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Deicide: The execution of Jesus

Who is/was responsible, according
to the Roman Catholic Church?

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Sponsored link.

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Overview:

In 1965, the Roman Catholic Church partially abandoned its historical stance towards Jews and Judaism. In a remarkable reversal of their position, the Church rejected its earlier teachings that:

  1. All of the Jews in Palestine circa 30 CE were responsible for the execution of Jesus.
  2. All Jews who are currently living are also responsible for Jesus' death.
  3. God has rejected Jews because they murdered Jesus.

In this essay, we describe some of the charges of deicide (murder of God) leveled at Jews by the Roman Catholic church down through history, some recent comments by Catholic authors, and the 1965 Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) document "Nostra Aetate," which reversed Church teaching.

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About the transferability of sin:

In essentially all of the world's religions and ethical systems, an individual is held responsible for their own actions. It is considered immoral to punish a friend, relative, or stranger of the wrongdoer for the crimes that the latter has committed. However, throughout the Bible, there are passages which teach that innocent people can be held responsible and punished for the sinful behavior of others. This is often referred to as the "imputation" of sin. Three of many biblical examples are:

bulletMany Christian denominations interpret the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as the "fall of humanity." Although they committed a sin, their descendents down to the present day who inherit this original sin.
bulletJoshua ordered the murder in cold blood of an entire family --  husband, wife, and children -- because the father had committed theft.
bulletMany Christian denominations teach the principle of the atonement: that during the torture of Jesus on the cross, everyone's sin was transferred to him. His death made individual salvation possible to those who trust him as Lord and Savior.

Similarly, many Roman Catholic leaders throughout much of the church's history laid the responsibility for Jesus' execution on all Jews from the 1st century CE, to the present time, and "up to the end of the world." (Origen). This provided the theological justification for almost two millennia of oppression and mass murder of Jews in Christian lands. Many commentator believe that this tyranny laid the foundation for the Sho'ah -- the Nazi Holocaust.

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Some ancient statements and actions by the Catholic Church and its leaders:

Some profoundly anti-Judaic statements by Church leaders are listed below. "Pharsea" has collected many more. 1

bullet3rd century CE:
bulletOrigen (185 - 254 CE): "The blood of Jesus falls not only on the Jews of that time, but on all generations of Jews up to the end of the world."
bulletSt. Cyprian of Carthage (circa 200 - 258): "This name rebukes and condemns the Jews who not only spurned Christ faithlessly, but also cruelly executed Him Who was announced to them by the prophets, and sent first to their nation. No longer may they call God their Father, because the Lord confounds and refutes them, saying: 'your father is the devil' [John 8:44]. O sinful nation, O people weighed down with guilt, breed of evil-doers, lawless children, you have turned your backs on the Lord and have provoked the Holy One of Israel."
bullet4th century CE:
bulletSt Athanasius (circa 296 - 373): Jews "...have no abiding place, but they wander everywhere .... But in every place they transgress the law, and as the judgments of God require; they keep days of grief instead of gladness. Now the cause of this to them was the slaying of the Lord, and that they did not reverence the Only Begotten .... Therefore the Lord cursed them under the figure of the fig tree."
bulletSt. Hilary of Poitiers (315 - 367) referred to Jews as a perverse people who God has cursed forever.
bulletJohn of Antioch (347 - 407) (a.k.a. John Chrysostom): He delivered a group of four homilies titled "Against the Jews". Homily 4 said, in part: "The difference between the Jews and us in not a small one, is it? Is the dispute between us over ordinary, everyday matters, so that you think the two religions are really one and the same? Why are you mixing what cannot be mixed? They crucified the Christ whom you adore as God. Do you see how great the difference is? How is it, then, that you keep running to those who slew Christ when you say that you worship him whom they crucified?" 2
bullet5th century CE:
bulletSt. Jerome (circa 345 - 420): "Judas betrayed Me [Jesus], the Jews persecuted and crucified Me....In particular, this is the story of Judas; in general it is that of the Jews....Judas is cursed, that in Judas the Jews may be accursed."
bulletSt. Augustine (354 - 430) wrote: "The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Lord for silver. The Jew can never understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus."

