George SMIGA, The Gospel of John Set Free: Preaching Without Anti-Judaism. Paulist Press, 2008. pp. 180. $14.95 pb. ISBN-13:978-0-8091-4457-0.
Daniel HARRINGTON, The Synoptic Gospels Set Free: Preaching Without Anti-Judaism. Paulist Press, 2009. pp.227. $19.95 pb. ISBN-13: 978-0-8091-4583-6.
Reviewed by John TROKAN, College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati Ohio, 45233

In a world of religious diversity and pluralism, often colored by religious intolerance and ignorance, these books produced by the Stimulus Foundation are companion volumes designed to assist pastors, religious educators and scholars in reading the gospels of the Christian Scriptures free of anti-Semitism. Each text is based upon cycles A, B, and C of the Catholic Lectionary; this book examines gospel passages with Jewish themes which have caused misunderstanding and produced anti-Jewish readings in the past.

In The Gospel of John Set Free: Preaching Without Anti-Judaism, Smiga presents twenty five different passages from the Gospel of John from the three cycles of the lectionary, followed by a critical commentary. The commentary is a balanced treatment highlighting the historical, literary, and theological implications of the text. A unique feature of the text is the Rabbinic commentary and historical notes supplied by Leon Klenicki and Dennis McManus that clarify the Jewish background of the text, and are keyed to relevant verses in John’s Gospel for easy reference. The text contains study questions that can be used in small bible study discussion groups as well as a list of Jewish terms and sources. The appendices feature guidelines on implementing Nostra Aetate and on presenting Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church.

The strength of this text is its attention to reading the texts in John with first century eyes. Particularly in the introductory chapter, Smiga clearly spells out the historical development periods of the oral to written tradition of the text of John, and the impact of this development on ‘retrograding’ tendency of the fourth evangelist. Jesus’ opponents in John clearly reflect the conflicts the Johannine community experienced sixty years after the ministry of Jesus, but have been read back into the Gospel. What surfaces in his examination of the most controversial Jewish passages and terms like ‘the Jews’, is an appreciation of the diversity of first century Judaism, the role of Jesus in reforming it, and the role of the fourth evangelist in assisting the Johannine community is transitioning into a new faith in Jesus.

In The Synoptic Gospels Set Free: Preaching Without Anti-Judaism, Daniel Harrington takes fifteen gospel readings from each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and examines how they should be properly understood in their first century historical context, and freeing them from the effects of their anti-Jewish readings of the past. The commentary which follows each passage is clear and insightful into the critical meaning of the text in its first century development, and its twenty first century implications. Each gospel commentary begins with an introduction to the gospel giving an overview of the author, the who, when, where, of the gospels, the why, what, how of its development, major themes, and a direct discussion of the anti-Jewish aspects. These introductory pieces are gems of historical, literary and theological insight, and enable the reader to understand the Synoptic gospels in their first century context.

Harrington aptly develops his analysis of key passages in the Synoptics by demonstrating how each evangelist responds to the crisis facing all Jews after 70CE with Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem. The three pillars of ancient Judaism (temple-land-law) were all in critical transition in the first century. Each evangelist presents us with their perspective on how the Jewish heritage will continue through their communal faith in Jesus. The text comes with a glossary of key terms and bibliographic suggestions for further study.

Each of these texts is a welcomed biblical and pastoral tool for education and literacy. Each text in its own way unravels the diversity of first century Judaism and the role of Jesus within first century Judaism. Each text also helps the scholar and student to re-appreciate the gospels as Jewish theological literature. Each text in its own way contributes to setting free the anti-Semitism of the past, and invites the reader into a new era of religious understanding.

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