Jesus Willingly Died for All Our Sins — So Please Stop Blaming the Jews for ‘Committing Deicide’

A new bill in Congress has refired an old controversy. Let’s examine the issue more closely.

By Jules Gomes Published on May 8, 2024

Who killed Jesus? Online mobs of traditionalist Catholics, led by social media celebrities like Taylor Marshall and Catholicism’s newest convert, Candace Owens, are insisting that the New Testament blames the “Jews” for the heinous crime of deicide.

How is it that the very Catholics who claim to be ultra-loyal to the teaching authority of the Roman Church are brazenly violating its definitive rulings, which categorically repudiate the antisemitic trope of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’s crucifixion?

More bizarrely, why are traditionalist Catholics who blame the Jews for deicide spitting on the coffin of Pope Benedict XVI, the pope who restored to them the traditional Latin Mass? It was Benedict, after all, who in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, most assiduously debunked the claim that the Jewish authors of the New Testament are indicting the “Jews” for the execution of the Jewish Messiah.

Today’s pundits are punctuating their antisemitic Gregorian chant with biblical prooftexts purportedly supporting Jewish deicide, even though “the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God … has been entrusted exclusively to the living magisterium of the Church” (Dei Verbum). Even some evangelicals like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene are repeating the smear that the New Testament incriminates the Jews collectively for deicide.

Why is this?

Congress’s Foolish Hate-Speech Ban

Both Catholics and Protestants alike are reacting to the Antisemitism Awareness Act the House passed on May 1, which uses the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as “a vital tool” to “identify the various manifestations of antisemitism.” As an advocate for free speech, I do not support the bill. Here at The Stream, John Zmirak has already explained why it is “another cudgel for the Deep State to pummel us with.”

But for more detail, consider these facts and questions.

The IHRA explicitly states that its “working definition” of antisemitism is “non-legally binding.” As one example of Jew-hatred, it cites “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.”

Even a back-street lawyer can spot the caveat: The bill does not prohibit biblical literalists from asserting that the “Jews” in Jesus’s day killed Him. Rather, it cautions against slanderously associating those Jews with today’s “Israel or Israelis.”

The Vatican’s “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” echoes the IHRA definition. It states: “There is no putting the Jews who knew Jesus and did not believe in him, or those who opposed the preaching of the apostles, on the same plane with Jews who came after or those of today.”

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Likewise, Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate ruled that since it was not all Jews, but only the “Jewish authorities” and “those who followed their lead” who called for Jesus’s crucifixion, “What happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today,”

Rightly so! How are my Indian Jewish friends, whose Jewish ancestors in India predate Jesus by centuries and have not lived in Israel for millennia, responsible for killing Jesus? Does the fact that these Jews have now made aliyah to Israel mean they have suddenly become Christ-killers?

The same Christians who blame all Jews for deicide would be the first to rightly reject collective guilt for the slave trade their ancestors may have engaged in or benefited from.

Benedict and Biblical Scholars Respond

So, who killed Jesus? Jesus Himself said that He laid down his life voluntarily since “no one” had the power to take it.

“I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18)

Both the Apostles and Nicene creeds blame Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, for Jesus’s death. Only the Roman authorities could authorize a crucifixion. They executed Peter and Paul, along with countless other Jewish followers of Jesus. They also crucified at least 250,000 Jews. We don’t accuse all Romans or all Italians of deicide, do we? Or, for that matter, genocide?

When John’s gospel accuses the “Jews” of instigating Jesus’s death, this word is “clearly limited,” writes Benedict XVI; John is referring to the “Temple aristocracy.” In Mark’s gospel, the “crowd” (ochlos) is made up of Barabbas’s followers, “who have been mobilized to secure amnesty for him.”

Benedict elaborates:

When in Matthew’s account the “whole people” say: “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25), the Christian will remember that Jesus’ blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all … These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation.

