What Does It Mean to be "the Elder Brother"?
by Johannes Petrus
When Pope John XXIII met with a delegation of Jews, he said, "I am Joseph your brother" (cf. Gen. 45:4). Many hold this meeting and statement to be the beginning of a new relationship between Jews and Catholics in our times. A film released in the year 2000 directed by Amy Kronish and Eli Tal-El presents a Jewish perspective on the history of the relationship between Jews and Christians. Recalling Pope John's greeting, the film was entitled I am Joseph, Your Brother. When Pope John Paul II visited the Synagogue of Rome, he said, "you are our dear beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers." There is a website dedicated to this theme as well, namely www.ourelderbrothers.org. It has a Cardinal, a couple of bishops and priests, multiple rabbis and, not surprisingly, Dr. Eugene Fisher, as members of its advisory board. The mission statement of this website explains how its members are working "for the reconciliation between Catholics and Jews" using the model presented by Pope John Paul II. The YOUCAT states: "Jews are the 'older brethren' of Christians…" (no. 138). Finally, a recent article by Joanna Bogle in the conservative magazine Voices entitled What About Our "Older Brother"? praises the Jews under this title of the elder brother in order to counter what she has perceived as anti-Semitism among certain groups of Catholics (cf. vol. XXVII, No. 1 – Eastertide 2012, pp. 18-19). From these sources, it would seem that the term "elder brother" is complimentary and favorable to the Jews and ought to be used.
On the other hand, in his interview book Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI recently explained why he thinks we should no longer call Jews "our elder brothers", stating that "the phrase 'elder brothers,' which had already been used by John XXIII, is not so welcome to Jews. The reason is that, in the Jewish tradition, the 'elder brother' – Esau – is also the brother who gets rejected." According to Pope Benedict even the Jews themselves do not find this title as complimentary as many think. Why is this? Which position is correct? Does the term "elder brother" rightly describe the Jews? Should it be used?
In answering this dilemma, let us begin with Pope Benedict's statement that echoes St. Augustine: "We can read the New Testament only together with what preceded it, otherwise, we would completely fail to understand it." In the Old Testament there is a repeated theme of the younger brother being chosen over the elder brother or of the younger brother surpassing the older brother in some way. And this theme starts at the very beginning with Cain and Abel and goes to the very end with Judas Maccabeus out shining his elder brothers John and Simon. Theodoret of Cyrus lists a number of them: "Note that throughout Scripture the later born are ranked ahead of the firstborn: Abel was given preference to Cain … Isaac to Ishmael, Jacob to Esau, Joseph to Reuben and Judah, and Ephraim to Manasseh. And there are more examples in subsequent generations: Moses was ranked ahead of Aaron, and David, though youngest, ahead of his seven brothers" (Questions on Genesis, CXI). Others instances could be listed such the struggle between Judah's sons, Zara and Phares, in the womb of Thamar. Zara put forth his hand first, upon which a scarlet ribbon was tied, but then Phares overcame Zara in the womb and was born ahead of him (cf. Gen. 38:27-30). Also, Solomon was made king over his brothers.
In the New Testament Parable of the Prodigal Son (cf. Luke 15) Our Blessed Lord gives us a connection to this Old Testament theme of the two brothers. Relying on the Fathers of the Church, Pope Benedict indicates where the connection can be made: "The Church Fathers generally applied the two-brothers motif to the relation between Jews and Gentiles" (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. I, p. 209-210). Notice how the Pope recognizes that there is a motif of two brothers here. St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) agrees: "by the elder son is signified Israel according to the flesh, but by the other who left his father, the multitude of the Gentiles" (cf. Catena Aurea, Luke 15:11). Using the Church Fathers, Cornelius a Lapide (d. 1637) comments on the same parable: "The two sons are understood by SS. Gregory, Jerome, Augustine, and all the ancient authors passim to represent the Jews and the gentiles. The elder, who always remained with his father, symbolizes the Jews, who always adhered to faith in God and worship of Him; the younger represents the gentiles, who after having worshiped God during the time from Adam to Noe, turned aside to idols and the sins of the flesh. This interpretation is borne out by verses 25-30, for it was the Jews who murmured because the Gentiles were received into grace and favor by Christ."
