For the next 40 or so days we will be in the season of Easter. As I write this, it is Easter Monday or the second day of Easter. The accounts in the four gospels of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are varied, complex and intriguing. What I find difficult with the accounts of the four evangelists has to do with the negative language directed toward Jews.
Did all of the Jews really hate Jesus? Did they crucify Jesus? If they didn’t, who did? Why is there such negativity especially in the Gospel of John? Why is there such a long history of anti-Semitism in the world that persists today? Is it from the gospels?
First of all, Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died as a Jew. He never changed his religion, nor started a new one. Additionally, all of the apostles remained Jews. From Acts 3, we know that Peter continued to pray at the temple. A good portion of the early church remained Jewish and this was precisely the source of the controversy that Paul and the early church faced when gentiles were converted. Were gentiles to follow all or some of the Jewish laws or was there now a completely new standard? Paul’s letters are filled with these discussions and disputes over these questions regarding dietary laws, marriage and circumcision for gentiles who were joining Christian/Jewish communities.
Jesus was killed on a cross. Jews did not kill people on crosses, Romans did. If Jesus was either thrown off of the cliff in Nazareth in Luke 4:30 or if he was stoned to death in the temple in John 8:59, then he would have been killed by his Jewish brothers. He, however, was crucified and many people in Jesus’ day were crucified. It was a form of horrible torture and death used by the Romans to keep their subjects in fear. If you went against imperial authority, you could suffer the same fate was their message.
How about all those people who said, “Crucify him” in the gospels (Luke 23:21, Mark 15:13)? If we actually think that Pilate would be cowed by the Jewish crowd, we don’t understand Pilate or the Romans. During 70AD, Roman armies came in to bring an end to factions that were rebelling and they leveled Jerusalem and destroyed the temple for the last time. We just have to read between the lines in the gospels when Pilate mocks the Jewish people, by stating Jesus is the King of the Jews. For Pilate, he is revealing not only his contempt for Jesus but his contempt for the Jews by stating this man who is being so savagely treated by the Roman soldiers and disgraced is their king.
Why is it then that the gospels can be read in a way that is so anti-Jewish? One reason would be that the gospels were written at different times between 60 AD and 110 AD, give or take a decade. During this time there was a growing split between the Jewish community and the community that believed in Jesus as the Messiah.
Additionally the early Christian communities, thanks to the ministry of Paul, were becoming filled with those who had a gentile background rather than a Jewish one. After the destruction of the temple and the death of a good portion of the Jews in Jerusalem, the surviving Jewish communities thought that they were being punished by God for their laxity. All groups that were a little different, like those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, were shunned. In calamity we do not become more open, we close down. There developed an ever-widening gap and greater animosity between the two communities.
Additionally, Christians were trying to curry favor with the Roman authorities, so by blaming Jews for the death of Jesus and not the Romans, who put people on crosses, they were trying to keep their relationship with the Romans on the best possible terms.
Therefore, Pilate (Luke 23) is seen as advocating for Jesus. He tries to save Jesus’ life by offering the crowd Jesus instead of Barabbas for a person to release. It is unlikely that Pilate would release any prisoner, especially a revolutionary nor show Jesus any favor. Initially, Christianity was a sect of Judaism, so for the Romans there was no difference. As Christians became known as a separate religion, the Romans looked at them with suspicion. The early church was in a precarious position, since the Romans did not know how to size them up. Romans favored ancient religions and discouraged new ones, since this caused instability.
Christians wanted to assure the Romans that they could be good subjects and would not cause problems, other than not offer worship to the Roman gods and the emperor. The gospel writer of Luke tends to be put more blame on the Jewish leaders rather than the Roman authorities, which is greatly influenced by the growing animosity between Jews and the current Christian community fueled by the aftermath of the destruction of the temple and the desire to not rock the boat with the Roman authority.
So why was Jesus killed by the Romans? He caused problems. He made scenes in the temple. The people (maybe not some of the Jewish leaders) seemed to like him. He taught with authority. He performed miracles. He was seen as a leader and a threat.
Additionally, this happened during the Passover when there were many Jews in Jerusalem. It was the perfect time for a revolt, since during Passover the Jews remember their liberation from Egypt. The Romans misperceived Jesus as a political revolutionary and they wished to take care of the problem before it got out of control.
Additionally there were many other pseudo-messiahs or revolutionaries who attempted to lead a revolt against the Romans following the example of Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees) who drove out the Greeks for a period of time. The Romans thought Jesus was one of these revolutionaries and he suffered the same fate.
Obviously the Jewish leaders had issues with Jesus, but there were many sects of Judaism who held various opinions and did not get along with one another. In Jesus’ day, there were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. Terms like, “His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25) have deeply impacted Christian treatment of all Jews throughout the centuries. 1492 is not just the time when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, it is also the year that Saints Ferdinand and Isabella drove out all Jews (and Muslims) from Spain, either by expelling them, forcing them to convert, or killing them.
To think that the holocaust was not caused by Christian hatred for Jews would be ridiculous. It was only since 1960 that Catholics stopped praying on Good Friday that the “perfidious (or faithless) Jews” would convert to Christianity. We have a long history of violence and injustice against the Jewish people.
We all need to be reminded often that these texts were written by imperfect men who lived in a particular time and were affected by their time and their experience. The gospels are not ahistorical but are very historical with the faults and prejudices of their writers included.
The early and developing Christian church had issues about which rules to follow and how it was in union or disunion with the Jewish community. The disturbing language in the gospels reveals these tensions between the two communities that were present then that had not necessarily developed during the time of Jesus.
We as Christians can only feel great shame for the suffering that our ancestors in the faith inflicted upon the Jewish people that may have been fueled by the words from the stories of the death of Jesus, the King of the Jews and the Prince of peace.
Rev. Dinsdale is the priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.