Sadly for millions of Jewish people the idea that Jesus could be the one to bring peace and reconciliation seems ridiculous and offensive.
We used to know an old Jewish lady who was born around the beginning of the 20th century and brought up in a small town in Poland. Her first memory of the name of Jesus was when her parents told her to hide in a cupboard in their home because it was ‘Good Friday’ and on that day the Roman Catholics would come out of their church services into the Jewish quarter to throw stones at the Jews ‘to avenge the death of Jesus.’ Not surprisingly it was hard for her to see Jesus as anyone who had an answer to anything. As far as she was concerned Jesus was ‘someone who hated us and is responsible for our misery.’
The roots of this hatred go back a long way. John Chrystostom, considered a saint and church father who lived in the fourth century, wrote: ‘The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy and rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ. 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 Jews must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews. It is incumbent upon Christians to hate Jews.’ (1).
When Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 he issued many anti-Jewish laws. Jews were forbidden to accept converts, while every enticement was used to make them forsake Judaism. At the Council of Nicea in 325 he said, ‘It is right to demand what our reason approves and that we should have nothing in common with the Jews.’ The links between Christianity and Judaism were broken as the Sabbath was changed from the seventh to the first day of the week and the date of Easter was separated from Passover.
As Christianity in its Roman Catholic form became the dominant religion of Europe those who rejected it became the forces of anti-Christ. The main group of rejecters were the Jewish people who therefore were considered by the church to be the ‘anti-Christ’ suffering continual persecution. In Spain in 613 all Jews who refused to be baptised had to leave the country. A few years later the remaining Jews were dispossessed and given to wealthy ‘pious’ Christians as slaves.
The first Crusade in 1096 saw fierce persecution of Jewish communities as the Crusaders began their journeys to the ‘Holy Land’ to ‘liberate’ it from the Muslims. They said, ‘We are going to fight Christ’s enemies in Palestine (i.e. the Muslims), but should we forget his enemies in our midst (i.e. the Jews)?’ 12,000 Jews were killed in the cities along the River Rhine alone. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred all the Jews and Muslims they could find.
In 1215 Pope Innocent III condemned the Jews to eternal slavery by decreeing, ‘The Jews against whom the blood of Jesus Christ calls out, although they ought not to be killed, lest the Christian people forget the Divine Law, yet as wanderers ought they remain upon the earth until their countenance be filled with shame.’
The first ritual murder charge against the Jewish community was in Norwich in 1144 when the Jews were accused of killing a Christian child at Passover time to drain his blood in order to make Passover matzos. This hideous and ridiculous charge has resurfaced time and again, most recently in the Muslim world, leading to massacres of the Jews. In 1290 King Edward I expelled all Jews from England.
In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was directed against heretics – Jews and non Catholic Christians. In 1492 Jews were given the choice of forced baptism or expulsion from Spain. 300,000 left penniless.
Martin Luther hoped initially that he would attract Jews to his Protestant faith, understanding that they could not accept the superstitions and persecutions of Rome. But when they rejected his attempts to convert them, he turned on them and uttered words of hatred used word for word by the Nazis in their propaganda:
‘What shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of the Jews? First their synagogues should be set on fire. Secondly their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. Thirdly they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds. Fourthly their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more. Fifthly passport and travelling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. Sixthly they ought to be stopped from usury. Seventhly let the young and strong Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the axe, the spade, the distaff, and spindle and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses. To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one, so that you and we may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden – the Jews.’ (2).
In the late 19th century the Russian Orthodox Church instigated the pogroms, violent attacks on Jewish communities of the kind portrayed in the film ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ They devised a solution to the ‘Jewish problem’ – one third extermination, one third forcible conversion to Christianity and one third expulsion.
Russian anti-Semites produced the libellous pamphlet, ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ alleging a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. This fiction was treated as a proven fact by the Nazis and was part of their propaganda effort to prepare people for the ‘Final Solution’, the extermination of 6 million members of European Jewry in the ovens of the Holocaust. Today the same libel is being peddled in the Muslim world to whip up hatred for Israel and the Jewish people.
This brief history of Jewish suffering shows the terrible truth that most of it has been instigated by people who claimed to be Christians. The main accusations that has been brought against the Jewish people by the professing church is that ‘the Jews killed Jesus.’
Who says the Jews killed Jesus?
Back in 1978 I was working as a French teacher at the Hasmonean School, an Orthodox Jewish grammar school in north London. One day I was covering for an absent teacher, minding my own business while the class got on with their work. One of the boys put his hand up and said, ‘Please sir, I want to ask you something. You’re a Christian. Why do you Christians say we killed Jesus?’
I answered him as best I could, saying that I personally did not say this, but agreed that much of the professing church had done so, because they did not really understand the faith they claimed to represent or who Jesus really was. This let loose an outburst of questions and comments from the boys on what was obviously an explosive issue to them. News of this discussion got back to the Rabbis in the school and the next day one of them came to me and said, ‘Mr Pearce, we know you are a sincere Christian and are friendly to our people, but please do not mention the founder of Christianity again in this school.’
