Judeans Rather Than “Jews” — Sensitizing Good Friday Passion Readings

My friend Scott Wells, blogging as Boy In the Bands, writes about a Lutheran Good Friday service he attended that worked very well liturgically. Here, he describes what I want to lift up as a very helpful way to take some of the sting out of the painful anti-Jewish sentiment of the gospel accounts, heard too often by Christian ears across history as justification for terrible anti-Semitism. As a daughter of Jewish ancestry who heard from her own father to “be careful” on Good Friday (because he had grown up being harassed on that day, and had heard many stories from the Old Country that made Good Friday a fearful days for Jews), I commend this to your attention,

But I really mention the Passion Gospel because the reader-pastor made an important and legitimate alteration to the text. It is hard to really get into the story when you get a dose of the-Jews-the-Jews-the-Jews. Sensitive Christians have been troubled about this for quite some time, but I confess I hadn’t come up with as elegant solution as I heard today. (And indeed, it was featured in the sermon.) For Jew (religious identity), he said Judean (political identity). It isn’t a euphemism: Jesus was convicted of sedition for claiming (not to play Pilate) the “Rex Judaeorum” and Judean is already used a toponomic adjective.

There’s enough of a verbal distance to help Christians hear the story without getting coopted into the long history of anti-Jewish violence by Christians, or God forbid, extending it. There’s something to be said by what Jewish friends and family would make of the Passion Gospel. (Indeed, this is the reason I name the congregation, so as to attribute this good practice.) – Scott Wells, BoyInTheBands

I attended Good Friday at the Episcopal Cathedral Church in Boston and was very touched to see these words by Bishop Krister Stendahl on the first page of the Order of Worship,

A Note Toward Repentance

As we gather beneath the Cross of Jesus, we should perhaps also be aware how among Jews and Muslims this our most holy sign has evoked and still evokes memories of the murderous Christian Crusades. And in not too distant times, it was actually during Holy Week that Jews suffered the worst pogroms. Somehow it was the story of Christ’s Passion that gave Christians the biblical sanction for acting out in heinous ways that contempt for the Jews that has marked and marred so much of Christian teaching and preaching. Even today images linger in our minds of the high priests — not to mention Judas — as looking much more Jewish than Jesus. [Mel Gibson, are you listening? – PB] How can that be? Were they not all Jews? Such simple questions should make us resolve to purge our Good Friday worship of all its potential contempt for Jews and Judaism. We do so in a mood of repentance, shamefully aware of how our story of reconciliation often was turned into its very opposite. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. — Bishop Krister Stendahl

4 Replies to “Judeans Rather Than “Jews” — Sensitizing Good Friday Passion Readings”

  1. Thanks for posting this, PeaceBang. “The Judeans” is a totally responsible translation of the Greek *hoi ioudaioi* — more faithful by far to the sense of the Greek than translating it as “the Jews.” Literature of the period in Greek doesn’t use *hoi ioudaioi* to refer to all Jews, and sometimes uses it to contrast one party or branch within Judaism (those with particular ties to Judea and who are loyal defenders of the Temple system) to others.

    And I love the Krister Stendahl quote, which is going in my file right now for future use in Holy Week bulletins.

  2. We say “the chief priests” instead of “the Jews” in order to make the subtle point that the whole deal was orchestrated by the few with power, not by the whole people.

    I’ll float “the Judeans” as a possibility for next year…

  3. Thanks Scott, and thanks PB for bringing this to our attention. It’s a sore spot, and I’m grateful to have a legitimate way to distinguish.

  4. I like the mention of the Muslims also in the Krister Stendahl. As I try to remind my fellow Americans on a daily basis, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all worship the *same* God. They are all rooted in the same history, the same origin stories. They are branches of the same tree. I think everyone seems to forget that (or are unaware of it). Christians, especially in this post-911 era, point fingers at the Islamic faith for being the root of all evil… and it really makes me mad because none of these religions promote violence; it’s the extremists in all corners who makes a religion look bad.

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