Guilty or Not Guilty?: The Passion, Collective Guilt and Choice
To say that the crucifixion of Jesus as depicted in passion plays has been bad for the Jews is more than a gross understatement. These plays, which in years past often cast our people as devils with horns and as sinister characters, have given rise to accusations that we were not only collectively responsible for the death of Christ, but we killed Christian babies, we poisoned wells, we spread the Black Plague and so on. It is no wonder then that Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, which depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, has elecited strong, defensive reactions from some:
When Hitler walked out [of a passion play] in 1934, he declared that the whole world over should see…this Passion play, then they will understand why I despise the Jews and why they deserve to die.”1
This hitlerism from the 1930s was cited by Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman as evidence of the dangers associated with depicting the death of Christ. Referring to the release of Mel Gibson’s movie, Foxman warned that passion plays reinforce the notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus and encourage anti-Semitic acts.
Anti-missionary Tovia Singer concurs, saying that the actor/producer “could save the world much unneeded misery by visiting Poland, the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, before releasing his film. There he will discover why those who have a long memory are now pleading with him to reconsider his theological venture. He should take a long, hard stare at Auschwitz. It’s a startling mass grave that bears witness to the bitter consequences that emerge when a religion is transmitted irresponsibly.”
He goes on to say, “…with violent outbursts of anti-Semitism on the rise in cities throughout Europe, and the blood of Jewish children pouring down the streets of Jerusalem, this is not the ideal moment to announce to moviegoers that the Jews [killed Jesus].”2
Thousands of articles have been written about this controversial film that is based on the New Testament record. Numerous pre-release screenings have been held, inviting concerned parties to work through some of the controversy. Jewish, Protestant and Catholic leaders alike have offered their take on the question of how Jewish people are portrayed in the film.
But is this the real question to be asking? Singer’s quote raises the age-old question, “Are Jews culpable for the death of Jesus?” Most Jewish and contemporary Christian leaders have denied any collective guilt on the part of Jews for this. Jewish leaders point out that the Romans were in charge at the time, so they bear the responsibility. Nevertheless, as Abraham Foxman rightly points out, there are increased acts of anti-Semitism fomented at Easter, linked to the notion that a whole class of people bears the guilt and responsibility for the death of Jesus and that this guilt has passed on from generation to generation.
What do we mean by collective guilt?
The concept of collective guilt pervades both history and current events. In pre-Soviet Russia, the Bolsheviks threw bombs into crowded restaurants on the assumption that only capitalists had enough money to eat in such places. Anyone harmed by the bombs was assumed to be a capitalist and therefore an oppressor of the masses. To them “capitalist” and “oppressor” were synonymous; there were no innocent capitalists.
The terrorists who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon did not for a moment believe they were killing innocent Americans. In their thinking, all Americans were part of the threat to Islam. In other words, the thousands of men, women and even children killed were personally guilty simply by being Americans.
Collective guilt doesn’t always result in such extreme measures, and those who have been its victims can even validate it. There are Jews today who would regard all Germans since the time of Naziism as anti-Semites. In a recent article in Jewsweek, Micha Ghertner points out, “…it is not discussed often, but Jews are still silently shamed by friends and family into boycotting that coveted Beemer or Benz, even though six decades have passed since the Holocaust.…”3
Collective guilt and the death of Jesus
Does Mel Gibson’s The Passion add more fuel to the collective guilt charges that have been laid at the feet of the Jewish people? Gibson has steadfastly maintained that his film is faithful to the historical event it portrays. So in essence the question really becomes, does the story of Jesus’ death itself make Jews responsible for the crucifixion? In order to answer this question we must look at the portion of Scripture known as the New Testament, the best record of the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus. Though some have purported the New Testament to be anti-Semitic, it is important to realize the context: several Jewish people wrote this ancient document about a Jewish figure and, at many times, with Jewish people in mind. When criticism of Jewish leaders is raised, it is always an in-house debate, a family affair.
