The question of the responsibility of the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Christ may well become one of the major theological issues of the day. The traditional view has been that the Jews through their leaders were responsible for the death of Christ and had admitted this by crying, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
These words have been used as an excuse for the most revolting anti-Semitism. The treatment of the Jews by the medieval Church has well been called “the shame of Christendom.” Jews were shut up in the ghettos of medieval cities in conditions of indescribable squalor. They were forbidden to enter most of the professions and were thus compelled to engage in commerce if they were to exist at all. Prevented from owning land and in constant danger of expulsion, prosperous Jews hoarded their gold, thus earning a reputation for miserliness. At a time when canon law forbade members of the Church to lend to and borrow from one another on “usury” (interest), Christians resorted to the Jews as convenient money-lenders, and the legend of Shylock soon arose. No accusation was too vile to bring against a people who had “murdered God.” They were accused of poisoning the wells to cause the Black Death and of murdering Christian children to use their blood in the Passover feast. Children sometimes disappeared then, as they occasionally do today. But the disappearance of any Christian child at Easter time was enough to start a fresh accusation of ritual murder and trigger a pogrom. And this is not all ancient history. As late as the early days of the present century, there were horrible Easter pogroms at Kishineff in Russia, when worshipers went straight from their Easter services to kill Jews as well as sack their homes and synagogues.
The Reformation made some difference in countries where it was influential. Yet even Luther was capable of violent diatribes against the unbelieving Jews, and the traditional Protestant attitude was that the Jews were under the wrath of God. They had rejected Christ: this was believed to be the reason for their long exile and many sufferings. The Evangelical Revival saw the renewal of missionary work among the Jews, but it was the concern of a very small minority. Those who engaged in it found the past treatment of the Jews by the Church an immense obstacle in commending as a Gospel of love the faith professed by the persecutors.
Today, however, there is a significant change. The massacre of over six million Jews under Hitler roused the Christian conscience at last. On both sides of the Atlantic, councils of Christians and Jews are working to combat anti-Semitism and promote mutual understanding. Successive assemblies of the World Council of Churches have discussed the problem and made pronouncements. The late Pope John XXIII ordered the deletion of some of the most offensive expressions from the Good Friday liturgy and received a delegation of Jews with much kindness, likening himself to Joseph receiving his long-lost brethren. The Jewish question was on the agenda of the Second Vatican Council.
It is in such a setting that recent statements on the degree of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion must be evaluated. A statement of the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches denounced anti-Semitism as “absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith” and went on to say: “In Christian teaching the historic events leading up to the crucifixion should not be so presented as to fasten upon the Jewish people of today responsibilities which belong to our corporate humanity and not to one race or community. Jews were the first to accept Jesus and Jews are not the only ones who do not yet recognize Him.” Dr. Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, made a statement in almost exactly similar terms last Holy Week.
Now on the other side there comes a pronouncement from the Arab Evangelical Church Council issued over the signature of the Rt. Rev. Najib Attalah Cuba’in, head of the Arab Evangelical Episcopal (Anglican) Church, whose jurisdiction covers Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. This pronouncement opposes recent attempts by “Christian Heads in the West” to absolve Jews of responsibility for the crucifixion of Christ, expresses the “firm adherence of the Arab council to the clear teachings of the Gospel as dictated by Divine revelation,” and states its belief that any contrary teaching would be a departure from the Gospel.
No doubt many find such a pronouncement suspect because of its source. Politics and sound theology do not often mix well. The Arab Christians have the State of Israel on their borders but do not recognize its existence. To them, as to their Muslim brethren, what the rest of the world calls Israel is just “occupied territory.” This attitude raises great difficulties for Arab Christians in using traditional forms of Christian worship. The Old Testament and particularly the Psalter with its constant prayers for the victory of Israel over her enemies are full of embarrassment for Arabs, and many passages are deleted or never used. Yet in this matter of the crucifixion they claim to be faithful to Scripture when others have departed from it.
Some Liberal Views
It is true that certain extreme liberal statements must cause grave concern to all who respect the authority of the Scriptures. Paul Winter in The Trial of Jesus has sought to show that the Romans alone were responsible and that the whole story of Jewish participation is a later invention reflecting the hatred of the Church for the synagogue. Similar views have been advanced by Dr. James Parkes and others. In fact, it may be said that the general view of liberals today is that the New Testament records reflect the situation at the time they were compiled rather than that which actually existed at the time of the events they purport to describe.
In resisting these claims and reaffirming the truth and authority of the Scriptures, is the conservative believer forced back to the traditional view that the Jew is really the arch-villain? We do not think so. It is possible to accept the truth of the gospel records as they stand and yet recognize that Christian reading of them has often been prejudiced and misinformed.
