Jesus Wasn't Killed by the Jews (Jon Sweeney) -- A Review

JESUS WASN’T KILLED BY THE JEWS: Reflections for Christians in Lent. Edited by Jon M. Sweeney. Foreword by Rabbi Abraham Skorka. Afterword by Amy-Jill Levine. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. 128 pages.

The question of who killed Jesus is a complicated one. According to the Gospels, the Romans executed him, but they had input from the local religious leaders. There is also the possibility that a mob was stirred up by this consortium, to give the execution the appearance of popular support. There is little to go on beyond the Gospels, and the authors of these books have their own purposes in writing what they do. Why is this relevant for Christians to consider during Lent? One could answer the question with a reminder that Lent is a season of reflection and penitence. Since Christians have a history of condemning Jews as Christ-killers, this might be a good time to consider that legacy. It’s also relevant because Lent leads into Holy Week, and it’s during Holy Week that this issue becomes the most problematic. Texts are read that not only blame Jews for the events of Good Friday, but these texts have been used to encourage violence against Jews on that very day. So, at a time when anti-Semitism remains a significant problem, we need to make sure we keep our facts straight.

This legacy led Jon Sweeney, who serves as Publisher at Paraclete Press and the author of numerous books to edit this book for this particular season. As a Roman Catholic, he draws on the key Vatican II document known as Nostra Aetate as a foundation for the book. This document, which addresses Catholic engagement with other Christians and other religious traditions, explicitly set aside earlier teachings on the role of Jews in the death of Jesus and made changes to liturgies that had tarred Jews as Christ-killers. Sweeney wants to remind readers of this turn of events as a call to address the ongoing issues that feed anti-Semitism in the current era.

Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews is a collection of essays. Sweeney wrote several of them, along with the introduction. He organizes this small book around two themes: Foundations and Progress. The book opens with a foreword by Rabbi Abraham Skorka titled "Antisemitism Yet Again,” giving a Jewish context for the importance of dealing with the question. One part of that context was the mass shooting at a Jewish synagogue in Poway, California. The question of Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death and the attempt to use it as fodder for persecution and more simply won’t go away. This leads to Sweeney’s introduction in which the editor sets the agenda for why the book is necessary. We need to get the story straight as it is a life and death concern. The book closes with Amy-Jill Levine's "Afterword." I have to say her brief essay is probably the most impactful segment of the book. She engages with the previous essays, correcting some proposals and giving her guidance for the way forward.

Essayists in the book include Walter Brueggemann, Mary Boys, Nicholas King, Richard Lux, Robert Ellsberg, Wes Howard-Brook, Massimo Faggioli, Bishop Richard J. Skalba, Greg Garrett, and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. They explore such issues as Israel's origins as well as that of Christianity. There is an essay suggesting that the New Testament was written entirely by Jews (Nicholas King), which is intriguing, but I think Amy-Jill Levine is correct in saying we simply don't know for sure about authorship. This is especially regarding Luke. While it's possible that the author of the Gospel was Jewish, it's difficult to prove one way or another. There is also an essay on supersessionism/replacement theology (Richard Lux), which is a good primer on the problem that continues to plague Christian interpretation of Scripture and Christian theological formulation (this includes Progressive Christians). Sweeney has brief essays focusing on how we practice Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Regarding Maundy Thursday, his words of advice concerning Seders needs to be heeded. We need to be careful about Christianizing a Jewish festival. In my mind, unless you have a Rabbi leading it at your church, don't try it.

Sweeney designed the book to be read during Lent. It’s not a daily devotional nor is it a book that’s specifically designed for group study (there isn’t a study guide or questions provided). However, it could easily be used by groups to stir a conversation about an important issue. As the afterword by Amy-Jill Levine reminds us, the authors aren’t always on the same page, but they are all committed to addressing this lingering challenge to the church and to the world. Beyond its use during Lent, it should prove useful in furthering the conversation about Jewish-Christian relations. It may help some Christians understand why many Jews are hesitant to talk about Jesus. They may come to understand why Jews are uncomfortable with Good Friday. As noted earlier, Amy-Jill Levine's essay helps clarify a number of points, including authorship of New Testament books and the way we refer to Jews. Personally, I didn't find Wes Howard-Brook's suggestion that the Greek word Ioudaioi, most often translated as the Jews (especially in the Gospel of John), as Judeans to be compelling. I think that Levine deals with that suggestion effectively.

If we are to undo the legacy of Christian anti-Judaism, we will need to listen to our Jewish neighbors and read the Gospels and other Christian texts with care, so that we do not repeat the errors of others. It’s not enough to simply affirm that Jesus was Jewish or that the authors of the Gospels might have been Jewish. We need to deal with the legacy of nearly two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. This book won’t answer all the questions we might have, but it provides the foundation for a conversation that continues to be needed. This makes it a worthy read for Lent.


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