A dialogue about Easter between a Christian and a Jew.Dr.Irene Lancaster and Dr.Rowan Williams reflect on centuries of prejudice and distortion.

Apr 5, 2021 | Uncategorized

Dialogue published by Christian Today
Dr Rowan Williams was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, and Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, from 2013 to 2020. Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.

Dr.Irene Lancaster and Dr.Rowan Williams reflect on centuries of prejudice and distortion.

Extracts: In this exchange, we probe some of the history of Easter and ask what Christians need to be aware of in order to avoid repeating the nightmares of the past by thoughtless recycling of myths and prejudices.

It’s impossible to deny that some of the texts Christians read at this season have been used to stoke prejudice, So, the two issues in our minds in this reflection are, firstly, the importance of understanding the completely Jewish context of all that Jesus said and did in his last days before his execution, and second, what ought to be in Christian minds today if Christians want to celebrate Easter in a way that’s mindful of the lethal effects of some of the central texts of the season.

We need to read these texts in context; we need to recognize where the Gospel writers are filling out the story with what may be guesswork, and how expressions and details that may have made sense to them and were not aimed at the literal destruction of Jews have been and still can be deeply dangerous when repeated in our own different environment.

Irene: What is the origin of the term Easter in Germanic languages, including in English, whereas other modern languages use a term more related to ‘Pesach’, the Jewish festival?

Rowan: ‘Easter’ is said to derive from the name of a Germanic goddess called ‘Eostre’, who had a festival in the spring. Hence Germanic languages have names related to this, while most others derive directly from ‘Pascha’. ‘Pascha’ is the Greek transcription of the Aramaic version of ‘Pesach’, ‘Passover’. The word is coincidentally close to the Greek *pascho*, meaning ‘to suffer’, which probably helped to keep it in use in the Greek and Latin world.

Irene: When, where and how was the festival of Easter originally celebrated – was it the Jewish festival of Pesach by any other name?

Rowan: Easter is being celebrated as an annual feast by the middle of the second century, and almost certainly goes back before that as a regular commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus at the time of Pesach (and the language about Jesus as the Paschal Lamb whose death marks the liberation of the people is already there within two decades of the crucifixion).

At first, it seems there was no reason to distinguish it from Pesach: because it commemorated an event at Pesach, it was associated with Pesach. In the second century, Christians in Rome had begun to calculate the festival differently. Since Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, the early Christian started marking this on a Sunday (the normal Christian day of worship), so this was a bit difficult to map on to Pesach dates.

Western Christians settled on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. But there were endless difficulties about deciding on the details, and there was also a discontent about how Jewish methods of calculating Pesach dates didn’t map precisely on to Western or Northern European astronomical observations.

Until the 4th century, the two datings (identical with Pesach and the Sunday after the full moon) both survived in different places, but the latter was gaining ground and was declared as the only correct method at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE).

The motives for stipulating that Easter and Pesach should not coincide seem to have been mixed. There was certainly a desire to put clear water between Christians and Jews (we know that in big Mediterranean cities, many attended both festivals, and this was deplored by anti-Jewish preachers; different dates made it impossible for people to claim not to know the difference).

But also there were the complications introduced by moving the Easter celebration to Sunday and the diverse ways of counting days (e.g. do you start the day at sunset on the previous day, or midnight, or dawn?). Eastern Orthodox Christians still hold to a scheme that never has Easter and Pesach coinciding; in the West, though, it happens regularly.

Irene: Is Jesus celebrating Pesach or Easter, according to the NT and Christian tradition?

Rowan: Jesus of course is celebrating Pesach, or getting ready to celebrate it. The gospels disagree about this. John is probably more reliable when he says that the Last Supper wasn’t actually a Seder. It makes better sense that the Romans want to get the crucifixion over with before the eve of Pesach, and that the bodies of Jesus and the others crucified need to be taken down and not left exposed over the holy days.

The other gospels are ‘tidying up’, stressing the connection between Jesus’ suffering and the actual slaughter of the Paschal lamb. I don’t think we need to suppose confusion with another festival.

There are reams written on the trial of Jesus. It’s often been said that the gospels are slanted to emphasise Jewish guilt and Roman innocence, but recent scholarship has been more nuanced. Pilate clearly acts against law and conscience, and the gospels don’t let him off the hook so easily. But the first three gospels do describe a Sanhedrin trial – which is very unlikely in this form.

I guess most of the original witnesses simply didn’t know what exactly had gone on behind closed doors after Jesus’ arrest, and guessed at a far more formal ‘trial’ than actually took place. John (who claims more direct eyewitness evidence) describes a private interrogation by the ruling group to finalise charges to bring to the Roman governor, which is more probable.

The House of Annas (Hanan) who provided High Priests for decades had a bad record for corruption, collaboration and occasional extra-judicial killing (as is clear from Josephus and some Talmudic evidence). John gives a picture in which some among the Sanhedrin members strongly resist them, so that there is evidence within the text that whatever the priestly cabal did was not representative of the Jewish legal system, let alone Judaism as a whole.

Irene: Which biblical texts are read at Easter time?

