Vol. 14, Iss. 2
The Biblical Academy and Christian
The Rev. Peter J. Miano
It has been said that an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he/she knows absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. This old aphorism is particularly applicable in the biblical academy—the dominant paradigm for studying, teaching and learning the Bible—where the pressure to specialize, i.e., to learn more and more about less and less, has had dubious, unintended and even tragic consequences. More often than not the members of the academy focus on minutiae and ignore moral relevance in a collective preoccupation with answering questions no one ever asked. For example, instead of addressing the moral challenges of our day, the flagship journal of the field, the Journal of Biblical Literature, features essays like “Sansinnayw; Song of Songs 7:9 and the Palpal Noun Pattern,” and “Movov or µovwv? Reading 1 John 2:2c from the Editio Critica Maior.”
No one should begrudge anyone their academic interests, but I should think there would be a little more self examination among the members of the academy, especially when it comes to the academy’s role in one of today’s most pressing moral concerns, namely the re-emergence of Christian anti-Semitism. Words matter. Biblical interpretation matters. Bad biblical interpretation employing careless language over generations has had the appalling effect of promoting and perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes. Real life anti-Semites appeal to stereotypes rooted in biblical translation and interpretation to reinforce anti-Semitic attitudes and actions.
Like measles, anti-Semitism was thought to have been largely eradicated, but we are currently witnessing a disturbing resurgence of this tenacious social virus. Lately, a surge of anti Jewish vandalism and violence has captured popular attention and earned well deserved moral opprobrium—violent attacks on Jews in Denmark and France, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues and anti Jewish slogans and chants during political demonstrations in Germany, Greece, the U.K. and the United States. Anti-Semitism is particularly prevalent among ultra nationalist groups in Europe and the United States. In the U.S., white supremacist groups, a notorious example being the Ku Klux Klan, blend ultra-nationalism with anti-Semitism. Notwithstanding prodigious Christian efforts among church professionals and also within the biblical academy to examine and root out anti-Semitism, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has re-emerged as a frontline issue. It is a meat and potatoes issue and deserves a place on the moral table of every Christian.
Christian anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Christian history. The full grown tree bears the poisoned fruits of nationalism, bad racial science and perverse moral theology. John Hagee, the pastor of a mega church in Texas and a televangelist whose broadcasts can reach 150 million households, states that Jews brought the holocaust on themselves by angering God. I have heard this same twisted theology from Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, but it is appalling, particularly to me as a Christian minister, when a Christian pastor promotes such a sinister theology.
The tangled roots of Christian anti-Semitism include both triumphalist or supercessionist theology and bad biblical interpretation. Biblical interpretation is not the armchair exercise it would appear to be from the pages of The Journal of Biblical Literature. Interpretation matters. Words matter. Nowhere is this more obvious than in reckless, unnecessary translations of the Bible that give birth to, nurture and perpetuate Christian anti-Semitism.
My interest in this issue is not new. It began with my earliest serious biblical study with Raymond E. Brown at Union Theological Seminary and it became more poignant when I studied with John Strugnell at Harvard. Prof. Strugnell was pilloried as anti-Semitic, arguably unfairly, in the sensationalist magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. That rather public spectacle drove home to me the awareness that anti-Semitism is alive and well in spite of the biblical academy and several generations of post Holocaust Christian contrition. Prof. Brown had pointed out over and over again that in contrast to the so-called synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), which rarely refer to “Jews,” the Gospel of John makes more than 60 references to Jews almost all of which are pejorative. In John’s Gospel, the enemies and opponents of Jesus are Jews. They confront him. They seek to trap him. At the heart of the passion narratives, common to all the Gospels, is the idea that Jesus is betrayed by a fellow Jew. The Jews frame him. They display their complicity with the ruling powers when they falsely accuse him before the Roman governor. They help manipulate the crowds who call for Jesus’ crucifixion. They are consistently portrayed negatively as conspiratorial, conniving and disloyal, i.e., Jews in the Gospels embody the most fundamental stereotypes and display the most notorious canards of contemporary Christian anti-Semitism. Or do they?
I am often astonished to realize how much we take for granted in our Bibles. For example, almost everyone assumes that in the popular story of Jesus encountering Zacchaeus in Jericho (Luke 19: 1-3) that Zacchaeus climbs the sycamore tree, because he, i.e., Zacchaeus, is short. Credit the persuasiveness of our Sunday school songs for that one, because the Greek text does not specifically say so. If we had only the Greek text to base our impressions on, we could just as easily interpret the text as Jesus being short. The pronouns in the text do not specify who was short. We take it for granted that Zacchaeus was the short one.
