Nostra Aetate precursors
- Created: September 1, 1960
- Written by Willehad Eckert, O.P.
[The following is a partial summary of the full "Apeldoorn Theses," published in the Freiburger Rundbrief, nos. 50-52, (1961), pp. 10-11. Translated by Victoria Barnett. The full text in direct translation will be posted shortly.]
From August 28 to September 1 1960, at the invitation of Msgr. Ramselaar, president of the Dutch Catholic Council for Israel, there was for the second time an unofficial conversation among individuals from seven different countries who are interested in the study of Christian-Jewish relations, at the Archdiocese of Utrecht’s hospitable small seminary in Apeldoorn. (Regarding the first conversation, cf. the Freiburger Rundbrief no. 41/44 (1958-59), p. 80). Like the first conversation, this second one, too, happily demonstrated to everyone the deep commonality in their view of the relationship of the new to the old people of God. This time the discussion was not an orientation into the possibilities of an ecumenical conversation between Christians and Jews, about the status and the working possibilities of the different institutes that are dedicated to the study of Christian-Jewish relations, or with respect to the general problem of the ecumenical movement. This time the intent was nothing more and nothing less than a discussion to clarify the extent to which the representatives of the different countries have a shared fundamental position regarding proclamation and what common demands are made of religious instruction and preaching when they speak of Judaism, the Jewish religion, and the relationship between Judaism and the church.
The conference participants dealt with the problem areas: Old Testament, Judaism in the time of Jesus, the crucifixion of Jesus and who bears the guilt, the question of rejection, eschatological hope. Essentially all the participants were of the opinion that the horror of the persecution and annihilation of the Jews in our times, as well as the return of so many Jews to their old-new homeland, as well as the loving concern shown by the last Pope for the people first chosen by God, summon us to a civic encounter and to strive for a recognition of reality. The Old Testament is the Word of God for the church just as is the New Testament. The revelation and salvation history contained in the Old Testament still applies to us. Jesus Christ, the word of God become flesh, was shaped by the traditions of his land and people. He continues the path of the patriarchs and prophets and fulfils them. He himself said of himself: “I have come not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.” (Matt. 5:17). One cannot pit the New Testament against the Old by explaining that only the God of wrath is in the Old Testament whereas the God of love is to be found in the New, for it is the same divine strictness and love in both testaments that reveals itself ever more in the course of salvation history.
The historical and religious-historical research in particular has shown us that we know the Jewish context of Christ’s times only incompletely. To the extent that we can determine today, the Jewish world at that time was a portrait of a major crisis, but there can be no talk of a spiritual or religious collapse. From the perspective of the conference participants, it would be just as untruthful and uncharitable to portray Judaism at the time of Christ as a caricature in order to emphasize the significance of Jesus and his teaching.
The conference very intensively examined the question of guilt for the death of Jesus. In religious instruction it should be explicitly noted that at the time of Jesus the vast majority of Jews had already extended to the entire Mediterranean region, therefore were not involved in the events in Jerusalem. But even among Jews living in Palestine not everyone would have had the opportunity to encounter Jesus during his brief time teaching. Among those who heard Jesus were his disciples, who were to form the early church, the enthusiastic masses and then his opponents. According to the reports of the gospel writers, the judgment of Jesus was the work of a small group of political and religious leaders. But don’t Jesus, Peter and Paul actually personally attest even to those personally responsible that they were acting from ignorance? (Cf. Luke: 23:34; Acts. 3:17; 1 Cor. 2:28). For Christian proclamation it suffices to enumerate the historical circumstances. It inquires about the deeper, more essential grounds for the crucifixion. It is for the sake of the sin of us all and the salvation of us all that Jesus took on death on the cross. Those who participated in the drama at Calvary, Jews and Gentiles, believers and nonbelievers, stand there as representatives for all of humanity. Human beings share the guilt of the murderers and executioners of Christ because of our sins and the rejection of grace. What else behooves the one who appears at the cross than to accuse himself of his own mistakes and sins. The conference participants reject the phrase “the people who murdered God” as perverse. It is painfully conscious to them that such a phrase among Christians in the past awakened antagonistic feelings against the Jews that became the hotbeds for riots and persecution.
Similarly the conference participants protested against the interpretation of Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be upon us and our children”) as a rejection or even curse of the entire Jewish people, as if God were to allow the screams of an enraged mob to fall upon an entire people, upon millions of innocents. Did not the apostle Paul say: “God has not rejected his people” (Rom. 11:1-2)? Despite their objection to the Gospel, the Jews remain “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors,” “for the gifts and the calling of God areirrevocable,” and ultimately “all Israel will be saved.” (Rom. 11:26-29) The destruction of the temple and the dispersion of the Jews (which existed even before the crucifixion of Jesus) may not be explained in such a way that the suffering and humiliations to which the Jews were subjected over the centuries is portrayed as a consequence of the rejection that would [allegedly] already have been clearly evident in both these events.
