At the heart of Christian mistreatment of Jews over the centuries lay a simplistic and false syllogism: ‘The Jews rejected and killed Jesus. Therefore, God must want to punish them, to make them suffer for this crime. Therefore, we Christians should help God by increasing the sufferings of the Jews’” (Fisher 1993, p. 105). Jewish deicide “gained universal acceptance and lived on as a sort of socio-theological corollary of the Church’s Christology” (Flannery, p. 63).

Probably the earliest of New Testament writings, St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (2.1415) launched the litany of millennial vituperation: “…the Jews, who killed both the Lord and the prophets.” According to many scholars (for example, Vermes 2005) spurious narratives in the Gospels then followed, blaming Jews, born and unborn, for Jesus’ crucifixion; an unrelenting mantra of Christian anti-Jewishness. St. Matthew 27.2425: “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s [Jesus’] blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” St. Luke 23.20–21: “Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’” St. Mark 15.14: “Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’” St. John 19.6: “When the chief priests and the police saw him they shouted ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’

Such tales, in which a people verging on a nationwide revolt against abusive Roman rule (Note #15) clamor for the crucifixion of a popular compatriot, should certainly arouse incredulity if not censure for falsehood and slander. The response “We have no King but the [Roman] emperor” to Pontius Pilate’s question “Shall I crucify your King?” “(St. John 19.15) seems also as deceitful an invention of Jewish love for their Roman rulers as the Jewish crowd’s cry for Jesus’ crucifixion. There is no hint that any of Jesus’ disciples corroborated these malicious anti-Jewish accounts, nor does it accord with the large Jewish crowds that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem (St. Mark 11.8–10, St. Matthew 21.8–11, St. Luke 19.36–38, St. John 12.12–13), or with the reverential attitude toward Jesus of the Galilean countrymen who supported him, or with documented open Jewish hostility toward the Roman army and Roman occupation (Josephus Wars of the Jews, Book II) leading to the impending war with Rome.

Conciliatory sentiments attributed to Pontius Pilate are also quite contrary to all that was known of this Roman Procurator. In one report of his governance, as related by a Jewish contemporary (Philo, p.784): Pilate feared “they [Jews] might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.” According to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII:III-IV), Pilate set off protests and demonstrations causing “great slaughter” of both Jews and Samaritans. He was eventually sent for trial to Rome for extreme cruelty.

It is obvious that Jesus was not crucified by Romans for religious reasons, to which he offered no essential change (Note #16), but for an act of seditious insurrection in the Jerusalem Temple. Romans employed crucifixion as provincial punishment for sedition, and Pontius Pilate had no qualms in sardonically titling Jesus’ cross “King of the Jews.” This was hardly a religious title, but deprecates a provincial’s attempt to challenge the “peace and order” of Roman rule (Notes #15, #21). Had Jewish condemnation of Jesus been present, it would have extended no further than the aristocrats and priests who participated with Rome in Israel’s subjugation and exploitation. According to St. Mark’s Gospel (12.12), the antagonists to Jesus and his supporting “crowds” in the Temple disturbance were the Temple hierarchs who “wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd.” Blaming all Jews for Jesus’ murder, and absolving Pontius Pilate of any responsibility, served Christian leaders in appeasing both Roman authority and Roman Gentile society. It also helped justify Gentile Christianity’s claim to being God’s “True Israelites,” replacing “Christ-killing” Jews as inheritors of the Jewish Scriptures (Notes #7, #18, #19).

Modern historians such as Vermes (2005, pp. 82, 94ff); and Ehrman (2016, pp. 151–159) list significant discrepancies between the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ execution.

