In a thoughtful article published recently on Public Orthodoxy entitled, “It’s That Time of Year Again: in Tone Four, ‘The Murderers of God, the Lawless Nation of the Jews…’” Bogdan Bucur offered some reflections about the advisability of altering certain stichs from the Matins services sung on Holy Thursday and Holy Friday. He pointed out that some language could be found offensive to our Jewish neighbours and savoured of anti-Semitism. He did not advocate simply omitting the verses, and he cautioned about the dangers of re-writing or eliminating offending verses as itself problematic. He suggested though that perhaps a verse like “Today the Jews nailed to the Cross the Lord who divided the sea” might become “Today is nailed to the Cross the Lord who divided the sea”, since this rewrite would both preserve the Christological content and also avoid mention of the Jews. What follows should not be considered so much an answer or attempted refutation of Bucur’s article as a few thoughts inspired by this important discussion.
First of all it is important to recognize the nature of the authority of such hymnographic compositions. They are not inspired in the same way that Holy Scripture is inspired—and therefore they are not as inviolable as Holy Scripture, but are (in principle at least) capable of pious revision. In this way the words of the hymn-writers are comparable to the words of the Fathers: not every single hymn can be regarded as infallible, just as not every single patristic opinion can be accepted as infallible. It is the phronema, the mindset of the Fathers which should guide us, as well as the consensus patrum. The Fathers themselves confessed that Scripture was the superior authority, and so they endeavoured with all their might to conform to it. Not every single Father bats a thousand of course, and we are not bound by the minute details of every single hymn.
Take for example the wonderful hymns of Bridegroom Matins. The hymns of Bridegroom Matins for Great and Holy Wednesday assume that the harlot who came to anoint Jesus’ feet (mentioned in Luke 7:36-50) was the same woman who anointed His feet in Bethany shortly before His Passion, (mentioned in Matthew 26:6-13 and identified in John 12:1-8 as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus). The identification makes for some poignant and beautiful poetry, contrasting the penitence of the harlot with the impenitence of Judas. But the identification of the two women cannot be sustained. Despite many details in common, no harmonization is really possible. In the account of the harlot’s anointing in Luke 7, the Pharisee wonders why Jesus would allow such a woman to touch Him, which would make no sense if she were one of the hosts offering Him hospitality. Also, Jesus tells the harlot to “go in peace”, which He would not say to Mary. Mary would not “go” from the house, for the very good reason that she lived there.
The point is that these stichs, lovely and precious as they are, do not guide our exegesis. We cannot say, “We must identify the two women, because the hymn-writer has identified them”. The authority of the stich does not reside in its exegesis, but in the devotional contrast between penitent fervour and impenitent coldness of heart. The hymns are not Scripture.
Secondly we should beware of the temptation to conform to all the current canons of political correctness. It is true that many if not most in the Jewish community find offensive the classic Christian assertion that “the Jews killed Christ”, and some have gone to the lengths of denying any Jewish responsibility at all and putting the entire responsibility for His death on the Romans. It is also true that the statement, “the Jews killed Christ” is so general as to be unhelpful. Not every single Jew in the world, or in Palestine, or even down south in Judea shared that responsibility. His disciples in Galilee did not, and presumably many Jews in the Diaspora hardly knew what was going on during Christ’s final days until it was all over. By “the Jews” one must therefore mean: the Sanhedrin as a group, the majority of Jerusalem’s Sadducees, and the majority of the Pharisees. The Jerusalem mob who cried for His death before Pilate saying, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25) share the responsibility. And arguably the Jews who continued to revile Jesus as a deceiving blasphemer and who drove out the apostles and hindered their work share some responsibility also. But that is a far cry from universalizing the responsibility so as to include all Jews, and even further from making the issue a racial one.
