from issue no. 11 - 2007

Pro Iudaeis

By analyzing the meaning of perfidus and perfidia in Patristic literature, Erik Peterson showed already in 1936 that they refer above all to the loss of Christian faith. Only in the medieval period did the words, in the Good Friday prayer, acquire the sense of an unwarranted moral condemnation of the people of the Ancient Covenant

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

The fear that the papal motu proprio allowing the use of the Missal of Saint Pius V would reintroduce the expression “perfidia iudaica” in the Good Friday prayer of intercession, so perhaps encouraging anti-Jewish and anti-semitic feelings, has recently re-focused attention on the expression.
As Sergio Luzzatto wrote on 19 August last in Corriere della Sera, the fear is utterly baseless, «since Benedict XVI has liberalized the use of the Tridentine Missal in the 1962 version from which the formulas on the perfidious Jews and on Jewish perfidy had already been cancelled».
But the issue has remained alive, surfacing in very recent debate, and perhaps there is some point in clarifying the expression, perhaps truly unwarranted because of the interpretation and action that enfolded it.
To do so let us look again at the article “Perfidia iudaica” written by Erik Peterson in 1936 – long gone, but in many aspects extremely current. The article appeared in the Lazarists’ review Ephemerides liturgicae that celebrates its hundred and twentieth anniversary this year. Happy birthday!
A Protestant of distant Swedish origin and a passionate seeker after truth (it was to be imputed to him as Romanticism by his old and new coreligionists, deliberately forgetful that it had been the very path of Justine and Augustine), after wandering through several German universities, in 1930 Peterson landed in Rome and in Roman Catholicism, thanks not least to the friendship with a Jewish family of Munich with whom he had stayed and from whom he had received support.
From the ’eighties onwards, frequent reference began to be made again to Monotheism as political theology, Peterson’s book of 1935, in Italy. The last to do so was Enzo Bianchi on 14 October in La Stampa. And with good reason, in that the bipolarism liberal theology/political theology, the incongruence of which with the origins and originality of Christianity Peterson had sought to demonstrate, seems to be proposed even today as obligatory alternative. But many others of his writings, even such important ones as The book of the angels, again of 1935 (published in Italian after the war again by the Lazarists and judged a masterpiece by a patrologist of the caliber of Jean Daniélou), are not known except to specialists, not least because many have not been translated.
Such is the case with the article we are considering, never translated from the German as far as I know. All the quotations come from that.
Through a check on the translations of the liturgy of Good Friday in the modern languages, the first part of the article succeeds in showing that in the ’twenties and ’thirties of the last century the expressions perfidia iudaica and perfidi Iudaei were still translated in unwarranted fashion, that is with reference to a specific infidelity or stubbornness of the Chosen People, to the point of forming a veritable moral judgment on them. Apart from the praiseworthy exception, Peterson writes (p. 298), of the “wise cardinal of Milan” Ildefonso Schuster, who by no accident had been admonished a few years earlier by the Holy Office for having described the formula as «a superstition» (cf. the article by Hubert Wolf in Historische Zeitschrift 2004: “Pro perfidis Iudaeis. Die ‘Amici Israel’ und ihr Antrag auf eine Reform der Karfreitagsfürbitte für die Iuden [1928 ]”). Peterson could not have been aware of what afterwards has become known thanks to a piece of scholarship by Monsignor Giuseppe M. Croce, published in 2003 in the Acts of the International Conference for the bicentennial of the election of Pope Pius VII, i.e. that various Tuscan bishops had, for a moment, omitted the formula altogether as early as the beginning of the 19th century.
Benedict XVI reading a work by Erik Peterson. Photo taken from the 2007 calendar <I>Insieme. Un anno con il Papa</I>, published by Famiglia Cristiana – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Benedict XVI reading a work by Erik Peterson. Photo taken from the 2007 calendar Insieme. Un anno con il Papa, published by Famiglia Cristiana – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

