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Jewish deicide is a historic belief, originally formalised as a theological position in early Christian times, which claimed the Jewish people collectively were responsible for the death of Jesus. The charge was made as early as Justin Martyr and Melito of Sardis. In time, the anti-Judaic accusation that the Jews were Christ-killers fed into Christian antisemitism, and the slur proliferated inciting mobs to use it as a pretext for violence against Jews, contributing to many centuries of pogroms, the murder of Jews during the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust.
In the catechism which was produced by the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church affirmed the belief that the collectivity of sinful humanity was responsible for the death of Jesus, not only the Jews. In the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI repudiated belief in collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus. It declared that the accusation could not be made "against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today". Nevertheless, a number of Christian groups reject the Second Vatican Council declaration and continue to espouse anti-Jewish views, including the deicide theory.
Source of the deicide charge
Justification of the charge of Jewish deicide has been sought in Matthew 27:24–25:
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"
The verse which reads: "And all the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!'" is also referred to as the blood curse. In an essay regarding antisemitism, biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine argues that this passage has caused more Jewish suffering throughout history than any other passage in the New Testament.
Many also point to the Gospel of John as evidence of Christian charges of deicide. As Samuel Sandmel writes, "John is widely regarded as either the most anti-Semitic or at least the most overtly anti-Semitic of the gospels." Support for this claim comes in several places throughout John, such as in 5:16–18:
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, "My father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working." For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Some scholars describe this passage as irrefutably referencing and implicating the Jews in deicide, although many, such as scholar Robert Kysar, also argue that part of the severity of this charge comes more from those who read and understand the text than the text itself. For instance, John renders the character of the Ioudaioi, the Jew, as a clear antagonist and Christ-killer, although the notion that the Jew is meant to in fact represent all Jews is often disputed. While the New Testament is often more subtle or leveled in accusations of deicide, many scholars hold that these works cannot be held in isolation, and must be considered in the context of their interpretation by later Christian communities.
The First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians also contains accusations of Jewish deicide:
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all men. (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15)
According to Jeremy Cohen:
Even before the Gospels appeared, the apostle Paul (or, more probably, one of his disciples) portrayed the Jews as Christ's killers ... But though the New Testament clearly looks to the Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus, Paul and the evangelists did not yet condemn all Jews, by the very fact of their Jewishness, as murderers of the son of God and his messiah. That condemnation, however, was soon to come.
The identification of the death of Jesus as the killing of God is first explicit in "God is murdered" as early as 167 AD, in a tract bearing the title Peri Pascha that may have been designed to bolster a minor Christian sect's presence in Sardis, where Jews had a thriving community with excellent relations with Greeks, and which is attributed to a Quartodeciman, Melito of Sardis, a statement is made that appears to have transformed the charge that Jews had killed their own Messiah into the charge that the Jews had killed God himself.
He who hung the earth in place is hanged; he who fixed the heavens has been fixed; he who fastened the universe has been fastened to a tree; the Sovereign has been insulted; the God has been murdered; the King of Israel has been put to death by an Israelite right hand. (lines 95–96)
If so, the author would be the first writer in the Lukan-Pauline tradition to raise unambiguously the accusation of deicide against Jews. This text blames the Jews for allowing King Herod and Caiaphas to execute Jesus, despite their calling as God's people (i.e., both were Jewish). It says "you did not know, O Israel, that this one was the firstborn of God". The author does not attribute particular blame to Pontius Pilate, but only mentions that Pilate washed his hands of guilt.
St John Chrysostom made the charge of deicide the cornerstone of his theology. He was the first to use the term 'deicide' and the first Christian preacher to apply the word "deicide" to the Jewish nation. He held that for this putative 'deicide', there was no expiation, pardon or indulgence possible. The first occurrence of the Latin word deicida occurs in a Latin sermon by Peter Chrysologus. In the Latin version he wrote: Iudaeos [invidia] ... fecit esse deicidas, i.e., "[Envy] made the Jews deicides".
The accuracy of the Gospel accounts' portrayal of Jewish complicity in Jesus' death has been vigorously debated in recent decades, with views ranging from a denial of responsibility to extensive culpability. According to the Jesuit scholar Daniel Harrington, the consensus of Jewish and Christian scholars is that there is some Jewish responsibility, regarding not the Jewish people, but regarding only the probable involvement of the high priests in Jerusalem at the time and their allies. Many scholars read the story of the passion as an attempt to take the blame off Pilate and place it on the Jews, one which might have been at the time politically motivated. It is thought possible that Pilate ordered the crucifixion to avoid a riot, for example. Some scholars hold that the synoptic account is compatible with traditions in the Babylonian Talmud. The writings of Moses Maimonides (a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher) mentioned the hanging of a certain Jesus (identified in the sources as Yashu'a) on the eve of Passover. Maimonides considered Jesus as a Jewish renegade in revolt against Judaism; religion commanded the death of Jesus and his students; and Christianity was a religion attached to his name in a later period. In a passage widely censored in pre-modern editions for fear of the way it might feed into very real anti-Semitic attitudes, Maimonides wrote of "Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, and was put to death by the court" (that is, "by a beth din").
