At one point in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, the Jewish crowd cries out something that we in the English-speaking audience do not understand because there are no subtitles. Responding to fears that his film would be anti-Semitic, Mr. Gibson removed the subtitles so that it would not be clear just what the crowd said. Now, the act of removing the subtitles may or may not acquit Mel Gibson of the charge of being anti-Semitic; that is not my concern here. But if the movie is made less anti-Semitic by omitting those words, what shall we say about the New Testament? Mel Gibson didn’t make those words up; they come straight from the book of Matthew:
And when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24-25)
Unquestionably, the New Testament portrays the Jews as playing a key role in the death of Christ. The Jewish leadership decides that Jesus is a threat and arrests Him. A Jewish crowd, incited by “the chief priests and the elders,” chooses to spare the life of Barabbas and to condemn Jesus. A Jewish crowd mocks Him as He dies on the cross. After the resurrection, on the day of Pentecost, Peter sums it up:
Men of Israel… you nailed [Jesus] to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death… Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:22, 23, 36)
Is the New Testament gospel, the story of salvation brought about through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, inherently anti-Semitic? Many in the modern world, seeing these accounts in the New Testament and remembering the many atrocities committed against Jews in the name of Christ, conclude that the New Testament is intrinsically anti-Semitic, and that the proclamation of the gospel story is a “blood libel” against the Jews. My purpose in this article is to argue quite the opposite. The New Testament is entirely consistent with the Old Testament in its portrayal of the Jews: they are, on the one hand, sinners like us; on the other hand, however, they are unique objects of God’s faithfulness, never deserving anything other than respect from the Gentiles. Part of the problem we all face in evaluating the biblical story of the Jews is that it is a theological story, told to show us through God’s interaction with the Jewish people important truths about God and ourselves. One cannot draw the right conclusions from biblical history apart from biblical theology.
To begin with, let us consider the story we find in the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, a source that can hardly be considered to be anti-Semitic. We find God calling out a people with whom He makes a unique and specific covenant. If they will be faithful to keep the terms of the covenant made through Moses, then they will prosper in the promised land as God’s people, protected and free from all their enemies. On the other hand, if, as a nation, they ignore God and His covenant, then they will receive His curse instead; they will be driven from the land, and their enemies will prevail over them. As Moses predicts, the nation proves faithless and encounters loss, conquest, and exile as a judgment from God. There is, however, always a remnant, individual Jews who personally take God and His covenant very seriously and thus stand personally in God’s favor, however badly things may be going for the nation as a whole. And Moses and the prophets also make clear that one day God will forgive the nation for its rebellion and circumcise the hearts of all the people, restoring them to be people who love and obey Him.
Several important points that emerge from this story:
First, the Jews as a nation are no worse than the Gentile nations. They have been, on the whole, a nation of ungodly people with bright and shining individual exceptions. What Gentile nation could claim to have done any better? If God had chosen to reveal Himself to the Irish instead of the Jews, the story would have been the same. Jew and Gentile alike suffer from the same spiritual disease. The story of the Jews’ failure is the story of humanity’s failure; that is the whole point.
Second, the distinction must be made between individual salvation and national prosperity. Any individual Jew could and did find favor with God through personal faithfulness, even while the nation as a whole forfeited the promise of national prosperity through national unfaithfulness. In this way the Jews are different from the Irish, because God never made such a national covenant with the Irish.
Third, God has the right to judge Israel, but we Gentiles do not. We see this in the prophets: the prophet announces to Israel that God is going to use some Gentile nation to judge the nation, and then the prophet turns around and announces the destruction of that Gentile nation for daring to raise its hand against Israel. Even in its sin, the nation of Israel is loved by God.
What we see in the Old Testament, then, is the failure of a nation of sinners, the faithfulness of a remnant within it, the culpability of the Gentiles for harming Israel, and the faithfulness of God to restore her one day. This is the story that the Jews’ own Scriptures tell. The Old Testament is critical of Israel, as it ultimately is of the Gentiles as well, but ultimately it is pro-Semitic, not anti-Semitic.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find a story entirely in harmony with that told in the Old Testament. When the promised Messiah comes, the nation as a whole does not recognize Him, even while a remnant within the nation does. This spiritual blindness is no different in kind from the story that the Old Testament tells over and over about the nation as a whole.
