In his 2013 book on anti-Semitism, The Devil that Never Dies, Daniel Goldhagen starts the list of calumnies against Jews with: “Jews have killed God’s son. All Jews, and their descendants for all time, . . . are guilty.”
Indeed, this accusation has been a deadly trigger for anti-Semitism in the Western world for nearly 2000 years. In the Christian narrative, the crucifixion of Jesus is carried out by Roman soldiers who flog him, nail him to a cross with the mocking label I.N.R.I., who cast lots for his garments – all under the authority of a Roman governor in a Roman province. But it is the Jews and not the Romans who are held responsible.
Bethlehem and Jerusalem are in historical Judea. At the time of the birth of Jesus, Judea was part of the realm of King Herod the Great who had been appointed by the Roman Senate. After his death, his son Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea with the title of tetrarch; his son Archelaus was named ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. When faced with Archelaus’ misrule, the Romans took direct control of these areas and named a procurator (governor) for the new Roman Province of Judea. The fifth procurator was Pontius Pilate who took office around 26 BC, assigned to the position by the Emperor Tiberius’ right-hand-man Lucius Aelius Sejanus.
The Crucifixion is dated around 30-33 AD, after which the first Christians huddled in Jerusalem around St James (called the Brother of Jesus by Protestants and St James the Lesser by Catholics). At this point in time there was a large Jewish population in Palestine and a significant Jewish Diaspora; according to A Concise History of the Jewish People (2005) by Naomi E. Pasachoff and Robert J. Littman: “By the 1st century CE perhaps 10 percent of the Roman Empire, or about 7 million people, were Jews, with about 2.5 million in Palestine.”
At the time of Christ, the Jewish population of the Empire consisted of the Hellenized Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora, the Aramaic speaking provincial Jews of Palestine and the Hebrew speaking rabbis and priests in Jerusalem. These groups also had their own literatures. The Hellenized Jews had their own somewhat bowdlerized version (click HERE) of the Hebrew Bible in Greek, The Septuagint, to which they added new books such as the The Wisdom of Solomon (non-canonical for Jews, apocryphal for Lutherans and Anglicans, deuterocanonical for Catholics). In the countryside of the Holy Land, the Targums (Aramaic commentaries on biblical passages, doubtless an important part of the education of John the Baptist and Jesus himself) were recited in the synagogues. And in Jerusalem, there was the learned oral and written rabbinical literature in Hebrew.
Starting with the synagogues of the Diaspora, St Paul and other missionaries spread the Good News throughout the Greco-Roman world; Christianity grew quickly. The Roman historian Tacitus, is the first in the pagan literature to reference the Crucifixion; in his Annals (circa 116 AD) he recounts how Nero placed the blame on the Christians for the great fire that ravaged Rome in 64 AD; Tacitus approvingly assigns the responsibility for Jesus’ Crucifixion to the Roman administration in Judea: “Christus, from whom the name [Christian] had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” Tacitus lauds Pilate further saying this execution checked “the evil” that is Christianity, even if only for a time.
But in Christian texts, responsibility was systematically shifted from the Romans to the Jews. Already in his first epistle, chronologically the first book of the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 (circa 50 AD), St Paul attributes the death of Jesus to the Jews (NIV – New International Version):
“For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.”
Some critics argue that this passage was not written by St Paul himself but is a later interpolation: for one thing the passage is not consistent with 1 Corinthians 2:8 where he puts the blame on people of authority (NIV): “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
It is also thought that the phrase “The wrath of God has come upon them at last” refers to the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in 70 AD. And why does Paul single out the Jews as persecutors of the Christians when the Romans would have been the ones persecuting Christians in Judea at that time – in fact that had been Paul’s own job according to the Acts of the Apostles! On the other hand, Acts 6 (written 50 years after the event) also recounts the story of the Deacon Stephen who was stoned to death by a Jewish mob in Jerusalem, making him the first Christian martyr, a horror witnessed by St Paul.
The historical Jesus was at the head of a movement that was begun by John the Baptist. The connection between Jesus and John is a key part of the Christian story. The Gospel of Luke takes care to say that they were even cousins – charmingly relating The Visitation, the trip of the pregnant Mary to visit her cousin Elizabeth who, though beyond child-bearing age, too was miraculously pregnant, herself with John. For a painting of Jesus and John together as infants by the Spanish baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murrillo, click HERE .
Jesus is described as becoming part of John’s mission with his baptism in the River Jordan in Mark, Matthew and Luke. That John’s movement had a political dimension is attested to by his arrest and beheading at the hands of the Roman vassal Herod Antipas – a tale so rich in symbolism as to inspire paintings by artists from Titian to Redon, a play by Oscar Wilde and an opera by Richard Strauss. For Redon’s painting of the result of Salome’s Terpsichorean efforts, click HERE .
Jesus too meets a political fate in that, in the Roman world, crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state or perpetrators of heinous crimes. Certainly, driving the money-lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem had political implications. Some argue that Jesus was an outright political activist – as in the PBS documentary The Last Days of Jesus and the recent book Zealot by Reza Aslan. But this theme is not new: by way of example, in Senior Year Theology at Fordham University in 1962, this writer presented a most modest analysis of this kind in a term paper which received the grade of B with the comment that applying “class warfare” to Jesus’ mission was both nothing new and nothing of interest.
