Lent / Easter

Dialogika Resources

Lections based on the Gospel Passion Narratives

For many years, a "Continuing Seminar on Biblical Issues in Jewish-Christian Relations" has convened during the annual meetings of the Catholic Biblical Association of America. During its gatherings from 2000-2002, the seminar studied the four Gospel passion narratives and their use in the lectionaries of Holy Week. Its efforts produced a number of sample lections based on the passion narratives using principles employed elsewhere in the lectionary in order to minimize the potential for anti-Jewish actualizations of the narratives in the liturgy. The results of the seminar's work is presented below.


1. Introduction

2. The Critical Need for Care in Preparing the Passion Narratives for Liturgical Proclamation

2.1 Statement of the Problem

2.2 Relevant Instructions from Post-Conciliar Catholic Documents

2.3 How the Current Roman Lectionary Excerpts Biblical Texts

2.4 The Question of Bowdlerizing Biblical Texts

2.5 Notes

3. Suggested Passion Narrative Lections

3.1 Gospel of Matthew

3.2 Gospel of Mark - No editing of the present lection was seen to be needed.

3.3 Gospel of Luke

3.3.1. Suggestions for lectionary readings from the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter Season

3.4 Gospel of John

3.4.1. Annotated lection

3.4.2 Analysis of the complex issues in actualizing the Johannine passion narrative

1. Introduction

For almost twenty years, an ongoing seminar in the Catholic Biblical Association of America has explored and discussed scriptural and hermeneutical issues that impact relations between Christians and Jews and on the pastoral life of the Church.

Its annual meetings from 2000-2002 were devoted to a study of the liturgical proclamation of the Gospel passion narratives during Holy Week.

For most of Christian history, and especially after the late Middle Ages, face="Times New Roman">the proclamation of the passion narratives provoked hostility and violence against Jews. They contain polemical and apologetic features about responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus that can potentially assume great destructive power when read in social contexts different from those in which they originated. Argumentative words written from a position of weakness can become a license for oppression when read form positions of dominance.

The Seminar studied each Gospel's narrative in turn. There were found to be great differences among the them in terms of their anti-Jewish potential, with Mark having little or none but with John posing great challenges in this regard.

It was decided to prepare sample lections using the principles listed on the right and detailed in an essay found below as exercises in how future lections from the passion narratives might be crafted so as to implement recent Catholic teachings about Jews and Judaism. It is hoped that this work might be of use to ecclesiastical authorities in the future.

2. The Critical Need for Care in Preparing the Passion Narratives for Liturgical Proclamation

2.1. Statement of the Problem

On March 12, 2000 Pope John Paul II prayed for God’s forgiveness for Christian behaviors that "in the course of history have caused these children of yours ["the People of Israel"] to suffer."1 As the pope had earlier observed, "In the Christian world . . . erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people."2

This destructive capacity of certain New Testament texts is evident in the long history of Christian attacks on Jews during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday. The pope acknowledged this during his 1998 Good Friday meditations. "Oh no, not the Jewish people, crucified by us for so long," he observed, "not them, but all of us, each one of us [killed Christ], because we are all murderers of love."3

The Johannine passion narrative, proclaimed annually on Good Friday, poses particular difficulties. As one pastor wrote recently to the U.S. Bishops Conference, "The insistence on reading St. John’s Gospel with its many pejorative references to ‘the Jews’ diminishes the Church’s credibility when it claims it is not antisemitic. . . . The fact that there have to be explanations in the missalette (which not everyone reads), shows that the reading is confusing and capable of misinterpretation."4

At the 2000 - 2002 annual meetings of the Catholic Biblical Association of America, this issue was studied in great detail by the Continuing Seminar on Biblical Issues in Jewish-Christian Relations, co-convened by John Clabeaux and Philip A. Cunningham.5 The conversation produced several strategies that future editions of the lectionary might employ to address such concerns, and developed recommended lections that future editors might find helpful..

