Early in the Passover Seder, just as we’re getting started on the story of our deliverance from Egypt, we pause, raise the cup and recite, “In every generation there are those who rise up against us and seek to destroy us. But the Holy One, blessed be he, saves us from their hands.” It’s a bitter irony that in many generations those who sought to destroy us were our Christian neighbors. They were in the middle of their observance of the death and resurrection of the (Jewish) Messiah, or the Passion of Christ, as they called it. They heard the Passion story in a way that made all the Jews, down to the last individual, guilty of murdering the Son of God. As a result, the Passover-Easter season was often the worst time of persecution for the Jewish people.
Plenty of historians and religious critics claim that this charge of killing the Messiah is based on the New Testament itself, but is that true?
A brand new book by James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword (a brilliant study of the history of anti-Semitism in Christendom), puts it this way:
Indeed, in the story of Jesus’ death as given in Mark and subsequent Gospels, the cruel Pilate is portrayed benignly, a perversion of historical fact . . . . The Gospel texts did this, first, for the straightforward reason that vulnerable Christians, simply to survive, had to insist that they were not Rome’s enemy. (Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited our Modern World. P. 85.)
Carroll is repeating a widespread criticism that the Gospels portray the Jews as the villains in the story of Yeshua’s suffering, and let the Romans off the hook. The critics go on to claim that only Rome, and not the Jewish people, had the power to put someone to death in the days of Yeshua, so the Gospels are not only anti-Jewish, but also historically inaccurate. I’ll admit that a superficial reading of the Gospels, especially by someone who is unsympathetic or ignorant about Jews, can lead one to think that Jews are uniquely to blame for the death of Jesus. One classic text is Matthew 27:24-25, which pictures “the Jews” pressuring Pilate to condemn Jesus.
So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
This statement has historically been interpreted as bringing a curse, or at least corporate guilt, upon the whole Jewish people, which has led to the sort of persecution that the Haggadah speaks of, forgetting that Yeshua asked for all his persecutors to be forgiven (Luke 23:34).
But what about Pilate’s protestation of innocence? Does Matthew intend it to be taken at face value, or does he portray Pilate’s hand-washing ironically as evidence of his corrupt and hypocritical leadership? S Pilate washes his hands in front of the Jewish crowd; does that absolve him of responsibility for an execution that only he could authorize? The Gospels all note that Yeshua is executed with the accusation posted above his head, “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). This is a Roman charge, not a Jewish one. If the Gospels are trying to whitewash Rome, or if they are playing fast and loose with the historical facts, why do they all record this Roman verdict against Yeshua? Furthermore, the Gospels make it clear that only the Romans have the power to exercise capital punishment (Luke 23:13-24; John 18:31-32), so the Jewish leaders have to go to the Gentiles in charge to accomplish their goal.
Imagine reading a news story about a court sentencing an innocent man to death. The judge and jury know he is innocent, but feel so much pressure from a powerful special interest group that they sentence him to death anyway. Later, the governor studies the case, determines that the man is innocent, but says that if he commutes the death sentence, this special interest group might start a riot. Or perhaps the pressure is not from a special interest group, but from the majority of voters in the state—that wouldn’t change the moral equation. The innocent man dies. Would we say that the guilt of the government is any less because they were just going along with majority opinion? Would we consider the government, which alone has the authority to execute the man, to be less responsible than those that pressured the government to do so?
Furthermore, the Gospels portray Pilate as a ruthless and cynical man. Luke (13:1) mentions some Jews “who told [Yeshua] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” In John’s account, Yeshua tells Pilate, “‘For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’ Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’…” (18:37-38). Truth is irrelevant to Pilate; he recognizes Yeshua’s innocence, but is willing to sacrifice him, and truth itself, for the sake of political convenience.
The death of Messiah requires collusion between corrupt Jewish and Roman leadership. The book of Acts paints the same picture, starting with Peter’s Shavuot sermon, which reaches a climax with these words:
This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. (Acts 2:23)
This picture of a Jewish-Roman conspiracy appears in other passages in Acts, like 4:24-28:
[The apostles] raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord . . . it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant [in Psalm 2]: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
When the apostles reference Psalm 2 here, they’re implying that the Jewish and Roman perpetrators represent Israel and the Gentiles, that is, the whole human race. They reinforce this by referring to “Herod and Pontius Pilate”—Herod the Jewish ruler (albeit marginally Jewish), and Pilate the Gentile—and by the parallel phrase, “with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel.” Psalm 2 is concerned with kingship. God is installing his anointed king (or King Messiah) “on Zion, My holy mountain” (vs. 6, NJPS), and he is opposed by the kings of this world. The Gospels portray Yeshua as the anointed king, presented by God to be installed in Zion, but rejected by both Jewish and Roman governmental authorities, and executed under the Roman charge “King of the Jews.” On a human level, both Jews and Romans are responsible for this death, those Jews and Romans “gathered together” in collusion with Herod and Pilate. The apostles, however, take this further to include all humanity. All who have sinned—all of humankind—share responsibility for the death of Messiah.
When the apostles go out beyond Jerusalem, they modify the emphasis on joint Jewish-Roman responsibility. In Acts 13, Paul is preaching in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, to a congregation of Jews (“Israelites” in v. 16; “My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family” in v. 26) and Gentile adherents (“and others who fear God” in v. 16 and v. 26). He says,
Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. (13:27-28)
Note that Paul isn’t saying “you” when describing Jewish culpability for the death of Yeshua to these Jews, but “they.” You Jews did not condemn Yeshua, but those Jews, who actually appeared before Pilate in Jerusalem. The point is that the specific Jews who participated in the death of Yeshua are guilty, not the Jewish people as a whole. The telling of the Passion story throughout history, however, has tended to ascribe guilt to the entire Jewish people, including the Jewish neighbors of those hearing the story, fueling anti-Semitism in every generation.
The Jewish people are not corporately guilty for killing Messiah, God forbid. But the Gospel has a unique bearing upon the Jewish people because of our corporate “No” to Yeshua. As John writes, “He came to his own and his own did not receive him” (1:11). When a Jew does receive Yeshua—and remains loyal and identified with the Jewish people—he adds to a Jewish “Yes” to Messiah that reverses the Jewish “No.” And the fulfillment of this age awaits a Jewish corporate “Yes,” as Yeshua said when he looked out over Jerusalem just before his final Passover: “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’” (Matt. 23:39).
I’ll continue this discussion in my next blog with a look at Paul’s response to the question of Jewish corporate guilt. All Scripture references are NRSV unless otherwise noted.