On another occasion, he wrote: "Judaism, since Christ, is a corruption; indeed, Judas is the image of the Jewish people: their understanding of Scripture is carnal; they bear the guilt for the death of the Savior, for through their fathers they have killed Christ." 1
bullet7th century:
bulletThe 17th Church Council of Toledo, Spain in 694 CE defined Jews as the serfs of the prince. This was based, in part, on the beliefs by Chrysostom, Origen, Jerome, and other church fathers that God punished the Jews with perpetual slavery because of their collective responsibility for the death of Jesus. 3
bullet11th to 13th centuries:
bulletThe First Crusade was launched in 1096 CE. Although the prime goal of the crusades was to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim control, Jews were a secondary target of opportunity. As the soldiers passed through Europe on the way to the Holy Land, large numbers of Jews were challenged with the order: "Christ-killers, embrace the Cross or die!" 12,000 Jews in the Rhine Valley alone were killed in the first Crusade. This behavior continued for eight additional crusades until the 9th Crusade in 1272. Hundreds of thousands of defenseless Jews died in the attacks.
bullet13th century:
bulletPope Innocent III wrote to the archbishops of Sens and Paris in 1200 CE that "the Jews, by their own guilt, are consigned to perpetual servitude because they crucified the Lord...As slaves rejected by God, in whose death they wickedly conspire, they shall by the effect of this very action, recognize themselves as the slaves of those whom Christ's death set free..."

In an epistle to the Count of Nevers, he wrote: "....the Jews, against whom the blood of Christ calls out, although they ought not to be killed, nevertheless, as wanderers they must remain upon the earth until their faces are filled with shame and they seek the name of the Lord Jesus Christ."

In an epistle to the Hierarchy of France, he wrote: "Crucifiers of Christ ought to be held in continual subjection."
bullet15th century:
bulletBlessed Juliana of Norwich (1342 - 1423), "I knew in my faith that the Jews were accursed and condemned without end, except those who were converted [to Christianity]."
bulletPope Innocent IV (1432 - 1492): "...strictly forbidding that Jews henceforth have Christian nurses or servants, that the sons of a free woman may not serve the sons of a bondswoman, but as slaves condemned by the Lord, whose death they wickedly plotted, they at least outwardly recognize themselves as slaves of those whom the death of Christ made free and themselves slaves."
bullet18th century:
bulletSt. Alphonsus Maria Liguori (1696 - 1787): "Poor Jews! You invoked a dreadful curse upon your own heads in saying: 'His blood be on us and our children'; and that curse, miserable race, you carry upon you to this day, and to the end of time you shall endure the chastisement of that innocent blood." Liguori was referring to Matthew 27:21-25 which describes an alleged interchange between Pilate, the Roman Procurator of Palestine and Phoenicia, and a Jewish mob. These verses are probably responsible for more loss of Jewish life than any other passage in the Bible:

Matthew 27:21-25: "The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified. When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children." King James Version.

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1955: Josef Blinzler, "The trial of Jesus:"

Blinzler, "...a noted Roman Catholic scholar who teaches New Testament studies at the diocesan seminary of Passau in Bavaria," 4 wrote:

"Anyone who undertakes to assess the trial of Jesus as a historical and legal event, reconstructing it from the gospel narratives of the passion, must come to the same conclusion that the early Christian preachers did, namely, that the main responsibility rests on the Jewish side... His enemies were not concerned for the law, or even for a false concept of the law, but were aiming at the destruction of Jesus at any price... It was a judicial murder." 5

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1965: Nostra Aetate declaration:

On 1965-OCT-28, at the Second Vatican Council, the Vatican issued "Nostra Aetate," ("In our time") a "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to non-Christian Religions." 6

The original plan was to discuss the relationship between Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church in "De Oecumenismo," the "Dogmatic Constitution on Ecumenism."  This would have been a remarkable development, because it would have accepted the concept that Jews and Christians together constitute one people of God. However, opposition arose from Asian and African bishops. An alternative approach was then selected. The topic was transferred to a separate declaration, "Nostra Aetate," which describes the Church's relationships to all non-Christian religions. Judaism was treated as only one among many religions. 7

The document contained two new and revolutionary teachings in which the Church reversed its historical position:
bulletIn the past, the church had always believed that "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" ("There is no salvation outside the Church"). Nostra Aetate stated that some non-Christians could be saved within their own faith, and thus avoid being sent to Hell when they died. Devout and conscientious Jews, Hindus, Muslims, etc. had a chance to attain heaven.
bulletIn the past, the church had always held that all Jews from the 1st century to the 20th shared responsibility for Jesus death. Nostra Aetate stated that this is no longer a belief of the Church.