It must be stressed at the outset that there are more than exegetical or translational issues involved. The proclamation of excerpted biblical texts during the liturgy is a part of the pastoral process of actualizing the scriptures in the particularly potent setting of worship. Therefore, an axiom put forth in 1993 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission is very pertinent:

Particular attention is necessary, according to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (Nostra Aetate, 4), to avoid absolutely any actualization of certain texts of the New Testament which could provoke or reinforce unfavorable attitudes to the Jewish people. The tragic events of the past must, on the contrary, impel all to keep unceasingly in mind that, according to the New Testament, the Jews remain ‘beloved’ of God, ‘since the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:28-29).6


2.2. Relevant Instructions from Post-Conciliar Catholic Documents

The 1965 Vatican II Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, was truly revolutionary. It was the first Catholic magisterial text to consider the Church’s theological relationship with Judaism. Previous papal or conciliar decrees had simply delineated the status of Jews in Christian society. As Eugene J. Fisher has observed:

It may also be said that the reason that neither popes nor councils, over the centuries, felt called upon to decree officially on the church’s doctrinal position with regard to Judaism was most likely that no one questioned the negative portrait of the Jewish religion drawn by the church fathers in the early centuries. With no Christians rising to question the distorted image of Judaism provided in the patristic texts, this ancient Christian "teaching of contempt" did not have to be officially defined but simply presumed by just about all Christian thinkers until the [twentieth] century.7

This also explains a rather unusual characteristic of Nostra Aetate. Unlike other Catholic documents, the declaration did not cite numerous ecclesiastical texts of prior councils or popes. It had to leap all the way back to the Apostle Paul to discuss Judaism theologically and affirmatively. Its comments on the alleged "Jewish" responsibility for the death of Jesus thus reversed standard Christian thinking that had held sway for eighteen centuries:

Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion. It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy scripture. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ.8

Such a reorientation of longstanding Christian assumptions inevitably has implications that take time to be appreciated fully. The repercussions of Nostra Aetate are still being discovered. This post-conciliar work on the level of the universal Catholic magisterium has been carried out most directly by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and by the addresses of Pope John Paul II.9

A 1974 document prepared by this Commission to implement Nostra Aetate made explicit reference to the Johannine passion narrative:

Commissions entrusted with the task of liturgical translation will pay particular attention to the way in which they express those phrases and passages which Christians, if not well informed, might misunderstand because of prejudice. Obviously, one cannot alter the text of the Bible. The point is that, with a version destined for liturgical use, there should be an overriding preoccupation to bring out explicitly the meaning of a text,* while taking scriptural studies into account.

*Thus the formula "the Jews," in St. John, sometimes according to the context means "the leaders of the Jews," or "the adversaries of Jesus," terms which express better thought of the evangelist and avoid appearing to arraign the Jewish people as such.10

The Commission here states that biblical texts cannot be "altered" in the process of translation. Judging by the footnote this means that paraphrases or the substitution of terms foreign to the text are to be avoided when rendering a biblical translation. This translational point should be carefully distinguished from how biblical texts are excerpted for lectionary use, which is a different process than preparing a new biblical translation (see below). Even so, the Commission does urge even translators to render the problematic Johannine hoi Ioudaioi in ways that respect the text’s intentions but ameliorate its antisemitic potential.

These ideas have been reiterated recently by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Its May 7, 2001 instruction on the translation of liturgical texts, Liturgiam Authenticam, states:

It is the task of the homily and of catechesis to set forth the meaning of the liturgical texts, illuminating with precision the church’s understanding regarding the members of ... Jewish communities.... Similarly, it is the task of catechists or of the homilist to transmit that right interpretation of the texts that excludes any prejudice or unjust discrimination on the basis of persons, gender, social condition, race or other criteria which has no foundation at all in the texts of the sacred liturgy. Although considerations such as these may sometimes help one in choosing among various translations of a certain expression, they are not to be considered reasons for altering either a biblical text or a liturgical text that has been duly promulgated.11

The Congregation here maintains that the potential for antisemitic interpretations does not justify the substitution of foreign words in biblical texts used liturgically. However, certain phrases, for example hoi Ioudaioi, can be translated with an eye to their pastoral impact. The Congregation feels that problematic biblical texts should be handled homiletically and educationally.12

Thus, in terms of translational strategies to deal with potentially anti-Jewish readings, Catholic magisterial documents hold that such efforts must remain faithful to the scriptural text and not "alter" it, but legitimate renderings of the existing Greek text that are alert to the potential for anti-Jewish construals are permissible.



