion the PBC fails to heed it own warning: “Thomas Aquinas saw clearly what underpinned allegorical exegesis: the commentator can discover in a text only what he already knows.”

With a surety that theology provides but to which history offers only non liquet (Murphy 1998: 113), the PBC offers the type of positivistic historiography Murphy denounces. It confidently identifies the Sitz im Leben of each gospel, describes the composition of Second-Temple Judaism and the Jewish practices of expelling and then killing Christians, and even delineates Jesus’ intent. Each case offers what for the Church would be the most generous, most benevolent reading: Judaism appears generally xenophobic while the church is universal; Judaism’s prophets engage in more castigation of the covenant community than does the (more forgiving) New Testament; there is no “anti-Judaism” in the canon, etc. Missing is the explicit recognition that the history it proffers is subjective; missing is the awareness that its historical-critical observations can serve as apologia for theological agendas; missing is the sensitivity needed to hear how the numerous comments both in the New Testament and from the PBC on Judaism would sound to Jewish ears. This last matter has the gravest value, since the Document’s initial concern is anti-Semitism. Its second and third sentences read:

During the second world war (1939-1945), tragic events, or

more precisely, abominable crimes subjected the Jewish people

to a terrible ordeal that threatened their very existence

throughout most of Europe. In those circumstances, some

Christians failed to exhibit the spiritual resistance to be

expected from disciples of Christ, and did not take the

appropriate initiatives to counter them.

Using the Old Testament to Interpret the New Testament

One means of countering anti-Jewish attitudes is to use the Old Testament as a mirror to which the New Testament can be held. Had the PBC followed Murphy’s recommendations about valuing the Old Testament on its own terms, as well as its own call for a “reciprocal relationship” where “the New Testament demands to be read in the light of the Old, but it also invites a ‘re-reading’ of the Old in the light of Jesus Christ,” it would have produced much more profound, much less dangerous interpretations. The PBC’s treatments of the Prodigal Son and the Canaanite woman epitomize what happens when allegory and stereotype compete with historical-critical rigor.

Commenting on Luke’s “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” the PBC states:

The parable of the merciful father (15:11-32) who invites

the elder son to open his heart to the prodigal, does not

directly apply to relations between Jews and Gentiles,

although this application is often made (the elder son represents

observant Jews who are less open to accepting pagans

whom they consider to be sinners). Luke’s larger context,

nevertheless, makes this application possible because of his

insistence on universalism.

We are also told that “In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus described the miserable state to which the human person is reduced when he is far from his Father’s house.” The message is mixed; whereas Jesus is removed from any ethnic interest–what the parable meant for Jesus and his own Jewish audience is not discussed–the parable “does” in fact apply to Jews and Gentiles, for Luke makes it so. The PBC thus grants permission for the Church to continue its traditional interpretation and so reinforces the stereotype of xenophobic Judaism. Moreover, although the Document does not promote allegorical readings, the exegesis relies on allegory to make the father into the Father and the prodigal into the sign of human wretchedness.

Several alternatives would have enhanced the PBC’s general points about the dangers of allegorical exegesis, the continuity and discontinuity between Old and New Testaments, and the need to be watchful for anti-Jewish readings. First, the pronouncement on application is couched in historical-critical terms, but the method employed relies on allegory and stereotype, the very approaches the PBC finds insufficient. Rigorous exegesis should observe not only that the parable itself speaks of a father with two sons, but also that nothing requires the allegorical interpretation making the father into the Deity or the sons into representatives of humanity’s moral decline, attitude to Torah, or ethnicity. Second, given the conclusion that Luke sees a Jew/Gentile dichotomy with the Gentile Luke advocating universalism (the term is undefined; it apparently means openness to various ethnic groups, for Luke is certainly not universal regarding salvation outside the Church) the PBC should note that pagans were welcome in synagogues (the god-fearers) and the Temple (the Court of the Gentiles) and that some pagans did convert to Judaism (we need look no farther than the seven appointed to wait tables in Acts). Third, historical-critical work should be more cautious in reference to “observant Jews”; the expression is not only vague, it suggests that those earliest Jewish followers of Jesus, let alone Jesus himself, were not “observant.” Observant Judaism, indeed Judaism in general, should not be defined as “less open to pagans.” The Document threatens to solidify for Catholic readers the view of “observant Jews” as antiChristian, xenophobic, and harshly judgmental (as a member of an Orthodox synagogue, I find this final point especially troubling).

