The myth that Jews collectively murdered Jesus, also referred to as “deicide,” has been used to justify violence against Jews for centuries. Historians as well as Christian leaders have agreed that the claim is baseless.
Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem sometime around 30 CE.1Philip A. Cunningham, “Jews and Christians from the Time of Christ to Constantine’s Reign,” in Albert S. Lindemann and Richard S. Levy, Antisemitism: A History (Oxford University Press, 2010), 47. And Pontius Pilate — then serving as the Roman prefect (or governor) of Judaea — both presided over the trial of Jesus and gave the order for his crucifixion.2Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1999), xi.
These events took place in a complicated social context, in which religion and politics were inseparable. In the New Testament, Jesus is said to have been tried in a Jewish judicial body called the Sanhedrin before being turned over to Roman authorities. Time and again, these circumstances have been cited as proof of Jewish deicide.
One of the earliest and clearest examples appears in Matthew 27:25, written several decades after the events. When Pontius Pilate second-guesses his decision to have Jesus crucified, Jews are caricatured as a bloodthirsty lynch mob.3Catherine Sider Hamilton, “‘His Blood Be upon Us’: Innocent Blood and the Death of Jesus In Matthew,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70, no. 1 (January 2008): 82. This narrative is patently false. While certain leaders in the local Jewish community felt that Jesus’ teachings were politically subversive, experts have gathered that Jesus was not perceived as particularly threatening or enraging to the Jews around him.4Susannah Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press, 1998), 234. Modern readers misinterpret the trial of Jesus as a conflict between Jews and Christians, but this does not square with the Jewish origins of Christianity or with the fact that Christianity emerged years after Jesus’ death. The only non-Jews present in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion were the Romans.
The Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI finally discredited the notion of Jewish deicide in 1964 in its “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra aetate), published by the Second Vatican Council. In no uncertain terms, the Declaration states that the crucifixion of Jesus “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”5Vatican; “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html.
Despite this reckoning, the myth of Jewish deicide has persisted for millennia. What’s more, over the centuries, it has inspired derivative myths, such as accusations that Jews desecrate the Eucharist or poison wells to kill Christian villagers. Although the Qur’an explicitly states that Jews did not kill Jesus [Qur’an 4.157], it describes Jews more generally as “killers of the prophets,” a claim which would reverberate through the centuries.6“On the Qur’an and the Theme of the Jews as ‘Killers of the Prophets,'” Al-Bayan: Journal of Quran and Hadith Studies 1 (2012): 9-32).
Very few details of Jesus’s crucifixion have been—or even can be—verified as historical fact.
- Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, depicts Pontius Pilate as having been entirely reluctant to sentence Jesus. Only when he is blackmailed into submission by Jewish authorities does he go through with the sentencing.
- “It was the whole crowd in front of Pilate, about to riot…which made Pilate give way by their calling down upon themselves and their descendants the responsibility for the deicide (death of God in His human nature). Now this crowd was overwhelmingly Jewish, and the crowd identified themselves as such (“Us and our children”). Therefore the blame for the deicide rests upon those descendants unless and until collectively they recognise and adore their own true Messiah, but Scripture says this will only happen at the end of the world….” – Bishop Richard Williamson, April 13, 20197“Eleison Comments,” Bishop Williamson’s newsletter.
- “Catholics have lost every single battle in the culture wars because they cannot bring themselves to say the word Jew. Because they cannot say the word Jew, they cannot identify the enemy. Am I saying that the Jews are our enemy? Yes, the Jews are the people who killed Christ. They are enemies of the entire human race.” –E. Michael Jones, a traditionalist Catholic antisemitic ideologue.8E. Michael Jones, “Catholics and the Jew Taboo,” Culture Wars (vol. 37 no. 6), May 2018, p 17.
In the long history of Jewish scapegoating, deicide is the original and most damning false accusation. It set the terms for the most foundational Christian theological condemnations of Jews and Judaism within contexts ruled largely by religion.
The notion of Jewish deicide might seem like a harmless historical speculation, but in fact, those who spread the myth are usually less concerned with historical facts than they are with essentializing and demonizing Jews. In any case, historians and theologians agree: Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus — not then and not now.
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