The Jews and the Death of Jesus

It is hardly surprising to find some discordant notes among the general chorus of enthusiastic praise for the recent Vatican Ecumenical Council’s draft declaration on the Jews. Thus, a Reuters dispatch from Damascus, under date of December 5th, reports a protest by the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole Orient. The Council’s statement that the crucifixion “cannot be attributed to the whole [Jewish] people then alive, much less to that of today,” is totally unacceptable to Patriarch Ignatius Yacoub III, who said:

The creed of the Church…is that responsibility…lies with the Jewish people until the world ends. The Bible, which recorded this creed, was not written for one generation, but for all generations.

Reuters did not say which passage or passages the Patriarch had in mind. Perhaps he isn’t a very good Biblical scholar, and almost certainly he isn’t much of a historian. But that hardly matters when he has so much history on his side—history in its meaning of “that which has happened.” Whether a whole people may legitimately be held responsible for an event, past or present, is an interesting moral and theological problem—and sometimes a political problem, one with which our own age has been seriously troubled in quite a different context from that of the trial and death of Jesus. It cannot be denied, however, that, whatever the rights or wrongs, the notion of collective Jewish guilt has been a potent social force for nearly 2000 years, and its doctrinal roots go all the way back to the Fourth Gospel. Why and how that should have happened is a complicated story which has little, if anything, to do with the answer to a different historical question, Who crucified Jesus?, the title of a well-known book by Professor Solomon Zeitlin, now re-issued.1

There is a simple answer, of course. The Roman government crucified Jesus, through the instrumentality of its procurator in Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But that is too simple; one might even say simple-minded. The question raised in all four Gospels (in different degrees of intensity) is that of the role played by the Jews, and specifically by their leadership in Jerusalem, the high priesthood and the Sanhedrin. Was it they who were the prime movers, bringing so much pressure that the reluctant procurator finally agreed? The Vatican Council by implication accepts that view. The draft declaration “absolves” the Jews as a collectivity, but not all Jews at the time, individually or institutionally. And, indeed, the Council could not have gone further without rejecting the Gospel account altogether. They are the sole source of information about the Passion—that cannot be said often enough or sharply enough—and all four agree on the responsibility of some Jews. Professor Zeitlin calls the latter Quislings, which is a neat way of turning the flank of the controversy, though the aptness of the analogy is not so certain as he makes out.

Judaea was a turbulent state. Autocratic rule had become habitual, first by the Hasmoneans, then…

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