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Saturday, April 03, 2004

Christ-killers?


Patrick Belton points to a PEW study showing that a growing percentage of Americans answer affirmatively to the question, "Were the Jews responsible for Christ's death?"

He appears to be of the opinion that this is identical to thinking, "Jews killed Christ," and makes all such responders into anti-semites. I beg to differ.

It is impossible to read the Bible and not see that it says that Jews (not all Jews throughout all time or all Jews at that time, but Jews nonetheless) were the ones demanding arrest and trial and demanding a death sentence from the Romans. So, yes, in a very practical sense, the Jews were responsible for Christ's death. It is equally impossible to read it and not see that Jesus was executed under Roman law in a Roman manner. So, in a very practical sense, the Romans killed Christ.

If you are going to go into this theologically, then the Romans will be absolved of guilt as Romans, although not as humans. The Romans have no theological part to play as Romans. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, however, Israel keeps falling away, getting blasted by God through some agent or other (such as the Romans), and then coming back. Those Jews who rejected Jesus (whether or not they were involved in the trial etc.) had screwed up for the last time, so they were to be blasted again. This is where many people have gotten it wrong, thinking that they were to be blasted by God through some agent or other, and the people joyfully signed up to be that agent and go attack Jews. That's not what's meant, though. This punishment was to be much worse:
He went on to tell the people this parable: "A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.
"Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.'
"But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
"What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." -- (Luke 20:9-16a)
What was this punishment that was much worse than God's repeated turning over of Israel to marauding hordes? Well, now there was to be a new covenant; the old covenant between God and Israel had been broken, and Israel was cast down to the same level as everyone else. "There is neither Jew nor Greek." They would be spiritually dead (much of the talk of "killing" and "death" in the New Testament refers to spiritual death and death of the independent self, not to actual poke-you-with-a-sword death) and, like everyone else, they would have to be born again from the dead if they would want in on the new covenant. How awful that would be, to be fired from your job as God's chosen people because of your refusal to listen to God's servants (the prophets) and then God's son, and then to have your job given to outsiders and to those among you who accept the new deal!

Under the New Covenant, things that went before are reinterpreted; since the Jews are no longer anybody special, they should no longer be treated differently theologically. Therefore, it is not just the Jews who are responsible at both a practical and a spiritual level for Christ's death due to their disobedience, but it is all men who are responsible, as all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If the tenants in the vineyard had listened to the first servant and never strayed, if Israel had listened to the first prophet and never forgotten, if all of us had lived our whole lives without sin, then there would have been no need for God to send his son, a son he knew would be killed. Theologically speaking, all of us are responsible for Christ's death, and God killed Christ -- for our benefit.

Those in the PEW survey who answered negatively on that question and are orthodox Christians, then, speak in accordance with the Bible's teachings. Those who answered affirmatively fall into two camps: the people who took the question in a very practical sense, as described above, and understood the question to be synonymous with, "Were the people who were pushing for an arrest and execution of Christ Jews?" and the people who either know very little of the Bible or are otherwise not Christians at all, people who are truly anti-semites and have an in for Jews. That the vast majority of the increase in affirmative answers comes from the group who formerly were undecided (statistically, that is) rather than the group who formerly said "no" leads me to believe that they are mostly people will little to no knowledge of Christian theology, people who got all their information on the subject from the recent discussions and slew of movies and TV specials rather than from actual study.

Bob, a Hindu who has read a bit of the Bible but has no Christian theology himself, took the question very practically, saying, in effect, "of course Jews were responsible for Jesus' death. Is that even up for discussion?" However, he'd think you're a loony if you think that makes him anti-semitic. As that same report said, "Despite the increasing belief among some groups that the Jews were responsible for Christ's death, other surveys have shown that only a tiny minority believes that Jews today should bear responsibility for what happened to Christ 2000 years ago." To Bob, to me, and to most others, that view appears as ridiculous as attacking modern Romans or Egyptians (or paying slavery reparations, but that's another situation). Today's Jews bear the effects, but only insofar as they are made to be on the same starting point as all other non-chosen people. If they want the salvation promised in the Bible, they'll have to go about it the same way as anyone else, and their heritage no longer counts for anything. Legacy admits are abolished.

This is not to say that anti-semitism doesn't exist in the enlightened west or isn't a terrible thing. It is simply to say that 1) the survey doesn't say quite what Patrick Belton says it said, nor was the question what he says it was, and 2) as the survey stands, there are some entirely benign ways to answer that question affirmatively. (Had they asked, "Did the Jews kill Christ?" it would still be possible, using the same argument, to answer affirmatively, but it would be more of a stretch and would really entail forgetting about the Romans.)

(Incidentally, had I been in that survey, I'd have asked for clarification -- "What do you mean by 'responsible'?" -- and, when they told me they weren't allowed to augment the questions in any way, I'd have said "no," assuming they were talking about ultimate rather than immediate responsibility and all rather than specific Jews.)

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