Inter-Jewish Conflict and the Passion of Jesus

To argue that the Evangelists all conspired to re-write history, condemning the Jews and exonerating the Romans, seems a little far-fetched.

By Anthony J. Tomasino
Bethel College
Mishawaka, IN
April 2004

    The new film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, has provoked a great deal of passion among its critics and its defenders. Long before the film was released, there were charges that the movie was anti-Semitic, or would promote anti-Semitism by resurrecting the notion that the Jewish people are “Christ killers.” Gibson’s defenders shot back that the film had no political or social agenda and was simply true to the Gospel accounts. This assertion prompted a couple of responses. One was that the film actually incorporated much non-biblical tradition into its interpretation. But the other response, to many Christians, was far more disturbing. These were the charges that the movie could not help being anti-Semitic because the Gospels themselves are anti-Semitic.

    There’s nothing really new in this claim. Accusations that the Gospels “canonize” a hatred for Judaism have been around for a very long time. But the turmoil around the Passion film has brought these charges to the attention of the general American public, probably for the first time. Undoubtedly, it’s been confusing for some readers. After all, most people are well aware of the fact that Jesus and all the apostles were Jews themselves. According to tradition and internal evidence, the Gospel writers (with probably one exception) were Jewish, as well. Are we to believe that the Evangelists wanted the world to blame their own people for the death of Jesus and exonerate Pontius Pilate and the Romans of any wrong doing? Would Mark and the other Gospel writers have re-written history in such a way as to throw a notoriously cruel and corrupt governor into a “positive” light?

    Were the early Christians so well disposed to the Romans that they would have deliberately shifted the blame for Jesus’ death from the Empire to their own people? By the time the Gospels were written, the Christians were already being burned on Roman stakes, torn apart by Roman dogs, and dying in Roman arenas. Subject peoples throughout the Empire—not just the Jews—were smarting under the destruction and oppression of the Roman regime. The Apocalypse of John demonstrates what must have been the Christian attitude toward Rome at the time. Rome was the Great Beast, the whore Babylon. It was doomed to quick and complete destruction. To argue that the Evangelists all conspired to re-write history, condemning the Jews and exonerating the Romans, seems a little far-fetched.

    I can’t comment about anti-Semitism in the Passion movie since I haven’t seen the film myself. But I would like to address briefly the issue of anti-Semitism in the Gospels themselves. Or more specifically, I want to offer another perspective on the idea that the Gospel accounts of the trial and death of Jesus have been “doctored” to make the Jewish people appear responsible for Jesus’ death. The points I’ll be making aren’t especially new and don’t represent historical discoveries on my part. But in light of the current debate, I believe they bear repeating. First, I believe that the charges that the Gospel accounts are anti-Semitic do not take sufficient consideration of inter-Jewish polemics of the late Second Temple period. And second, any arguments that the Jewish high priesthood and political authorities weren’t involved in attempts to do away with Jesus are historically improbable. It seems, rather, highly unlikely that the Jewish leaders would have allowed this itinerant preacher to traverse Galilee and Judea, attacking the Temple establishment, and not taken serious action against him.

Inter-Jewish Polemics

    An important prerequisite for understanding the anti-Jewish statements of the Gospels is to recognize that the Gospels are themselves Jewish literature. In the first century C.E., when all the Gospels were written, Christianity had not yet separated from its Jewish roots. Paul, James, Peter, and the other apostles were all Jews and never repudiated their Judaism. The second generation of church leaders, as well—those under whom the Gospels were written—were also primarily Jewish. The church historian Eusebius reports that all the bishops of Jerusalem up through the Bar Kokhbah revolt (135 C.E.) were Jewish (Ecclesiastical History 4.5.1-4). The description of the ministry and legacy of Jesus found in Josephus’ Antiquities (18.63), which many scholars believe is a retouched version of a “less Christian” original, seems to speak of Christianity as a group within Judaism.

    While Christianity had added many Gentile converts by the end of the first century, it still retained a strong Jewish flavor (well demonstrated in what may be the latest New Testament text, the Apocalypse of John). It wasn’t until after the Bar Kokhbah rebellion that Christianity began to diverge sharply from Judaism, and to absorb the anti-Jewish sentiments of the pagan world. The harshly anti-Semitic sentiments of the third-century Church Fathers belong to an entirely different age than the Gospels. And even then, the anti-Jewish rhetoric was inspired partly because many Christian laypeople continued to worship in Jewish synagogues—much to the chagrin of both the Jewish rabbis and the Gentile church leaders.

