In the seven hour documentary ‘Shoah’ there is a scene where the interviewer goes to Treblinka, Poland. The interviewer was a very clever Frenchman. In this section, Mass has just finished at the local Catholic Church. From the front steps of the church, you look out maybe 70 yards across a field where the train tracks ran into the chain link fence around the small extermination camp. It could easily be seen as you left worship on Sunday morning.
The interviewer is chatting with all the old men and the babushka’s as they mill around after church, talking about the War with them, swapping memories. Everyone is relaxed, freely reminiscing.
At one point the interviewer says, ‘Tell me something, why did all of those Jews die?’
One old lady was quick on the draw. She said ‘at the trial of Jesus the Jews said ‘His blood be upon us and on our children’, Matthew 27:25. They killed the Christ.’
I jumped awake. ‘What in the world?’
At first, I thought, that’s not in the Bible. I stopped the tape, looked up the passage, sure enough it is right there. And then I thought ‘why in the world would you have that text memorized?’
We memorize things that are really important to us. As a child I suppose every Baptist kid in the South knew John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ We memorized it because that was the summation of what we were taught to believe. At Christ Church if we ask children for a memorized verse they say, “Whatever is true, whatever is good, anything worthy of praise, think on these things”. It is etched on the front of the church.
And this woman had memorized a passage from the bible that was so obscure that I didn’t even recognize it immediately and I’ve been to seminary. Never mind what that says about theological education these days. This is not a memory bank hymn.
But why would you have something like that memorized? You got a question, boom, here’s the answer. Wow… stunning. You hear something like that and you realize how long and deep the concept is in the culture that the Jews are Christ killers.
It is naïve to suggest that these texts in the bible or even the theology of the Church is responsible for the anti-Semitism that developed over many centuries in Europe. It’s never that simple or direct. Rather hatred and prejudice that are part of the culture find their justification in religious dogma as well. Hatred and prejudice grow organically in the community and yes, they also can find support in religion. Usually prejudice get miles more distance out of dogma or text than the dogma or the text ever warranted.
Having said that, there is no question that the Church developed quite a few explicit anti-Semitic measures, particularly during the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages.
And because the Church became the predominant bearer of values in Europe, Christianity had a direct and substantial role in perpetuating and spreading the anti-Semitism that has dogged Europe ever since.
Right here, I must pause and note that this is one of the things that is different about free Church tradition rather than either the Orthodox branch (Greek or Russian) or the Roman branch. We can simply say we were wrong about these things whereas the keepers of tradition really have to tiptoe around them and acknowledge that they happened but it is all part of tradition too and we can’t just leave tradition behind. But we can leave tradition behind and we were wrong.
Even if we can’t undo the past, I thought you might be interested in how scholars deal with it in our texts today because these texts sound even more problematic in a world where we are desperately trying to develop mutual inter-faith respect for one another.
I remind you that the gospel of Matthew was written about 60 years after Jesus died. It was addressed to a Roman community fairly different from the Jews that Jesus actually lived among. Although the gospel comes to us in the form of historical narrative, it is not a historical document in the way that we think of historical documents.
In the story that we have the Jewish leaders appear to have secretly dispatched Jesus. The met in secret. They called false witnesses. They mocked Jesus. They had Jesus brought before Pilate, the Roman Governor. Pilate could find nothing wrong with Jesus and wanted to let him go. Whereupon the Jewish leaders presumably whipped up the crowd to have Jesus summarily executed. On the face of it the Jewish leaders appear to be part of a cabal to do Jesus in and the Romans merely the political machinery that get manipulated to do their bidding.
Scholars have pointed out that the early church would have a vested interest in making such a case. Why? During the period when Matthew’s gospel was composed, Christians were being actively persecuted and killed for their religion by the government of Rome. It wouldn’t make good political sense to incite the anger of the Roman’s by reminding them constantly that they killed Jesus. Better to make the Roman’s look like pawns caught up in a drama that they do not fully understand.
