'Unintentional antisemitism': Catholics make common mistakes about Jesus' Jewish identity

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads 'no to antisemitism', during a protest against antisemitism and to commemorate the 2012 Toulouse attack against a Jewish school that left three children and an adult dead, at the Place de la Republique square in Paris, France, March 13, 2022. (OSV News photo/Benoit Tessier, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- Confusion about Jesus' Jewish identity persists, despite almost six decades of Catholic Church teaching on how to present Jews and Judaism in catechesis and preaching.

That's according to biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, co-editor of "The Jewish Annotated New Testament," who attributed the problem to "ignorance."

Levine identified several common mistakes and incorrect assumptions about the Jewishness of Jesus in a July 29 article titled "On relations between Catholics and Jews: Unintentional Antisemitism," published in Italian by L'Osservatore Romano.

OSV News was provided an English translation of the article by Philip Cunningham, professor of theology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and co-director of that school's Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations.

"There continue to be misunderstandings about the Jewish context of Jesus," wrote Levine, a professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace in Hartford, Connecticut.

Since the Second Vatican Council, which took place 20 years after the slaughter of six million European Jews in the Holocaust, the Catholic Church has denounced "hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone," while affirming the "spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews," as stated in the "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," a council document better known by its Latin name "Nostra Aetate," promulgated in 1965.

Following the council, Catholic teaching has consistently affirmed that God's covenant with the Jews remains intact, while upholding that, as the catechism states, "all salvation comes from Christ the Head, through the Church which is his Body." The church also acknowledges that Christ can make salvation possible to those of other or no faiths, without diminishing what St. John Paul II called "the conviction that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation," as stated in the 1990 encyclical "Redemptoris Missio."

Church teaching also stresses the importance of understanding Jesus as one who "was born, lived and died a Jew," as well as the need to appreciate the Jewish roots of Christianity.

Yet "many stereotypes … recur in Christian teaching," Levine wrote.

As an example, she cited a June 3 article in Donne Chiesa Mondo, L'Osservatore Romano's monthly newsletter, in which author and theologian Father Battista Borsato wrote about the exchange described in Mark's Gospel between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman, who asked Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. As chapter seven recounts, "He (Jesus) said to her, 'Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.' She replied and said to him, 'Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.'" Jesus told her that because of what she had said, he had healed her daughter, and she went home to find her daughter healed.

Father Borsato claimed Jesus' reluctance to help the woman was "typical of a Jew closed in on himself," and that Jesus initially believed "from his environment and his religiosity" that "God and his salvation worked only within the borders of the Jewish people."

"The author incorrectly describes Judaism," said Levine, pointing out "the Jews knew that the God of Israel was also the God of the world (Genesis 1), that through the children of Abraham all the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12), and that in the messianic age the Gentiles would worship the one God (Isaiah 56; Zechariah 8)."

Jews also "welcomed Gentiles into the Temple of Jerusalem and into local synagogues," said Levine. "Even the Gospels tell us about the good relations that existed between Jews and Gentiles, as we read in Luke 7:1-10, where some Jewish elders ask Jesus to heal a Gentile."

Jesus' apparent likening of Gentiles to dogs in the passage has been misinterpreted, leading to a "fallacy about Jewish xenophobia," Levine said.

Jews did not typically call Gentiles "dogs," she said, and the word was instead "a catchall term rather than an ethnic slur," deriving from "the Greek word kýon (dog)," which also forms the root for the word "cynic."

Among the other common pitfalls Levine noted are "pitting an 'Old Testament God of wrath' against a 'New Testament God of love.'"

"The God to whom Jesus teaches his disciples to recite the Lord's Prayer is the same God to whom his fellow Jews, who also addressed God as 'Father,' pray," she said.

Levine said it was also inaccurate to assert that "Jesus disregards the laws of ritual purity" in the Judaism of his time "by touching a man with leprosy and the corpse of a child," as recounted in Mark 1:40-45 and Mark 5:21-43.

"On the contrary, Jesus brings people back to ritual purity," Levine said.

Claiming that Judaism promoted misogyny while Jesus welcomed women is another error, she said.

"The Gospels and the Acts speak to us of the many social roles of women, such as the ownership of their homes, worship in the Temple and in the synagogues, the distribution of their goods, the freedom to travel and others," Levin said. "Women followed Jesus not because they were oppressed by Judaism, but because they found the fulfillment of their tradition in his teaching."

Considering the Pharisees as "moralists" and "extremely cautious hypocrites" is also inaccurate, she said.

In 2019, the Pontifical Gregorian University held an international conference on Jesus and the Pharisees, where research and discussion showed the Pharisees were, above all, "liberalizers," Levine wrote.

"(They) sought to extend priestly practices (in Judaism, an inherited position) to the entire people of Israel, because all were to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6)," she said.

The Temple of Jerusalem was not an institution for exploiting peasants, she said, pointing to "a misunderstanding of Jesus' words" when he called the Temple "a den of thieves" (Mt 21:13).

"The expression is taken from Jeremiah 7:11," Levine said. "Like Jeremiah before him, Jesus condemns people who think that ritual separated from good deeds is sufficient."

"The vast majority of Jews loved the Temple, made pilgrimages to it, protected it from Roman desecration, and mourned its destruction," she said. "In Romans 9:4, Paul calls Jewish worship one of God's irrevocable gifts, and Acts 21:26 portrays him worshiping there."

Levine said that "greater knowledge and care," as well as "a commitment to improving Jewish-Christian relations," can dispel "these common stereotypes and others."

"When we hear and read mischaracterizations of both Christians by Jews and Jews by Christians, it is our responsibility to make the necessary corrections," she said.


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