A poll released last week by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that twenty-six percent of the American public continues to believe that “Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.” Although the number has dropped from 31% in 2011, the ADL described it as “surprisingly large.”
In many ways it is strange that anyone continues to think this. In the wake of World War II a number of Christian leaders and organizations issued formal statements on this topic. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church categorically stated that the Jews as a whole could not be blamed for the death of Jesus.
And yet, some fifty odd years later, a quarter of regular Americans still think that Jews are to blame.
For all of the surprise over the results of the poll, there’s no real mystery about the origins of this idea. The claim that Jews were responsible for Jesus’s death is in the New Testament.
In all four of the canonical gospels a (presumably) Jewish crowd calls for the death of Jesus, and Jewish authorities spearhead efforts to arrest and convict him. The Gospels of Matthew and John, in particular, emphasize the role that “the people” and “the Jews” played in orchestrating Jesus’s death. In Matthew, the Roman governor, Pilate, asks the people whom they want to see released: Jesus or a common criminal. When they call for the criminal, Pilate washes his hands of responsibility for the death of Jesus in a basin of water. The crowd responds in unison, “His blood be on our hands and on the hands of our children” (Matthew 25:27).
This is pretty damning stuff, but when it comes to anti-Jewish sentiment in the Gospels, it gets even worse. In John, “the Jews” are repeatedly identified as the opponents of Jesus. Not some group of Jews, not some fringe group, but “the Jews.” In John 8:44, Jesus even accuses “the Jews” of being “from [their] father the Devil.” In religious terms, there’s no worse form of slander.
The historical legacy of these stories is devastatingly clear. They laid the groundwork for and nurtured nearly two thousand of years of anti-Semitism. There is no doubt that stories about the death of Jesus can provoke violence. In the medieval period, when the death of Jesus was publicly performed in passion plays at Easter time, riled-up audience members would spill out onto the streets and attack Jewish members of their communities. Such pogroms may lie in the past, but unsympathetic portraits of Jesus’s Jewish contemporaries persist in simplistic TV adaptations of the Easter story and in Mel Gibson’s drunken rants.
And, as this poll reveals, a quarter of Americans still hold Jews “responsible.” Are those who think this bigoted, Biblical fundamentalists, both, or neither?
Part of the problem might be the phrasing of the ADL’s question. Participants were asked if they believed that “Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.” The omission of the definite article—“the Jews”—while small, is significant. Even if only some Jews clamored for Jesus’s death in the Gospels, they were still Jews, and a good-natured, Biblically conversant American could answer in good faith, “Yes, Jews killed Jesus.”
This is what makes this issue different. The view that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus does not only measure the prevalence of a historically important caricature, it measures a certain kind of Biblical literacy.
That doesn’t mean that we let this slide. Given that the issue of responsibility for the death of Jesus is inextricably linked to the history of anti-Semitism, something stronger than “it wasn’t all Jews” and good wishes are required.
This is where History, with leather-elbow-patched tweed jacket billowing in the wind, glass-frames of steel, and an obsession with accuracy, does better.
There is some debate about whether the Romans allowed subject people to have jurisdiction over capital punishment. But, as Reza Aslan put it to me, “the method of execution settles the question once and for all. Crucifixion was a strictly Roman punishment for crimes against the state.”
The fact of the matter is that Jews—much less “the Jews”—didn’t kill Jesus. Not the Pharisees, not Herod, not <insert your conspiracy theorist cabal of Jewish leaders here>.
Pilate’s impromptu cuticle soak from the Gospel of Matthew should also find itself on the cutting room floor. It is utterly implausible. Flash mobs of thousands of people do not miraculously assemble and offer complicated answers in unison without the assistance of smartphones. Even the Pope agrees: in Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two, Benedict XVI asked, “How could the whole people have been present at that moment to clamor for Jesus’ death?” Amen to that.
The story in which Jesus calls the Jews offspring of Satan? Biblical scholars agree that it never happened. The story is found only in John, the youngest Gospel. More importantly, it’s not even clear that John meant “the Jews” at all. The Greek term translated in English Bibles as “Jews” could equally mean “Judeans” (inhabitants of the region of ancient Israel that included Jerusalem). It’s not a small difference. Translated differently, Jesus isn’t calling all Jews devil’s spawn, he’s talking only about inhabitants of the ancient equivalent of the Tri-State area.
Why would the Gospel writers create such stories? There are a variety of explanations. As Jews writing in the volatile aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, followers of Jesus found themselves adrift. They may have been trying to avoid attracting attention from the Romans. They may have been embroiled in religious disputes with other Jews who rejected their claims about Jesus. They may have been trying to “divorce Jesus from Judaism” in order to win Roman converts. The fact that historians always disagree is one reason they’ll never form a Justice League. But whichever explanation we follow it is clear that neither the Gospel writers nor Jesus intended to sow the seeds of anti-Semitism.
Reading the New Testament alone does not clear this up. Saying it wasn’t “all Jews” does not satisfy. What’s needed here is not just Biblical literacy, but historical competency.
One finding of the ADL poll was that the higher a participant’s education level, the less likely he or she was to hold anti-Semitic views or subscribe to negative views about Jews. Clearly that education included Biblical Scholarship 101.