In keeping with Pope's Benedict's dictum of "[r]eading the New Testament … with what preceded it" we can see the theme of the two brothers applies to all time. Again, turning to Cornelius a Lapide: "also the parable depicts the envy and murmuring of the Jews against the Apostles, who preached the Gospel to the gentiles when the Jews would not believe. Thus St. Ambrose; the Jews, he says, envied the gentiles the paternal blessing. St. Augustine, too (lib. 2 Quœst. Evang. q. 33 ff.), says, He is angry now, and will not go in. But when the fullness of the gentile nations shall have entered in, then the father will go forth that all Israel, too, may be saved. So, too, St. Jerome." Notice how St. Ambrose looks back to the Old Testament to see a connection between these two brothers in the parable and that of Esau losing his paternal blessing to Jacob. The full text from Ambrose reads: "the younger son, that is the Gentile people, is envied by Israel as the elder brother, the privilege of his father's blessing. Which the Jews did because Christ sat down to meat with the Gentiles" (Catena Aurea, Luke 15:25).
Looking in the other direction, St. Augustine and St. Jerome see it as applying all the way to the end of time "when the fullness of the gentile nations shall have entered in" and the Jews will convert. This too makes sense because Our Lord left the Parable of the Prodigal Son open-ended. This means it is still being fulfilled in our very own day with the older brother representing the Jews who refuse to enter the Church. This also means that this theme of elder and younger brother acts as a type for all time. For this motif is a type of the Old and New Testaments with the New overtaking the Old. It is a type of the old Adam and the new Adam. It is a type of the Jewish elders and the Christ during His public ministry on earth with the New Law, Jesus Christ, supplanting the Old, the Law of Moses. (Note that Genealogy of Jesus Christ shows how He came through the lines set up by the younger brothers … Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Phares … David, Solomon). It also continues as a type of the Jews that remain "in the field," refusing to enter the House of the Father, and the Body of Christ, the Church. Thus, Origen says this two-brother motif represents "the Church over the Synagogue" (Genesis Homily XII). Theodoret says the same: "A preference for the younger children is generally observable in Scripture; being intended to show that the Church, though chosen later out of all nations, should obtain the preference over the synagogue" (cf. Haydock, Gen. 48:14). St. Paul uses this same motif in his letter to the Galatians when he compares the Jews to Ishmael and the Christians to Isaac, saying, "For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, and the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman, was born according to the flesh: but he of the free woman, was by promise. Which things are said by an allegory. For these are the two testaments. … Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he, that was born according to the flesh, persecuted him that was after the spirit; so also it is now … So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free: by the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free" (cf. 4:22-31).
When viewed in this way, the two-brother motif is a breath-taking image of reality! It displays an ongoing struggle between two brothers that goes back to the very beginning of time, starting with Cain and Abel and will extend to the very end of time when the Jews finally convert. History, therefore, could be seen as the struggle between two brothers. They are forever facing each other down the centuries until the elder finally gives in and converts. And then time ends! These two brothers are, as it were, on two different parallels facing each other down through the ages. And we know from geometry that parallel lines do not meet. Someone has to give way. And we know from the Parable of the Prodigal Son that it is the elder brother who is refusing to enter the House. The Church and the Jews, then, are like the two brothers contesting with each other until the end of time. When the elder finally gives in and enters the House, Christ comes again. It is not significant that the last words Our Lord spoke to the Jews happened in the court of Caiaphas when He declared "I say to you, hereafter you shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of the power of God, and coming in the clouds of heaven" (Matt. 26:64)? From this general overview, one can see why Pope Benedict says the Jews are not fond of the title "elder brother." It reveals just where the Jews stand after their rejection of the Christ. They are still outside the House of the Father and are forever struggling against the younger brother.
