The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath.
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
I have seen many memes during Lent and Holy Week reminding us that Jesus was killed by the “religious people,” and I know that they are well intended.
It is not a bad thing especially at this time of the year for Christians to look critically at themselves.
But there are two problems with the popular meme.
The first problem is that it is historically wrong. Jesus was not killed by the religious people; he was executed by the Roman Empire. His crime (or at least his supposed crime) was sedition rather than blasphemy.
The second problem is that although the meme is well intended, what it is really doing is euphemizing the ancient falsehood that “the Jews killed Jesus.” It is another way to reinforce the anti-Semitism that is so often baked into our Holy Week observances.
Perhaps the most insidious thing about the anti-Semitism in the Gospels is that we Christians are simply oblivious to it. The scholar James Carroll, who is himself a devout Christian, points out in his book, “Christ Actually,” the obvious but generally unrecognized anti-Semitism implicit in our naming the two parts of the Bible the “Old” and “New” testaments.
“New” is always better than “Old.” One clearly supersedes the other.
Jesus was a champion of the poor and the marginalized, but we often portray his advocacy for the “least and the lost” as a contrast to the Jewish perspective. We do this in spite of the overwhelming evidence that Jesus stood in direct line with the Hebrew prophets.
This anti-Semitism is an underlying theme in Holy Week. And that theme is most evident in the Gospel of John.
John frequently uses “the Jews” the same way that Matthew, Mark and Luke use “the Scribes and the Pharisees.” He is talking about the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. The reference to Pharisees as a synonym for self-righteous hypocrites is historically inaccurate and implicitly anti-Semitic.
(We pause briefly to note first that the Scribes and the Pharisees are the same people. Second, the Pharisees were reformers. Third, that Jesus was almost certainly a Pharisee. And Fourth, that the Pharisaic reform movement gave birth to Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.)
John was writing at a time when the church and the synagogue were separating. Christianity began as a Jewish sect. The synoptic Gospels portray an internal conflict within the synagogue between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. John characterizes the conflict as one between the followers of Jesus and “the Jews” who remain loyal to Judaism. Of course, the followers of Jesus were also Jewish. It was a sibling rivalry.
As a potential source of anti-Semitism, the verses from the fifth chapter are far from the worst passage in John’s Gospel, but they are bad enough. John says that “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him” for breaking the Sabbath and for blasphemy.
I was in college when I first met someone who had been called a “Christ killer,” by the (so called) “Christians” in his Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was appalled, but also perplexed.
The very simple version of atonement theology I grew up with said that Jesus had died for my sins. He had also died for the sins of the world. But the personal part was where we put the emphasis. The historical roles of Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, and the crowds, were all incidental accidents. The only theologically valid answer to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” was, “I did.”
Over the years I have grown into a very different theological understanding. Jesus died because his absolute faithfulness collided with the sinful violence of the empire. He died because he proclaimed the Kingdom of God as a just and non-violent alternative to the Roman Empire and to every empire. The Romans didn’t crucify people for religious crimes.
In many ways, anti-Semitism is our original sin as Christians. It is long past time for confession and repentance. Until we move past that, we cannot really understand who Jesus is.
Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.
*This is a revised version of a post first published on 4-16-14.