WHO WAS JESUS?
Jesus, also known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ, was a Jewish teacher and the central figure in Christianity. Christians generally believe that he is the son of G-d and the messiah.
Most historians agree that Jesus was a real historical figure, though many of the details of his life, as well as the timeline depicted in the Christian Gospels, are contested.
In either 30 or 33 CE, Jesus was crucified by the Roman authorities. Followers of Christianity believe that, after his crucifixion, he rose from the dead.
Jews reject the idea that Jesus is the messiah as described in the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) because he did not fulfill any of the messianic prophecies, and Jews reject the notion of a divine son of G-d altogether. Jews also reject the idea of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), as Judaism understands G-d to be indivisible, and as such, the concept that G-d is a duality or a trinity is, to Jews, an impossibility. In fact, some Jews consider the Holy Trinity to be polytheistic in nature (I fall under that camp myself, and no, I will not argue about it in my DMs).
The Roman occupation of Judea (6 CE-135 CE; after 135 CE, the Romans renamed Judea “Syria Palestina”) was a violent period, culminating in three Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire (66 CE-73 CE, 115 CE-117 CE, and 132 CE-135 CE). In 36 CE, the Samaritans also revolted against Roman rule.
The Romans had exempted the Jews from the requirement of imperial worship so long as they paid a special tax to Rome. As such, the Jewish Temple authorities, some of whom had been appointed by the Romans, collected this tax from poor farmers, who ended up having to mortgage their lands to the authorities.
Jesus opposed this practice, because he believed that the lands belonged to G-d. Since G-d had given the lands to the People of Israel in the covenant, Jesus argued that the lands should be returned to the farmers. For the Romans, this message presented a political threat.
Before the revolts, the Jews in Roman Judea enjoyed a small degree of independence. This independence allowed Jews to judge citizens by their own laws, including the power to sentence people to capital punishment, until 28 CE. Jesus was crucified 2-5 years later, either in 30 or 33 CE.
Because of the brutality of Roman rule, many Jewish and Samaritan messianic movements emerged during the time period. In other words, Jesus was just one of many.
In 70 CE, in the midst of the First Jewish Revolt, the Romans destroyed the second sacred Jewish Temple, forever changing the course of Judaism and Jewish history. In 135/6 CE, after suppressing the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Romans massacred, enslaved, or displaced some 600,000-million Jews in an act historians describe as a genocide.
NO, IT WASN’T THE JEWS
Historians on the time period heavily cast doubt on the ideas that (1) Jews killed Jesus, (2) Jews ordered the death of Jesus, and/or (3) that Jews were in any way significantly involved in the death of Jesus.
Had Jewish authorities been involved, even marginally, Jesus would not have been crucified, but rather, stoned to death, as was the case with others that were sentenced to death at the time. Crucifixion was exclusively a Roman punishment. In fact, at one point during the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE, around the time the first Gospel was written), the Romans were crucifying some 500 Jews per day.
It is true that Jesus and his followers, like many other Jews of the time period, had major tensions with the Jewish authorities, some (emphasis on “some”) of which had been appointed to their positions by the Romans. That said, Jewish rebellions during the first century were a widespread “problem” for the Romans, who saw Jesus and his followers as yet another group of rebels. They almost certainly ordered his death because they considered him a political threat. Jesus was not the first nor the last “prophet” or “rebel” to be crucified by the Romans; in fact, this was a common occurrence.
To reiterate: had the Jewish authorities even been tangentially involved, Jesus would have been stoned, not crucified.
MOTIVATIONS IN THE GOSPEL
Why, then, did the Gospels overemphasize the Jews’ role in the crucifixion of Jesus?