Had the PBC used the Old Testament to interpret the New, numerous alternative readings would have appeared. To take but one example, any story that at the outset mentions “a father and two sons” necessarily evokes a biblical pattern: Cain and Abel; Ishmael and Isaac; Esau and Jacob; Perez and Zerah. The biblically literate reader knows that attention must be paid to the elder, that primogeniture is less important than personal action, that sibling rivalry (including that between Church and Synagogue) is not so easily resolved. The differences among the sons’ fates, and their attendant surprises–from Cain’s divine protection and Abel’s lack of progeny to the reconciliations of the sons of Abraham and Isaac–reveal an open pattern. These stories offer the “wonderment, awe, admiration” (2002: 147) of which Murphy speaks in their posing of moral issues and their tacit insistence that readers wrestle with them.

In other cases, the PBC’s historical-critical work borders on the facile, and again to the detriment of Jewish-Christian relations. We learn, for example, that “dogs” is “a metaphor for the ritual impurity that the Jews sometimes attributed to the Gentiles.” The citation, embedded in a discussion of Philippians 3, is to Matthew 15:26, a text that says nothing about ritual impurity. Paul’s own use of the term to describe those who–as he charmingly puts it–mutilate the flesh (Phil. 3:2), suggests the term is a generic insult. Nor does the Matthean verse itself suggest this is the meaning; “dogs” need no more signal “ritual impurity” than “children” signal “state of holiness.” Surely the little dog who accompanies Tobias and Raphael does not symbolize gentile ritual impurity. Even the PBC’s own internal logic argues against this reading, for as we’ve just seen, in interpreting the parable of the prodigal, the gentile represents not the “ritually impure” but the “sinner.”

The example also presents several sins of omission. First, it does not describe what “ritual purity” in this Matthean setting would entail. The category is not likely to be familiar to the PBC’s readers, and such readers will likely associate impurity with sin (not an issue here) rather than with questions about entering the Temple; Western readers will likely regard purity as something odd, “Oriental,” atavistic, or constraining. Nor does the Document note that the insult “dogs” appears on the lips of Jesus himself. Finally, although the PBC here and elsewhere speaks of Jewish attitudes to gentiles, missing are Old Testament references to the so-called “righteous gentile.” Throughout, the Old Testament recognizes that true fidelity to divine designs is not limited to–and is sometimes absent within–the covenant community. For example, the Jericho spies enter a brothel and Achan the Israelite steals booty, but Rahab the Canaanite displays fidelity; David lies, commits adultery, and murders, but Uriah the Hittite follows the rules of both Holy War and personal conscience; the elders of Judith’s Bethulia display a weak faith while Achan the Ammonite (!) expresses confidence in the G-d of Israel. We might therefore expect that for Matthew’s Gospel a righteous gentile–the Canaanite woman (connected to Rahab of the genealogy, Matthew’s other Canaanite woman)–would prove more faithful than the insiders.

Thus, the PBC Document, by its sanguine utilization of historical-critical matters for New Testament materials, risks reinscribing an anti-Jewish view, losing any sense of the Old Testament as having its own substantive value, and recognizing the mutually interpretive roles of the two Testaments. Connections between the two Testaments, as well as between early Christian and early Jewish thought, are lost.

From Old Testament to Jewish Interpretation

The Judaism presented remains remarkably monolithic, in good measure because it remains bound to the Old Testament. While the PBC does a credible job in tracing both continuity and discontinuity between the two Testaments, it does not sufficiently indicate that this same continuity/lack of continuity can be found throughout the Second Temple period and subsequently through Rabbinic materials. Three examples here–on Temple, Law, and canonization–indicate this concern.

