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Posted March 18, 2004

Book: The Bible, The Jews, and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents
Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC, pp. 110

An excerpt from the Introduction:

On October 31, 1997, Pope John Paul II received a group of scholars attending a symposium on “The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu,” sponsored by the Holy See. He told them that “erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated (in the Christian world) for too long, engendering feelings of hostility toward this people. They contributed to the lulling of consciences, so that when the wave of persecutions swept across Europe . . .the spiritual resistance of many was not what humanity rightfully expected from the disciples of Christ. Your examination of the past, in view of a purification of memory, is particularly appropriate for clearly showing that anti-Semitism has no justification and is absolutely reprehensible.”

The members of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs echo the Holy Father in condemning anti-Semitism as sinful, and in deploring misinterpretations of the Sacred Scriptures for the promotion of anti-Semitic vilifications of Jews and Judaism. Therefore, the members of the committee decided to call attention to a number of significant Catholic teachings, and to do so in this publication, The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus. This publication brings together in one place excerpts from official documents of the Church pertaining to the interpretation of Scripture, anti-Semitism, and the understanding and presentation of the Passion and Death of Christ.

Two developments within the Church awakened and fostered a new understanding of the relationship between the Church and its roots in Judaism. The first was the biblical movement, which led the Church to a re-reading of the Gospels, and indeed all Scripture, through analysis of literary and historical forms, in order to identify a fuller theological understanding. The second development was that the Church in the Second Vatican Council formulated its commitment to re-examining its relationship with the Jewish people. Therefore, the readings included here first are from statements of the Council and from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. These define and develop how the Church reads her Scriptures in the light of Tradition. Continued efforts to better understand Judaism and to react to anti-Semitism have been made by the Magisterium as can be seen in the statements of the Holy Father, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As a part of this seeking for a better understanding of both the gospels and of Judaism, the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs developed in 1988, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.

Behind all these statements and gestures was the wish not only to end prejudices against Jews and Judaism, but also to understand better the salvation in Christ by seeing the unique place of Jews and of the Jewish religion in the unfolding of salvation.

An excerpt from the book:

Many of these negative “stock ideas,” unfortunately, can become vividly alive in passion dramatizations. It is all too easy in dramatic presentations to resort to artificial oppositions in order to heighten interest or provide sharp contrasts between the characters. Some of these erroneous oppositions, which are to be carefully avoided, are the following:

a. Jesus must not be depicted as opposed to the Law (Torah). In fact, as the Notes describe in greater detail, “there is no doubt that he wished to submit himself to the law (Gal 4:4) . . .extolled respect for it (Mt 5:17-20), an invited obedience to it” (Mt 8:4). Jesus should be portrayed clearly as a pious, observant Jew of his time.

b. The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition founded on it must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear, and legalism with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor (Dt 6:5; Lv 19:18; Mt 22:34-40).

c. Jesus and the disciples must not be set dramatically in opposition to his people, the Jews. This is to misread, for example, the technical terminology employed by John’s gospel. It also ignores those parts of the gospel that show the Jewish populace well disposed toward Jesus. In his life and teachings, “Jesus was and always remained a Jew” as, indeed, did the apostles.

d. Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious (e.g., in Temple money-changers scenes); blood thirsty (e.g., in certain depictions of Jesus’ appearances before the Temple priesthood or before Pilate); or implacable enemies of Christ (e.g., by changing the small “crowd” at the governor’s palace into a teeming mob). Such depictions, with their obvious “collective guilt” implications, eliminate those parts of the gospel that show that the secrecy surrounding Jesus’ “trial” was motivated by the large following he had in Jerusalem and that the Jewish populace, far from wishing his death, would have opposed it had they known and, in fact, mourned his death by Roman execution (cf. Lk 23:27).

e. Any crowd or question scene, therefore, should reflect the fact that some in the crowd and among the Jewish leaders (e.g., Nicodemus, Joseph) supported Jesus and that the rest were manipulated by his opponents, as is made clear in the gospels (cf. Nostra Aetate, n. 4, “Jewish authorities”; Notes IV, 30).

f. Jesus and his teachings should not be portrayed as opposed to or by “the Pharisees” as a group. Jesus shared important Pharisaic doctrines that set them apart from other Jewish groups of the time, such as the Sadducees. The Pharisees, in fact, are not mentioned in accounts of the passion except once in Luke, where Pharisees attempt to warm him of a plot against him by the followers of Herod (Lk 13:31). So, too, did a respected Pharisee, Gamaliel, speak out in a later time before the Sanhedrin to save the lives of the apostles (Acts 5). The Pharisees, therefore, should not be depicted as party to the proceedings against Jesus.

. . . .h. In the light of the above criteria, it will also be useful to undertake a careful examination of the staging and costuming aspects of particular productions where this may apply. To give just one example, it is possible to project subtly yet powerfully any or all of the above “oppositions” by costuming: arraying Jesus’ enemies in dark, sinister costuming and makeup, with Jesus and his friends in lighter tones. This can be effective on the stage. But it can also be disastrous if the effect is to isolate Jesus and the apostles from “the Jews,” as if all were not part of the same people. It is important to portray Jesus and his followers clearly as Jews among Jews, both in dress and in action such as prayer.

i. Similarly, the use of religious symbols requires careful evaluation. Displays of the menorah, tablets of the law, and other Jewish symbols should appear throughout the play and be connected with Jesus and his friends no less than with the Temple or with those opposed to Jesus. The presence of Roman soldiers should likewise be shown on the stage throughout the play, to represent the oppressive and pervasive nature of the Roman occupation.

Table of Contents:

Statements of the Second Vatican Council and the Pontifical Biblical Commission

Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, no. 4 (1965)

The Historical Truth of the Gospels (1964)

The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (1993)

Methods and Approaches for Interpretation

Hermeneutical Questions

Characteristics of Catholic Interpretation

Interpretation of the Bible in the Life of the Church

The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002)

Jews in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles

Pastoral Orientations

Statements of Pope John Paul II

Address at the Great Synagogue of Rome (1986), no. 4

Address to Pontifical Biblical Commission (1997)

Statements of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews

Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, no. 4(1974)


Teaching and Education

Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church

Jewish Roots of Christianity

The Jews in the New Testament

We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (1998)

Pope John Paul II’s Introductory Letter

Looking Together to a Common Future

Statements of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations (1967)

Statement on Catholic-Jewish Relations (1975)

God’s mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching (1988)

Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Proclamation

Lent: Controversies and Conflicts

Holy Week: The Passion Narratives

The Easter Season

Criteria for Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (1988)

Preliminary Considerations

A. The Mystery of the Passion

B. Avoiding Caricatures and False Oppositions

C. Difficulties and Sensitivities in Historical Reconstruction Based on the Four Gospel Accounts



Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 595-598

John Paul II, Good Friday Liturgy, April 10, 1998

Gospel Narratives of Passion