Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Does the New Testament call Jews "Christ Killers"?

A question that has come to the surface as the result of the recent release of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion, has been boldly printed on the cover of Newsweek: "Who Really Killed Christ"? The question being asked in this context is, does The Passion support the age old label of the Jews being "Christ Killers?" The fact that it's being asked by many who haven't even seen the film, on hearing that it is rigidly true to the New Testament account, begs the question, is the New Testament, in and of itself seen as anti-Semitic and therefore politically incorrect?
While I've read a number of reviews, I couldn't give a first hand opinion as to the film itself, as I haven't seen it yet. Therefore, I'll restrict my question here to, does the New Testament, in fact, accuse the Jews of killing Christ?
I'm afraid that I couldn't proceed too far in defending the political correctness of the New Testament without beginning to sound like I'm trying to make the Bible sound like something it isn't -- a systematic compendium of well ordered thought, brimming over with twentieth century enlightenment. How would I then explain why Joshua shouldn't have been brought before an international war crimes tribunal for genocide? Why Wasn't King David unceremoniously ejected out the same door as Jim Baaker and Jimmy Swaggart for his relations with Bethsheba -- not to speak of the murder of her husband, while King Saul was rejected for something that would only make the back page of the local rag? What about King David's, and King Solomon's numerous wives? What about Hoseah marrying a prostitute? Or Jepthah sacrificing his daughter? What about Yeshua saying to the Syrophoenecian woman, in effect, "Get lost you dog!"
Do I believe in the Bible?
Yes, very much.
So, how do I explain all of the above?
I don't. I don't take the Bible as a politically correct, systematic compendium of well ordered thought, brimming over with twentieth century enlightenment. Nor do I take it as a mathematically logical set of formulas on how to maintain a well ordered life.
What the Bible does do is get its point across concerning just about every aspect of life, but to understand it you must read it as it was intended to be read.

...but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, and to people living 2000 years from now, politically incorrect... (I Corinthians 1: 23 Baruch's version)
So, back to the question -- er -- what question?
Let's go with this one: What if a few passages of the New Testament do insinuate that the Jews are "Christ Killers"?
Let's look at the context.
Who was Jesus? Was he a Roman Catholic? Was he a Protestant? Was he an Englishman?
No. He was a Jew -- a first century Jew, subject to Jewish law. He wasn't even a Roman citizen, like Paul was.
So, what happened?
A Jewish court tried a Jewish man, and judged, rightly or wrongly, that he had infringed the Jewish law in a way that warranted his death.
Is that such a big scandal? What nation has never been guilty of something like that?
Well, okay, so the one they sent to his death, in this case just happened to be the Messiah.
Okay, but whose Messiah? The Roman Catholic Messiah? The Anglican Messiah?
These institutions didn't even exist yet. Yeshua's only claim to Messiahship was based on Jewish Law and on the utterances of Jewish prophets.
Those Greco-Romans who were present at the crucifixion, far from being aghast at how Jews could do such a thing as kill "Our Christ", fully co-operated in the matter. They went even a step further by providing a crown of thorns and performing a mock coronation as "King of the Jews", a label obviously meant to insult the Jewish community as well. It's ironic that much later, the same Romans began calling the Jews "Christ Killers", but only when "Christ" was no longer thought of as Jewish. Never have we ever heard the accusation, "Killers of the King of the Jews".
When they mocked Him as "King of the Jews", the Greco-Roman world had absolutely no concept of a messiah. That only came later through Jewish preachers who came proclaiming what only became possible through His death. For the Gentiles to have any part in the whole affair to begin with somebody had to kill Christ as the atonement for the sin of humanity. It could happen no other way.
As Yeshua Himself once said, let He who is without sin cast the first stone. I'm very much afraid that we Gentiles, as sinful as we are, have gone and done just that by calling the Jews "Christ Killers", in fact, biting the hand that fed us.
Now, we've looked at how much weight the accusation carries given the historical setting of the act itself, and we've seen that, right or wrong, those making the accusation had no business making it. Now, let's see how the New Testament actually treats it.
Following the death and resurrection of Yeshua, the first one who sounds like he's calling the Jews "Christ Killers", is Peter. He makes the insinuation three times, the first, on the feast of Shavuot (or Pentecost as it was called in Greek) when he preached to the crowd who were attracted to the 120 followers of Messiah speaking in other languages:

Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:36)
Perhaps a more telling statement is the one he made to the crowd in the temple following the healing of the paralytic:
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know. Yes, the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. (Acts 3:13-18)
We notice three things here. First, he is addressing the members of the general public, and second, he is somewhat lenient with them, saying "I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers". Finally, he acknowledges that this was how it was meant to be from the beginning, so as to fulfill the plan of God.
When addressing the High Priest and other officials the next day, he doesn't sound quite as accommodating, probably because he's speaking to those who were directly involved:
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, Rulers of the people and elders of Israel: If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone. (Acts 4:8-11)
So, we see that Peter laid the responsibility directly where it rested, with those who actually did it, not the whole Jewish race, nor even the whole Jewish religion.
Let's now look at Paul's approach. Here is a passage from his speech to the synagogue in Antioch of Pysidia:
Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent. For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning Him. And though they found no cause for death in Him, they asked Pilate that He should be put to death. (Acts 13:26-28)
Here, we see that Paul lays the responsibility with "those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers".
So we see that while both Peter and Paul both state that it was the Jewish leaders who were responsible for the death of Messiah, they are very careful to lay the blame only on those directly involved.
Another point we need to make here is that both Peter and Paul were Jewish themselves. They did not see themselves as starting a new religion in opposition to Judaism. There is a big difference between the member of one group making a general accusation against another group, and someone making a statement about the group to which they belong. Peter and Paul were both insiders. They were not Roman Catholics (or even Protestants) making a sweeping general statement about the Jews. They were, themselves, Jews trying to bring change from within.
Paul was even more of an insider than Peter. He was a Pharisee (an Orthodox rabbi), who played by the rules, even when working for a change in the Jewish attitude towards Yeshua, as demonstrated by the events surrounding his first arrest. It began while he was going to the temple to offer a sacrifice to pay a vow according to Jewish Law. Shortly after that, when brought before the Sanhedrin, he was caught off guard on finding that the president was none other than the High Priest himself (often it was a member of the Pharisee sect, most notable of these being Hillel and Shammai, and later, Gamaliel). He acknowledged that because he hadn't realised this, he had said something out of order, so he apologised. Then, he said, "I am a Pharisee, and the son of a Pharisee..." and proceeded to use an insider argument to defend his case. Notice, he didn't used to be a Pharisee. He was still a Pharisee.
His approach to spreading the news of Messiah was "to the Jew first, and then the Gentile". He was the one credited with opening the door to Gentiles to become a part of the Messianic community. He didn't intend to start a separate religion. When the synagogue to whom he spoke the words quoted earlier didn't accept his message, he left saying, "I'm going to the Gentiles". He simply went out, with some of the Jews and interested Gentiles following and, in effect, started a new synagogue, officiated a similar way as other synagogues, with a committee of elders. His attitude towards the Jewish community can be summed up by the following passage:
I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Romans 9:1-5)
His opening the door to the Gentiles wasn't a totally new thing. Orthodox Judaism then, as now, has a provision for Gentiles who wish to worship God without having to conform to the whole Jewish Law. They have what is called the "Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah", or the "Noachide Law", derived from commandments God gave to Noah after the flood. These are remarkably similar to the guidelines the Apostles in Jerusalem wrote in a letter to believing Gentiles, which we have reproduced for us in Acts 15:23-29.
The only difference with the new Messianic sect was that Gentile believers can be a part as equals, not second class citizens. Again, this is made possible precisely because Messiah was put to death.
Having proclaimed the door open to the Gentiles, Paul gave them a stern warning never to take a superior attitude towards the Jews:
You will say then, Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in. Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, who are natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:19-24)
So, faith seems to be a tentative thing. It simply won't co-exist with revenge or any other attitude such as would even come close to applying the Blood Libe. We are forgiven, according to Yeshua, only as long as we forgive. It is ironic that it is this very same church, the Romans, to whom Paul wrote these words, that later became among the biggest offenders (though by no means the only ones).
The point is, it was a Jewish thing. The New Testament is a Jewish book. What we now call "Christianity" was a sect of Judaism. There was no such thing as a convert from Judaism to Christianity. The issue that Paul fought tooth and nail for was for Gentiles to be recognised as fellow believers without having to become Torah observant. There was never the question of whether Jews could or should keep kosher diets or keep the Sabbath etc. etc. -- until about one or two hundred years later. Once there was a Gentile majority in the Church, then leaders began demanding that Jewish converts forsake Jewish observances and pactices. The date for Resurrection Sunday was set so that it would never co-incide with Jewish Passover, because this was a "Christian" thing, not "Jewish". In fact, the name for it became "Easter", borrowed from a pagan Roman holiday (we'd rather be pagan than Jewish!). Now Christianity was a separate religion from Judaism, a concept totally foreign to Peter's and Paul's way of thinking.
My point is, the New Testament is a Jewish book, meant to be read in the context of the Jewish understanding of things. Of course, you'll read rebukes by Jews directed at their fellow Jews, but to use it to support the blood libel against the whole Jewish community, is not only out of context, but is about as far from the original intent as can be imagined. For myself, I humbly apologise to the Jewish community that we've done this.