The PBC speaks of how the “New Testament relativizes the adequacy of a material edifice as a dwelling place of G-d …”; but in doing so it insists that “Judaism” (implicitly equated with the Old Testament) is still interested only in Law and Temple. Missing are Rabbinic views on the Temple and on Gemilut Hasidim (which, along with Torah and Avodah, are the pillars upon which the world rests [Avot 1:2]). One might have also looked for discussion of the Old Testament’s well-developed view of the omnipresence of the divine and its critique as well as with support of sacred space, along with a notice of “sacred space” within the Catholic tradition.

A similar case can be made for the PBC’s observation that the Matthean Jesus at times “abolishes the letter of the law” in reference to the talion (Exodus 21:24). Jesus states (Matt 5:38-39a), “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.'” Following this are the statements about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and giving up one’s shirt. The impression given is that “Judaism” clings to the “letter” (with the implication that Jesus/the Church substitutes the “spirit”). Missing is Talmudic discussion; Baba Kamma 84a, noting that the excision of an eye might kill someone, concludes the injunction means “monetary compensation” and even suggests that the lex talionis was never carried out. Jesus advises not vengeance but rather pacifistic subversion of evil. For his situation as well as that of Matthew, that of a member of a group under Roman domination, the advice makes great sense. The Rabbinic comments–written in relation to tort law and positing a world where law is kept by communal morality rather than by Roman might–insist on justice, for mercy without justice is both naive and suicidal. Thus we have a single text, read by both Church and Synagogue with continuity and discontinuity.

The continuity with the Old Testament seen in Matthew as well as the discontinuity with it seen in the Rabbinic texts complicates the PBC’s overly general claim that “the passage from one Testament to the other also involves ruptures … [that] impinge upon whole tracts of the Law: for example, institutions like the levitical priesthood of the Jerusalem Temple; cultic forms like animal sacrifice; religious and ritual practices like circumcision, rules concerning purity and impurity, dietary prescriptions; imperfect laws such as divorce; restrictive legal interpretations concerning the sabbath. It is clear that–from the viewpoint of Judaism–these are matters of great importance for it. But it is also clear that the radical replacement in the New Testament was already adumbrated in the Old Testament and so constitute a potentially legitimate reading.” Yes and no. The Levitical priesthood and Temple sacrifice remain important for the Church as well, since their functions and images are incorporated into ecclesiastical offices and Eucharistic practice. Ritual practices continue in the Church, from sacraments to fasts to traditions on how and when to pray. The Church too has expressed concerns for purity and impurity (Catholic readers of a certain age will remember the equivalents or near-equivalents of ritual purity, from not eating meat on Friday to fasting and confessing before partaking of the Eucharist) ; dietary concerns continue both in the materials out of which consecrated hosts can be made to fast days to Lenten restrictions and through to cultural norms.

As for “imperfect divorce laws,” the phrasing is unfortunate, and the lack of discussion does not aid the problem. We might argue on the basis of the anti-divorce statements attributed to Jesus (e.g., Mk 10:2-12) that “divorce” is itself imperfect. This is not the same thing as to say that Old Testament (or Jewish) laws concerning divorce are “imperfect” (compounding the problem is the silence on what the laws are). One could make the counter case that the Roman Church’s “laws on divorce” are also imperfect, but that would be similarly mean and unhelpful.

The PBC leaves its readers with an image of an Old Testament and a Judaism with “restrictive” and “imperfect” and “cultic” (the term codes negatively) concerns that are “of great importance.” It offers no indication of how these Old Testament concerns are interpreted by the Jewish community from the Second Temple to today or of any comparable Catholic concerns. The “discontinuity” has become supersessionism.

Unfortunate Comparisons

From a discussion of how a comparison between Old and New Testament motifs can yield new readings for the New Testament, we turn to the PBC’s actual use of comparison. Again, Murphy perfectly indicates the problems. Not only does the PBC fail explicitly to denounce supersessionism (2002: 148), but its tendency to juxtapose an “improved” New Testament against a flawed Old Testament is both unhelpful and even on occasion petty. For the PBC, the New Testament reproaches addressed to Jews are seen as not as frequent or as virulent as the accusations against Jews in Torah and Nevi’im (2002: 147-48). “The comparison,” says Murphy dryly, “is not convincing” (2002: 148). His point can be developed.

