Jews for Jesus asks,
"Who is Guilty for the Death of Christ?"
To say that the crucifixion of Jesus as depicted in passion
plays has been bad for the Jews is more than a gross understatement.
These plays, which in years past often cast our people as devils with
horns and as sinister characters, have given rise to accusations that
we were not only collectively responsible for the death of Christ,
but we killed Christian babies, we poisoned wells, we spread the Black
Plague and so on. It is no wonder then that Mel Gibson's film, The
Passion of the Christ, which depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus'
life, has elecited strong, defensive reactions from some:
When Hitler walked out [of a passion play] in 1934, he declared
that "the whole world over should see... this Passion play, then
they will understand why I despise the Jews and why they deserve
to die." (see note 1 below)
This hitlerism from the 1930s was cited by Anti-Defamation League
director Abraham Foxman as evidence of the dangers associated with
depicting the death of Christ. Referring to the release of Mel Gibson's
movie, Foxman warned that passion plays reinforce the notion of collective
Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus and encourage anti-Semitic acts.
Anti-missionary Tovia Singer concurs, saying that the actor/producer
"could save the world much unneeded misery by visiting Poland, the
world's largest Jewish cemetery, before releasing his film. There
he will discover why those who have a long memory are now pleading
with him to reconsider his theological venture. He should take a long,
hard stare at Auschwitz. It's a startling mass grave that bears witness
to the bitter consequences that emerge when a religion is transmitted
He goes on to say, "... with violent outbursts of anti-Semitism
on the rise in cities throughout Europe, and the blood of Jewish children
pouring down the streets of Jerusalem, this is not the ideal moment
to announce to moviegoers that the Jews [killed Jesus]."
Thousands of articles have been written about this controversial
film that is based on the New Testament record. Numerous pre-release
screenings have been held, inviting concerned parties to work through
some of the controversy. Jewish, Protestant and Catholic leaders alike
have offered their take on the question of how Jewish people are portrayed
in the film.
But is this the real question to be asking? Singer's quote raises
the age-old question, "Are Jews culpable for the death of Jesus?"
Most Jewish and contemporary Christian leaders have denied any collective
guilt on the part of Jews for this. Jewish leaders point out that
the Romans were in charge at the time, so they bear the responsibility.
Nevertheless, as Abraham Foxman rightly points out, there are increased
acts of anti-Semitism fomented at Easter, linked to the notion that
a whole class of people bears the guilt and responsibility for the
death of Jesus and that this guilt has passed on from generation to
What do we mean by collective guilt?
The concept of collective guilt pervades both history and current
events. In pre-Soviet Russia, the Bolsheviks threw bombs into crowded
restaurants on the assumption that only capitalists had enough money
to eat in such places. Anyone harmed by the bombs was assumed to be
a capitalist and therefore an oppressor of the masses. To them "capitalist"
and "oppressor" were synonymous; there were no innocent capitalists.
The terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon did not for a moment believe they were killing innocent
Americans. In their thinking, all Americans were part of the threat
to Islam. In other words, the thousands of men, women and even children
killed were personally guilty simply by being Americans.
Collective guilt doesn't always result in such extreme measures,
and those who have been its victims can even validate it. There are
Jews today who would regard all Germans since the time of Naziism
as anti-Semites. In a recent article in Jewsweek, Micha Ghertner points
out, "... it is not discussed often, but Jews are still silently shamed
by friends and family into boycotting that coveted Beemer or Benz,
even though six decades have passed since the Holocaust ... ."
Collective guilt and the death of Jesus
Does Mel Gibson's The Passion add more fuel to the collective
guilt charges that have been laid at the feet of the Jewish people?
Gibson has steadfastly maintained that his film is faithful to the
historical event it portrays. So in essence the question really becomes,
does the story of Jesus' death itself make Jews responsible for the
crucifixion? In order to answer this question we must look at the
portion of Scripture known as the New Testament, the best record of
the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus. Though some have
purported the New Testament to be anti-Semitic, it is important to
realize the context: several Jewish people wrote this ancient document
about a Jewish figure and, at many times, with Jewish people in mind.
When criticism of Jewish leaders is raised, it is always an in-house
debate, a family affair.
