John's Passion: A Problem You Can't Ignore

"White Crucifixion" by Marc Chagall
It is well known that the passion stories in the Gospels have been read and used in ways that promote anti-semitism and Jewish persecution. Ever since the second centuary Christians have used their anti-Jewish sentiments as an excuse for reading the stories of the suffering and death of Jesus as a cause to blame Jews. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD spoke openly of the blame of Jews. The anonymosity felt for them at the Council was so great that it separated the Christian observance of Easter from the Jewish observance of Passover.

During the middle ages, Holy Week, and especially Good Friday, were times of persecution and violence toward Jews. Liturgically, these awful beliefs were codified and magnified through such texts as the Good Friday Bidding Prayer and the Solemn Reproaches. Thankfully, these texts have been modified to remove the anti-semitic language, although they can still be problematic if used without great care today. (I find the Solemn Reproaches unusable, but now for other theological and spiritual formation reasons).

One text that is difficult to modify is the New Testament. We do not lightly modify our holy Scriptures. However, we must recognized that every translation of the Bible is a modification. A translation includes thousands of choices for how to best represent an ancient text in Greek and Hebrew for native speakers of other languages and in vastly different cultures. Translations cannot ignore the impact of word choices on the readers and hearers of the translated text. There is always a moral and ethical aspect to translating texts.

The Gospel of John is the traditional text used on Good Friday for the reading of the passion of Jesus. Unfortunately, it is also the most difficult to use when trying to avoid anti-Jewish understandings of the text. This is partly because John's Gospel was written out of a community that existed quite apart from Jewish Christian origins, and held negative beliefs about Jewish leadership. This comes through strongly in the text. John uses the phrase "the Jews" repeatedly, often referring to the Jewish leadership in the particular. But the phrase "the Jews" has been heard and used by Christians, who already had develped many anti-Jewish beliefs, as a cause for blaming all Jews then and now for the death of Jesus. This is a root cause of anti-semitism, and the church today should do all it can to dismantle this deep-seated Christian atittude.

Some scholars and pastors have worked to create translations of the passion of Jesus that minimize anti-Jewish implications. I am offering here my attempt to come up with a passion story from John that is true to the intentions of the text, but allows contemporary hearers to understand better what is happening in Jesus' confrontation with religious leaders and Roman governing authorities. My attempt isn't perfect, but it might be a starting point for others to think about how to use the passion narrative without implicit anti-Jewish interpetations.

This is a modification of the NRSV translation, and using some of the suggestions made by Dr. Norm Beck. I use strikeouts and underlines to indicate words removed and inserted, so it is clear where I am changing the NRSV.

Passion of John NRSV with Modifications


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