The historic charge “Christ Killers” leveled against Jews is one of the most bizarre indictments ever made. Its defiance of facts and logic would be comical if it weren’t for the horrific slaughter of untold numbers of Jews over the centuries based on that accusation. Bizarre and illogical because statements and narratives in the New Testament itself contradict that claim. Trumping all accusations is the Christian doctrine that the crucifixion was dictated by prophesy— God commanded the crucifixion as part of a divine plan.
That a naked king can be seen fully dressed in regal attire (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”) is testimony to the power of belief to distort perception. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Jews, who comprised the totality of Jesus’ devotees and followers, could be transformed collectively through selective perception into demonic enemies of Jesus. The fact that there would be no Christianity if not for the “multitudes” of Jews who embraced Jesus and his teachings did little, if anything, to mitigate the indictment throughout history. And despite the divided opinions among scholars and theologians about who was to blame for Jesus’ death, only Jews have been persecuted for the crime.
In his forthcoming book, Killing Jesus, author and media commentator Bill O’Reilly will cite new evidence that the Romans were primarily responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, according to a press release from his publisher. I hope O’Reilly can then explain why over a two thousand year expanse I cannot find evidence of a single incident of marauders or persecutors attacking Romans or their descendents with the charge “Christ Killers.”
Blaming Jews collectively for Jesus’ crucifixion has several powerful roots. Let’s look at the back story.
The Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Judaism, wants to eliminate Jesus. He’s been relentlessly criticizing the Jewish leadership for emphasizing rules and rituals at the expense of the spiritual core of the Torah. More bothersome, this rabbi from Galilee is gaining popularity. “Multitudes” from Jewish communities– “from Syria and beyond Jordan”–seek Jesus’ teachings and healings (Matthew 4:24-25). But the Sanhedrin faces a dilemma: Where and when to arrest Jesus? They decide against capturing him at one of his frequent gatherings, where he would be easy to find. They reject this option for fear that his loving devotees would riot if the authorities dared to threaten Jesus (Mark 14:2 ; Matthew 26:4). Jews protecting and defending Jesus? And the Jews killed Jesus?
So the Sanhedrin doesn’t take that obvious course for locating Jesus. Instead they decide to capture him at a small gathering he will be attending with his disciples. And they pay Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ leading disciples, thirty pieces of silver to tell them where he will be on the eve of Passover and to identify Jesus with a kiss. Is it possible that no one in the arresting party, which included Jewish temple guards, Jewish priests, and Jewish elders, would be able to identify Jesus–their most wanted man (Luke 22:52; Matthew 26:47; Mark 14:43)?
The arresting party finds Jesus in Gethsemane Garden, where Judas told them he would be after their “Last Supper.” Jesus is taken into custody, is tried, and then crucified. But how in this scenario, even if Judas Iscariot was a turncoat, did Jews collectively become the villains? If this doesn’t make any sense neither does the rest of the story. In the first century, Christianity and Judaism began to slowly part ways. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, tried desperately to make his brand of Jewish Christianity the new Judaism. He failed to accomplish that in his meetings in Jerusalem with Jesus’ disciples, who continued their dedication to Judaism while embracing Jesus as the prophesied Jewish messiah. After Paul’s death the movement that he started became increasing dominated by Roman Gentile converts. The Gospel writers therefore favored blaming the Jews rather than the Romans for Jesus’ death–especially since Roman legions suffered severe casualties in the brutal Jewish rebellion against Rome that resulted in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.
Much to the ire of the developing Christian Church, the Jewish Christian populace and other converts didn’t fully grasp that Christianity was a new and separate religion. Many Jewish Christians continued to identify with Judaism. Even as late as the fourth century, after the council of Nicaea established a unified Catholic Church, Christians attended synagogues in great numbers. Why else would St. John of Chrysostom, a leading fourth-century figure in the Church, address many of his vicious “Homilies Against the Jews” to Christians who celebrated Jewish holidays and prayed in synagogues? From then on the Church stepped up its vilification of Judaism to finally sever its ties. What better way to impose an insurmountable obstacle between the two religions than the charge “Christ Killers”?
Contributing further to the divide, the Church kept the Bible out of the hands of commoners by discouraging (some say forbidding) them to own or read the Bible on their own–a church policy that persisted for a thousand years until the Protestant Reformation. During those years translating of the Bible into native languages was punishable by burning at the stake. That was the fate of William Tyndale, who dared translate the New Testament into English in 1536 CE. Thus, the populace only knew the selected and preferred stories they were told at Church services. And the omissions washed out Judaism. Imagine yourself as a devoted Christian during the Middle Ages. You attend Mass on Holy Friday (Good Friday) commemorating Jesus’ suffering and his crucifixion. You are told that the Jews killed Jesus—and then you watch a passion play that dramatizes the suffering of Jesus and blames the Jews. Following that, you might hear a story or poem about the “blood libel”–fabricated accounts of Jews killing Christian children and extracting their blood for Passover matzoh and other rituals. Here’s a translation of a popular thirteenth-century Flemish poem, cited by Jeremy Cohen in his book Christ Killers:
And when they had stripped off his clothes,
The dirty Jews, the stinking dogs,
They inflicted many wounds on him
With daggers and knives
And then, still in the same place, caused
All of the blood to flow from his body
And collected this blood in a vessel.
They did this
Because with this blood, I know,
They wished to celebrate their sacrament;
For it was their custom, and this is no lie,
To obtain a Christian child every year
young, healthy, and rosy,
This child they put to death
In order to have his blood.
Is it surprising that fired-up Christians would emerge from Good Friday services and sermons seeking violence against Jews?
I’ve wondered how the populace would have reacted had other passages of the Gospels been emphasized. What if they had learned that the term “Jew” appears 202 times in the New Testament and that 82 of those mentions are in the Gospels? What if they discovered that the word “Christian” never appears in the Gospels at all? What would the response have been if churchgoers had heard that when Jesus, who was called rabbi by his followers, was not teaching Torah to multitudes of fellow Jews he was praying and teaching in synagogues? What if they had learned that the term “synagogue” appears 44 times in the Gospels? Would they have been shocked to discover that Jesus and his family attended Jewish religious services in the Temple in Jerusalem every year, as prescribed in the Torah? And if Jesus had rejected Judaism, as many were taught and believed, how would they comprehend Jesus telling the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24)? Or his instruction to his disciples not to take his teachings to the Gentiles but only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5)?
But those “what ifs” never happened. And the anti-Semitic teachings drove Jews to shun Jesus and Christianity, thereby imposing an ever widening distance between the two religions. I was recently reminded of that legacy, which reverberates to this day. In response to an article I wrote about the Christian Jewish divide, a Jewish reader sent me a disturbing anecdote from his childhood in a suburban community near a large American city:
“We lived in a small house next to a Catholic family that had two kids my age with whom I played until this incident. These kids started school at a Catholic school and when they came back they said they could no longer play with me because I had killed their God, Jesus. I had never heard of Jesus, so I asked my father who Jesus was. He said Jesus was a thief in the temple and he was chased out. This account soured me on religion and I have been a disbeliever ever since.” Today, in a new climate of reconciliation, both Christians and Jews need to understand how their distorted views have been conditioned by destructive forces that sought separation and opposition. Now we must resurrect the common ground to further mutual respect and understanding between the two faiths.
Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, which is available at Amazon (grayscale and color edition), Barnes and Noble, and other major outlets.