This question has probably drawn more illogical answers than any other query in church history. For many unhappy centuries, anti-Semitism prompted the reply: “The Jews—as a people—then and now.” In 1966, Vatican Council II rejected that view and relieved the Jewish people of any blanket charge of “deicide” (the term, however, is unsuitable, since God cannot be killed, and it was not included in the final document). Now the understandable revulsion against the change of collective Jewish guilt for Good Friday has led to an opposite trend among some theologians, both Christian and Jewish: the gospel narratives of the Passion are historically inaccurate, they claim, for anti-Semitic prejudice has colored their portrayal of a Jewish prosecution of Jesus.

The most extreme statement came in 1971 with the publication of The Trial and Death of Jesus (Harper & Row), in which Haim Cohn argues that Annas and Caiaphas, far from being antagonists of Jesus, were actually his sympathetic co-religionists who “did all that they possibly and humanly could to save Jesus, whom they dearly loved and cherished as one of their own.” Other scholars, while not faulting the gospel writers for outright anti-Semitism, suggest that they were merely tampering with the truth for political purposes: unless a reluctant Pilate were made to appear pressured by Jewish authorities, how could Romans be converted to believe in someone who was crucified by a Roman governor?

The discussion reached the popular level a year ago when Newsweek (April 23, 1973) and other journals reported on this reappraisal of the Passion story, fueled largely by Jeffrey Sobosan’s article in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Winter, 1973). The trend was perhaps best summarized when ...

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