6 Ways to Avoid Unintentional Anti-Judaism

We received several letters to the editor critiquing Brian McLaren’s portrayal of the Pharisees in “Beyond Fire and Brimstone” (Sojourners, February 2014). We’ve found informative these adapted suggestions from Dr. William F. Brosend II—a professor of homiletics at Sewanee School of Theology—to help avoid unintentional anti-Judaism in the writing, preaching, and teaching of the gospel.

  1. Remember that Jesus was Jewish. This seems obvious, but a significant portion of unintentional anti-Judaism in Christian preaching is rooted in uncritical and unexamined assumptions. One common misperception is that “the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as Messiah because they were looking for a political, not a spiritual, leader.” This is problematic in multiple ways. To say that “the Jewish people did not accept Jesus” ignores the fact that the earliest Christians were Jews who did indeed believe in Jesus, and much of the church remained Jewish for a long time. Moreover, it is impossible to make sense, historically or religiously, of what Jesus said and did apart from his being a Jew. Jewish messianic expectations in the first century were many and varied, so the distinction between a “political” and “spiritual” messiah makes no sense in the New Testament. It is our responsibility both to appreciate Jesus’ Jewish identity and to deepen the background needed to appreciate what this means.
  2. Remember that the biblical God is one God. The ideas that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament and that the Old Testament God is “wrathful” and the New Testament God “merciful” have more in common with the heresy of Marcion than they do with orthodox Christian faith. The biblical God is one God. Both parts of the Christian canon portray God in much more complex ways than the stereotypes.
  3. Do not confuse inner-Jewish arguments with Jewish-Christian arguments. The gospels were written during a period when the differences between Judaism and Christianity became apparent only in retrospect. When Jesus says, “Woe to you” (Luke 6:25, 26), he is talking to his brothers and sisters, not to an anonymous “other.”
  4. You do not have to put Judaism down to make Jesus look good. Have you heard this before? “Jesus was the only figure in first century Palestine who valued women or resisted the Romans or worked for the oppressed.” Not so. The love and compassion of Jesus are fruit of the faith he inherited and passed on to us. It is not sui generis.
  5. Recognize antagonistic rhetoric for what it is—arguments are usually not pretty. When Jesus is depicted as condemning the scribes and the Pharisees (e.g., seven times in Matthew 23), it is not because he was having a bad day. His anger grounds his rhetoric. Accept and appreciate angry rhetoric for what it is—an attempt to score points at the expense of the integrity of one’s adversary. Most of the controversy stories in the gospels should be understood in the context of the agonistic struggle for honor and shame that marks Greco-Roman antiquity.
  6. Not everything can be explained away. Sometimes we have to say “I disagree.” There are times when the rhetoric of the gospels exceeds the bounds of understanding, apology, and acceptance. There are words in the gospels that have long been used to incite Christian anti-Judaism. They must be named, not excused.

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