In June, 1963, my mother made me watch the television coverage of Pope John XXIII’s funeral because, she said, “he was good for the Jews”. I learned that the pope lived in Italy –which to me meant spaghetti-, multitudes cheered him, and he was good for the Jews. I told my mother that I wanted to be the pope. She said, “You can’t.” “Why not?” I asked. She responded, “Because you’re not Italian.”
That same year, a girl told me, “You killed our Lord.”
“I did not,” I responded. If you killed someone, you would know.
“Yes, you did,” she said, “Our priest said so.”
I thought the priest wore a special collar so that, if he lied, the collar would choke him (this is, in retrospect, a good idea). Therefore, I must be responsible for the death of God. When I came home, in tears, my mother assured that me the priest was wrong and I hadn’t killed anyone. (In 1965 Nostra Aetate affirmed my mother’s teaching.)
My parents told me that Christians and Jews worshiped the same God, the one who created heaven and earth. We read the same books, like Genesis and Psalms. We love our neighbors, as Leviticus 19 commands. They also told me that Christians speak about a Jewish man named Jesus. How could a priest, who should know all this, accuse me of deicide?
Determined to correct his anti-Jewish teaching, I asked to attend catechism classes at the Catholic church. (I initially thought that the priest made a translation error. In the synagogue, I was learning Hebrew, and I knew that mistakes happened. No one told me then that the New Testament is written in Greek.) My wise parents agreed. “As long as you remember who you are,” they said, “go learn. It’s good to know about our neighbors’ beliefs.”
I loved those classes (I was probably the only child who did). Their stories reminded me of stories I heard in synagogue. Baby Jesus was almost killed, like baby Moses. Jesus tells parables and heals people, like other Jews in Jewish history.
Later, when I read the New Testament, I realized two things. First, my Catholic friends knew what the Gospels said, but they liked me. Thus, I realized, we choose how to read. Second, I realized that the New Testament is Jewish history.
Today, I teach students studying to be clergy and religious educators. In spring 2019, I became the first Jew to teach a New Testament course at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. That same term, Marc Brettler and I presented to Pope Francis our edited volume, The Jewish Annotated New Testament.
Helping Christians read the New Testament without false anti-Jewish stereotypes and showing fellow Jews how the New Testament is part of our history is both a vocation and a joy. I do not worship Jesus, but I continue to find the stories he told, and the stories told about him, fascinating and inspirational.
By Amy-Jill Levine