Post-Holocaust Hermeneutics: Scripture, Sacrament, and the Jewish Body of Christ

Article excerpt

What is eaten in the Eucharist is the Jewish body of Christ.

I was recently lecturing on the Gospel of Luke in my introductory Bible class, when a student raised her hand and asked, "When does the story stop being about Jews and start being about Christians?" Although she did not have much background in the Bible, she had learned along the way that the Old Testament was Jewish and the New Testament was Christian. My way of teaching, which emphasizes continuity between the Testaments, left her wondering when, exactly, this transition was going to take place. She, like many other students, assumed that Jesus and Mary were Christians and that they must have at some point converted from Judaism. When a close reading of the Gospels turned up no such conversion stories, she was puzzled.

It is no secret or great insight that all students bring to the biblical text backpacks full of assumptions about what they will find there. But one of the deepest, I suspect, is that this is a story of the transition (dare I say supersession) from Judaism to Christianity. Such a reading of the story, depicting Israel as a rejected people superseded by the church, has long underwritten Christian persecution of Jews, since such behavior was deemed congruent with God's judgment on a rejected people. While churches in the post-Holocaust West have widely repudiated the teaching of contempt for the Jews, indeed affirming Israel's unending covenant with God, the practices of reading the canon in supersessionist ways continue as an insidious, though largely unacknowledged, form of anti-Judaism. [1] The truth is, the students in my class did not develop their hermeneutical expectations in a vacuum but were taught them (perhaps unwittingly) by their churches and their culture. Yet given the official repudiation of su persessionism and anti-Judaism by most Christian churches, why is it that we continue to produce readers who expect (and therefore find) a narrative in which Christians have replaced the Jews in God's plan?

Our answer to this question will proceed in three phases: an examination of the critical methodologies of modernity, an analysis of the politics of interpretation, and an exploration of the hermeneutics of the Eucharist. I argue that our focus on particular exegetical methods as a cure for anti-Jewish interpretation is misplaced, since our readings are inevitably shaped by the social and political commitments of the reading community. These commitments, in turn, are grounded in social practices that shape our perceptions and descriptions of God's activity. For too long the practices of Christendom have bent our interpretations to serve the reproduction and confirmation of Christian cultural and political dominance. Until this lingering lust for domination is addressed and challenged in the post-Christendom church, we will continue to foster supersessionist interpretations of scripture that serve to underwrite Christian power.

The Failure of Critical Methodologies

We are mistaken if we think the "right" methodologies will put an end to anti-Jewish readings of scripture, for as it turns out, the very methodologies we think can save us from supersessionist readings can be and have been used to undergird Christian triumphalism. That is, these methodologies can support but do not guarantee non-supersessionist readings of scripture. For instance, many biblical interpreters in the post-Holocaust era have drawn on historical-criticism to recover Jesus' historical connection to the people of Israel. E. P Sanders, for one, has opened our eyes to the Jewish context in which Jesus' message must be understood. Indeed, by carefully attending to the historical situation of the first century, Sanders concludes that the eschatological restoration of Israel is at the heart of Jesus' mission and message. [2] And yet, using the same critical tools, many historical Jesus writers have consistently de-Judaized Jesus in the name of historical accuracy. …