Good Friday – Imbibing anti-Semitism

Strasbourg ChurchStrasbourg SynagogueGospel Reading: John 18.1-19.42

The seeds of anti-Semitism are sown in the Passion narratives, especially in the Gospel of John, the reading for Good Friday where the word “Jews” is used 21 times, mostly in a negative manner. Here is a sampling of these passages:  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews (1836); After he had said this, he (Pilate) went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him…” (18.38); They (the Jews) shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (18.40); Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews (19.38). With the solemn reading of this Gospel accompanied by chants and incense, millions of Christians unconsciously imbibe a spirit of anti-Judaism.

Who will adapt the biblical text to read not the Jews but “some of Jesus’ countrymen” or “their religious leaders”?

Who will point out that the whole of the Passion story as recounted in the Gospels is biased against the Jewish nation and favorable towards Rome?

Who will explain that by the time of the redaction of the Passion narratives the synagogue and the Church had already split? Christians perceived the Jews as blind for not having recognized Jesus as their Messiah. Tensions and struggles arose. It was therefore an easy step to project this back into the Passion narrative itself and ultimately to the de-Judaization of Jesus and his followers.

Who will show that the Pilate of the Passion narratives has little in common with the Pilate of history?  Pilate in the Passion narratives is a compassionate man who believed in the innocence of Jesus and tried to save him from the hands of his enemies, the Jews. The Pilate of history is a stubborn vindictive, cruel person who was known for his grievous acts of cruelty towards the Jews.

Who will clarify for the worshipers those responsible for the death of Jesus? Who killed him? On the gentile side, the Romans. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment not a Jewish one?

On the Jewish side the principal movers were the Jewish religious leaders, the priests of the temple, functionaries of Rome, charged with keeping the peace. The Gospel states that Jesus was arrested by a detachment of soldiers together with police sent from the chief priests.  They brought him first to the former high priest, Annas, who after interrogating him sent him to the house of the high priest Caiaphas where he was kept during the night.  Early in the morning Caiaphas had him transferred to Pilate’s headquarters and the Roman authorities, knowing full well what the outcome would be. These priests did not represent the Jewish people.

Where should our hearts be on Good Friday? While tenderly kissing the cross we could ask ourselves what we have done to his people. How have we participated in the development and spread of the myth of the Jews as Christ Killers that led to the crucifixion of Jesus over and over again with the death of six million children, women and men “tortured and killed, boiled into soap, their hair made into pillows and their bones into fertilizer” (25, Fleischner).

Who should repent? The religious leadership who inaugurated the crusades, set up the inquisition, built ghettoes, and supported civil leaders in their persecution and expulsions of Jews from their countries. All the theologians who helped build the myth of the Jews as Christ Killers and portrayed them as blind because they did not recognize the advent of their Messiah. All those who prayed for “the perfidious Jews” in the Good Friday liturgy. All those who criticize all the Jews today because they don’t distinguish a people from its political leadership.

Do these thoughts profane a day that is called “Good” Friday? No, not if we care about the continuation of Christianity.   Nostra Aetate has not had the effect desired by the members of the Second Vatican Council. Irving Greenberg, a Jewish scholar, questions whether Christianity can survive in the face of the Holocaust:  “Has the wager of faith in Jesus been lost?” he asks.  Not necessarily so, he answers: “There is an alternative for those whose faith can pass through the demonic, consuming flames of a crematorium: it is the willingness and ability to hear further revelation and reorient themselves. That is the way of wholeness. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav once said there is no heart so whole as a broken heart. After Auschwitz, there is no faith so whole as a faith shattered—and re-fused—in the ovens” (p.24, Fleischner).

Bibliography: Jeremy Cohen, Christ Killers: the Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen  (Oxford University Press, 2007); Fleischner, Editor, Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (Ktav, 1977); Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew; Mary Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? (Paulist Press, 2000).

Sr Maureena Fritz NDS

e: maureena (at)