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Marilyn J. Salmon's Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism
Franklin T. Harkins

Marilyn J. Salmon. Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

On October 28, 1965, the Roman Catholic bishops gathered at the Second Vatican Council promulgated the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). Paragraph four effectively reversed the "teaching of contempt" for Jews and Judaism that had characterized Christian proclomation for nearly two millennia. In the past four decades, Nostra Aetate has spurred many Catholic and Protestant clergy and scholars to reflect critically on the proper presentation of Jews and Judaism in Christian preaching. Marilyn J. Salmon's new book represents a significant contribution to the churches' continuing efforts to eliminate homiletical hostility toward Judaism and its adherents.

As her title suggests, Salmon intends her book for preachers who think they need no help in eradicating anti-Jewish sentiment from their sermons. "Even the most conscientious preachers unknowingly rely on stereotypes of Judaism" (ix). Her primary purpose, then, is to raise awareness of the negative images of Jews and Judaism that commonly crop up in preaching, to teach preachers to recognize them, and to provide strategies for avoiding them. Secondarily, Salmon seeks to teach her reader how to proclaim the Christian gospel without depending on an inferior "other." As a very effective means toward these ends, Salmon, herself an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of New Testament theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, provides numerous examples from sermons (many of them her own) that both unwittingly incorporate and intentionally overcome negative portrayals of Jews.

The Gospels are the focus of Preaching without Contempt both because most sermons are based on these biblical books and because the most pervasive type of unintended anti-Judaism is that which contrasts Jesus with his Jewish contemporaries and their customs. After setting the Gospels squarely within their first-century Jewish context (chapter 1), Salmon treats four potential pitfalls, namely: supersessionism, the conviction that Christians have replaced Jews as God's chosen people (chapter 2), the Pharisees and the Law (chapter 3), the Gospel of John (chapter 4), and the Passion narrative (chapter 5). In her opening chapter, Salmon demonstrates that the Gospels belong within the context of the diversity of early Judaism. As such, their criticisms of Jewish groups must be understood as part of an internal Jewish debate over the identity and future of Israel rather than as the interreligious polemic of Christians against Jews. Realizing that the controversies recounted in the Gospels are intra-Jewish rather than anti-Jewish can preserve the preacher from inadvertent prejudices.

This is an important book that makes significant contributions to ongoing Christian efforts to proclaim the good news in ways that eliminate the bad news for Jews. Every Christian preacher can benefit from Salmon's contextualization and careful consideration of the Gospels within first-century Judaism. Many of Salmon's examples demonstrate the kind of creative, insightful, and bold exegesis and proclamation that the Christian conquest of the traditional "teaching of contempt" demands.

Yet, because the intended readership of Preaching without Contempt consists of preachers unaware of their need for such a book, Salmon could have demonstrated more clearly the urgency of her work by providing an overview of how Gospel texts have been used to promote anti-Judaism throughout history. Far too few Christian preachers are aware, for example, that the traditional interpretations of the Passion narratives gave rise to the anti-Jewish charges of deicide, blood libel, and host desecration; that they inspired Christian soldiers to slaughter thousands of Jews in the Rhineland during the First Crusade (1096); that they encouraged the bishops at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) to decree that Jews should not appear in public during Holy Week; and that they enabled Adolf Hitler to declare, "The task which Christ began but did not finish I will complete" (speech in Munich, December 1926).

As an historian of Christianity who is deeply committed to Jewish-Christian relations, I sympathize with Salmon's goal of presenting the Christian message in a way that promotes positive inter-religious dialogue. My major concern with Salmon's book, however, is that it seems at times to advocate proclaiming a gospel that loses its Christian distinctiveness. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of the New Testament to whom Salmon refers several times, rightly points out that "the church should not sacrifice its own theology on the altar of interfaith dialogue" (Amy-Jill Levine, "A Particular Problem: Jewish Perspectives on Christian Bible Study," in Theology and Sacred Scripture, 2002, 17). Indeed, interfaith dialogue, by definition, presupposes two distinct religious faiths.

Although Jews and Christians share some scriptural books (i.e., the Tanakh and the Old Testament), the respective arrangements of these books in the two canons tell stories that are different in important ways. Thus, whereas Salmon argues for replacing the traditional "Old Testament"/"New Testament" nomenclature with "Older Testament" and "Newer Testament," I would retain the term "Old Testament" to reference that peculiarly Christian grouping of sacred texts and the story it aims to tell. Furthermore, in my estimation, Salmon's suggested "Older Testament"/ "Newer Testament" nomenclature exacerbates rather than eliminates implied supersessionism. Even if we grant that the term "old" implies "new" (which, of course, is not necessarily so), a fortiori the comparative adjective "older" requires something "newer." Again, Levine provides a helpful corrective when she affirms that "the problem arises not because of the term 'old' but because of the treatment the material receives in lectionaries, homilies, [and] liturgical practice" ("A Particular Problem," 17), a point that reinforces Salmon's recommendation for more sermons on the Old Testament.

Another example of Salmon's sacrificing Christian particularity is her view that the entire Bible should be read and preached from a theocentric rather than a Christocentric perspective. Over against the traditional Christian understanding that both Old and New Testaments reveal Jesus, Salmon maintains that all of Scripture tells the story of the God of Israel in covenantal relationship with God's people. In her view, the primary subject of even the New Testament is not Jesus Christ but rather the God of Israel. Quite apart from the question of Christian theological distinctiveness, my impression is that many Jews would find such an understanding offensive and in violation of their sense of the particularity of the Tanakh and Judaism. As a result, Salmon's sincere attempt to diminish anti-Judaism could be perceived as compounding it.

A third and final example is Salmon's sugges­tion that hoi loudaioi in the Gospel of John be rendered not as "the Jews" (which may sound anti-Jewish to modern church-goers) but rather in a "more nuanced" way that conveys the intra-religious competition of late-first-century Judaism such as "the crowd," "the people," or "all of our people" (120). Such translations would be both less accurate and less nuanced insofar as they completely conflate Jesus' followers or the Johannine community with other Jews, giving the reader or hearer little sense of existing intra-religious distinctions. I would recommend that the preacher read hoi loudaioi literally as "the Jews" and then carefully explain what group the Gospel writer might intend in this particular pericope (e.g., the people of Judea; the synagogue leadership; chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees; or even friends or followers of Jesus). This approach would enable the preacher to remain faithful to the text while also affording a twofold pedagogical opportunity: to educate parishioners both about the anti-Judaism in the Johannine text, which they may or may not hear, and about the anti-Judaism in the church's long history of exegesis, belief, and practice, about which they might not have heard.

In spite of these limitations, Preaching without Contempt is a thoroughly useful book that I recommend to Christian preachers, scholars, and teachers and to all Christians who are interested in building a better future with our Jewish brothers and sisters. And there is no time more appropriate for careful reflection on these issues than during Holy Week and the Easter Season.

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