Did the Jews Kill Christ?

Here we go again, the phrase presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, made famous in a response to President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential debates.  But this time the phrase applies to the historic Anti-Semitic statement about Jewish culpability in killing Christ, resurrected by none other than Virginia House of Delegate member, Frank Hargrove. In opposing legislation that formally apologizes for the state’s involvement in slavery, Delegate Hargrove made the comparison to asking modern day Jews to apologize for killing Christ.  Of course, Delegate Hargrove was not suggesting that Jews actually killed the savior or that today’s Jews are somehow responsible for Christ’s death.  Rather, his point was that how can future generations apologize for actions of their ancestors.   Leaving aside the merit of his major point, which is debatable, raising the issue of Jewish culpability in the death of Christ, even in terms of an analogy, is deeply troubling. 

            If the Christ killing accusation was buried in history following the Middle Ages, no one would care much.  But it’s not.  Anti-Semitism is once again on the rise throughout the world.  Believe it or not, the Muslim world often quotes Christian medieval statements about the Jews culpability in the killing of Christ to show just how evil Jews are.  Even among certain Christian circles within the United States, this is still believed.  Honestly, Mel Gibson’s movie, “the Passion,” didn’t help.  But aside from the twisted idea that somehow modern day Jews are responsible for actions taken against someone almost 2,000 years ago, the very assertion of collective Jewish guilt at the time of Jesus is absolutely absurd.

            Who killed Christ?  The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that no one killed him.  Rather, he voluntarily laid down his own life.  Does the New Testament show Jesus in conflict with Jewish leaders?  Absolutely.  But anyone who knows anything about 2nd Temple Judaism recognizes that various Jewish groups were in constant conflict with one another, often declaring the other side to be “a child of the devil.”  Yes, according to the New Testament the Jewish High priest and his cohorts handed Jesus over to the Romans for punishment and wanted him executed.  But the high priest and much of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body) were political lackeys of Rome, descendants of King Herod’s appointments.   In the end the Romans put him to death.  Hence, if anyone is responsible it’s the Romans and their allies within Jewish ruling circles.  But these groups did not represent the Jewish world.  In fact, following the destruction of the 2nd Temple, 40 years later, the Sanhedrin was completely overhauled, and the new governing body excluded most of those associated with the earlier one.

            If the Jews killed Christ, then what about his Jewish followers?  What about the writers of the New Testament, who were all Jews, save possibly one?  What about the scores of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of Jews who believed in Christ by the end of the 1st century and beginning of the 2nd?  These numbers are compared to the handful of Jews who were actually involved in the recommendation to the Romans to put him to death.  The Christ killing allegation against Jews developed much later and was a transfer of earlier Roman/Greek Anti-Semitism to an increasingly Gentile church.  Once embedded it was a convenient conspiracy myth that grew into a monster, which still lurks among the ignorant and perpetrators of evil around the world.  The only accurate statement about the subject is this: the Jews did not kill Christ. 

Jamie Cowen 2007