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Christians and the Blood Libel

The Christian Invention of the Jewish Executioners of Jesus
By J. Christopher Edwards
Fortress Press, 237 pages, $28

For centuries the Christian Church has labored under a sign of its own contradiction. Springing from a Jewish matrix and centered upon a Jewish savior, sentDr. Eugene R. Schlesinger reviews “Crucified: The Christian Invention of the Jewish Executioners of Jesus.” by the God of Israel, we have drunk deeply from anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic, supersessionist waters. The blood libel, which accuses the Jews qua Jews of Christ-killing deicide, has given rise to all sorts of horrific mistreatment of these our elder siblings. And while, after the Shoah, most Christian churches have repudiated anti-Semitism and many labor to dismantle the supersessionism whereby Christians believe they have replaced God’s chosen people, we have yet to squarely face this baleful legacy. With this volume, J. Christopher Edwards, professor of religious studies at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, helps those with ears to hear to begin doing so.

Crucified: The Christian Invention of the Jewish Executioners of Jesus prosecutes its case — accurately distilled in its subtitle — forcefully across five chapters accompanied by four excurses, which move in a roughly chronological order from the events of Jesus’ execution at Roman hands, through the first centuries canonical accounts, to the second and third centuries, and into the period of imperial toleration and embrace. Edwards specifies that he operates with a decisively limited scope: at issue is not “the accusation that Jews were simply involved in the events that led to Jesus’s arrest and subsequent execution … it is a history of the specific accusation that Jewish actors crucified Jesus.” This circumscribed meaning brings clarity to the claims, and highlights the egregious character of the blood libel, but leads to some unpersuasive argumentative turns that come at the expense of occluding the more fundamental problem.

Edwards’s narrative traces a trajectory by which Christian narrations of the Passion gradually occlude Roman involvement, highlighting Jewish culpability even to the point of depicting Jesus’ death as occurring not just at the instigation of his fellow-Jewish opponents, but at their hands. The claim is that “early Jesus followers came to the realization that if they were to have any hope of successfully settling and evangelizing within the Roman world, they could not enshrine a narrative wherein the central figure of their movement was executed by Roman soldiers under the direction of a Roman governor for political crimes against the Roman state.”

As the Gospels progress chronologically — from Mark to Matthew to Luke to John — Edwards discerns increasingly sympathetic treatments of Pilate and increasingly acrimonious depictions of the Jews. Thus, Pilate’s act of washing his hands is endorsed by the evangelists, who really did mean to depict him as innocent of Jesus’ blood, a blood called down “on us and on our children” (Matt. 24-25). He goes so far as to claim that Luke depicts the Jews as the crucifiers through identifying them as the antecedent of the pronoun they in Luke 23:26, 33, when Jesus is led away and eventually crucified. During this period, we also see the emergence of a corporate attribution of guilt to the Jewish people, and an “ontological continuity” between them and all subsequent generations of Jews, such that the same Jews who killed Jesus also oppose his church.

Much of this material is frustratingly unpersuasive. Simply put, the suggestion that Luke depicts the Jews as Jesus’ crucifiers stems from a tortuously strained reading, since the narrative consistently highlights Pilate’s involvement, including his bonding with Herod over the matter of Jesus’ trial, has other state prisoners executed by the they, places a centurion at the scene of the execution overseeing matters, and culminates with Pilate granting custody of the body to Joseph of Arimathea. And while it is possible that first-century Christians attempted to ingratiate themselves to Roman citizens and authorities by softening the depiction of Roman figures, it strikes me as rather implausible, given the history of persecution at Roman hands that lasted until the imperial toleration.

This rhetorical overreach is really too bad, because the tradition of corporate continuity of guilt, which, as Edwards consistently notes, is “the most dangerous aspect of the overall accusation,” and it can be seem emerging during this time. One could have conceivably built an argument that early Christian texts amplified blame for the Jews as instigators of Jesus’ death, noting that even if they didn’t drive the nails they were still constructed as culpable, and that this inaugurates a venomous legacy leading to untold Jewish suffering. But this is precisely what Edwards has elected not to do.

Christians accusing Jews of directly executing Jesus is outlandishly wrong, yet, as later chapters show, it did indeed occur. As the narrative progresses, moving beyond the New Testament documents to later Christian texts, the argument becomes more persuasive and effective. Here we have Christians stating that the Jews killed Jesus, and, in later centuries suggesting that because of this, vengeance ought to be taken upon them. Some of the extracts reproduced, particularly from Irenaeus, Lactantius, and the Six Books Dormition Apocryphon, are bracing to read. Yet, by narrowing the scope to this claim, I fear Edwards has left largely unaddressed the besetting sin of Christian anti-Semitism. After all, most Christians recognize that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who killed Christ. Yet even among those Christians who have repudiated the blood libel traditions, anti-Judaism and supersessionism run rampant. In other words, Christians don’t need to believe the egregious claim that Jesus was killed by “the Jews” to partake of or perpetuate antisemitism.

Edwards is right to call us to face this troubling history, and indeed to hold our tradition accountable for its sins against our elder siblings. As he notes, “Anyone so moved to revere the writings of the church fathers [as in the Nouvelle Théologie, Radical Orthodoxy, or Evangelical infatuations with Orthodoxy] must also acknowledge that most of these writings maintain the canonical accusation … and … evolve it in several dangerous directions.” We do not honor our forebears by giving them a pass in this regard. Instead, we honor them by pursuing fidelity to the gospel they sought to proclaim, even if haltingly or in contaminated manners. Until we reckon with our history of anti-Semitism and supersessionism, that faithfulness will elude us. Hence, despite whatever flaws I may find in Crucified, I still greet it with gratitude as a genuine service to Christian churches in our striving for fidelity.


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