Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Death of Jesus and Anti-Semitism
Seeking Interfaith Understanding
Part of what makes Holy Week holy is the solemn reading of two Gospel passion
narratives, one from the first three Gospels on Passion (Palm) Sunday, and the one from
John every year on Good Friday. These masterpieces have given more inspiration to artists,
musicians, poets and mystics than any other sections of the New Testament. Ironically,
however, such dramatic power makes sensitive Christians uneasy about anti-Jewish elements
in the passion narratives. How can they be proclaimed without adding to the tragic history
of their misuse against the Jewish people?
In my two-volume commentary on the passion narratives, The Death of the
Messiah (Doubleday, 1994), my primary focus was the positive message that the evangelists
wished to convey to their Christian hearers and readers. I gave considerable attention
to the danger of anti-Judaism in our reactions. In this Update I want to concentrate
on the evolution of anti-Judaism in New Testament thought about the Passion. Looking
at how anti-Jewish sentiment developed gradually after Jesus' day can help us to understand
how our earliest religious ancestors approached the death of Jesus.
Careful study of the Scriptures should lead us to object strongly to two faulty
interpretations of the passion narratives: viewing the passion narratives as 1) literal
history or 2) a product of Christian imagination.
Objections against the literal history view. Throughout the centuries
and still today a literal interpretation has produced a view of the Jewish leaders as scheming
liars who knowingly deceived the Roman prefect in order to bring about Jesus' death. Matthew's
and John's use of the generalizing description of these opponents of Jesus as "Jews" has
too often been heard as referring to Jews of later centuries. That was not at all the intention
of Matthew or John.
This misreading, which has contributed to ongoing hate, has now been firmly
rejected in Roman Catholicism, whether or not all Catholics know it. In 1964 the Roman
Pontifical Biblical Commission taught authoritatively that the Gospels are the product
of considerable development—narrative, organizational and theological development. They
are not simply literal accounts of the ministry of Jesus. The next year Vatican Council
II explicitly condemned an outlook that would blame the Passion without distinction on
all the Jews then living or on the Jews today. (See the Council's Declaration on the
Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, #4.)
Objections to the 'Christian invention' interpretation. The other view
I judge unacceptable discredits the Gospel passion narratives as almost totally the product
of Christian imagination. Under the mantle of scholarly objectivity, advocates assert firmly
but without proof that the early Christians knew little about how Jesus died and simply
invented their narratives on the basis of Old Testament imagery.
Indeed, some scholars (of Christian upbringing!) would paint the early Christians
as creating lies precisely to vilify the Jews. Yet if the literalist interpretation of
the passion narratives can produce hate toward Judaism, this "imagination interpretation" can
have the effect of portraying Christianity as a false and hateful religion. Religiously
sensitive Jews and Christians recognize that if either group of our respective first-century
ancestors—Jews or Christians—is presented as liars who wanted to destroy their opposites,
nothing has been gained in the ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue.
A careful examination suggests that the situation in the first century was
far more complex than such overly simple reconstructions allow. Let me attempt to do at
least partial justice to the complexities by describing four stages in the development
of New Testament attitudes toward the death of Jesus, beginning with the first stage: the
likely historical facts.
What really happened to Jesus?
Without repeating all the evidence amassed in The Death of the Messiah,
a very plausible case can be made for the following. Jesus upset and even alarmed some
of his co-religionists by his attitudes toward some legal demands, by his assumptions about
his own unique teaching authority, by his association with sinners and by his critique
of public practices that he regarded as meaningless religiosity.
Rumors that he might be the Messiah (whether promoted by friends or opponents)
caused tension. This came to a head when in Jerusalem he threatened the sanctuary and criticized
the Temple procedures. A Sanhedrin, or meeting involving the high priest and other important
Jerusalem figures, decided that he was a dangerous and arrogant (that is to say, blasphemous)
nuisance and arranged for him to be seized and handed over to the Roman authorities.
That Jesus could have been manhandled and abused in such an arrest and transferal
would be far from surprising. For the Roman governor he was not a major threat. (Pilate's
prefecture up to this time saw occasional protests and riots but not the armed revolutionary
movements of an earlier or later period, when the Romans sent out troops and executed hundreds
without any pretense at trial.) Nevertheless, Jesus was potentially a menace if people
thought he was a messiah or king, and so Pilate ordered Jesus executed.
