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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

Faith Without Prejudice: Rebuilding Christian Attitudes Toward Judaism

by Eugene Fisher

The first, Paulist Press, edition of this book came out shortly after I received my doctorate in Hebrew Studies from New York University's Institute of Hebrew Studies and as I was beginning my new job at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) as director of the then Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations. Before that I had been a seminarian for six years, taught part time at the Catholic University of Detroit for four years, and worked full time for six years in charge of catechist formation for the Archdiocese of Detroit. My doctoral dissertation for NYU was an analysis of the presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic grade and high school religion books. This study updated an earlier one by Sr. Rose Thering, but added a number of new and more specific categories. The results of my analysis, summarized in Chapter 7. revealed that progress had been made since the Second Vatican Council in its treatment of Jews and Judaism but that much more needed to be done, and clarified the major areas in which problems occurred. Presenting a more positive understanding of Jews and Judaism for Catholic catechists and preachers was the goal of my book.

The second, 1993 edition, was published by The American Interfaith Institute and Crossroad Publishing. It added forewords by Irvin J. Borowsky of the Interfaith Institute and James H. Charlesworth, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. These affirmed and updated the essential message of my book. In a

The book begins with the 1960 meeting between Pope John XXIII and the Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, who had lost family members in the Holocaust and devoted his life to studying how European Christians could have accepted the racial antisemitism of Nazism and actively participated in Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jewish people. It was Isaac who coined the term “teaching of contempt” to describe the anti-Jewish beliefs and stereotypes that branded Jews as the perpetual, inferior, and supposedly dangerous “other” of European society. The belief that Jews of all generations were collectively guilty of the death of Jesus had become the popular belief of Christians over the centuries even though it contradicted official Catholic theology that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, so that we Christians through our sins are guilty since when we sin we do so knowing that we are responsible while what the few Jews, the chief priests, who were involved did not understand the significance of what they were doing.

After briefly introducing the key document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, the first official document in the history of the Church to take up the question, which directly rejected the collective guilt charge and which indirectly affirmed the ongoing validity of God's eternal covenant with the Jewish People, Chapter One of the book delves into history, featuring the massacre of Jews of Germany by the Crusaders in 1096 and the staged “disputations” set up by Christians in ensuing centuries in order to “prove” Christian superiority over Judaism. The chapter then goes back to the beginnings of Christianity and its “family quarrel” with Jews as set down in the New Testament, beginning with the negative portait of the Pharisees, from whom the rabbis evolved, in the gospel of Matthew. It notes that in his disputations/dialogues with various Pharisees, Jesus regularly took the side of the followers of the sage, Hillel, who emphasized the spirit of the Law of Love/Torah over the stricter, more legalistic school of Shammai, with the only being that of divorce. Shammai took the relevant biblical passages that divorce was only allowed when serious sexual sin (adultery) was involved as opposed to Hillel, who expanded the notion to allow for divorce in many situations of incompatibility between wife and husband. The chapter then explains the significance and implications of Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965, the USCCB 1967 “Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations,” the January 1975 Vatican “Guidelines” for implementing Nostra Aetate, and the November 1975 USCCB “Statement on Catholic-Jewish Relations.” These spelled out in greater detail, and in response to Jewish questions raised in dialogues in America and around the world, and the implications of the teachings of Vatican II. Other than affirming the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, these documents did not expand on the questions, especially theological, raised by the return of the Jewish People to the Land promised to them by God, as the Bible clearly states as one of its central themes.

Chapter Two on the Jewishness of Jesus and of his teaching notes the first heresy in the history of Christianity, that of Marcion, who argued that Jesus opposed the “Old Law” of the Hebrew Scriptures and that it should not be considered part of the Bible, since it had been replaced or superseded by the New Law of the New Testament. He also wanted to reject much of the New Testament as “Old” rather “New,” reducing the Bible to a few sanitized passages. Though declared heresy, much of what Marcion taught wound its way into Christian teaching about Jews and Judaism, with Christianity seen as superseding a moribund Judaism. Jesus and his teachings, however, were profoundly Jewish. The New Testament authors relied on the Hebrew Scriptures to understand the teachings of Jesus, just as Jesus relied on the Bible of his people, the Jews, in presenting what he wanted to say to his people, the Jews. The chapter details this and how the Law of Love is in fact the Law of the Hebrew Bible. Love of God and neighbor as central to the Law, of course, are direct quotes from Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19. I then go into some of the many parallels between the New Testament and Pharisaic/Rabbinic teachings. One cannot fully understand the former without the latter. Jesus spent much of his time in dialogue with the Pharisees, and his teaching is profoundly Pharisaic, despite the fact that we Christians have turned the word “Pharisaic” into and insult. We should remember that when we use the term this way we are in fact insulting the Jew, Jesus.

