In the Good Friday Liturgy, Some Small Changes could make a Big Difference

I am referring to the Cathblog piece this morning by Sr/Dr Mary Coloe fo the Presentation Sisters: “The Jews are not to Blame”.

Dr Coloe is a professor of New Testament at Australian Catholic University. Now, I have had my differences with Dr Coloe over the years (particularly over Pauline stuff), but on this one I think she is quite right. When I first began reading her piece, and saw that she proposed “liturgical changes” to combat any perceived anti-Semitism, I thought “Here we go”, but actually, her suggested changes are minor and reasonable, yet I think will make a big difference.

I once had a phone call from a Jewish woman who had attended mass a mass for a baptism of a friend’s child. It wasn’t Good Friday, but the Gospel was from St John and there were constant mentions of “The Jews”, as is St John’s characteristic way of referring to the Jewish religious leaders. She became quite upset by this, and more upset when the priest, in his preaching, repeatedly used the term “the Jews” as well in the negative sense. Now this was a woman who was quite open to learning about other faiths, and Christianity in particular, but a mental barrier was put up by that experience. It is an unnecessary barrier, if I might say so.

So, to Sr Mary’s suggestions. She avoids completely the old canard about the EF form of the Bidding Prayer, and goes for two small things that would make a big difference to the way in which the Good Friday liturgy is heard by those present:

1) Don’t have the whole congregation take the part of “the Jews” or “the crowd”. This would properly show that “the Jews” were a smaller group (not all) of the Jewish community at the time. (I must say that I have never felt comfortable being asked to shout “Crucify him” during the Good Friday liturgy anyway. I would be interested from Extraordinary Form experts on what the practice is in that liturgy on this point).

2) Where John has “the Jews”, insert instead “the Jewish leaders”. That is completely in accord with the Church’s – and the Pope’s! – interpretation of the meaning “hoi Ioudaioi” at these points.

I don’t think it would be breaking any liturgical rules to do this – please tell me if I am wrong. It is simply a matter of changing a custom and a translation.

On another point, I am thankful for Mary’s piece because she directs readers to the work of Dr Amy-Jill Levine, and in particular her work “The Misunderstood Jew”, which I have just begun reading myself and intended to blog about. I am sorry to say that on all of the several occasions when Dr Levine has been in Melbourne I have missed her talks, because I think that she represents a very helpful point of contact between Jews and Christians.

Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar. Yes, that’s right! We were talking about her book at the dinner table last night. Maddy got the “joke” immediately: “A Jewish New Testament scholar? The Jews don’t HAVE the New Testament!” I had related to the children the following story from the introduction to “The Misunderstood Jew”:

A friend on the school bus said to me, “You killed our Lord.” “I did not,”, I responded with some indignation. Deicide would be the sort of thing I would have recalled [Levine’s sense of humour is characteristically Jewish!]. “Yes, you did,” the girl insisted, “Our priest said so.” Apparently, she had been taught that “the Jews” were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since I was the only one she knew, I must be guilty. But at the time I did not understand the reasons for the charge or have the means to address it…

When that horrible trip from school was finally over – and thank heaven these were the 1960’s when mommies met their kids at the bus stop – I was in hysterics. Calming me down, my mother learned what had so traumatized me. She assured me that my friend had misspoken. Calls were made, and – to the enormous credit of the local diocese – this hateful teaching was stopped.

But I became obsessed. I initially concluded that the priest had misinterpreted the Bible. It must have been a translation error, I thought, since even in second grade I knew from Hebrew school that it was easy to make a translation error. So I decided I’d learn to read the Christian Bible (no one told me it was in Greek), find the problem, solve it, and then go on to do other things, like learn how to knit or to establish world peace. That was forty-three years ago; I’m still working. The following year, by the way, was the publication of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican document stating that all Jews are not directly responsible for Jesus’ death.

When I told the girls at the dinner table about the accusation that all Jews were guilty of Jesus’ death, Mia looked at me in utter surprise: “People really think that?” she asked. In general, her mystification was similar to mine when I first heard about that, because I was never raised with this idea either. If anyone was responsible for Jesus death, it wasn’t the Jews, or Rome/Pilate either for that matter – it was us and our sins that put hm there (which, incidentally, is the teaching of the 16th Century Catechism of the Council of Trent too).

