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The Matthean “Blood Libel”: A Pernicious Myth

It has become common practice among (mostly) liberal commentators to shamefacedly exhibit Matthew  27:25 as a prime example of anti-Semitism in the New Testament.  They view this passage as a scandal to be apologized over in the interests of ecumenism and racial-religious equality.  However, a close reading of the Gospel of Matthew shows that the passage in question is not anti-Semitic, but rather anti-priesthood. Therein lies a world of difference.

In Jesus’ day it was entirely possible to be devoutly Jewish and simultaneously opposed to any number of Jewish institutions, parties, and schools of scriptural interpretation, practice, and emphasis.  Historical plausibility suggests that original “Jewish” Christianity’s major conflicts concerned not Judaism, but rather priestly Judaism, the issue being not one of Christians versus Jews, but of a sectarian Jewish renewal movement versus a collaborationist priestly-Temple elite.  Indeed, starting with Jesus, most of the primitive Jesus-movement’s problems – and most of its martyrs – were an expression of a sectarian versus “Establishment” dynamic.  Saul (later Saint Paul), who participated in Stephen’s martyrdom, was a police officer employed by the high priest; Jesus’ brother James was killed at the Temple by a high priest.  The precedent was set clearly and early: something about Jesus and his movement was inimical to priestly hegemony.

And this is exactly the situation that Matthew 27:25 reflects. The scene takes place in Jerusalem at Passover, in a open area adjacent to Roman governor Pontius Pilate’s offices.  A crowd or “multitude” has gathered in that space, and Pilate attempts to have those people choose a prisoner for release: it will either be the brigand Barabbas, or it will be Jesus.

The crowd unanimously selects Barabbas over Jesus.  Pilate, sensing an injustice in  the rabble’s decision, symbolically washes Jesus’ “blood” from his hands, telling the crowd that he is innocent of the blood of the “just” Jesus.  The crowd  – Matthew says “all” the people – shout back to Pilate: “His blood be on us, and on our children!” Barabbas is then released; Jesus is scourged, humiliated, and led out to his death on Golgotha.

From this one scene has been derived the notion of a blood-aspersion, Israel’s so-called curse upon itself, the enthusiastic act of bravado that simultaneously killed the Son of God and brought God’s anger upon his chosen people.  This interpretation has at times flourished in Christianity and has been a source of much Christian anti-Semitism, leading to calumnies such as the “blood libel,” which accused Jews of abducting, torturing, and ritually murdering Christian infants.  But what was Matthew’s original meaning and intention?

For several reasons, Matthew has been called “the most Jewish” of the Gospels.  For the purposes of this essay, Matthew’s Jewishness involves his appreciation of basic Jewish virtues and their close association with the Jewish Jesus.  For this reason, the last thing one would expect from Matthew is a declaration of universal, Messiah-murdering guilt leveled against the entire Jewish people.  And in fact, such a calumny is not to be found in Matthew’s portrait of Jesus’ execution.  A brief examination of Matthew’s Passion story will show why this is true.

As mentioned, it was the “priesthood-scribes-elders,” not “the Jews” generally who engineered the execution of Jesus and some of his prominent early followers, and Matthew mirrors this situation in his Passion narrative:

Matthew does not blame some, or even “all” Jews for Jesus’ death.  Matthew blames the priesthood.

In fact, Matthew states that Jesus was so popular with his Jewish peers that the “rulers” were afraid to arrest him publicly  (Matthew 26:3-5).  Instead, they secretly conspired to arrest Jesus through “treachery” (“subtilty” – KJV).

Matthew does not specify the political, or any other identity, of  “the crowd” gathered in Pilate’s portico.  Certainly they could not represent “all” of the Jewish people, or even all of the thousands who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover.  What Matthew does insist on is that this relatively small number of people were maliciously manipulated by the priests to choose Barabbas over Jesus.  It is this small group, not “all” the Jewish people, who Matthew says were goaded to call for Barabbas’ release, and who so overconfidently dared God’s justice over their decision.  Clearly, Matthew is not speaking of the entirety of the Jewish people, whether in Judea or in the Diaspora.  He is only referring to the crowd present before Pilate and whipped up by the priests.

An explanation for this may be that for Matthew, writing perhaps forty years after the events, “the crowd” probably represents the attitude carried by some – not all his contemporary Jewish opponents.

Once the Jewish Jesus movement had split from the synagogue, as it had by Matthew’s time, the polemic between the two groups had reached an incendiary and vicious level.  This antagonism is  reflected elsewhere in the New Testament, particularly in the Johannine writings with their harsh rhetoric against “the Jews.”  Matthew’s harsh statements vis a vis Judaism are probably best understood as an example of this kind of polemic.

Viewed from this perspective, it is plausible that some of his Jewish opponents were,  in the heat of argument, taunting Matthew with the unpredicted death of his “failed” Messiah, perhaps in terms not unlike those used by the crowd in the Gospel.  This would account for the bravado of the “libel”:  so confident are Matthew’s foes in the falsehood of Jesus’ mission that they can safely call a curse down on themselves – because they know that taking responsibility for killing a false prophet is not the kind of thing that carries a curse with it.  They are, in effect, telling Matthew and his community: “We say that your Jesus was a failed Messiah and a false prophet.  So who cares that the priests killed him? In fact we are so certain of Jesus’ fakery that we can with confidence and impunity ask God to curse us for killing Jesus.   It’s not going to happen. There is no curse for killing a false prophet – which is exactly what your Jesus was!”

It is this kind of Jewish opponent that Matthew implicates, along with the priests, in Jesus’ death.  He never implicates the Jewish people, their valid religious practices, or their scriptures.  Quite the contrary, the Matthean Jesus honors the eternal Torah – for example, the “antitheses” in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount are easily identifiable not as contradictions, but rather as intensifications, of Torah.  And he insists that Torah-preservation – not Torah-destruction – is his very own mission (Matthew 5:15-19).

Such examples of  Matthean “Judeophilia” could be multiplied.  But the major poinsts are: 

No legitimate scriptural case can be made for Matthean anti-Semitism.

Anti-synagogue, or anti-priesthood, or anti-Temple polemic is not anti-Semitism.

A vehement insistence that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who fulfilled, intensified and revitalized Torah and the prophetic ethos is not anti-Semitism.

The implication in Jesus’ death of a small portion of the Judean populace (some priests and a small crowd that they goad) is not anti-Semitism.

So one can only puzzle over the kind of masochistic Christian psychology that would call a curse down on itself, its overconfident bravado  loudly claiming – even with the best of  intentions – that Matthew’s Gospel is anti-Semitic.  Like the Matthean “multitude” in Pilate’s courtyard, these Christians have allowed themselves to be goaded by overly-sensitive social considerations into seeing an anti-Semitic text… where there is none.

Why are some Christians so willing, so enthusiastic, to append the spectre of religio-racist hatred to their own most cherished narratives?  What impels them to insist that one of their most revered and celebrated scriptures is anti-Semitic…  when a simple, clear, attentive reading shows that it is not anti-Semitic? Is there a “self-hating Christian,” just as there is said to be a “self-hating Jew?”  Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes – as long as Christians continue to purvey the pernicious myth of the anti-Semitic Matthew.