Frankly, I had no intention of writing this article when I got up yesterday. But then I read responses from two gentlemen on my previous article. One, by a Mr. Gunn, was dealt with in the comment section itself. The other, by a Mr. Kent, is more thoughtful and deserves a more fulsome reply.
I understand Mr. Kent’s concern. The church is a lodestar for many of us, and there is a treasured narrative tradition within the church that must be respected, even if history shows it needs to be revised at times. That revision can be perceived by some as unfaithful and threatening in a world in flux, as ours appears to be.
There is no pleasure on my part in creating discomfort among readers. But it seems to go with the territory. I’m sure progressive Democrats are angered if not dismissive for the sorts of articles I write on politics, economics, and culture. But all one can do is be faithful to one’s ideals, and continue the journey with honest and rigorous study and contemplation, trying all the while to maintain a purity of heart.
So, Mr. Kent, this is for you.
The story of Western anti-Semitism has to start with the Christian New Testament.
It is always fascinating to look at the Gospel Parallels to see what a particular gospel will say and then compare it to what the other synoptic gospels say on the same subject. When you look at the 23rd chapter of Matthew, for example, what you find is an extended condemnation of Scribes and Pharisees. Next to it in the Gospel Parallels is the gospel of Luke, in which the corresponding passages are quite a lot shorter and not nearly as vitriolic.
When one then looks at the Gospel of Mark for corresponding verses, there is next to nothing. It is practically blank. Why is that? Why would the Gospel of Matthew have such a vindictive condemnation of Scribes and particularly Pharisees, but nothing in the Gospel of Mark.
There is an explanation, and it has to do with the writing of the gospels in their chronological order and what was happening in first-century Judaea.
Jews were never docile under Roman rule, and in 66 CE Jews were in open revolt.
This leads ultimately to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the final extermination of Jewish resistance at Masada in 73 CE.
Almost 60 years later there is another attempt to throw off Roman rule under the leadership of Shimon Bar Kochba. This leads some years later to the utter destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans under Hadrian, the banning of Jews from returning to Jerusalem, and the Romans renaming the region from Judaea to Palaestinia to remove any Jewish reference.
Before the destruction of the Temple and during the time of Jesus there are many influential movements within Judaism. The most powerful are the Sadducees, who control the Temple and thus its religious and sacrificial rituals.
Also influential are the Herodians, who act at the behest of the genealogical line of the Roman Tetrarch, Herod the Great. The Romans granted Herod and his line a good deal of autonomy within the confines of Judaea, but the people never warmed to Herod and his allies. Ten years after the death of Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas in 39 CE, Judaea comes under direct Roman administration.
The people are more attuned to the so-called Zealots, who advocate for military resistance to the Romans and a return to the ideals of the Hasmonean dynasty, which rebelled against their Greek rulers, the Seleucids, in 166 BCE and entered Jerusalem in 164 BCE, whereupon they purified the Temple.
This remarkable last expression of Jewish independence until the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 is commemorated each year during the Festival of Hanukkah. It is important to remember that one of their first acts when entering Jerusalem was to cleanse the Temple.
There are other Jewish groups active before the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, including the Scribes, who are meticulous in their approach to Torah study, with what could be taken as lawyerly interpretations of the text.
There is another group, the Essenes, quite out of the mainstream but nonetheless influential, who gather themselves around the Dead Sea community at Qumran. They believe other Jewish groups had corrupted Jerusalem and the Temple and thus seek to isolate themselves in a more barren place conducive to spiritual seeking with strict dietary rules and a celibate lifestyle.
There are two other groups at the time: the Pharisees and the Followers of Jesus.
The Pharisees have their roots in the Babylonian Captivity when Jews were forced to leave Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar to live near the city of Babylon. There, without a homeland and without a Temple with its priests, the people would meet together in small groups to maintain their Jewish traditions as best they were able.
They were led by a teacher who would come to be known simply as Rabbi. When returned to Judaea, and after the rebuilding of the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah, Pharisees come to be known as roving teachers of the Law to the common people who came to settle in communities with gathering places called synagogues.
Pharisees believed in a coming Judgment Day, the Resurrection of the Dead, the future life of the Soul, rewards for Righteous Acts and punishment for Sins, the existence of Angels and Demons, and in Oral Torah.
All of these beliefs are in line with what Jesus taught. When it comes to Oral Torah Jesus uses the Rabbinic Formula, “You have heard it said,” whereupon he’d cite a passage from Torah, followed by “but I say unto you,” whereupon he would give a midrash, or interpretation, of the written Torah.