Given this general application of the two-brother motif, let us now spend a little time looking into some of the particular types revealed to us in the Old Testament. First there is that of Cain and Abel. The elder brother Cain kills his own innocent and righteous brother Abel out "in the field". He then becomes afraid and runs away from God. He does not come home. Cain is marked with a sign and all are forbidden by God to kill Cain. Furthermore, the land will no longer produce for him and he builds the first city as well as wanders the earth, as it were, "in the field" (cf. Gen. 4:8; Luke 15:25).
Abel typifies the Christ and this is why we mention him at the Holy Mass. The righteous and innocent Man, Jesus Christ, is killed by His own elder brothers, the Jews. Cain, therefore, typifies the Jews who reject and oppose the Christ and His Body, the Church. Thus, Cornelius a Lapide commenting on Matt 23:35, says: "Cain was the type of the Jews, but Abel was the type of Christians, as Tertullian teaches (libr. contra Judaeos cap. 5) and St. Augustine elaborates (lib. 12 contra Faustum cap. 9)." As a result, just as Cain is marked because of the shedding of Abel's innocent blood, so too are the Jews in someway mysteriously marked by the Blood of Christ as is typified by the scarlet ribbon on the hand Zara, Judah's first born by Thamar. The Scriptures indicate this reality: "His Blood be on us and on our children" (Matt 27:25).
It is this very mark on the Jews, one could argue, that has enabled them to retain their identity as the elder brother. Using the words of Dom Prosper Gueranger, OSB: after the death of Christ, the Romans are forced to banish "Israel from his country, making him a Cain-like wanderer on the face of the earth" (cf. The Liturgical Year, vol. VIII, Friday of the Second Week after Easter, p. 121). Fr. Vincent Miceli writes: "the Jews, though dispersed for two thousand years throughout all regions and nations, have, nevertheless, maintained their identity. No other people has been able to do this. The Chosen People, no matter how distantly they fled from God or separated from their homeland, could never erase from their consciousness the fact that God, Who chose them and made a solemn covenant with them, was still their true King and Ruler, the fact that God still expected them to fulfill the special vocation He entrusted to them" (Fr. Miceli, The Antichrist, p. 152). It seems that the Blood of Christ on them marks them as belonging to Christ but as having rejected Him. Thus, they are forever linked to Him but as opposing Him. All that they do will somehow be in relation to but in opposition to Christ and His Mystical Body, the Church, extended throughout time and space. We should note that the younger brother—the Christian—is also marked since every Catholic receives a permanent sign when the Blood of Christ is applied to his soul through the cleansing waters of Baptism. But this mark enables the younger brother to enter the House and do everything in relation to and in loving union with the Christ.
As the Fathers of the Church point out, however, the Jews will ultimately fulfill their vocation too when they return home at the end of time and are likewise marked with the Blood of Christ in a cleansing manner. Pope Pius XI captures this notion in his prayer for the Consecration of the World to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: "Turn Thine eyes of mercy towards the children of that race, once Thy chosen people. Of old, they called down upon themselves the Blood of the Savior; may It now descend upon them as a laver of redemption and of life."
Another point of contact between Cain and the Jews is the fact that anyone attempting to kill the Jews (i.e., Cain) become the best-known villains of history. Although there have been many efforts in the world's history to commit genocide, the one's we know best are those against the Jews. They are not forgotten. Note how we speak of Hitler more than any other tyrant such as Stalin or Mao, both of whom killed tens of millions more than Hitler. Why is this? Does not Cain give the answer? God has marked the Jews and woe to those who touch them: "whosoever shall kill Cain, shall be punished sevenfold" (Gen 4:15). Does this not also help us see the wisdom of Pope St. Gregory's policy toward the Jewish people known as sicut Judaeus non?
