CHRISTIAN CHURCHES face a set of contradictions and difficulties in Holy Week.

The focus of the action is Jesus: his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the last supper, the trial, the crucifixion. But the context of the action is Jewish religious life: of Jesus and his contemporaries: expectation of the Messiah, the Passover, the high priest, ‘the Jews’.

For hundreds of years, Christians followed what we took to be the obvious route: the end of the old messianic expectations and their replacement with a new set of expectations focused on Jesus; the end of the old Passover and its replacement with a new ‘last supper’ and its repetition, the Eucharist; the end of the old priestly order and its replacement with a new high priest, Jesus Christ; the end of ‘the Jews’ who called for Jesus’ crucifixion and their replacement with a new people, Christians, who lament that crucifixion and who believe in his resurrection.

This series of endings and replacements has a name: supersessionism.

Supersessionism is for the most part not a single belief, or even a set of beliefs, that can be handily summarised in a doctrinal position. It is a way of looking at Jews and seeing a people whose religious practices have no enduring meaning. They are present in the gospels, and above all in the Gospel of John, who repeatedly refers to ‘the Jews’. They are imprisoned there, in the text, in the past. They have no place in the present. Their persistence in time makes no sense.

Supersessionism is evil.

I think one of the most significant theological tasks of Holy Week is to push hard against supersessionism. It has centuries of inertia driving it into our liturgies, an almost unstoppable mass of beliefs, sermons, pogroms backed by the heft of some of the greatest theologians of the Christian tradition. Pushing hard against that requires real work.

Supersessionism is the theological face of murderous contempt for Jews.

I sang in church choirs for my entire childhood and well into early adulthood. The high point of each Holy Week was not Easter Day, a day on which we were hoarse and exhausted. The high point was the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion or St John Passion. They were sometimes sung in English but more often in Luther’s German.

I remember as a boy at New College, Oxford, various contorted discussions about whether it should be Jüden, with an umlaut, or Juden, without, with accompanying garbled commentary as to the antisemitic meanings of that umlaut. One of the academical clerks, Rufus Müller, was a native German-speaker, and perhaps he had introduced questions of modern German orthography into our discussions. He was a brilliant Evangelist with a stake in this question, for it is the Evangelist who must sing this word. I was ten years old. I did not grasp the complexities, but I got the strong impression that words matter.

Well. I have in front of me the Bärenreiter vocal score of the St Matthew Passion which I purchased in February 1989 (with funds provided by the Ord Grant, available at that time to choral scholars at King’s College, Cambridge). It is fully marked up with breathings and instructions as to when to sit and stand, so it was used in performance shortly afterwards. The score is based on the 1974 edition by Alfred Dürr. It uses Jüden throughout. So we might have some discussion about umlauts, but then we would revert to the score, and it would be left to the Evangelist to do any amendments. As for the choir, we just got on with it. At 50d we sang the b minor chorus, “His blood be on all of us and on our children”, just like every other chorus. There were no contorted discussions or garbled commentaries regarding that chorus, incidentally. There were no discussions at all. We just got on with it.

And that is how it goes, for the most part. The text, whether of Matthew or John, contains material that needs urgent commentary. Under certain conditions (an Oxford choir’s rehearsal of a difficult work) it might receive some. But mostly it would not. The words are on the page. Our job was to sing them.

You might think, “So what, that is completely normal.” Choirs never discuss such matters. But that is not true. In 1988 we were singing Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia (probably in November, near her feast day). The text, by W.H. Auden, is obscure. So the choirmaster, Stephen Cleobury, invited the Dean of King’s, John Drury (a New Testament scholar whose focus was literary analysis) to our rehearsal to give a brief lecture on the Auden poem. The idea was that the singers should have some idea what we were singing. I can neither confirm nor deny that we knew what we were singing after Drury’s exposition of the text.

The point is that choirs do think about texts. My memory is that it was possible to think about an obscure and difficult Auden poem, in the middle of a busy term, but not possible to think about Matthew’s Gospel in Holy Week, when there was only music to think about. And it would be many years before I discovered that Martin Luther, whose German text we were singing, was the author of On the Jews and their Lies, one of the most vicious antisemitic treatises ever written.

So how can one observe Holy Week without “just getting on with it”, with all the supersessionism that this brings with it?

This question is shot through with contradictions and difficulties.

Can one interrupt the liturgy to reflect on what is in it? Few liturgists would encourage that. Can one provide ‘programme notes’ that confront the most serious matters? Perhaps. It is an interesting question where such notes would go. Can one interrupt the text itself, and retranslate ioudaioi as something other than ‘the Jews’? This is not a welcome proposal in churches that use the Bible as a tool to enforce the community’s prejudices. If you retranslate ioudaioi, what else might get retranslated? It all sounds like a ‘liberal’ plot.

We live in dark times, when the meaning of scripture in many churches is ‘obvious’, and when those who seek to interpret it with attention to its complexities are often denounced as guilty of ‘mental gymnastics’. The very act of thinking about scripture is under suspicion in many churches. As the old joke about music and dancing goes, thinking leads to reinterpretation, and reinterpretation leads to… more reinterpretation.

My sense is that these contradictions and difficulties find their home in preaching. The task is to preach the good news of the Gospel in a way that challenges Holy Week’s murderous contempt for ‘the Jews’.
There are soft and firm versions of this kind of preaching.

The soft sermon (better than nothing) might point out that at the time of Matthew’s and John’s Gospels, there was no ‘Christianity’ and no ‘Judaism’ as we now know it. Both traditions were being formed. Both communities were minorities whose lives unfolded in the context of hostile imperial control. Harsh words were used. ‘Affilliation and disaffiliation’ were urgent imperatives (to use the terms of Adele Reinhartz).

Here is David Ford: “The overall verdict is that there was clearly a history of hostility and conflict in the time both of Jesus and of the Johannine community, but that that it is not appropriate to speak of anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism. Rather, this is the language of family quarreling between Jews and later between Jews and Jewish Christians. The context is a ruthless empire and a province with deep divisions and endemic instability, violence, exploitation, and bitter intra-Jewish conflict.” (The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, p.185)

The firmer sermon (much better) might acknowledge, in unvarnished terms, the history of Christian antisemitism in Europe, include a frank acknowledgement of the internment of Kindertransport immigrants on the Isle of Man, and confront the resurgence of antisemitism across the political spectrum, including the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. The alignment of nation with religion, not just in Russia or Poland, but also in Britain (with many new defences of empire and ‘Christian civilization’), is dangerous for Jewish communities. The passion narratives as living texts are not innocent: the history of their interpretation lives on in antisemitism today.

The Johannine rhetoric against the ioudaioi has as its purpose the forcing of a decision ‘for Jesus’ more than ‘against the Jews’. I would be glad to hear that preached.

There is a strong temptation for some. They want to say, “the problem is interpretation; we need to get back to the clarity of scripture itself”.

Alas. The plain sense of scripture is the greater threat to Jewish communities. That threat is there in the readings for Holy Week. It is there in the sublime music of J.S. Bach.

The greatest obstacle for those who push against supersessionism is precisely the plain sense of scripture.

Holy Week is thus a week of contradictions and difficulties. The question is not how to resolve the contradictions and ease the difficulties. There is no resolution; there is no ease. The question is how to acknowledge them, and work with them.

There is a continuing struggle, against one’s own tradition, at the heart of the tradition’s most beautiful liturgies.

Perhaps we might preach that.


© Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham.  Dr Adams’ latest Ekklesia articles can be viewed here. Previous contributions are archived here.