Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust

Jesus, Judaism and Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust

DeBoer, Martinus C

Jesus, judaism and Christian Anti-Judaism: Reading the New Testament after the Holocaust Edited by Paula Frederiksen and Adele Reinhartz Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2002. 129 pp. $19.95.

In this volume’s foreword, Carey Newman aptly describes a key issue in the ongoing dialogue between Jews and Christians since the Holocaust as “the potentially anti-Jewish character of the New Testament” itself. To what extent does this foundational, authoritative collection of books contain and thus foster anti-Judaism? Or does the problem lie with readers and interpreters rather than with the New Testament itself? Five, primarily Jewish, New Testament scholars attempt to address this issue for a broadly conceived, mainly Christian audience (college and seminary students, Bible-study groups). In doing so, the five authors agree to disagree sharply among themselves. Paula Frederiksen (“The Birth of Christianity and the Origins of Christian Anti-Judaism”), John Gager (“Paul, the Apostle of judaism”), and E. P. Sanders (“Jesus, Ancient judaism, and Modern Christianity”) place the onus for anti-Judaism squarely on Christian readers and interpreters, whereas Amy-Jill Levine (“Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Good News or Bad?”) and Adele Reinhartz (“The Gospel of John: How the ‘Jews’ Became Part of the Plot”) discern anti-Judaism in the New Testament itself.

For the first three scholars, the solution to Christian anti-Judaism is to interpret the New Testament texts within their original socio-historical contexts: Historical research is necessary to prevent the New Testament and what it says about Jews and judaism from being misunderstood and misused. The other two contributors favor a solution that devises ways to read and interpret the documents that undermine their anti-Jewish bias and implications. The first solution is perhaps too sanguine about the ability of dispassionate research to overcome the long, shameful history of anti-Jewish, even anti-Semitic, interpretations of the New Testament. The second, ironically, may serve precisely to legitimate an anti-Jewish reading and application of New Testament texts among Christians for whom the New Testament is the final authority in matters of faith and practice.

The book’s stated aim is to promote readings of the New Testament that “neither distort history nor encourage prejudice.” This volume’s essays show that this aim is by no means easily achieved. What one contributor may regard as purely historical description, another may call a distortion of the evidence and thus an encouragement of prejudice. Reinhartz’s essay on John is a case in point. Contrary to the conclusions of many Christian scholars, she regards the charge that “the Jews” of the Gospels persecuted the (Jewish) followers of Jesus as a malicious lie, not as historically plausible or factual. The matter is further complicated, as Levine recognizes, by one’s understanding of anti-Judaism. Sanders makes the interesting suggestion that much of what, at first sight, might appear as anti-Jewish attitudes among New Testament scholars is more accurately construed as anti-ancient attitudes: People today have difficulties with ancient rituals of sacrifice and purity, with exorcisms and apocalyptic expectations, whether or not these are Jewish. For the two editors, anti-Judaism involves “Christianity’s often hostile characterizations of Jews and judaism.” Frederiksen locates the beginning of such hostility in the second century; Reinhartz, in the New Testament itself. Elsewhere in the volume, however, anti-Judaism seems also to mean a theologically motivated rejection of (non-Christian) judaism, whether or not such a rejection involves expressly hostile, malicious, or misleading characterizations of (non-Christian) Jews and judaism. Gager, for example, defines anti-Judaism as a “rejection-replacement theology” and attempts to show that Paul is not anti-Jewish in that sense: Israel is not finally rejected, and Christ replaces the Torah only for Gentiles, not for Jews. Reinhartz regards not only the hostile characterization of Jews she detects in John as lamentably, despicably anti-Jewish but also the Johannine view that Jesus “has superseded the Jewish covenant and taken over its institutions and symbols.” Reinhartz, like Gager, thus implies that early Christian belief in Jesus as God’s Messiah of and for Israel-widely represented in the New Testament-was itself a form of anti-Judaism.

Here we come up against the key issue in the dialogue between Christians and Jews and in their joint reading of the New Testament. If, on the one hand, Christian claims about Jesus implicitly call into question the validity of a judaism in which Jesus has no place, so, on the other hand, the continuing existence of judaism implicitly calls into question the validity of Christian claims about Jesus. That was the case in the first century and it remains so today, even apart from polemics or expressions of hostility. There is no way out of this theological dilemma, and it needs to be honestly recognized. This book, then, might have posed the following question: Even if the New Testament does, indeed, claim that Christ replaces the Torah or the covenant or that the church replaces Israel, does it in any way justify Christian hostility, in word or deed, toward Jews or judaism? Despite the sharp theological polemics against certain Jewish groups, no writer of the New Testament reports or calls for the hatrednever mind the killing-of Jews who fail to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. Levine observes in passing that the authors of the Synoptic Gospels would “be appalled at what has been done to Jewish communities in Jesus’ name for close to two millennia.” Right. The same surely applies to the New Testament’s other authors, including Paul and John. After the Holocaust, it needs to be said again and again in a loud voice that there is no moral justification whatsoever to be found in the New Testament for Christian hostility to Jews and judaism. The editors’ invitation to further discussion is certainly necessary, because these short essays aloneoccasionally blemished by implausibility, overgeneralizations, and insufficient subtlety-clearly cannot do justice to the complexity of the issues involved.


Free University of Amsterdam

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Copyright Theology Today Apr 2004

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