First person: ‘Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews’

I’ve been a member of Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee for going on three years. I enjoy Friday night services at shul, and Torah study, which is usually held in our home. I’m married to Shir’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Michal Woll. I’m not Jewish. I’m a Catholic. I’m also a writer and book publisher.

After the shooting at the synagogue in Poway, California (April 27, 2019), on the heels of the Tree of Life massacre, I saw the need for a book. “Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent” has just been published. I wrote the introduction and three of the chapters. Other contributors include Dr. Richard Lux, founder of The Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies in Franklin, and Bishop Richard Sklba of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The three of us were at Boswell Book Company on Jan. 29.

Jon M. Sweeney

In Poway, a man with a semiautomatic rifle entered a Chabad congregation on the last day of Passover. He knew none of the people he was trying to kill – except that they were likely Jewish. Two people died and several were injured. More would have died if his gun hadn’t jammed. 

Many Christians have been taught antipathy toward Jews as a kind of Christian faithfulness. The Poway shooter was a member of a Presbyterian church. He posted a “manifesto” explaining what he was about to do hours before entering the synagogue. It was a blend of Bible quotations and white nationalist rhetoric (itself made possible by centuries-old Christian prejudice). In the days following, thousands of Christians were involved in discussions on social media about Christianity’s role in these abhorrent views. One prominent pastor remarked to the Washington Post that the shooter’s writing presented “a frighteningly clear articulation of Christian theology” and then warned: “There’s a deep and ugly history of anti-Semitism that’s crept into the Christian church, that needs to be continuously addressed, condemned and corrected.”

Christians have work to do. We need to teach each other, and our children, how to be faithful Christians without blaming Jews or scapegoating Judaism. Richard Lux does this in his chapter, “Supersessionism/Replacement Theology.” Too often we’re taught that we joined the faith they rejected. This is a misunderstanding of the Jewish context of Jesus’s life, and what Judaism is about. It also ignores the fact that what we know as Judaism today began at about the same time the early church was born.

Jesus was Jewish, plain and simple. He wasn’t sort of Jewish, or temporarily Jewish. Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. And every Christian who proclaims that Jesus was not just a figure in history, but was raised from the dead and lives today, needs also to realize that Jesus never once stepped foot in a church. Jesus was not even walking around the land of Israel when the word “Christian” was first used in the New Testament.

Then there’s the problem that most Christians assume they know what Judaism is about by reading the Old Testament/Tanakh. I address this in chapter 1: “You Can’t Understand Judaism Simply Reading the Old Testament.” We also need to confront the portions of New Testament that are, if not antisemitic, anti-Jewish. For example, the text that Christians read on Good Friday each year, from the Gospel of John, has “the Jews” yelling “Crucify him!” For far too long Christians have heard this read aloud without someone providing explanation and context. Three chapters in “Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews” address this problem.

We need to stop blaming the Jews, who are our “elder siblings,” as Pope John Paul II once put it. Then we need to go further and see the ways we misuse and misappropriate Jewish texts, ritual and tradition. For example, there are “translations” of the Psalms and Prophets that turn messianic language into Jesus language. And, when a Christian leads a Passover Seder and re-appropriates the symbols to be Christian, it’s an act of ritual theft that perpetuates misunderstanding, maybe even hate. All of these problems are addressed in “Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews.”

There’s another covenant – the first and older one – that is unbroken. Jewish leaders like St. Paul, author of more of the New Testament than anyone else, were upset that their co-religionists (other Jews) didn’t see Christ in the way they saw him, but they also didn’t think everyone who was a Jew was destined to, or had to, become a Jesus-follower. It has taken most Christians 2,000 years to learn this lesson. And we still need to learn it.

Book events

The following events are related to the January 2020 release “Jesus Wasn’t Killed by the Jews: Reflections for Christians in Lent.”  The events are for Lent, the 40-day period observed by Christians before Easter. All are welcome.

Feb. 18 – Rabbi Michal Woll and Jon M. Sweeney at Three Holy Women Holy Rosary Parish introducing the Lenten theme and talking about “1st Century Judaism vs. Judaism Today.” 2011 N. Oakland Ave., Milwaukee.

March 4 – Dr. Richard Lux at Mo’s…A Place for Steaks! talking on the subject of “How Catholic Teaching on the Jews Changed at Vatican II.” 720 N. Plankinton Ave., Milwaukee.

April 1 – Bishop Richard Sklba and Jon M. Sweeney at Mo’s…A Place for Steaks! on the topic of “For When We Hear ‘Crucify him!’ on Good Friday.” 720 N. Plankinton Ave., Milwaukee.

Start time is always 7 p.m. No registration is required. For more information, email Jon Sweeney at JonmSweeney@Gmail.com.