Jacob and Esau present another important type in the two-brother motif. Jacob gains the birth rite of Esau and later obtains his father's blessing to displace Esau while he is out "in the field." As a result, Esau hates Jacob and intends to kill him. "Esau therefore always hated Jacob, for the blessing wherewith his father had blessed him; and he said in his heart: The days will come of the mourning for my father, and I will kill my brother Jacob" (Gen. 27:41). In the mind of Esau, Jacob is already dead. Thus, Jacob, seeking a bride, flees from Esau for a time. Mysteriously, at this time while Jacob is "asleep", a ladder is set up between heaven and earth. At this point Jacob is empowered to marry a bride, overcome the world and gather together a great flock, which he does. After this, not even an angel of God can overcome Jacob. Meanwhile Esau allies himself with the Ishmaelites by marriage. Upon Jacob's return to the Promised Land with angels accompanying him, he meets Esau who is much more powerful in a worldly way (for the blessing he received from Isaac was completely on the natural level). Yet Esau gives way to Jacob in a peaceful embrace. "Then Esau ran to meet his brother, and embraced him: and clasping him fast about the neck, and kissing him, wept" (Gen. 33:4).
Here again we see the type of Christ and the Jews. Just as Jacob was as good as dead in the mind of Esau, so too the Jewish elders intended to kill the Christ and were, by God's permission, finally allowed to do so through the betrayal of Judas and the judgment of Pilate. In the meantime, the Christ establishes the Holy Mass typified by Jacob's Ladder set on a rock anointed with oil. Then Our Lord, after falling "asleep" on the Cross, leaves this world for a time, but returns in three days to establish His Church, His Mystical Body, His Bride, into which a great flock is gathered. At some point Our Lord will return in person on the clouds and peace will exist forever between the Jews who convert and the Christ Who will come again. In the meantime, the Jews will ally themselves with any worldly power, typified by Esau's union with the Ishmaelites, to thwart the younger brother's efforts.
With this image in mind, we can address a thorny issue, namely, in what manner can the Jews be held responsible for the death of Christ? Joanna Bogle made this issue a central point of her article. Like others of our time, all the arguments seem to come from Vatican II's Nostra Aetate which, referring to St. Matthew's Gospel … "His blood be on us and on our children", states: "True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His Passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures." What would someone say if they were asked "who bombed Pearl Harbor"? Almost everyone will respond by saying: "The Japanese". Now, does this mean that every Japanese who has ever lived is personally responsible for bombing Pearl Harbor? No, but is not true that all the Japanese since then have paid a certain price for it. The same could be said of the Germans suffering for the evils of the Nazis.
Although it is true that we cannot charge the Jews of our time or any other time after the Passion of Christ directly with the death of Christ, we can nevertheless say that they are suffering to this very day because of it. This is true not so much because they have been rejected or accursed by God but rather because they themselves have rejected the Christ, calling His Blood down upon them to mark them and set themselves up in opposition to Him as was touched on above.
Cornelius a Lapide comments as follows on Matt 27:25: "those blind madmen have subjected not only themselves, but also their children to God's displeasure. They have felt it indeed for 1600 years even to this day in its full force, so that after the destruction of their nation and of Jerusalem, they wander over all the world, without a city, or temple, or sacrifice, or priest, or prince, and serve the rulers of all peoples. … 'This curse,' says S. Jerome, 'rests on the Jews even to this day, and the Blood of the Lord is not taken away from them,' because, as Daniel foretold (9:27), the desolation shall continue, even to the consummation, and to the end." Commenting on Matt 23:35, which reads, "That upon you may come all the just blood that hath been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just, even unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar", Cornelius a Lapide gives the following from the Church Fathers: "St. Augustine gives the reason for what Christ says in this verse (tract. 1 in Psalm. 118), 'Because the imitation of wicked men causes people to obtain not only their own desserts, but the desserts of those whom they imitate.' Moreover St. Chrysostom says: 'Just as the rewards which all the preceding generations deserved were bestowed upon those who received Christ, so, too, what their wicked ancestors merited came upon the latest Jews.'"
