Church faces renewed pressure to change Good Friday liturgy that risks fueling anti-Jewish hatred

By David Paulsen
Posted Mar 29, 2021
Des Moines stations

The Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul is one of four Christian congregations in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, that have organized a Way of the Cross procession each year for more than a decade. This is an ENS archive photo from 2018 credited to William J. Gentsch.

[Episcopal News Service] The Passion of Jesus poses a perennial liturgical dilemma, one rooted in the biblical narrative’s centuries of prominence in Holy Week services. Episcopalians, consciously or not, confront it each year in their lectionary readings, particularly on Good Friday. The Episcopal Church cited its “problematic” references to “the Jews” when it offered sermon guidance eight years ago for Episcopal clergy struggling to provide the proper context.

How to solve this problem of the Gospel of John? The trouble lies in the history of anti-Judaism associated with this foundational Christian text.

In January, the Diocese of Washington’s convention approved a resolution that calls on The Episcopal Church to renew its study of the Holy Week lectionary: “to remedy passages that use language that has been interpreted as anti-Semitic while maintaining the meaning and intent of the original Greek texts.” The resolution will be sent to the 80th General Convention for consideration when it meets next year.

The diocesan resolution was submitted by a group from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., including Josie Jordan, the congregation’s head verger. The problem hit home for Jordan about 10 years ago, when she was a teacher and chaplain at National Cathedral School, a girls’ school on Washington National Cathedral’s close. On Good Friday, she attended an all-school worship service at the cathedral with more than 500 students, faculty and staff members. During the Gospel, they listened to John describe Jesus’ crucifixion at the insistence of “the Jews.”

Afterward, a fifth grader came to Jordan in tears. “She was Jewish and she also loved her school, and she was having a really difficult time putting these two things together. And we realized that we had made a misstep by not either changing a word or two or finding a way to contextualize it,” Jordan, 68, told Episcopal News Service. “That really woke me up to what people hear without a lot of context. … What people hear sounds pretty anti-Semitic.”

Christian denominations, including The Episcopal Church, have long grappled with liturgies, doctrine and Scripture that have at times fueled hatred against Jews, most consequentially during the Holocaust. Some common translations of the Gospel of John still use the phrase “the Jews” dozens of times, often depicted as Jesus’ antagonists, as opposed to more neutral language like “the crowd.” Biblical scholars note such “problematic passages” can be found throughout the New Testament but are most troubling in the Passion narrative of John 18-19. Those are the chapters recited by most Christian churches every Good Friday, which falls on April 2 this year.

“Preachers have propagated the idea, from the earliest times and continuing into our own day, that the Jews as a people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus,” The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, or SCLM, said in 2013 when it issued guidance on the Holy Week lectionary. “Quite commonly on Good Friday, Jewish families would remain hidden in their homes in order to avoid abuse and even death.”

Today, as Episcopal congregations prepare for Holy Week and Easter, preachers bear the “enormous responsibility” of diffusing anti-Jewish prejudice by providing appropriate historical context for the Gospel readings, according to SCLM, which first began developing its guidance in response to a 2006 General Convention resolution on addressing anti-Judaism.

General Convention passed similar resolutions at four straight triennial meetings, most recently in 2015. It asked SCLM “to collect, review, and disseminate materials to address Christian anti-Judaism expressed in and stirred by portions of Christian scriptures and liturgical texts.”

SCLM’s guidance has not alleviated what some see as the central difficulty with the lectionary and Bible translations. The Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant denominations follow the schedule of readings known as the Revised Common Lectionary, which anchors John 18-19 on Good Friday. The Bible most familiar to Episcopalians, the New Revised Standard Version, names “the Jews” as Jesus’ antagonists in John’s narrative.

The Diocese of Washington’s resolution takes aim at those unresolved concerns. Its sense of urgency is heightened by outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence across the United States in recent years, including deadly attacks at synagogues and other Jewish gathering places. The resolution also cites Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s statement last year against the rise in anti-Semitism.