The participants of the conference emphasized that the hope for the reintegration of Israel, to the extent that it broke away, is an essential Christian hope. It is grounded in the promise in Paul’s letter to the Romans, among other places. The “holy remnant” of Israel that found the way to Jesus was expanded through the entry into the church of the Gentiles, who through this became descendants of Abraham through faith. Even if the case of many in Israel promoted the dissemination of the gospel, how much more so will the reintegration of Israel reveal God’s mercy and faithfulness, the “revival” of Israel according to the word of the people’s apostle (Paul) signifies “life from the dead.” (Rom. 11:15) The portion of Israel that withdrew from the gospel lives on in contemporary Judaism. Its preservation and its contemporary existence is part of God’s plan for salvation, thus it is not without significance for the church. Christians cannot view Jewish existence merely as a human or political matter. They should approach the Jewish world with understanding and respect for its past, its faith and its tribulations. Particularly in the wake of the dreadful persecution of the Jews in our era, everything must be done to dismantle the dividing walls that have erected century-old misunderstandings between Christians and Jews, and Christians must attempt through their behavior toward Jews to show the true face of the church.
In addition to these points, on which complete agreement was achieved, representatives of several study centers presented lectures to the conference participants that were intended to serve as further preparation for a deepened Christian proclamation about the Jewish people and the determination of Israel in the sense of the 1958 plans.
The consultation and conversations were enhanced by a visit in Amsterdam to the Jewish Historical Museum and the Anne Frank House. None of the participants could ignore the silent warning conveyed by the Anne Frank House: not to cease efforts toward a Christian-Jewish encounter. The course of the conference encouraged further such conferences, above all it encouraged the ongoing work in our own countries.
In the eyes of the Church, the Old Testament has the same claim to be accepted as God's revealed word as has the New. The revelation given in the Old Testament and the saving history recorded in it must keep their traditional place in Christian education and witness. Any attempt to reduce the value of the Hebrew Scriptures, any attempt to present its imperfections or the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people in a way that engenders contempt or even mere dislike, is contrary to the spirit of the Church.
As the Word made flesh, Jesus transcends the Old Dispensation. In His humanity, however, He is a part of His people and land, steeped in their traditions. The spirit of the Patriarchs and the Prophets continues to live in Him. He did not "come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17). Neither He nor the Church can be understood outside this framework.
That framework had many facets, and our knowledge of it is incomplete. Nevertheless, we can say with confidence that at the time of Jesus, Jewry presented a picture of exuberant life, not of degeneration. We have to give the faithful a true picture of Judaism of those days, as far as the state of historical studies allows. It would be unjust to draw a caricature of Judaism in order that the greatness of Jesus and His teaching stand out by contrast.
It would be contrary to the spirit of the Church to pit Old and New Testaments against each other, the "God of wrath," against the "God of love," the "law of fear," against the "law of love." The same divine grace is progressively revealed throughout both Testaments and the same command of love is present in them.
When seen historically, the dramatic conflict between Jesus and the leaders of His people, which led to His condemnation and crucifixion, is an intricate problem. Certain facts have, in any case, to be borne in mind. In Jesus' time, most Jews were already dispersed throughout the Mediterranean countries; of those settled in Palestine, only a fraction could have known Him. Those who met Him were not only His enemies and opponents, but also the enthusiastic crowds and the disciples. According to the Gospels, the actual opposition came only from a group of spiritual and political leaders, and the condemnation of Jesus was their work also. Yet even they—whatever their personal responsibilities may have been—acted, so Jesus declared, and following Him, Peter and Paul, "in ignorance" (see Lk 23:34; Ac 3:17; 1Cor 2:8). If the events of this vital period are presented in a historically inaccurate way, Christian instruction is itself led into error.
Even more important is a theologically accurate understanding and explanation of the drama of Golgotha. Jesus suffered and died on account of the sins of all of us and for our salvation. No one stands outside the solidarity of sin, no one is excluded from the grace of salvation. (Mary, free of any sin, received an extraordinary favor in that she, in anticipation of the saving sacrifice, was preserved from all guilt.) All the participants in the drama of Golgotha, Jews and Gentiles alike, believers and unbelievers, represented humankind as a whole: they stood there, in place of all of us. What makes us accomplices of Christ's enemies and executioners is not nationality or religion, but simply and solely sin, the rejection of grace.
