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Difficult Texts: The Passion Narratives and the Crucifixion

[Excerpted with the author's permission from his "Difficult Texts: Interpreting New Testament Images of Jews and Judaism" in Darrell Jodock, ed., Covenantal Conversations: Christians in Dialogue with Jews and Judaism (Minneapolis: 2008): 76-90.]

Who crucified Christ?

One of the most fateful charges made against Jews, and one that has been applied - in an astonishing leap of anachronism - to those living as many as 20 centuries later, is: "You crucified Christ!" And this was not only true in Nazi Germany; even Jews in America today, with its so much more benign environment, can recall being harassed as children, on the playground or in the street, as "Christ killers." It would be comforting to be able to say that the New Testament offers no basis for such a notion of extending blame to persons who, historically, had nothing to do with the events in question, but in fact this tendency can be found there. We have already seen this in the way in which the Fourth Gospel uses the collective phrase "the Jews." The situation is similar in the book of Acts, where the word "Jews" occurs 80 times.

To be sure, in many cases the phrase is simply descriptive, as in the Pentecost story: "Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem" (2:5). But the situation soon turns sinister:

  • After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him [Paul] (9:23)
  • But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas (13:50)
  • But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and setthe city in an uproar (17:5)
  • He was about to set sail for Syria when a plot was made against him by the Jews (20:3)

Again, as in the case of similar usages in John, one has to ask, if one seeks to envision the matter historically, "Which Jews would have been engaging in such plots?" Surely not every member of the Jewish community in Damascus (9:23), Antioch (13:50), Thessalonica (17:5), or elsewhere in Greece (20:3). A cadre of leaders, perhaps, or those most incensed by the new heresy. The obscuring of such distinctions by use of the general term "the Jews" opens the door for readers to assume collective guilt.

The theme of collective guilt is evident in the sermons or speeches in Acts, as well as in the narrative material. This is already the case with Peter's address, on the day of Pentecost, to the "men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem":

this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law (2:23)

How many of the citizens of Jerusalem, one must ask — not to speak of the whole of Judea — would have been involved in these actions? Yet the language used implies that all are blameworthy. Similarly, in Peter's speech following the miraculous healing at the gate of the Temple (chapter 3), he addresses "all the people," again with the collective "you":

But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead (3:14)

It is interesting that the qualification is added, "I know that you acted in ignorance" (3:17); but the sting still remains.

In interpreting such passages, we have to bear in mind that the book of Acts, from a scholarly point of view, must be seen as reflecting the time of its composition as much as or more than the time of the history it narrates. But this does not alleviate the problem with which we are grappling; in fact, it makes it worse. It might be plausible to castigate those who were at least somewhere close, in both space and time, to the blameworthy events, and who if not directly involved, might at least have done something to prevent them. It is another matter if the "you" is extended to mean any and all Jews anywhere in the Greco­-Roman world two generations later. This is a slippery slope indeed, viewed from the standpoint of subsequent history.

The Passion Narratives

We can direct the same sort of question to the Passion Narratives. trying to unwrap the collective term "the Jews" to discern who might have been involved in each case. Who was it that shouted out. "Crucify him, crucify him!" or that uttered the infamous cry, "His blood be on us and on our children"? Surely not all the Jews then resident in Palestine, much less throughout the world. If we look closely at the text, we see that the Gospels are, in fact, often rather specific about who the actors were:

Plotting to have Jesus put to death

  • Mt 27:1 all the chief priests and the elders of the people
  • Mk 15:1 the chief priests in consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council
  • Lk 22:66 the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes

Making accusations against him

  • Mt 27:12 the chief priests and elders (before Pilate)
  • Mk 15:3 the chief priests (before Pilate)
  • Lk 23:10 the chief priests and the scribes (before Herod) Expressing preference for Barabbas
  • Mt 27:20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas
  • Mk 15:11 but the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead

Shouting "Crucify him!" (or, in Matthew, "Let him be crucified!")