“I invite everyone who follows Jesus and his way of love to stand with our Jewish brothers, sisters and siblings,” Curry said as part of an interfaith solidarity campaign launched by the American Jewish Committee in response a rash of attacks on American Jews. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

Anti-Judaism thrives on Christians’ misunderstanding of Judaism and Jewish tradition, and the Christian lectionary is partly responsible, according to Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament and Jewish studies professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Levine, as guest preacher during Washington National Cathedral’s March 7 online worship service, praised the Diocese of Washington for its recent resolution.

“It is a blessing to know that you are attending to the lectionary because there is much work to be done,” said Levine, who is Jewish. “Sometimes, texts need a warning label. Sometimes lectionaries, and not just for Holy Week, need to be revised. … Christian teaching need not malign Jewish tradition in order to make Jesus look good.”

What changes are merited? The Washington resolution doesn’t specify, though its supporting materials include suggestions in a scholarly article written 20 years ago during the Roman Catholic Church’s deliberations over its Holy Week lectionary. The article listed five options to consider for Good Friday:

  • Read John 18-19 in full, with the preacher required to address the problematic language.
  • Condense John 18-19 to avoid those problematic passages.
  • Assemble a thematic series of John readings that isn’t focused solely on the Passion.
  • Read the Passion narrative from one of the other three Gospels, instead of John.
  • Read John 18-19 nearly in full, eliminating certain words.

The Diocese of Washington’s resolution has sparked lively debate on social media, with some Episcopalians raising concerns about altering the lectionary or rewriting Scripture. A post about the resolution elicited nearly 150 comments in a popular Facebook group devoted to prayer book revision. Some affirmed the need for a renewed discussion of anti-Judaism in the lectionary.

“I welcome any and all conversations about anti-Semitism in our texts,” the Rev. Jeffrey Austin Ross, a Delaware priest, told the group. “I have a number of folks in the congregation I serve who are deeply troubled about the way this Gospel has been suborned to feed hate.”

Others urged caution when updating liturgies that are based in centuries of tradition.

“Holy Scripture is Holy Scripture, and the choice to highlight particular passages of it this week is something we have received from the deepest traditions of the church,” said the Rev. Daniel Larson, a Michigan priest and one of the Facebook group’s moderators. “The church has an obligation to renounce that evil of violence and dehumanization, to atone for it, and to work to prevent it. But I do not believe changing the Holy Week lectionary is the right way to do that.”

The prayer book revision Facebook group, with more than 4,000 members, was created in 2017 by the Rev. Robert Solon Jr. He has served since October 2020 as priest-in-charge at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Passaic, New Jersey. It was Solon’s Feb. 1 post that drew the Facebook group’s attention to the Washington resolution.

Solon, in a phone interview with ENS, said he thinks the group’s wide-ranging debate gives reason to believe the church should address the matter more directly, rather than rely on the existing guidance it has offered for Good Friday sermons.

“Clearly, the usual response of ‘well, we just have to teach this more’ seems insufficient,” Solon said. But he isn’t sure what the church should change, and he doesn’t feel empowered to alter the lectionary or biblical text for his own congregation – even though he is especially sensitive to the risk of fueling anti-Judaism because St. John’s happens to be a few blocks from several Orthodox synagogues in a mostly Jewish neighborhood.

For his first Good Friday service at St. John’s, he plans to stick to the appointed lectionary and will read the Gospel of John as translated, including its references to “the Jews,” though with some explanation. “When John speaks of ‘the Jews,’ he’s primarily speaking of the Jewish leadership, not all Jews,” Solon said.

He intends to make that point clear in his Good Friday sermon. “I can’t ignore it.”

Solon is not alone. “Virtually every bishop or priest I’ve talked to about this said they wrestle every year with this Gospel and what to do with it,” said the Rev. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, a church history professor at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski specializes in the history of Jewish-Christian relations and is regarded in Episcopal circles as an expert on the challenges posed by the Holy Week lectionary.

