[Note: This article first appeared in a shortened version on The Washington Times’ “Higher Ground” section.]
Is the New Testament antisemitic?
That is certainly the charge you might hear in recent decades and read online. The charge takes on added urgency given the recent attacks on Israel and consequent war in Gaza. And the charge is made more poignant given the return of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The accusation of an antisemitic New Testament is sadly a charge well-earned even if not well-founded: there is a noted history of antisemitism among Christians in the past, perhaps most notably the Christian participants of Nazi Germany. I recently met a lovely man who has taken me on several beautiful hikes in the New England area. He was born the son of Holocaust survivors. As a child, he wasn’t allowed to go outside unattended for fear that Christians would kidnap and torture him. That fear came from a very real place.
It seems like most people who think the New Testament is antisemitic do so because of an understandable assumption: If a group of Christians do something heinous, it must be because their holy book encourages them so. While the history of Christian and Jewish relations is indeed tumultuous, it is outside of the scope of this article to dig into that history. However, we can dig into the New Testament, and the fact is that Jesus was a Jew and all of the apostles were Jews. This was an embarrassing fact for Nazis who followed certain liberal theologies of the time that discounted much of the New Testament and disfigured Christ into some cosmic, spiritual figure of force who was decidedly not Jewish.i Further, Christ’s instruction was to love, pray for, and turn the other cheek to even those whom you consider your enemies (Matthew 5:38-44). This was hardly a Nazi value.
No passage in all the New Testament has been accused of contributing to antisemitism more than Matthew 27:25. But is it really antisemitic? The full answer may surprise you.
Let’s set the stage first. A crowd of Jewish people is shouting at the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to crucify Jesus. Pilate fails to dissuade them. Given a choice, they choose to release a murderer named Barabbas rather than the innocent Jesus (Matthew 27:15-26). Eventually Pilate gives into the crowd but washes his hands of what he apparently considers to be an unjustified sentence. He informs the crowd, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!”
“His blood is on us and our children!” the people respond.
And it is this phrase that has been used to interpret, make sense of, and justify antisemitic hate throughout the centuries. According to this belief, the Jewish people are forever cursed for being “Christ-killers”.
Before we go further, I do want to make clear the purpose of this article. It is not to get Christians “off the hook” or reinterpret their crimes, including complicity in or turning a blind eye to the holocaust. Rather, I mean to set the record straight on a passage and, indeed, a whole Gospel that continues to be willfully misunderstood to support antisemitic arguments that it actually refutes. If this argument is a defense of anything, it is a defense of Matthew’s Gospel. And if it is a polemic against anything, it is one against antisemitism, specifically the antisemitism of those who at some level share my own faith.
Evaluating Matthew 27
There are several reasons to reject the view that Matthew 27 intends to teach an eternal curse on the Jewish people. And there is one very good reason to suspect that it, in fact, teaches the opposite.
A few preliminary points are in order. First, Matthew’s Gospel has all the hallmarks of being written by a Jewish person for a largely Jewish audience. We have every reason to believe that the person identified as Matthew in the Gospels—a Jewish tax collector—was the author of this Gospel. And internal evidence witnesses to the Gospel’s Jewishness. For instance, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus begins by referring to Jesus as “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham,” then begins detailing Jesus’ royal pedigree with Abraham (Matthew 1:1-2). These are clues to Jewish readers that Jesus is both the inheritor of Abraham’s promise to bless the nations and the promised Davidic Messiah/King. In Matthew we also read of Jesus’s family fleeing to Egypt and then being called back (quoting Hosea 11:1), thus identifying Jesus with beleaguered Israel’s past Egyptian slavery, present Roman occupation, and future liberation, though in surprising ways (indeed, he is on the way to becoming the new Passover lamb). From Matthew we learn that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17-18) and that he corrects and deepens our understanding of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount, thus portraying him as something of a new Moses.
Abraham, Moses, David, Passover, and Israel itself. Jesus is related to all of them. You cannot get more Jewish than that.
Another sign of Matthew’s Jewishness comes from the historical record, which reports that Matthew’s Gospel may have been originally written in Hebrew and at some point was translated into Greek.ii Though it may not be the majority position, some have posited that medieval Jewish scholar Shem Tov’s Hebrew version of Matthew, included in an anti-Christian polemic around 1385, was not a translation but rather a copy of an ancient version now lost to history.
Furthermore, David Moffitt has convincingly argued that Matthew’s inclusion of the comment concerning Jesus’s “blood upon us and our children” was a rhetorical choice inspired by Jewish prophetic rhetoric that called Jewish authorities to task for various alleged misdeeds.iii So what Matthew is participating in is not antisemitic or anti-Judaic. It was, like the prophets before him and other contemporaneous Jewish writers, a call for the religious leaders of a people he loved to do better.
There are also the questions of who pronounced the “curse,” if he/they had the authority to invoke a curse upon all of Israel, and whether that curse would have been on all of Israel for eternity. While some antisemites, including some Christians, have made this claim, it cannot be stated strongly enough that the Scriptures themselves do not. Indeed, the concept is foreign to God’s word (see Ezekiel 18:1-20).
