“The Jews” on Good Friday

"The Jews" did not kill Jesus

Christians have a bad history when it comes to how we speak about, treat, and honor our Jewish sisters and brothers. For centuries Jews have suffered at the hands of Christians in religious and civil authority, scapegoated for everything from plagues to economic crises. Near the end of his life Martin Luther wrote a hateful treatise entitled, “On the Jews and their Lies” that advocated, among other things, burning synagogues. Luther’s words were quoted by Adolf Hitler to support the evils of the Holocaust.

This tension of how Christians speak about and understand our Jewish sisters and brothers is particularly pronounced as many Christian churches – New Joy, included – will read the Passion story from the Gospel of John this Holy Week. Many English translations of the Gospel of John frequently use the phrase “the Jews,” begging the question of how modern English-language congregations should understand this phrase.

Gail Ramshaw, one of our church’s noted theologians, writes:

The [Greek] word Ioudaioi is literally “the Judeans,” that is, people currently or originally residents of Judea who shared a common history and religion. Some biblical scholars urge that “Judeans” is the best English rendering of the Johannine designation. During medieval times, Middle English dropped the “d” in “Judean,” producing our word “Jew.” Thus, the English language suggests two different entities, Judeans and Jews, and this linguistic situation much complicates our reception of John 18-19.

To further complicate our translation task, our noun “Jews” has many referents: adherents of the religion of Judaism; members of a historic ethnicity; participants, by birth or choice, in a cultural community; subjects of an ancient religious and ethnic nation-state; even citizens of the State of Israel. An ethnic Jew may be a practicing Christian; an observant participant of Judaism may be of any ethnicity. Some usage replaces the noun “Jew” with the adjective “Jewish.” The word has been used as an anti-Semitic slur.

So: Given the various referents of “the Jews” in the Gospel of John and its many meanings in our speech, the proclamation of John’s Passion on Good Friday may prove a stumbling block. The hope is that, as always, catechesis and preaching will assist believers in receiving the good news of Jesus Christ for their lives in, with, and under the words of the Bible, which always proclaims God’s word in ancient cultural speech.

The Common English Bible, the translation of the Bible we read at New Joy, translates some renderings of Ioudaioi as “the Jewish opposition,” to reference that group of leaders who opposed Jesus. But in other places it simply uses “the Jews” in reference to different Jewish people and groups.

Most importantly, we need to remember that it wasn’t “the Jews” who killed Jesus. It was human sin that killed Jesus – the same sin that is active in our world and in our lives today. It was our age-old rebellion against God that killed Jesus. If Jesus came in flesh and blood today – as he did 2000 years ago – chances are high that we’d fail to take notice, and that we’d likely participate in the mob mentality of exiling him to death. But we don’t need imaginary what-ifs. In Matthew 25 Jesus teaches that the way we treat the poor, the hungry, and the imprisoned is how we treat him. Jesus comes to us now in the face and life and needs of our neighbors. How are we treating him?

In the Bible’s story there are Jews who are devout and faithful, and Jews who transgress and betray. In the Bible’s story there are Romans who are devout and faithful, and Romans who transgress and betray. So too for any “group” named the Bible. We cannot use the Bible as a reason to blame any single group for any evil – unless we want to speak about humankind as a whole, and take ownership of our part in humanity’s brokenness.

This Good Friday as you read and listen to the Passion according to Saint John, consider your own role in this story – as one who yells out “crucify him,” as one who denies Jesus, as one who flees from the cross. There’s part of each of those ancient characters in each of us.

In another telling of the Passion story Jesus, hanging upon the cross, says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). Our Lord’s forgiveness, our Lord’s promise, our Lord’s life extends even to us. Let’s take comfort in the promise we receive because of the love and grace of Jesus, whose dying and rising transforms us and our world.

In Jesus’ name.