Are All Jews Perpetually and Universally Responsible for Christ’s Death?
Matthew 27:25 says, “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ ” Does this verse imply that all Jews are perpetually and universally responsible for Christ’s death?
If Matthew’s account is accurate—and there is powerful textual and historical evidence that it is,1 this Jewish mob did not and could not speak in behalf of all Jewish people. As verse 20 says, “Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.” This crowd was not a ground swell movement, but rather a mob stirred up by religious leaders who envied Jesus (Matthew 27:18 ).
The rest of the New Testament record combines with history to show that this mob didn’t represent all of the Jews in Israel. It certainly didn’t represent the large number of Jews who admired Jesus, followed Him, and joined the church following His death and resurrection. For this reason alone, it is obvious that all Jews weren’t—and aren’t—uniquely responsible for Jesus’ death. At the same time, while the mob’s collective oath didn’t represent all Jews, it has had implications for the Jewish nation as a whole and for people of all nations.
A high view of scriptural authority makes it impossible to assume that this verse is an “anti-Semitic” addition added by later Christian editors with “an axe to grind,”2 or that the declaration by the mob is an insignificant detail of the account.3 From an overall biblical perspective, the mob’s rejection of Christ represents much more than the historically insignificant action of a small group of conspirators. It symbolizes the culmination of Israel’s rejection of God and His prophets. And Israel, in turn, represents the way people of all nations are inclined to reject the light of God’s self-disclosure (Romans 1:18-23).
The account of Stephen’s witness and death in Acts 6:9-8:2 summarizes the case against Israel, the nation uniquely chosen to represent all nations. Stephen, himself a Jewish man, was being prosecuted by the enemies of the gospel for continuing to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ.
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?” (Acts 6:8-7:1 NIV).
In response to the high priest’s query, Stephen told the story of the Israelite people, beginning with Abraham. He told how a majority of the children of Israel always rebelled against God and His messengers. Joseph, specially anointed to lead (and rescue) his brothers, was persecuted by them and sold into slavery in Egypt. Moses was also initially rejected by his people, and then was repeatedly resisted and criticized by them after he led them out of Egypt. In spite of God’s special blessing and calling, the Israelites again and again at crucial points in their history rejected the prophets God raised as their spiritual leaders and defenders. Moses, the first and greatest prophet of their tradition, had declared “God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.” When the prophet promised by Moses came to Israel, He was rejected as well.
This is the conclusion of Stephen’s testimony to the Sanhedrin:
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 7:51-8:1 NIV).
Anyone familiar with the Law, the prophets, and intertestamental Jewish literature knows that Stephen’s accusation was neither novel nor uniquely Christian (1 Kings 19:10-14; 2 Chronicles 36:15-16; Nehemiah 9:26; Martyrdom of Isaiah 5:1-14). Moses and the prophets made it clear that only after national repentance and renewal would the blessing of God be restored to Israel. Israel, doing what any other nation would have done in her position, rejected Moses and the prophets and finally rejected both the Son of God and His Holy Spirit. John the Baptist described the consequences:
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:7-12 NIV).
Jesus also repeatedly prophesied His rejection by the majority of His contemporary Jewish countrymen (Matthew 8:12; 21:33-41; 23:35, 37-38). For over a thousand years, the Jews were the privileged recipients of the law and the prophets, and their special privilege involved special responsibility (Mark 6:11; Luke 12:35-48; Romans 2:12 ).
God is not mocked. The nation of Israel is a reminder to us that to whom much is given much is also required. As the author of Hebrews shows us, where there is increased knowledge, there is greater responsibility and accountability to God.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31 NIV).
Lenski defines the spiritual principle behind these verses:
If the blood of Abel cursed impenitent Cain, the blood of Christ must far more curse those who shed it and their children who still consent to that shedding by spurning Christ.
God’s judgment on the Jewish people is not universal or perpetual. Even though it has had special implications for the history of the nation of Israel as a whole, the resulting judgment of God applies only to those in every generation who willfully reject Jesus. During every period of ancient Israel’s history, there was a faithful minority (Exodus 32:7-13; Numbers 14:27-34; Isaiah 10:21-23; Romans 9:27). At the advent of the promised Messiah, there was still a faithful remnant (Romans 11:2-5). There will always be a faithful remnant until the Second Coming of Christ (Romans 11:23-29 ).
The fact that Jesus asked His Father to forgive His executioners (Luke 23:34, echoed by Stephen in Acts 7:60 ) proves beyond question that God does not hold Jewish people solely responsible for the death of Christ.
On the other hand, the mindset that hated Christ enough to murder Him has been preserved within the Judaism that survived the destruction of the Second Temple4, and to a less obvious extent within every other Gentile religious system that rejects Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world (Romans 1). That mindset continues to cloud the vision of those who are reared within its influence.
Yet even after the religion of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets was replaced by the religion of the Rabbinate, the “oral traditions,” and the Talmud, there remains a faithful remnant among the people of Israel. Millions of courageous Jewish converts to Christianity throughout the centuries attest to this fact.
- Is the New Testament Reliable? A Look at the Historical Evidence, Paul Barnett, IVP; The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright, Fortress Press; Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright, Fortress Press. Back To Article
- See the ATQ article, Are New Testament References to Jewish Persecution of Jesus and the Church True? Back To Article
- Tyndale Commentary on Matthew: All the people indicates, as McNeile points out, “the Jewish nation” (Greek laos), which “invokes the guilt upon itself.”
Finally, Matthew underlines in obvious ways that the crowd shared the guilt for Jesus’ execution—though he also refuses to let Pilate absolve himself from guilt as easily as he desires. Pilate, who hands Jesus over to the crowd’s wishes, is no less guilty than weak-willed Zedekiah, who hands over Jeremiah in Jeremiah 38:5. By accepting the bloodguilt on themselves and their children, however (cf. 2 Samuel 3:28-29), Matthew’s crowds directly fulfill Jesus’ warning in Matthew 23:29-36, thereby inviting the destruction of their temple at the end of the generation, in their children’s days. They ironically invite a curse against themselves (cf. Jeremiah 42:5 ). Back To Article
- During the First Jewish-Roman War, from 600,000 to 1,300,000 Jews were killed. Over 100,000 died during the siege of Jerusalem alone, and nearly 100,000 were taken to Rome as slaves.
Here is Will Durant’s terse description of the consequences of the Bar Kochba rebellion of AD 135:
Under the leadership of Simeon Bar Cocheba, who claimed to be the Messiah, the Jews made their last effort in antiquity to recover their homeland and their freedom. Akiba, who all his life had preached peace, gave his blessing to the revolution by accepting Bar Cocheba as the promised Redeemer. For three years the rebels fought valiantly against the legions; finally they were beaten by lack of food and supplies. The Romans destroyed 985 towns in Palestine, and slew 580,000 men; a still larger number, we are told, perished through starvation, disease, and fire; nearly all Judea was laid waste. Bar Cocheba himself fell in defending Bethar. So many Jews were sold as slaves that their price fell to that of a horse. Thousands hid in underground channels rather than be captured; surrounded by the Romans, they died one by one of hunger, while the living ate the bodies of the dead. Back To Article