Saturday, May 02, 2009

For fear of the Jews

One of the phrases that repeatedly appears in the biblical and liturgical texts surrounding the death and resurrection of our Lord is "for fear of the Jews." This is a very misleading, though accurate, translation of the text. It is accurate because, well, that is what the text says. It is misleading--and, I might add, has been used to justify terribly inhuman behavior to Jews throughout Christian history--because it gives the impression that "the Jews" who were feared were somehow a different race or religion from those who were fearing. This is not the case. The followers of Jesus--those who were fearing--were all Jews, too. Gentiles (non-Jews) did not begin to join the followers of Jesus for many years after the resurrection. In fact, the first big argument in the Church was whether or not non-Jews could be followers of Jesus at all.
Within a couple hundred years, the phrase, "for fear of the Jews," actually began to have a meaning that is the exact opposite of what the original writers intended. What the biblical writers intended is something like what I might mean if I said in a letter to my bishop, "We fear the British Columbians." I and everyone in Holy Nativity (except one couple who commutes from the States) are British Columbians. At the time of the Apostles, when all followers of Jesus were Jews, Judea was under foreign occupation by the Roman military. The name "Christian" had not yet been coined--they were just followers of the Way, one of many sects of Judiasm. At that time, Jews were generally in fear of the Romans. But the biblical writers want to make clear that it was thier own people and their own religious and political leaders (and not the Romans) whom the followers of Jesus were fearing. They do not fear someone from another group, a religous or political or racial foreigner. Rather, they fear their own family.
Today, and thoughout most Christian history, "Jew" has referred specifically to a non-Christian religious group, often conceived as a different race from the Christians. Consequently, a phrase like the following, spoken by St. Peter on the day of Pentecost, has almost the opposite meaning today as it did 2000 years ago.
"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
When Peter, the Jew, said this, he was speaking to Jews. In this sentence, "you" means "us." Today, "you" means "not us, but them."
Therefore, I do not like the literal translation of "Jew" in biblical and liturgical texts. It just doesn't mean what it used to mean. Furthermore, and this is huge, throughout history this changed understanding has been used as a defense for the undefendable brutality of powerful Christians against Jews. Therefore, wherever possible, I prefer translating "Jews" as either "the people" or "the rulers" or "the Judeans" depending on the context.
Unfortunately, I am on no committies for liturgical translation. I do not have the authority to change texts (only bishops do). However, if you ever hear me reading the Bible or a liturgical text and substitute "Judeans" or "leaders" for "Jews," now you will know why.

1 comment:

Paul said...

I read this one too! :)

...And appreciated it--as one who cringes when it falls upon me to utter the occasional anti-Semitic verse that appears in the service texts.