The four Gospel writers tell the life story of Jesus beginning with his birth in Bethlehem to a Jewish mother, Miriam (Mary), who was told by a heavenly messenger to name him Yeshua (Jesus) “…for he will save his people from their sins”4 (Matthew 1:21). They present a brief glimpse of him as boy, but center mostly on his adult years of spiritual teaching and the miracles he performed—physical healings, walking on a lake, feeding thousands with a few baskets of bread and fish, etc. Most of these events took place among Jewish people. The Gospel accounts also include the claims Jesus made to be the Messiah of Israel and, even more controversial, to be divine. We read that while some Jewish people believed these declarations, other Jewish people did not. It was the reaction to these claims that ultimately led to Jesus’ betrayal by one Jew, Judas Iscariot, and the demand by the Jewish authorities of that day, the chief priests, for his crucifixion.
In reference to Jesus and his Jewish followers’ interactions with the religious leaders of the time, strong words are often used. For instance, Jesus calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7); he also chases moneychangers out of the Temple, calling it his “Father’s house” (John 2:16). His disciples likewise roused the religious authorities’ anger. But the inclusion of these passages in the New Testament record demonstrates that Jesus was at the center of an in-house argument surrounding his radical claims. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures had also used similar, even stronger, language when confronting the people—out of passion, not out of antipathy. And so, in this context, the portions of the New Testament that some cite as rants against the Jewish people are in reality the parts of the story wherein Yeshua is seen as the prophet greater than Moses. In that role, he calls our people to turn from disobedience to the God of Israel and choose his standard of righteousness.
There is one New Testament incident that is quoted again and again to prove Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. It begins with the words from the crowd when Pilate asked, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him” (Mark 15:12-15). When Pilate recognized he could not prevail, he washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person. You see to it.” And all the people answered and said, “His blood be upon us and on our children” (Matthew 27:24-25).
Jewish historian Haim Cohen says, “None of the many charges leveled at the Jews…has held so obdurately against them as unassailable proof of guilt and responsibility for the crucifixion as has this exclamation of theirs, ‘His blood be upon us and on our children.'”5
Did the Jews of that day actually say this?
Samuel Tobias Lachs, professor of history of religions at Bryn Mawr College, says that the Matthew passage has “a Hebrew ring.” Lachs looks at parallel expressions in the Talmud and says that the basic Hebrew phrase is “his blood will be on his own head,” meaning “he alone bears the responsibility; he is guilty” (cf. Joshua 2: b. Avodah Zarah 12b).
Dr. Michael Brown, Near Eastern studies expert, also argues that “the verse is quite believable historically and the language is quite Jewish.” He cites an analysis of the historicity of the Jewish opposition to Jesus by Raymond Brown, a Catholic scholar. Brown reflects on the plausibility of a Jewish crowd, stirred by their religious leaders, saying, “His blood be on us and our children.” He says of the crowd, “They are not bloodthirsty or callous; for they are persuaded that Jesus is a blasphemer, as the Sanhedrin judged him.”6
Jesus claimed that he was the Messiah. He claimed divinity. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). He identified himself as the “I am” of Scripture, a title only used by the Almighty. He also said to a lame man, “your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). Only God can forgive sin. If his claims were untrue, then indeed he was guilty of blasphemy, and death was the recognized punishment.
Dr. Michael Brown points out that the literal translation of the phrase, “his blood be on us” “…reminds us that this is not an imprecation in which the Jewish people called down a curse on themselves but rather a statement of responsibility.”
So what of collective guilt?
That being stated, Dr. Brown goes on to say that the second part of the verse, “and on our children,” needs to be understood in the context of the crowd scene and of words spoken in the heat of passion. This was truly a family affair that caused tempers to flare. And so Michael Brown concludes: “Matthew is not claiming that the Jewish people called down a curse on all future generations.”
It is literally true that the next generation descendants of those who urged the crucifixion suffered consequences. They witnessed the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem 40 years later. However, to conclude that Jews today are corporately responsible is not only a great leap, but also runs contrary to the Hebrew Scriptures.
Hundreds of years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah had explained that a day was coming when a new covenant was to be instituted between God and his people. “No more shall it be said that the fathers shall eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth be set on edge, but every man will die for his own sins” (Jeremiah 31:30).