In analyzing the meaning of the adjective perfidus and the correspondent noun perfidia in Patristic literature, Peterson demonstrates that originally they indicate nothing other than the loss of the faith within the Christian sphere. Already Cyprian in the De unitate means by perfidia «the faithlessness that will spread in the last days and that it is not only incredulitas, as opposed to fides, but, like schism, is exactly perfidia, wherewith one arrives at the concept of apostasy» (p. 299). Perfidi in other words, for Cyprian, are the apostate and the schismatic, «those who have left the Church and its fides» (p. 300). But also the lapsed, in that, writes Peterson always citing Cyprian (De lapsis 14), they fall away not because their faith has been overwhelmed, but because it had already faded before the combat («non fide congressa cecidit, sed congressionem perfidia prevenit»). An extremely current paradox.
But, in any case, even beyond these examples, perfidus in Cyprian’s writings is always the opposite of credens and fidens.
Also with all the Fathers who follow (from Hilary of Poitiers to Jerome, from Paulinus of Milan to Lucifer of Cagliari, from Gaudentius of Brescia to Isidore, just to mention some) perfidia is used chiefly in reference to heresy. The expression «Arian perfidy», for example, indicating the lack of faith of the Arians, was to become common. But the application is not limited to Arianism: the Venerable Bede in Historia ecclesiastica 1,10, for example, can say of Pelagius that «against the aid of divine grace he has spread the poison of his perfidy far and wide» («contra auxilium gratiae supernae venena suae perfidiae longe lateque dispersit»).
Moreover, already in the pseudo-Cyprian literature of the 3rd and 4th centuries, «if I’m not wrong», Peterson writes, «the perfidia of the Jews and perfidi Iudaei are spoken of for the first time» (p. 303). In the meaning already mentioned of incredulitas and incredulus, and not of a particular stubbornness and infidelity of the Jews, perfidia and perfidus were then subsequently to be used, by the abovementioned Fathers and by many others, also in reference to the Jews; and even to the Pagans.
All this shows that in the Patristic period perfidia did not originally designate anything other than a loss of faith characterizing heretics, schismatics and lapsed; and then, by extension, the lack of faith of Jews and Pagans.
Peterson can therefore assert that in origin the expression was not a standard expression for the Hebrew. «It is true that the ingenita perfidia of the Jews is several times spoken of, but this only means that in the Ancient Covenant they already fell repeatedly in prey to faithlessness; and it does not mean that the bond of the Covenant has been broken, so that one may speak of “perfidy” in its original meaning» (p. 308).
Why, therefore with the passage of time did the erroneous and offensive interpretation that has come down to us become established?
In the first place because such an interpretation was confirmed by the rubric that from 9th century on accompanied the prayer: «“Amen” is not answered and neither “Let us pray” nor “Let us kneel” nor “Stand up” is said». A rubric that «all but obliged one to understand the prayer for the Jews as if their perfidy must be interpreted at the moral level and repaid at the liturgical level with dramatic modality» (p. 309).
Moreover the Gelasian Sacramentarium (that we have in a 7-8th century manuscript), and hence the Roman liturgy, still did not omit these exhortations of the deacon. Without them the prayer for the Jews was an orison like the others, an orison for them, pro Iudaeis we might say, paraphrasing the title of a very recent book by Valerio De Cesaris (Pro Iudaeis. Il filogiudaismo cattolico in Italia [1789-1938], Guerini e Associati, Milan 2006), and not a theatrical condemnation.
The rubric formulated with the absence of the “Amen” and the exhortations “Let us pray”, “Let us kneel”, “Stand up” began initially to appear in Frankish territory. Peterson suggests that such omissions, rather than coming from political anti-semitism come instead as a result of the liturgical novelty of the improperia in the meantime introduced: a sort of reproach, coming from the Byzantine world, set in the mouth of the Lord in the liturgy of Good Friday at the moment of the Adoration of the Cross. Not even that praxis, however, despite the close ties with the Carolingians established in that period, turns out to be in force in Rome in the 9th century. On a par with the Filioque addition to the Credo, one might comment, as testimony to how Rome held to tradition rather than to any old or new theological-political alliance.
Also from another perspective, according to Peterson, these innovations were foreign to the Roman tradition: «It cannot be denied that, behind the improperia and the expansion of the prayer of intercession for the Jews, lies that spirit of piety freighted with excitation that certainly contrasts with the sobriety of Roman piety» (p. 310).
Peterson brings out in conclusion the importance that already from the 9th century was inherent in the allegorical interpretation, that then generally accompanied the omission of genuflexion in the prayer of intercession for the Jews, «in which emerges the same new liturgical spirit that is also behind the improperia» (p. 311). He quotes Amalarius of Metz, who wrote on this matter: «In all the orisons we genuflect, in order to show humility of the spirit through this action of the body. Except when we pray pro perfidis Iudaeis. In fact those bending their knees perform in a bad way an act good in itself, because they do it feigning. We avoid genuflecting in the orison for the Jews, in order to show that we must flee from acts of pretence» (De ecclesiasticis officiis 1, 13).
In fact, concludes Peterson, it was the Roman soldiers and not the Jews, as some medieval authors had already pointed out, who bowed in mockery before the Lord. And this does no other than demonstrate that both the praxis and the interpretation of the special nature of the prayer pro perfidis Iudaeis was nothing but invention. Nothing to do with the liturgy.

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