The Gospels present the Passion as a one-week set piece constructed to put the blame for Christ’s death on Jews. Interestingly, in that PBS documentary, the strong suggestion is made that the Gospels are indeed telescoping a longer period and myriad political intrigues into one hyper-charged week, intrigues involving powerful figures such as Sejanus and Herod Antipas – Sejanus’ involvement in Jesus’ story has also been the stuff of novels since the 19th century.
In the first century, relations were not always good between Jews and Gentiles. In fact, Tiberius himself banished Jews from Rome in 19 AD; the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria reports on Jewish-Gentile violence there in 40 AD, an event followed closely by the emperor Caligula’s failed blasphemous attempt to have a statue of himself erected in the Temple in Jerusalem; soon after, in his account of a legation to the emperor (In Legatio ad Gaium, XVI.115), Philo wrote that Caligula “regarded the Jews with most especial suspicion.” It is important to note that these conflicts are not rooted in Roman religion. In fact, the Romans were very tolerant of the traditional religious systems of the subject peoples of the Empire (better for keeping the “pax” in the Pax Romana).
Things political and military came to a head in the Holy Land with The First Jewish War (67-74). The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus took place in 70 AD and the conflict itself continued on until the Masada campaign of 73/74 AD. Certainly this was a point in time when the Gentile Christians and the Hellenized Jewish Christians of the Diaspora would have wanted to distance themselves from the Jews and ingratiate themselves with the Romans and Greeks.
The first Gospel written is that of St Mark, himself a Jew, and it is dated in the decade following the destruction of the temple – an event to which it refers with Jesus’ ominous prediction that the Temple would be left with “not a stone upon a stone” (Mark 13:2). Mark’s version of the week of the Passion contains all the basic elements of the story laying the blame for the Crucifixion not on the Romans but on the Jews – more precisely, on the chief priests and the mob in Jerusalem.
Mark artfully places responsibility not on the Roman procurator Pilate but on the Jews, one dramatic incident being the story of Barabbas. It just happened that the Friday of the Crucifixion was the one day of the year when the Roman governor would offer the multitude in Jerusalem the privilege of pardoning a prisoner who was about to be executed. (No historical evidence outside the Gospels for any practice of this kind has been found.) The prisoner Barabbas, who was also awaiting execution, was guilty of the worst sorts of crimes, but when Pilate proposed to the crowd that he pardon Jesus and not Barabbas, the animosity of the Jews toward Jesus showed itself (Mark 15:11-14, NIV):
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
John 18:40 makes it even more dramatic, having the Jews cry “Give us Barabbas” – haunting and chilling, making for a powerful moment in Passion Plays.
Matthew 27:25 adds the most damning cry of all
“His blood be on us and on our children!”
Matthew also inserts the “thirty pieces of silver” into the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, further damning the Jews.
John 19:5 adds that dramatic sadistic moment where Pilate says “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man”) as he displays the humiliated Jesus, badly scarred and beaten, wearing the crown of thorns – a riveting scene portrayed on canvas by Bosch, Titian and many others. Pilate says “I find no basis for a charge against him” but the Jews cry out “Crucify him, crucify him.” John also has Jesus and Pilate engage in a philosophical exchange about the nature of “truth,” further distancing Pilate from responsibility for the Crucifixion.
Luke adds yet another sidebar to the effect that from the outset Pilate didn’t want to condemn Jesus: Pilate tried to hand the prisoner Jesus over to Herod Antipas since it was in Galilee and not Judea that Jesus had been most active; but Herod Antipas already had the blood of John the Baptist on his hands and so decided to pass.
All of these maneuvers to portray Pilate as reluctant to execute Jesus were effective to the point that, in the Ethiopian Church, the teaching is that Pilate later became a Christian, a martyr and a saint!
In 1 Corinthians, Paul lays blame for the Crucifixion on the “the rulers of this age.” Perhaps, Mark thought that his text would be understood too as laying blame for Jesus’ death on the Temple leadership in Jerusalem and not on the rest of his fellow Jews. However, his account of a “mob” of Jews in Jerusalem spurred on by the “chief priests” crying out for blood, in the end, implicated all the Jews of the Roman Empire. No distinction was made by the Christians between that mob and the Jews of Galilee who rallied to Jesus’ mission, of the Jews of Jerusalem who hailed Jesus as he entered the city on Palm Sunday or of the Jews of the Diaspora, many of whom were among the first to embrace Paul’s teachings.
It is unlikely that Mark authored his version of the Passion which focuses on Jewish guilt all by himself – it must already have been circulating in the growing Christian world. “The Jews killed Jesus” accusation must have taken shape in that forty year period between the Crucifixion and the destruction of the Temple by Titus; given that passage above from 1 Thessalonians, the accusation would even appear in the very earliest extant Christian text. One can speculate that early on this calumny might have even been a recruitment tool that played off existing anti-Jewish feelings in the Empire. Anti-Jewish feelings, yes – but not part of the Roman religious system. In fact, Judaism, as a religion, had the respect of the Roman state having been declared an official religion already under Julius Caesar, shortly after the Roman takeover of Palestine (circa 45 BC). But the doctrine “The Jews killed Jesus” embeds hostility toward Jewish people as a race into Christian theology itself; it is this basis in religion that has made anti-Semitism so exportable – and it would soon be exported to lands in Northern and Central Europe that were never even part of the Roman Empire and then later across the world.