Historian Paul Johnson, well-known author of the classic A History of the Jews, emphasizes this focus on individual responsibility:
The idea of the individual had always, of course, been present in Mosaic religion, since it was inherent in the belief that each man and woman was created in God’s image. It had been powerfully reinforced by the sayings of Isaiah. With Ezekiel [“the soul that sinneth, it shall die”] it became paramount, and thereafter individual accountability became the very essence of the Jewish religion.7
Each person is accountable for the choices that they make. If they choose what is good and right, they are the primary beneficiaries of righteousness. If they choose that which is wrong, then they inherit the consequences of their unrighteousness. As men immersed in Jewish teaching, the writers of the Gospels recognized this, and so did Jesus. If the Gospels are read in their entirety, one will see that the point was never to condemn the Jewish people for his death. In fact, the words of Jesus himself addressed to his Father negate this idea: “…forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
In addition, Jesus was not an unwilling victim of the mob. He had previously shown a supernatural power to escape from the clutches of grasping men by walking through crowds unnoticed (John 8:59). Certainly, he could have exited Jerusalem and avoided capture, yet it was Jesus who said of his life, “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.” (John 10:18). He saw the offer of his life as a sacrifice—a gift to the whole world.
Yes, Jesus was crucified at the hands of people who wanted him gone. But one misses the point of the Gospel narratives if one stops there. Arthur Hertzberg, a Jewish writer and educator who does not believe in Jesus, points this out:
I have thought for a long time that the argument about the crucifixion of Jesus [Jewish or Roman responsibility] is entirely beside the point, and I have been confirmed in my view by rereading the book of Luke. “Was it not necessary,” Luke writes, “that the Christ [Messiah] should suffer these things and enter to his glory?” The point is made, over and over again, that Jesus willed his own crucifixion as necessary to his mission to atone for the sins of all humankind. This makes theological sense. If the crucifixion was necessary to atone for a cosmic trauma, “the fall of man,” then it was a necessary and inevitable expression of divine intention.…The only way that arguing about guilt for the crucifixion makes any sense is to deny the fundamental tenet of Christian theology that Jesus was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. If this is denied, the argument is then reduced to the question of who was responsible for the terrible end of the life of a carpenter from Nazareth.8
Conclusion: Guilty? Yes and no
The real issue is not whether Jewish people played a role in the death of the Jew, Jesus. The real issue is how one views the Bible, the messianic mission of Jesus and the claims of his deity. If one regards those as fiction, then there is some need to place the guilt of Jesus’ death on a person or group of people. Unfortunately, the Jewish people have been the traditional scapegoat and have therefore responded defensively against Mel Gibson and others who do not gloss over the details of Jesus’ death.
However, if Jesus’ and his disciples’ claims are true, that he came to die for the wrongdoing of all humanity—Jews and Gentiles—then all of us have a part in the death of Jesus, collectively and individually. Not a message most of us want to hear, but one that was articulated even before the time of Jesus, by the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of one who would be “…pierced through for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him and by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
The Passion presents a predicament for all of us. If Jesus was simply a blasphemer, unjustly assuming authority that was not his, then why mourn his death or try to escape blame for it? On the other hand, if we accept that Jesus was the one of whom Isaiah wrote, and that his death was part of God’s plan to redeem us, then the blame for his death dissolves in the realization that all of our wrongdoing can be absolved by it. The choice is yours.
Have an opinion about The Passion of the Christ? Go to http://boards.jewsforjesus.org/dcboard.php, where you can read the ISSUES review of Mel Gibson’s movie and post a review of your own!
- IRN News [note: article no longer available]
- Tovia Singer: Will ‘The Passion’ Crucify the Jews?
- Jewsweek: Jews, Jesus and German cars
- Yeshua means “God saves” or “God is savior.”
- The Trial and Death of Jesus of Nazareth, p. 171, quoted at: levitt.com
- Brown, Michael. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Volume One: General and Historical Objections. Baker, 2000, pgs. 154-157.
- Johnson, Paul M. A History of the Jews. Perennial, 1988.
(URLs last accessed January 26, 2004)
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Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.