We are told that there are more reproaches of “the Jews” in the Old Testament than that the New offers to members of its communities. This is statistically true. Then again, the Old Testament is substantially longer than the New, and the Old Testament reproaches are also addressed to any community–including the Church–that holds it canonical. We might also note that the definition of “reproach” will vary depending on the genre: a prophetic text is not the same thing as an epistle.

The PBC also dwells on Israel’s disobedience. We read: “the Old Testament frequently gives an answer that expresses the disappointment of Israel’s God, a response full of reproaches and even condemnations.” We are told that Israel’s disobedience began “from the day their ancestors came out of Egypt” and that it has continued “even to this day.” Concerning the Deuteronomic History (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings), the PBC finds

an unqualified negative judgement on the history of Israel

and Judah between the time of Joshua and the Babylonian

Exile. The people and their kings, with few exceptions, have

generally succumbed to the temptation of foreign gods in

the religious sphere and to social injustice and every kind of

disorder forbidden in the Decalogue. That is why this history

ended finally on a negative note, the visible consequences

of which were the loss of the promised land with the

destruction of the two kingdoms and Jerusalem, including

the Temple, in 587.

The theme continues into the prophetic corpus: “The prophetic writings contain reproaches that are particularly vehement.” Even John the Baptist does not escape this “reproachful” history:

John the Baptist follows the ancient prophets in his call for

repentance to the ‘brood of vipers’ (Matt 3:7; Lk 3:7) that

flocked to his preaching. This preaching was based on the

conviction that a divine intervention was about to take

place. The judgement was imminent.

The closest the PBC comes to attributing to Jesus a prophetic stand is the notice: “Shocked at their refusal to believe, Jesus had recourse to invective, like the prophets of old.” He castigates this “evil and adulterous generation” (Matt 12:39), this “unbelieving and perverted generation” (17:17), and announces a judgement more severe than that which befell Sodom (11:24; cf. Is h 10). This is quite benign. Jesus also uses the expression “brood of vipers” (Matt 23:33); in this one chapter from Matthew, he also castigates Pharisees and scribes by calling or likening them to “blind fools” (23:17), “full of greed and self-indulgence” (23:25); “full of … all kinds of filth” (23:27), and pronounces that “upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth…. I tell you, all this will come upon this generation” (23:35). Nor do the disciples escape Jesus’ invectives: they “have no faith” (Mk 4:40); he asks, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see?” (Mk 8:17-18). He calls Simon Peter “Satan” (Mk 8:33). In turn, all the disciples forsake him (Mk 14:50); Peter denies him three times, and Judas betrays him. Just in terms of percentages, the followers of Jesus, let alone the members of the early Church, are no less guilty of disobedience, succumbing to temptation, and sin. But just as grace redeems these figures, so too it redeems the community of the Old Testament. Thus the canon of the Old Testament does not leave a “negative judgment on the people” any more than does the canon of the New Testament.

Regarding Christian invective, the PBC observes in relation to Acts, “To the Jews of Jerusalem who have ‘killed the Prince of Life’ (Ac 3:15), Peter preaches repentance and promises forgiveness of sins (3:19). Less severe than the ancient prophets, he regards their sin as one committed ‘in ignorance.'” The “less severe than the ancient prophets” comment is gratuitous. It is also debatable: the “ancient prophets” do not accuse their followers of having “killed the Prince of Life.” Deicide, or what traditionally for the Church–if not for Luke–is deicide, is no little charge.

Descriptions of Formative Judaism

Concerning the PBC’s summaries of the New Testament’s depiction of Jews, Murphy again finds a lack. Whereas for the Old Testament the wonderment is missing, for the New Testament meager is a sense of responsibility concerning (potentially) anti-Jewish readings. Rather, the PBC fully exculpates the text by means of positivistic historiography. Acknowledging that the PBC does put the difficult texts before the reader, Murphy nevertheless concludes that it

seems to play down the polemic between Jew and Christian,

but in some cases it does not succeed; some interpretations

are strained or perhaps overly subtle, as when the “synagogue

[assembly] of Satan” in Revelation 2:9, 3:9 is interpreted

in light of 12:10 as a “positive appreciation of Jew” as

a title of honour … [2002: 147].

