The Trial Before Pilate -- Is Christianity Anti-Semitic?
By Charles Rush
March 14, 1999
I was in graduate school, I had to watch the documentary
‘Shoah’ for some material on the Holocaust. It is very long
and rather grim. At one point the interviewer goes to the town of
Treblinka, Poland. As you probably know, the Nazi’s established a
great many of their extermination camps in Poland because the virulent
anti-Semitism there made it easier.
The interviewer was a very clever Frenchman. In this section, Mass
has just finished at the local Catholic Church. From the front steps
of the church, you look out maybe 70 yards across a field where the
train tracks run into the chain link fence around the small
extermination camp. It could easily be seen as you left worship on
At Treblinka, as you probably know, trains full of Jews arrived,
where they were rushed into a processing room to shower for lice. They
were gassed and then buried or later burned. I can’t remember
The interviewer is chatting with all the old men and the
babushka’s as the mill around after church, talking about the War
with them, swapping memories.
He says ‘what is that across the way there? What is behind
That is the concentration camp’ they respond readily.
‘Of course, we didn’t know that at the time.’
Really? Did you ever wander over just to have a look? Did
you ever just, you know, wonder what goes on behind the wire?’
No, it was a German thing and we just kept to our own
I see there is a railroad track over there. What was it
It brought the Jews.’
The trains, they came full and they left empty.’
Yes, they came full and they left empty.’
Did you ever wonder where the Jews went? There is not
anywhere for them to go really.’
No, we just kept to our own business.’
Did you ever notice any odd smells coming over from that
No, not really, not really anything that we remember. We
didn’t know what was going on over there.’
Tell me something, why did all of those Jews die?’
One old lady was quick on the draw. She said ‘at the trial of
Jesus the Jews said ‘His blood be upon us and on our
children’, Matthew 27:25. They killed the Christ.’
Just at that moment, I jumped awake. ‘What in the world?’
At first I thought, that’s not in the Bible. I stopped the
tape, looked up the passage, sure enough it is right there. And then I
‘why in the world would you have that text memorized?’
We memorize things that are really important to us. As a child I
suppose every Baptist kid in the South knew John 3:16 ‘For God so
loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever
believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ We
memorized it because that was the summation of what we were taught to
believe. I have our kids in Confirmation memorize Psalm 23 because it
will be important for them in the future when they have to face a
And this woman had memorized a passage from the bible that was so
obscure that I didn’t even recognize it immediately and I’ve
been to seminary. Never mind what that says about theological
education these days.
why would you have something like that memorized
? You got a question, boom, here’s the answer. Wow stunning.
You hear something like that and you realize how long and deep the
concept is in the culture that the Jews are Christ killers.
It is naïve to suggest that these texts in the bible or even
the theology of the Church is responsible for the anti-Semitism that
developed over many centuries in Europe. It never happens like that.
Rather hatred and prejudice find their justification in religious dogma
as well. Hatred and prejudice grow organically in the community and
can find support in religion. Usually they get miles more distance out
of dogma or text that was actually warranted.
Nevertheless, there is an issue here that needs to be explained. I
remind you that the gospel of Matthew was written about 60 years after
Jesus died. It was addressed to a Gentile community fairly different
from the Jews that Jesus actually lived among. Although the gospel
comes to us in the form of historical narrative, it is not a historical
document in the way that we think of historical documents.
In the story that we have the Jewish leaders appear to have
secretly dispatched Jesus. The met in secret. They called false
witnesses. They mocked Jesus. They had Jesus brought before Pilate,
the Roman Governor. Pilate could find nothing wrong with Jesus and
wanted to let him go. Whereupon the Jewish leaders presumably whipped
up the crowd to have Jesus summarily executed. On the face of it the
Jewish leaders appear to be part of a cabal to do Jesus in and the
Romans merely the political machinery that get manipulated to do their
Scholars have pointed out that the early church would have a vested
interest in making such a case. Why? During the period when
Matthew’s gospel was composed, Christians were being actively
persecuted and killed for their religion by the government of Rome. It
wouldn’t make good political sense to incite the anger of the
Roman’s by reminding them constantly that they killed Jesus.
Better to make the Roman’s look like pawns caught up in a drama
that they do not fully understand. In Matthew and Mark, the
Roman’s look about as favorable as they could given the
circumstances. In both gospels, after Jesus dies, there is a Roman
centurion standing nearby, who remarks ‘Surely this was the Son of
God.’ The Jewish leaders don’t get it, but a lowly foot
soldier does. It is a pretty sharp contrast.