 Some important passages of Nostra Aetate are:
bullet"The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [non-Christian religions]." This implies that other religions are not totally in error, from the Catholic perspective. They contain elements of truth.
bullet"[The Church] also recalls that the Apostles, the Church's main-stay and pillars, as well as most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world, sprang from the Jewish people." Curiously, they did not describe Jesus, Mary and Joseph as Jewish.
bullet"Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this Sacred Synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as fraternal dialogues."
bullet"The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion." Notably missing from this list is sex and sexual orientation. The Church actively teaches and promotes certain types of discrimination against women (in ordination for example) and against persons with homosexual orientation.

Concerning Judaism and Jews:

bulletThe Declaration notes that, according to the Gospels, some Jews in Palestine advocated the execution of Jesus. It says: "...the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf John 19:6)..."
bulletThe Declaration was written in Latin and has been translated into many languages. One English translation, found on the American University (AU) Listserv, had a curious wording in one passage that discusses the persons responsible for Jesus' execution. Their translation states: "...neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor all Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion." This translation has a number of ramifications:
bulletIt implies that some Jews during the 1st century CE can be held responsible for the crime. This follows naturally if the Gospels are believed to be accurate recordings of historical events. According to author William Nicholls, Vatican II did not "confront the historical evidence that makes it most likely that even the Jewish authorities did not 'press for the death of Christ'." -- that is, that the Gospel record of Jesus' trials may well be unrelated to historical events.
bulletIt states that all Jews who were alive at the time of Jesus' execution cannot be held responsible for his death. That makes sense, because it is probable that only a small minority of the Jews who were alive circa 30 CE were aware of the events leading up to Jesus' crucifixion. Jews in Spain, Rome, Cyprus, Alexandria, etc. would probably never have heard of Jesus at the time.
bulletBy stating that "all Jews today" cannot be held responsible for Jesus' death, it appears to imply that some Jews today can be legitimately charged with killing Jesus. This raises the question of exactly which present-day Jews are guilty of Jesus' murder.
bulletBy the same reasoning, presumably some Jews between the 1st century and now are also guilty.

The Vatican website publishes a different English translation. It states: "...what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today." 8 This subtle shift in the wording has a profound effect on its meaning:
bulletAs in the case of the AU translation, it implies that some, but not all, of the Jews in the 1st century CE can be held responsible for the crime.
bulletIt implies that none of "the Jews of today" can be held responsible for Jesus' death in the 1st century.

We hope that the Vatican translation is a more correct rendering of the original Latin.

Continuing with the AU translation:
bullet"Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures."
bullet"...the Church...decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone." Draft versions of the Document had used the word "condemns" in place of "decries." The softer term appears to have been chosen as a result of pressure from Arab bishops and "from diplomatic representatives made to the Vatican by Arab envoys." 7

Draft versions of the Document had specifically stated that the term "deicide" cannot legitimately be used in reference to Jews. This passage was removed. According to Nicholls:

"The Arab lobbyists had argued that to ban the word deicide would tend to legitimate the Zionist state, with adverse political consequences for the Catholic church in the Middle East; the bishops from the area had suggested that there might be fears for the safety of Arab Christians if this happened." 7

Nicholls commented that the Document did not mention the need for repentance for past oppression and mass murders of Jews by the Church. It does not ask Jews for forgiveness. Nicholls writes that this is a glaring error because other Vatican II documents:

"do ask forgiveness for the Church from Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Muslims. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the statement. Perhaps it would not have passed the council if it had [been included]." 7

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Sponsored link:

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The Vatican apologizes:

Partial apologies did finally come, over three decades later:

bulletThe Vatican issued a document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" on 1998-MAR-16. 9 It recognized the relative inactivity and silence of many Roman Catholics during the Nazi Holocaust.
bulletOn 2000-MAR-1, in Paris, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church held a press conference which, according to Reuters, "outlined a framework for seeking forgiveness for past errors without necessarily admitting responsibility for them." 10 The French translation of a new church document: "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past" was released at that time. More details.
bulletDuring the Day of Pardon mass on Sunday, 2000-MAR-12, Pope John Paul II delivered a homily in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He included an apology for wrong done to "women, Jews, Gypsies [Roma], other Christians and Catholics." Referring to the church's relationship to Jews, the pope said:

"We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood." He explained that "The reference to errors and sins in a liturgy must be frank and capable of specifying guilt; yet given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, it must be necessarily be rather summary. [sic]" 11

In these apologies, blame was placed on individual Roman Catholics -- not on the Church. This is in accordance with Catholic belief that the Church has always remained free of error.

In the Declaration, the Pope referred to Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism by name. He made no specific reference to the Church valuing other religions of the world, including North American spirituality, Animist religions, various Neopagan religions, other Aboriginal religions, etc. However, it could be argued that the general intent of the Declaration appears to include them. 

Additional material can be seen at Reference 12.

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1974: Hans Kűng. "On Being a Christian:"

Hans Kung comes from the liberal wing of Roman Catholicism. In 1979, after a dispute over the infallibility of the pope, he was denied the right to teach as a Catholic theologian. He teaches at the University of Tubingen and remains one of the most prominent and outspoken theologians. He wrote:

"What all the (gospel) evangelists make absolutely clear is that Jesus was innocently condemned...It is clearly established as an indisputable fact that Jesus was handed over by the Jewish authorities to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate... He (Jesus) was murdered." 13

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1994: Raymond Brown, "The Death of the Messiah:"

Brown's two volume set on the death of Jesus commented on the guilt of some 1st century Jews for the death of Jesus:

"When the Jewish, Christian and pagan evidence is assembled, the involvement of Jews in the death of Jesus approaches certainty... Given the conclusion just reached, the issues of responsibility and guilt are inevitable. Reading the Gospels will convince most that at least, although troublesome, Jesus was a sincere religious figure who taught truth and helped many, and that therefore crucifying him was a great injustice... No matter what [salvationist] good came out of the death of Jesus, some human beings put him to death and the issue of their responsibility and/or guilt remains... Accordingly I think it is required of me to discuss the ways, some of them strongly anti-Jewish, in which the Gospels have discussed the Jewish role in the death of Jesus..." 14

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Pharsea," "The Supposed Perfidy of the Jews," Faithful to the Truth, at: http://www.geocities.com/
  2. St. John Chrysostom, "Eight Homilies Against the Jews," Medieval Sourcebook, at: http://www.fordham.edu/
  3. Max Solbrekken, "The Jews & Jesus: Mistreatment of Jews: Christian shame," at: http://www.mswm.org/jews.htm
  4. Book review of Josef Blinzler, "The Trial Of Jesus," Theology Today, at: http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu
  5. Josef Blinzler, "The Trial Of Jesus; The Jewish and Roman Proceedings against Jesus Christ," The Newman Press, (1959), Pages 290 & 293.
  6. Pope Paul VI, "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate)," 1965-OCT-28. Available at: http://listserv.american.edu/
  7. William Nicholls, "Christian Antisemitism: A history of hate," Jason Aronson Inc., (1995), Pages 363 & 364.
  8. Pope Paul VI, "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate)," 1965-OCT-28. Available at: http://www.vatican.va/
  9. "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust," First Things magazine, 1998-MAY, at: http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9805/
  10. Crispian Balmer, "Catholic Church establishes forgiveness framework," Reuters, 2000-MAR-1. See: http://dailynews.yahoo.com/
  11. V.L. Simpson, "Pope plans historic apology for sins of Catholic Church," Associated Press, 2000-MAR-7.
  12. "Theology Library: Non-Christian Religions," at: http://www.mcgill.pvt.k12.al.us/jerryd/cm/ncr.htm
  13. Hans Kűng, "On Being a Christian," Pages 332 & 336
  14. Raymond Brown, "The Death of the Messiah," Pages 382 & 386.

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Copyright 1998 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-JUN-23
Last update: 2007-MAY-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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