Esau comes to our aid here. He is also known as Edom and we know from the Sacred Scripture that Edom, as a people, is accursed all throughout the Old Testament due to the actions of their father. What about Ham the son of Noah (cf. Gen 9:20f.)? Both Canaan and Egypt spring from him … and they were accursed due to the sin of Ham (he uncovered the nakedness of Noah). Can we not say that all the lands under the shadow of Islam are accursed because they were cut off from the Light of the Gospel due to the actions of Mohammed? These are clear-cut cases of how a whole people who, in themselves, are not responsible for the direct actions of their forefathers but are nevertheless, de facto, under a shadow due to them. Is not the Catholic Church still suffering from some of the actions of Her Renaissance Popes? What of Pope Clement XIV's suppression of the Jesuits? Are not many prelates, priests, and faithful today suffering and seemingly under a curse from the scandalous behavior of various prelates and priests of the last several decades? We must recognize that the universe is hierarchical in nature, and those who hold positions in the hierarchy will affect those under them. Such men can cast shadows that darken all that are under them and in some cases these shadows will remain even unto the end of the world. Of no little importance is the fact that we are all operating under the curse of Adam's Sin. Because of him, all must struggle on this earth … because of him we all must die! This is the same as saying, because of him, we are all cursed as we pray, sighing, in the Hail Holy Queen: "to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this vale of tears …"
This is why we must have the General Judgment … to show how our actions affect others. Here is how Fr. Henry James Coleridge, SJ explains this concept in his sermons on the General Judgment: "For both the evil and the good which men do live after them, and in many cases it may be that men do more harm after their own deaths, or more good, than during their life. Do you suppose that a father who brings up his children badly and laxly, will not have to be responsible before God for the evil of which he has been the parent, and which may go on propagating itself, generation after generation, even to the Day of judgment?" (The Return of the King, pp. 243-244).
Although it certainly true that each and every one of us had a hand in crucifying Our Lord because of our sins, the elder brother played the leading role and purposely placed himself in opposition to the Savior. Those who remain in his shadow suffer from the curse that is upon him. On the other hand, the shadow dissipates whenever a person chooses to respond to the Holy Spirit to enter the Church. All the Jews who entered the Church on Pentecost Sunday and afterward down through the ages left the curse behind in the waters of holy baptism. It is dissolved by the purifying and precious Blood of Christ. Thus, St. John Chrysostom comments on Matt. 27:25: "Yet a merciful God did not ratify this sentence, but accepted such of them and of their children as repented; for Paul was of them, and many thousands of those who in Jerusalem believed."
Returning to the Old Testament types, consider Joseph and his brothers. Like Jacob, the elder brothers of Joseph at first kill him (by intent in their hearts) while out "in the field." The Scriptures say they hated him because he was beloved by their father. Another reason for their hatred flows from the fact that "he accused his brethren to his father of a most wicked crime" (Gen. 37:2). In seeking to kill him, they at first threw him into a pit. Thinking to make a profit by him, they altered their decision and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. He goes away for a while and has to live in dungeons but comes out to be a ruler of the earth and the giver of wheat (for making life-sustaining bread) in a time of extreme famine. Due to the position and efforts of Joseph, the lives of the brothers are saved and they are eventually reconciled and re-united in peace. It is not an easy return, however, as they had to be tested and proven in obedience and truthfulness. After all, they have lied about Joseph for a long time. And so they have to bow down before Joseph a couple of times to fulfill the prophetic dreams God gave to Joseph.
The story of Joseph is of key importance to seeing the whole picture. It is like a summary of all history. Jacob loving his youngest son represents God the Father loving Our Blessed Lord, Jesus Christ. Jacob sends his beloved son to his brothers "in the field" like the Good Shepherd seeking the lost sheep. They are not home yet … they are "in the field." He dresses Joseph in a special garment… our human nature. He remains pure and innocent in Egypt under great pressure to do evil. Thus, Joseph is the New Testament … pure and holy, innocent and without sin. The elder brothers are the Old Testament, the Jews who need to come home from being "in the field". Fulfilling the role of Cain, they do not like their younger brother. In fact they hate him and are envious of the Father's love for Him and His special garment. Instead of mastering themselves, they seek to kill Joseph out "in the field." But this time, they not only kill Him in their hearts but also in act by having Him crucified under Pontius Pilate. They bury (lower) Him in the earth after stripping off His garment and staining it with Lamb's Blood (symbolizing His death). But He rises out of the ground to be separated from them for a time. He is sold for money and handed over to the Gentiles. He goes down to Egypt and establishes Himself as the provider of the Bread of Life for the world, symbolizing the Catholic Church in the world and the Eucharist She provides through the Holy Mass. When they come to him, Joseph knows their thoughts just as the Lord knew the thoughts and hearts of the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel. Joseph weeps over them as Jesus would later weep over Jerusalem and its future destruction. Joseph does not seek vengeance but their conversion and so it is with Christ.
