Question: In the Holy Friday Matins service [the service of the 12 Passion Gospels], there seems to be several hymns that come across as Jew-bashing. Doesn't this contradict Christ's prayer from the Cross: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do"?
First, so that the reader will know what we are talking about, here are some examples of the hymns that are usually cited in this regard:
From Antiphon 11:
"In return for the blessings which Thou hast granted, O Christ, to the people of the Hebrews, they condemned Thee to be crucified, giving Thee vinegar and gall to drink. But render unto them, O Lord, according to their works, for they have not understood Thy loving self-abasement.
The people of the Hebrews were not satisfied with Thy betrayal, O Christ, but they wagged their heads, and reviled and mocked Thee. But render unto them, O Lord, according to their works, for they have devised vain things against Thee.
Neither the quaking of the earth, nor the splitting of the rocks, nor the rending of the veil of the temple, nor the resurrection of the dead persuaded the Jews. But render unto them, O Lord, according to their works, for they have devised vain things against Thee" (The Lenten Triodion (Tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, Faber and Faber, London, 1978), p. 582f).
And at the 13th Antiphon, you find this hymn:
"The assembly of the Jews besought Pilate to crucify Thee, O Lord. For though they found no guilt in Thee, they released Barabbas the malefactor and condemned Thee the Righteous; and so they incurred the guilt of murder. But give them, O Lord, their reward, for they devised vain things against Thee" ((The Lenten Triodion, p. 586).
There are a number of things that have to be understood here. The shorthand reference of "the Jews" as a reference to the majority of Jews who rejected Christ is found in the New Testament itself, especially in the Gospel of John -- though the usage is not uniform. For example, you still have positive references which are clearly not limited to those who rejected Christ, such as when Christ said to the Samaritan woman "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22), but there are repeated references to "the Jews" seeking to kill Christ (John 5:16; 5:18; 7:1; 10:31; 11:8; 18:36; 19:12), and then later of the disciples hiding "for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). Obvious Christ's Jewish followers were not among those seeking to kill Him, and obviously the Jewish disciples were not in fear of each other, or of their own families, but of those who opposed Christ. Nevertheless, the sweeping references are there, but have to be understood as the generalizations that they are.
Did the Jews kill Christ? Yes, understood in the above sense. Those Jews who rejected Christ, killed him. Some argue that this is itself antisemitic to say, but the Gospels and the Book of Acts, written by three Jews and one gentile are quite clear on this point. For example, on the day of Pentecost, St. Peter said to the Jews who were assembled from all over, to celebrate the feast:
“Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain…. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” Acts 2:22-23, 36). But many of those who heard these words responded in repentance:
"Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:27).
Peter replied to them: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call" (Acts 2:38-39). And we are told that "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:41). And thus the nucleus of the Church in Jerusalem took shape. And so while the Jews who rejected Christ acquired a special guilt, it was a guilt that was easily pardoned with repentance and baptism. And of course, there were many Jews living far away from the Holy Land who knew nothing of the events of Christ's passion, and so were obviously not personally guilty of His death... until they heard the word of the Gospel, at which time they had the choice to embrace it, and take the side of Christ, or to reject it, and take the side of those who rejected Him. And in the book of Acts, as St. Paul went around the Roman world preaching the Gospel, he always went to the Synagogue first. Sometimes, most of the Synagogue embraced the Gospel, other times, only a fraction of them did. Only after preaching to the Jews first, did he move on to the gentiles in the area. By the time the Gospel of John was written, the lines were pretty much drawn, which is why the phrase "the Jews" is used in the way that it is. Those Jews who accepted the Gospel blended with the rest of the Christians, and lost any distinct identity. But when we hear the phrase "the Jews" in reference to those who rejected Christ, we have to remember that Christ, His Mother, and His Apostles were all Jews, and so this does not encompass all the Jewish people at the time of these events.
It is often pointed out that it was actually the Romans who carried out the act of Crucifixion. But while Pilate and the Roman soldiers who mocked Christ, and put him on the Cross certainly were not guiltless, it is nevertheless true that it was the Jewish leaders who were pushing them to do it, and they were the ones who had the Law and the Prophets, and should have known better. But here again, when we hear the words of the Gospels and the words of the services speaking of the betrayal of the majority of the Jews, we should not think of them as "those people." The Church is the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16), the Israelites formed the Church of the Old Testament, but the New Testament Church is in continuity with the old. And so when we see the failure of the Jews of Christ's time, we should think about how we ourselves fail Christ. And we should also remember that there are no people more responsible today than Christians are, because we have both the Old and the New Testaments, and the teachings of the Apostles. We have been given much more than the Jews of the Old Testament, and so much more is required of us. As St. Paul says, speaking of the present alienation, and future restoration of the Jews:
"Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee: (Romans 11:20-21).
It is also true that in one sense, we are all guilty of Christ's death, because Christ died for our sins. And in fact, on the day of Pascha itself, when we bless the Artos, we begin the pray with these words:
"O God Omnipotent and Lord Almighty, who by Thy servant Moses, at the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and the liberation of Thy people from the bitter bondage of Pharaoh, didst command that a Lamb be slain, foreshadowing the Lamb which, because of our deeds, of His own good will, was slain on the Cross, and taketh away the sins of the whole world, Thy beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ...."
Now, to get to the specific hymns in question, you find the same reference to the Jews that you do in the Gospel of John. But the repeated phrase calling for those who rejected Christ to be rewarded according to their deeds are pointed to as being unchristian.
