Who Killed Jesus?
"In its effect upon the life of the Jewish people," declares Jerusalem rabbi Eliezar Berkovits, "Christianity's New Testament has been the most dangerous anti-Semitic tract in history." His opinion is shared by a growing number of Christian theologians, many of whom are calling for editorial exclusion of all "anti-Jewish" sections of the New Testament, particularly in John's gospel. The publicity-conscious group of scholars known as the Jesus Seminar now declares that all passages in the Gospels that claim the Jews were at least partly responsible for the Crucifixion are not authentic and should be removed from the New Testament.
Such revisionism reached a new extreme at a conference held at Oxford in September 1989, when A. Roy Eckardt, emeritus professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, suggested that Christians ought to abandon the resurrection of Jesus, since it "remains a primordial and unceasing source of the Christian world's anti-Judaism."
Strangely, too many Christian theologians seem silent in the face of such broadsides against the faith. It is high time to return to the historical record.
The question of Jewish involvement in the arrest and judicial process against Jesus of Nazareth in that first "Holy Week" continues to percolate through many strata in the debate between Christians, Jews, and New Testament scholars. Probably no issue in the history of religion has elicited more blind partisanship, misinterpretation, faulty logic, hostility, or fad following. Whenever the discussion seems shelved for the moment, it reappears each decade with the Oberammergau Passion play. Once again, charges of anti-Semitism have been raised against the script of the 1990 production.
The nature of the prosecution before Pontius Pilate—and the issue of moral responsibility for what took place in that most famous of trials—has been argued on a spectrum ranging from the medievalist notion of Jewish collective responsibility (all Jews, then and now, deemed "guilty" of Jesus' death) to the current theological opinion, increasingly de rigueur, that no Jews then (or, obviously, since) were involved in Good Friday. The Gospels are styled "anti-Semitic" in the latter view for having portrayed a Jewish prosecution.
The theological pendulum has swung from one illogical—indeed, ridiculous—concept to another, from assuming Jewish generic involvement, to arguing for no involvement at all, which is understandable emotionally but not justified historically. A careful interpretation of the New Testament records, supplemented by crucial nonbiblical sources, suggests a solution that Christians and Jews alike should find not only historically accurate, but congenial. What are the questions that move us toward a solution?
All Jews involved?
The concept of Jewish collective responsibility for Good Friday sprang from a misinterpretation of Matthew 27:25 ("His blood be on us and on our children!") as well as the rupture between Judaism and Christianity in the early church.
But Matthew's text proves nothing, since there is no record of God endorsing the curse, and God, after all, is the only one whose curse would mean anything. As a rabbi once put it to me (with good humor): "Even if God had agreed to curse us on that occasion, his divine anger would have been limited to the third or fourth generation, and then the rest of us would have been free of it!"
With the final separation of church and synagogue, however, Jews were progressively deemed "guilty" for Good Friday. Later church fathers were less inclined to dispute misinterpretations of the Matthew passage. But did the church also tamper with history in reporting the trial before Pilate? Yes, according to the current revisionist view. They allegedly did so to aid the spreading of the faith in Rome.