Antisemitism and the Question of Who Killed Jesus

Over the last week or so, there's been a dustup over the phrase "Jews killed Jesus," due to its inclusion in a proposed definition of antisemitism adopted by a bill passed by the United States House of Representatives.

Some worry that such a definition of antisemitism will make the New Testament and gospel preaching illegal. Such fears misunderstand what the bill in question does and does not do. More crucially, such fears do not grasp the antisemitic use of the phrase "Jews killed Jesus" in history and such fears grossly misunderstand the way the NT describes Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus. 

I'll leave it to constitutional scholars to weigh the appropriateness of the law itself. There are questions about the prudence and constitutionality of the government defining speech. 

That's all above my pay grade and beyond my expertise.

But as a Christian pastor, I am deeply concerned about the skyrocketing antisemitism in our world, and the readiness of many Christians to embrace the phrase "the Jews killed Jesus" as gospel truth without historical and exegetical reflection. 

It is one thing to say that that the NT shows active Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:24-25; John 5:16-18; Acts 2:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) and another thing entirely to conclude that the NT collectively and perpetually blames the Jews for the death of Jesus. Yet, the latter is what the phrase means in its historical usage. 

A Quick Survey of Antisemitism in Christian History 

While the phrase "Jews killed Jesus" might seem like a straightforward summary of some aspects of the biblical narrative, the meaning the phrase in history is very dark. 

Sadly, many ostensible Christians used the phrase to collectively condemn all Jews as killers of Christ, guilty of deicide. Untold thousands of Jews were killed as a result of the widespread and fallacious belief that the Jews were "Christ killers," and therefore worthy of death. It was in this climate that the First Crusade in 1096 slaughtered Jews in the Rhine Valley in Germany before attempting to retake the Holy Land. During the Black Death, vicious lies spread about Jewish plots to spread the disease. The Jewish people were repeatedly banished from "Christian countries" in Europe during the late Middle Ages. A climate of hatred led to overt acts of persecution.

So what do we make then of texts that seem to lay blame on the Jewish people for the death of Jesus? Two texts in particular deserve our attention: Matthew 27:24-25 and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. 

Matthew 27:24-26

In its larger context, Matthew 27 details the interaction between Pilate, the Roman Governor, with the representatives of the Sanhedrin as Jesus is condemned to death. The larger paragraph reads as follows: 

15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.

19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.

21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.

“Barabbas,” they answered.

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

There is no doubt that the Jewish leadership was behind the plot to kill Christ, starting from the earliest days of His ministry (Mark 3:6; Matthew 12:14). In view is a mob being agitated by the leadership, not a representative assembly of the nation expressing the popular will. The focal point of the narrative is on the leadership, not the nation. The “chief priests and the elders” accuse Him (27:12), agitate the mob (27:20), and mock Him (27:41). In short, the “chief priests and the elders” persuade the crowds to demand Jesus’ crucifixion.  

The broader background of the gospels militates against reading Matthew 27:24-25 as representing the views and attitudes of the whole nation. Throughout the Passion Week, the religious leaders looked repeatedly for a way to get rid of Jesus, but could not because they feared the people, showing that ordinary Jews supported Jesus in large numbers, over against the much smaller group of the religious leaders (Matthew 21:11, 46). This is the very reason why they arrested Jesus in the dead of night, held a rushed sham trial, then whipped up a mob to pressure Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death, and then got Jesus on the cross by 9am—before most of the people knew what had happened. 

But what about the statement in the text that the mob declares “his blood is on us and on our children”? Does this not teach that all Jews are now guilty of killing Christ? 


To understand the phrase, we need to recognize that, in Jewish thought, to be the “son of” conveys similarity in character. Thus, Jesus can call the murderous mob in John 8 “sons of your father, the devil.” He does not mean, of course, that they are literally and physically descended from Satan, but rather, that they are behaving like the seed of the serpent. 

Similarly, in Matthew 23:31-35, Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees as the “sons of those” who killed the prophets. This is not because they necessarily could trace their line of descent back to them, but because they were behaving in the same fashion.   

When the NT deals with the Jewish people’s involvement in the death of Christ, it overwhelmingly relates the role played by the corrupt religious leaders, not the mass of people as a whole (Matthew 21:45-46, for example).  

Likewise, John’s gospel contain statements that could be misconstrued as blaming “the Jews” for wanting to kill Jesus (see John 5:14-16). However, scholars recognize that John frequently uses the term "the Jews" as shorthand for the Jewish leadership, not the whole nation. After all Jesus Himself was Jewish, and John is not incriminating Him! Indeed, one of the hallmarks of John’s gospel is the division Jesus brings. Some believe Him, and some reject Him (see John 1:11-13). Just as it is accurate to say, “Some Jewish people followed Jesus and some rejected Him,” so it is accurate to say, “Some Jewish people plotted to kill Jesus, and others did not.”   

1 Thessalonians 2:14-16

Moving to to 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, we see the same reality as is at work in the gospels, namely, that the Jewish leadership in Judaea was morally culpable for the death of Jesus. But even this text does not justify collectively labeling the Jews as “Christ killers” for the simple reason that 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is pointing out the sin of a specific segment of an ethno-religious group in a particular place at a particular time. Here’s the full statement from Paul:

14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews [the Judeans] 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.