Nonetheless, several tweeters stoking the flames of Jewish deicide are quoting 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, where Paul appears to indict the “Jews” for killing “both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.”

In his magisterial commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians, New Testament scholar Gordon Fee explains how the Greek grammatical construction used in these verses is “restrictive.” Paul is specifically referring to the “Judean Jews,” whose “leaders violently opposed Christ and his early followers.”

A text without context is pretext. It is virtually impossible to find a contemporary biblical scholar (Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or secular), who interprets the New Testament texts referring to the “Jews” as a pretext to indict the Jewish people collectively for deicide.

Sectarian Rivalry in Jesus’s Day

One of the best ways to understand the polemical references to the “Jews” is in the context of the sectarian rivalry bedeviling the Judaism(s) of Jesus’s day.

If you’ve heard the joke about a shipwrecked Jew who builds two synagogues on a desert island — one to pray in and one in which he would never set foot — you can begin to understand the civil war between Jewish sects like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Sicarii, Essenes, and later, the Messianic Jews (Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah).

The Catholic biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson examines scores of polemical Jewish texts from diverse sects during the period of Second Temple Judaism in his peer-reviewed 1989 article on “The New Testament’s Anti-Jewish Slander and the Conventions of Ancient Polemic.”

We misinterpret these texts because we anachronistically impose our view of Christianity and Judaism as separate religions, Johnson notes. Jesus and His disciples remained Jews, albeit identifying as a distinct sect within Judaism, as I have elaborated on here.

The sectarian writers were playing “rhetorical hardball” by engaging in polemical hyperbole and stereotypical generalizations. “The main thing such slander signified,” Johnson writes, “was that someone was an opponent.”

The Jewish historian Josephus most attacks fellow Jews in the Jewish War, consistently referring to “the Jews” even when he means only a small group of Jewish people (e.g., he writes that “the wicked Jews” stoned to death a righteous prophet named Onias, when of course only a few Jews were actually involved in the incident [Ant. 14.24]).

From the Dead Sea Scrolls we know that “the Qumran rule of thumb is that you cannot say enough bad things about outsiders,” i.e., “other Jews who do not match the Qumranites’ idea of purity,” Johnson notes.

Not much has changed, as I often discover during my visits to Israel. My orthodox Jewish friends complain bitterly about the ultra-orthodox “Jews who live on the dole.” My Messianic Jewish friends say: “The Jews hate us because we believe Jesus is the Messiah.”

The “Germans” voted for Hitler, write journalists, even though we know that only three out of eight voters supported Hitler in the decisive 1932 election. We use generalization in our day-to-day speech.

The Roman Magisterium’s Grand U-Turn

So why are traditionalist Catholics so bent on smearing all Jews? Unfortunately, it’s because they are “traditionalist” and the Roman Church for centuries declared in its traditional teaching that the Jews were collectively responsible for deicide.

In fact, one of the most acrimonious debates at Vatican II was over whether the magisterium should repudiate its age-old indictment of Jewish deicide. So fierce was the opposition to any change that the word “deicide” was deleted in the final draft of Nostra Aetate.

An earlier draft that was defeated in the debate read: “The responsibility for Christ’s death falls upon sinful mankind and not upon the Jews. ‘Therefore, it is unjust to accuse this people of deicide or to consider it cursed of God.’”

As Christians, we confess that it was our sins that nailed Jesus to the cross and that “He himself bore our sins” there (1 Peter 2:24, Romans 5:6, 8-9; 1 Timothy 1:15, Colossians 2:14, Galatians 3:13). The Jewish prophet Isaiah reminds us that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10). If Jesus had not died, we would have neither our faith nor our salvation today.

As the Providence diocesan magazine Visitor observed as the bishops at Vatican II were debating the important document referenced above, Jews “have been employed as a handy scapegoat for us to unload our part of the guilt in Christ’s death by casting it on someone else.” 

Johann Heermann sums it up in his hymn “Ah, Dearest Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended”:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
‘Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee;
I crucified Thee!

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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