For nearly two thousand years the festival of Easter has annually fanned the flames of antisemitism, and, for all the honest and often courageous attempts of many Christian leaders in our day to set the record straight, there are still far too many preachers and teachers who are directly responsible, by falsifying history, for producing a new generation of little Jew-haters.
There are things that ought to be said on this subject.
A first point that needs making is that even today no-one can be certain as to the facts of the life and teaching of Jesus. The Gospels disagree on crucial points, and are not really contemporary records.
Secondly: Jesus was a Jew, born of a Jewish mother. He lived as a Jew, and might today find himself more at home in a synagogue than in a church.
The New Testament of course gives the impression that all the Jews were against him, and his supporters were of some other unspecified nation. A Catholic writer has, however, said: “A moment’s reflection will show that this way of viewing things is quite out of the question. There are no non-Jews in the story.”
What are the facts behind the trial and crucifixion of Jesus? To what extent, if any, were the Jewish leaders and populace responsible?
It seems there were two trials. First a Jewish court tried him and condemned him, then the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, interrogated him and sentenced him to death. The first, the supposed Jewish trial, as described by the Gospels, is so full of impossible illegalities that no self-respecting Jewish court would have dared to act in such a way.
In his book, “The Trial and Death of Jesus” (1977), Haim Cohn, a judge of the Israeli Supreme Court, contends that though “the Great Sanhedrin did meet that night” (p.95), it was not a regular court session at all. As a matter of national emergency the members convened even though it was Passover or the eve of Passover. Says Cohn, “The high priest knew that Jesus was to be tried before the Roman governor early the next morning… But what was so important about the trial of Jesus as to warrant an emergency meeting of the Great Sanhedrin by night?… I submit that the whole Jewish leadership of the day indeed was vitally interested to prevent the crucifixion of a Jew by the Romans, and, more particularly, of a Jew who enjoyed the love and affection of the people.”
Cohn argues that any Jewish intervention was not to harm Jesus but to save him, to urge him to abandon his pretensions and plead “not guilty” before Pilate. His co-operation would be in his own interest and those of the Jewish nation as a whole. Jesus however refused to co-operate. In anguish the high priest rent his clothes; the councillors sadly remarked that Jesus had sealed his own doom.
Once Jesus was dead, Judaism continued in its established pattern. It was only later, largely under the influence of Paul, that Jesus’ life and teaching were built up and reinterpreted to form the basis of a new faith. Those who now wrote about him reflected the views and prejudices of their own time. Concerned to gain Roman favour, they had to place more and more odium on the “perfidious” Jews who had not only killed their saviour but were now engaged in a desperate struggle with the Roman Empire. Add to all of this the fact that in time Christianity saw the crucifixion not as a tragedy but as a triumph: Jesus’ death had brought redemption to mankind.
No-one suggests that leading Christians are unaware of the facts. Indeed, in writing on the Vatican Council’s declaration on the Jews, a prominent Catholic theologian goes so far as to state that the declaration “does not absolve Jews from guilt for the crucifixion; it knows full well that the Jews were not guilty”.
A classical statement on the subject was made in the Ten Points of Seelisberg, formulated in 1947 by an international conference of Christians and Jews, which warn Christian preachers, teachers and parents to be aware of the grave risks of presenting the crucifixion story in a biased way:
“There is always a danger lest simple minds, moved by a passionate love and compassion for the crucified Saviour, might allow the feelings of horror which are quite naturally aroused by the story of his death to be turned into an indiscriminate hatred of the Jews of all times, including those of our own day.”
But if the Easter sermons, articles and broadcasts are any indication, these fine statements have not yet percolated down through the churches. I have to say in deep disappointment that James Parkes is right when he says:
“The Christian public as a whole, the great and overwhelming majority of the hundreds of millions of nominal Christians in the world, still believe that ‘the Jews’ killed Jesus, that they are the people rejected of their God, that all the beauty of the Bible belongs to the Christian Church and not to those by whom it was written; and if on this ground, so carefully prepared, modern antisemites have reared a structure of racial and economic propaganda, the final responsibility still rests with those who prepared that soil, created the deformation of the people, and so made these ineptitudes credible.”
This article was first published in April, 1994.