In Matthew and Mark, the Roman’s look about as favorable as they could given the circumstances. In both gospels, after Jesus dies, there is a Roman centurion standing nearby, who remarks ‘Surely this was the Son of God.’ The Jewish leaders don’t get it, but a lowly foot soldier does. It is a pretty sharp contrast.
In our second text, Pilate’s wife even has a dream saying that he should have nothing to do with Jesus. Romans were always having these religious dreams about bad things that would happen. It makes the Romans look like they didn’t want to kill Jesus but they just had to.
But there are substantial problems surrounding the trial of Jesus that give critical scholars pause. Many of them begin with the passage when Jesus is tried in a religious court before the Jews in the home of the High Priest Caiaphas. We are told that he was tried at night in the home of the high priest, that the Sanhedrin met there under cover of darkness for fear of a riot by the followers of Jesus. They met on the first night of Passover, trumped up false witnesses. Finally, they asked Jesus directly if he was the Son of God. He doesn’t directly reply. Asked again, Jesus merely says ‘you have said so’, whereupon the High Priest tears his cloak and pronounces that he has heard blasphemy. He turns Jesus over to Pilate at this point.
Most scholars (at Yale, Duke, Princeton) would say that this surely did not happen as reported. It strains the imagination on a number of substantial fronts. In the first place, the question of whether Jesus was the Son of God is a Greek way of thinking. Greeks had a number of gods with one divine parent and one human parent. Jews had no concept like that whatsoever. They weren’t expecting the Messiah to be divine in any way. So it is hard to imagine that the High Priest would have asked a question like this because it was framed in a way quite different from the way that Jewish scholars of the time thought.
But let’s imagine that Jesus was simply claiming to be the Messiah. As a number of scholars have pointed out it is “not a religious offense at all in Jewish law to claim to be the Messiah.”[i] Most certainly, it is not blasphemous to claim to be the Messiah. Foolish perhaps, but not blasphemous. That means that he could not have been charged or convicted by the Sanhedrin for this charge.
Secondly, Geza Vermes has pointed out, should this stealth trial by the High Priest and the Sanhedrin have taken place as reported they would have achieved the ‘considerable feat of breaking just about every rule in the book on a single occasion. For instance, holding a capital trial at night was prohibited. Then you have the story in Matthew, only in Matthew I might add, that the trial was held in the home of the High Priest. It is possible, though unlikely that Sanhedrin could actually fit into the home of the High Priest, with witnesses, guards, et. al..
Thirdly, this trial was held on what was probably the most sacred night of the year, the First night of Passover. Although not impossible, it is very hard to believe. It would be like a bunch of Christian ministers holding an ecclesiastical trial on Christmas Eve, interrupting our normal festivities and celebrations, to falsely charge someone on a charge of heresy. There is simply little that cannot wait for another day.
Finally, of lesser importance, but the Jews did not have the authority under Roman occupation to carry out an execution anyway. The Romans alone reserved for themselves that power.
Taken together, it would appear that fifty years after the event, the gospel writers were remembering the story in such a way as to make the Romans look the least worst by making the Jewish community the real culprit. It might have saved a few Christian lives but they could not have calculated how many Jewish lives this one story would cost as a result. In the long history of pogroms in Europe and Russia, surely this story was used time and again like the peasant woman in Treblinka, to rationalize violence against their unwanted neighbors, the Jews.
So why is it that Jesus was actually tried, convicted, and died? We can’t know for sure. I suspect that William Nicholls is pointing in the right direction when he says that Jesus ‘died… because of the enthusiasm of his own followers and of the crowd, who insisted on treating him as the Messiah in spite of his own precautions… If the Romans got wind of the messianic agitation around Jesus, they would have correctly regarded it as subversive.’[ii]
In the gospel of John, it was said that Jesus was given up to die because it was more expedient that one man should die for the people (Jn. 18:14). Something like that may well have been the point.
It would fit with the general theme that we have been developing up to this point that everyone deserted Jesus, all of us, in one fashion or another. We did what was expedient and we betrayed Jesus.