Rowan: The main texts are the stories of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection from all four gospels. Traditionally, Matthew’s text is read on Palm Sunday and John’s on Good Friday. Readings from Hebrew scripture include the Lamentations, and some passages from Jeremiah (as a prophet who was threatened with death by the authorities of his day); the ‘Suffering Servant’ passage of Isaiah 52-3 is always read, as is the Abraham and Isaac story from Genesis 22. Various passages from Paul and Hebrews as well, especially the passage in Hebrews about Jesus by his death entering the heavenly sanctuary like the High Priest entering the earthly Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

You could say that from the start the very fact that Christians use Jewish texts as they do is a way of underlining both the continuity and the discontinuity between the Jewish and Christian identities. There is the conviction that in some sense Jesus is doing a radically new thing – the renewal of the covenant that Jeremiah speaks of – though it is one that only makes sense against the background of his and his disciples’ Jewishness.

The problem comes with language implying that this covenant renewal relegates Jewish practice to something over and past, and therefore drastically inferior. There are passages in the NT that say something uncomfortably like this; but even Paul feels obliged to say that this doesn’t and can’t mean that God has in any way repudiated the Jewish people.

Tension on the ground between the communities in the first and second centuries (when both were minorities often under the Romans, with Christians gaining the upper hand politically) make this more and more bitter, and this negative reading becomes increasingly prominent. Easter sermons and hymns begin to use tropes about ‘unbelieving Jews’ more and more. I don’t think this varies much across the Christian world, before or after the Muslim conquests. Sadly some of the early Syriac writers, who are in many ways close in language, culture and imagination to OT writers, are among the worst offenders.

Irene: Easter continues to be a terrible and fearful time for the Jewish community worldwide, with physical attacks, blood libels and media organs continuing and often even reinforcing ancient and medieval stereotypes. Could you comment on this state of affairs?

Rowan: There was never any official sanction for attacks on Jews around Easter, but the inflammatory language and the desire to present forced converts for baptism at Easter meant that from the early Middle Ages in Western Europe especially this was indeed a lethally dangerous time.

It’s a bit like people saying that Donald Trump didn’t incite the riot on Capitol Hill in January! He didn’t in so many words, but it’s not surprising that his followers heard him as encouraging their acts.

No bishop told his people in so many words to go and harass or murder Jews at Easter, but they were using violent and inflammatory language and have to take the blame. No contemporary Christian body uses the language of deicide any longer (though some ultra-conservative Eastern Orthodox come close), and all Western liturgical texts have been rewritten to exclude openly anti-Jewish passages; the problem is that so very many Christians, as we’ve said so often before, still don’t hear how their language about alleged Jewish legalism or about Jewish hostility to Jesus for preaching love and forgiveness and similar caricatures affects listeners, thus continuing to feed the historic stereotypes and historic hatreds.

Irene: But what can be done at the present time, when every day towards Easter we hear radio programmes broadcast at peak time blaming Jews for all the world’s ills, based on the New Testament stories of the crucifixion?

Rowan: All through Christian history there’s been a tension between this kind of scapegoating language and the fact that in the liturgy in Holy Week, it is the Christian congregation who are invited to take responsibility for Jesus’ death. Jesus dies not because of Jewish ‘sin’ but because of universal human sin.

And I would say that one thing that ought to be in every Christian’s mind in Holy Week is how our sins of falsehood and hatred towards the Jews should be seen in this light. And the fact that all that Jesus says and does in his last days, including the establishing of Holy Communion at the Last Supper, is inseparable from his Jewish identity and Jewish vocation.

Perhaps we Christians should make a point of giving thanks to God for the Jews at this time, as well as acknowledging the depth of our sins towards them.

Irene: It seems that we have a very long way to go, Rowan. But, listening to what you have to say about the Christian ‘divorce’ from its Jewish origins, I am reminded of the very famous passage in the book ‘Night’ by the Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor and author, Elie Wiesel, whom I met at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo in 1991, and whose indescribable suffering was etched on his features.

In this book, based on a true story, the camp guards hang a young Jewish boy in a concentration camp between two adult Jews. The question is asked: Where is the G-d of mercy? Where is He?’ Where is G-d – where is He?’ And the answer is: ‘This is where – hanging here from this gallows.’

The point is that this hideous reflection of the Christian image of the crucifixion is being carried out by people who would almost certainly have thought of themselves as Christians. Every Christian at Easter should have that image in mind.

Even now, 75 years after the end of the Shoah, many Jews will still see present-day Christianity as putting their lives at risk. Christian language and attitudes still seek, consciously or not, to erase the reality of Jewish experience and silence Jewish voices. It is not Jews who murdered Jesus, which you have clarified above. It is actually Christians who have consistently endeavoured to annihilate Jews; and this continues to affect politics, academia and – of course the mainstream media – who pick all this up with alacrity.

Ignorance, arrogance and barely concealed contempt for the Jews in public utterances by clergy or clergy in training has an overwhelmingly negative effect in our society, and the churches – especially the Established Church in England – have to take responsibility for what Jews endure in terms of social opprobrium and the insecurity that arises from this.

The challenge I have to leave with you, Rowan, as a Christian is ‘What is the best way forward if the Jewish community is to survive in the UK? What steps must the Church, which you once led, do to halt this lethal tendency against the Jews living alongside them? And if the Church is in decline, can it at least stop speaking and behaving in ways that threaten and undermine the Jewish faith from which they take their origins?’


Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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