That phrase "render unto them, O Lord, according to their works" is a reference to Psalm 27:4:
“Give unto them, O Lord, according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavours; according to the work of their hands, give unto them. Render their reward unto them.”
This Psalm, as is often the case, is seen by the Fathers as being a prophetic hymn about Christ.
“Give them according to their works, and according to the wickedness of their pursuits. The Jews wittingly performed evil, but unwittingly did good. They inflicted death on Christ, but by this, death itself was ended. They shed his blood, but by this the world’s sins were cleansed. So He asks that they be given them according to their works, that is, according to their wish, for every man does what he wishes, those who strive to do harm often do good, as the devil does, for in inflicting the punishment of death on the innocent he affords martyrs a path to a heavenly crown. He underlined His earlier words when he said: According to their wicked pursuits, that is, according to their evil aspiration to harm the innocent. They preferred to consign to death Him who had come to save them. According to the works of their hands give thou to them: render to them their reward. There are four types of reward. One is when men render evil for good, as the Jews did to Christ; though He had come to save them, they voted to crucify Him. The second is when good is rendered for good, as when God will say to His chosen: Come ye, blessed of my Father, posses you the kingdom prepared for you from the the foundation of the world. The third is the future repayment of evil with evil, when He shall say to the wicked: Go into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels, on the principle that with the same measure that you shall mete withal it shall be measured to you also. The forth is when he repays good for evil as He states here, so that former persecutors become converted, and subsequently praise Him. But all this which He foretells of His enemies is not malevolent supplication but a presaging of the future, for in the gospel He says: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. But both statements are loving; here He threatens to frighten so that they may not perpetrate their crimes through despairing fatalism; in the second case, in His passion, he prays that He may guide their hearts to repentance. The frequent repetition of the terrifying sentiment is not idle; He strives to break their stony hearts with the fire of His great threat” (Cassiodorus: Explanation of the Psalms, Vol. 1, trans. P. G. Walsh, (New York: Paulist Press,1990), p. 271f).
It should also be noted that the Scriptures make it clear, repeatedly, that we will be rewarded according to our works (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 20:12-13). If we repent of our sins, God will blot them out, but if we do not, we will have to answer for them. These hymns are not hoping that the Jews will not repent, but stating that those who rejected Christ, and did not repent will be rewarded according to their works. And this is stated to inspire repentance in those who were these fearful words.
Elsewhere in the same service, we hear this hymn, which is repeated twice at the Praises:
"Israel, My first-born Son, has committed two evils: he has forsaken Me, the fountain of the water of life, /
and dug for himself a broken cistern. Upon the Cross has he crucified Me, but asked for Barabbas and let him go. Heaven at this was amazed and the sun hid its rays; yet thou, O Israel, wast not ashamed, but hast delivered Me to death. Forgive them, Holy Father, for they do not know what they have done" (Lenten Triodion, p. 596).
And once every eight weeks, on Saturday evening we hear this plea to those Jews who have yet to embrace Christ:
"The guardsmen were instructed by the iniquitous: Keep secret the rising of Christ; take the pieces of silver, and say that while we slept the dead man was stolen from the tomb. Who hath ever seen or heard of a corpse, and moreover one embalmed and naked, stolen, and the grave clothes left behind in the tomb? Be ye not deceived, O Jews! Learn the sayings of the prophets, and know that He is truly almighty, the Deliverer of the world!" (The Octoechos, Vol. 3, trans. Reader Isaac Lambertsen, (Liberty, TN: St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1999), p. 5 [Tone 5, Saturday Evening, 3rd Verse at, Lord, I have Cried]).
Just as we cannot re-write the New Testament in order to make it more politically correct, we also cannot re-write services that have been composed by the saints, prayed by the saints for centuries, and embraced by the whole Church. It is only natural that during Holy Week, we focus on Christ's passion, and the contents of the Gospels, and as a matter of fact, those Jews that rejected Him played a prominent role in those event. And there is not a word in those hymns that is not firmly based on the Scriptures, Old Testament and New. However, we should be careful to understand what these services and the Gospels actually mean and do not mean. Neither these hymns nor the Gospels are making any racial comments about Jewish people. A white man cannot convert to become a black man. But a Jew or anyone else can convert to become a Christian. So it is not a matter of race, but a matter of ones disposition towards Christ. The problem the Church has with those Jews who reject Christ is the fact that they reject Christ, not that they are Jewish.
We should also, especially in the light of the holocaust, be very careful about how we speak of Jews in our parishes, and how welcoming we are to those Jews who are interested in the Faith. St. Paul tells us that the day will come when the majority of Jews will embrace Christ (Romans 11:26), and we should be prepared to welcome them when that day finally arises. And any Orthodox Christian who has animosity towards Jews should repent, as they should repent of animosity towards any person or group. The Scriptures are very clear on this point, and in fact St. John repeats this point four times in his first epistle:
"He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now" (1 John 2:9)
"But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes" (1 John 2:11).
"Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him" (1 John 3:15).
"If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (1 John 4:20).
In short, you cannot be an authentic Christian, if you hate your brother.
For more on this subject, I would encourage you to read Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky)'s Sermon Against the Pogroms. And you can also listen to my sermon "The Church of Smyrna and the Synagogue of Satan", which addresses this question in some detail.