Chapter Three analyzes the question of whether or not the New Testament is anti-Jews and Judaism. I used the term “anti-Semitism” in the title of this chapter. One of the updates I would make in a new edition of the book would be to change the title to “anti-Jews and Judaism.” “Anti-Semitism” was a term invented only in the late 18th century by so-called “Enlightened” folks who were in fact racists, and who used the notion of race to justify the slave trade, since Africans were a “lower” race, as were Jews, than Aryans. It was racial antisemitism which was used to rationalize the Holocaust. Antisemitism is qualitatively different from the ancient Christian teaching of contempt, though that teaching paved the way for it and for its wide acceptance in 20th century Europe.

This chapter presents a proper interpretation of the many passages in the New Testament which were used by Christians preaching contempt against Jews and Judaism, such as the passages in the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus is portayed as disputing with Pharisees and the use of hoi 'Ioudaioi (“the Judeans”) in John's gospel, which term was later (mis)understood to mean “the Jews.” In Jesus' time Jews were already dispersed throughout the Roman empire, but he interacted only with those of his own place, Judea and Samaria. (It was not called Palestine until after the second Jewish revolt against Roman occupation in the mid second century of the Common Era (CE).

I turn in the fourth chapter to the presentation of the trial and death of Jesus, noting that all three Synoptic gospels clearly mention only the chief priests and the elders as involved, in response to the cleansing of the Temple. The chief priest, Caiaphas, was appointed by the Roman procurator, Pilate, and was despised by the Jews as a quisling. He saw Jesus as being so popular with the people that an insurrection might coalesce around him. Pilate need no convincing to crucify Jesus, as he had crucified numerous Jews before Jesus. The chapter concludes with suggestions for preparing students for Good Friday so that they will not assume Jewish guilt for Jesus' death.

The fifth chapter puts into readable form key theological issues. Affirming the ongoing validity of God's covenant with the Jewish people, it asks how the covenant with the Jews and the universal covenant with humanity through Christ can be best understood. One covenant, the biblical, as the root with two intertwining branches, Judaism and Christianity or two separate but interwoven covenants? Two parallel paths that will converge at the end of time when the Messiah comes/returns? Both understandings have their strengths and weaknesses. The first relies on the imagery of Romans 9-11, the New Testament passage cited in Nostra Aetate as the basis for its affirmation of the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant. The second allows for the essential difference between the Jewish and Christian religions. That difference is not so much the understanding of Jesus as Messiah or even the Trinity. The dividing point between Judaism and Christianity was and remains the Christian belief in the Incarnation, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. To Jews this seems to blur the essential distinction between God and humanity, a distinction that forms the basis of the first 11 chapters of Genesis and, indeed, of the Hebrew Scriptures. To Jews, the Incarnation slides Christianity into the realm of idolatry and was the basis for the parting of the ways between Jews and Christians. In the meantime, Jews and Christians are called to work together to prepare the way for the coming/return of the Messiah, the age of universal peace and justice, by caring for those in need, helping the sick, and fostering nations based upon just laws for all citizens.

Chapter Six, drawing on Jewish liturgical and rabbinic tradition, suggests various “celebrations and activities” that Christians, ideally together with Jews, can engage in within our own tradition that will illuminate the rootedness of Christianity in Jewish traditions and help us understand new perspectives on and the depths of our own traditions. It includes a Way of the Cross that can help Christians to understand our responsibility as sinners for the death of Jesus, and various classroom activities for students, such as role playing, building a sukkah, and questions for classroom discussion and research papers.

The final chapter, as noted above, provided the results of my study of Catholic educational materials and their treatment of Jews and Judaism. This chapter was updated for the 1993 edition with the results of a 1992 study of textbooks done by Dr. Philip Cunningham. The Cunningham study noted areas of improvement, to a real extent the result of my work with publishers of Catholic textbooks while I was with the USCCB, which approves catechetical materials for diocesan use.

Appendix A reproduces the “Guidelines for the Evaluation of Jews and Judaism in Catechetical Materials” which I developed for my own study and which Dr. Cunningham, with a few key and helpful modifications, used for his. Included then are the texts of the Vatican and USCCB statements including in the second edition the 1988 statement of the US Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching (pp. 170-194). This statement, which I helped draft, discusses the Jewish roots of Christian/Catholic liturgy and the history of false and anti-Jewish interpretations of Scripture in Christian preaching over the centuries. It then provides advice on how properly to interpret and therefore present from the pulpit the readings for Advent and Lent, Holy Week and the Easter season. Also included is the statement of the US Bishops' 1988 Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion(pp. 185-194). More recent statements can be found on  and

Finally, the bibliography needs updating. Fortunately, I have kept up this bibliography over the years. I published an updated bibliography for Jewish-Christian studies in honor of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate in a special edition of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Volume 50, No. 4, Fall, 2015, pp. 539-560. A 2017 update is being put up on the website of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies of Saint Leo University:


I was not shown this book cover before the book was published. I would have advised the publisher to place the Cross and the Star of David side by side, and of equal size. The image used may convey the unintended "message" of the Jewish People being crucified on the Cross of Christ, which would be ironic given the centuries of the Christian teaching of contempt that Jews were collectively guilty of the death of Jesus

Faith Without Prejudice: Rebuilding Christian Attitudes Toward Judaism (Paulist Press, 1977); Revised and Expanded Edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, and American Interfaith


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