    The fact that much of Christianity viewed itself as a branch of the Jewish religion in the first century puts the Gospels’ anti-“Jewish” statements in a different light. We aren’t reading hate-inspired attacks from Gentile outsiders but relics of interfaith rivalry. Even the Gospel of John, when it speaks boldly of how the “Jews” opposed and condemned Jesus, probably wasn’t proffering a blanket condemnation of all Jews, but only of Jesus’ opponents. John uses the term “Jews” as an ethnic designation for both those whom he considered good (i.e., those who chose to believe in Jesus; see 8:34, 12:9-11, 19:38-39), and those he considered bad (i.e., those who rejected Jesus, and especially those who wanted him dead). Many times, the term is simply neutral (“the Jews” marvel at Jesus’ wisdom in 7:15; they are divided about Jesus in 10:19; “the Jews” comfort Mary and Martha in 11:19; and “the Jews” observe how much Jesus loved Lazarus in 11:36). John does not paint all Jews as villains. Indeed, he portrays some Jewish leaders, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, as sympathetic figures (e.g., Jn.19:38-39). It is also noteworthy that this Gospel puts special emphasis on the notion that Jesus was the “king of the Jews” (18:33, 39; 19:3, 14, 19, 21).

    I believe that John’s identification of Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews” is not evidence of ethnic hatred but only the fact that the author expected most of his readers to be Gentiles. Josephus consistently refers to the subjects of his narrative as “the Jews,” even when he means only a small group of Jewish people (e.g., he writes that “the wicked Jews” stoned to death a righteous prophet named Onias, when of course only a few Jews were actually involved in the incident [Ant. 14.24]). Paul, too, writing as a Jew for a multi-ethnic audience, sometimes refers to his opponents as “the Jews”—even though many Jews were his allies. When he wrote that the Gospel was “a stumbling block to the Jews” (1 Cor.1:23), he certainly didn’t mean all Jews since most Christians were, at that time, Jewish. Such language must be put into its international context: modern journalists might well write, “The Iraqis invaded Kuwait.” No one would say that the statement implies all Iraqis were equally involved, or equally responsible, for the action.

 When we view the Gospels in light of inter-Jewish polemics of the age, they seem practically tame. The Dead Sea Scrolls sect railed against its opponents, grouping them together with Gentiles as “children of Belial (the Devil)” and “the lot of Darkness.” (Take note: the Scrolls sect stated that those who did not follow their teachings were “children of the Devil.” John 8:44 describes Jesus’ opponents in the same way.) The leader who oppressed the group was called “the spouter of lies” (1QpMicah). The Dead Sea Scrolls commentary on Nahum describes all the Pharisees as “seekers of flattery” who conduct themselves with “falsehood and deceit.” But I have yet to hear a scholar argue that the Dead Sea Scrolls are “anti-Jewish”! We recognize the rhetoric in these texts for what it is: an outgrowth of inter-Jewish rivalry.

Interfaith Oppression

    But the friction between Jewish sects was seldom restricted to a war of words. When it was in their power to do so, groups often used violent force to silence their opponents. One well-documented case was the Dead Sea Scrolls sect’s Teacher of Righteousness, a figure who probably lived sometime in the second century B.C.E. He and his group opposed what they perceived as laxity in temple administration and errors in religious practices of the masses. But they soon learned that the high priest was not one to accept such insolence charitably. The “wicked priest,” as he is called in the Scrolls, attacked the Teacher and his followers and forced them to flee to a refuge they called “Damascus” (whether this reference is to the literal city of Damascus has been the subject of much debate). It’s not clear what the Teacher had done to provoke the attack—our sources are rather one-sided. But the 4QMMT scroll, which purports to tell the reasons the Scrolls sect separated itself from other Jews, records only religious differences, not political problems. The Teacher wasn’t trying to foment rebellion against the government, but he apparently possessed some dangerous charismatic influence. The high priest felt the Dead Sea Scrolls sect was a threat to the stability of his regime, and he used his authority to drive the group into hiding.

    This incident was hardly the last time that the high priest used force to protect his position—a position that often entailed as much political authority as it did religious authority. In 88 B.C.E., the Hasmonean monarch Alexander Janneus (who served as both king and high priest) crucified 800 Pharisees who had attempted to overthrow his rule. He also had their wives and children executed. But the Pharisees didn’t resign themselves to “turn the other cheek.” After the death of Janneus, they initiated their own reign of terror against the Sadducees (Ant. 13.410-19; War 1.113-4). During the days of Herod the Great, the high priesthood was largely gutted of its authority. But after Herod’s death, in the times when Judea was under the administration of Roman governors, the priesthood asserted itself once again.