Historicity of Matthew 27:24–25
According to the gospel accounts, Jewish authorities in Roman Judea charged Jesus with blasphemy and sought his execution, but lacked the authority to have Jesus put to death (John 18:31), so they brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the province, who authorized Jesus' execution (John 19:16). The Jesus Seminar's Scholars Version translation note for John 18:31 adds: "it's illegal for us: The accuracy of this claim is doubtful." It is noted, for example, that Jewish authorities were responsible for the stoning of Saint Stephen in Acts 7:54 and of James the Just in Antiquities of the Jews without the consent of the governor. Josephus however, notes that the execution of James happened while the newly appointed governor Albinus "was but upon the road" to assume his office. Also Acts relates that the stoning happened in a lynching-like manner, in the course of Stephen's public criticism of Jews who refused to believe in Jesus.
It has also been suggested that the Gospel accounts may have downplayed the role of the Romans in Jesus' death during a time when Christianity was struggling to gain acceptance among the then pagan or polytheist Roman world. Matthew 27:24–25 reads:
So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man; see ye [to it]. And all the people answered and said, His blood [be] on us, and on our children.
This passage has no counterpart in the other Gospels and some scholars see it as probably related to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D. Ulrich Luz describes it as "redactional fiction" invented by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Some writers, viewing it as part of Matthew's anti-Jewish polemic, see in it the seeds of later Christian antisemitism.
In his 2011 book, Pope Benedict XVI, besides repudiating placing blame on the Jewish people, interprets the passage found in the Gospel of Matthew which has the crowd saying "Let his blood be upon us and upon our children" as not referring to the whole Jewish people.
Historicity of Barabbas
Some biblical scholars including Benjamin Urrutia and Hyam Maccoby go a step further by not only doubting the historicity of the blood curse statement in Matthew but also the existence of Barabbas. This theory is based on the fact that Barabbas's full name was given in early writings as Jesus Barabbas, meaning literally Jesus, son of the father. The theory is that this name originally referred to Jesus himself, and that when the crowd asked Pilate to release "Jesus, son of the father" they were referring to Jesus himself, as suggested also by Peter Cresswell. The theory suggests that further details around Barabbas are historical fiction based on a misunderstanding. The theory is disputed by other scholars.
The Holy Friday liturgy of the Orthodox Church, as well as the Byzantine Rite Catholic churches, uses the expression "impious and transgressing people", but the strongest expressions are in the Holy Thursday liturgy, which includes the same chant, after the eleventh Gospel reading, but also speaks of "the murderers of God, the lawless nation of the Jews", and, referring to "the assembly of the Jews", prays: "But give them, Lord, their reward, because they devised vain things against Thee."
A liturgy with a similar pattern but with no specific mention of the Jews is found in the Improperia of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. In the Anglican Church, the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer did not contain this formula, but it appears in later versions, such as the 1989 Anglican Prayer Book of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, as The Solemn Adoration of Christ Crucified or The Reproaches. Although not part of Christian dogma, many Christians, including members of the clergy, preached that the Jewish people were collectively guilty for Jesus' death.
In the aftermath of World War II, Jules Isaac, a French-Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor, played a seminal role in documenting the anti-Semitic traditions which existed in the Catholic Church's thinking, instruction and liturgy. The move to draw up a formal document of repudiation gained momentum after Isaac obtained a private audience with Pope John XXIII in 1960. In the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI issued the declaration Nostra aetate ("In Our Time"), which among other things repudiated belief in the collective Jewish guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus. Nostra aetate stated that, even though some Jewish authorities and those who followed them called for Jesus' death, the blame for what happened cannot be laid at the door of all Jews living at that time, nor can the Jews in our time be held guilty. It made no explicit mention of Matthew 27:24–25, but only of John 19:6.
On November 16, 1998, the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America adopted a resolution which was prepared by its Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations. The resolution urged that any Lutheran church which was presenting a Passion play should adhere to its Guidelines for Lutheran-Jewish Relations, stating that "the New Testament ... must not be used as a justification for hostility towards present-day Jews", and it also stated that "blame for the death of Jesus should not be attributed to Judaism or the Jewish people."
Pope Benedict XVI also repudiated the Jewish deicide charge in his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth, in which he interpreted the translation of "ochlos" in Matthew to mean the "crowd", rather than the Jewish people.
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The Babylonian Talmud, as distinct from the Palestinian Talmud, conserves these traditions, arguably, because Palestine was under Christian domination, whereas the Sassanid Empire, which hosted major academies of the Jewish diaspora, viewed Christianity inimicably. The different political situation in the latter allowed for freer dissent
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While the charge of collective Jewish guilt has been an important catalyst for anti-Semitic persecution throughout history, the Catholic Church has consistently repudiated this teaching since the Second Vatican Council.
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