“This Is AnrnHard Saying:rnWho Can Hear It?”rnby Philip JenkinsrnNot too often these days does arncliLirch service offer me a momentrnof startling revelation, a line of scripturernthat stops me in my tracks. I’his past Easter,rnthough, I was attending an Episcopalrnservice, when I heard a line—or, more exactK,rndid not hear a line —that had justrnthat effect. The minister, a recentK ordainedrnwoman, was reading the famousrnpassage in St. John’s gospel that describesrnthe disciples gathering in great fear afterrnthe Crucifixion. She read how “the doorsrnof the house w here the disciples had metrnwere locked. Jesus came and stood amongrnthem and said ‘Peace be with you'” (Johnrn20:19). ‘I’hough the words were familiar,rnsomething sounded wrong and, indeed,rnwas wrong. What the minister had donernwas to omit the few words that describedrnjust M’/?v the doors were locked: “for fear ofrnthe Jews.” She had edited a scripturalrnreading in order to remove an unpalatablernphrase, a hard saying. That’s right: Shernwas censoring the New Testament.rnIn making this omission, she had committedrntwo errors, one substantial in itsrnimplications, the other incalculable. Onrnthe lesser count, what we might call thernxenial sin, she was succumbing to a mi,sleadingrnand pejoratisc historical interpretationrnof Christian origins. But worse,rnshe was responding to this problem hrnconsciously changing the biblical text tornmesh w ith her political preconceptions.rnIf this were an isolated misdeed by onernturbulent priest, I would not be toornalarmed, but I am afraid that her omissionrnis a token of a significant trend inrncontemporary Christianity and of thernwa” modern people read — and misreadrn—the Bible.rnIn the instance I am describing, thernmotixcs for the minister’s change arernclear enough. She evidenth shares arncommon cultural assumption about thernroots of antisemitism, a view that can bernexpressed as a (rather dubious) sequencernof propositions. According to this view,rnantisemitism is a central flaw of Westernrnculture, which reached its logical culminationrnin the Nazi genocide; second, antisemitismrnis a direct outgrowth of ChristianiK,rnand of Christian hatred of Jews;rnand third. Christian antisemitism has itsrnroots in the text of Scripture. When tirernevangelist Matthew had the Jewishrncrowd cr’, “Mis blood be upon us and onrnour children,” that sentiment became arnself-fulfilling prophecy that was fulh’ realizedrnin the 1940’s. This perceived chainrnof causation, this link between the NewrnTestament and the death camps, has recenriyrngained a mass audience throughrnJames Carroll’s best-selling book, Con-rnHtantme’s Sword.rnIn the aftermath of the Nazi genocide,rnit would have been amazing if Christiansrnhad not felt a fundamental obligation tornalone for an anti-Jewish heritage and tornpurge any such elements from the fiiith.rnOnly as late as 1959 did Pope John XXIIIrnchange the language of the ancientrnprayer in the Good Eriday liturgy, inrnwhich Roman Catholics prayed eachrnyear for the conversion of “the perfidiousrnJews.” Christian-Jewish relations are arnyen’ delicate matter, and New Testamentrnpassages like John 20 are embarrassingrnfor many believers.rnYet the argument presented by Carrollrnand others is open to attack from manyrnsides. Most questionable is the connectionrnbehveen the medieval Christian traditionrnof anti-Jewish activism and thernvery different ideologv’ of the Nazis. A vitalrndistinction exists between anti-Judaismrn(hostility to the Jewish religion)rnand the much later and more lethalrnracial doctrine of antisemitism. Almostrncertainly, even,’ so-called antisemitic passagernin the New Testament was writtenrnb someone of pure Jewish descent, includingrnSt. John, St. Matthew, and thernapostie Paul. All these writers, moreoer,rnw ere as thoroughly suffused w ith flie Jewishrnlearning of the day as were an of flieirrngreat rabbinic contemporaries. I’hey deniedrnthe truth of the Jewish religion ofrntheir day, but insofar as they could havernunderstood the concept of antisemitism,rnthe’ would probably have described itrnunder a blanket term like “the works ofrnSatan” or “Antichrist.” A direct historicalrnhighway simply does not lead from tinerne angelists to Auschwitz.rnThe passage in John 20 records an undeniablernhistorical fact —namelw thernhostility between mainstream Jews andrnthe deviant sect of the Nazarenes —andrnthere is no reason why the phrase shouldrnnot be read. But what was striking aboutrnthe Easter service I attended was not justrnthat the minister clearh’ hates the wordsrn”for fear of the Jews,” but that she felt freernto exclude them from public reading.rnWhat was being censored on this occasionrnwas not the liturg}’, not the customan.’rnrhetoric of sermons and pulpit exhortations,rnbut the language of Scripture itselfrnShe was rewriting the Bible to her taste.rnThis kind of biblical rewriting is notrnentirely new, but it has alvas been a ver’rnradical step, the last resort of the fanatic,rnthroughout Christian history, competingrnfactions have responded to difficultrnbiblical texts in a nimiber of ways, butrnrarely by actually changing them. Addingrnto or subtracting from the Bible textrnwas considered a dreadful sin, one thatrnprobably involved heresy. Knowing this,rnfactions made flieir polemical points byrnmeans of creative translations. Even thernmost freakishly deviant versions of thernBible —such as that offered by the Jehovah’srnWitnesses —claim, however questionably,rnto be retranslating rather thanrnrewriting, tor even the most marginalrnof Christians, the Bible is —to coin arnphrase —holy writ. Often, too, committedrnactivists tried to explain awa’ incon-rnenient readings, to make them sv’uibolicrnor “merely spiritual” in nature, or (betterrnyet) to ignore them altogether. In tryingrnto explain away the numerous scripturalrnreferences to the pleasures of wine, temperancernadvocates produced a body of exegesisrnthat is ingenious, occasionally hilarious,rnand seldom convincing—but atrnleast they tried to confront the issue.rnMuch rarer, at least since the days ofrnthe early Church, have been explicit revisionsrnof the biblical text, aimed at purgingrnthe “hard sayings.” Certainly, somernsuch attempts have been made, includingrnthe splendidly wrongheaded JeffersonrnBible of 1816. What Jefferson didrnwas to remove supernatural elementsrnfrom flie New Testament, to present Jesusrnas a fine moral teacher, whose careerrnended tragically with His Crucifixion.rnThe book is fascinating both as an insightrninto the thought of a great American, andrnas a commemoration of the radical deistrnreligion of its time, but it is far removedrnfrom any orthodox concept of Christianih’.rnEqually bizarre —and far more sinisterrn—was the attempt of the sadU misnamedrn”German Christian” sect underrnHitler, which wanted to eradicate thernwhole Old Testament from the Bible.rnEor perhaps 1,800 years, flie assumptionrnhas been that anyone purporting tornspeak within the Christian tradition mustrndeal with the biblical text as it stands,rnwhether they like that text or not. Yet,rnwithin the last 30 years or so, that idea hasrnbeen transformed, so that people like myrnOCTOBER 2001/49rnrnrn