The Pope’s New Teaching on Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Response from Jim Voelz

Editor’s Note: Pope Benedict XVI is again in the news for his statements and teaching on the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Just in time for Lent, he is releasing a new book that claims to alter the Roman views on the role of Jews in the death of Jesus. Pertinent online articles can be found here and here.

No doubt the pastors reading this will get questions in Bible study on this issue. So we’ve invited two NT profs at Concordia Seminary, Jim Voelz and Dave Lewis, to interact with these issues. Jim’s observations are found below, Dave’s will follow shortly in another post.

The new book by Pope Benedict XVI has revived the heated discussion regarding the Jews, the death of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and the responsibility for that death.  A large part of the issue relates to what has been called either Rezeptionsgeschichte, i.e., the history of the reception of various passages, or Wirkungsgeschichte, i.e., the way the passages have worked themselves out historically, or, the impact those passages have had within the history of the church.  People who are worried about these factors are not concerned simply with what a passage “means.”  Rather, they are worried about how a passage has been understood and how that understanding has impacted the Church and the world as it has been used.  Hence, the issue of Matt. 27:25, with the crowd crying “His blood be/is on us and on our children.”  So much more is involved than the meaning of this passage.  What worries people, including Pope Benedict XVI, is how this passage has been understood and how it has been used throughout the history of the church.  But this is precisely what makes the problem so difficult for us as Lutherans.  We are Scripture-oriented people, and the meaning of the Word is primary for us.  We focus upon what a passage means, and if there is a difficulty, we correct our thinking, and then we think that that is that.  But voices continue to be raised that even hinting that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus has worked itself out in history—and quite possibly will work itself out in the future—in a very negative way, in the form of anti-Semitism (hatred of a race as such).  Put another way, how a passage has been understood and how it has been used is almost as significant as what the words of the passage mean in and of themselves.  So, the concern is a real concern, indeed.

In addition, when one interprets—and I have hinted at this in the paragraph above—there is the matter, not only the meaning of a passage, but also, and even especially, of the force or impact of a passage, what a passage “counts as,” as it were.   This is a concern of so-called Speech Act Theory, which alerts us to the truth that statements—even tame looking statements— almost always function to bring about some end.  Thus, a statement such as “Are you going to the game?” may be a genuine enquiry, or it may be a plea to accompany the addressee, a rebuke not to abandon a non-sports-fascinated spouse, or, a warning to a wayward youth to be careful with his money.  (These are possible “illocutionary forces” of the question.)  Now, consider Matt. 27:25 in this light.  What does it “count as”?  Is it a simple assertion of responsibility?  Is it a call to arms?  Is it a dare to Christians to “do something about it” if they like?  And how should Christians respond to the force they feel?  If Matt. 27:25 functions as an assertion of responsibility, should we agree?  If it is a call to arms, should we react in kind?  If it is a dare, should we take that up?  Or, to any of these (illocutionary) forces of the statement, should we react with pity, with concern, or with a zeal for the preaching of the Gospel?  And who is the “we” in such a consideration?  Is it Lutherans?  All Christians?  Other Jews?  Society at large?  Indeed, there may be various “forces” felt by various parties receiving the message of the text, which only complicates the matter.  The essential problem is that the “force” of a text can be “felt” only by real readers in real situations reading real texts, and over this there is little exercise of control. [editor’s note: Remember all this from E-101 Biblical Hermeneutics? This is why we teach a course on biblical interpretation. You can’t just “make it up as you go along.”]

Finally, there remains the matter of the meaning of texts within their literary context.  My friend and colleague David Lewis is writing about this at the same time as am I, and he will explore this matter in much greater detail.  At this point I would simply note that irony is an important device for authors, also within a narrative.  And Matthew is a master of its use.  In the trial and death of Jesus, irony abounds (Dave will explore this in greater detail).  Suffice it to say that when Jesus, who is God’s Son, takes the place of and frees the criminal Barabbas (Matt. 27:20, 26), a man whose names means “Son of the Father,” and when over the head of Jesus a sign is placed, written by his enemies, “This is Jesus, The King of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37), and he is, in fact, the King of the Jews, then one must seriously consider whether Matthew’s recording of the cry “His blood be/is on us and on our children” is not high irony, as well.  The people do cry aloud and with ill intent, it is very true (even as the sign was placed about Jesus’ head with very ill intent), but it may well be that Matthew records this awful statement because it is also true that Jesus’ blood will be on this people, for as the angel said, “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).  But that irony may have been too subtle, even in Matthew’s day, and given the Wirkungsgeschichte of this passage within Western civilization, it has certainly seems to have been too subtle, as centuries have come and gone.

The Magisterial Dr. Voelz Guest Lecturing in Canada

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1 Comment

  1. David Seabaugh March 5, 2011

    Dr. Voelz,

    Thanks for your response to the issue. I really appreciate a solid biblical hermeneutical approach to these questions. As our society continues into post-modernism, the teaching of solid biblical hermeneutics will need to extend from the seminary classroom to the parish. I teach a basic hermeneutics section for our new members. It’s amazing to watch the Bible open up for them.

    I think the Pope has much the same challenge today that Lutherans do when we try to come out with anything that is authoritative. So often we hear, “That’s your opinion. Here’s mine.” Solid biblical hermeneutics cuts through the opinion and gets to the heart of the issue. When we have a clear understanding of the biblical context and the author’s use of language, we can at least approach the world and its various perspectives with something that smacks less as just another opinion.

    The question seems to be whether the Pope is returning to a more biblical hermeneutic at the same time as he is correcting a gruesome history of interpretation, or if he is just conforming to a change in popular opinion in the Catholic church. I guess we’ll have to read the book!

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