“From an uninformed reading of Acts 3, one could conclude that the Jews as a whole killed Jesus and that they are, consequently, no longer in covenant with God. This conclusion is wrong historically, ethically, and theologically,” writes Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and the first Jewish woman to teach New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, in a commentary for the Catholic University of Lublin’s Heschel Center for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 14.

My initial plan for our commentary was to talk about how one of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, both historically and grammatically, may have been a woman. But the first reading, Acts 3.13-15, 17-19, demands commentary. If left without commentary, the reading threatens to introduce or reinforce the antisemitism that has infected, and continues to infect, Christian preaching.

In Acts 3, Peter addresses the “people.” The Greek underlying the translation “people” is laos, the technical term for the people of Israel. Reinforcing the Jewish identity of the audience he addresses, the apostle begins, “brothers [and sisters], Israelites.” Further reinforcing their Jewish identity, Peter speaks of “The G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob, the G-d of our fathers.” Peter is a Jew speaking to fellow Jews.

But then Peter distinguishes himself from his fellow Jews. He tells them that “you handed over” Jesus, that “you… denied” him before Pilate, who “had decided to release him,” that “you denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. He concludes, “The author of life you put to death.” According to Peter, the Jewish people killed Jesus.

Peter then assures these Jews that they, and their leaders, acted in ignorance. But the condemnation of these Jews remains, since the only way for them to be absolved of this murder, of this killing of the author of life, is to “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.” The translation is not a good one, since the Greek does not speak about “conversion,” a term that suggests moving from one religion, Judaism, to another, Christianity. The Greek term is epitrepho, the equivalent of the Hebrew tshuvah, to return, or turn back to the right path.

But even with the correct translation of the lectionary reading, the problems with Acts 3 remain. According to Peter, all Jews are responsible, not just the leaders, even if they acted in ignorance. The only way they can be redeemed is, as Peter states in Acts 3.23, to follow Jesus, for “it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.” For this speech in Acts 3, Jews who do not acclaim Jesus Lord lose their connection to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are disinherited, and replaced, by Christianity.

When we encounter difficult texts such as Acts 3, texts that can introduce or reinforce antisemitism, we have two major approaches to counter them.

First, we can use one text to understand another. Jesus does this when he cites Genesis in relation to Deuteronomy on divorce. Or, for another example, both Jesus and Rabbi Akiva, another Jewish teacher executed by the Romans, agreed that Leviticus 19.18, the commandment to love the neighbor, is the highest principal in Torah. Any text that appears to violate the commandment to love requires a new interpretation.

Regarding Acts 3, we should read Peter’s speech in the light of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul insists in Romans 11.29 that “the gifts and the calling of G-d are irrevocable,” and that therefore Jews are still under covenant with G-d. According to Paul, we Jews have not lost our relationship to the patriarchs; we have not lost our role as the covenant community even if, at present, we do not accept Christian claims regarding Jesus.

Second, we can read Scripture in light of tradition. This is how Jews understand what the Gospels call the “Tradition of the Elders” and how Catholic doctrine develops from the New Testament. The conciliar document Nostra Aetate, #4, insists both that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues ‑‑ such is the witness of the Apostle” and that “what happened in [Jesus’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

A person in Church may conclude, from an uninformed reading of Acts 3, both that the Jews as a whole killed Jesus and that they are, consequently, no longer in covenant with God. This conclusion is wrong historically, ethically, and theologically. With the increase in antisemitism today, a critical reading of Acts 3 is all the more important.

About the author

Amy-Jill Levin is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies Emerita and Mary Jane Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University. She is also Rabbi Stanley M. Kessler Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace. In the spring of 2019, she became the first Jew to teach a course on the New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome; in 2021, she was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.