Thus much care is needed in interpreting the word “Jew” and the expression “the Jews” as used in the Gospels, especially in the Fourth Gospel. Even those who deny the apostolic authorship of St. John’s Gospel generally recognize that its author was Jewish. Our Lord, his disciples, and all his supporters mentioned in this Gospel were Jewish; yet the expression “the Jews” is constantly used of his enemies. Therefore the expression here cannot possibly refer to the entire Jewish community. In some instances it appears to mean the inhabitants of Judea as distinct from those of Galilee; e.g., “After this Jesus went about in Galilee; he would not go about in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him” (John 7:1, RSV). In other cases the expression “the Jews” seems to refer to the circle of scribes, lawyers, and priests who opposed him most vigorously in Jerusalem. The constant repetition of the words “the Jews” in an unfavorable context may cause an insufficiently instructed congregation to gain the impression that the entire nation was hostile to Christ. The Revised Standard Version gives “Judeans” as an alternative rendering. And it might indeed be wise to adopt this when reading the lessons to a mixed congregation.
On the scriptural evidence, however, it is impossible to deny that the chief priests and scribes played a major part in handing Jesus over to the Romans for trial and crucifixion. This was the result of sin, which had blinded their eyes (John 12:40). The blindness was real enough. They did not realize they were rejecting the true Messiah, let alone the Son of God. Peter, addressing the people of Jerusalem, said quite clearly (Acts 3:17), “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” In the face of this, to accuse even those directly responsible of deliberate deicide is manifestly unfair. Moreover, can it not be reasonably argued that there was a sense in which these Jewish priests were acting as representatives not only of their own nation but of a whole sinful humanity—humanity that was not prepared to see the face of God in Jesus Christ?
The cry, “His blood be on us and on our children,” was terrible indeed. But had these men the power to impose such a curse upon all their descendants? It has been well pointed out that the blood of Christ falls on men only in forgiveness, never in revenge. The words were uttered to persuade the Roman governor Pilate to pass sentence, but they do not acquit him of the charge of corrupting Roman justice for fear of the consequences. Is it only coincidence that the historic creeds make no mention of Annas and Caiaphas but say, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate”? No doubt this was intended to fix the event in history. It also serves as a timely reminder that the Gentile as well as the Jewish world must take its share of the blame. No doubt a Jewish mob could have stoned Jesus, as happened later to Stephen; but a legal execution could be carried out only by the Roman authorities.
From ‘Hosanna’ To ‘Crucify’?
Peter does seem to speak as though the Jerusalem mob were in some sense personally guilty, since they “denied the Holy and Righteous one, and asked for a murderer to be granted to [them]” (Acts 3:14). But would he have judged the entire nation guilty? He was a Galilean. He would have remembered the “Hosannas” of the pilgrims from Galilee. Christian preachers have often assumed that those who shouted “Hosanna” were those who cried “Crucify” a few days later. There is no real evidence for this, although it is true that mobs can often be fickle. The hired mob was probably composed not of pilgrims from the country but of city-dwellers more easily worked upon by the priests.
What of the common statement that the centuries-long exile of the Jews from the promised land was a direct punishment for the crucifixion of Christ? The one passage that seems to support this is Luke 19:41–44, where Christ wept over the city of Jerusalem and foretold its destruction because its people “did not know the time of [their] visitation.” There is indeed a judgment in history, and the wrath of God has a real meaning if regarded as the spontaneous reaction of Absolute Holiness against evil. But analogies based on human anger, so seldom free from all sinful elements, are dangerous in the extreme.
There are indeed Old Testament passages that make habitation of the land conditional upon faithfulness to God’s law (e.g., Deut. 4:23–31), and in view of such Scriptures some Jewish thinkers regard the exile as a punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness, though not of course for her failure to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Yet the belief that the Jews’ rejection of Christ caused their disappearance as a settled community, though not as a separate people, has an almost irresistible fascination for the Christian mind. It is easy to say that the Old Israel failed to grasp its moment of opportunity and therefore a new Israel, the Church, was brought into existence to replace it. But to prove this from the New Testament is difficult. Apart from the much discussed phrase “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16, no passage speaks definitely of the Church as the New Israel. There are indeed passages (such as the description in Revelation 21 of the founding of the new Jerusalem upon the twelve apostles of the Lamb rather than upon the twelve sons of Jacob) that may be used to support such an idea. And Gentile Christians are told, as were the Israelites of old, that they are the people of God, called out from the world. But is not the thought in such passages as Ephesians 2:11–22 that Gentile believers have been brought into Israel rather than that they are forming a new Israel? It is clear from Paul’s words in Romans 11:1, and indeed throughout chapters 9–11 of the great epistle, that God has not cast away his people in any final sense. In the end, Jews and Gentiles are to come together in the fulfillment of the wonderful purpose of God (Rom. 11:26, 33).
The one thing that the Gentile believer dare not do is to imagine himself in any sense superior to the Jew who fails to see Christ as Messiah. His own knowledge of Christ is all of grace. Left to himself, he would have fared no better than the scribe or Pharisee, since the spiritual pride that was their undoing is still the most subtle temptation of the Christian. His attitude to his Jewish brother must always be one of gratitude for all Israel has given him, of penitence for the terrible treatment that has needlessly added to the inescapable and true offense of the Gospel, and of loving compassion as in spite of all he seeks to commend to Israel Jesus of Nazareth, the true Messiah who by right belongs to her.
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