As a chaplain in Orange County’s jails for ten years, I become very familiar with the concept of “unchurched.” As a catholic, it’s a common experience to talk about Jesus with faithful adults who nevertheless have never read the bible. Instead, they’ve heard it. They’ve heard the entire New Testament every three years, and almost all of the Torah, and a lot of the Old Testament likewise, but they almost never sit down and read, chapter and verse, page after page.
In jail, however, I had to do “bible study” with people who had never heard or talked about Jesus, much less the Patriarchs, in their lives. Asking them to begin according to the Roman Catholic lectionary, with some random gospel passage often did more harm than good.
One good answer to this dilemma is Protestant: Generally speaking, Protestants gather bible passages for study by theme, like forgiveness, or marriage or some notable part of Christ’s journey. In this way, the text is sort of self-organizing, and because the chosen passages, in spite of the gaps between them, make more sense than simply starting somewhere in the middle without any context save Rome.
Besides the gaps, however, there is another problem with this method. To be fair, it is likewise a problem with the Catholic system: If the Protestant system is like a chart of accounts, where all the “bills” for a given part of the bible are read together, like rent or utilities, the Catholic system is like the journal used to insure against gaps, just like the journal in double-entry accounting: Here, the passages are read in canonical order; which is slightly different than either the order they were written or the order in which the events transcribed are thought to have taken place. For example, even though carbon dating of fragment from Qumran Cave Number Seven indicate that Mark was the first gospel to have been written, the Roman church has always given first place to the Gospel of Matthew. Even though Mark himself cautions the reader that his account is out of order, canonical order indicates the system of priority assigned by the Church. As a way of settling disputes, it is without parallel, because unlike voting or arguing, at least it works. in that it allows us to solve the problem not addressed by priority: the problem of meaning determined not by “when” something was said, but by “to whom’ it was said.
Clearly, sorting out those things Jesus said to “the Jews” as opposed to the things he said to the apostles, who were also Jews, or the things he said to the poor, many of whom were Jews as well, has a great deal of impact upon any putative condemnation we might wish to read into our interpretation of any given New Testament passage. Given that Jesus was almost always talking to Jews, except on the rare occasion he was talking to Romans, it’s hard to insist his remarks are intended to endure as they have.
As a chaplain, I found it very useful to have my students sort the words of Christ (hopefully printed in red, so you don’t miss any) into three columns: One for the scribes, Pharisees – the powerful; one for the apostles and one for the poor. We discovered that a genuine fourth column was needed: one shared by Mary and the supernatural beings, like God, angels and demons, and a possible fifth: One actually reserved for the official “Jews,” the members of the Sanhedrin, and, to be fair, a corresponding column for “official” Romans, like Pontius Pilate or the centurions.
When you sort the words of Jesus in this way, a definitive picture emerges: Nowhere is Jesus angry with Jews because they’re Jewish. Nor does he appear to be angry with the Romans because they’re not. This was truly remarkable; Jesus may have been the only rabbi of his time demonstrating such equanimity toward, not just Romans, but gentiles of all stripes, like the Samaritan, and even women!
After you sort the words of Christ according to this hierarchy, it is much clearer that Jesus divided the world into classes by function, as was necessary: disciples vs. non-students, angels vs. demons, and by approbation: good or bad.
This is where we’d expect any anti-Semitism to show up. Like modern anti-Semites, or even Zionists for that matter, we’d expect Christ to display a preference or an antipathy for Jews regardless of their station. Like the Nazis, he’d distrust poor Jews as well as the rich powerful ones. Or like Israel, he’d welcome all Jews, rich and poor alike.
Jesus does no such thing. He inveighs against the rich, although not nearly so much as against those who have power over others. He forgives the poor, or more properly the powerless, even though they make no offering to atone for their sin as was proper for a Jew at that time.
Given that until recently, books, and certainly printing presses were the exclusive property of the rich, it’s a wonder his message wasn’t further distorted. I’m surprised that this little method of discovering the unaltered method of finding meaning within scripture hasn’t been more widely disseminated; perhaps it’s rarity has preserved some of it’s value. In any case, when one sorts the words of Christ according to the recipient, a pattern emerges which is far less sensible as anti-Semitic, and far more sensible as anarchistic.
Given the fact that the Jews were, at least at that time, sharing power with their Roman overlords, and given moreover that it was those Romans who determined both the canonical order of the modern gospel, and even their content, it is clear how a anti-power viewpoint could be subject to later misinterpretation as an anti-Semitic viewpoint.
The key to resolving this issue: power vs. Semitism, would depend upon what Jesus really said and felt toward non-Jews in power. If we assume that the Romans who later printed, translated and published the gospel attenuated Christ’s disapproval of their forebears, then Christ’s anarchist viewpoint could be reduced to anti-Semitism, since all the anti-Roman remarks were neutralized. Indeed, the very quixotic nature of Jesus’ remarks to and about all thing Roman stand out after this homespun reclassification as the most difficult to place into this new context.
This alone make this exercise a valuable addition to the argument against anti-Semitism in the New Testament: no new facts are needed, just a more accurate analysis of existing passages, yielding a highly probable suspicion about a corresponding lack of “rebuke” for Romans who were far worse, while yet far more removed from the favored poor, than the Jews in power.
Sorting Christ’s word by recipient subsumes any biblical argument ostensibly leveled against Jews beneath one against those leveled against those in power, regardless of origin. Any supposedly biblical argument, indeed, any Christian argument against the Jews suffers from this fatal weakness: in reality, any argument against the Jew is really an argument against the State, unfairly pruned of it's fuller meaning by later Roman redaction.
How like we Romans to stand idly by, fiddling while Jews burn, and in so doing deny Christ our faithful testimony to the sufficiency of his holocaust. Since our idleness is our blasphemy, we are called to come out of this posture, to actively atone once we believe. If you have any prayers or suggestions, please leave a comment.