The four Gospel writers tell the life story of Jesus beginning with
his birth in Bethlehem to a Jewish mother, Miriam (Mary), who was
told by a heavenly messenger to name him Y'shua (Jesus) "... for he
will save his people from their sins"
(note 4) (Matthew 1:21). They present a brief glimpse
of him as boy, but center mostly on his adult years of spiritual teaching
and the miracles he performed--physical healings, walking on a lake,
feeding thousands with a few baskets of bread and fish, etc. Most
of these events took place among Jewish people. The Gospel accounts
also include the claims Jesus made to be the Messiah of Israel and,
even more controversial, to be divine. We read that while some Jewish
people believed these declarations, other Jewish people did not. It
was the reaction to these claims that ultimately led to Jesus' betrayal
by one Jew, Judas Iscariot, and the demand by the Jewish authorities
of that day, the chief priests, for his crucifixion.
In reference to Jesus and his Jewish followers' interactions with
the religious leaders of the time, strong words are often used. For
instance, Jesus calls the Pharisees a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7);
he also chases moneychangers out of the Temple, calling it his "Father's
house" (John 2:16). His disciples likewise roused the religious authorities'
anger. But the inclusion of these passages in the New Testament record
demonstrates that Jesus was at the center of an in-house argument
surrounding his radical claims. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures
had also used similar, even stronger, language when confronting the
people--out of passion, not out of antipathy. And so, in this context,
the portions of the New Testament that some cite as rants against
the Jewish people are in reality the parts of the story wherein Y'shua
is seen as the prophet greater than Moses. In that role, he calls
our people to turn from disobedience to the God of Israel and choose
his standard of righteousness.
There is one New Testament incident that is quoted again and again
to prove Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. It begins with
the words from the crowd when Pilate asked, "Then what shall I do
with the man whom you call the King of 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" (Mark 15:12-15). When
Pilate recognized he could not prevail, he washed his hands and said,
"I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it." And
all the people answered and said, "His blood be upon us and on our
children" (Matthew 27:24-25).
Jewish historian Haim Cohen says, "None of the many charges leveled
at the Jews ... has held so obdurately against them as unassailable
proof of guilt and responsibility for the crucifixion as has this
exclamation of theirs, 'His blood be upon us and on our children.'"
Did the Jews of that day actually say this?
Samuel Tobias Lachs, professor of history of religions at Bryn Mawr
College, says that the Matthew passage has "a Hebrew ring." Lachs
looks at parallel expressions in the Talmud and says that the basic
Hebrew phrase is "his blood will be on his own head," meaning "he
alone bears the responsibility; he is guilty" (cf. Joshua 2: b. Avodah
Dr. Michael Brown, Near Eastern studies expert, also argues that
"the verse is quite believable historically and the language is quite
Jewish." He cites an analysis of the historicity of the Jewish opposition
to Jesus by Raymond Brown, a Catholic scholar. Brown reflects on the
plausibility of a Jewish crowd, stirred by their religious leaders,
saying, "His blood be on us and our children." He says of the crowd,
"They are not bloodthirsty or callous; for they are persuaded that
Jesus is a blasphemer, as the Sanhedrin judged him." (note 6)
Jesus claimed that he was the Messiah. He claimed divinity. Jesus
said, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). He identified himself
as the "I am" of Scripture, a title only used by the Almighty. He
also said to a lame man, "your sins are forgiven" (Matthew 9:2). Only
God can forgive sin. If his claims were untrue, then indeed he was
guilty of blasphemy, and death was the recognized punishment.
Dr. Michael Brown points out that the literal translation of the
phrase, "his blood be on us" " ... reminds us that this is not an
imprecation in which the Jewish people called down a curse on themselves
but rather a statement of responsibility."
So what of collective guilt?
That being stated, Dr. Brown goes on to say that the second part
of the verse, "and on our children," needs to be understood in the
context of the crowd scene and of words spoken in the heat of passion.
This was truly a family affair that caused tempers to flare. And so
Michael Brown concludes: "Matthew is not claiming that the Jewish
people called down a curse on all future generations."
It is literally true that the next generation descendants of those
who urged the crucifixion suffered consequences. They witnessed the
destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem 40 years later.
However, to conclude that Jews today are corporately responsible is
not only a great leap, but also runs contrary to the Hebrew Scriptures.
