Anti-Judaism in Christian Teaching and Preaching

Statements that misrepresent Judaism (ancient and modern) or diminish the Jewish people appear with alarming frequency in Christian sermons.

Some of the more entrenched anti-Jewish assumptions and claims derive from careless study of the Bible and the contexts from which it came. They take many forms, some of which we might categorize as follows:

*Emphasizing Jesus’ uniqueness and his intention to effect social change by misrepresenting first-century Jewish thought and culture as myopic or insufficiently enlightened

*Mistaking Jesus’ specific criticisms of Jewish leaders in the Gospels as blanket statements that condemn all Jews and their practices

*Equating high regard for the law (torah) among Jews as legalism, “works righteousness,” or casuistry

*Misconstruing New Testament passages about welcoming and including gentiles as if they provide license for asserting that the gentile church supersedes Israel in God’s design, as if God abandons Judaism in favor of gentile Christianity,

Certainly anti-Judaism is an elusive and complicated notion, especially when we open a conversation about how the New Testament itself may or may not participate in such a thing. After all, probably the strong majority of New Testament authors were themselves Jews, and so the specific circumstances in which their writings first appeared require careful consideration. It is also the case that many Christian preachers and teachers in our time flirt with anti-Jewish claims without intending to do so. Many of these claims have been inherited from unfortunate but longstanding currents in Christianity’s history, fueled by patterns of biblical interpretation flawed by mistaken assumptions about ancient Judaism or by their reliance on dubious models of religion. Other anti-Jewish interpretations are brand-new, and they regularly rear their heads at all points across a Christian theological spectrum; neither liberals, nor moderates, nor conservatives are immune.

Most, if not all, of the anti-Judaism voiced in Christian sermons is easily avoidable. Knowledge can remedy a lot of it. Biblical scholarship over the past quarter century has done much to articulate a better understanding of the Judaism of Jesus’ world. Such scholarship does not guarantee that informed preachers and theologians will represent the relationship between Christianity and Judaism more accurately or with greater integrity. But it helps, because it forces us to reckon with what the gospel of Jesus meant and still means for its time, its adherents, and its opponents.

Toward this end, I recently have been recommending Amy-Jill Levine’s book The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) to my students and to pastors. Levine, who is Jewish and teaches New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School, writes to help a general audience understand how Jesus interacted with his social and religious world as a first-century Jew living among first-century Jews. Levine’s investigations of New Testament texts offer an especially helpful introduction to Christians who seek a better understanding of ancient Judaism and Christianity’s connections to Jewish religious beliefs and practices. Many of these beliefs and practices seem foreign to people today and have been made more foreign through caricature and misinformation. Other good books for preachers include Marilyn J. Salmon’s Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism and various books on lectionary preaching coauthored by Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson.

No book is perfect, and knowledge alone will not eliminate tendencies to exalt Jesus and the gospel by disparaging Judaism. But those who read and critically reflect on what Levine and others have to say can return to the Bible with clearer eyes and better judgment. For Christians, understanding Jesus as a Jew and appreciating the particularities of his criticisms and proclamations does at least two things. It honors our neighbors. It also illuminates the depth and richness of God’s faithfulness–a faithfulness reiterated in Jesus Christ, through whom God actualizes God’s intention to bless the whole world.