The Texts We Turned Into Weapons

Imagine writing a text. The slow process, the everyday banality suddenly crafted into beautifully penned narratives. Imagine reading and re-reading the final product, gripping it firmly in your hands while your heart swells with a sweet pride. Now imagine that 300 years after you wrote your text, your proud grip has been replaced by the bloody hands of persecutors using the words you wrote to justify murder.

When the author of the Matthean Gospel wrote that the Scribes and Pharisees were whitewashed tombs, could he (let’s be honest, the author was statistically most probably male) ever have imagined that those words would be used to validate the systematic persecution of his own people (yes, I am assuming that the Matthean author was Jewish, there is lots of scholarly literature in favour of this, look it up). Post-Constantinian Christianity turned the Gospel authors into persecutors. They read the narratives, the parables, and the miracle stories and saw in them the legitimacy they needed for their colonial oppression of the Jews. Imagine that someone discovers your writings 300 years after your death, and sees in your words the justification for a systematic terrorization of your own people. The tragedy is overwhelming.

When I get criticised for reading New Testament texts as Jewish texts, this is what I think about. The overwhelming tragedy that was caused by Christians not understanding that these texts were written by Jews, not against Jews. Scholars who are part of what is sometimes called the ‘radical movement’ (if reading texts in their proper historical context is considered radical, then so be it) are occasionally referred to as “Post-World-War-II-Scholars”. My question is this: would you want to be a “Pre-World-War-II-Scholar?” It is impossible to ignore the terrifying fact that certain aspects of the NT exegesis of the 1900’s played a part in the success of Hitler’s hate campaign. If the systematic murder of European Jews isn’t enough to make exegetes change their stubborn strategies, what is? Academia cannot be so disconnected from the events of history that it doesn’t react or respond to the disasters it contributes to. We are part of the constant ebb and flow of reality; we are not above it. We are subject to the tide of history in the same way as everyone else, and if we choose to not react or respond, the fault lies with us.

We live in a Post-WWII world, and we need to be constantly aware of this in our scholarship. We work in a field that was both misused and actively contributed to one of the greatest disasters of the modern era. The Holocaust would not have been possible if Christian texts had not been used to caricature and other Jews during the centuries leading up to these events. Biblical interpreters saw in the Gospels and the Pauline Letters the ammunition they needed for their war. If we ignore this fact, we risk repeating it. We need to be responsible interpreters, relentlessly aware of the fact that our articles and monographs have the power to change a two-thousand-year old pattern. We have the power of releasing NT texts from the interpretative prisons they have been trapped in from the time of the Church Fathers. It will be an uphill battle, not least due to the alarming number of scholars who have during the decades attached their sense of self-worth to anti-Jewish exegesis, but so is everything worthwhile. The climb may be steep, but there is an oasis of redemption waiting at the top, redemption for the authors whose texts we turned into weapons.

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