By Tom Wilson.
I am currently working on a book, provisionally entitled “His Blood Be Upon Us”: Completion and Condemnation in Matthew’s Gospel. There are two reasons why I decided to write this book. The first is it provides me with an opportunity to reflect at length on one of the most complex sentences in Matthew’s Gospel, the cry of “all the [Jewish] people” that “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25). The second was seeing a photograph of a pro-Palestinian demonstration, held during May 2021, when conflict was raging across Israel-Palestine. One of those present at that demonstration held a placard with a drawing of Christ on the cross accompanied by the words “Don’t let them do it again.” The “them” referred presumably to Israelis or Jews or Israeli Jews. This is the charge of deicide, the killing of God, which has been levelled at Jewish people by Christians for centuries. The incident at the demonstration indicates that the charge is still present today. But is it justified? Was it ever justified? And how do we respond to both the long history of Christian persecution of Jewish people as well as the rise in contemporary antisemitism? Are there any plausible links between the “blood cry” of Matthew 27:25 and the so-called “blood libel” that began in 1150, and still resurfaces today? Exploring these issues is the task I have set myself in writing this book.
In a sense, the key question this book discusses is who does Matthew think is responsible for the death of Jesus. My answer is that it is Jesus himself, because three times he predicts his own death (16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) and he acts provocatively and makes deliberate claims that invite his audience to conclude either he is divine, or he is blaspheming. Jesus does this knowing that the punishment for blasphemy is death. Jesus also sets himself up as a rebel against the authority of the Roman Emperor and of Rome, and the penalty for such treason is also death. But ultimately, within the interpretative framework of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the fulfilment of the Jewish messianic hope, and he brings God’s plan for the redemption of humanity to its intended goal through his own life, death, and resurrection. It is Jesus who chooses death so that others may have life. Any charge of deicide is misplaced if it does not focus on these facts.
Yet this interpretation remains contested; the charge of deicide and the arguably associated blood libel, have become enduring cultural tropes and excuses for discrimination, hatred, and murder. Numerous Jewish scholars whose work I have read in preparation for writing cite their own, contemporary experience of this accusation. To give one example, when Levine was seven, she was accused of deicide:
‘A friend on the school bus said to me, “You killed our Lord.” “I did not,” I responded with some indignation. Deicide would be the sort of thing I would have recalled. “Yes, you did,” the girl insisted. “Our priest said so.” Apparently, she had been taught that “the Jews” were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since I was the only one she knew, I must be guilty.'(2006, 2)
Whilst we may not go around accusing Jewish people of killing Jesus, how confident are we that we are not perpetuating antisemitism? When we presume Christianity is a religion of grace, but Judaism is one of legalism and pointless works, we are guilty of stereotyping and misinformation. Taking the polemic of Matthew 23 as if it were an objective description of all Pharisees for all time is another mistake preachers might make. I could go on, but then I’d share the whole book, which I hope will be out by the end of the year.
At the conclusion to her discussion of Jesus as “the misunderstood Jew,” Levine tells the story of Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov (1745-1807), who told his disciples that he had overheard a conversation between two villagers which taught him what it meant to love his neighbour. The first said, “Tell me, my friend, do you love me?” and the second replied that he loved his fellow deeply. The first responded, “Do you know what causes me pain?” and the second said that he did not. The answer came, “If you do not know what causes me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?” The rebbe’s point was that to truly know what causes another pain is to truly love him (Levine 2006, 116-17). As a Christian, if I am to truly love my Jewish sisters and brothers, I must endeavour to understand how the faith I follow has caused them pain. That is my real purpose in writing this book.
Levine, Amy-Jill. 2006. The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. New York: HarperOne.