More examples could be mounted. According to the PBC,

The Gospels frequently present the Pharisees as hypocritical

and heartless legalists. There was an attempt to refute this

by referring to certain rabbinical attitudes attested in the

Mishna, which shows that they were neither hypocritical

nor strictly legalist. But this argument is not convincing, for

a legalist tendency is also present in the Mishna.

Furthermore, it is unknown whether these attitudes, codified

by the Mishna c. 200, actually correspond to those of

the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.

Such comments are enough to confirm for any but the most resisting reader that the Gospel depictions of the Pharisees are on the whole historically accurate. By the time we read the next sentence–“However, it must be admitted, that in all probability, the presentation of the Pharisees in the Gospels was influenced in part by subsequent polemics between Christians and Jews”–the point is almost irrelevant. And, just in case readers were to adopt even a slightly positive view of Pharisees, the text continues,

At the time of Jesus, there were no doubt Pharisees who

taught an ethic worthy of approval. But the first-hand direct

testimony of Paul, a Pharisee “zealous for the traditions of

the ancestors,” shows the excess to which this zeal of the

Pharisees could lead: “I persecuted the Church of God.”

There no doubt were some worthy Pharisees; I am sure–she said, dripping with sarcasm–there were also no doubt first-century Christians who did not harbor strong feelings of antipathy to Jews who did not join the Church.

At times, the PBC waters down the New Testament’s polemic against Jews and thereby (almost) rescues the canon from charges of anti-Judaism. For example, it asserts that “Matthew’s polemic does not include Jews in general. These are not named apart from the expression ‘the King of the Jews’, applied to Jesus (2:2; 27:11, 29, 37) and in the final chapter (28:15), a phrase of minor importance.” Murphy’s sensitive reading would remark that this singular use in 28:15 is the last parting reference to the Jewish community: here they are fully distinguished from the Church. “The Jews” are those who proclaim that the body of the Christ was stolen, and this image remains with the reader.

Continuing with Matthew, the PBC regards the polemic to be “for the most part internal, between two groups both belonging to Judaism. On the other hand, only the leaders are in view. Although in Isaiah’s message the whole vine is reprimanded (Is 5:1-7), in Matthew’s parable it is only the tenants who are accused (Mt 21:33-41).” The claim might be a bit less positive, for we know neither the identity of the author nor the composition of the community. That problematic verse just cited, 28:15, suggests that Matthew and his group do not identify themselves as “Jews.”

Nor is it fully helpful to be told that the “invective and the accusations hurled at the scribes and Pharisees are similar to those found in the prophets, and correspond to a contemporary literary genre which was common in Judaism (for example, Qumran) and also in Hellenism.” The Gospels are not of the Prophetic genre, for the Gospels were not canonized by the group against whom the invectives are hurled. Nor did the Qumran scrolls become part of a Gentile mission; it is doubtful that any but the members of the group who preserved the more hateful texts actually read them. The argument at best serves to mitigate the harshness of the polemic; at worst, it places the blame for the polemic on the Jews themselves, for the style is seen as “common in Judaism.” At the very least, the PBC might have noted that such invective is also “common in Christianity.”

Concluding the discussion of Matthew, the PBC reads, “The evangelist … foresees that Jesus’ threats were about to be fulfilled. These threats were not directed at Jews as Jews, but only insofar as they were in solidarity with their leaders in their lack of docility to God.” For the Gospel, however, there are two categories of “Jewish characters”: those who follow Jesus and those who do not (again, see 28:15). Since the vast majority chose to follow leaders other than Jesus, they are equally condemned. The Document proffers a distinction without a difference.

For Luke, the PBC presents universal Christianity vs. xenophobic Judaism.

Jesus appeals to his fellow townspeople to renounce a possessive

attitude to his miracles and accept that these gifts are

also for the benefit of foreigners (4:23-27). Their resentful

reaction is violent; rejection and attempted murder

(4:28-29) …. The Jews violently oppose a preaching that

sweeps away their privileges as the chosen people. Instead of

opening out to the universalism of Second Isaiah, they follow

Baruch’s counsel not to share their privileges with

strangers [Bar 4:3].