For Pharisees, Oral Torah, spoken by the “Disciples of the Wise,” was of equivalent authority as the written Torah.
When Jesus was asked in Matthew 22:36 what is the greatest commandment, he responds by quoting from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:5 and from Leviticus 19:18b by saying:
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
With this response Jesus is echoing one of the greatest Pharisaic teachers of the time, the first-century BCE Rabbi Hillel the Elder who, when asked to summarize Judaism (while standing on one foot), said, based on Lev. 19:18b – “What is hateful unto you do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Law; the rest is commentary; now go and study.” Shabbat 31a
Jesus is Pharisaic in his teaching and, in the context of those early first-century groups, can be counted among the Pharisees himself as a peripatetic teacher of the Law.
The reason why the Gospel of Mark does not have corresponding condemnations of Pharisees as do the Gospels of Luke and especially Matthew has to do with when the Gospel of Mark was written. Scholarly judgments put the date somewhere between 66 and 75 CE, likely during the war against the Romans. What makes most sense is that it was most likely written BEFORE the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
After the destruction of the Temple the Sadducees could no longer draw on Temple worship and Temple ritual life as a source of influence and power. A few years later the remnants of the Zealots committed mass suicide at Masada rather than be captured by the besieging Romans. Thus, they no longer had influence.
The Herodians lost their influence in 39 CE after the death of Herod Antipas and after the Romans seize direct administrative authority over Judaea. The Essenes were off in their own little world and with no real influence over everyday Jewish life.
The Pharisees and the Followers of Jesus, for all intents and purposes, were under the radar for the Romans, which illustrates that the two groups simply did not have much cumulative power and influence at the time of the Temple’s destruction.
However, their relative unimportance allowed them to survive after the Temple’s fall and, subsequently, they were the only more or less organized groups toward which Jews might look for guidance.
What follows is a family fight – often bitterly brutal – for the hearts and minds of Jews as they work to determine the future of Judaism, now that Temple worship is no longer an option. Which of the two groups, Pharisees or the Followers of Jesus, would be accepted by Jews as the true heirs of Abraham.
It is in the context of this fight that the other Gospels are written. That is why the Pharisees come in for vicious attacks and condemnations in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, which are written sometime around 85-90 CE. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, written about 100 CE, it is clear that the damage done is irreparable.
The issue turns mostly on the notion of the Messiah, of one who is to come and set Israel’s House in order. According to Pharisaic teaching there are certain measurable things that the Messiah will be and do. To start, the Messiah will be a male descendant of David. Have you ever wondered why the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have the genealogies of Jesus in them? It is to affirm the bona fides of Jesus being a descendant of David.
The Messiah would also organize an army and defeat all the enemies of Israel, which at the time is Rome. This led to the tradition that a final battle would be fought at Har Meggido, which is near modern-day Haifa. This would be a final battle (it is where we get the word armegeddon), after which, in Jewish tradition, the Messiah will rule in peace, rebuild the Temple and reinstitute Temple rituals and sacrifice. At this time God will resurrect the good and end history as we know it.
It is important to note that the Messiah, within classical Jewish thought, is a person, as in a human being, and that the Messiah acts in history rather than in some trans-historical realm.
Here is where Pharisees of the late first-century CE resist the claims of the Followers of Jesus, who exalt Jesus as the expected Messiah.
The Pharisees would claim Jesus did not organize an army and defeat Israel’s enemy at the time, namely Rome. Jesus’ followers reinterpret the Messianic expectation to say that Jesus did, in fact, fight not just Israel’s enemy, but that of all of humanity in that Jesus fights and, through his resurrection, defeats the enemy of all: death.
The Pharisees also very much resist the teaching of the Followers of Jesus that Jesus is somehow BOTH God and Man. That is an area designated by the Pharisees as shituf, and they have no desire to pursue it further.
As a result, Jesus is seen by most Pharisees as a failed Messiah – not the first, and certainly not the last.
Another failed Messiah is the aforementioned Shimon bar Kochba who leads the fight against the Romans in the last war in 132-135 CE. He is doing all the right things, but his is a losing effort. The Messiah, in classical Pharisaic understanding, does not lose. As a result of Bar Kochba’s revolt the Romans would bar Jews from Jerusalem and its environs.
Because so many rabbis, conveyors of Oral Torah, are killed by the Romans, taking their knowledge and teaching with them, a movement soon comes about arguing that the teachings and wisdom of Oral Torah need to be written down and not just passed orally from one generation to the next through itinerant rabbis. This moment marks the beginnings of a movement to preserve Jewish teaching and interpretation that later evolves into the Talmud.
