Change the Lectionary

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Professor Amy-Jill Levine, a well-known New Testament scholar, testified before the Committee on Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music on February 19 on Resolution C014. The resolution would “direct the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to recommend revisions to the Church’s appointed Lectionary readings for Holy Week to remedy passages that use language that has been interpreted as anti-Semitic.”

Dr. Levine is Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Hartford International University for Religion and Peace and University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University.  This fuller version of her remarks has been edited for publication.

Thank you for allowing me to speak with you this afternoon. I speak on behalf of revising the lectionary readings, not only for Holy Week but for the entire liturgical year.

This concern for revision is not news to the Episcopal Church’s standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. You’ve discussed lectionary readings that give anti-Jewish impressions in response to a General Convention resolution in 2006, and then at the next three triennial meetings. (Resolutions C001 of 2006, Resolve 3 of A089 of 2009, A058 of 2012 and A062 of 2015) The problem continues. The problem gets raised by parishioners and priests, every year. I know because they write to me.

The 2015 Episcopal General Ordination Open-Resource Exam question on “Holy Scriptures”  included the question, “Each year your parish reads John’s Passion account (John 18:1–19:37) as part of the Good Friday Liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer. Now a member of your parish Worship Committee has questioned the lack of sensitivity toward the Jewish people in continuing the practice of reading John’s Passion narrative on Good Friday, asking that John’s Passion be eliminated, and another Passion narrative be read in its place. You have chosen to address this in a major article in your parish newsletter….”

Rather than address the difficult verses in a parish newsletter—when the damage is either already done or about to be done, and recognizing that not everyone reads the newsletters—change the lectionary.

Your good faith attempts to provide clergy guidelines on how to address the anti-Jewish verses have not worked; the guidelines are not helpful; the clergy aren’t all paying attention. I document the problems with guidelines posted to your official website in my sermon last year at the National Cathedral for the 3d Sunday in Lent. Since you keep repeating the guidelines, and the guidelines don’t work, then the problem is not with the guidelines, it’s with the readings. Change the lectionary.

Attempts to change translations of John’s account, from “the Jews” to “Jewish leaders” are unfaithful  to what the text says. John’s initial readers were not stopping at each of the 70 uses of Ioudaioi to say, “Are they talking here about leaders or all Jews?” John knows the terms “Pharisee” and “high priest”; had he wished to specify leaders, he easily could have done so. Nor do Pharisees have “authority” over the people, and the only “authority” the priests have concern the Temple or various engagements with Pilate. They have no “authority” over synagogues or the lives of average Jews.

The change on occasion to “Jewish leaders” is also unfaithful to the narrative import of the text. When Pilate says, “I am not a Jew, am I?” the answer on the historical front is “of course not; you’re a gentile.” But on the narrative level, when he hands Jesus over to be crucified, he is the quintessential Jew.

Nor finally does the reading “Jewish leaders” help much, since we Jews chose to follow those leaders, not Jesus.

Rather than be unfaithful to what the text says, change the lectionary. Not everything has to be preached to the faithful during holy week or on a Sunday.

Changing the translation “Jew” to Judean doesn’t work either, since that option strips Jews out of the New Testament and creates, to use the German, a judenrein text, a text purified of Jews. And if there are no Jews in the NT, then Jesus is not a Jew. Indeed, for the Fourth Gospel, he’s not even a Judean; he’s a Galilean. “Judean” strips any connection between present-day Jews and fellow Jews like Jesus.

“Judean” is a preferred translation by neo-Nazis and KKK members since it denies Jesus, and his followers, their Jewish identity. He is, in their readings, an Aryan.

Finally, saying “Judean” will sound to the congregation like an attempt to avoid saying ’Jew’” and so retrench the problem, not resolve it.

Rather than adopt a translation that will exacerbate the problem or attempt to mask it,  correct the problem by changing the lectionary.

Notes in the order of worship, or announcements by the priest before the reading, about the problematic impression the text can give are also good faith efforts. They are, however, tantamount to announcing that a particular flag, or song, or term, can be seen as racist, or homophobic or sexist. Then, having exculpated the performer from any racist, homophobic, or sexist intention, the promotion of racism, homophobia, or sexism ensues. The performer does not intend to be committing a social sin; the performance does so none-the-less. Admitting that the lectionary is a problem but doing nothing to fix it is, while well intended, at best virtue signaling, an indication of a woke clergy and a woke congregation that  perpetuates the problem rather than resolves it.

The problem is the lectionary itself, and no guidelines will resolve its anti-Jewish impressions.

To make lectionary changes is not to take the text away from the faithful – anyone can at any time read the Gospel of John.  Not every text needs to be proclaimed from the pulpit.

All texts have baggage, and congregations have different ways of addressing its problematic scriptures. We Jews have the entire Torah to address, including its difficult passages. Those of you on the lectionary committee have the benefit of being able to change the lectionary, which did not come down directly from Mount Sinai.

A suggestion or, better, a plea: Change the lectionary, and do so in consultation with Jews who have sensitivity both to concerns of the Episcopal Church and exegetical expertise. I have before, many times, and do so now again, offer my help.