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“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and anti-Judaism

an Advent image of a night sky full of stars

The just-concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved a good and much-needed set of theological and practical guidelines for Christian-Jewish relations. Among many other things, the document notes the need to “mitigate latent anti-Judaism in our hymnody” by creating hymn revisions “that preserve the theological depth and purpose of particular hymns while excising supersessionist themes.” It points specifically to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” as an example. I also recently came across a Facebook post by Dan Joslyn-Siematkoski on the text history of this hymn which made me want to delve into it some more.

The text and translations

As Dan points out, the English text is a translation by John Mason Neale (1818-1866) of a Latin version which is sometimes said to date as early as the 12th century, though the manuscript he found it in was from the 18th. In any case, that Latin version is itself a rhymed paraphrase of an earlier set of Latin texts: the Great O Antiphons. These are used at Vespers in the classic Roman Rite in the week leading up to Christmas.

In Neale’s version, the first verse (which is also typically sung at the end) reads:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Latin rhymed version Neale is working from reads:

Veni, veni, Emmanuel
Captivum solve Israel
Qui gemit in exsilio
Privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel
nascetur pro te, Israel.

Which, in a pretty literal English translation, would be:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
Release captive Israel
Who groans in exile
Deprived of the Son of God.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
will be born for you, O Israel.

As we can see, Neale’s version is a very close, near-literal rendition. There are just a few tweaks for rhyme and prosody.

Theology of the hymn

Theologically, both Neale’s text and the underlying Latin are ambiguous. Are we to imagine this prayer as situated before the birth of Christ, portraying God’s chosen people Israel as awaiting his arrival? If so, are we to envision it as being uttered during the literal Babylonian exile, or is the text instead imagining a time closer to the birth of Christ, say under Persian or Seleucid or Hasmonean or Roman rule, and portraying this time as a metaphorical exile because of a deep longing for a Messiah?

Those possibilities may not be overtly anti-Jewish, but I think they still deserve critique. They lend themselves to a romantic Christian interpretation that caricatures the Babylonian and Second-Temple periods as religiously less valid than the First–as a time when “prophecy had been stilled” and the Jewish people spent their time longing for a Messiah who would coincidentally be a lot like Jesus. In fact messianic hopes took many forms during this time and were just one strand of a lively and vigorous religious scene.

There’s a third, and still worse, interpretative possibility: one in which we are instead situated after the first coming of Christ. Here the text would be praying not for a romanticized future birth of a longed-for Messiah but essentially for the conversion of the perfidi Iudaei, the “faithless Jews,” as they were called in the old Roman liturgy for Good Friday. In other words, it would be portraying medieval (or modern) Jewish people as groaning in a kind of ongoing exile, “deprived of the Son of God,” because of their failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

I don’t think this third, and most offensive, interpretation is probably the original intent of the text. For one thing, the Latin version (unlike Neale’s adaptation) says not that Emmanuel “shall come” but that he “will be born”—so we are probably meant to be looking ahead to the first coming, not the second. Still, Neale’s version leaves that out; and regardless of intent, both Neale’s version and the Latin rhymed version can still pretty easily be read this way. Two millennia of supersessionist Christian tropes about Jewish people as groaning for the true Messiah are inevitably part of the background of how we hear this hymn.

And even if we bracket out that third interpretation, the first two (literal exile in Babylon; metaphorical “exile” in the second-Temple period) can still support a Christian stereotype of Judaism pre-Jesus as oriented entirely toward his arrival. At best they do nothing to combat that stereotype, and at worst they reinforce it.

Thinking about revisions

So we have an “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” problem. And Christians have become aware of that in recent years. I’m aware of two proposed rewrites, one by Philip Cunningham (see here, here, and here) and another by Barbara Lundblad (here). (The Episcopal “Christian-Jewish Relations” document specifically praises Lundblad’s.) I appreciate the spirit of both of these. As a singer and pastor, though, I have to admit I’m not fully satisfied with either, for two reasons.

One is that both abandon the syllabification of both Neale’s and the rhymed Latin text, adding extra syllables where those versions have melismas. It’s subtle, but it alters the congregational experience and makes the text fit the melody just that little bit less well. The second is that both abandon the connection with the original O Antiphons, opting instead to explore alternate christological imagery. They’re basically newly composed texts. This is too bad—because the O Antiphons themselves are not anti-Jewish!

Four of them (O Sapientia, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel) make no reference to Israel or the Jewish people. Three (O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David) use Old Testament imagery in ways that are more or less typological. They portray Jesus as living and active in the salvation history of Israel, but (at least in my view) they steer clear of dismissing that salvation history as irrelevant prologue, legalistic misery, or the like. Opinions will differ, but here I think we have genuine theological differences between Christian and Jewish readings of scripture that can be handled respectfully, rather than stereotyped Christian caricature of Jewish faith.

Let’s take a look at the O Antiphon in question: O Emmanuel. Here it is in Latin, then literal English:

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster, exspectatio gentium, et Salvator earum:
Veni ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our ruler and law-giver, the nations’ expectation and their Savior:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.

“Nations” here can also be translated as “Gentiles” (as also in the Song of Simeon: note Rite I’s “a light to lighten the Gentiles” vs. Rite II’s “a light to enlighten the nations”). Here let’s go with the more inclusive choice of “nations,” which connotes Jesus as a universal savior rather than a particular one (though the interfaith issues here might be more complex and interesting than meets the eye).

But look at what’s not here: anything about exile, or being deprived of the Son of God, or in fact anything about Israel at all! As Dan J-S also points out in his post, that content was wholly created by the rhymed Latin version, not by the original O Antiphon.

That being the case, what if we revised our current hymn not from whole cloth but with a targeted rewrite of that single verse based on the underlying Antiphon, plus the refrain? Perhaps something like

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
Thy people save and with us dwell
Who watch in expectation here
Until thy reign of love appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to us and with us dwell.

(Here my refrain is close to Cunningham’s, but with the word “ever” deleted to keep to eight syllables.)

I’m not a seasoned hymnwriter, and those who are may be able to improve on this. The principles I’d want to see are: (1) Stick with syllables; and (2) Stick with the O Antiphons.

What do you think?