Aside from failing to note that Baruch is in the Old Testament Apocrypha and so not part of the Synagogue’s canon, the statement does not carefully read Luke’s text. The Nazareth sermon is not about “sharing their privileges”; to the contrary, the two examples Jesus gives state that the privileges are given only to the Gentiles. Also missing is a notice of Luke’s own problematic treatment of Jews: the first impression the text offers of the Synagogue is that it is a place of violence and murder. At the very least, the PBC might have noted in this context that Luke may not be recounting an actual event.

Positivism continues when the Document turns to the fourth Gospel. The PBC appears to accept all negative statements made not only in John’s Gospel but in extracanonical sources, about “the Jews.” For example, it takes as fact John’s statements concerning expulsion from the synagogue of “whoever confesses Jesus as the Christ” (Jn 9:22). This is already a debatable point: Paul talks about being brought into the Synagogue for discipline, and as late as Chrysostom we have Christians welcomed in the Synagogue. Nor does the PBC address why expulsion would have been practiced. Because Christians were disrupting services? Because Christians were insisting that all who did not believe as they did were “children of the Devil”? Because to proclaim a crucified messiah in the Diaspora was at best a political liability? For the Document, expulsion is seen as something negative: not noted are the Church’s own disciplinary policies concerning those who do not agree with its teachings.

This sanguine view of history turns fully bloody in the conclusion to the discussion of the Johannine expulsions: “But one cannot seriously doubt that at certain times in different places, local synagogues no longer tolerated the presence of Christians, and subjected them to harassment that could even go as far as putting them to death (Jn 16:2).” The note (312) to this statement reads, “In the second century, the story of the martyrdom of Polycarp witnesses to the ‘habitual’ willingness on the part of Jews in Smyrna to cooperate in putting Christians to death.” Indeed. The Martyrdom of Polycarp also states that at the saint’s execution, ” … the fire was made the shape of a vaulted chamber, like a ship’s sail filled by the wind, and made a wall around the body of the martyr. And he was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking … and we perceived such a sweet aroma as the breath of incense or some other precious spice” (15:1-2). Upon being then stabbed, Polycarp bleeds such copious amounts that the fire is put out (Richardson: 155). One could “seriously doubt” the truth of this report.

The Shoah

Among Murphy’s consistent contributions to biblical scholarship, both in the wider academy and in the Church, was his fostering good relations and understanding between Jew and Catholic, Synagogue and Church. His full recognition of the often tragic history of these two faiths and these two communities provides a fitting background not only for the “Catholic” reading of the Old Testament but also for Catholic readings of the New Testament. Similarly, in his introduction to the PBC Document, Cardinal Ratzinger observes that “the Biblical Commission could not ignore the contemporary context, where the shock of the Shoah has put the whole question under a new light.” Speaking of the passages in the New Testament that could be seen as anti-Jewish, the PBC insists that “the New Testament polemical texts, even those expressed in general terms, have to do with concrete historical contexts and are never meant to be applied to Jews of all times and places merely because they are Jews.” Amen.

Murphy laments, however, that the PBC lacks any “explicit condemnation of the Christian authorities, religious and secular, who instigated or allowed pogroms in various historical periods.” “Church history is not the province of the PBC,” he admits, “but it casts its shadow on the Document” (2002: 148). Indeed, the history of the Church casts its shadow over all Jewish-Christian relations. Appropriately, Murphy acknowledges the continuing tragedies (he speaks of pogroms [2002: 148], works carried out by the laity, in individual towns over the course of centuries, rather than just of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or Catholic complicity in the Shoah).

To speak only or even primarily of the Shoah, as does the PBC, serves to absolve the Church of complicity not only in creating a dangerous and hostile atmosphere for Jews, but also in killing Jews. The Nazi party was not a Catholic party, although Catholics were members; the Nazi ideology was not a Catholic ideology, although Catholics subscribed. Murphy’s taking notice of the full history of Church/Synagogue relationships provides a better context for the PBC, even as it shows the remarkable and fully commendable steps the Church has taken more recently in dealing with what John Paul II called his “elder brother.”