Contextually, Paul is comparing the behavior of the Judaean Jews with the behavior of the Thessalonians Jews, not all Jews everywhere as a collective ethnic entity. Similarity in belief and behavior, not commonality in ethnicity united the persecutors of both. Just as the Judaean church was persecuted by their own people, the Jewish religious leaders (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1, 13; 11:19; 12:1-3), so too the Thessalonian church was persecuted by their own people. What is crucial to recognize is that both churches were, themselves, started by Jews and included large numbers of Jews. Unbelieving Judean Jews persecuted believing Judean Jews. Unbelieving Thessalonian Jews persecuted believing Thessalonian Jews (Acts 17:1-8). By no means is Paul indicting all Jews! Rather, he refers to the hostile religious leaders and those who imitated them. 

The antecedent to the phrase, “who killed the Lord Jesus” is not to the collective whole of the Jewish people, but those in Judea who plotted to hand Him over for death (John 18:35).  

Part of the confusion in this discussion is with the biblical usage of the term “the Jews.” While in modern usage, it is primarily an ethnic designation, in the Bible it could refer to (1) someone whose heritage is Jewish with a particular emphasis on their allegiance to Torah-keeping, and (2) to a Judaen, that is someone from the region of Judaea, and (3) as shorthand for the Jewish religious leaders (see the entry in BDAG). Careful readers of the NT must resist the urge to impose a modern, racialized understanding of the term on the text, when, in fact, the term often emphasizes religious belief and behavior more than ethnic identity (though that element is not absent).  

BDAG notes that “incalculable harm has been caused by simply gloss [the term] with ‘Jew’, for many readers or auditors of Bible translation do no practice the historical judgment necessary to distinguish between circumstances and events of an ancient time and contemporary ethnic-religious-social realities, with the result that anti-Judaism in the modern sense of the term is needlessly fostered through biblical texts. . . . there is no indication that John uses the term in the general ethnic sense suggested in modern use of the word ‘Jew,’ which covers diversities of belief and practice that were not envisaged by biblical writers.

Collective Guilt in Acts 

If the NT viewed the Jewish people as collectively guilty of the death of Jesus, then we would expect the apostles to charge Jews outside of Judea and after the time of Jesus with the killing of Jesus. 

But this is not what we find. 

Instead, early sermons preached in Jerusalem in the weeks immediately after the death of Jesus, do broadly speak of Jewish people being complicit in the death of Jesus. Later sermons, preached in other locals, do not condemn their Jewish auditors for the death of Jesus. 

On the day of Pentecost, as Peter addresses "men of Judea" and "those who dwell in Jerusalem" (2:14), he does directly say "you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (Acts 2:23). Peter speaks similarly in Acts 3:11-16. More tellingly, Acts 4:10, 5:30, and 7:52 directly lay the blame of killing Jesus on the Sanhedrin in words spoken directly to the Sanhedrin. 

Later texts in Acts, however show that the apostles did not regard all Jews as being guilty of Jesus’ death. 

When Paul is speaking to Jews in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:16, 26), does not count them among those who killed the Messiah. Acts 13:27-30 uses the term “they” rather than "you."  Even though many in Paul’s audience rejected the message of Jesus as Messiah, he did not include them in the group of those who killed Christ (Acts 13:45-46). This is a vital point. The NT itself reveals a distinction made between those present at and consenting with the death of Jesus and those who were geographically and/or temporally removed from the event. This fact militates strongly against a notion of collective racial guilt for the Jewish people in the death of Jesus. 

Finally, Acts 4:27-28 gives one the fullest accountings of moral involvement in the death of Jesus. Interestingly enough, the Jews are not singled out for exclusive blame. 

27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

Jews and Gentiles together conspired together to eliminate Jesus. Conservative Pharisees, liberal Sadducees, Hellenized Herodians, nationalistic Jews (Judas Isacariot), and insecure politicians (Pilate) all united to kill Jesus, all with differing motives. Behind it all was a sovereign God working his purposes to save sinners. 

Indeed, my sin and your sin put Christ on the cross (Isaiah 53:6-7), even as it was Yahweh's will to crush Him (Isaiah 53:10) and even as Jesus willingly laid His own life down for His sheep (John 10). To speak and act as if the Bible lays sole responsibility on the Jews collectively is a highly selective reading of the text that repeats an agenda of hate. 

The NT Condemnations of Incipient Antisemitism 

The NT writers recognized the danger of anti-Jewish attitudes among their Gentile converts. Indeed, Paul—no stranger to persecution from Jewish authorities—addresses this in Romans 9-11. He expresses his great grief at Israel’s general rejection of Jesus as Messiah (9:1-3). Israel was and still is special because of their past (9:4-5). He points out that God is still saving Jews and Gentiles alike according to divine election (9:6-29). Paul’s desire and longing is that Israel would be saved (10:1), something they are missing out on, so long as they rely on their own righteousness. Then, in Romans 11, Paul emphatically declares that Israel’s rejection is not final (11:1), as God presently has a remnant according to grace (11:5). Most crucially, Paul argues that present Gentile inclusion in the New Covenant people of God does not mean permanent Jewish exclusion: the Jewish people will be grafted back into the olive tree (11:11-12) and saved in the end (11:25-26). In the midst of this section, Paul warns Gentile Christians: 

17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

In short, don’t act as if you are morally better, racially superior, or more righteous than them. You only got in by God's electing grace. In short, Gentile inclusion in God’s covenant purposes does not mean that God is done with the Jewish people, even if now, they are hardened to the gospel.

Christians should be the last people to traffic in hatred towards the Jewish people. Rather, we should adopt Paul’s gracious attitude towards them expressed in these verses. We are saved only because of a Jewish Messiah. 


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