  • Mt 27:22f. all of them (the chief priests and the elders and the crowd, v.20)
  • Mk 15:13f. the crowd, stirred up by the chief priests
  • Lk 23:13,21 the chief priests, the leaders, and the crowds ("they," v.21)

Uttering the "blood curse"

  • Mt 27:25 Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children"

We see from this that for the most part, the texts are clear in placing blame for the tragic sequence of events at the feet of particular, identifiable groups — a leadership cadre or cabal, representing the political and/or religious "establishment." Only in the last text cited (Matthew 27:25), does the author, fatefully, insist on "the people as a whole" as the actor. The other texts use the much more delimited term "crowd" (ochlos) rather than "people" (laos). How many would this group, under either term, likely have included? The reference could only be to those who had gathered outside Pilate's headquarters, the praetorium,10at that particular time. Several hundred, perhaps, or even several thousand — but in any case, only a small proportion of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, not to speak of the millions who remained at home elsewhere in Palestine or in the diaspora.11

And what of the chilling reference to his blood being "upon us and upon our children"? Does that doom all subsequent generations of Jews to be labeled "Christ killers"? Hardly. It is likely that this was simply a formulaic way of saying, 'We take responsibility for our actions," with the "we" referring to those actually present. And note that even for them, if we take the text literally, the curse was to last through only one further generation, not in perpetuity. For the author of Matthew, this may well have been meant to signify the destruction that was, in fact, visited on Jerusalem just a few decades after Jesus' time, namely, in the failed rebellion of the late '60's.

The Second Vatican Council got it right when it stated, in its famous declaration Nostra Aetate (1965): "True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. Jn. 19:6), still, what happened in his passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today."12

Similar declarations have been made by many other Christian bodies, e.g. by the Episcopal Church in the 1964 statement by its House of Bishops on "Deicide and the Jews" (1964), which notes that, among other considerations, "Simple justice alone proclaims the charge of a corporate or inherited curse on the Jewish people to be false." Likewise, "Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations," issued by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1998, states:

Lutheran pastors should make it clear in their preaching and teaching that although the New Testament reflects early conflicts, it must not be used as justification for hostility towards present-day Jews. Blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people, and stereotypes of Judaism as a legalistic religion should be avoided.

Some linguistic strategies

We dealt above with some ways in which the collective term "the Jews" can be deconstructed to reveal the more specific actors underneath. There is also a very interesting linguistic strategy for reducing the negative impact of this term, and that is to translate it differently. Malcolm Lowe, followed by some other scholars, has urged that the term hoi loudaioi as used in the Fourth Gospel should in many or most places by rendered not as "the Jews," but "the Judeans" — meaning the residents of the province of Judea. The hostility between the Jesus movement and hoi loudaioi then could be understood as reflecting the conflict between a charismatic, perhaps heretical and/or revolutionary "Jesus movement" centered in Galilee and the governing religious and political authorities in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem. The Galilean movement felt a prophetic disdain for the Judean power structure, and the latter felt an anxious fear of the former. This conflict between north and south, which is at the same time one between rural and urban, between the peasantry and the power elite, culminates in Jesus' arrest (on flimsy grounds) and all that followed.

This proposal to give a geographical interpretation to the term loudaioi is appealing, especially with reference to passages such as the following (inserting "Judeans" where it normally reads "Jews"):

  • After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Judeans were looking for an opportunity to kill him (John 7:1)
  • Then after this he said to the disciples. "Let us go to Judea again." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?" (John 11:8)

The idea of translating most or all occurrences of hoi loudaioi in this way has not met with broad acceptance, but it offers an intriguing possibility for making sense of some of the most difficult texts.13

Another linguistic strategy which serves to downplay the notion of collective guilt is to substitute for the general term "the Jews" more specific terms like "the religious leaders," "those standing nearby," or whoever the context indicates may in fact have been involved. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) translation published by the American Bible Society in 199514 does this consistently. For example, in the very first occurrence of hoi loudaioi in the Fourth Gospel, the NRSV reads: "The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, 'Who are you?"' (John 1:19). The TEV has: "The leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and temple helpers to ask ...." Paraphrasing translations such as Peterson's The Message15 take a similar tack. Even if the translation being used in a given situation, e.g. in the formal reading of the appointed lessons, does not incorporate this feature, a preacher or teacher may choose to do so. This can be done either by substituting an appropriate word or phrase in the actual reading of the text, or using it in an explanatory comment before or afterward. This has the advantage of both illuminating the meaning of the text by making it more precise, and avoiding the constant repetition of the phrase "the Jews," which the hearer can so easily identify with Jews today.

Another important strategy is to provide a more nuanced interpretation of a term like "the Pharisees" that has taken on so negative a cast, due to the Gospels' trenchant critique of them. It is useful to note that the charge of hypocrisy against this movement (or against some representatives of it) was so shocking precisely because Pharisaism was in its essence something admirable. It was what we would call a lay renewal movement, devoted to working out in concrete terms the meaning of covenantal faithfulness for daily life. Not only the Temple but the home, the marketplace, and every aspect of life were to be arenas of holiness. If an element of rigidity or self-righteousness had set in, such is the case with many religious movements after the first flush of creativity has passed.