Perhaps in sensitivity to this full history in general, and to the Shoah in particular, the PBC might have been more nuanced in its description of theodicy. We read, over and over, that Jewish infidelity caused destruction: “But [Jesus] says that the city ‘did not know the time of its visitation’ and he tearfully foresees that this blindness will bring about its ruin, as had already happened in Jeremiah’s time” (the note is to Lk 19:41-44; cf. Mt 23:37-39; Lk 13:34-35; 21:20-24). Thus, the “rejection of Jesus by the leaders of his people, who carried with them the population of Jerusalem, increased their guilt to its extreme degree. The divine sanction will be the same as in Jeremiah’s time: the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.” I cannot help being reminded of those, including some within Judaism, who attribute the Shoah to the secularized Jew. Surely the PBC is not making this claim.

Some discussion of theodicy is warranted, with Job being the better text from the Old Testament along with New Testament references to the persecution of the Church. Such notices would complicate simplistic Deuteronomic theology as well as break the connection between sin and destruction. The discussion is urgent, since the contextualization of the Document in terms of the Shoah threatens to suggest that the destruction of the six million was their own fault.

Nor will the stopping of the discussion at the Shoah accomplish the PBC’s goals of enhancing interfaith relations. Murphy got it right by looking to events prior to the Shoah; the PBC would have done well to look at more recent events, especially in (nominally) Catholic countries. Given the recent outbreaks of anti-Judaism (burning of synagogues, bombings of dayschools, desecrations of cemeteries, etc.) in Europe–with events in France being particularly egregious (! note this point because the PBC text was originally published in French)–the Document should admit that the problem is not merely one of rectification of the past, it is one of ongoing concern where Jewish lives are at stake.


There is a future thrust to the PBC Document, as there is to Wisdom literature and to Murphy’s work. None lets the reader rest easily with the status quo; each prompts us toward greater morality, greater humanity. The PBC insists, in two remarkable statements, that “Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain. It can become for us Christians a powerful stimulant to keep alive the eschatological dimension of our faith. Like them, we too live in expectation” and “It cannot be said, therefore, that Jews do not see what has been proclaimed in the text, but that the Christian, in the light of Christ and in the Spirit, discovers in the text an additional meaning that was hidden there.” These provide the basis not only for interfaith dialogue, but for interfaith shalom. Wisdom encourages us to continue to question, even to question G-d. Murphy teaches us that the texts offer ever-new meanings even as we can work backwards through history to see how they have impacted each generation.

Both Catholic scholar and Catholic Document have opened the way to better interfaith relations and to better understandings of the Bible of the Church. To read one Testament in light of the other will enhance appreciation of both; for Catholics to read the two Testaments together with Jews will do the same. To notice both continuity and discontinuity between the texts establishes a model by which continuity and discontinuity between past and future can be recognized, and when necessary encouraged. To read the PBC Document in light of Murphy’s words of wisdom shows the profound value of both.

Murphy’s work provides the foundation for the PBC’s goal, and we can do no better than its articulation: “Dialogue is possible, since Jews and Christians share a rich common patrimony that unites them. It is greatly to be desired that prejudice and misunderstanding be gradually eliminated on both sides, in favour of a better understanding of the patrimony they share and to strengthen the links that bind them.”

Works Cited

Levine, Amy-Jill. 2003. The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible: A Jewish Reading of the Document, THE BIBLE TODAY 41/3: 167-72.

Murphy, Roland E. 2002. The Biblical Commission, the Jews, and Scriptures, BTB 32/3: 1454-9. 2001. Once Again–The “Center” of the Old Testament, BTB 31/3: 85-89. 1998. What is Catholic about Catholic Biblical Scholarship?Revisited, BTB 28/3: I12-19.

Pontifical Biblical Commission. 2002. The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible. Translated by Maurice Hogan. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. This article draws from the on-line version: cfaith/pcb_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020212_popoloebraico _en.html

Richardson, Cyril C. (ed.), EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS. New York: Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Company, 1970.

Amy-Jill Levine, Ph.D. (Duke), is E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37240 (e-mail: amy-jill.levine She is currently editing the twelve-volume series, A FEMINIST COMPANION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT AND EARLY CHRISTIAN LITERATURE (Continuum/Sheffield).

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