As I prayed about it afterwards I realised how much hurt there is in the hearts of Jewish people over the way they have been persecuted in the name of Jesus. I also became aware of how much deeper is Jesus’ own hurt over the cruel misrepresentation which has been given to the Jewish people by His supposed followers down through the centuries, leading to a massive wall coming between Him and His own people.
The very first verse of the New Testament tells us of the ‘genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham’ (Matthew 1.1). Throughout the New Testament His Jewish identity is stressed. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2.21), brought up in an observant Jewish home (Luke 2.41) and learned the Torah (3) from His youth (Luke 2.46-49).
He told a Samaritan woman that ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4.22) and He kept the Jewish feasts (John 7.2, John 10.22). He told His disciples in their first preaching mission not to go to the Gentiles, but ‘rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10.6). Sure, He had fierce controversies with the religious leaders of His day, but so did the Hebrew Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others.
Concerning the crucifixion, the New Testament does not put the blame on ‘the Jews’ and certainly never even hints that succeeding generations of Jews should be persecuted on account of it. There is a problem with John’s Gospel in its use of the term ‘the Jews’ to describe the opposition to Jesus, but an intelligent reading of the text shows that John is talking of the Jewish religious leadership, not the entire Jewish people.
John 5.18 states: ‘Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.’ Since the Gospel makes it clear that Jesus Himself (John 4.9) and the disciples are Jewish the use of the term ‘the Jews’ in John 5.18 and elsewhere in the Gospel cannot possibly mean the entire Jewish people. It means the Jewish religious leadership.
In many ways John is the most Jewish of the Gospels showing the connection between Jesus’ teaching and Jewish festivals and customs. In John’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear who is responsible for His death: ‘Therefore my Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from my Father’ John 10.17-18.
The implication of this is clear. Jesus Himself takes responsibility for His own death. It happens at the time and manner of His choosing, in order that He might fulfil the Father’s will by dying as the sacrifice for the sins of the world and rising again from the dead to give eternal life to those who receive Him. No human being, Jewish or Gentile, has the right or the power to take Jesus’ life from Him against His will.
This fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 53, which states concerning the sufferings of the Messiah, ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise Him, He has put Him to grief’ Isaiah 53. 10. In chapter 6 we will look at the different arguments about this prophecy, but taking the view that it is about the sacrificial death of Messiah fulfilled in Jesus, the responsibility for Messiah’s sufferings is placed on God Himself. ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise Him’ means that Jesus was put to death to fulfil the will of God.
The Gospels take up this idea as we see Jesus submitting Himself to the will of God in order to redeem the world. He prayed in Gethsemane:
‘O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as you will’ Matthew 26.39.
‘This cup’ refers to the suffering which He knew lay ahead. It was necessary for Him to go through this suffering in order that He might be ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ John 1.29.
According to the Book of Hebrews those who believe come to ‘Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel’ Hebrews 12.24. The blood of Abel spoke of vengeance for Cain’s sin of murder (Genesis 4), but the blood of Jesus speaks of mercy and forgiveness.
Wrong church teaching however has turned this on its head and used the verse in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children’ (Matthew 27.25), to claim that the suffering of the Jewish people is the result of a self inflicted curse and even that Christians are therefore justified in persecuting the Jewish people in Jesus’ name.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus Himself prayed from the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do,’ (Luke 21.34) thus expressing God’s will that even those responsible for the death of Jesus, whether Jewish or Gentile, should find forgiveness through His name. Do we base our theology on the words of an enraged crowd or on the words of the Lord Jesus?
The answer to Jesus’ prayer was to be found not long afterwards through the preaching of the Apostles. Peter did place human responsibility for the death of Jesus on those who had called for Him to be crucified: ‘The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of Life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses’ Acts 3.13-15.
This was not to say that every Jew alive was responsible, because Peter himself was Jewish as were all the followers of Jesus at that time. It was certainly not to say that subsequent generations of Jews who had no connection with the decision to call for Jesus’ death were responsible. It was to say that there were people alive, who were actually listening to Peter speak at that very moment, who were responsible.
But even to them there was a message of hope and forgiveness. Explaining the meaning of the death and resurrection of the Jesus, Peter said, ‘Yet now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did your rulers. But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Messiah would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted that your sins may be blotted out’ Acts 3.17-19.
The people who called for the death of Jesus were responsible for the miscarriage of justice that took place. However they were ignorant of the spiritual meaning of it, hence Jesus’ words, ‘They know not what they do.’ The purpose of the preaching of the Apostles was to tell them why Jesus died and rose again and to show them how they too could find forgiveness and eternal salvation by repenting of their sin and believing in His name.