The historical plausibility of this Gospel picture can be supported from Josephus,
the Jewish historian who wrote his Antiquities at the end of the first century a.d.
Amid his account of Pilate's governorship (including several instances of crowds assembling
to put pressure on him), Josephus refers to Pilate's treatment of Jesus. Serious scholarship
would now accept the following as authentically written by Josephus: Jesus was a wise man
who did astonishing deeds and taught many people, but "Pilate condemned him to the cross
on indictment of the first-ranking men among us."
From Josephus's description of what happened 30 years later to another man
called Jesus (the son of Ananias), we learn how such an indictment might have worked. This
other Jesus cried out a message against Jerusalem and the Temple sanctuary. By such behavior
he provoked the leading citizens, who, thinking he was under some supernatural drive, had
him beaten and led him before the Roman governor. The latter had him scourged, but he would
not respond. (He was finally let go as a maniac but was killed in the siege of Jerusalem.)
A combination of the Josephus accounts shows the historical possibility of the substance
of the Gospel portrayals of the treatment of Jesus of Nazareth. Assertions that deny this
Neither the claim of wholesale invention nor the literalist failure to recognize
creative rethinking does justice to what happened next. The New Testament is insistent
that what befell Jesus matched what was found in the Law and the prophets. Memories preserved
by Jesus' followers were colored in particular by the Old Testament portraits of how the
just suffered at the hands of the wicked.
Historically the motives of the authorities aligned against Jesus at the time
of his execution were surely a mixture: genuine religious outrage at his actions and claims,
worry about civic unrest, crass self-interest, fear of his provoking Roman intervention
and so on.
Yet by the time the Gospels were being written we see a quest for simplification,
motivated by theological reasons: Those opposed to Jesus took on the biblical coloring
of the wicked who plot against the innocent. In Wisdom 2:17-21, for instance, the wicked
contend that if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him; and they resolve to
revile him and put him to death. The abuse and travail of Jesus take on the plaintive tones
of the hymnist of Psalm 22 and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52—53. For his followers,
Jesus' sufferings cast light on such passages, which illumined the role of Jesus' death
in the plan of God.
This stage of reflection on the Passion was not anti-Jewish, any more than
were the psalms or other biblical books that were mined for the imagery. The just one,
his admirers and the wicked opponents were all Jews, after all. And the theological simplification
of the opponents as wicked is a standard biblical portrayal, not a nefarious Christian
Six hundred years before, not all who disagreed with Jeremiah's policies for
Judah were wicked; but the biblical account portrays them thus, simplifying their motives
and dramatizing their actions. Indeed some of the most sensitive words in the passion of
Jesus are found in Jeremiah 26. When, with God's authority, Jeremiah threatened the destruction
of the Temple, the priests and all the people heard him, and the priests and the
prophets demanded his death. Jeremiah warned them that they were bringing innocent blood on
Jerusalem and its citizens.
Distinguishing 'the Jews' from 'the Romans'
We can tell from Paul's writings that the conversion of Gentiles to
following Jesus became a major factor in early Christianity. The apostle encountered hostility
from synagogue authorities in his proclamation of the gospel, as he indicates in 2 Corinthians
11:24 ("From the Jews on five occasions I received the 39 lashes"), and so did his Gentile
converts, according to Acts.
Paul compared the enmity Christians were experiencing to that endured by Jesus,
employing in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 (a passage that I firmly contend is genuine) a description
of "the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and who persecuted us." In
itself that could be simply a distinguishing classification (the Jews, as distinct from
the Romans, who had a role in Jesus' death). But two decades after Jesus' death his passion
was entering into debates between Jews who did not accept Jesus and Jews and Gentiles who
How much anti-Judaism was involved in this use of the word Jews for
the Jerusalem authorities who had a role in Jesus' death? A number of factors governed
the issue. For instance, how much hostility did readers or hearers experience from Jews
who rejected the proclamation of Jesus? At this early period Christian Jews who used such
language may at other times have been nostalgic about their Jewish heritage (as Paul was
in Romans 9:3-5).
The same would not have been true of Gentile Christians. Indeed they may have
read into an expression like "the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus" prejudices against Jews
stemming from their own Gentile background.
Was equal hostility showed by Christians toward the Romans who had a role in
the death of Jesus? It probably depended on whether Roman authority had harried the Christians.