It is in the light of the Old Testament story of Israel that we must evaluate the infamous cry of the Jewish crowd, “His blood be on us and on our children!” First of all, this is another striking example of the spiritual blindness that the nation had shown all along. Her religious leaders urge the crowd to reject Jesus, and the crowd goes along with it. And furthermore, just as in the Old Testament times, there is a remnant. Jesus has disciples from among the Jews, and there are more to come. The nation as a whole is still unresponsive, but individual Jews are also still remaining faithful and finding God’s favor.
Most importantly, however, we need to be very careful how we interpret the implications of the crowd’s words. Pilate obviously is a coward who is trying to figure out how to get out of a potentially volatile situation. He says to the crowd in essence, “Well, I refuse to be responsible for this.” And the crowd, in order to convince him to give them Barabbas, says in its ignorance, “That’s okay; we will take the responsibility.” Of course Matthew understands the tragic irony of this; once again, the Jewish people are rejecting the God who has held out His hands to them in so many ways. It is a tragedy of the highest order; and it says much about the spiritual state of the people, that they would so fail to recognize their Deliverer that they would voluntarily claim responsibility for His death. The key question, however, is this: how does God (and thus how should we) respond to what they said? Is God now obligated to curse all Jews eternally for the death of His Son? Are Gentiles now justified in persecuting Jews as Christ-killers?
To answer these questions, let us turn to something Jesus Himself said at the time: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). If God were to take the Jewish crowd at its word, then He might very well hold the Jewish people eternally responsible for the death of Christ. But that is exactly what Jesus prays that the Father not do. Each individual in the crowd, of course, is still answerable to the Father for his or her blindness and faithlessness. But Jesus understands the uniqueness of this sin, the magnitude of what is happening, even if the crowd does not. They have chosen to kill the Son of God, and they have ignorantly called down the blame for that uniquely blasphemous act upon themselves and their children. That is what Christ is praying about: “Father, I know that killing your Christ is the height of blasphemous evil, but they have done it out of their sinful blindness, not even knowing what they have done; you would be within your rights to wipe them all off the face of the earth, but do not do it.” If we are trying to sort out whether the story of the passion is anti-Semitic, then it seems to me that Jesus’ prayer is a truly significant part of the story. Christ’s prayer implies, at least in part, that His answer to the anti-Semites of the world is to say, “If I do not call them Christ-killers, then you had better not either.”
Gentile Christians have often made the mistake of thinking that the Bible highlights the failings of the Jews because somehow they are worse than we Gentiles are. This is a profound mistake. Jews are no worse or no better than anyone else. Jews are unique, however, in having a national covenant with God, and the Bible is very interested in telling the ongoing story of that covenant. Jewish rejection of the Messiah, therefore, is an extremely important event in that story. Individual Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah, just as individual Gentiles would do in later years. But once again the nation as a whole failed to understand and follow their God; once again they failed to keep the covenant that God made with them.
The story, however, is not over. Paul reminds us in Romans (11:20, 26) that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” and that a day is still coming when “all Israel will be saved.” In spite of the rejection of Christ, which is one more example in a national history of rebellion against God, God remains faithful to His promises and will fulfill them one day. In fact, Paul uses that discussion to warn Gentiles against feeling superior to the Jews. The Jews are the ones whom God chose to receive the promises, and we Gentiles are the interlopers, the “wild branches” grafted onto a tree to which we do not naturally belong. If Israel as a nation fell through unbelief, the same thing could happen to any of us, so we had better not get cocky.
Anti-Semitism is an ugly form of Gentile self-righteousness, as if we think somehow we would have done better in their place. What arrogance. The story of Israel’s failures is the story of human sin and divine forgiveness—that is, it is everyone’s story. As a Gentile, my prayer should be that God will show me mercy and let me sit at the table with the people of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.