Who Killed Jesus?

A history of the belief that the Jews killed Jesus.

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Church Fathers and Thereafter

In the writings of the Church Fathers, the authoritative Christian theologians after the New Testament period, this accusation appears with even more clarity and force. One of the Church Fathers, Justin Martyr (middle of the second century), explains to his Jewish interlocutor why the Jews have suffered exile and the destruction of their Temple: these "tribulations were justly imposed on you since you have murdered the Just One" (Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 16).

Throughout classical and medieval times this theme is found in Christian literature and drama. For example, in a 12th-century religious drama, entitled The Mystery of Adam, the biblical King Solomon addresses the Jews, prophesying that they will eventually kill the son of God. Here is a rhyming English translation from the original Norman French and Latin:

This saying shall be verified
When God's own Son for us hath died
The masters of the law [i.e. the Pharisees or rabbis] 'twill be
That slay him most unlawfully;
Against all justice, all belief,
They'll crucify Him, like a thief.
But they will lose their lordly seat,
Who envy him, and all entreat.
Low down they'll come from a great height,
Well may they mourn their mournful plight.
(Translation from Frank Talmage’s Disputation and Dialogue)

Even into modern times, passion plays--large outdoor theatrical productions that portray the end of Jesus’ life, often with a cast of hundreds--have continued to perpetuate this idea.

In the Talmud

Interestingly, the idea that the Jews killed Jesus is also found in Jewish religious literature. In tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, on folio 43a, a beraita (a teaching from before the year 200 C.E.) asserts that Jesus was put to death by a Jewish court for the crimes of sorcery and sedition. (In standard texts of the Talmud from Eastern Europe--or in American texts that simply copied from them--there is a blank space towards the bottom of that folio, because the potentially offensive text was removed. The censorship may have been internal--for self-protection--or it may have been imposed on the Jews by the Christian authorities. In many new editions of the Talmud this passage has been restored.) The Talmud's claim there that the event took place on the eve of Passover is consistent with the chronology in the gospel of John. In the talmudic account, the Romans played no role in his death.

In Jewish folk literature, such as the popular scurrilous Jewish biography of Jesus, Toledot Yeshu (which may be as old as the fourth century), responsibility for the death of Jesus is also assigned to the Jews. It is likely that until at least the 19th century, Jews in Christian Europe believed that their ancestors had killed Jesus.

From the first to the 19th centuries, the level of tension between Jews and Christians was such that both groups found the claim that the Jews killed Jesus to be believable. Thankfully, in our world it is heard less frequently. But we should not be surprised if it persists among people who take the stories of the New Testament (or of the Talmud) as reliable historical sources.

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Martin I. Lockshin

Martin I. Lockshin, Ph.D., is a professor at the Centre for Jewish Studies at York University in Toronto. He received rabbinic ordination after studying at the yeshiva founded by Rav Kook in Jerusalem.