“The Gospel of John as a whole has a way of referring to ‘the Jews’ that generally is a confrontation between that group and Jesus and his followers,” he told ENS. The nature of that confrontation is complicated by the difficulty of precisely rendering the Greek “hoi Ioudaioi” in English.

“In some ways, we still don’t have a satisfactory answer,” Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said. Though “hoi Ioudaioi” is commonly translated as “the Jews,” it could also be read as “the Jewish leaders” or even “the Judeans” – a regional distinction, in contrast with Jesus, the Galilean. The term likely conveyed cultural, social and linguistic markers beyond today’s religious connotations, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said.

He also noted that John’s Gospel, the last of the four Gospels, was written about a century after Jesus’ birth amid a rising intra-Jewish conflict, with Jesus’ followers – who were themselves Jewish – claiming he was the Messiah, while other Jews rejected that belief. Only later did Christianity spread widely beyond those Jewish communities, which increased the likelihood that Gentiles would misinterpret John’s words as justifying hatred toward Jews.

“I think the way in which ‘Jews,’ or ‘hoi Ioudaioi,’ is depicted in the Gospel of John is so problematic that for this particular Gospel, it might very well be worth offering different renderings,” Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said, “whether it’s ‘the Jewish leaders’ or ‘the Judeans,’ not just letting just ‘the Jews’ stand.”

That imperative inspired Joslyn-Siemiatkoski’s recent work on an alternative Good Friday liturgy, which he developed with a fellow professor and a working group at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin. In addition to a Gospel reading that settles on “the Judeans” instead of “the Jews,” the liturgy incorporates different epistle readings and new collects that, Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said, acknowledge and celebrate God’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish people.

The liturgy will be presented for the first time April 2, including during a service at Seminary of the Southwest, with the permission of Texas Bishop Andrew Doyle. Joslyn-Siemiatkoski also has shared it with other Episcopal congregations interested in Good Friday options. It then will be submitted to the Task Force on Liturgical & Prayer Book Revision, which is considering proposed revisions on behalf of SCLM and General Convention.

The Anglican Church of Canada offers another way of addressing the Good Friday lectionary. In the Book of Alternative Services, the Canadian church’s primary liturgical text, the reading from John is prefaced with the following: “The term ‘the Jews’ in St. John’s Gospel applies to particular individuals and not to the whole Jewish people. Insofar as we ourselves turn against Christ, we are responsible for his death.”

The Episcopal Church already offers flexibility in avoiding the problematic language through Scripture translations. The New Revised Standard Version, or NRSV, is just one of 16 Bible translations that are canonically approved for use in Episcopal services. In John 19:1-15, when Pilate argues with “hoi Ioudaioi” over Jesus’ fate, many of those versions follow the NRSV in referring to “the Jews,” but the Common English Bible specifies “Jewish leaders.” The Contemporary English Version and Good News Bible use “the crowd” or “the people.”

“It’s always a question of what is the text trying to communicate and how do we best listen to the text so that we’re hearing faithfully what the Gospels communicate to use,” said the Rev. Paul Fromberg, rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, California. Fromberg, who prefers the term “the Judeans” in the Good Friday Gospel, also serves as chair of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

Members of St. Mark’s in Washington contacted him when they were researching their resolution on the Holy Week lectionary. Though not a new issue, it’s one that deserves another look, he told ENS. “I’m very grateful for the Diocese of Washington in taking leadership in this,” Fromberg said.

The Rev. Michele Morgan, rector at St. Mark’s, helped raise the issue after members of a Morning Prayer worship group asked her about it. Since the diocese passed its resolution, she has heard some pushback from those who see a slippery slope in adjusting the lectionary or Bible verses. But the meaning of the Holy Week readings shouldn’t change, she said, and the Gospel of John likely will remain central to the Good Friday liturgy.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of cutting it out,” she told ENS. “It’s a matter of looking at translations. It’s a matter of how we frame those conversations and we model a way forward that doesn’t seed anti-Semitism.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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