On the Guilt of “the Jews”
From time to time, a theological question is raised about whether “the Jews” are guilty of the death of Christ in a way which reduces or even eliminates the guilt of the rest of us. A misunderstanding of the answer to this question has often been used as a pretext for Christian antipathy toward Jews, or even for mistreatment and formal persecution.
The question arises from John’s Gospel, in which Saint John repeatedly refers to “the Jews”. For example:
- “the Jews persecuted Jesus” (5:16)
- “the Jews sought all the more to kill him” (5:18)
- “the fear of the Jews” hampers Christ (e.g., 7:13, 9:22, 19:38, 20:19)
- “the Jews had already agreed” to put out of the synagogue any who believed in Christ (9:22)
- “the Jews took up stones” (10:31)
Later, in the period covered by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, we see the expression “the Jews” used simply to distinguish them from Christians, as we would do today. But what of the earlier period, when Our Lord still walked the earth, before he suffered and died?
St. John’s Use of the Term “the Jews”
Clearly St. John uses the term to refer to a combination of two groups: All those who evinced a hostility to Jesus based on the prevailing understanding of Judaism and, more specifically, the Jewish religious and political leadership group—those who spoke for and acted on behalf of the Jewish people, the members of the Sanhedrin, the chief priests, and so on. We must recall that St. John himself was a Jew, as were most of Christ’s followers at this stage, including even a few members of the ruling group. When he refers to “the fear of the Jews”, he is talking about fear on the part of some Jews (those without power or authority) caused by other Jews (the leaders). Thus St. John uses the expression “the Jews” as a shorthand for the dominant leadership and its camp.
In exactly the same way, we say things like “the Americans grossly mistreated the Indians” (native Americans) or “the English brutalized the Irish”, or “the Church concealed clerical sexual abuse”. We do not mean that every person in these groups was guilty of the stated offense, but that there was a sort of dominant mindset in the leadership of the group which carried the group as a whole in a certain direction, despite the ignorance, the lack of involvement, and even the vehement disagreement of many. We mean that on the issue in question, and at the time in question, it was “the Americans” who had mindset A, “the English” who had mindset B, and “the Church” that had mindset C.
John is perfectly aware of all the distinctions that can be made, as is clear in many passages. For example, after the raising of Lazarus he notes that “many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” Going away from what? Clearly away from what we might refer to as the party line.
In this normal way of speaking, then, St. John frequently refers to “the Jews” as being the prime movers in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus. When encountering the expression, we understand that with respect to the real individual Jewish persons at the time, some were guilty of serious wrong-doing (whatever their opinions), some were guilty of allowing themselves to be whipped up as a mob, some were guilty of cowardice or negligence, most had little involvement with the question at all (whether inevitably or through some spiritual obduracy), some wished for and even worked for a more just resolution of the case (again, regardless of their opinions), and some committed themselves to Jesus Christ, even at considerable personal risk.
The Question of Guilt
But of course when we later discuss the guilt of “the Jews”, we are not assessing the specific guilt or innocence of particular individuals. We are wondering whether the Jewish people as a whole somehow bear a special guilt for the death of Christ. And the answer to this question is both yes and no: Yes with respect to the unique richness of the relationship of the Jewish people to Christ; and no with respect to the degree of guilt.
Clearly, the Jewish people have a special relationship with Christ, whether they wish to or not, because He came as the Jewish Messiah specifically to the Jewish people. He certainly had a mission within the religion of Judaism itself. So we can say, without prejudice to anyone, that “the Jews” have a special relationship to everything about Christ, including his rejection and death. In this sense, Jewish guilt is “special” because “the Jews” are in a special relationship with Christ through the Law and the Prophets.
St. Paul himself refers to the mystery of this special relationship when he discusses how the Jewish rejection of Christ opened the way for the gentiles, and was itself part of the mystery of salvation by which ultimately the Jews would be brought into the Church. The eleventh chapter of Romans is the key text here, from which I will highlight just a few lines:
For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead? …Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” [25-27]
But this special (and indeed providential) character of Jewish guilt does not mean that “the Jews” bear a greater guilt than the rest of us. This is because Christ’s mission was not limited to the Jews. He was sent by the Father to redeem all of us from our sins, not just the Jews. This connection between the salvation of Israel and the salvation of all mankind is one of the most important themes of the Gospel, and a principal reason why the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old.
A Critical Theme
Recall the beginning of John’s Gospel, where St. John wrote:
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (Jn 1:9-14)
There is a two-fold theme here which runs through the entire Gospel. One of its foundational texts consists of these words: “He was in the world…yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Now this means two things: First, Christ came in the fullness of time as the Jewish Messiah to the Jewish people, and the Jewish people rejected him. Second, Christ came in the fullness of time incarnate as man to the entire human race, and the human race rejected him. There is always, in the Gospel, the mission to the Jews on the one hand, and its ultimate fulfillment in the mission to all people on the other.
As St. Paul explains, “All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12): “For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:22-25).
St. John says the same thing, with stunning brevity, by flipping St. Paul’s coin over: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar” (1 Jn 1:10). In other words, it is absolutely essential that we admit our own guilt.
In the end, on the question of Jewish guilt—as on the question of all guilt—these words of Christ Himself are the absolute guide: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (Jn 8:7). From this final text, also providentially written by St. John, we learn without possible doubt that there is to be no finger-pointing. All are guilty, inasmuch as all have sinned.
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