  • St. Mark’s story (15) is apparently simple: Pontius Pilate expresses concern that Jesus is a usurper of authority (“Are you the King of the Jews?”), and then asks the Jewish crowd to choose which malfeasants they would release, Jesus or Barabbas the insurrectionist. The Jews respond by demanding Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ execution.
  • In St. Matthew (27.19): faced by the Jewish crowds unrelenting demands for Jesus’ execution, Pilate’s wife pleads Jesus’ innocence to Pilate, who then washes his hands of Jesus’ “blood” (27.24).
  • In St. Luke: Pilate (uncounseled by his wife) finds Jesus innocent of all charges (23.4). He then sends Jesus off to Herod Antipas, Roman-appointed Jewish ruler of Galilee (23.7), who is also convinced of Jesus’ innocence, and who then returns Jesus to Pilate and the Romans. Pilate insists again that Jesus’ is blameless, but the Jewish crowd nevertheless continues to demand Jesus’ execution. Pilate then accedes to their demands, releasing Barabbas, “and handed Jesus over as they wished” (23.5).
  • In St. John: contrary to the other Gospels, Jesus is sent to Pilate before the Passover Seder (“Last Supper”) by Jews who refuse to enter Pilate’s headquarters (Praetorium) in order to escape defilement (18.28). Pilate refuses to judge Jesus, and sends him back to the Jews, who then return him to Pilate because they say they are not permitted to engage in capital punishment. Jesus and Pilate then have a somewhat lengthy private conversation in the Praetorium (18.33–38) in which Jesus pleads his case, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (Who could have devised this private conversation, if not the writers/redactors of St. John’s Gospel?) Pilate then exits to tell the Jews “I find no case against him,” and then engages in a succession of entries and exits to and from the Praetorium trying to convince the waiting Jews that Jesus should be released. The Jews insist “We have no king but the emperor,” and Pilate then “handed him over to them to be crucified” (St. John 19.16, my emphasis).

St. John’s narrative prompted Casey (1996, pp. 197–198) to conclude that it: “has been rewritten to avoid serious problems and to affirm serious falsehoods. The crucifixion has been put on the wrong day, with the result that the Last Supper is no longer a celebration of the Jewish Passover. The account is hostile to ‘the Jews’ from beginning to end. They demand Jesus’ crucifixion, but give no plausible reason for demanding that he undergo this horrific punishment. The [Roman] charge that Jesus was king of the Jews has been reinterpreted, replaced with the assertion that he declared his kingdom not of this world. Pilate has been rewritten as an unconvincing figure who tries to have Jesus released.… The resulting stories are untrue from beginning to end. Thus the fourth evangelist has quite rewritten the central part of the myth of Christian origins. We must conclude that his work is a presentation of falsehood.” By contrast, a modern New Testament scholar’s statement (Klassen, p. 19n) that “it is simply wrong to claim that there is anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism in the New Testament,” is itself “simply wrong.”

It is essential to recognize that New Testament stories, like many others, are not innocent of their effects: stories generate beliefs, beliefs generate emotions, and emotions generate actions. Labeling Jews as “Christ killers” turned out to be as terrible and as endlessly lethal a condemnation as the Christian Fathers could devise. Acts of the Apostles (7.52): “They [Jews] killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayer and murderers.” St. Aristides (ca. 130 C.E.): [T]hey [Jews] proved stubborn and ungrateful, and often served the idols of the nations and put to death the prophets and just men who were sent to them. Then when the Son of God was pleased to come upon the earth, they received him with wanton violence and betrayed him into the hands of Pilate the Roman governor; and paying no respect to his good deeds and the countless miracles he wrought among them, they demanded a sentence of death by the cross.… So much for the Jews.” (Apology XIV, ANF vol. 9, pp. 275–276).

St Justin Martyr (ca. 150 C.E.): “The highest pitch of your wickedness lies in this, that you [Jews] hate the Righteous One and slew Him; and so treat those who have received from Him all that they are, and who are pious, righteous and humane” (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew CXXXVI, ANF vol. 1, p. 268). The prime physical evidence of Jewishness — circumcision, the covenantal bond between Jews and their God — was explained by St. Justin Martyr as the trait God designed to make it easier to condemn Jews in the Last Judgment “for you have slain the Just One and His Prophets before Him” (Ibid. XVI, ANF vol. 1, p. 202). To St. Irenaeus (ca. 180), Christian salvation depends on sustaining illusions of Jewish guilt: “Unless, then, the Jews had become slayers of the Lord … and by killing the apostles and persecuting the Church, had fallen into an abyss of wrath, we could not have been saved” (Adversus Haeresis, ANF vol. 1, p. 501).

St. Melito of Sardis (“On the Passover” ca. 170): “This is He who was put to death. And where was He put to death? In the midst of Jerusalem. By whom? By Israel: because he cured their lame and cleansed their lepers, and gave light to their blind, and raised their dead! … O Israel, transgressor of the law, why hast thou committed this new iniquity, subjecting the Lord to new sufferings? … He that hung up the earth in space was Himself hanged up; He that fixed the heavens was fixed with nails; He that bore up the earth was borne up on a tree; the Lord of all was subjected to ignominy in a naked body — God put to death! The King of Israel slain with Israel’s right hand!” (ANF vol. 8, p. 757). Tertullian (ca. 198): “Albeit Israel washed daily all his limbs over, yet is he never clean. His hands, at all events, are ever unclean, eternally dyed with the blood of the prophets, and of the Lord Himself …hereditary culprits from their privity to their father’s crimes” (ANF vol. 3, p. 685).