All that said, we cannot retreat from the teaching of the New Testament and say that there was no Jewish culpability at all for His death. Many Jews strenuously object to this, and to the Christian assertion that they should convert to Christianity, but the conversion of everyone, including Jews, remains a part of our mandate nonetheless. Of course no one likes to be told that they are wrong and that they should therefore change religions. But religions are not all the same, and so naturally a sincere practitioner of a religion will regard his as the right one and the others as wrong when they disagree. This is not triumphalism or fundamentalism, but simply consistency and honest common sense. I am not offended if a Muslim affirms that Jesus was not crucified or when tells me I should convert to Islam. I am not offended if a Jew tells me I am wrong to regard Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God. Living in a liberal democracy involves trying to get along with each other even when we disagree about religion, and political correctness is evil if it insists that I cannot proclaim openly what I believe in case someone somewhere is offended. And let’s be clear—this is not a matter of me giving offense but of someone insisting on taking offense. The antidote to such political correctness is the simple exhortation, “Don’t be offended”. One has a choice about whether or not one takes offense at something with which one disagrees. To disagree is not necessarily to offend.
Part of the problem with omitting all references to Jewish responsibility in our hymns is that it erodes the historical element in favour of this political correctness. The hymns are meditations on the Scriptural narrative, and the narrative contains ample reference to Jewish culpability. The Jewish element in the stichs is also a part of its theological message, which highlights the ingratitude shown to Christ: it was the very same people which He blessed by dividing the Red Sea and feeding in the wilderness which now repays Him by killing Him. In this historical Jewish ingratitude we detect our own ingratitude also, for we too repay the Lord’s kindness by sinning against Him. We ought not to sacrifice this important message simply because someone may take offense at it. If some day an Italian Anti-defamation League decides to take offense at our assertion that the Romans were the ones under whom Christ was crucified, we must stand firm on this too. Historical facts are stubborn things. Our hymns should not be put through the filter of political correctness so as to eliminate historical facts now deemed offensive.
Finally we should be aware of what people hear when they hear the hymns. This is not a matter of kow-towing to political correctness but of simple communication. We need to ask the question, “Are we communicating what we mean to communicate?” If few people understand what we mean to say, we are not communicating very well and must try again.
No one today can be entirely sure of what the hymn-writers meant to communicate when they penned verses like, “O blood-guilty people, faithless Israel, the murderer Barabbas you set free, but delivered the Saviour to the cross” or “O blood-thirsty people, vengeful and envious, be convicted by the shroud and napkin, which bear witness to the rising of Christ”. But the fact that the very next stich says, “O evil disciple, murderer of God! Tell me what poison entered your heart to make you betray Christ” suggests that the author of the stichs was intending them to be read as meditations on the narrative contained in New Testament texts.
That is, the “blood-guilty people, faithless Israel”, the “blood-thirsty people, vengeful and envious” referred not to the Jews in general as a race, but was confined to the Jews actually responsible for His death. These statements were meant to be read historically, not as a blanket condemnation of all Jews everywhere. As such, they are no more anti-Semitic than the New Testament on which they were based. And (as Bucur points out) these New Testament texts were originally read as from “within first-century Judaism”, as “harsh intra-Jewish polemics”. That is, the New Testament cannot be anti-Semitic because it is Semitic. With the exception of Luke-Acts, it was entirely written by Jews. That is (regrettably) not to say that there was never any anti-Semitism present among Christians, or even to say that there was none in the heart of the hymn-writer. That latter knowledge is not given to any of us. But it is to say that (arguably) the hymn-writer’s intent was to pen historical meditations, not racial theory.
The problem however is that now these verses are—or at least can be—read as expressions of racial theory. After the Holocaust of the Second World War, these verses are inevitably received as part of an ongoing racial conversation about “the Jews”. Indeed, the very term “the Jews” now means not those Jews responsible for the death of Christ, but all Jews everywhere. This is, I submit, not what the hymns are actually saying—or anyway not what we now want to say. But if we sing these verses as they are we will be misunderstood by the world as saying what we do not intend to say. Worse yet, fringe anti-Semitic groups may take these verses as justification of their anti-Semitism. I suggest therefore that some of the verses be altered. For example, the stich which reads, “O blood-guilty people, faithless Israel, the murderer Barabbas you set free, but delivered the Saviour to the cross” could be altered to “O blood-guilty and faithless Sanhedrin, the murderer Barabbas you set free…” One need not approach such revision legalistically, taking care to alter every single hymn. Personally I would leave the hymn, “Today the Jews nailed to the Cross the Lord who divided the sea” just as it is. It is the hymnography in general that concerns us. By altering a few stichs to make clear that the Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death is not a generalized racial one, we make clear the intent of all the hymns. This is not a matter of political correctness, but of simply making ourselves clear.