Since the second century, many church leaders have blamed the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. Because Christians believe that Jesus is God in the flesh, those who have blamed Jewish people for His death have frequently accused them of deicide. The term literally means “murder of God” and has been used to dehumanize and demonize a people unfairly branded as Christ killers.
The Components Of The Misunderstanding
The first element of the Christ-killer charge is that the Jewish people are solely guilty for the death of Jesus. Church fathers propagated this idea so forcefully that even now many people, if asked, “Who killed Jesus and who nailed Him to the cross?” would unhesitatingly reply, “The Jews.” As a result, one aspect of the misunderstanding is that it is alleged that only Jewish people are guilty for the death of Jesus.
A second facet of the misunderstanding is the contention that all the Jewish people of Jesus’ day were guilty. Not just some Jews in Judea or some of the Sanhedrin, nor some of the crowd in Jerusalem, but every Jew living in the whole world was deemed guilty. A Jew in Rome who had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth was guilty, as was a Jew in Asia Minor who had never lived in Israel, or even a Jew in Galilee who had listened to Jesus with interest and respect. It has been charged that all Jewish people, if they did not recognize Him as Messiah, shared the blame for putting Him to death. Thus, allegedly, all Jewish people living at the time of the crucifixion were guilty of deicide.
The third ingredient of the Christ-killer charge is the allegation that the Jewish people are perpetually guilty for the death of Jesus. This means that it was not only Jews and all Jews of Jesus’ day, but all Jews for all time who are charged with the responsibility for the murder of Jesus. The implication is that your Jewish neighbor, if he or she does not believe in Jesus, is more guilty of the murder of Jesus than your Gentile neighbors who also do not believe in Him. The essence of the misunderstanding and unfair accusation is that only Jews and all Jews for all time are guilty of killing Jesus, and in doing so, murdering God.
The History Of The Misunderstanding
My reason for pressing this unfair accusation that Jewish people are by nature and fact Christ killers is not to unfairly tag all Gentile people as anti-Semitic. Rather, it is to alert those who are unaware of this sad charge to the way it has been used as a weapon against Jewish people. Although in recent years large numbers of Christians have retreated from the accusation, many still affirm it. In fact, when I was writing my master’s thesis on the subject of the deicide charge, students would frequently challenge the value of my research. Many would say, “Why waste your time? Everyone knows the New Testament holds the Jewish people responsible.”
Let’s review how the history of this charge has so ingrained itself into Christian thought that many mistakenly regard the suffering of Jewish people as something they uniquely deserve.
THE CHURCH FATHERS
Developing The Misunderstanding
How did the Christ-killer accusation develop? The first person to equate Jewish suffering with the death of Jesus was Justin Martyr (c.100–165). This Christian apologist wrote that all the sufferings of the Jewish people were a divine punishment. He said, “Tribulations were justly imposed on you, for you have murdered the Just One” (Dialogue With Trypho, ch.16).
By the late second century, Melito of Sardis wrote not just that the Jews killed Jesus, but that the Jews knowingly murdered God. In his Homily On The Passion he wrote:
An extraordinary murder has taken place in the center of Jerusalem . . . . And who has been murdered? And who is the murderer? . . . The One who hung the earth in space is Himself hanged; the One who fixed the heavens in place is Himself impaled; the One who firmly fixed all things is Himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted; God has been murdered; the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel.
Melito of Sardis brought “deicide” into Christian thought and thus increased the intensity of anti- Semitism. The accusation became part of the church’s doctrine. Christians believed that the Jews were the murderers of Jesus and so the “murderers of God.”
Although many church fathers affirmed this charge, two leading theologians were especially influential in having the deicide charge ingrained into the thinking of the church. These were Augustine and John Chrysostom, two of the most influential leaders in the early history of the church.