2.3. How the Current Roman Lectionary Excerpts Biblical Texts

This brings us to the distinct question of how the lectionary excerpts biblical texts for liturgical proclamation. The broad-based team of scripture scholars, liturgists, catechetical experts, and pastors that organized the Roman lectionary in the mid-1960s had the aim of presenting "the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation" in the readings.13 In their selection of passages, they omitted those "that require a complex exegetical or literal explanation before any spiritual application is possible," though this did not mean that all difficult texts were to be excluded.14 For very long readings, the lectionary was to "indicate how the passage [might] be shortened in a way that retains the essential parts of the pericope."15 Not surprisingly, since the wider implications of Nostra Aetate would take time to emerge, there is no evidence that the lectionary planners reckoned with potentially "anti-Jewish" polemical elements in their preparation of difficult or long passages such as the passion narrative lections.

As eventually promulgated, the lectionary does not simply extract self-contained scriptural pericopes. It sometimes begins and/or ends a lection at points other than at the biblical text’s natural limits. For example, the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Cycle A ends the lection at Isaiah 7:14, "the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel," even though the Isaian text more naturally continues until at least vs. 16. The reason for this is to pair this reading more closely with the Gospel portion from Matthew 1:18-24.

The lectionary also does not always present continuous verses within its selected starting and ending points. Sometimes verses are skipped to have a shorter reading, as is apparently the case on the 2nd Sunday of Lent in Cycle B when the first reading extracts Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18. Elsewhere it seems to be done to focus on a certain theological point or out of pastoral concerns, as on the 7th Sunday of Easter in Cycle C whose second reading is Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20. The omitted verses are not Jesus-centered and condemn outsiders and (ironically!) those who add to or delete from the "words in this book" (22:18-19). Sometimes large portions of a biblical book can be elided, as on Saturday of the 20th Week in Ordinary Time that offers Ruth 2:1-3,8-11; 4:13-17 as the first reading.

The lectionary also regularly inserts in brackets the antecedents of pronouns used in scriptural excerpts to provide clarity and avoid confusion. There are very many examples of this necessary practice, but here two will suffice. On the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle A, the lectionary changes Mt 13:24, "He proposed another parable" to "Jesus proposed another parable." Similarly, on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Cycle C, Luke 18:1, "Then he told them a parable" becomes in the lectionary, "Then Jesus told his disciples a parable."

Finally, the lectionary occasionally inserts verses from earlier in the biblical book to help situate or shed light on the main portion of the lection. For instance, the first reading for Cycle A on the 4th Sunday of Easter begins with Acts 2:14, depicting Peter’s rising to give a speech, but then leaps over twenty verses to the speech’s conclusion and aftermath in verses 36-41. Similarly, the first reading for the 6th Sunday of Easter in Cycle C starts at Acts 15:1-2, introducing the problem of how Gentiles should be admitted into the Church. It then jumps over the sending of Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem and the debate that occurs there, and proceeds to the resolution of the issue in verses 22-29. This could be seen as eliding major sections of the same pericope, but it opens the possibility for cross-referencing to other verses in the same book, especially if the book in question does so itself at that moment. Thus, the Gospel of John in 21:20 refers back to13:23-24. Likewise, John 18:14 refers the reader back to 11:50.

Thus, there are lectionary precedents to deal with the pastoral issue of the anti-Jewish potential of the passion narratives by the strategic beginning or ending of a lection, by omitting problematic verses, and by incorporating relevant verses from earlier in the biblical book to situate the lection. Future lectionary revisions could draw upon these precedents.



