Did the Jews Kill Jesus?

Last week, Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, circulated an Easter commentary stating in part that “Christ was crucified by the Jews.” Weyrich said the Jews wanted a “temporal ruler” to save them from the Roman authorities but instead were confronted with a “spiritual ruler,” whom they “considered … a threat.” For that reason, Weyrich concluded, Jesus “was put to death.” Meanwhile, the New York Times Magazine featured an article in which New York Knicks point guard Charlie Ward was quoted as telling a Jewish reporter, “Jews are stubborn. … But tell me, why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn’t want to accept? … They had his blood on their hands.” When pressed to defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism, Ward told reporters, “If you want to read abut it, it’s in the Book of John or any of the Gospels. I’m just the messenger.”

Are Ward and Weyrich right? They do have textual support from the Gospels. In the Gospel of John, the phrase “the Jews” is used at least nine times to denote those who encouraged and assisted in Jesus’ execution. In the Book of Matthew (27: 25-26) the Jews accept responsibility for the execution. When the Roman governor Pontius Pilate hesitates over deciding Jesus’ fate, the Jews assembled before Pilate demand that Jesus be crucified, proclaiming “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

But are the Gospels accurate? Recent biblical scholarship has challenged them in light of the context in which they were composed. Most scholars agree that the Gospels were written some 40 to 70 years after the crucifixion (which occurred around 30 C.E.). At that time, the nascent Christian sect was trying to distinguish itself from its Jewish roots for two reasons. First, the Christians wanted to attract gentile converts. Second, because the Jews were rebelling against the Romans, a repudiation of Christian kinship with the Jews could be politically advantageous. It is for these reasons, the scholars argue, that the Gospels 1) assign primary blame to the Jews, not the Romans; and 2) sympathetically portray Pilate, who is described in other ancient texts as a cruel despot. Additionally, many scholars have stressed Jesus’ identity as a political subversive, which would explain why the Romans chose a means of execution, crucifixion, usually reserved for insurrectionists.

The small clique of Jewish authorities who were in league with the Romans does share responsibility for killing Jesus. But these authorities were distinct from the majority of the Jewish people, who had rallied around the charismatic figure. Thus some scholars have advocated substituting the terms “the authorities” or “the Temple leaders” for the collective term “the Jews” in the Gospels. Some Christian theologians have also stressed the importance of passages that can be interpreted to suggest that God himself arranged for Jesus’ death as atonement for humanity’s sins. From this perspective, dwelling on which temporal agent was responsible for Jesus’ death diverts attention from God’s design.

Several Christian denominations have denounced the claim that the Jews killed Christ. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the Nostra Autate statement, which declare that “what happened in His [Jesus’] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” In 1964, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church declared, “We reject the charge of deicide against the Jews and condemn antisemitism.” Other denominations, including the Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Alliance of Baptists, while not explicitly addressing the charge of deicide, have issued statements regretting “interpreting our sacred writings in such a way that we have created enemies of the Jewish people.”

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