As a Jew who converted to Christianity, I learned to appreciate Christmas. Easter, on the other hand, has always been difficult. There is no other day of the year when one-foot-in-both-worlds syndrome hits me harder, but I’ve never been able to articulate why. Thankfully, there’s Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote an enlightened piece for Religion and Ethics called Holy War and the Hatred of Jews: Avoiding Anti-Semitism at Easter. Now I can point to this to explain why Easter has always made me feel squicky.
Perhaps I should be more specific: Easter itself is the good day, the day of resurrection. It’s the day when despair turns to hope. But part of Easter weekend – a really big part, actually – is what happens on the Friday before it: Good Friday, the day of crucifixion. A day that, despite occurring two thousand years before my birth, left this a scarlet label on my childhood before I even knew what it was.
The charge against “the Jews” permeates the pages of the New Testament.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate literally washes his hands while “all the people” – all the Jewish people – clamour for Jesus’s death: “Let him be crucified … His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:23, 27).
John’s Gospel indentifies the Jews as “from your father the devil” (John 8:44) and blames them for backing Pilate into a corner and forcing him to kill an innocent man.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter charges “the entire house of Israel” (Acts 2:36) with crucifying Jesus and so having “killed the Author of life” (Acts 3:14-15). Paul then bluntly refers to “the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).
I didn’t know about any of that context as a kid. All I knew was that certain neighbors forbid their kids to play with me because I killed some man named Jesus. All I knew was the hand-written note, in loopy eight-year-old script, from a classmate begging me not to “Make Jesus sad” and to “Please stop rejecting him!” Some of her words seemed a bit mature for our vocabulary level. I showed the note to my mom, and later learned that the girl’s mother put her up to it; perhaps even dictated word for word.
As a kid who liked being the center of attention (usually in the context of a school play or a skating competition), being Jewish was just one more thing that made me stand out, which I was fine with. What wasn’t fine was feeling guilty all the time. That guilt would follow me all through elementary, middle, and high school, as I made friends with Catholics. To be fair, those friends were always gracious and kind to me. A handful attended my Bat Mitzvah, and I attended some of their worship services in return. It was sitting in church and listening to the messages being preached that reinforced those “You killed him and deserve to be punished” feelings.
Today, interfaith conversation, in which Jews and Christians learn to appreciate their common roots and better understand the reasons for the gradual and often painful separation, can reverse the process. Official (and unofficial) church statements facilitate healing as well: Nostra Aetate, the 1965 declaration of Vatican II, proclaimed that all Jews at all times should not be held responsible for Jesus’s death, and Pope Benedict XVI, in the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth, strongly reiterated the point. Christians from many (but not all) other branches of the tradition, generally agree.
But we still have to deal with our pasts, and with our Scriptures. Every time the Passion narratives are read, the threat of anti-Judaism reappears. There is no catch-all for resolving the problems in the New Testament – or in Tanakh/the Old Testament, for that matter; we all have difficult texts in our canons.
Evangelists, including the ones who “adopted” me in college, are quite fond of the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?” dilemma, in which strangers are asked to assign one of those labels to Jesus in regards to his divinity. Understandably, “liar” and “lunatic” feel offensive to use in front of Christians, which unfairly leaves “Lord” at the only viable choice. This “strategy” can work on almost anyone, but when your witnessing target is Jewish, there’s a different pair of gloves that come off. In some cases it leads to goy-splaining: gentiles explaining Jewish Scripture to Jews. In my experience, emphasizing all the Jewish characteristics of Jesus, from his lineage to his daily rituals, was employed the most. This is a more good-natured route, but as Levine points out, it’s still historically problematic:
The problem, however, is that those who see themselves as “Jews” on Good Friday then see themselves as redeemed “Christians” on Sunday morning. The Jews, by not accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour, remain in their guilt.
The same romantic approach today is best exemplified in the celebration of the Passover seder in churches, usually on Holy Thursday. While there are educational benefits to introducing Christians to Jewish ritual, holding the seder in churches is not necessarily a good idea, and here’s why:
It is not clear that the Last Supper was a Passover meal; it is not, in John’s Gospel, which at this point has better claims to historicity.
The seder is a rabbinic invention which then developed over the centuries; Jesus did not eat matzoh ball soup or gefilte fish, sing Dayenu, or say “next year in Jerusalem” – for Jesus, the seder would have consisted of a lamb sacrificed in the Temple and eaten in Jerusalem, not a brisket cooked in Nashville.
The Passover at the time of Jesus was limited to Jews, because one needed to say, “My ancestors came forth out of Egypt.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the Passover offering, crucified at the time the lambs are sacrificed in the temple, so for the church to celebrate a seder would be theologically retrograde.
By far Levine’s most useful suggestion is her last one, admitting the problem of anti-semitic rhetoric in Scriptures (or rhetoric that feels anti-semitic even if it wasn’t intended that way), and the pattern of using said Scriptures to justify hate crimes. It would do Christians some good to own this, even if they never participated in anti-Jewish acts before. It’s still, like it or not, a stain on Christian history, and it cannot be ignored.
There is another tactic Levine doesn’t mention to get around this text’s historical use in justifying anti-Jewish violence: the No True Scotsman fallacy. Christians like to dismiss the faith of predecessors and contemporaries with “Well, they obviously weren’t following Jesus” when they make their faith look bad. This, too, is dishonest.
Levine concludes her piece with “We choose how to read,” but we also choose which interpretation to follow. Too often, it’s not only the one we like best, but the one that suits an agenda. And for the humble Christian, admitting to bias (mainly the political sort) is key when interpreting the Scriptures. We will always bring our modern assumptions to the text, whether we realize it or not.
Like this post? Check out Confessions of a Jew-ish Skeptic, now available on Amazon.