Hundreds of years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah had explained
that a day was coming when a new covenant was to be instituted between
God and his people. "No more shall it be said that the fathers shall
eat sour grapes and the children's teeth be set on edge, but every
man will die for his own sins" (Jeremiah 31:30).
Historian Paul Johnson, well-known author of the classic A History
of the Jews, emphasizes this focus on individual responsibility:
The idea of the individual had always, of course, been present
in Mosaic religion, since it was inherent in the belief that each
man and woman was created in God's image. It had been powerfully
reinforced by the sayings of Isaiah. With Ezekiel ["the soul that
sinneth, it shall die"] it became paramount, and thereafter individual
accountability became the very essence of the Jewish religion.
Each person is accountable for the choices that they make. If they
choose what is good and right, they are the primary beneficiaries
of righteousness. If they choose that which is wrong, then they inherit
the consequences of their unrighteousness. As men immersed in Jewish
teaching, the writers of the Gospels recognized this, and so did Jesus.
If the Gospels are read in their entirety, one will see that the point
was never to condemn the Jewish people for his death. In fact, the
words of Jesus himself addressed to his Father negate this idea: "...
forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
In addition, Jesus was not an unwilling victim of the mob. He had
previously shown a supernatural power to escape from the clutches
of grasping men by walking through crowds unnoticed (John 8:59). Certainly,
he could have exited Jerusalem and avoided capture, yet it was Jesus
who said of his life, "No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay
it down on My own initiative." (John 10:18). He saw the offer of his
life as a sacrifice--a gift to the whole world.
Yes, Jesus was crucified at the hands of people who wanted him gone.
But one misses the point of the Gospel narratives if one stops there.
Arthur Hertzberg, a Jewish writer and educator who does not believe
in Jesus, points this out:
I have thought for a long time that the argument about the crucifixion
of Jesus [Jewish or Roman responsibility] is entirely beside the
point, and I have been confirmed in my view by rereading the book
of Luke. "Was it not necessary," Luke writes, "that the Christ [Messiah]
should suffer these things and enter to his glory?" The point is
made, over and over again, that Jesus willed his own crucifixion
as necessary to his mission to atone for the sins of all humankind.
This makes theological sense. If the crucifixion was necessary to
atone for a cosmic trauma, "the fall of man," then it was a necessary
and inevitable expression of divine intention. ... The only way
that arguing about guilt for the crucifixion makes any sense is
to deny the fundamental tenet of Christian theology that Jesus was
the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. If this is denied,
the argument is then reduced to the question of who was responsible
for the terrible end of the life of a carpenter from Nazareth.
Conclusion: Guilty? Yes and no
The real issue is not whether Jewish people played a role in the
death of the Jew, Jesus. The real issue is how one views the Bible,
the messianic mission of Jesus and the claims of his deity. If one
regards those as fiction, then there is some need to place the guilt
of Jesus' death on a person or group of people. Unfortunately, the
Jewish people have been the traditional scapegoat and have therefore
responded defensively against Mel Gibson and others who do not gloss
over the details of Jesus' death.
However, if Jesus' and his disciples' claims are true, that he came
to die for the wrongdoing of all humanity--Jews and Gentiles--then
all of us have a part in the death of Jesus, collectively and individually.
Not a message most of us want to hear, but one that was articulated
even before the time of Jesus, by the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of
one who would be "... pierced through for our transgressions...crushed
for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him
and by His scourging we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5).
The Passion presents a predicament for all of us. If Jesus was simply
a blasphemer, unjustly assuming authority that was not his, then why mourn
his death or try to escape blame for it? On the other hand, if we accept
that Jesus was the one of whom Isaiah wrote, and that his death was part
of God's plan to redeem us, then the blame for his death dissolves in
the realization that all of our wrongdoing can be absolved by it. The
choice is yours.
(URLs last accessed January 26, 2004)
3. "Jews, Jesus and German cars," www.jewsweek.com
4. Y'shua means "God saves" or "God is savior."
5. The Trial and Death of Jesus of Nazareth, p. 171, quoted at:
6. Brown, Michael. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Volume
One: General and Historical Objections. Baker, 2000, pgs. 154-157.
7. Johnson, Paul M. A History of the Jews. Perennial, 1988.
Used by permission of Jews for Jesus. Visit their Web site at www.jewsforjesus.org.
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.