Saturday, April 10, 2010

Matthew 27:24-25: anti-Jewish or anti-rich?

My favorite gospel is Luke's for a lot of reasons. Until today, one was that it doesn't include a version of Matthew 27:25, the line that has been used for centuries to justify horrors against Jews. Here's the King James Version:
24When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.

25Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.
I've known forever that the line can't be a condemnation of all Jews:

1. Though the speakers are called a multitude, they're not everyone in Israel or even everyone in Jerusalem. They're just a blood-thirsty mob, maybe a hundred people, perhaps a couple thousand at most. Given that Jerusalem was a city of 25,000 to 70,000 people at the time, that's an awful lot of Jews who didn't take responsibility for killing Jesus.

2. If you're a literalist, the line only covers two generations, the speakers and, presumably, their children who have somehow agreed to the deal. After all, God doesn't punish kids for their parents' sins. (Deuteronomy 24:16: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin." Ezekiel 18:20: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.")

So who are these people who accept responsibility for the death of Jesus?

This morning, I realized the obvious: they're the rich. They're the people who are threatened by a man whose advice for being perfect is to sell all you have and give the money to the poor.

That realization helped me make sense of another of the Bible's problematic passages, Exodus 20:5-6:
5Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;

6And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
The children of the rich tend to be rich. They accept the unjust privileges that the Bible opposes, so even though they're born into their parents' sin (literally, "error" or "missing the mark"), by failing to share the wealth, they accept their parents' sin as their own.

But some of them will be able to change their ways and join the "thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

The greatest of which are to love God and love people.

Which you demonstrate by sharing.

O my brethren and sistren, here endeth the sermon.

Researching this, I came on this:

Joseph Telushkin wrote: "...the word 'antisemitism' was created by an antisemite, Wilhelm Marr [in 1879]. Marr's intention was to replace the German word Judenhass (Jew-hatred) with a term that would make Jew-haters sound less vulgar and even somewhat scientific.... Throughout history, antisemitism has been directed against [the religion of] Judaism and its values. ...Until about 1800, the societies in which Jews lived were generally piously Christian or Muslim, and so antisemitism focused on Jewish concepts of God and law. In the last two centuries, during which nationalism became a dominant value in the Western and Arab worlds, antisemitism increasingly focused on the Jews' peoplehood and nationhood."

"Antisemitism" has always bugged me, because technically, semites include Christians and Muslims. I'll try to use Judenhass or Jew-hatred from now on.


  1. Hmm... This sounds very similar to David Flusser's postulations on the matter. I recommend giving "The Sage from Galilee" by David Flusser and R. Steven Notley a gander, especially the chapters "Jerusalem" and "Death."

  2. I'm not familiar with that. I'll see if the library has it. Thanks!

  3. Careful there - you'll need some evidence for that assertion about the economic status of the multitude.

    Let's take a look first at Jesus, Son of the Father, who got off on the otherwise un-attested Holiday Get Out of Jail Free offer in Jerusalem. He was called a bandit, but the Greek word is used consistently by Josephus for "revolutionary" just a generation later. He participated in a riot, but again the Greek word specifically refers to a social or political conflict. So... we've got an actual walk-the-walk revolutionary and a talk-the-talk guy with a similar name.

    Thinking that through, and considering that this was an annual public event, the "rich" who were members of the political class were almost certainly on stage with the governor along with the religious elite. They, and the fairly small number of equestrian merchants (maybe a hundred or so in a town that size), had good reason to want the walk-the-walk guy out of the way. "Our" Jesus was just a harmless wandering preacher (a not uncommon way of life) as both Pilate and Herod clearly stated. Yeah, there was that money changer thing, but who likes bankers (just a bunch of perfumed Greeks anyway)?

    So the governor put them both on stage and asked the crowd (according to otherwise un-attested custom).

    And now for the crowd... the really wealthy and powerful were on stage, merchants were likely at their shops waiting to cash in on the gathering, so who was there? (And remember it was Roman custom to pass out small gifts of money, food tokens, theatre passes and the like at this sort of thing.)

    Think of the immigrant men who gather in parking lots at dawn for day work. Layabouts, elderly (and others with nothing better to do, hookers, drunks, etc. That's your crowd. And who would they naturally prefer? The guy who actually did something for them, or the "all talk" guy who came in as messiah and then failed to overthrow the ruling class with magic powers?

    Not too hard to figure out - the crowd went with their guy, if only to screw with the governor. IMHO, the actual text justifies the crowd as non-elite. Add in the wider background, and I think you might want to reconsider you position.

  4. Ooohhh! Let's not forget the "sicarii" angle. Some posit that Jesus Son of the Father was a knife man, and some make Judas a member as well. You might just have the crowd picking the local guy over the visiting team.

  5. I also just grossly overstated the number of equestrians. At it's largest, there were about 10,000 in an empire of 60,000,000. If Jerusalem had as many as 65,000 inhabitant (I think your 25K number is way low), you're looking at about 11 equestrian families, maybe a few more since it was a regional capital.

    Those guys (at least the ones who were not also part of the political classes) would have kept FAR away from anything involving local politics.