But there are substantial problems surrounding the trial of Jesus
that give critical scholars pause. Many of them begin with the passage
I read last week when Jesus is tried in a religious court before the
Jews in the home of the High Priest Caiaphas. We are told that he was
tried at night in the home of the high priest, that the Sanhedrin met
there under cover of darkness for fear of a riot by the followers of
Jesus. They met on the first night of Passover, trumped up false
witnesses. Finally, they asked Jesus directly if he was the Son of
God. He doesn’t directly reply. Asked again, Jesus merely says
‘you have said so’, whereupon the High Priest tears his cloak
and pronounces that he has heard blasphemy. He turns Jesus over to
Pilate at this point.
Most scholars would say that this surely did not happen as
reported. It strains the imagination on a number of substantial
fronts. In the first place, the question of whether Jesus was the Son
of God is a Greek way of thinking. Greeks had a number of gods with
one divine parent and one human parent. Jews had no concept like that
whatsoever. They weren’t expecting the Messiah to be divine in
any way. So it is hard to imagine that the High Priest would have
asked a question like this because it was framed in a way quite
different from the way that Jewish scholars of the time thought.
But let’s imagine that Jesus was simply claiming to be the
Messiah. As a number of scholars have pointed out it is "not a
religious offense at all in Jewish law to claim to be the Messiah."
Most certainly, it is not blasphemous to claim to be the Messiah.
Foolish perhaps, but not blasphemous. That means that he could not
have been charged or convicted by the Sanhedrin for this charge.
Secondly, Geza Vermes has pointed out, should this stealth trial by
the High Priest and the Sandhedrin have taken place as reported they
would have achieved the ‘considerable feat of breaking just about
every rule in the book on a single occasion. For instance, holding a
capital trial at night was prohibited. Then you have the story in
Matthew, only in Matthew I might add, that the trial was held in the
home of the High Priest. It is possible, though unlikely that
Sandhedrin could actually fit into the home of the High Priest, with
witnesses, guards, et. al..
Thirdly, this trial was held on what was probably the most sacred
night of the year, the First night of Passover. Although not
impossible, it is very hard to believe. It would be like a bunch of
Christian ministers holding an ecclesiastical trial on Christmas Eve,
interrupting our normal festivities and celebrations, to falsely charge
someone on a charge of heresy. There is simply little that cannot wait
for another day.
Finally, of lesser importance, but the Jews did not have the
authority under Roman occupation to carry out an execution anyway. The
Romans alone reserved for themselves that power.
Taken together, it would appear that fifty years after the event,
the gospel writers were remembering the story in such a way as to make
the Romans look the least worst by making the Jewish community the real
culprit. It might have saved a few Christian lives but they could not
have calculated how many Jewish lives this one story would cost as a
result. In the long history of pogroms in Europe and Russia, surely
this story was used time and again like the peasant woman in Treblinka,
to rationalize violence against their unwanted neighbors, the Jews.
So why is it that Jesus was actually tried, convicted, and died?
We can’t know for sure. I suspect that William Nicholls is
pointing in the right direction when he says that Jesus ‘died
because of the enthusiasm of his own followers and of the crowd, who
insisted on treating him as the Messiah in spite of his own precautions
If the Romans got wind of the messianic agitation around Jesus, they
would have correctly regarded it as subversive.’
In the gospel of John, it was said that Jesus was given up to die
because it was more expedient that one man should die for the people
(Jn. 18:14). Something like that may well have been the point.
It would fit with the general theme that we have been developing up
to this point that everyone deserted Jesus, all of us, in one fashion
or another. We did what was expedient and we betrayed Jesus.
It is an important point.
betrayed Jesus. In the passion liturgy about Jesus in the Episcopal
prayer book, this whole narrative of the trial, torture, and death of
Jesus is read during Holy Week. And when they get to the part where
Pilate stands before the people and says ‘should I release
Barabas?’ It is all of the congregation that says
And when Pilate asks ‘what should I do with Jesus?’ All the
‘Crucify him, crucify him.’
It is quite similar to the Passover story that is told around the
Seder. When they read about their ancestors in bondage in Egypt, they
reach the part of the Exodus, and everyone says together ‘When
came out of Egypt’. When God brought
out of Egypt.
These stories happened then but in some sense, we still participate
in them. They are not only history they are also archetype. They are
paradigmatic of our relationship with God. God comes after us in
faithfulness, wooing us into covenant. We betray God under the guise
of expedience. We are not overtly evil people, we are expedient
people. We understand that some people need to be dispatched unjustly,
so that the firm as a whole can go on. We would try continually to be
like Pilate, washing our hands of the dirty work that needs to be
done. And we will continually find, like lady MacBeth ‘that the
damn spot won’t come out.