In any case, it is high time that our liturgical customs and preaching reflected the teaching of the Church, and not this ancient “blood libel”. I think Dr Coloe’s suggestions worth taking on board. Starting this Good Friday. And I recommend Dr Amy-Jill Levine’s work to all readers of this ‘ere blog. It will go nicely with Pope Benedict’s new book for your Lenten reading.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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26 Responses to In the Good Friday Liturgy, Some Small Changes could make a Big Difference

  1. William Weedon says:

    No expert on Extraordinary Rite here, but I believe that the traditional practice was that the congregation was passive and three lectors chanted the Passion Gospel – one, the bass, the voice of Christ; one, the tenor, the chronista, voice of the Evangelist as narrator; one, the baritone, “the synagogue” – the voice of all others. The congregation merely listens to it.

    • Schütz says:

      That is the musical tradition, anyway. I believe that the liturgical tradition was to have three clerics chant the reading, with the presiding priest doing the voice of Jesus. Again, EF experts out there?

      • catherine says:

        Good article David.

      • John Nolan says:

        When the Passion is sung, and this applies to both forms of the Roman Rite, Synagoga has the highest part and Christus the lowest. If a choir is available they supply the ‘turba choruses’ which would include ‘crucifige eum’. The most frequently heard setting of these is by William Byrd. To hear this in Latin, with the Gospel tone at the end (as it is done at the London Oratory) it is quite an experience.

        Pope Benedict’s new prayer for the Jews to be inserted into the 1962 missal (the old one was, I think, unnecessarily offensive) should be used in the OF. The present prayer which seems to imply that we want them to be be good Jews strikes me as patronizing. And for some reason we are no longer praying for anyone to be converted, not even atheists. Some of us might feel comfortable with pious platitudes, but I doubt if it cuts much ice with the Almighty.

  2. Terra says:

    Yes, no crowd particpation in the EF when it comes to the Gospel, just cantors and priest! And I agree that it would be better without it in the OF.

    I’m rather less convinced about (well horrifed actually at the idea of) changing the words of the Gospel/liturgy itself though! St John wrote what he wrote for a reason (and remember we are talking about inspired Scripture here – he wrote what God wanted him to write, no more and no less!). This isn’t a translation issue – the wording in all languages is pefectly clear.

    Yes it is confrontational. It is meant to be (and so are some parts of Jewish liturgy by the way, aimed at us!).

    The idea of starting to rewrite bits of the Gospel to give them a politically correct spin is one I for one would object to very strongly; on that path lies heresy! The reality is that most of the Gospel needs contextualisation and interpretation today – but to actually try and rewrite it to give it one particular interpretation is just asking for trouble!

    The better approach would surely be some actual catechesis! I mean, the priest does get to preach after all…

    I’d also note that the Holy Father’s opinions in his new book are just his opinions – not magisterium.

    • Tony says:

      So, by way of clarification Terra, are you suggesting that the priest tells the congregation that ‘The Jews’ means ‘The Jewish Leadership’?

    • Schütz says:

      I’m certainly keen on the catechesis idea – in fact, every instruction that Church has issued thus far has been along this line.

      But I do think it is a translation issue. Just because “hoi Ioudaioi” seems to us to be plainly “The Jews” doesn’t actually mean that that is what it means. Let me explain.

      1) We also have a way of speaking that is like St John’s: eg. “The Americans invaded Iraq”. Of course, not ALL Americans went to Iraq (only the the American Armed Forces), and not ALL Americans supported their government’s policy on this. The statement means either “The American Armed Forces invaded Iraq” or “The American Government sent its armed forces to invade Iraq.” So sometimes we – as John did – do use terms representative of the whole nation when in reality the active forces were a smaller and more particular group.

      2) “hoi Ioudaioi” could be faithfully translated “The Judeans”, rather than “the Jews” – thus a group of people who were distinct from (for eg.) the Gallileans or Samaritans. That in fact is very accurate, and would make it clear that it was a Jerusalem based group that opposed Jesus, and not the whole Jewish people of the day.

      3) In line with this, we need to ask ourselves what “the Jews” means today and what “hoi Ioudaioi” meant to John in the Gospels. Today it means a particular international racial group who have a particular religious identity. It is not at all clear that that is what “hoi Ioudaioi” meant in the first Century. There was another term for the race, which was “hoi Hebraioi”. David Noy, in this article I found on the net, makes the comment that:

      The Greek term Hebraioi was mentioned by the second-century writer Claudius Charax of Pergamum as deriving from Abraham. The term is found in use in Greek by a Jewish writer in 2 Maccabees. Josephus seems to see Hebraioi as encompassing all the descendants of Abraham, including Samaritans, but Ioudaioi as being the descendants of Judah. He defines himself as a Hebraios at one point, but does not differentiate consistently between Hebraioi and Ioudaioi, except that Hebraioi are always “good Jews”.