2.4. The Question of Bowdlerizing Texts

However, Raymond Brown has raised a significant question:

[M]odern apprehensions about the anti-Jewish impact of the passion narratives are not groundless. One solution that has been proposed is to remove the "anti-Semitic" passages from the liturgical readings of the passion during Holy Week, a type of "Speak no evil; see no evil; hear no evil" response. But removing offensive passages is a dangerous procedure which enables hearers of bowdlerized versions to accept unthinkingly everything in the Bible. Accounts "improved" by excision perpetuate the fallacy that what one hears in the Bible is always to be imitated because it is "revealed" by God, and the fallacy that every position taken by an author of Scripture is inerrant. In my opinion, a truer response is to continue to read unabridged passion accounts in Holy Week, not subjecting them to excisions that seem wise to us--but once having read them, to preach forcefully that such hostility between Christian and Jew cannot be continued today and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity. Sooner or later Christian believers must wrestle with the limitations imposed on the Scriptures by the circumstances in which they were written. They must be brought to see that some attitudes found in the Scriptures, however explicable in the times in which they originated, may be wrong attitudes if repeated today. They must reckon with the implications inherent in the fact that God has revealed in words of men.16

Lawrence Frizzell recently noted another dimension to this subject. While recognizing that a judicious use of excerptions, "may deal with the problem for the liturgical reading of the Gospel," he goes on to say that, "simplified or ‘sanitized’ translations of the New Testament are not helpful. If Christians are unaware of complications that demand an exegetical response, someone from a fundamentalist background will show them ‘the real Gospel.’ Then they would be overwhelmed by the dismal portrayal of ‘the Pharisees’ or ‘the Jews.’ There is no substitute for ongoing education of Christians concerning Jews and Judaism!"17

However, as Brown declared, "to include [in the lectionary] the passages that have an anti-Jewish import and not to comment on them is irresponsible proclamation that will detract from a mature understanding of our Lord’s death."18 Therefore, it must be asked if it is realistic to expect that every year preachers will deal with the problems of anti-Judaism after the lengthy passion narratives have been proclaimed or even enacted? Would this not divert their limited preaching time from the soteriological themes that should be the primary focus on Good Friday? An excerpted lection would free the preacher from an annual responsibility to deal with the texts’ potential for being actualized antisemitically.19

Furthermore, since in many churches the congregation would be reading along with the extended lection, a note at the beginning of the text would be helpful. For those congregants concerned about the precise biblical text, this note would explain that the reading has been excerpted in order to focus more intensely on the spiritual or theological significance of the death of Jesus.20

Such an approach seems especially necessary for twenty-first century western congregations. Since our culture tends to equate historicity with truth, typical congregants hear the theologically-driven biblical narratives as historical facts. Given the antisemitic dangers that arise from hearing the passion narratives as "histories," it seems incumbent on the Church to reckon with this reality. Moreover, western preoccupation with history can inhibit the perception of the sacred writers’ theological insights. The prudent removal of distracting polemical phrases can actually serve to make the evangelists’ religious message more accessible. In addition, if the preacher were to allude briefly to this procedure every so often, Brown’s concerns about encouraging fundamentalist biblical attitudes would be ameliorated.

An important conclusion from this discussion is that lectionary excerptions of apologetic or polemical "anti-Jewish" passages should be done so as to free the evangelists’ theological perspectives from potentially misleading disputatious trappings.

As stated above, it is hoped that the sample lections will be of service to the competent ecclesiastical authorities when the lectionary is next revised. Each offers the full passion narrative according to their traditional usage during the Holy Week liturgies. They are based on the revised New Testament New American Bible translation used in Catholic lectionaries in the United States.

There was widespread agreement during Seminar discussions that the present reading of a synoptic passion narrative on what was formerly called Palm Sunday is problematic for many pastoral and liturgical reasons. Many members were sympathetic to the idea of rotating among all four gospels for the proclamation of a full passion narrative on "Passion Friday" (i.e., "Good Friday") only.



2.5. Notes

  1. "Service Requesting Pardon," in Origins 29/40 (March 23, 2000): 647.

  2. Pope John Paul II, "Speech to Symposium on the Roots of Anti-Judaism," 31 October 1997, 1: L'Osservatore Romano, November 1, 1997, p. 6.

  3. Pope John Paul II, "Meditation on the First Station of the Cross, April 10, 1998.

  4. Private correspondence to Eugene J. Fisher, Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, NCCB, dated May 29, 2001.

  5. The following seminar members contributed to this project: Regina Boisclair, Terrance Callan, Patrick Castles, John Clabeaux, Robert Connolly, Philip A. Cunningham, David P. Efroymson, Lawrence Frizzell, John Gilchrist, Marie Goldstein, Dennis Hamm, Judith Kolasny, Amy-Jill Levine, Kenneth Morman, Brian M. Nolan, Robert O'Toole, James Polich, Gilbert Romero, Richard J. Sklba, Gerard Sloyan, George Smiga, Linda Taggart, and Anthony Tambasco.