Augustine (354–430) is considered the greatest theologian of the Western Church and perhaps the greatest of all time. Roman Catholics and Protestants both point to him as their patron theologian. Augustine developed the theory of “the witness people.” He said that just as Cain slew Abel and was forced to wander the earth as a testimony of his evil, so God marked the Jews when they murdered Jesus, their brother. They too must wander the earth and cannot be destroyed. Yet their dispersion and misery serve as a testimony of their evil and of Christian truth. They are doomed to suffer and wander the earth as a perpetual witness to divine judgment.
John Chrysostom (347–407) is considered the greatest preacher of the Eastern Church. He was known as the “Golden- Mouthed Preacher,” and his sermons are still studied and memorized today by men entering the priesthood of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He wrote eight Homilies Against The Jews, which form the worst of all anti-Jewish writings in the church. He said:
The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ. They worship the devil, their religion is a sickness. The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ, and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jew must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews. It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews.
The church fathers so effectively entrenched the Christ-killer charge into the thinking of the early church that by the Medieval Period the idea was undisputed.
THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD
Mob Violence And The Misunderstanding
By the Middle Ages, the church fathers had so inculcated the deicide charge into the thinking of the clergy and the laity that active anti-Jewishness became normal. Church historian James Parkes has observed, “A medieval Christian, if he were asked what was the substance of his hostility to the Jews, would undoubtedly place first the crucifixion.” During the Middle Ages, the church applied the teachings of the church fathers and brutalized the Jewish people living around them because they were considered Christ killers. In fact, for medieval Jewish people, Holy Week became the most dangerous week of the year. As Christians remembered the death of Jesus, they leveled horrific false charges against the Jews, resulting in vicious attacks and murders.
One of these false charges was the ritualmurder charge, also known as the “blood libel.” Jewish people were accused of kidnapping Christian children, especially on Good Friday, in order to reenact the murder of Christ. It was said that Jewish people killed these children so that they could use their blood for making Passover matzoh (unleavened bread). To this day, various anti-Semitic and racist groups use the Internet to promote this outrageous charge. Just last year in Saudi Arabia the official Saudi press published an article describing in graphic detail how Jewish people obtain and use the blood of Christian and Muslim children to make Hamentashen (cookies) for Purim. In both medieval Europe and the contemporary Middle East, individuals have been encouraged to take vengeance on the Jews for the blood libel.
Another false charge was “host desecration.” Jewish people were charged with sneaking into churches and stealing the host used for the Mass and believed to become, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, the actual body of the Lord. It was said that Jewish people would take the consecrated wafer and pierce it in reenactment of the crucifixion until it would miraculously bleed. Pope Innocent III officially recognized this charge in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council.
As a result of these lies that were taught about the Jewish people, mobs would descend on the Jewish community and wreak havoc on the people— murdering, raping, and pillaging. During the Easter season, it got so bad that Jewish people would hide, attempting to avoid meeting Christians observing Holy Week. Any Jew seen in public was subject to attack or death in retribution for the alleged Jewish murder of Jesus. Tragically, Holy Week became Horror Week for Jewish people.
Moreover, since the medieval church generally viewed the Jews as a deicidal people, common people generally affirmed anti-Semitic accusations and unleashed unprovoked violence, making daily life for the Jewish person in Christian Europe an uncertain nightmare.
THE REFORMATION PERIOD
Refining The Misunderstanding
One might think that by the end of the Middle Ages, when Martin Luther established the Reformation, that the anti-Jewish actions of the church would have ended. Although Luther did indeed break with the teachings of the established Catholic Church in many respects, he maintained and taught their hateful attitude toward the Jews. Luther wrote an avidly anti-Semitic treatise, called On The Jews And Their Lies (1543), in which he accused the Jews of “their sin of crucifying Jesus.” Luther restated the medieval accusations against the Jews, such as ritual murder, and made many harsh statements and observations about the Jewish people. He wrote, for example:
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing, and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. . . . For, as all can see, God’s wrath over them is so great that gentle mercy will only make them worse and worse, and harshness little better. So away with them at all costs.
