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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 by Herod and his family, and now by the Romans, none of them an attractive or lovable lot. The people were divided, bitterly, and it is characteristic of Jewish history in this period that class divisions and political conflicts were indistinguishable from sectarian religious disputes. Josephus is our main authority, and nothing could be more revealing than his persistent use of the word “bandits” as a label not only for the outlaws who existed in considerable numbers in the mountains and deserts, but also for those who eventually brought about the great and unsuccessful revolt against Rome (ending in the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70), among whom the Zealots seem to have been the main moving spirits. Now the Zealots were a traditionalist religious sect, who were as hostile to the Jewish aristocracy and high priesthood, for whom Josephus spoke, as to the Roman overlords. One must hold firmly to this sharp class conflict if one wishes to understand the age and its events. To say, with Professor Zeitlin, that “the Jewish people were crushed under Roman tyranny,” is to miss that, and to fall into precisely the same trap as the collective-guilt argument. The class represented by Josephus did not feel tyrannized, or, at the very least, they accepted the Romans as an indispensable buttress for their own position; on the other hand, the “bandits” were being tyrannized by high priests and kings long before the Romans took over.

Given that background, it is really a pseudo-question to ask whether the charge against Jesus was a religious one or political. The two were inseparable. It was perhaps possible (though unlikely) to be politically seditious without involving oneself in religious matters; it was wholly impossible to challenge the religious authority in any way without inviting the charge of political opposition—and there could no longer be political opposition which was not held to be seditious and punished accordingly. The early history of Christianity throughout the Empire, not only in Judea, is evidence enough, as are the complex shifts in the relations between Christians and the Roman state until they triumphed in the fourth century.

What, then, actually happened? Not even the Synoptic Gospels provide a clear and coherent account, ignoring the added confusions and impossibilities of the Fourth Gospel. There is one school of thought, to which I belong, which holds that no reconstruction is possible from such unsatisfactory evidence. Even if one could accept the view recently re-stated with much vigor by A. N. Sherwin-White that the Acts and Gospels are qualitatively no different as historical sources from Herodotus or Tacitus2—a view which I believe misreads both the intent and the methods of their authors—one does not get very far. Mr. Sherwin-White has been able to demonstrate that the New Testament is very accurate in its details about life at the time, whether about geography and travel or the rules of citizenship and court procedures. Why should it not be? It is made up of contemporary documents, regardless of the accuracy of the narrative, and so reflects society as it was. That still does not tell us anything about the narrative details, and they are what matter. For that Mr. Sherwin-White must, in the end, select and reject, explain and explain away, just as every other scholar has done for as long as anyone has felt the urge (and the possibility) of a historical reconstruction of the Passion.

One particular point of debate merits special notice. It is the Fourth Gospel in particular which raises it:

Pilate said, “Take him away and try him by your own law.” The Jews answered, “We are not allowed to put any man to death.”

Is that last statement true? Professor Zeitlin and others say it is not and that this deliberate falsification is the heart of the effort to transfer the onus from the Romans to the Jews.3 Had the Jewish leadership really wished to eliminate Jesus, the argument runs, they could have done so by the simple device of trying and executing him according to the law. There was no need to drag in Pilate at all. Against this, Mr. Sherwin-White has produced powerful evidence that the one thing the Romans promptly abolished in their provinces was the right of native organs of government to pass sentence of death. This may have happened illegally from time to time, but the fundamental rule was unequivocal—and self-evident. He is probably right, but it still does not follow, as he seems to think, that the veracity of the Gospel narrative has thereby been substantiated, or even been made more probable in a significant sense.

Far be it from me to suggest, no matter how faintly, that it is ever unimportant to get the historical record right. But the feeling will not go away that there is an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it all. There is something unhappily naive about the implication that anti-Semitism might quietly disappear if one could only demonstrate decisively that no Jews, or just a few Quislings among them, shared in the responsibility for the crucifixion. When it comes right down to it, welcome as the Vatican Council’s declaration must be, its practical significance is problematical. Collective Jewish wickedness permeates the whole of western culture. Are we to undertake a great campaign of elimination, beginning, say, with Bach’s Passion according to St. John, the words and music together? The dead past never buries its dead. The world will have to be changed, not the past.

Letters

Jesus and the Jews March 11, 1965

  1. 1

    Block Publishing Co., 250 pp., $4.50. Although this is called a 4th edition, it is only a photographic reproduction of a text written during the war, with a new 4-page introduction.

  2. 2

    Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 204 pp.

  3. 3

    Perhaps the best statement of this position will be found in Paul Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 216 pp.

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