Accordingly, the charge of New Testament antisemitism is unfounded—not only because Matthew was Jewish, not only because when this Gospel was written the majority of the church was probably still Jewish, but also because the Gospels were written primarily as records of Jesus’s life for the sake of the converted. To put it simply: this was for Jewish Christians. They most likely knew the story and wanted it written down (just as people had begged Mark to write down the story of Peter, whom Mark assisted, after they heard it spokeniv).The fact that Matthew’s recipients were largely a community of saved Jewish people being written to by a saved Jewish person leads me to believe that they did not consider themselves hated by God or cursed by Jesus’s crucifixion. They understood, as the Jewish Apostle Paul had noted years before, that Jesus broke all curses by taking the main one upon himself (Galatians 3:13).
But we still haven’t considered Matthew’s overall point, which has less to do with rhetoric, and much more to do with blood.
Matthew’s usage of blood imagery
Finally, and most importantly, we should look at the usage of “blood” in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s Jewish audience would have had a significant relationship to notions of “blood” in Israel’s life. This does not include just the lament of shedding righteous blood as in the case of Abel, but also the sacrificial gift of innocent blood to cleanse the land of Israel and individual Israelites themselves from the contamination of sin. Moreover, the original Passover saw the innocent blood of a lamb protecting Israel from the specter of slavery and death. And so, it is not just blood taken that Matthew wishes to discuss, but blood given.
Like the middle of an hourglass into which all things merge and out of which all things flow, the key to all of the blood-talk in Matthew is found right in the heart of his Gospel. “This is the blood of the covenant,” Jesus proclaims, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The blood they spill is the blood given for their healing; God’s Kingdom has come, his will has been done.
So, in a significant sense, the Jewish people calling for Jesus’s blood that day were more correct than they even realized. The blood would indeed be upon them and their children, though not how they expected it. In this, they were inadvertently prophetic. Of course, the symbolism was there the whole time. They are Barabbas, the murderer who is pardoned by Jesus’s sacrifice. We all are. And for the Jewish people there, and everywhere, and all of humanity, Jesus’s blood is upon us.
What we fail to see is that the very act of killing God’s messiah would have been, in purely human consequential terms, both a covenant curse and a universal curse upon all of mankind, much worse than eating forbidden fruit. The Gentiles are not innocent, for it was Gentile soldiers and leaders who ultimately ignored Jesus’s innocence, ordered the crucifixion, relished in the scourging, and heaped insults upon the crucified Jew. But God turns this curse into a blessing. The very human act that brought a curse leads to the act that forgives it, for as I will repeat again and again, the blood that was taken was really blood that was given. It is a free gift, a sacrifice that was not ours to give but one from which we reap the benefits. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” the Apostle John would later write. “And not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
The free gift, the blood of the Son of God, has been given to the whole world. But God will not force his gift on anyone. Matthew was writing his Gospel to those who understood what God had done on their behalf. He did not come and kill. He did not come to hate Jewish people. He came in love, was raised on a cross, and opened his arms to the whole world. He was an atoning sacrifice and the redemptive blood of Passover. It was a profoundly Jewish way of saving the world.
Blood given, not taken
The purest form of Christianity may be defined as this: blood given, not taken. The early church was full of people who gave their time, their resources, their love, and sometimes even their blood, on behalf of God and for the world. And many of them were Jewish.
Unfortunately, this tradition has not always been consistently followed. Christians can be swayed by the pathologies of culture and history just as much as anyone else. Sometimes they are even the progenitors of said pathologies. But even then, when it seems as if the Christian world has lost its mind, there are those “holy fools” whose utter reliance on God turns them into prophets of the age. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who reminded others that there was a direct link between devotion and, specifically, protecting Jewish people. He once remarked while in the midst of Nazi Germany, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”v Bonhoeffer, like his Christ, gave his life for the life of the world.
I’ve always loved the way the 4th-5th century bishop and preacher John Chrysostom rendered this truth in his liturgical text. Speaking of the night that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, Chrysostom’s liturgy reads, “In the night in which He was given up—or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world …” This is the new covenant version of “what others meant for evil, God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20). So, when you read the Jewish people in the crucifixion narrative saying “his blood us upon us and our children,” you may hear this from your human perspective as a curse. However, from God’s perspective, it is a sacrifice of love, mercy, and forgiveness. From God’s mouth, it would sound a lot more like “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Since the crucifixion, the blood of those created in the image of God has continued to be spilled across the globe. Considering that the shedding of blood cries out to God from the ground (Genesis 4:10-11), how deafening this devastated world must be to him. It is why the 24-hour news cycle will never run out of “content”. It is why holocaust museums still need armed guards. And it is why the world needs Christ more than ever, for only by understanding the nature of love, forgiveness, and purpose will we stop demanding our pound of flesh from every real or perceived indiscretion. As we see in the case of historical antisemitism, it is Christians who often need Christ most of all.
The New Testament is not antisemitic, but Christians can be. When they are, they do so in direct opposition to the Jesus they claim to follow. But as we have seen, the New Testament is not the tale of an eternal curse on the Jewish “Christ killers,” for Christ was killed by us all. In his death we share blame. But Christ gave himself for all. And in that we share blessing.