You probably won’t find many Jews conceding the point that, biblically speaking, Jewish leaders were complicit in the death of Jesus. In fact, given the history of this topic—with the Christ-killer charge having helped provide the justification and fuel for European anti-Semitism—it’s no surprise that it is nearly impossible to have a constructive interfaith conversation about the Crucifixion.
This is already evident in the reaction to Mel Gibson’s new movie, The Passion. Not due out until next year, it’s so far stirred up much emotion but disappointingly little productive discussion. One example: Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized the film because it “unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus.”
The problem with the tone of his statement is that, as best we can tell, Jews did kill Jesus. Or, more precisely, according to the four Gospels of the New Testament, Jews prodded the Romans into doing it. Mr. Foxman might as well have said that The Passion “unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob just like the Bible does.”
In the interest of disrupting the already-off-on-the-wrong-foot public discussion of Gibson’s movie—and with curiosity about whether I can alienate both my Christian and Jewish relatives in one article—I propose the following:
1) Jews should admit that some of their forefathers probably helped get Jesus killed. The four Gospels say Jewish priests demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. For me, the most interesting account is the Gospel of Mark. Scholars now believe that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and possibly John, were based in part on Mark or on the same source that Mark used. Mark’s Gospel is thought to have been written before the others, circa A.D. 70, * and, perhaps because it was written within a generation after Jesus’ death, is widely considered freer of ahistorical embellishments. Yet Mark clearly says:
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barab’bas instead.And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?”And they cried out again, “Crucify him.”And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” Chapter 15: 11-15
In Luke, Matthew, and John, Jewish leaders look even worse.
To say that films should not be made depicting an important Jewish role in the death of Jesus is to say that films should not be made based on the Bible. The idea that influential Jews wanted Jesus killed is not a distortion of Christianity; it is, for better or worse, an accurate depiction of the New Testament.
What’s more, one of the only non-biblical discussions of Jesus’ life, from the Jewish historian Josephus, also indicates that at least some important Jewish authorities wanted Jesus convicted. In Jewish Antiquities, he writes that Pilate condemned Jesus “upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us.”
2) There is a strong possibility that the Bible itself, in effect, distorted the history of the “Jewish” role. In other words, the argument from Mel Gibson and his defenders that his movie can’t possibly be insensitive because it is based on the Bible ignores the probability that the New Testament itself may have offered inaccurate history.
This is, of course, a sensitive topic, too. For those who believe the Bible was not only inspired, but also fact-checked by God, the document is simply true. The debates of Bible scholars are just noise to them.
But the evidence is compelling that the New Testament either gave “the Jews” a bum rap or, at minimum, was written in a way that left it highly susceptible to misuse. If, as most scholars believe, Mark is the source for Matthew and Luke, the authors of those later Gospels sure seemed to add a lot of new, incriminating detail mysteriously missing from Mark, fueling the notion of Jews as Christ-killers.
Matthew adds the chilling line from the Jewish mob, “His blood be on us and on our children!” But perhaps the most distressing addition to the Mark account is found in John. It is the single word “the.” John shifts from talking about specific Jewish leaders and individual people to using the broad term: “the Jews.” He uses this formulation repeatedly and devastatingly. Did he mean to implicate the race of Jews?
It depends on what the meaning of the word “the” is.
Some scholars argue that he was merely using a shorthand for a specific group of priests and didn’t intend to implicate Jews as a group. Not likely, argues the late Rev. Raymond Brown, a respected right-of-center scholar who has defended the Passion narratives. He writes that John’s vituperative anti-Judaism likely flowed not so much from the events of the Crucifixion—i.e., what actually happened to Jesus—but rather from what happened to Jesus’ followers in the subsequent decade. The first Christians were persecuted, harassed, and questioned by the synagogue authorities, leading to bitterness on the part of Gospel writers. John really was “anti-Jewish in a qualified sense,” Brown writes in An Introduction to the Gospel of John. “Uncomfortable as that may make modern readers because of the horrible history of anti-Jewish persecution in subsequent centuries, it is what John meant.”
In arguing that the biblical accounts shouldn’t be taken as history, liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan focuses on details found in Luke, Matthew, and John that are not found in the source document, Mark.
Watch what happens to that Markan source as the story progresses through the later Gospels. Matthew 27:15-26 first copies Mark’s ‘the crowd’ but then enlarges it to ‘the crowds’ and finally to ‘all the people.’ Luke 23:13-15 changes Mark to ‘the chief priests, the leaders, and the people.’ Finally, John 18:37-40 speaks simply of ‘the Jews.’ Recall, of course, that those expansions do not represent independent knowledge but dependent development. ‘The crowd,’ in other words, grows exponentially before our eyes.
The Jewish leaders of the time may not have had entirely clean hands, but, at least in terms of historical accuracy, neither did the writers of the Gospels.
It’s totally understandable that the Gospels’ authors might have spun the narrative in certain ways. They were defending themselves against a two-front attack: Jewish authorities on one side and Roman authorities on the other. It would have been impossible for them to conceive of Christianity one day as the official religion of the Roman Empire—let alone imagining that their indictment of a particular group of Jews would be used to justify persecution of Jews as a race. Perhaps the writer of Matthew, were he alive today, would be appalled that his line about blood being “on us and on our children” could lead to anti-Semitism. But it did.
Frankly, Christians who don’t understand Jews’ sensitivity to the misuse of Passion narratives are being a bit dense. And while I haven’t seen Gibson’s movie, some of the comments from his supporters have sure smelled rotten. This is not, after all, ancient history. It wasn’t until 1965—not 1465!—that the Catholic Church officially got around to declaring that the entire Jewish race shouldn’t be held guilty of deicide. Jews can be forgiven if they have trouble keeping down their popcorn while watching Passion plays.
3) Christians who remain bitter about the Jewish role in Jesus’ death are being transparently un-Christian. And I don’t mean merely in the sense that Jesus taught forgiveness, or that it’s not nice to promote genocide, no matter how angry you might be. Rather, my evangelical friends are always reminding me that non-believers (and liberal Protestants) miss the point of Christianity by focusing on only Jesus’ moral teachings, as if he were just a really dynamic ethics professor. The point, or at least one of the main points, of the religion is that Jesus died for humanity’s sins. The symbol of the religion is the cross, not a Good Samaritan icon, because the Crucifixion and subsequent resurrection were what proved his divinity and redeemed humankind. Most Christians believe that many of Christianity’s blessings flow from the fact that he was crucified.
I recognize that just because the story had a theological happy ending doesn’t mean that the Crucifixion was anything other than horrific. (Jews probably should not go around saying, “Yeah we killed Jesus—and you’re welcome.”) And there is an enormous amount of debate within Christianity about the meaning of Jesus’ death—many modern scholars disagree with the emphasis on the Passion and Resurrection. For a lot of Christians, the answer to the question “Who killed Jesus?” is “God did”—or “we all did,” the abundance of sinful human behavior having made his sacrifice necessary.
The complexity of that debate notwithstanding, it is clear that the Crucifixion and Resurrection are central to the faith. While the Crucifixion in itself wasn’t a good thing, it was, according to much Christian doctrine, an entirely necessary and pre-ordained thing. Without it, Christianity as we know it wouldn’t exist.
So, really the answer to the question “Who killed Jesus?” should be: Who cares? Theologically, the answer is irrelevant, which means Christians can stop blaming Jews and Jews can stop being defensive. And people of both faiths can get back to disagreeing about more important things like whether you get more presents at Hanukkah or Christmas.