Similarly, in Mark’s Gospel (2:15), according to the New Revised Standard Version, Jesus has dinner at Levi’s house, even though our best manuscripts do not specify that it was Levi’s house at all. The text says that Jesus reclined (he did not sit to eat a meal) at dinner at his house (v.15), but it does not specify that the house belonged to Levi. The term Levi does not occur at all in the oldest manuscripts. It might as well have been Jesus’ house. That it was Levi’s house in the NRSV is purely the translator’s invention. The translator did not want to upset the traditional apple cart. The translation is not based on any requirement of interpretation. Inserting the word Levi’s when it is not in the original text is pure ideology and pure fantasy and pure liberty on the part of the translators. Interpretation matters. Words not only describe reality, they also condition our perceptions of it.
Once we begin to concentrate on what the texts actually say, as opposed to what we are told they say or what we want them to say, once we begin to examine some of our cherished Sunday school ideas with a willingness to reassess our primitive understandings, wonderful things begin to happen. New possibilities of meaning emerge. Sometimes these new possibilities are troubling like when one suggests that perhaps Jesus, rather than Zacchaeus, was short. Other times the possibilities are exciting and refreshing, as when one suggests, as I do right now, that the English translation of Ioudaios/Ioudaioi as Jew/Jews in our English versions of the Bible is not only incorrect and unnecessary, but that it causes damage.
Certainly, such a translation is not required. Notwithstanding the astonishing preference of sensitive, brilliant biblical scholars to translate Ioudaios/Ioudaioi as Jew/Jews, there is neither any interpretive requirement nor historical reason to do so. To equate the Greek words Ioudaios/Ioudaioi in our Greek manuscripts, which are known to have at least five different meanings in the New Testament, uniformly as Jew/Jews, which have distinct contemporary meanings, is purely the translators’ preference, pure interpretive liberty and mechanical instinct ingrained over generations of uncritical repetition. This preference is anything but benign or inconsequential. It causes damage. It helps perpetuate negative stereotypes about Jews that real life anti-Semites utilize to spread hate.
It is symptomatic of weak historical thinking to employ modern terms with contemporary referent to ancient people. This is called anachronism. It occurs, for example, when we refer to Jesus and Paul as Christians, because there were no Christians at the time of Jesus and Paul and the contemporary term Christian carries with it a raft of associations and meanings that it could not have had among the first followers of Jesus.
By the same token, anachronistic thinking occurs when we refer to Jesus or Jesus’ disciples or Jesus’ enemies or Jesus’ betrayer or Jesus’ accusers as Jews, because it equates an ancient group with a modern people. When that ancient people is cast in a negative light, that same light extends to the modern people. There is no interpretive requirement for such a translation and such repetitive association perpetuates negative stereotypes about modern Jews as conspiratorial, conniving, etc.
There is no indication that Jesus and Paul ever referred to themselves as Jews. I do not know any contemporary Jews who practice animal sacrifice or even want to. I do not know any contemporary Jews who trace their lineage through their father’s blood line, but Jesus and his contemporaries did both. On the other hand, Jesus and Paul never heard of the Mishnah or the Talmuds, but the Talmud is normative for contemporary Judaism. Not only do we have no warrant whatsoever to translate Ioudaios/Ioudaioi as Jew/Jews, that default translation is forced. We have to work hard to make it work. Then, once we force the modern reading on the ancient text, we are faced with the dubious and immoral result that the Jews were Jesus’ enemies, that the Jews were conspiratorial, that the Jews framed Jesus, and that a Jew betrayed him. What is so great about that? How is such translation helpful or desirable?
By default, the vast majority of biblical scholars succumb to the intellectual laziness of anachronistic historical thinking. It is epidemic in biblical scholarship. Some do so, because they are distracted by the pressures within the academy to specialize and they do not have the time to examine their own preconceptions. Others do so, because, after too many years of the Church rejecting Jesus’ Jewishness, they understand themselves deliberately as supplying a long overdue corrective. However, they accomplish this corrective at the cost of perpetuating stereotypes about Jews that are employed more and more in our world with catastrophic result. Interpretation matters and appropriate biblical interpretation must factor in the moral consequences of translation. .
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