'The Passion of the Christ' film revives debate on 'his blood'

Saturday, March 6, 2004

"His blood be on us and on our children!"

No sentence in Scripture has been misapplied to cause more suffering than this one, used as a pretext for anti-Semitism throughout history.

The words are spoken in Matthew 27:25 by "all the people" as they insist that Pontius Pilate order Jesus' crucifixion.

This phrasing was reportedly in, then out, then in, then out of Mel Gibson's bloody, R-rated epic "The Passion of the Christ." The final film that opened Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, doesn't show the words in on-screen English subtitles, though Gibson says they're spoken in the Aramaic language during crowd hubbub.

Theologians agree that casting collective blame upon Jews for the Crucifixion is not only anti-Semitic but destroys Christianity's central teaching that the sins of each individual who ever lived sent Jesus to die on the cross as the savior.

Just who were "all the people"? Some scholars say this refers only to all those present at Pilate's quarters that particular hour, not to all Jews in Jerusalem or Israel. And perhaps responsibility didn't even apply to those in that crowd, since they were manipulated by the high priests and elders, Rome's chosen puppet leaders.

Reasonable readings, to be sure, but things might not be that simple. Matthew used a Greek word for "crowd" earlier in this passage and a different noun for those who said "his blood," so some analysts see a collective meaning with the small crowd speaking on behalf of the people generally.

Scholars note that the Jewish group was reciting the ritual Old Testament phrase accepting responsibility for a death, signifying that they believed the verdict was just (see for example Deuteronomy 21:6-9, Joshua 2:19, 2 Samuel 1:16 and Jeremiah 26:15).

If the broader meaning of "all the people" is correct, how should readers understand that Jesus' blood would be "on our children"?

According to one theological interpretation, Matthew meant Jesus' blood would cover all the peoples' sin with salvation.

More commonly, experts say Matthew referred to the children of those then living, in other words, the next generation, but absolutely not to any Jews beyond that point.

As the New Oxford Annotated Bible explains, this doesn't mean "all subsequent Jews but the generation after Jesus' death who had to suffer through the destruction of Jerusalem" by the Romans in A.D. 70. This fulfilled Jesus' dire prophecy on the fall of Jerusalem in Matthew (23:34-38, 24:2 and 24:34).

There's further debate about the preceding verse in which Pilate washes his hands as a way of telling the crowd he's innocent of Jesus' blood. On that, the Catholic Jerome Biblical Commentary advises readers to understand that Matthew "did not see Pilate's plea of innocence as genuine." After all, Pilate had total power and ordered the Crucifixion, as he had many other times.

Writing on the Web site www.beliefnet.com, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach said Matthew's words were "cheap forgeries, contradicted by all serious history of the time," according to which Pilate was a cruel tyrant. The idea that "Pilate would take orders from the Jews about who should live and who should die is not just implausible but laughable."

His conclusion: the New Testament writers deliberately "slander the Jews."

But another Jewish writer, David Klinghoffer, said in The Forward newspaper that if Jews feel free to rewrite Christian writings this way, then they should let Christians edit Jewish traditions.

Some scholars featured on an NBC News special said the Gospels are unreliable as history and interpreted Jesus' death mostly in terms of political oppression. More moderate New Testament critics think the Crucifixion stories, written later in the first century, were shaped by that era's growing tension between churches and Judaism.

Then there are the conservative Christians -- Gibson and fans of the film among them -- who believe that the Gospel writers were told what actually happened and faithfully recorded it.

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