St. Hippolytus (ca. 200): “Why was the [Jewish] temple made desolate?…It was because they killed the Son [Jesus] of their Benefactor [God], for He is coeternal with the Father” (ANF vol. 5, p. 220). Origen (ca. 240): “One fact, then, which proves that Jesus was something divine and sacred, is this, that Jews should have suffered on His account now for a lengthened time calamities of such severity.… For they committed a crime of the most unhallowed kind, in conspiring against the Saviour of the human race” (ANF vol. 4, p. 506). St. Cyprian (ca. 250): “[T]he Jews who not only unbelievingly despised Christ, who had been announced to them by the prophets, and sent first to them, but also cruelly put him to death” (ANF vol. 5, p. 450).

Among the “chief matters” included in Eusebius’ fourth century Ecclesiastical History (1.1) are the misfortunes that “overwhelmed the entire Jewish race” because of their “conspiracy against our Savior.” Didascalia Apostolorum (ca. 300, XLVII): “It is evident that no hope remains to the Jews, unless, turning themselves to repentance, and being cleansed from the blood with which they polluted themselves, they shall begin to hope in Him whom they denied” (ANF vol 7, p. 242). St. Aphrahat (ca. 330): “[Jesus’] accusers and they [Jews] that crucified Him shall be burned in flames at the end” (NPNF Series 2, vol. 13, p. 406). St. Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 350): Judaism was “mighty in wickedness … when it killed the prophets, and finally when it betrayed to the Praetor and crucified our God Himself and Lord” (Michael, p. 20).

St. Ephraim (ca. 362): “Israel crucified our Lord, on the plea that verily he was seducing us from the One God” (NPNF Series 2, vol. 13, p. 307). Dialogue of Athanasius and Zacchaeus (ca. 385): “Oh, that you would not have burned the books — you [Jews] who crucified the master [Jesus] and stoned His preachers” (Varner 2004, p. 41). St. John Chrysostom (ca. 386): “You [Jews] did slay Christ … you did spill his precious blood. This is why you have no chance for atonement, excuse, or defense. … Your mad rage against Christ, the Anointed One, left no way for anyone to surpass your sin. … you dared a deed much worse and much greater than any sacrifice of children or transgression of the Law when you slew Christ” (Harkins, p. 154).

St. Augustine (ca. 400) to Christian converts: “The Jews hold Him, the Jews insult Him, the Jews bind Him, crown Him with thorns, dishonor Him with spitting, scourge Him, overwhelm Him with revilings, hang Him upon the tree, pierce Him with a spear, last of all bury Him” (On the Creed, NPNF Series 1, vol. 3, p. 373). “What a Dreadful thing it is to kill Christ! Yet the Jews killed Him” (Ibid. p. 374).

Punishment of the Jews for the death of Jesus did not mean complete extinction. The Jews must continue to exist as testimony to Christians of the consequences of evil. St. Augustine (Reply to Faustus XII.12): “To the end of the seven days of time, the continued preservation of the Jews will be a proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death” (NPNF Series 1, vol. 4, pp. 187–188).

To New Testament writers and Christian Fathers, Jews are supposed to have been well aware of Jesus’ special divinity, since only a truly evil people would conspire to kill a God. That is, Jews must have always recognized the “truth” of Christianity and rejected it because of their inherent wickedness (Acts of the Apostles 7.51–52). Christian “truth” thus attempted to gain validity by ascribing Jewish opposition against it, justifying both antisemitism and Christianity to Christians. St. Augustine: “They [Jews] testify to the [Christian] truth by their not understanding it. By not understanding the books which predict that they would not understand [!], they prove these books to be true” (Reply to Faustus XVI.21, NPNF Series 1, vol. 4, p. 227). The notion seems to be that opposition by non-believers is a proof of “truth,” like a theological notion that opposition by the “unorthodox” is a proof of “orthodoxy.” This strange logic also explains allegations that the Jews ritually desecrated the consecrated host of the Eucharist because they recognized its supernatural value and tortured Jesus once again.

Another apparent fallacy is blaming Jews for Jesus’ death, yet insisting that Jesus’ death was purposed by Jesus himself (not Jews!) “to save mankind from its sins”: “The Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins” (St. Paul’s Galatians 1.3–4, see Note #11.c)