When at the end of his ministry Jesus enters Jerusalem the gospel writers record that he is met with a tumultuous welcome, with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” One of his first acts after entering Jerusalem is to cleanse the Temple “of all them that sold and bought in the temple,” just as – at least metaphorically – the Maccabees did in destroying Greek worship elements in throwing off the rule of the Seleucids.
The Romans aren’t stupid. Having their finger on the pulse of a recalcitrant people, likely aware of the belief of some that Jesus might be the foretold Messiah who will lead an army and defeat them, and no doubt well-aware of the symbolic meaning of cleansing the Temple, Jesus is very much on the minds of the Romans.
Soon after, Jesus is arrested and put to death through a Roman form of execution – crucifixion. But because of the way in which the Gospels frame the “passion” of Christ those final days, blame for his death comes to be placed on the Jews rather than the Romans.
Think about it: when living under the thumb of an imperial power that can squash you like a frog, would it make sense to speak harshly of the Romans and what they did?
Rather, why not place the blame on the Jews, especially as “the Jews” have come to be seen not just as rivals but as something quite distinct and other than the Followers of Jesus when the Gospel accounts are written.
One sees this easily in the Gospel of John, the last of the written Gospels. Chapter 8, verses 39-47, addresses the question of who are the direct heirs of Abraham:
[The Jews] answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”
When we come to the trial of Jesus before Pilate there is another interesting dynamic at play. Pontius Pilate is the Roman Prefect of Judaea, and as such he has to sit in judgment of Jesus. The Gospel accounts describe how Jesus is delivered to Pilate by the Sanhedrin, the most powerful Jewish council of religious leaders.
In all four Gospels Pilate is presented as not wanting to execute Jesus. If you look at the Gospels in their chronological order you see that, moving from Mark to John, Pilate becomes a nicer and nicer guy while the Jews are presented as more and more advocating that Jesus be killed.
There is an extended back and forth between Jesus and Pilate in the Gospel of John in which it is clear Pilate is trying desperately to save Jesus. When Pilate asks if he is King of the Jews, Jesus asks whether others told him of this. Pilate answers saying Jesus’ own nation and chief priests have handed him over, and then asks, “What have you done?”
The answer Jesus gives is remarkable, saying “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”
Take note of that: his followers would fight to keep him from being handed over to the Jews, as if “the Jews” were something other than himself. Well, by the time of the writing of the Gospel of John the Followers of Jesus were something other than the Jews.
The Jewish nation voted with its feet, choosing to follow the Pharisaic traditions as they survive the destruction of the Temple and as it is being re-vivified by Johannan ben-Zakkai and his school at Javneh.
The Followers of Jesus by this time have been kicked out of the synagogues and clearly they do not have a future within the Jewish nation. Hence the importance of Paul’s and other apostles’ missionary outreach to gentiles.
The descriptions of the Gospels reflect the tensions contemporaneous with the writing of the Gospels, which are then telescoped back into Jesus’ time.
When the Gospel of John in 16:2 relays Jesus’ warning that his disciples will be removed from the synagogues, what is being described has already happened and then telescoped back into the mouth of Jesus as a form of prophecy.
As alluded to earlier, giving a pass to the Romans and Pontius Pilate, and laying blame for the death of Jesus on them, is politically prudent at the time.
In point of historical fact, Pilate was removed from Judaea, according to the Hellenistic philosopher Philo and the Roman Jewish historian Josephus, because of his excessive cruelty to the Jews during his time as Prefect. Is it likely he’d go out of his way to protect Jesus, a possible “messiah” who cleansed the Temple, thereby echoing the revolutionary example of the Maccabees? Not likely.
So Pilate is given a pass and the Jews are saddled with guilt for the death of Jesus.
Pilate tries to exchange the life of Jesus for a notorious criminal named Barabbas, but the Jews are recorded as refusing, instead demanding that Pilate kill Jesus. The Jews even threaten Pilate with the charge of being no friend of the Emperor if he refuses to kill Jesus. Still, Pilate says he finds no guilt in the man, while the Jews more adamantly demand that Jesus be crucified.
In Matthew 27:24, after Pilate realizes he cannot turn the passions of the mob and that a riot might perhaps break out, he washes his hands in front of the crowd and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.” Whereupon the Jews all say as one, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
And hence the charge of deicide, of “Christ killer,” would forever reverberate through the centuries as just one of the charges laid with Biblical authority on Jews.
My prayer, Mr. Kent, is that this article will be received with the same irenic spirit in which it has been written.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.