It is noteworthy, too, that in the difficult time after the destruction of the Temple, Judaism owed its survival to the Pharisaic movement. The Zealots had been defeated, the temple priesthood and the civil authorities were no more, and experiments like the Qumran community had also been crushed. What remained was prayer, Torah study, and the call to faithfulness — in other words, the program of the Pharisees. In this sense, the Pharisees were the direct ancestors of what came to be called Rabbinic Judaism, the rich heritage of which Jews are still enjoying to this day.16

Further tools for interpretation

A pastor or any reader of the Bible who wants to take into account considerations such as those surveyed above may wonder how one can keep up with all the pertinent scholarship. Fortunately, there are some excellent new tools available for this purpose.

The New Interpreter's Study Bible, published by Abingdon Press in 2003, shows the results of a diligent effort to be sensitive to the question of the image of the Jews and Judaism in the New Testament. This is not surprising when one notes that Prof. Walter J. Harrelson of Vanderbilt University, a veteran of Christian-Jewish dialogue, served as General Editor of the project. This massive volume (2300 pages) provides a multitude of insights about the meaning of texts relating to this concern as well as warnings against common misinterpretations. The numerous Special Notes and Excurses on particular topics provide useful supplements to the verse-by-verse commentary.

Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis have also produced a highly valuable tool in their book Preaching the Gospel without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004). This very useful volume provides brief commentaries on all the Gospel lessons in the ecumenical three-year lectionary. The authors' stated aims, with regard to each of these some 150 texts, are the following:

  • to alert the reader to anti-Jewish ways of misreading the text (and thereby, they believe, misinterpreting the Christian faith);
  • to surface themes and echoes from the Hebrew Scriptures and other Jewish literature that enrich one's understanding of the text;
  • to heighten the reader's awareness of the social, economic, and political realities underlying the text; and
  • to clarify the nature of the various Jewish groups at that time (scribes, Pharisees, etc.) and Jesus' relation to them.

Allen and Williamson have brought a wealth of learning and a great sensitivity to what is at stake for Christian-Jewish relations to bear upon this task. The same is true of their valuable subsequent volume, Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law (Westminster John Knox, 2006).

A similar work that sheds light on many pertinent passages is Gerard S. Sloyan's Preaching the Lectionary: An Exegetical Commentary with CD ROM (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

Sloyan is also well acquainted with the Christian-Jewish dialogue, and can be counted on to offer frank, even acerbic, comments on passages that he feels have contributed to Christian anti-Judaism. Also worth consulting is Sloyan's extensive study of the nature, causes, and interpretations of Jesus' death in his The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), also published in an abbreviated version as Why Jesus Died (Facets Series, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

Finally, the many recent studies of "the Jewishness of Jesus" can be helpful in evoking in Christians a sense of identification with Jews and Judaism, rather than antipathy towards them. Especially valuable are studies of Jesus done by Jewish scholars, who are able to place this material in the context of Jewish history and practice. Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford and an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, is particularly noteworthy for having produced three volumes on the subject: Jesus the Jew: A Historian's Reading of the Gospels (1973), Jesus and the World of Judaism (1983), and The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993).17 To this he has added yet another volume entitled The Changing Faces of Jesus (2001).18 And there is a rich array of other Jewish scholars whose works are making distinguished contributions to the study of Christian origins and of the "parting of the ways" between these two sibling faiths.19

Suggestions for preaching

While all Christians need to learn to read the New Testament in such a way as to avoid anti­ Jewish stereotypes and generalizations, a special burden falls on those who have the weekly task of preaching on the appointed lessons, including those we have dubbed "difficult texts," It may be helpful to offer, in conclusion, some summary suggestions for those who bear this particular responsibility:

  1. Ask what a text meant then (a matter largely of scholarship), and what it means now (a matter of faithful and creative interpretation) - realizing that these might not be the same.

  2. Emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and his indebtedness to the finest traditions of his people. Understand his criticism of them as prophetic "speaking the truth in love,"

  3. Be aware of where the text you are dealing with stands in the historical development of the New Testament, and how it may reflect particular conflicts at the time of its composition.

