On Fostering Friendly Jewish-Christian Relations: Who Killed Jesus of Nazareth? Part I

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Symbols of Holy Week

Introduction to Anti-Semitism

Who killed Jesus Christ? By “killed” is meant a political act, an event in secular history, which was “carried out” by public authorities, around 33 C. E. Hence, the reference to the death of Jesus in non-religious history in the Nicene Creed, which is “crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate,” and the Apostles’ Creed, namely, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” It is true that under the Torah or Law of Moses, the Jewish community could enforce the death penalty for, say, blasphemers (cf. Leviticus 24:16). However, the Jews of the first century C. E. lived under the Roman government and, in Roman law, only the governor could give the order to execute a criminal, whether Jew or Gentile.1

Anti-Semitic persons, being racists, believing that Jews are inferior or sub-human, justify hatred by blaming them for the death of Jesus Christ. One such anti-Semitic slur is to call them “Christ-killers.”2 That kind of language incites anger and hatred, resulting in the persecution and death of the Jews.

Anti-Semitic Interpretations of New Testament Texts

First Passage: Matthew 27:24-25

Those who are anti-Semitic use selected passages in the New Testaments to justify their hatred of Jews. For example, Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea, wanted to release Jesus, claiming that he was innocent of a capital crime, one which deserved death. Then Pilate washed his hands, disclaiming any responsibility for Jesus’ death, saying, “‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (Matthew 27:24b, NIV). But “All the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children’” (Matthew 26:25, NIV).

There are, in general, two interpretations of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus. The first is the anti-Semitic, collective guilt interpretation. Collective guilt is, essentially, “guilt by association.” In other words, the entire Jewish race, all Jews, from the time of Jesus to today, although not directly related to consenting to his crucifixion, are responsible for it. The problem with that interpretation is Matthew himself is a Jew and his Gospel is the most Jewish of the Four Gospels. Matthew, in effect, would be making an anti-Semitic remark, including himself, that is, condemning himself for being a Jew. Not only that, but he would also be condemning the apostles for being Jews, which makes little sense.3

The second interpretation, which makes more sense than the first, is that the leaders or authorities of Jesus’ day, and the crowd following them, are directly responsible for his death. Biblical scholar John L. McKenzie observes, “Jews and the Roman authorities both collaborate in the execution of Jesus.”4 The Jewish authorities brought legal charges against Jesus and the Gentiles, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, carried out the penalty for the charges, which was death by crucifixion.5 The real issue, then, in the death of Jesus is not about the race of those who consented to his crucifixion. Rather, it is about the individuals, the particular leaders and those in the crowd, directly responsible for participating in it. Therefore. Matthew 26:25 should not be used as a “proof-text” to condemn all Jews for the death of Jesus.

Second Passage: Matthew 27:22

Another interpretive error in reading the Gospels (e.g., Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is to understand the phrase “the Jews” as a sweeping condemnation of all Jewish people. The term is used repeatedly, for example, in the context of the passion and death of Jesus in John, Chapters 18-19.6. However, the term “the Jews” “does not univocally describe a national grouping hostile to Jesus,” because, for instance, many of “the Jews,” says St. John, put their faith in Jesus (cf. John 12:11).7

“The Jews,” then, in consenting to the crucifixion of Jesus, are to be understood as a group, not the entire Jewish people.8 Thus, when the crowd says, “Crucify him” (Matthew 27:22b, NIV), that should not be understood as every Jew in the first century C. E. Think about that for a moment. Did all the Jews in Jerusalem say that? Of course not! Certainly, Mary, a Jew and the mother of Jesus, did it say that; nor did Mary Magdalene; nor did any of the other Jewish female disciples. It is equally certain that John, a Jew and the Beloved Disciple of Jesus, would not have said “Crucify him;” nor would Jesus’ other Jewish male disciples and apostles say that.9

I will be working on Part II of the series during Holy Week.

Endnotes

  1. Louis Goldberg, Our Jewish Friends (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), p. 138.
  2. Ibid., p. 137, note 2.
  3. D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositors’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1984), p. 571.
  4. John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, et al. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). The edition from which I am quoting is the one book in two volumes, Vol. II, p. 112.
  5. Ibid.
  6. For the term or phrase “the Jews,” cf. John 18:12, 14, 20, 31, 33, 36, 38, 39; 19:3, 7, 12, 14, 19, 20, 21 (three times), 31, 38 , 40.
  7. James McPolin, New Testament Message, a Biblical and Theological Commentary, Vol. 6: John, eds. Wilfrid Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE.: Michael Glazier, 1979, 2nd reprint 1982, p. 251.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Louis Goldberg, Our Jewish Friends, op. cit., p. 138.

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