Would that Luther were the only reformer that condemned the Jewish people. Tragically, John Calvin also raised his voice against the Jews. In A Response To Questions And Objections Of A Certain Jew he wrote:
[The Jews’] rotten and unbending stiffneckedness deserves that they be oppressed unendingly and without measure or end and that they die in their misery without the pity of anyone.
Plainly, the Reformation brought little relief from anti-Semitism to the Jewish people of Christian Europe.
THE NAZI PERIOD
The Final Solution And The Misunderstanding
In modern times, hatred for the Jewish people intensified to unparalleled heights with the onslaught of Hitler and Nazism. Nazi ideology, despite being driven by racial rather than Christian anti-Semitism, still made the Christ-killer charge against the Jews. Hitler used the alleged Jewish guilt for murdering Jesus to stir the German Christian populace against their Jewish neighbors and to bring German Christian acquiescence to his planned genocide of the Jewish people.
Adolf Hitler was enthusiastic about the famous Oberammergau Passion Play, perfor med in the Bavarian mountain village since 1634. He attended the 1934 production and was pleased to see the swastikas pervading the area. An active young Nazi played the role of Jesus. Through the strategic elimination of one paragraph, the play appeared to call for the annihilation of the Jews. Hitler continued to stress the importance of the passion play and considered it “vital that the passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans.”
My parents came to the United States, both having survived Hitler’s concentration camps prior to their marriage. When my mom left Nazi Europe, she brought with her a Nazi reading primer used to teach 7-year-olds how to read. Written by Elvira Bauer and published by the notorious Sturmer Press, the book was titled Don’t Trust A Fox In The Meadow And Don’t Trust A Jew By His Word. This colorful and beautifully illustrated children’s book says:
“From the beginning, the Jew has been a murderer,” so says Jesus Christ. And when the Lord Jesus had to die, He did not know of any other nation that could torture Him, so He chose the Jew. That is why the Jews imagined they are the Chosen People.
The Nazi propaganda machine, the Sturmer Press, made use of the Christ-killer charge in a variety of creative ways. Significantly, children were taught to believe the deicide charge so they would grow up hating Jews. On this basis, Hitler argued, “By warding off the Jews, I am fighting for the Lord’s work.”
My dad’s first wife was murdered at Auschwitz with his four sons, as well as an adopted daughter. My mom and dad met and married after the war, having lost all of their families—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, sister, cousins, and virtually everyone they ever knew—to the Nazi Holocaust. They came to America seeking freedom, safety, peace, and an end to anti-Semitism. But they didn’t find it. Their young son who was born in Germany, my older brother, was walking to a Jewish school one day and Gentile children threw rocks at him, shouting “Christ killer!” One of the rocks that hit him blinded him in one eye for life.
Blaming Jewish people for the death of Jesus remains pervasive among Christians. Today, even renowned New Testament commentators and apologists condemn all Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus as being guilty of His death.
In my own life, I have encountered evangelical seminarians and Bible college students who believed that contemporary Jewish people remain guilty for killing Jesus. One professor at a Christian college told his class that the New Testament blames all Jews for all time for the murder of Jesus, sarcastically noting that he would not say that too loudly in a Jewish neighborhood. I have even met anti-Semites who propound the charges of deicide and ritual murder with bumper stickers and T-shirts.
My friends, I have reviewed this history not to heap guilt upon all Gentiles but to give you reason to pause and reflect on the emotions of your Jewish friends and neighbors. If you have heard Jewish people expressing their fears at the possible consequences of the movie The Passion Of The Christ, I hope you now understand their concerns. Perhaps you can see that the history of the church has been splattered with Jewish blood—blood that has been poured out as a result of the Christ-killer charge. Although it wreaks havoc on the Jewish people, the Christ-killer accusation reflects a misunderstanding of the New Testament documents.
So what does the Bible say about the human responsibility for the death of Jesus? Let us now move from the historical to the biblical perspective.