  4. Use a translation that provides sensitive renderings of passages referring to Jews, or else add these interpretations yourself (e.g., "the Jewish leaders" rather than "the Jews"),

  5. Offer explanatory comments on difficult texts when they occur in the lectionary, either before reading them or in the course of preaching on them.

  6. Be willing to read a text "forwards" as well as "backwards," i.e. to consider its historical consequences - for good or ill - as well as its antecedents.

  7. Avoid stereotypes such as "legalism" or "works-righteousness" in describing Judaism. Appreciate Jewish efforts to remain faithful to the covenant, understood as God's gracious gift and guidance.

  8. Provide opportunities for people to experience the living reality of Judaism today, through synagogue visits, common service projects, or living room dialogue groups.

  9. Take special care during Lent and Holy Week to set forth the story of the Passion without implying guilt for Jesus' death on the part of the Jewish people collectively.

  10. If possible, be part of a clergy group that includes rabbis as well as priests and ministers, and share your joys and difficulties in the ministry of preaching.


  1. Matt. 27:27 (cf. John 18:28).

  2. The Encyclopaedia Judaica, article "Population," states that a reasonable estimate is that "shortly before the fall of Jerusalem the world Jewish population exceeded 8,000,000, of whom probably not more than 2,350,000-2,500,000 lived in Palestine."

  3. As cited in Philip A Cunningham, ed., Pondering the Passion: What's at Stake for Christians and Jews (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), p. 55. Also available in many other sources.

  4. Despite its lack of general acceptance, the rendering "the Judeans" has been used in at least three translations known to the present writer: (a)   Lectionary of the Christian People (3 vols., New York: Pueblo, and Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986-88), a re-translation of the texts of the three-year lectionary by Gordon Lathrop and Gail Ramshaw. Also translates hoi loudaioi as "the Jewish people." (b)  The translation by Norman A Beck cited above (note 6). In addition to "the Judeans," Beck also uses other renderings of hoi loudaioi as he deems them situationally appropriate, e.g. "Jesus' own people." (c) The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, translated by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993: reprinted 1997, HarperSanFrancisco). (Includes the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.) The reason given here for using "Judeans" rather than "Jews," however, is historical. unlike Lowe's geographical rationale. The editors propose the following use of terms (italics added): "The religion of the first Jerusalem temple was practiced by Israelites. The religion of the second temple (520 B.C.E.- 70 C.E. was practiced by Judeans. The religion of the rabbis and synagogues (90 C.E. and continuing) was and is practiced by Jews" (p. 545). Thus they deem the term "the Jews" inappropriate for the earlier period.

  5. New York: American Bible Society. Not to be confused with the Bible Society's earlier "Today's English Version" (TEV).

  6. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993 and subsequent editions).

  7. A classic text on the Pharisees from an appreciative standpoint is Ellis Rivkin, The Hidden Revolution: The Pharisees' Search for the Kingdom Within (Abingdon, 1978).

  8. All Philadelphia or Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

  9. New York: Viking Compass.

  10. Jewish scholarship on Jesus down to the early 1980's was summarized by Donald A. Hagner in The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis and Critique of Modem Jewish Study of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). A survey to a later point was offered by the present writer in his essay "The Quest for the Jewish Jesus," in Oliver Rafferty, SJ, ed., Reconciliation: Essays in Honour of Michael Hurley (Dublin: Columba, 1993). Some of the most accessible works on the subject are Jacob Neusner's A Rabbi Talks With Jesus: An lntermil/ennial. Interfaith Exchange (New York: Doubleday, 1993) and his companion volume Children of the Flesh, Children of the Promise: A Rabbi Talks With Paul (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1995). See also the symposium edited by Arthur E. Zannoni, Jews and Christians Speak of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), and the more recent collection of essays edited by Paula Fredriksen and Adele Reinhartz, Jesus, Judaism, and Christian Anti­ Judaism: Reading the New Testament After the Holocaust (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002). For detailed expositions of the Gospels in the light of rabbinic literature, see Samuel Tobias Lachs, A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (New York: KTAV, 1987) and Rabbi Michael Hilton with Fr. Gordian Marshall, O.P., The Gospels and Rabbinic Judaism: A Study Guide (New York: KTAV, 1988). On Paul, see Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Paul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale, 1990) and the symposium edited by Hayim Perelmuter and Wilhelm Wuellner, Paul the Jew: Jewish/Christian Dialogue (Berkeley: Center for Hermeneutical Studies, 1992).