Michelle Voss writes that Lent can be a powerful time to repent of Christian anti-Judaism and commit to countering antisemitism.

Grave of a Jewish soldier in World War military cemetery, France
Credit: Jametlene Reskp/Unsplash
Published On: February 21, 2024

The people of the United Church deeply lament the current crisis in Palestine and Israel and increasing acts of overt antisemitism, anti-Judaism, Islamophobia, and anti-Palestinian racism within Canada and globally. This blog, however, is not about the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East region and it is not about being pro-Israel. It is about examining antisemitism in a Christian faith-based context. This focuses on examining anti-Judaism and antisemitism in worship and Christian theologies, particularly during the Lenten season.

During Advent, I shared how Handel’s Messiah led me to reflect on anti-Judaism in Christian theology and worship. During Lent, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion sends me again into serious reflection on Christian relations with our Jewish neighbours.

My Advent blog examined Christmas music in light of supersessionism, which is the idea that Christianity replaces or supersedes Judaism in God’s plan. Certain understandings of how Jesus fulfills the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture can be supersessionist. This theological habit also appears whenever Christians employ polarizing pairs such as:

Israel  ↔  Church

Law  ↔  Gospel

“Old” Testament  ↔  “New” Testament

God of Wrath  ↔  God of Love

Such contrasts are powerful rhetorical tools. We see the Gospel of John employing them, and they were also prevalent in the Protestant Reformers, who used them in anti-Catholic polemic. However, for Jewish-Christian relations, these dualisms do more harm than good. We must ask whether we should continue to use such language at all if they lead to anti-Jewish theology and antisemitic attitudes and actions.

During Lent, this question becomes very practical: how should we tell the story of Holy Week?

Reflecting on the Gospel of John

Lent is the time of year when Bach’s musical masterpiece, the St. John Passion, inevitably gets performed. Sometimes, the concert hosts will host a panel or talk addressing the problematic portrayal of the Jews in the text. More often, as when the Gospel of John is read in Christian congregations during Holy Week, it goes unremarked.

Bach’s devotional and highly emotional text interprets the gospel text through the lens of his Lutheran theology, with its heightened contrast between Law and Gospel. “The Jews” appear as the perpetrators of the crucifixion in a manner that heightens the drama of the Passion. This dramatic device continues the tradition of blaming the Jews in the medieval passion plays. The plays fostered antisemitic attitudes, and Holy Week also became a heightened time for Jewish-Christian relations, often erupting into violence and attacks against European Jews.

Because it contains the most developed narrative, the Gospel of John is the go-to passage for Good Friday services and Passion Week. I have learned from the great scholar of John, Gail O’Day, that the gospel ultimately does not make the Jews the perpetrators. Jesus is the one who lays down his life (John 10:18, John 18–19). Individual agents such as Judas Iscariot, the chief priests and police, and the Roman agent Pontius Pilate are directly responsible for the events in the text.

However, in the Gospel of John, the evangelist makes a very unfortunate choice. He repeatedly names “the Jews” as those seeking to arrest and kill Jesus. He puts in Jesus’ mouth several damning tirades against this group (for example, in John 8 and 10). Of course, we can understand this choice in the context of the early church’s vulnerability in its process of differentiating itself from other Jewish communities at the time. But “context” is not an excuse, and we should think seriously about our own choice whether to repeat these words.

Taking Action

Christian preachers and worship leaders bear responsibility for the texts they share with their communities.

Counter Antisemitism. The Gospel of John is part of the Christian sacred text, but not everything in it is sacred. If we choose texts that contain anti-Jewish themes, we must comment on their problematic nature. The United Church of Canada has approved an excellent study, BearingFaithful Witness, which highlights such passages and offers points for discussion.

Use Alternatives. Some Christians now refrain from public readings of John’s passion narrative and instead use one of the other gospels. For example, the gospel of Mark does not make blanket statements about “the Jews” like John does. Mark locates the internal struggle over Jesus within first-century Judaism within the larger forces of colonization within the Roman empire, and he clearly marks the crucifixion as a Roman execution. I have also used John Townsend’s wonderful “Liturgical Interpretation” of the passion narrative, which was written with Jewish-Christian relations in mind.

Update Your Theology. The Shoah was a watershed moment in Christian theology. Far too many Christians were complacent or actively supportive. Many theologians took up serious study in relation to Judaism, recognizing how anti-Jewish theology formed the seedbed for antisemitism to flourish. Most major Christian bodies now positively affirm that God’s covenant with the Jews continues unabated, even as many Christians entered a covenant with the God of the Bible through Christ. We have much to learn from our Jewish neighbours about interpretations of our shared sacred texts, the nature of the divine, and commitments to justice and peace.

Lent can be a powerful time to repent of Christian anti-Judaism and actively commit to countering antisemitism.


Michelle Voss (she/her) is an ordained minister in The United Church of Canada. She serves the church as a theological educator at Emmanuel College in the Toronto School of Theology, where she is professor of theology and past principal. Her teaching integrates the study of Christian theological traditions with theories of gender and sexuality, disability studies, and religious pluralism.

The views contained within these blogs are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of The United Church of Canada.