When I was in fourth grade, I lived next to a girl who attended Blessed Sacrament Catholic School. One day we were playing together and she asked me if I was Jewish. When I said yes, she informed me that the Jews had killed Jesus. “Jesus was a Jew,” I replied. She thought for a moment and then shot back, “Well, maybe in your religion!”
This scene has repeated itself for the past two thousand years, from playground bullying to pogroms. Since the Holocaust, there has been an increasing awareness of the ways in which Christian readers have de-Judaized the Christian scriptures to the point where they believe “the Jews” are the murderers of Christ. Jesus, his early followers, as well as the authors and intended audience of the Christian scriptures were Jews. At first, they were united by their history, their faith, their oppression by the Romans, and their hope that the Messianic age would arrive. Jesus’ earliest followers never intended to start a new religion, opposed to or superseding Judaism. At the same time, the need to convince their fellow Jews that Jesus the Messiah would return imminently grew until a schism was inevitable. According to feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether, “The anti-Judaic tradition in Christianity grew as a negative and alienated expression of a need to legitimate its revelation in Jewish terms.”
In her book Faith and Fratricide: the Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism, Ruether wrote, “Earliest Christianity believed that Jesus was the Messiah in the context of a lively expectation of the imminent end of the world. Jesus was the one who was shortly to reappear on clouds of glory to bring in redemption.” When Jesus did not return to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the Jewish followers of “the Way” had to develop a new Christology in which Jesus was the pre-existing God who had established the “New Covenant” with Gentiles and Jews, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and would come again in glory at some future time. Jews who believed that Jesus could not have been the Messiah because he did not usher in the Messianic age became, according to former Paulist priest James Carroll, “the shadow against which Christianity could be the light.”
According to Ruether, “It was the raising up of faith in Messiah Jesus as a supersessionary covenantal principle – the view that one was not in the true people of God unless one adopted the faith in this form – that caused the break between the church and Israel.” Christians today need to take a hard look at the doctrine of supersessionism, particularly the soteriological exclusivity which claims that “salvation is granted only to those who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.” We must ask ourselves whether, in the words of Carroll, “Christology itself is a source of Christian Contempt for Jews.” Carroll’s book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews painstakingly lays out the horrific real-world consequences of our theology and our liturgy for our Jewish siblings.
In light of years of Catholic anti-Semitism, I believe inclusive Catholics must continue to examine our liturgies and root out anti-Judaism. We must reclaim Jesus “as a faithful Jew within the Mosaic covenant, who did not set out to replace Judaism by another religion, but who lived in lively expectation of the coming of God’s Kingdom and judged his society in its light.” In repeating the words of consecration during one of the most sacred moments of the Eucharistic Prayer, many liturgists change the word “the” to “a,” as in “the blood of a new covenant.” In other words, Christians have sought to make a new covenant with God in Christ Jesus, a covenant which does not supersede the covenant God made with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, but stands alongside it as a younger, and very grateful, sibling.