On Palm Sunday and Good Friday this year, we hear the Passion accounts of Matthew and John. As it happens, these two Gospels contain passages that have caused a great deal of trouble in relations between Christians and Jews. All four Gospels make it clear that the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem were involved in Jesus’ condemnation, along with the Roman government that carried out the execution. Only Matthew, however, reports that “the whole people” in Pilate’s courtyard exclaimed: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Mt 27:25). John’s Gospel, for its part, sometimes refers to Jesus’ enemies as “the Jews” (see Jn 18: 31, 36; 19: 7, 12, 20, 38), despite the fact that Jesus and all his followers were Jews as well. Why do these Gospels speak in this way?
To answer, we must begin by recalling the process by which the Gospels were written. It can be imagined as occurring in three stages. The first stage is the ministry of Jesus—his words and actions, witnessed by those around him. In the second stage, which lasted for a generation or more after Jesus’ death and resurrection, his words and deeds were passed along by believers mainly by word of mouth. As the process unfolded, the preoccupations of a particular community would shape what they remembered about Jesus, and how they presented his words and deeds. Finally, in a third stage, the Gospels were composed by the evangelists, drawing on the traditions passed on to them.
It is likely that the Gospels of Matthew and John show such hostility toward the Jewish leaders and people because the communities that produced them were involved in disputes with the Jewish communities of their own day. Reconstructing the histories of these groups involves a great deal of educated guesswork. Still, the communities that produced these two Gospels seem to have been formed of Jews at first, Jews who believed that Jesus was sent from God. Over time, their belief that God had exalted Jesus and their openness to Gentiles who shared that belief produced disputes with other Jews, and the disputes became heated. The bitterness of these conflicts, occurring many years after Jesus’ death, led the two evangelists to speak in generalized ways of the Jews as enemies of Jesus and his followers. The situation of the later community was written back into the Passion accounts.
In later years, as Christianity became a separate religion from Judaism, and the dominant religion in Europe, these Gospel passages were used to justify condemnation of Judaism and harsh persecution of the Jews. Christian hostility toward Judaism has abated significantly in recent times, symbolized by Pope John Paul II’s trip to Israel in the Jubilee year of 2000, when, in a traditional Jewish practice of prayer, he left a note in the Wailing Wall. The note expressed regret for Christian mistreatment of Jews over the centuries.
What, then, can we learn from looking at the Passion accounts in this way? We can be reminded of how deep anti-Judaism runs in our tradition, and take special care to pass on the faith to our children in ways that are free from that stain. In addition, we can learn a great deal about how to interpret the Bible responsibly. As Fr. Raymond Brown, the late biblical scholar, put it: “Christian believers must wrestle with the limitations imposed on the Scriptures by the circumstances in which they were written. They must be brought to see that some attitudes found in the Scriptures, however explicable in the times in which they originated, may be wrong attitudes if repeated today” (A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, p. 16).
The Scriptures are the word of God, but they are given to us in human words. As the bishops of the Second Vatican Council wrote, “the words of God, expressed in human language, are in every way like human speech, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the weak flesh of human beings, became like them” (Dei Verbum, 13). When we, acting within the Church community and using its wisdom, seek the divine message that comes to us in the Scriptures, we must keep in mind that God has chosen to convey that message through inspired but limited human beings.
--Andrew Bechman, March 2005