Are Jews Blameworthy For the Death of Christ?

Title: Are Jews Blameworthy for the Death of Christ?

Text: Matthew 27:20-23, 24-26, Acts 2:14, 22-24

Time: April 1st, 2011

The current Pope, Benedict the XVI, recently released a book on Jesus that in one section attempts to explain the controversy surrounding who is to blame regarding the death of Christ. If you remember a few years ago when Mel Gibson produced a movie called The Passion of the Christ there was controversy surrounding his depiction of Jews. The film, which followed the literal accounts in the New Testament, showed Jews calling for the death of Christ. Contemporary Jewish groups were upset that the film put Jews in a negative light and feared it would unleash a new wave of anti-Semitism in modern society. Most upsetting to Jews was a scene in which the angry crowd called for Christ’s crucifixion before Pilate, saying, “May his blood be upon us and our children.” This scene was so controversial – although it is quoted literally from the Book of Matthew in the New Testament – that it had to be altered in the final cut of the move. The scene was left in but the sound of the angry crowd quoting the infamous line was muted. That just shows how intense the debate over the whole issue has become, even after two thousand years. So in order to build bridges with the Jewish community, the new Pope has written a new book explaining the controversy and attempting to clarify what the biblical passages really mean in context. His attempt is noble but unfortunately his conclusions are faulty, not because he hasn’t done his scholarly homework, but because he puts political correctness before the truth. He wants to bring about a peaceful coexistence with Jews worldwide, which in itself is a worthwhile goal for the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination. I think he also wants to show the world that he isn’t in any sense anti-Semitic, even though he served in the Nazi army under Hitler during World War II. To be fair, he was forced to fight against the Allies, it wasn’t his choice, and he took steps to get out of serving under Hitler’s forces. So we can see that he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think most people understand that, and don’t hold it against him. I believe him when he says he isn’t anti-Semitic. But because of his background and circumstances he just might be going too far to prove that he and Catholics love the Jews. His handling of the New Testament Gospel accounts therefore appears to bend over backwards to show there is no Jewish culpability, when in reality the accounts themselves paint a different picture. We need to explore what the Bible teaches first and foremost, and only then try to put the Jewish and Christian relationship in perspective – not the other way around. So today, during the Easter season, let’s examine some of the controversial passages in relationship to Christ’s trial and who is to blame for it.

First, there are passages that show the Jewish leadership establishment stirring up the crowd. Matthew 27:20-23, “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. ‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?’ asked the governor. ‘Barabbas,’ they answered. ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’ ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’” In Benedict’s book he rightly points out that it was the Temple establishment of Jewish leaders who instigated the crowd to join them in calling for the death of Jesus. And this is essentially correct. The New Testament Gospel accounts are very clear that from the very start to the finish, the Jewish leaders were against Jesus. Except for a few Jewish leaders, for example, the Pharisee Nicodemus, almost all leaders mentioned in the Gospels were against Jesus. In fact, while many Jewish leaders were divided amongst themselves on different issues, it seems that they all could agree that Jesus had to be stopped. Why? Because he wasn’t following their direction and agenda. All four Gospels describe this tension. So in asking the question, “Who is most responsible for the death of Jesus?” The answer must definitely be the Jewish establishment of that time. Some blame also could be directed at other leaders, not part of the Jerusalem establishment, but influential among Jews nonetheless – the leaders of the Zealots. Barabbas was certainly a Zealot, that is, a part of the group of Jews who fought for open insurrection against the Romans. At first, Zealots thought they might have a champion in Jesus for their cause, but they began to realize that Jesus wasn’t interested in overthrowing the Romans to achieve Jewish independence. Instead, Jesus was working to bring about spiritual salvation by preaching the Kingdom of Heaven and ultimately dying for the sins of the world. This wasn’t what the Zealots were after, so they began to turn against him. Their leaders might have also contributed in stirring up the crowd before Pilate in favor of releasing Barabbas and crucifying Jesus. So all of these factors lead the Pope to conclude that those who are solely to blame are the Jews in leadership positions in Israel at the time. The Jewish people as a whole cannot be blamed in any way, according to Benedict the XVI because, after all, how could Jewish leaders speak for all the Jews at the time, and especially how could they speak for all Jews for all time? At most, we might say that the Jewish crowd at the prompting of their leaders who called for Christ’s death are responsible also in a secondary way, but certainly not any Jew beyond that group, according to the Pope. Is this a good explanation? Does this solve the problem? Let’s look closer.