    The high priest and the Sanhedrin (which the high priest chaired) ran local affairs, while the Roman governors insured that taxes were paid and that rebellion was kept in check. But the governors definitely had the power to restrain the local magistrates, keeping them from overstepping certain boundaries. Josephus reports that between the administrations of the governors Festus and Albinus, the high priest Ananus seized the opportunity to do away with one of his enemies: James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church (Ant. 20.197-203). Josephus clearly implies that the execution would not have occurred had the governor been present. (This fact might lend some credence to the Gospels’ affirmation that the Jews weren’t permitted to execute Jesus on their own [Jn 18:31].)

    Another interesting feature of this episode is that Josephus doesn’t tell us why Ananus wanted to be rid of James. He writes that Ananus fabricated some charges that James violated the law, but he doesn’t say which laws he was accused of breaking. Josephus does report that Ananus was a Sadducee, and like others of his sect, very harsh with those with whom they disagreed. It’s possible that James’ crime was simply that he insisted that Jesus had been resurrected—a mockery of Sadducean theology. In any event, the execution caused a great turmoil among the more “most equitable” Jewish people who felt that Ananus had acted unjustly (proof that the charges against James were false). They issued a complaint with the Roman governor that Ananus had convened the proceedings without the governor’s permission. As a result, Ananus was deposed from the priesthood.

    This incident should well make us wonder at those who argue that the Evangelists invented the notion that there were Jewish leaders who would resort to violence to do away with Jesus. If James, the leader of the Christian church, a man reputed to have been well regarded in Jerusalem, could incite the ire of the high priest simply because of his theology, how much more so would Jesus have elicited the wrath of the priesthood? Jesus, after all, physically attacked the Temple and the temple market. He mocked the Pharisees and disdained their understanding of the Law. To the high priest, Jesus threatened the stability of his position. In the Pharisees’ view, he was drawing people away from the true faith into a dangerous antinomianism. Jesus wasn’t just a wandering idealist—he was a troublemaker. And troublemakers, in those days, could be dealt with very harshly, indeed.

The Role of Pilate

    There should be no doubt that Jesus’ actual execution was carried out by the Romans nor that he was charged with inciting rebellion. The accusation displayed over his head on the cross—“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”—was a political charge (no one would be executed for ruling a kingdom “not of this world”). It’s also well known that Pilate was a cruel and insensitive man. At times, he deliberately attempted to irk the Jews and other peoples under his administration. So why, then, do the Gospels hold that Pilate was a reluctant participant in the execution of Jesus?

    We need not attempt to defend all the details of the Gospel accounts. No doubt they contain some theologizing and reconstruction. But the general picture of a reluctant Pilate isn’t so impossible as some have argued. First of all, Pilate had already been officially reprimanded by Rome because of his mismanagement of Judean affairs (Philo, Legatio 299-305). Further incidents, he knew, could cost him his job (as eventually they did). While Pilate would have had no qualms about executing a brigand in his own realm—and Rome would have held him guiltless in such a case—Jesus wasn’t of his own realm. He was a Galilean, officially under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. Pilate had already executed some Galilean Jews within his realm (Lk. 13:1), and the incident may well have soured relations between him and Antipas (Lk. 23:12).

    Had Pilate executed Jesus against Herod’s wishes, it might have proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. What’s more, Pilate probably knew little about Jesus before the high priest and his associates had brought their charges against Jesus. Most of his activity had been confined to Galilee and had resulted in little public mayhem. Given his perverse tendency to flaunt the wishes of his subjects, he might have been inclined to release Jesus simply because the high priest’s company so obviously wanted him convicted. And finally, Pilate was rash, but not so capricious as some contend. The incident that cost him his job—falling upon a group of pilgrims who were heading to Mt. Gerizim to see a promised miracle—wasn’t so innocent as it might seem since even Josephus observes that the pilgrims were armed (Ant. 18.86).


    It’s very important for Christians to be sensitive to those of other faiths, and we should be quick to refute any assertions that smack of anti-Judaism. We should make it very clear that the Gospel accounts aren’t anti-Jewish, but only “anti-establishment.” We should also be careful in our Bible translations, writing, teaching, and preaching to distinguish between the Jewish power brokers who wanted Jesus silenced and the masses who were innocent of the act. But the account of the opposition that Jesus received from the high priest and other Jewish politicians need not be repudiated. It is no more anti-Jewish to say that the high priest’s party precipitated the death of Jesus than it would be anti-American to say that President Truman dropped the atomic bomb in the Second World War. The Jewish leaders took the action they felt was necessary to protect their positions and their people. We don’t have to approve of their actions, but there is little historical basis for arguing that they never happened.

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