I’m reading a story this week in the
A writer gets a call from his agent who announces to him that he is
quitting. He is no longer an agent, he is now a manager. The story is
right out of L.A.. Now his agent wants to be his manager, which means
he will have to hire another agent. The writer is incredulous.
‘Why are you doing this?’ he says.
The agents says ‘I think the people representing you (his
voice trailed off) could have done a better job. The could have cared
a little more.
The writer whispers back ‘But you’ve been representing
The agent says ‘You’re not looking at the big picture.
Do you thing they’ve really been taking care of you? Have they
been in touch? On a weekly basis? Have they come up with any
strategies? Have they ever bothered to ask you what you want? This is
your life. Serious stuff. Look, the agency has over five hundred
clients. You’re probably in the top 40.’ He was outraged.
‘forget about calling you every week. Those people should’ve
been kissing your behind.’
You mean that’s what you should have been doing’
the writer suggested
Not anymore’ the agent reminded him. ‘I’ve
left. I’m a manager now.’
And you want to manage me?’
Absolutely,’ he said. ‘You’ve been a very
loyal client You should have been with someone who really cares.
And guess what? That someone is me.’
Like Pilate, we have this phenomenal ability to take credit and
absolve ourselves of responsibility at the same time. I was reminded
of that recently reading the incredible ‘In Depth’ series in
New York Times
regarding the development of the Asian economic flu that has spread to
Russia, Brazil, and beyond.
Many of you recall vividly the decision in July of 1997, when the
central bank of Thailand devalued its currency 20% in what it called a
‘managed float, in an attempt to take some of the pressure off the
Government’s foreign-exchange reserves. At the same time, it put
considerable pressure on Thai companies and individuals who held more
than $70 billion in foreign debt, equivalent to about half of the
country’s economic output in a year.
The best efforts of the government did not stop the run on currency
and shortly one could almost literally hear a ‘loud sucking
sound’ as capital ran out of Thailand at a Hoover vacuum rate. In
the next several months some similar scenario happened in Malaysia,
Japan, Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea, and Hong Kong. All of
the growth areas that had been the jewel of portfolio managers for
mutual funds became high-risk liabilities in short order. Many of
these economies went from being described as sluggish, to recession,
and some are now officially depressed. The
New York Times
captured the actual meaning of this better than our economic charts.
They had some pictures of ordinary people that had been gainfully
employed only a couple years ago walking to town to sell their few
remaining possessions for whatever they could get. They were gaunt and
A couple of things emerged from that series of articles. First,
the amazing power of capital to make or break the economy. It was
sobering, or it ought to be sobering to realize the worldwide impact of
the decisions that are made by our investment banks on Wall Street.
And there is clearly a moral dimension to those decisions, despite the
fact that the decisions themselves are made entirely for economic
reasons. It is not simply the empty Kuala Lumpur. The moral story
comes out talking to ordinary people caught up in the tragedies and
ironies which result from the vicissitudes and accidents of the
market. see this.
And the second thing that was striking is
nobody is responsible even though everybody is responsible.
Almost every single one of us participate in this indirectly because
almost every one of us has money in a retirement fund. It was
interesting to read the responses of the portfolio managers in this
case. These are the same people that have an expanded sense of
ownership when they are associated with stupendous economic
development. Since the Dow has been up, up, up, they have taken
considerable credit for their keen investing strategies in the past
couple years. But time after time, these reporters would ask the
direct question ‘why did this happen?’ Invariably all the
experts, many of them the same Wall Street investors, would say
‘it’s a tragedy what happened there Clearly, it points out
the weakness that are inherent in short term trading strategies yadda,
yadda, yaddahThese people deserved someone who was looking out for them
someone who really cared someone who was developing strategies for them
someone who bothered to ask them what they want? And guess what?
That someone would be me.’
No, there is an incredible realism to our story. For the more
sophisticated we are, the more power we wield, the greater the scope of
our influence, the more we want to wash our hands of the accidents of
history that happen on our watch. We make the decisions, we exercise
power bowl please. If I remember correctly, it seemed like it was
mainly the Jews. I think it was actually somebody else, anybody else.
No..no truth be told, this whole thing was so complicated and there
were so many players, no one will ever figure it all out. I’m
sure of that.
The bad/good news is that their innocent blood is upon us and
Christ’s innocent blood is upon us too. And the amazing thing
about this is that in the very midst of us shedding innocent blood, God
does actually cover us. The truth is this. We are far more
responsible than we know
the grace of God is far more extensive than we realize. "And likewise,
he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying,
‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant,
which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin. Each time you
do it, do it for the remembrance of me.’
© 1999 .
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