Second, there is one main passage that seems to place the blame for Christ’s death on Jews. Matthew 27:24-26, “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd: ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility.’ All the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” This is the most controversial passage in respect to Christ’s trial and crucifixion, because it seems to implicate Jews in the death of Christ. Was the crowd attempting to speak for all Jews for all time? To avoid that possibility the current Pope attempts to spiritualize the crowd’s response by trying to make it prophetic. In explaining, “Let his blood be on us and on our children,” Benedict says this shouldn’t be taken as a challenge to judgment but in the sense of forgiveness, because from our perspective we know now that Christ’s blood saves us from sin, it doesn’t condemn us for sin. Of course, the crowd of Jews at that time didn’t know that, so it must be that they spoke prophetically, like the high priest, “Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish!’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesed that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one,” John 11:49-52. Now that could possibly be the meaning of the verse in Matthew in a spiritual sense, but the context makes it pretty clear that the crowd was speaking in a different sense. Pilate had just washed his hands to release himself from any responsibility for the blood or death of Jesus and he turned to the Jewish crowd and said, “It’s your responsibility!” And their response was basically, “We are so sure that this man deserves death that we’ll take upon ourselves the responsibility for his death, and not only that, we put the responsibility on our children as well.” Now they felt pretty confident that Jesus deserved to die, they felt pretty sure of themselves in calling for his execution, so they underscored it by taking upon themselves and their children any blame or blood guilt for it – if it turned out to be unjust, which they were certain would never be. Little did they realize that they were crucifying the Savior Messiah. They made an awful and terrible mistake, but could they bring guilt upon their children for it, or worse, upon future generations of Jews? That’s the big question. There’s no question that this crowd took responsibility for Christ’s death, but does it end with them alone, does it apply to other Jews, their children, and future generations of Jews?

Third, there are some further passages that seem to place blame for Christ’s death on Jews as a whole. Acts 2:14, 22-24, “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain to you; listen carefully to what I say. . . . Men of Israel, listen to this; Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” This is the Apostle Peter speaking to a crowd gathered at Pentecost, Jews from far and wide, locals and foreigners. In this passage Peter seems to be lumping all Jews together and blaming them for rejecting and handing over Jesus the Messiah to death. He seems to put the blame on the Jews as a whole, even though he too was a Jew. In fact, all the early Christian believers were Jews, yet they blamed the Jews – or in other words, they blamed the Jewish establishment mainstream – for the death of Christ. The New Testament Christians constantly make statements like, “The Jews reject their Messiah,” or “The Jews put Jesus to death,” or “The Jews don’t believe Christ’s resurrection.” Now they knew as well as anyone that not literally all Jews rejected Jesus, because the early Christian church was made up of mostly all Jews. But early Christians used the phrase “the Jews” to represent the majority or mainstream Judaism. And this use of the word “Jew” still holds today. The mainstream or majority or Jewish establishment today still rejects Jesus as Messiah, still disbelieves in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, yet for political reasons doesn’t want to own up to the historical fact that it handed over Jesus to the Romans for death. We can recognize that Jews still reject Jesus as Messiah and still disbelieve in his resurrection, but should we still think of Jews today as in any sense guilty for the death of Christ two thousand years ago? And in answering it, I don’t think we should forget the fact that in the larger cosmic sense, everyone by virtue of the fact we are all sinners, is responsible for the death of Christ. He died for sinners, which we all are, no doubt. But the Jews today shouldn’t be held any more or any less responsible for Christ’s death than non-Jewish people today. What God will judge all people today for is whether they receive the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

The Jews today are not the only ones who reject Jesus Christ as Savior, plenty of non-Jews do that also – and they will all have to stand before God one day and give an account as to why they did so. But there is no doubt that Jews also will be judged today for their rejection of Jesus as a people. It’s sad that there is an entire race or ethnic group or religion that forms a major part of its identity in its rejection of Jesus as Savior. Now there are Jews who break with the mainstream and establishment Judaism and embrace Jesus as Messiah. For example, there is the organization Jews For Jews, which actively evangelizes in the Jewish community – which infuriates Jews, especially the orthodox, but JFJ isn’t exactly popular in any part of the Jewish community today. It’s sad that historic Judaism has made it a matter of tradition to reject Jesus as Messiah, to teach children to reject him as Savior, and to remain closed-minded towards a deeper understanding of just how Jesus might have been Messiah after all. This is something that Jews of all sorts will have to give account to God someday at the Judgment Day. But as far as blaming Jews living today for the death of Christ, that seems to me stretching things a bit. Didn’t the Jewish crowd speak for future Jews by saying, “Let his blood be upon us and our children?” I don’t think they were trying to speak for all Jews for all time. They were trying to underscore there insistence of handing over Jesus to death, so they brought in their own children, but I don’t think it can be taken to mean they were trying to speak for all Jews for all time. But even if they were, did they actually have the power to apply the blood of a condemned man to all Jews for all time? I don’t think so. I hope historic Judaism didn’t feel obligated to assume responsibility for Christ’s death because of the crowd of Jews at the trial of Jesus. Although historic Judaism does seem to assume that rejecting Jesus as Messiah is important to Jewish life. Historic Judaism does seem to look back to the Jews at the time of Christ and accept their historic decision as to rejecting Jesus as Messiah, so there does seem to be some importance to remaining loyal to that generation of Jews who made the historic decision to reject Christ. Would it be true then that for Jews who accept their ancestors’ decision to reject Jesus, then they would also be obligated to accept responsibility for their ancestor’s decision to put Jesus to death? That’s a good question. But I think it’s important today that Christians not blame Jews today, even though they remain closed-minded to Jesus as Messiah, for the death of Christ. They should be viewed as we view all people – everyone needs to repent and believe in Jesus, whether Jew or non-Jew.


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