It is an important point. We betrayed Jesus. In the passion liturgy about Jesus in the Episcopal prayer book, this whole narrative of the trial, torture, and death of Jesus is read during Holy Week. And when they get to the part where Pilate stands before the people and says ‘should I release Barabas?’ It is all of the congregation that says ‘No’. And when Pilate asks ‘what should I do with Jesus?’ All the congregation says ‘Crucify him, crucify him.’
It is quite similar to the Passover story that is told around the Seder. When they read about their ancestors in bondage in Egypt, they reach the part of the Exodus, and everyone says together ‘When I came out of Egypt’. When God brought me out of Egypt.
These stories happened then but in some sense, we still participate in them. They are not only history they are also archetype. They are paradigmatic of our relationship with God. God comes after us in faithfulness, wooing us into covenant. We betray God under the guise of expedience. We are not overtly evil people, we are expedient people. We understand that some people need to be dispatched unjustly, so that the firm as a whole can go on. We would try continually to be like Pilate, washing our hands of the dirty work that needs to be done. And we will continually find, like lady MacBeth ‘that the damn spot won’t come out.
I think of a story from the New Yorker. A writer gets a call from his agent who announces to him that he is quitting. He is no longer an agent, he is now a manager. The story is right out of L.A. Now his agent wants to be his manager, which means he will have to hire another agent. The writer is incredulous. ‘Why are you doing this?’ he says.
The agents replies ‘I think the people representing you… (his voice trailed off)… could have done a better job. They could have cared a little more.
The writer whispers back ‘But you’ve been representing me.’
The agent says ‘You’re not looking at the big picture. Do you think they’ve really been taking care of you? Have they been in touch? On a weekly basis? Have they come up with any strategies? Have they ever bothered to ask you what you want?… This is your life. Serious stuff. Look, the agency has over five hundred clients. You’re probably in the top 40.’ He was outraged. ‘forget about calling you every week. Those people should’ve been kissing your behind.’
‘You mean that’s what you should have been doing’ the writer suggested…
‘Not anymore’ the agent reminded him. ‘I’ve left. I’m a manager now.’
‘And you want to manage me?’
‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘You’ve been a very loyal client… You should have been with someone who really cares. And guess what? That someone is me.’[iii]
The expedient way is perennial. Hog all the limelight when things are good. Take all the credit, even if you don’t deserve it, just because you can. Blame everyone around you when things go bad and exonerate yourself first and last. Let others pay the price and don’t think about it too much.
We see it all around us. Most importantly, we see it in ourselves when we look in the mirror, every so often. Humans have the hardest time learning to actually take responsibility.
The moral and spiritual way that we learn from Jesus is to take responsibility for our actions and stand for what you know to be true. Let the Truth be what guides you rather than your anxious ego needs. Think of others before yourself and find your place in the bigger picture.
Accept God’s grace that you are simply a work in progress and have faith that you are enough as you are. Become a person of moral and spiritual substance through God’s hope that fills you. And grow. Christ died for you too.
That message is profoundly positive. It doesn’t need scapegoats. No, we no longer need Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Muslims, Orthodox Hindus. We no longer need to be wedded to the prejudices and mistakes of our past.
We need critical thinkers in the Christian tradition, critical thinkers in the Jewish tradition, critical thinkers in the Muslim tradition, critical thinkers in the Hindu tradition to create a piety for our time, a new spirituality that lifts up the themes of inclusion, understanding, and mutual respect so that compassion can transcend fear, celebration can transcend suspicion, reconciliation can transcend conflict.
Jesus said to us, “Go ye therefore to all the nations, every single one of them, to the four corners of the earth. For you have all been invited to the wedding party. You have a place at the one humane table that God’s sets for us. Amen.
[i] Nicholls, William Christian anti-Semitism A History of Hate (London: Aranson Press, 1993) p. 106. See also Geza Vermes Jesus the Jew and Paul Winter’s The Trial of Jesus.