A few months back, news commentator Bill O’Reilly appeared on “The View”, a day-time TV show, and raised a ruckus by claiming that “Muslims” committed the 9/11 terror attack. Two of his hosts on the show walked offstage in protest, and O’Reilly later clarified that he meant that some specific Muslims, not all Muslims generically, were behind the attack. The same kind of distinction is also needed, and often lost, in discussions of the death of Messiah. Some critics claim that the New Testament is the prime source of anti-Semitism, because of its (supposed) charge that “the Jews” killed the Messiah, implicating all Jews everywhere and in every time. Part 1 of this blog answers this criticism in reference to the Gospels and Acts, but what about the letters of Paul?
I showed in my first blog that the Gospels and Acts describe a Jewish-Gentile collusion in the death of Messiah. There isn’t a unique corporate Jewish guilt, but the crucifixion is the verdict of humankind as a whole against Yeshua. This picture is borne out in Paul’s letters. For example, in Romans, which we’ll look at in more depth below, Paul says a lot about the Jewish people and our need for repentance and faith in Messiah Yeshua, but nothing about Jewish complicity in his death. Indeed, a quick scan of Paul’s letters reveals only two references to the question of who killed Yeshua. In 1 Corinthians 2:8, Paul says that the “rulers” or “princes of this world” in their ignorance “crucified the Lord of glory”—clearly going beyond specific Jewish complicity to place the death of Messiah at the feet of the whole corrupt world system.
The only passage in Paul’s writings that seems at first to be difficult for our position is 1 Thessalonians, 2:14-15.
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men…
This is the NKJV translation, and it already begins to solve our problem by translating the Greek ioudaioi as “Judeans” rather than “Jews.” Either English word would correspond to the Greek (and in fact, earlier versions of the NKJV translate the word as “Jews” rather than “Judeans”), but the context favors “Judeans.” Paul is telling the Thessalonians that they suffered from their countrymen in Thessalonica (who were also Thessalonians) just as the “churches” in Judea suffered from their countrymen inJudea (who were also Judeans). These Judeans who persecuted the Judean believers also killed Yeshua and their own prophets.
So the NKJV correctly translates ioudaioi as Judeans, but then incorrectly places a comma after the word, as do most translations. (The Greek original isn’t punctuated at all.) David Stern says that the comma in this position makes “the predicate ‘who killed the Lord Jesus,’ apply to all Jews. Without a comma, it reads, ‘the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,’ so that the predicate specifies which particular Jews (or Judeans) are meant, namely, those who killed him, as opposed to those who didn’t (Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 618).
This is pretty technical, but it means that 1 Thessalonians correctly understood isn’t blaming all Jews for the death of Messiah, but comparing the suffering of the Thessalonian believers at the hand of Thessalonians with the suffering of Judean believers at the hand of Judeans who were the same ones who killed Yeshua.
So Paul’s two direct answers to the question of who killed Messiah don’t fuel anti-Semitism if they’re properly interpreted. And his real attitude toward the Jewish people is evident in the book of Romans. There, for example, just as in Acts, Paul speaks of the Jewish people as his brothers, and this is after the crucifixion and resurrection, and after it’s become apparent that most Jews aren’t going to recognize Yeshua as Messiah any time soon. I’m making this comparison between Paul in Acts and Paul as the author of Romans because some critics say that these two Pauls don’t jibe, that Acts is a later picture that misrepresents the historical Paul. What’s ironic is that such critics are trying to prove that Acts and the Gospels, which were written down later than Paul’s letters, are more anti-Jewish than Paul is. But then they’ll also argue that the “real” Paul, that is, the one who wrote the letters, wouldn’t do all the Jewish things that the Paul of Acts did, like worshiping in the temple, upholding Torah (both in Acts 21), keeping a Jewish vow (in Acts 18), calling the Jews his brothers (in several places), and so on. It gets pretty confusing and I’m happy with the idea that both Acts and Romans are accurate, historical, and portray exactly the same Paul, who says that he could wish himself “actually under God’s curse and separated from the Messiah, if it would help my brothers, my own flesh and blood, the people of Isra’el!” (Rom.9:3–4, CJB).
A few verses earlier in Romans, Paul gives a hint that has profound implications for the question “who killed Messiah?” He writes, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare even his own Son, but gave him up on behalf of us all—is it possible that, having given us his Son, he would not give us everything else too?” (8:31-32, CJB). To someone steeped in the Torah like Paul was, the phrase, “did not spare his own Son,” would evoke one of the most memorable stories in Genesis, the binding of Isaac. There, Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac as the Lord had commanded, when the Angel of the Lord stops him, saying “for now I know that you are a man who fears God, because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). Abraham does not withhold or spare his son, Isaac, and God does not withhold or spare his Son, Messiah.
This linkage might sound like a stretch, but for a couple of facts. First, the terminology of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was widely used in the Jewish world of Paul’s day, is almost identical in both verses. Paul says, “He who did not spare [ouk epheisato] his own Son.…” Genesis says, in the Greek Septuagint, “you did not spare [ouk epheiso] your beloved son.…” Second, the binding of Isaac was already one of the key biblical narratives in the Jewish imagination of Paul’s day, in part because of its promise of deliverance to the faithful—even in the face of death. New Testament scholar Richard Hays summarizes the connection between these texts, saying it is “too rich to be fortuitous.”
Abraham did not spare his son Isaac but bound him to the altar, only to receive him back through God’s intervention. God did not spare his son Jesus but offered him up to death for the world, then vindicated him through the resurrection. (Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, p. 62)
So, whoever was humanly responsible for the death of Messiah, the far more important point is that God himself offered up his Son on behalf of the world. Yeshua says the same thing: “This is why the Father loves me: because I lay down my life—in order to take it up again! No one takes it away from me; on the contrary, I lay it down of my own free will” (John 10:17–18, CJB). In a striking parallel, as Jews retold the story of the binding of Isaac over the centuries, the focus expanded to include not only the faithful obedience of Abraham the father, but also the faithful obedience of Isaac the son, who willingly presented himself for sacrifice.
There’s one more parallel in Romans that ties this whole discussion together. In 11:21, Paul tells the Gentiles, “If God did not spare [ouk epheisato] the natural branches [the Jewish people], neither will he spare you [Gentiles].” God has a purpose behind the current rejection of Yeshua by the Jewish majority, and it’s not a curse for supposedly killing Messiah, but a hardening in part and for a time, “until the Gentile world enters in its fullness” (Rom. 11:25). In my last blog I wrote that the fulfillment of this age awaits the corporate Jewish “Yes” that Yeshua describes to Jerusalem: “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). Paul is saying something very similar in Romans:
Abraham did not spare his son Isaac but bound him to the altar, only to receive him back through God’s intervention. God did not spare his son Jesus but offered him up to death for the world, then vindicated him through the resurrection. God did not spare his people Israel but broke them off like branches for the sake of the Gentiles; surely that is not the end of the story, “for if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?” (Rom.11:15). (Hays, ibid.)
Passover is the season of redemption and resurrection. As we remember the death of Messiah during this season, we need to look beyond that to his resurrection and to the great resurrection that lies ahead, for Israel and the nations.