      Isn’t that interesting? So it might well be that if we were to be translating our modern term “The Jews” back into ancient Greek, we would in fact use the term “hoi Hebraioi” rather than “hoi Ioudaioi” – if in fact we were not wanting to suggest that the people in question were “bad”. Is it possible then that John had a particular meaning in using “hoi Ioudaioi” rather than “hoi Hebraioi”, and that this particular meaning is not properly conveyed when we simply translate the word as “The Jews”?

      So, given a choice and a bit of a think about it, I think it would be best to go with my suggestion in (2) above. That doesn’t “add” anything to the Greek word, nor does it sound to modern ears as if we are talking about the people whom we call “Jews” today. Let’s go with “the Judeans”. We can’t offend them, because we don’t have any around anymore.

      • Tony says:

        Sorry David, this is the thin end of the wedge though, isn’t it?

        Today it’s ‘The Judeans’, tomorrow it will be ‘men and women’ because we know that scripture and liturgical texts are directed to both men and women. Or, maybe, it will result in such travesties as ‘The Lord be With You’.

        Oh the humanity!

    • catherine says:

      Well I had the experience of a Jewish friend joining us at mass and copping a dose of stuff that sounded objectionable and it wasn’t a good ad for the catholic church. I read a schiolarly book “”The Road to Auschwitz”” and it has a good deal of information on anti-semitism in the Catholic Church way before the holocaust.They do point out that, I think Pope Innocent the something or other made some statement or other, to clarify misconceptions about Jews, but let’s face it how many people read those things compared to how many read the gospel? I would be in favour of changes such as those David suggests. Given that Jesus was Jewish I am confident he would not want things presented in such as way that encouraged/promoted antisemitism.

      • catherine says:

        oops, got the title of the book wrong.It is “Approaches to Auschwitz, the holcaust and its legacy”” by Rubenstein and Roth.

        Apparently within the papal states ,until 1870, the jews were confined to ghettos where the gates were locked nightly, they had to wear badges indentifying them as jews, and were forbidden from having normal social contact with Christians. They were also forbidden to travel freely, own property, practice in the professions , attend uni etc,

        I was very dismayed to read the Catholic Church treated the jews in a manner very similar to the Nazis. Really it reflects terribly on the Church and I imagine these these things,( at least partly )came to pass because of what is written in St John’s gospel. Let’s change it to something more accurate as David suggests.

    • Salvatore says:

      “… the wording in all languages is perfectly clear.”

      Indeed, and it’s perfectly clear what St John meant by the term ‘the Jews’. For example in verses 6 & 7 of Chapter 19 he uses the terms “the High Priests & their Ministers” interchangeably with “the Jews”:

      “6 Cum ergo vidissent eum pontifices et ministri, clamabant, dicentes : Crucifige, crucifige eum. Dicit eis Pilatus : Accipite eum vos, et crucifigite : ego enim non invenio in eo causam.

      7 Responderunt ei Judæi : Nos legem habemus,…..”

      So whilst I wouldn’t countenance ad hoc changes to liturgical texts under any circumstances, I don’t think our host’s suggestion with without merit in itself.

  3. Stephen says:

    Hello David,

    The ancient principle: “Let the law of prayer determine the law of belief” might be worth considering here, as might the scholarship of Dr Lauren Pristas on the issue of altering liturgical prayers. In particular, it is worth considering the following argument from her article “Theological Principles that Guided the Redaction of the Roman Missal (1970)”. She is speaking here about a particular Collect and its transformation in the reformed Roman Missal, but her sentiments can be applied more generally:

    “First, the relevance of a particular oration for the Church
    universal is not something that can always be judged by persons
    of any one time or place. The prudent course is to trust the
    wisdom of our liturgical tradition to beg for what we need even
    when we cannot comprehend or imagine it. If changed historical
    circumstances give fresh relevance to this oration, perhaps no
    generation should permit itself to reject as unsuitable a petition
    that has enjoyed long use.”

    You can find this and other related articles here:

    Kind regards,


  4. William Weedon says:

    Of course, in Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite, it would be a moot point, wouldn’t it? The Vulgate’s rendering of St. John’s Passion as it is contained in the Missale Romanum is what would be chanted, no?

  5. Tony says:

    More seriously, I think this illustrates some of the issues that those who expressed concerns about the upcoming changes to the liturgy were on about. That is, is meaning more important than a slavish, literal translation?

    If a priest was concerned about this (and not dismissing it as ‘politically correctness’) he’d have to ‘explain’ the meaning every time it came up.

    But there’s a logic to Terra’s response which comes down to ‘it doesn’t matter what it means, just print what it says’. But surely there is another question? Is truth served by saying ‘The Jews’ and then (if you’re lucky) it being explained as ‘The Jewish Leaders’ or by translating it as ‘The Jewish Leaders’.