It is, therefore, of extreme importance to avoid the fatal error that holds responsible for the death of Christ all Jews of that time, indeed, the Jews of all time, and them alone. This gives rise to the absurd conception of a "deicidal people" and works upon the feelings of the faithful in regard to the Passion, instilling in them revulsion against those immediately responsible, and not only against them but against the whole Jewish people. Such errors not only falsify the meaning of the Passion, they also deform the spirit of the faithful. The Cross, this unique source of love, humility, and expiation becomes a source of aversion and hatred, and a reason for shifting the blame for one's own sins on to others. In the past, such errors helped feed hostile feelings toward Jews among Christian people, and roused them to scorn and persecution. These false ideas led to situations in which Jews were crushed to the ground under the weight of the Cross, and the appalling consequences of those ideas have helped hide the true meaning of the Passion from Jews.
The central place of the Passion in the life of the Christian, the gravity of the errors already mentioned, the extent of the persecutions of the Jewish people in the midst of the Christian world, and the abysmal depths of the roots of Jew-hatred, all these ought to prompt the Church to warn her priests, catechists, indeed, all believers against these distorted notions. The Church ought to call upon them to avoid not only the errors themselves, but also all forms of expression that reflect and nourish those errors, for example, generalizations such as "the Jews rejected Christ," "the Jews crucified Christ." In expounding St. John's Gospel, one must be certain to take into account the fact that, in a great many places, the Evangelist uses the expression "the Jews," to mean simply and solely the "Jewish leaders hostile to Jesus." The Church is the true "remnant of Israel," increased by the entry of those Gentiles who became children of Abraham by faith: as such, she must unite within herself both Jews and Gentiles. Thus, one should not say that the Jewish people are rejected or that, within the Church, the Gentiles have taken Israel's place. Nor should one depict the reality of salvation as if the Church had supplanted Israel, as one people might another. Certainly, the transition from the Old to the New Dispensation was accompanied by radical changes—institutions were superseded, a new all-embracing structure appeared—but what had happened was that the same people of God had been thus transformed in moving forward the fullness of their vocation.
That portion of Israel which kept apart from this transformation has survived in present-day Judaism. Its preservation and presence in the world are a basic element of God's plan of salvation, and, therefore, cannot be without significance for the Church. Christians may not disregard this present reality, nor may they consider it from a purely human and political point of view, as do those who lack faith. They should rather draw near the Jewish world with the insight and awe due its past, its faith, and its trials. The Church expects of her children that they leave nothing undone to tear down the wall of separation between themselves and the Jews, a wall which the misunderstandings of centuries have rendered almost impenetrable; and, further, that they leave nothing undone to establish amicable relations with the Jews.
To interpret the destiny of the Jewish people over the centuries as a result of their rejection by God is misleading; the teaching of the New Testament, especially that of St. Paul, leaves no doubt that this perspective is wrong: "God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew" (Rom 11:1-2). Despite resistance to the Gospel, "their election stands, they are [God's] beloved" (11:28), and "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (11:29). And does not the Apostle teach that "all Israel will be saved" (11:26)? Day by day, the providential preservation of the Jewish people gives evidence to the faithfulness with which God stands by His plan for the salvation of the world. It would, therefore, be contrary to Scripture and to the true spirit of the Church were one to assume, as often happens, that there lies upon the Jewish people a sentence of rejection, indeed, a curse. It would be absurd to give such a meaning to, for example, Matthew 27:25, "His blood be on us and on our children." As if God could ratify the outcry of a group of demonstrators, worked up by their ringleaders, and have it descend as a curse upon millions of innocent people! To interpret the destruction of the Temple, the Diaspora (which predated the Crucifixion) and Jewish sufferings and humiliations over the centuries as the result of their rejection by God would be contrary to the Church's teaching on the meaning of suffering. One would do well to warn priests and the faithful, in all earnestness, never to adopt these inaccurate and hardly Christian ideas about the destiny of the Jewish people.
The divinely guaranteed hope of the reunion of Church and Israel is an integral part of Christian hope. At the same time, it is the key to the mysterious destiny of the Jewish people, so that without it there can be no real Christian understanding of that destiny. When and wherever this hope is obscured or forgotten, the Christian vision is distorted. If, according to the teaching of the Apostle, the failure of many in Israel furthered the spread of the gospel and with it the salvation of the Gentiles, how much more will Israel's reunification reveal God's mercy and faithfulness? This revelation will be so glorious that the Apostle could portray it as vita ex mortuis, "life from the dead" (Rom 11:15). This eschatological hope has always been present in the Church. It urges believers to be fired with this expectation in thought and prayer, and, not least, in their attitude toward the children of the people "of whom is Christ, according to His humanity, who is God over all, blessed for ever, Amen" (Rom 9:5).