The first Gospel to be written was the Gospel of Mark, written around 60-70 CE, right during the period of the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans. In this Gospel, the death of Jesus is portrayed as a collusion between the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Regardless, here, it is clear that Pilate is the one who orders Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s important to take the historic context into account; during a period when the Romans were brutally suppressing a Jewish rebellion, it served the new Christians (known as “Nazoreans” at the time, as in the followers of the man from Nazareth) well to emphasize their distinctness from the Jews.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written next, some 10-20 years after the destruction of the second sacred Jewish Temple in 70 CE. In the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction, conflicts arose between the rabbinic Jews and the Nazoreans, as the rabbinic Jews wanted to exclude Nazoreans from partaking in the synagogue. This intra-Jewish conflict is reflected in these Gospels, as the role of the Romans is diminished; for instance, Pilate’s wife intercedes for Jesus and Pilate washes his hands as a sign of innocence. It’s no wonder, then, that the blame is placed more strongly on the Jewish authorities, when the Nazoreans of the time were in conflict with the authorities themselves.
The Gospel of Luke came next, though historians argue over the exact date during which it was written. Some believe it was in 80-90 CE, 10-20 years after the destruction of the Temple, while others believe it was written later, between 90-110 CE. Many believe the Gospel was still being revised well into the second century.
What we do know is that the Gospel of Luke was written for a different audience: a Roman audience. During this period of early Christianity, the Romans accused Christians of superstition, and Christians were persecuted. To win the new audience’s favor, the role of the Romans was almost completely whitewashed. For instance: Pilate declares Jesus’ innocence three times, and the passages where Jesus is mocked and crowned with thorns are removed.
The Gospel of John, written between 90-110 CE, implicitly blames not the Romans, not the Jewish authorities, but the Jews as a collective for the crucifixion of Jesus, finally completely severing Christianity from its Jewish origins.
The Romans adopted Christianity in 313 CE. The bishop of Constantinople between 398-407 CE, John Chrysosom, was the first to declare Jews “Christ-killers.”
The Roman Empire adopted Christianity in 313 CE. While Jewish-Roman relations in the first century were certainly antagonistic, culminating in the three revolts, the situation for Jews exponentially worsened upon the Romans’ adoption of Christianity. The Romans fully leaned into the charge of Jewish deicide, as they would not blame themselves for the death of their savior.
The persecution of Jews increased, with periodic pogroms (anti-Jewish massacres) and religious and political repression. In the fourth century, intermarriage between Jews and Christians was formally prohibited. Christians were also forbidden from celebrating Passover with the Jews or keeping Shabbat. Conversion to Judaism was outlawed, and Jewish culture was heavily regulated. Jews were only allowed to enter Jerusalem on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple.
In the fifth century, conditions became even worse. Jews were barred from various professions, participating in civil service, and joining the military. Synagogues were confiscated and transformed into churches.
At one point, Jews accounted for about 10% of the population of the Roman Empire. Had our ancestors not been massacred, some historians calculate there would be some 200 million Jews today. Instead, our population stands at about 15 million.
The antisemitic conspiracy of deicide — the false claim that Jews killed Jesus or are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus — has arguably been the deadliest antisemitic conspiracy theory in history. For 2000 years, Jews were persecuted on this premise. Some examples include the Spanish Inquisition and the Jewish massacres during the Crusades. The conspiracy of Jewish deicide also set the precedent for the scapegoating of Jews. Since the earliest accusations of deicide, Jews have been blamed for just about any and all calamities to befall humanity: from the Black Death to 9/11 to even the Holocaust.
Historically, Biblical “justification” for the conspiracy of deicide has been Matthew 27:24–25: “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!’
All the [Jewish] people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’”
The earliest accusation of deicide dates back to Justin Martyr (100 CE-165 CE), who was an ethnic Greek but considered himself Samaritan, and Melito of Sardis, a born Jew who became a Nazarean.
It wasn’t until 1965 that the Catholic Church disavowed the charge of Jewish deicide, though they still hold the position that it was the Jewish authorities that sentenced Jesus to death. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America did not officially repudiate the charge until 1998.
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