A few thoughts for Christians as Good Friday approaches
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Jews were in a state of high alert on Feb. 25, the so-called “day of hate” against members of that community. That was the day extremist and antisemitic groups called for violence and harassment against Jews in the U.S.
Although the threats were directed at Jews in that country, Jews everywhere, including Canada, were more careful and cautious than normal as they went to synagogue or carried out their normal daily activities.
Fortunately, nothing happened, although it surely still rattled some nerves. It reminded me that, for centuries, there was another day of hate directed at Jews, a day that put them on edge and cost many their livelihoods and their lives: Good Friday.
Yes, the holiest of days for Christians — the day they mark the death of their Saviour — was often a day of fear, persecution and death for Jews around the world in the past.
In the Middle Ages, Jews in Europe would close their businesses, avoid usual activities and stay inside their homes. Why? For fear of mobs of Christians who, fresh from church services where they heard the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death, were intent on doing harm to those they saw as being responsible for the killing of Jesus.
“The crucifixion of Jesus has mostly been a source of pain for Jews,” said Adele Reinhartz, who teaches religious studies, with a focus on the New Testament and early Jewish-Christian relations, at the University of Ottawa.
The reason for that are verses in the Gospels, like in Matthew chapter 20, where Pilate takes no responsibility for Jesus’s death. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he is quoted as saying as he washes his hands.
The crowd of Jews is recorded as responding: “His blood be on us and on our children!”
That “anti-Jewish statement” has led to centuries of antisemitism, death and destruction for Jews, Reinhartz said.
For her, and for other New Testament scholars, there are questions about that account. Did some Jews really say that? And, if not, why would Matthew choose to put it in there?
“We don’t know how much of it is historical, how much of it was rooted in animosity by Christians towards Jews when it was written down,” she said, noting stories about the crucifixion and the life of Jesus were compiled many years after it occurred.
One thing that doesn’t make sense, she said, is the portrayal of Pontius Pilate in Matthew.
In that account, Pilate comes across as an agreeable, sympathetic and even decent man put into an untenable position. Someone who, almost against his will and better judgment, is forced by the crowd to deliver Jesus to his death.
But the other main source of information about that time period, the first century historian Josephus, described Pilate quite differently. In his accounting, Pilate is a cruel, vicious and violent person who wouldn’t be beyond doing exactly such a thing to an innocent man.
“The Gospels present us with a kinder and gentler Pilate than we know from other sources,” Reinhartz said.
Although little is known about Pilate, the few accounts that exist indicate there was tension and violence between the Jewish population and his administration, with many incidents involving Pilate seeming to go out of his way to offend the religious sensibilities of Jews.
In fact, according to Josephus, he was actually removed from office because of the especially violent way he suppressed an armed revolt by Jews against the Roman occupation.
So why was Pilate given a pass for the death of Jesus, and Jews blamed for his demise in the earliest Christian literature?
According to Reinhartz, it might have been a way to preserve the fledgling Christian movement; blaming the Romans for the death of their leader would not have been a good move at that time. “It could have been dangerous to write a story blaming the Romans for the death of God,” she said, noting it would have been safer to blame someone else.
Whatever the reason, it led to centuries of suffering for Jews because of what was written, in the form of Good Friday violence and persecution.
More recently, Christians have tried to ease any tensions with the Jewish community over the crucifixion accounts. The most notable was in 1965 when, as part of the Vatican II council, the Catholic Church published Nostra Aetate. It argued that modern-day Jews should not be held accountable for Jesus’s crucifixion — a big step forward in the history of Christian attitudes toward Jews.
Today, few Christians would believe their Jewish friends and neighbours are responsible for the death of Christ. Hearing those verses read on Good Friday doesn’t create anger towards Jews.
But antisemitism is on the rise again around the world. So as Good Friday approaches, perhaps Christians can do two things.
First, consider how Jews would hear those Gospel accounts, read from pulpits or dramatized in plays. Maybe those verses don’t have to be used.
Second, Christians can think about what they could do, individually and collectively, to show members of the Jewish community they stand with them against hate of all kinds — on Good Friday, or any other day of the year.
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John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.