Who Killed Jesus?

At the Mass I attended this weekend, the theme of the homily was fear. The priest explored some of the reasons the disciples were locked in fear in the upper room (where Jesus appeared to them) as a way for us to identify the fears we we have the keep us from being all we are in the eyes of God.

I share the priest’s sense that it is important for us to get in touch with what we fear as a step toward, with God, overcoming those fears. And I thought some of the examples he gave of things we might be fearful of were good for prompting further thought by those hearing the sermon.

What bothered me about the sermon was that the priest – three times, no less – referred to the Jews killing Jesus.

That is the kind of language that has fueled anti-Semitism over the years, and any claim of collective guilt on the part of the Jews for Christ’s death has long been repudiated by the Catholic Church.

The second volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth has a good discussion of the question of who killed Jesus. In that book, Benedict puts the blame on two specific groups: the “temple aristocracy” and the crowd that supported the release of Barabbas, although he is also clear that the ultimate culpability for Jesus’ death lies in the sins of all of us.

It is true that John’s Gospel, which we heard at Mass this weekend, speaks of “the Jews.” But, says Benedict,

John’s use of this expression does not in any way indicate—as the modern reader might suppose—the people of Israel in general, even less is it “racist” in character. After all, John himself was ethnically a Jew, as were Jesus and all his followers. The entire early Christian community was made up of Jews. In John’s Gospel this word has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the Temple aristocracy. So the circle of accusers who instigate Jesus’ death is precisely indicated in the Fourth Gospel and clearly limited: it is the Temple aristocracy.

Benedict makes a similar point about Mark’s Gospel, in which the “ochlos” ask for the release of Barabbas.

“Ochlos” in the first instance simply means a crowd of people, the “masses.” The word frequently has a pejorative connotation, meaning “mob.” In any event, it does not refer to the Jewish people as such. … Effectively this ‘crowd’ is made up of the followers of Barabbas who have been mobilized to secure the amnesty for him: as a rebel against Roman power he could naturally count on a good number of supporters. So the Barabbas party, the “crowd,” was conspicuous while the followers of Jesus remained hidden out of fear; this meant that the vox populi, on which Roman law was built, was represented one-sidedly. In Mark’s account, then, as well as ‘the Jews,’ that is to say the dominant priestly circle, the ochlos comes into play, the circle of Barabbas’ supporters, but not the Jewish people as such.

My fear about the priest saying “the Jews” killed Jesus is that many of his listeners will not be familiar with things like Pope Benedict’s discussion of this issue or, indeed, the change in how the Church talks about this issue at all. The risk is people hear “the Jews” and take it as a broad indictment of the people of Israel.