As all the people hearing this message and the many thousands who responded to it in the early chapters of Acts were Jews, Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of those who had Him crucified was being answered. It is clear that the message of the Gospel was from the beginning intended to be ‘the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Gentile)’ Romans 1.16.
Both Jews and Gentiles had to make a choice, whether to believe in the salvation offered by the Messiah or to reject it. Of course many Jewish people did reject the Apostles’ message, exactly as happens when the same message is presented to anyone in the world, whatever race they belong to. There was a division amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day about Him between those who were for Him and those who were against Him. Exactly the same division takes place today among all people of the world wherever the Gospel is preached.
The statement which really tells us who was responsible for the death of Jesus is to be found in Acts 4.24-28:
'They (the Apostles) raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord you are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them, who by the mouth of your servant David have said, ‘Why did the nations rage, and the people plot vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and His Messiah.’ For truly against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined before to be done.”’
In this prayer all categories of people are implicated, Herod and Pontius Pilate with the Gentiles and the people of Israel. The Gentiles are actually mentioned before the people of Israel, therefore they have no right to claim any superiority or judgmental attitude towards the Jews. It is clear that the physical act of crucifying Jesus was carried out on the orders of the Roman governor, by Roman soldiers in the Roman way. Strangely no one has ever suggested that the Italians killed Jesus and should be placed under a curse because of this!
All this happened ‘to do whatever your hand and your purpose determined before to be done’, in other words to fulfil the predetermined plan of God. So again the ultimate responsibility for the death of Jesus rests with God Himself in order to fulfil His purposes.
Any persecution of the Jews by the churches is a terrible distortion of the truth and a betrayal of the real Messiah Jesus. Unfortunately the church did the exact opposite of what Paul taught in his letter to the Romans, where he spoke of Israel and the Jewish people being the root which supports the ‘olive tree’. By this he meant that the Christian faith is based on the revelation given to the world through the Jewish people in the Jewish Bible and fulfilled in the Jewish Messiah. His message has been communicated to the Gentiles by His Jewish disciples who wrote the New Testament. Therefore if Christians want to have true spiritual life they have to acknowledge the debt they have to Israel and to repay that debt with love for the Jewish people.
In Romans 11 Paul makes it clear that whether the Jewish people accept Jesus or not, they are still ‘beloved for the sake of the fathers’ (i.e. the patriarchs of Israel and the covenant God made with them). He goes on to say that ‘the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (Romans 11.28-9). On this basis Christians have a responsibility to love the Jewish people and treat them with justice and kindness, no matter what they believe about Jesus. Significantly Paul wrote this letter to Christians living in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire and the city which was to dominate Christendom in the following centuries.
What went wrong? As the church became dominated by large numbers of Gentiles joining it, Jewish believers in Jesus became a minority. The Christians began to move asway from the pattern of living given them by Jesus and the Apostles, forming a religious institution which bore little resemblance to the original model given in the New Testament. They also wanted to ingratiate themselves with the Roman authorities who were hostile to the Jewish people following the failed Jewish revolts against Rome in 70 and 135. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Roman Catholicism emerged as the dominant force in Europe, and the Bishop of Rome became the Pope, taking on much of the power and character of the Roman Emperor (even one of his titles – Pontifex Maximus). This produced a tragic distortion of the Christian message dominated by a corrupted clergy with vast wealth at its disposal, exploiting and corrupting the people of Europe in the name of Christianity.
How different it would have been if the Roman church had paid attention to the letter to the Romans! As the church lost its understanding of the Jewish people it became cut off from its roots. Therefore the fruit it produced was not the fruit of the Holy Spirit, ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control’ (Galatians 5.22-3), but the works of the flesh manifested in the cruel and corrupt church of the Middle Ages and beyond.
When I was a student I remember seeing a film of Bernard Malamud’s book, ‘The Fixer,’ which made a great impression on me. In this story, Yakov Bok, a Jew living in Tsarist Russia is wrongly accused of murder and imprisoned. The case is a typical example of the anti-Semitism rife in Russia at the end of the 19th century. The authorities involve the Russian Orthodox Church in their interrogations of Bok, by trying to force him to convert to Christianity. They give him a New Testament to read, which he does. When the Russian Orthodox priest comes to interrogate Yakov to find out what he has learnt from the New Testament, he states simply, ‘Jesus is Jewish. So whoever hates the Jew hates Jesus.’ This is absolutely true and hatred for the Jews demonstrates a spirit of force, tyranny and prejudice which is the absolute opposite of the true spirit of Jesus the Messiah.
- ‘Homilae Adversus Iudaeos’. John Chrysostom (c307-407) was a preacher with great powers of oratory from Antioch.
- ‘Concerning the Jews and their lies’. Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of the German Reformation.
- Torah – the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch. Considered by Judaism to be the most important section of the Bible and read in its entirety in the Synagogue every year.