This guest post is written by Dr. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Professor Emerita of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech, where she taught about the New Testament in its cultural context for 36 years. Dr. Malbon, who is also my mother, is known nationally and internationally for her literary studies of the Gospel of Mark. She has authored five books, coedited or edited five books, and written and edited numerous articles. Dr. Malbon is an active member of the Society of Biblical Literature and the Society for New Testament Study.
Grace and peace,
All four of the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) recount the passion story, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death at the hands of the officials of the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a punishment the Roman overlords of Judea reserved for lower-class persons thought to be a threat to the status quo, a status quo that depended on the poverty and obedience of the masses to support the elite. But Christian tradition has often shifted the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion to the Jewish leaders or “the Jews” in general—beginning with the Gospels themselves.
For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, the Jewish crowd proclaims to Pilate, the Roman governor: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). Matthew was written at the end of the first century, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans, when what we now call Christianity was just emerging from the religion of Israel as a small, vulnerable, minority group looking for the end of the age to come soon. When we read Matthew at the beginning of the 21st century, we read as a powerful, majority group in an ongoing world (a world in which most of us are not anticipating an immediate end to life as we know it) with highly developed forms of rabbinic Judaism and many Christian denominations. Does that make a difference? I think it does.
“Crucifixion,” Jacopo Bellini, 15th Century
Amazingly, the New Testament can be hazardous to your neighbor’s health—especially if your neighbor is Jewish! Matthew 27:25 in particular has been hazardous to your neighbor’s life—to the lives of Jewish persons and communities for nearly two thousand years. Consider just one sample, from the extremely popular Notes on the New Testament by Albert Barnes (1798-1870):
His blood be on us … That is, let the guilt of putting him to death, if there be any, be on us and our children. … The Jews had no right to call down this vengeance on their children, but, in the righteous judgment of God, it has come upon them … To this day, also, the curse has remained. … All classes of people, all the governments of the earth, have conspired to overwhelm them with calamity, and yet they still live as monuments of the justice of God, and as proofs, going down from age to age, that the Christian religion is true—standing demonstrations of the crime of their fathers in putting the Messiah to death, and in calling down vengeance on their heads.
Whatever is implicit in the text—including traces of anti-Judaism—is a mark of its context of origin. What we make explicit in response to the text—including possibly our own anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism—is a mark or our own morality. We bear responsibility for our interpretations and our actions.
“Christ in front of Pilate,” Mihály Munkácsy, 1881
For a second Gospel example, consider the Gospel of John. One curious aspect of John's Gospel is that, for all its talk of love, it also gives witness to hate, especially the hatred of some particular early Christian community for "the Jews" of the synagogue from which they appear to have become separated. While the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) speak of various groups of religious leaders—scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees—John's Gospel alone repeats the label "the Jews"—and this as if Jesus and all his disciples were not Jews, which, of course, they were.
As Dr. Paula Fredricksen, a Jewish New Testament scholar, comments:
How did Christian anti-Judaism happen? Gentiles [non-Jews] interpreted the intra-Jewish disputes of the earliest Christian movement as the condemnation of all Judaism by those parties to the dispute with whom these Gentiles now identified. When did this happen? Toward the turn of the first century through the first half of the second, when warring Gentile Christian intellectuals staked out their territory and systematized their convictions into theologies. ("The Birth of Christianity and the Origins of Christian anti-Judaism,” p. 30, in Jesus, Judaism and Christian Anti-Judaism, edited by Paula Fridricksen and Adele Reinhartz (2002).)
Thus, in John’s Gospel we have a window into the struggles of the young church as it came to grips with its movement away from its Jewish roots and into a Gentile movement. In fact, love within the early church itself was apparently not always so easy to express. John's Jesus prays fervently that his followers may be one, even as he and his father are one (John 17:11, 22). But when do we pray for unity? When do we pray for rain? When we are divided, when we are parched. So, John's Gospel lets us see that being people of God, being followers of Jesus, involves a struggle to reflect the love that is at the core of the good news relationships between God, the world (the whole world), Jesus, the Holy Spirit (or Advocate), and disciples and followers.
Such love was not easy in the first century, and it is no easier today.
Elizabeth Struthers Malbon