It is a sad fact that historically many countries in which Orthodoxy has become well established have had a lamentable record of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, like all forms of hatred, is of course demonic, and no one whose heart is filled with hate knows God. St. John said so long ago: “He who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11). Christian hatred of Jews because they are Jews is not only demonic. It is also theologically bizarre, given that our Lord, His Mother, and all His apostles were Jewish.
I remember how members of one Orthodox parish council I knew of objected to a member of their parish because he was racially Jewish, and I thought that this was not only sinful, but inexplicable, given that every face on the iconostas that they looked at every Sunday was Jewish. I suppose the angels Michael and Gabriel weren’t racially Jewish, given that angels have neither body nor race. They were, I submit, honourary members of Israel. Their names were certainly Jewish. In the Bible, the name “Jew” is always a title of honour—hardly surprising, since with the exception of St. Luke all its writers were Jewish.
We see this honouring of Israel in the hymns for Palm Sunday. Thus one of the stichs for the “Lord I call” at Great Vespers: “Your beloved Israel offers You praise from the mouth of innocent babes and infants”. From the Canon at Matins: “God has found out every righteous way and given it to His beloved Israel”. Note: Israel is beloved of God. And what about the Gentiles? The hymns compare them to the untamed and wild donkey upon which Christ sat as He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. As a Gentile, I cannot help but think: ouch. Fair enough, but—ouch.
In fact the New Testament is a Jewish document, and the polemic against those Jews that rejected Jesus and His movement was an example of intra-Israel polemic, rather like the polemic and argument ongoing between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. When St. Paul wrote that the Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so as always to fill up the measure of their sins” (1 Thessalonians 2:15-16), he was denouncing the party of his fellow-Jews who were striving to wipe out the Christian movement. He was hardly denouncing Jews as Jews, since he was one himself.
It was the same with St. John. When Revelation 2:9 denounced the Jews of Smyrna as “a synagogue of Satan” rather than a synagogue of God, this does not mean that all Jews everywhere belonged to Satan’s synagogue. What bestowed that dubious distinction on the Jews of Smyrna was their persecution of the local Christians, not their racial or ethnic heritage. As said above, the title “Jew” was a title of honour, and by persecuting the Christians the Jews of Asia Minor forfeited their right to that title. That is why it is said in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 “they say they are Jews and are not, but lie”. A real Jew would not persecute Christians.
The New Testament texts alternate between these two apostolic poles: on the one hand, the Jews are “beloved for the sake of the forefathers”. On the other hand, when they oppose and persecute the disciples of Jesus, they are “enemies of God” (Romans 11:28). According to race and covenant, therefore, they are God’s beloved. If and when they betray their honourable heritage as the people of God and seek to destroy the Christian Faith, they provoke God’s wrath and become enemies of His purposes.
None of this depends upon their racial heritage. It all depends upon how they act, for “God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11). Having received God’s mercy in Christ, we might be tempted to disdain those who resist such grace, and become “wise in our own conceits” (Romans 11:25). This is folly and sin. Israel is the root, and we do not support the root; the root supports us (Romans 11:18).
How then should we understand some of the hymns of the Church that focus upon the unbelief of the Jews? For it is not just some of the texts of Holy Week that underscore their unbelief. Take for example the Octoechos tropar for Tone 1: “When the stone had been sealed by the Jews, while the soldiers were guarding Your most pure Body…” Or the stich for the “Lord I call” in Tone 5: “Be not deceived, O Jews, study the words of the prophets and understand: Christ is the Redeemer of the world and almighty”. In these and other texts, the Jews are portrayed as examples of unbelief and perversity. How did such a tradition focussing upon Jewish resistance to the Gospel become a fixture in our hymnography?
One should, of course, never underestimate the human capacity for vindictive tribalism, of which no group is exempt, including the Jews. But a discerning historian will look to find other contributing factors as well, which can perhaps provide what Paul Harvey might have famously called “the rest of the story”. I refer in particular to the history of Jewish-Christian polemic stretching on through the centuries which provides the background to these Christian hymns. If one were to examine the hymns all by themselves divorced from this context, or—worse yet, the hymns against the background of the Nazi Holocaust—one might conclude that the Christians who wrote the hymns were a curiously miserable and cantankerous lot, and that the Christians of that era were uniquely unloving and spiteful.
But this would be like listening to one half of a loud and angry argument between two people. If two people were shouting at each other over the phone and if could hear only what one person was saying and replying, one might conclude that the person was touchy, unreasonable, and wrong. To really understand what was going on, one would have to listen to both voices arguing and hear what the other person was saying as well. Only then would one be in a position to judge the merits of the argument and the character of the combatants.
The hymns of the Orthodox liturgical tradition must be read as one voice in this ongoing Jewish-Christian debate. The other half of the debate is, I suggest, at least as vociferous and provocative. Take for example the Jewish work the Toldot Yeshu, or “the Chronicles of Jesus”, which purport to give the facts about Jesus, His Mother, His miracles, His teachings, and the circumstances of His death. According to one scholar, “Toledot Yeshu is a decidedly non-rabbinic counter-narrative and satire of the foundational story of Christianity, which likely originated in the late antique or early medieval period. It probably circulated orally for centuries before being transcribed in various places and times. A version of it was already known to the archbishop Agobard of Lyons in 827 CE, who complained of the Jews’ public and aggressive use of such vitriol to influence potential Christian converts’ attitudes towards Jesus. According to some late medieval sources, it was a Jewish custom to read Toledot Yeshu on Christmas Eve.”
In some versions of this Jewish work, Jesus’ father was a villain, and His conception was the result of rape and adultery, His Mother menstruating at the time of His conception. Jesus’ miracles were the result of fooling the gullible masses through the use of magic, having secretly stolen the Name of God from the Temple. In this text, Jesus is repeatedly referred to as “the bastard”—i.e. as illegitimate. He is finally killed by stoning, and then hung on the stalk of a carob tree. The punishment suffered by Jesus in the underworld for His (as they thought) blasphemous claims are also gleefully recounted in the Talmud. I recall in one of my university classes on Jewish-Christian dialogue, my Jewish prof referred to this, but declined to give the details of the punishment. I have since discovered why: the punishment was to be boiled in excrement.
My reason for recounting these unfortunate bits of history is not to stir the polemical pot, but simply to point out that the Church’s references to Jewish unbelief must be placed in their historical context if they are to be fully understood. They constitute one half of an ongoing debate, and will be misread if divorced from that context.
I still feel that our hymnography, whatever its historical origins, should be re-examined today to make sure that we are conveying the message we intend. Like it or not, ancient hymns like these cannot now be separated from the modern context of anti-Semitic agitation. Scholarly types know that the references to “the Jews” in the Holy Saturday Lamentations are not referring to one’s Jewish neighbour down the street, but to the Jewish Sanhedrin that condemned Christ and continued to persecute the apostles. But not everyone has the benefit of such scholarship, and some might imagine that the denunciations of the Sanhedrin somehow now apply to all Jews everywhere. It is not so. Therefore, I suggest, our hymns might profit by a sensitive reworking. But this worthy project must not to taken as an admission that the writers of the hymns were all anti-Semitic wretches. They were not responding to and applauding the Holocaust. They (and the Church Fathers before them, such as St. John Chrysostom) were responding to such works as found in the Toldot Yeshu.
Where does this leave us now in dealing with our Jewish neighbour down the street? What should our abiding attitude be toward Israel? (By this I mean the people, not the State.) Gratitude and prayerful love. We should love our Jewish neighbour. Both the Scriptures and hymns of Palm Sunday trumpet the same message: the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (Romans 11:29). Israel is beloved of God.