    Of course, that all assumes that you actually believe John meant ‘The Jewish Leaders’ or, alternatively, we have the right to change the original meaning.

    • William Weedon says:

      One thing, though. To read “His blood be on us and on our children” as a curse is to miss the point that St. John is making with the irony. It is BY His blood being on the Jewish leaders and their children that salvation comes to them.

    • Schütz says:

      Well, from one point of view, if we were going with “slavishly literal” here, we would choose “The Judeans” over “the Jews”.

      • Tony says:

        Even then, David, can it be said that all ‘Judeans’ were to blame or a subset of Judeans?

        Not trying to be smart here [voice in background: ‘That’s a change!’], I’m just wondering if one solution creates another problem.

        • Schütz says:

          Of course not, Tony. The whole point of this discussion is how to avoid placing an unnecessary stumbling block before a group of modern hearers. As i said above, there aren’t any Judeans around anymore to be offended, so the point that not all Judeans condemned Jesus is not so crucial.

          • Tony says:

            Wow! Not crucial because they’re ‘not around’?

            What about the truth, David? Surely that doesn’t depend on them ‘being around’ to defend themselves?

            It seems to me that you were right the first time: it was the ‘Jewish leaders’ of the time who were directly responsible. Surely if, in fact, that is the truth and that was what was meant in the original text, then it should be what is said?

  6. Bear says:


    just a small (well, a major) correction. The Blood Libel is not a reference to the liability for the murder of Our Divine Master, but an accusation that certain religious minorities use childrens’ blood for various religious ceremonies. It is not always directed against Jews (although they have had much of it) but of many other groups: in the middle ages Arab and Muslims were also subject to this libel by Christians. Christians themselves were subject to the Blood Libel in the 2nd century.

    It is useful to be precise and accurate in these things.

  7. Mike says:

    Whilst I am definitely not saying you are incorrect on any of these translation issues, I sometimes wonder if all these discussions about antisemitism and suggested changes and re-thinkings are a bit misguided, and missing the point.

    Certainly, spurn antisemitism, and recognise its history in our Church. But when we start talking about retranslating the Bible, the liturgy, and the accepted accounts of the *events* of Jesus’ death, I get suspicious that we are at risk of crossing over from “I wish it were not so” to “let’s just say it wasn’t”.

    The remedies generally seem a little far-fetched, and too convenient. To take one easy example (that was not the focus of your post), we don’t really have anyone identifying as an ancient Roman these days, so it’s far more convenient to blame “the Romans” than it is the Jews – if blame is what you’re after. But at the same time you have to gloss over a lot of the Bible to get there (such as the passages you discuss here).

    But similarly here, do we really need to strain our thinking to insist that all these statements about “the Jews” in the Gospels necessarily means “the leadership” and none of the “Hoi Polloi”? What will that really achieve, anyway, except among any Marxist Jews who really enjoy a good class struggle?
    Do any of us really think that all the leaders were enthusiastically against Him anyway (Nicodemus? Joseph of Arimathea?), or that and all the masses were at worst disinterested? Were none of the little people capable of being worked up to heckle for Jesus’ death and cheer for Barrabas?

    And did any 1850’s Christian think that those words in the Bible meant that every single Jew was there, shouting for His death? Is the fact that Mary loved her Son and yet was Jewish, a new and controversial revelation?

    Surely we can simultaneously believe that a large bunch of Jewish people opposed Jesus and called for his death, and said “his blood be on us an on our children”, and on the other hand, this doesn’t mean we can implicate the entire race with His murder, (just as we don’t implicate any other race with the actions of some of our forebears), and that they had absolutely no right or power to call curses down on their kids just as we we have no right to go around granting curses?

    Doesn’t it make more sense to say that the bare facts of Jesus’ death are not really at issue, but rather, it’s the way these events have been misused over years to justify behaviour that is clearly unchristian and driven more by existing prejudices than any poor translations or honest mistakes?

    We might also remind ourselves that while all this was happening, many of our non-Jewish ancestors were probably sacrificing virgins to pagan gods and buying slaves for use in orgies while salting agricultural fields and burning villages.

  8. Brenda says:

    I’ve taken a couple of theology units with Mary. She is an Associate Professor now. When I talk about Mary to my children I enjoy saying, “Associate Professor Dr. Sr. Mary Coloe said today ….”. She is an impressive woman and an excellent educator. (That’s off-topic but I’m a bit in awe of her!)
    It is a great pity that the Johannine writers wrote as they did and a greater one that a misinterpretation of the historical context could have led to racial hatred on the part of some. A bit like your daughter, David, I never remember quite getting the take on history that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion. I remember thinking that Jesus was a Jew as were the apostles! Then again, children often see truth a lot more clearly than adults.

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