  6. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, 1993, IV, A, 3.

  7. Eugene J. Fisher, "Official Roman Catholic Teaching on Jews and Judaism: Commentary and Context," in Eugene J. Fisher and Leon Klenicki, eds., In Our Time: The Flowering of Jewish-Catholic Dialogue (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press/Stimulus Books, 1990), 4.

  8. Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate (1965), 4.

  9. The relevant texts may be found in the "Documents Library" of the website of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College at www.bc.edu/cjlearning.

  10. Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, No.4 (1974), III.

  11. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Liturgiam Authenticam, 29 in Origins 31/2 (May 24, 2001): 22.

  12. Elsewhere Liturgiam Authenticam seems unaware of a liturgical issue relevant to Christian-Jewish relations that might be noted here. "The effort should be made to ensure that the translations [of liturgical biblical texts] be conformed to that understanding of biblical passages which has been handed down by liturgical use and by the tradition of the fathers of the church . . . the greatest care is to be taken that the translation express the traditional Christological, typological and spiritual sense, and manifest the unity and interrelatedness of the two testaments" [41]. The problem is that patristic theology was tainted with anti-Jewish perspectives because of its supersessionist presuppositions. As Pier Francesco Fumagalli observed, "The Fathers of the Church of the first centuries, as much in the East as in the West, were in agreement in showing the Jewish people as ‘repudiated’ definitively by God, and the Church as the selected people in ‘substitution’ to bring salvation to everyone" ["Nostra Aetate: A Milestone," delivered at the Vatican Symposium on "The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Environment," October 31, 1997]. Liturgiam Authenticam’s call for fidelity to the patristic heritage needs to be related to the Church’s recognition that "an anti-Jewish tradition stamped its mark in different ways on Christian doctrine and teaching" [Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, "Reflections: The Vatican Statement on the Shoah" in Origins 28/2 (May 28, 1998): 31]. Otherwise, the liturgy may enshrine and perpetuate theologies and attitudes toward Jews and Judaism that the Church has officially repudiated.

  13. Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 410.

  14. Ibid., 418.

  15. Ibid., 419.

  16. Raymond E. Brown, A Crucified Christ in Holy Week: Essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives (Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1986), 15-16. It might be wondered if Brown’s critique would also apply to the lectionary’s excerptions of "Old Testament" passages that sometimes reduce those texts to a univocal prediction-fulfillment pattern. Such a practice would also seem to promote an uncritical fundamentalist mentality.

  17. Lawrence Frizzell, "What Does the Current Roman Rite Convey about Judaism?" paper prepared for the Liturgical Issues in Christian-Jewish Relations conference, Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, June 10-11, 2001, 9.

  18. Brown, 16.

  19. The U.S. bishops have stressed this obligation: "A full and precise explanation of the use of the expression ‘the Jews’ by St. John and other New Testament references which appear to place all Jews in a negative light [is needed]. (These expressions and references should be fully and precisely clarified in accordance with the intent of the Statement that Jews are not to be ‘presented as rejected or accursed by God as if this followed from holy scripture’)" [Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations, Guidelines on Catholic-Jewish Relations, 1967, Recommended Programs, 10g].

  20. The positive wording used here is noteworthy. Framing it negatively, as in trying to avoid texts that historically have fostered anti-Jewish attitudes and actions, runs the risk of suggesting that the editing has been done simply to placate Jews. It must be stressed instead that these suggestions in lectionary preparation are motivated by a concern to be faithful to the Christian message as understood in the Catholic community today.


3. Suggested Passion Narrative Lections

3.1. Gospel of Matthew

3.2. Gospel of Mark - No editing of the present lection was seen to be needed.

3.3. Gospel of Luke

3.3.1. Suggestions for lectionary readings from the Acts of the Apostles during the Easter Season

3.4 Gospel of John

3.4.1. Annotated lection

3.4.2. Analysis of the complex issues in actualizing the Johannine passion narrative