Explores anti-Judaism in New Testament thought about the Passion of Christ. Exposes faulty interpretations of the passion narratives: as literal history or a product of Christian imagination.

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The Death of Jesus and Anti-Semitism
Seeking Interfaith Understanding

by Raymond E. Brown, S.S.

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 are exaggerated.

Christian interpretation

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 falsification.

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 did.

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 Jews.

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 again anti-Semitism!"—

People of the Covenant

"The Church of Christ acknowledges that, according to God's saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets....The Church, therefore, cannot forget that she received the revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in his inexpressible mercy concluded the ancient covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots, the Gentiles (see Rom 11:17). Indeed, the Church believes that by his cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in himself (see Eph 2:14-16)....

"True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6); still what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

—Vatican II, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions


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).

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