I was recently asked if I’d be willing to do a lecture on whether the Gospels are anti-Semitic. I’ve dealt with the issue on the blog before, but thought it might be useful to return to a particularly interesting feature of the Gospels that can contribute to an answer.
I should say at the outset that I do not think that the Gospel writers, or anyone else in their time, was “anti-Semitic.” The idea and reality of anti-Semitism are modern, and are based on modern sense of “race” as these were developed by the anthropologists of the 19th century. The idea that there was a Semitic “race” has been used for all sorts of hateful purposes in the modern period. As just one example, throughout the Middle Ages – before the modern period — and on into the nineteenth century, “Jews” were understood to be people who subscribed to and followed the Jewish religion – but not that they had racial characteristics. There were indeed persecutions of Jews, since the conversion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. For Jews to escape persecution, they needed to stop being Jews and convert to become Christians. It was that way up through the Enlightenment. But with the development of race theories it came to be thought that Jews were a different race from others, that being a Jew was, literally, in a person’s blood. That is why during Nazi anti-Semitism, resulting in the Holocaust, it simply didn’t matter if a Jew converted, say, to become Lutheran or Roman Catholic. S/he was still a “Jew” by race and so needed to be exterminated. This is obviously even more insidious than the anti-Judaism that existed in earlier centuries, when being Jewish was a matter of having the wrong religion. Now it was being the wrong kind of human, a problem that could not be changed, no way and no how.
In the ancient world there was opposition to Jews, and Jews throughout the Roman Empire were sometimes mocked and slandered (and attacked). But it was either because they had the wrong religion or, more commonly, because as a people they kept to strange customs (cutting the foreskin off their boys’ penises, not working one day a week, refusing to eat ham or shrimp, etc.). But it is important to stress that all kinds of foreigners were mocked and slandered by Roman authors, not just Jews. The Ethiopians or Egyptians or Indians were no better, just different.
So, too, the New Testament. I’ve been talking in my recent posts about the passion narratives. It is interesting (again, this is simply one slice of the pie) that as time goes on (when you arrange the Gospels chronologically), Pontius Pilate is increasingly portrayed as innocent for condemning Jesus to death. Historically, Jesus’ execution was almost certainly Pilate’s decision, from beginning to end (for reasons I’ll lay out in a later post, in response to yet another recent question). Even if Jewish authorities handed Jesus over to Pilate, he, as governor, is the one who decided what to do with him, without help from the local authorities who, as a rule, he appears not to have been particularly inclined to assuage (despite what some NT scholars often say….).
In the earliest account, Mark, written about 40 years after the event itself, Pilate is shown cooperating with the Jews and together, more or less, they decide that Jesus has to die. It is interesting that in Luke’s Gospel, Pilate is forthright in not wanting to execute Jesus. In fact, he declares Jesus innocent of all charges, on three occasions, and tries to fob him off on the Jewish King Herod for trial, and finally has his hand forced by the Jewish leaders, and so orders Jesus to be crucified. But it’s not what he wants.
This is even clearer in Matthew’s Gospel, where Pilate declares Jesus innocent and washes his hands (this is only in Matthew), declaring that he is innocent of Jesus’ blood. And the Jewish crowd (all the crowd, not just the leaders) cry out those infamous words, “His blood be upon us and our children” (Matt 27:25). Here the Jewish people accept the responsibility for Jesus’ death, and agree to pass on the guilt to their descendants.
In some ways the final canonical Gospel, John, some 15 years later, is even more graphic. Here again, as in Luke, Pilate declares Jesus innocent on three occasions. But in an extended dramatic retelling of the scene, his hand is forced by the Jewish leaders to condemn Jesus to death. He does so, and then hands him over “to them” (the Jewish authorities!!) to be crucified. They are the ones then who do the deed.
As time goes on, Pilate becomes more and more innocent. In the Gospel of Peter the Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death, and their guilt for causing it, is heightened. Even later there are the Gospels known as the Pilate Gospels (I have new introductions and translations of all of these in my recent book, co-authored/edited with my colleague Zlatko Plese, The Apocryphal Gospels), where Pilate is portrayed as even MORE unwilling to have Jesus’ executed. In some traditions Pilate actually converts to become a Christian. In later Ethiopic tradition, Pilate becomes canonized as a Christian saint.
Pilate? A Christian saint? Completely innocent of Jesus’ death? Why would the tradition move in that direction? For a clear and obvious reason: if Pilate (and the Roman authorities) was innocent in the death of Jesus, the son of God, who was guilty? It was those hard-headed and wicked Jews! Both in order to show that Jesus (and his followers) were not guilty before the Roman state, and in order to blame the hated enemies the Jews, the stories of Jesus’ death were altered over time. This is a not-so-subtle result of the rising anti-Judaism in early Christianity, which resulted in such horrible things once the empire converted to the new religion, and took its earlier prejudices (against Jews) and started acting out on them (in vicious anti-Jewish legislation and mob activity).