Question: Should “the leaders of the Jews” be substituted for “the Jews” in Scripture and liturgical celebrations? The latter is considered pejorative.
— Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York
Answer: The problem with the solution you propose is that the expression “the Jews” (oi joudaios) often refers to more than just the Jewish leaders. Jesus experienced rejection from many Jewish leaders, to be sure, but not all (for example, Nicodemus or perhaps Joseph of Arimathea). Further, among ordinary Jews, Jesus was both accepted by some and rejected by others. If we were to add a qualifier to the word at all, it might better be “unbelieving Jews.”
As for current sensibilities that the term is pejorative, explanations may be better than attempts to muddle the term or make it more agreeable. It is clear that most of Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews. Further, most of the earliest converts in the apostolic mission were Jews.
But it is also a historical fact that both Jesus and the early Church experienced a great deal of resistance, sometimes quite fierce and deadly, from fellow Jews. Both realities were operative. Thus, the phrase (used most often in John’s Gospel) “the Jews” is not a blanket condemnation of all Jews. But it does convey the sad truth that the majority of Jewish people missed the very Messiah sent to them by God. The phrase “the Jews” captures this irony and is used more in sadness than in anger.
St. Paul agonizes over the situation in the letter to the Romans. “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh. They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah. God who is over all be blessed forever. Amen” (Rom 9:2-5). “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? Of course not!” (Rom 11:1). And St. Paul then concludes, speaking to the mystery of God’s providence: “a hardening has come upon Israel in part, until the full number of the Gentiles comes in” (Rom 11:25).
It is therefore better to teach the fuller biblical teaching than to “hide” it under euphemisms, which please the ear but shed less light on the mind, and forget the passion of the early Church to draw the Jews as well as the Gentiles to Christ.
Question: The accounts of the birth of Jesus are confusing and even seem to have contradictions. Luke says they went back to Galilee, and Matthew says they fled to Egypt. Which is it?
— Name withheld
Answer: We sometimes expect ancient narratives to correspond with modern historical norms where chronological sequences are carefully set forth. But clocks and agreed-upon calendars are modern inventions. Thus when seeing apparent conflicts in the infancy narratives, we ought to remember this.
It is entirely possible that the visit of the Magi occurred months or even two years after the birth of Jesus. The time frame is not mentioned specifically. This means that it is possible that Jesus, Mary and Joseph may well have gone to Nazareth and later returned to Jerusalem and Bethlehem (which is near). Journeys of this sort were common among the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, who made frequent pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.