The psalm application in Acts 4:25-27 places in equal array against Jesus "Herod and Pontius
Pilate, the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel." In the Gospel portrayals the mockery of
Jesus by Roman soldiers is more brutal than that by Jewish authorities or police.
'The Jews' did it
Paul's phrase "the Jews who killed Jesus" was restrictive to one group of Jews.
Before long such language became generalized, particularly as at different places at different
moments Gentile Christians outnumbered Christians of Jewish ethnicity. More delicately,
because of alienation (and at times expulsion) from synagogues, some ethnically Jewish
Christians were no longer using the term "Jews" of themselves. That seems to be the case
among some of the Christians reflected in the Gospels of John and Matthew.
Accordingly, when a major role in Jesus' passion was attributed to "the Jews," the
impression was now being given that another people (different from us Christians) was involved.
The passage in Matthew, "All the people said, 'His blood on us and on our children'" (27:25)
was read to mean that these other people were taking on the responsibility for the death
of Jesus. Indeed, the reference to "children" here and in Luke 23:28 ("Daughters of Jerusalem...for
yourselves weep and for your children") suggests that the Roman defeat of the Jews and
the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in a.d. 70 were perceived as God's punishment for
having put Jesus to death.
It is not surprising that Christians would make such a judgment, given that
the Jewish historian Josephus gave an analogous theological explanation: God turned away
from Jerusalem and allowed the Romans to burn the city because of hate for the impiety,
murders and profanation among Jews there in the 50's and 60's.
Alleviating factors such as some Christians' nostalgia for their Jewish past
were now gone: The parallel became complete between "the Jews" who were hostile to Jesus
and contemporary Jews who did not accept Jesus and were considered hostile. Echoes of that
attitude are heard in a passage like Matthew 28:12-15, where a lie that the disciples stole
the body of Jesus, started through a bribe given by the chief priests and elders, "has
been spread among Jews until this day." One may guess that on the other side among some
Jews a parallel was drawn between "that fellow" who caused trouble 40 or 50 years ago and
the present troublemakers who were making blasphemous claims about him.
If at this stage we can finally speak of anti-Judaism, notice that it had taken
time to develop: It was not intrinsic to the passion itself. This anti-Judaism reflects
the unfriendly relationship between Christians (ethnically Jew or Gentile) and Jews who
did not believe in Jesus.
Stage four was only the beginning of a long history; by the next century Christians
would be accusing Jews of deicide ("God-killing"), and some Jewish legends were portraying
Jesus as a wicked magician and the illegitimate son of an adulteress. When the emperor
Constantine became Christian in the early fourth century, and Christians began to gain
political power, the effect of the hostile feelings became one-sided. This was the beginning
of a tragic history that would see the oppression and persecution of Jews continue through
the centuries, culminating horrendously in our own.
Many non-Christian elements contributed to that history, particularly in the
Nazi period. But often the passion narratives were read in a way that fueled hatred of
Hope for the future
Careful biblical research may help efforts to ensure that this never happens
again. The recognition that important Jewish figures in Jerusalem were hostile to Jesus
and had a role in his death need not of itself have produced anti-Judaism, any more than
the fact that the Jerusalem priests and prophets plotted Jeremiah's death would produce
such a result.
The first Christian attempt to see theological significance in Jesus' death
by use of the scriptural portrayal of the just persecuted by the wicked did not of itself
have an anti-Jewish tone. Anti-Judaism appeared when the death was interpreted during times
of bad relations between believers in Jesus (often no longer ethnically Jewish) and Jews
who did not believe in him. Then it stuck.
Good relations between Christians and Jews based on respect for each other
will help us to read the passion narratives without an anti-Jewish effect. Christians who
appreciate the great heritage of Judaism will work sensitively to correct the simplification
whereby those hostile to Jesus are portrayed without qualification as "the Jews."
We Christians cannot dismiss or deny what happened to Jesus—that would be the
easy way out. It would be wrong. In liturgically celebrating the truth and power of the
passion narratives, however, we must be equally energetic in proclaiming, as did Pope John
Paul II in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp: "Never
The late Raymond E. Brown was a Sulpician priest,
Auburn Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies (Union theological Seminary,
New York City) and a member of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission. This Update is
adapted from his book, Reading the Gospels With the Church: From Christmas Through
Easter (St. Anthony Messenger Press).
Return to The Passion of the Christ feature