Once again, this applies to the Jews even to the end of time in that they are alienated from the Younger Brother that has been sent by the Father, and this alienation has been going on for nearly 2000 years. Eventually, things do not go well for the elder brothers … famine will come upon them, which is described in the Book of the Apocalypse. Joseph, the younger brother, nevertheless, remains innocent and undefiled in Egypt under great pressure and awaits their return. They finally come back together and all is amended. This return will not be easy (as is clear from the Apocalypse) due to many lies that have been told about Jesus. But in the end, the Father, through efforts of Jesus, all His sons all reunited and reconciled.
In the story the type continues when Joseph receives the double portion due to the first-born, symbolized by his two sons replacing him as a tribe of Israel. When it comes time for Jacob to bless the two sons, he crosses his arms, giving the primary blessing from his right hand to the younger Ephraim over Manasseh. Joseph tried to correct the situation but to no avail (cf. Gen. 48). St. Ephrem comments on this event: "Joseph was struggling to set the right hand of his father on Manasseh, but Jacob refused and said to him, 'I am not depriving Manasseh of the blessing, for he will also increase, but his younger brother will increase more than he.' And to show that from then on the younger would take precedence over the elder, he said, 'By you shall Israel give its blessing, saying, 'May God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh'" (Commentary on Genesis, Section XLI, no. 5). Once again, the type indicates that the Younger Brother, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the New Testament, will take precedence over or supersede the elder, the Old Testament. And this will take place through the Cross.
Another very interesting twist to the motif of the two brothers is found in the Old Testament when the tribes of Israel settle in the Promised Land. Of the four wives of Jacob (Israel), each of the first-born sons or tribes has problems settling in the Promised Land. The "elder brother" tribes are Ruben, Gad, Manasseh and Dan (cf. Gen. 46:8ff). (Keep in mind that Joseph was replaced as a tribe by his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim.) As the book of Joshua explains, the first three did not find a place in the Promised Land but rather settled outside, across the Jordan River. Although Dan is given a place in the Promised Land, he is not able to settle in the place given to him such that another arrangement has to be made. And Dan eventually becomes one of the places where Israel sets up its idols after splitting away from Judah. What is more, in the list of the Tribes given in the Apocalypse (cf. 7:5-8), Dan drops out of the list. For this and other reasons some of the Fathers claim that the Antichrist will come from Dan (e.g., cf. Theodoret, Questions on Genesis, CXII (5)). But the main point here is to note how all the first-born of the brothers struggled in finding a home in the Promised Land. This is a type of the parallel that would later arise between the Jews and the Christ along with His Mystical Body, the Church.
More types could be examined but the picture is sufficiently clear to answer the dilemma. The use of the term "elder brother" to describe the Jews is accurate and based on the unity of the Old and New Testaments as well as on the firm foundation of the Church Fathers. It shows how the "elder brother" is one who is at times angry, hateful, and even murderous but eventually is reconciled to find peace in the House of the Father, the Catholic Church. Although this term is sobering, it is Scriptural and accurate. Therefore, it should be used regardless of whether or not anyone takes offence. In writing and publishing this article, it is my hope that good people like Joanna Bogle and those cardinals and priests involved with the efforts of www.ourelderbrothers.org will see the deeper reality this term displays in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews.
"Let us pray for the Jews: that our Lord and God take away the veil from their hearts; that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ to be our Lord. … Almighty eternal God, who also does not repel the Jews from Thy mercy: graciously hear the prayers which we are conveying on behalf of the blindness of that people; so that once the light of Your Truth has been recognized, which is Christ, they may be rescued from their darkness" (prayer from the Good Friday Liturgy, 1962 Missal).
This article was published in the July/August 2012 issue of Culture Wars.
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