Tuesday, October 25, 2011

K is for Killers

Not just killers but Christ Killers! When Matthew wrote his gospel late in the first century C.E., he pinned the blame for Jesus’ execution squarely on the Jews. Matthew reports that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilatus, offered to spare either Jesus of Nazareth or a “thief” named Jesus Barabbas. Pilate allowed the Jewish crowd that had gathered that morning to make the choice. Granted this opportunity, the Jewish mob howled its preference for Barabbas. When Pilate asked what was to be done with Jesus of Nazareth, “the Jews,” as Matthew calls them, shouted “Crucify him!” over and over. And then, when Pilate hesitated, openly displaying his uneasiness, the Jewish mob took him off the hook by shouting: “May his blood be upon us and upon our children.”

Whether this incident is “historical” or not, a great many Christians believe it happened exactly as Matthew describes it. Jesus’ later cry from the cross that very same day: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” [Luke Chapter 23; Verse 34] has not erased the memory of the earlier guilt-embracing shout from the Jewish crowd. Many take Jesus’ cry for forgiveness as applying only to the Romans. Nor has Jesus’ earlier statement, in Matthew 16: 21, uttered days before his martyrdom, stating that he was going to Jerusalem knowing that he was going to die there, had any ameliorating effect on his followers’ unending animosity toward “the Jews.”

Furthermore, the mob which freed Barabbas that day, did not make up a majority of the Jews then living in Jerusalem—much less those living outside the city limits. Perhaps those who gathered before Pontius Pilate that fateful morning might have made up 0.01% of the Jews then alive.
 How could anyone seriously suggest that this tiny group, acting entirely on its own, be granted the authority to “commit” the entire Jewish people then and forever after?

There are other reasons to doubt Matthew’s account. The infamous mob might very well have shouted “Crucify him,” but has there ever been a crowd in recorded history which shouted a shout like this: “May his blood be upon us and upon our children.” This is not the sort of thing crowds shout—not then, not now, not ever. Even if someone had been holding up cue cards for them to read, such a shout is difficult to imagine. Besides, we have no reason whatsoever to believe that Matthew the gospel writer was there in person when it happened. (He may not have even been born when this notorious incident supposedly took place.)

When Matthew wrote, the Jews had already been thoroughly defeated by the Romans. In the fighting, the center of their religious life, the Temple of Jerusalem, had been utterly destroyed. Romans are winners; Jews are losers. Given this fact of life, it is not at all surprising that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death greatly magnifies the Jewish responsibility while minimizing that of the Romans. Surely this man, who wrote his gospel in Greek, so that the Gentile world could better receive his message, knew how to appeal to the largest possible audience.

At the same approximate time, the Jew now best known as St. Paul, the greatest of all Christian publicists, leveled the charge of deicide against his own people. In I Thessalonians [2:15] Paul writes: “After they had killed their own prophets, they even executed the Lord Jesus; and now they have brutally persecuted us and driven us out. They are against both God and man . . .“  With his repeated use of the word “they,” Paul, like Matthew, charges the Jews collectively with the crime of deicide—and, at the same time, he exculpates the Romans. By extending his accusation against this same “they” backward to the prophets and forward to include himself, Paul clearly suggests that “the Jews” are inherently evil. The Christian charge against the Jews is unlimited both in extent and in time. The Jews are a deicide people—all of them and for all time.

Several of St. Paul’s epistles deal with other accusations against the Jews—too many to cite here—but the charge of deicide is obviously the strongest and the most unforgivable. Paul knew when he wrote his letter to the Thessalonians that Jesus had been judged by Pilate and mocked, whipped, and crucified by the Roman soldiers, not by Jews. Like Paul, Matthew saw the Jews as a spent force, a people whose time was past, a people who had deliberately turned their backs on one of their own—on God’s Own Son no less. Like Matthew, Paul knowingly and willingly used his fellow Jews as scapegoats in order to strengthen Christianity’s mass appeal to the much larger Gentile audience.

Paul’s bitterness toward the Jews is not hard to understand. Jews were more difficult to convert to Christianity than any other group of people because they had a rich source of religious counter-arguments to draw upon. For it was their religious tradition on which Jesus based his new religion. Jews were a “hard sell” and Matthew and Paul both knew it. But they got even with the Jews emphasizing their recalcitrant, “stiff-necked” attitude in their gospels and epistles. Jews were demonized so as to serve as a living counter-example for Christians and a living reminder of Jesus’ terrible death on the cross.

And Christians call theirs a religion of mercy and forgiveness.

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