Ann Conway-Jones invites us to reflect on how we respond to Matthew’s accusation of deicide against the Jews in Matthew 27:25.
Given my involvement in interfaith dialogue, I am accustomed to elderly Jewish people recalling their memories of being taunted in the playground; but I was shocked when I recently encountered a 13-year-old attending a British church school who had suffered the same experience, of having the accusation ‘you killed Christ’ thrown at her. That deicide (god-killing) charge is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of Christian anti-Judaism, the cornerstone of what the French historian Jules Isaac called ‘l’enseignement du mépris’ (the teaching of contempt). The charge grew out of Matthew 27:25, where the crowd gathered before the Roman governor’s headquarters is said to have called out, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’. In churches following the Revised Common Lectionary, that verse will feature in this year’s Palm Sunday Gospel reading. How should preachers and congregations respond to it?
I will be drawing on recent scholarship to examine Matthew’s Gospel on its own terms, in its first century context. But important as it is, such historical contextualisation is not enough to deal with the legacy of Matthew 27:25 – the way in which it has been weaponised against Jews, and ‘has haunted Jewish-Christian relations for almost sixteen hundred years’. The accusation that all Jews everywhere, and down the generations, are ‘Christ-killers’ can be documented from the mid-second century: Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, told the Jew Trypho that at Christ’s first coming ‘he was pierced by you’. And Melito, bishop of Sardis, preached a powerful Passiontide sermon in which he rhetorically addressed ‘O lawless Israel’, saying, ‘you cast the vote of opposition against your Lord … over whom even Pilate washed his hands: for you killed him at the great feast’. Melito has been called ‘the first poet of deicide’, for making the explicit claim that ‘God has been murdered. The King of Israel has been destroyed by an Israelite right hand.’ Christian anti-Judaism later fused with racial antisemitism, and the deicide charge featured, for example, in the Nazi school curriculum. When the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate directed that ‘what happened in (Christ’s) passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today’, it did so because such instruction was necessary. And that paragraph’s wording was hotly contested. ‘Some bishops claimed that it was not permitted to revise a doctrine explicitly articulated in the Scriptures.’
Let’s start, however, in the first century. Jesus, like thousands of other Jews, was crucified by the Romans. Crucifixion was part of the Roman imperial machinery for terrorising conquered peoples into submission. Little excuse was needed to execute peasants or slaves on a cross. The New Testament, however, began a process of shifting the blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. This may well have been in order to distance the new Jesus movement from any accusation of sedition or troublemaking. We will focus on the way that Matthew 27:25 does so, recognising that the Gospel is not a historical eye-witness account, but a theological reflection written decades after the event, which vilifies those Jews who do not recognise Jesus as Messiah. The ‘blood curse’ features only in Matthew, and is preceded by another Matthean addition to Mark – the scene of Pilate washing his hands. Despite Pilate being the one holding the reins of power, the one who ‘handed (Jesus) over to be crucified’ (27:26), Matthew presents him as denying responsibility and ritually proclaiming his innocence. And it depicts the Jerusalem crowd, swayed by their leaders, offering ‘to bear the consequences should there be any repercussions for Jesus’ death’. In verse 25, Matthew switches from talking about the ‘crowd’ (ὄχλος) to using the ‘people’ (λαός). This would seem to indicate a shift from the narrative world of the assembled gathering to a theological statement, in which ‘the people’ could be understood as the nation of Israel. The words put into their mouths are multi-layered, creating several biblical allusions:
Firstly, Matthew links Jesus’ death with the innocent death of prophets. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, however, are not in fact murdered, with one exception. Jeremiah is persecuted, but he survives. The exception is a certain Zechariah, whose stoning to death is very briefly told in 2 Chronicles (24:20–22). Only in postbiblical literature are the prophets assigned violent deaths, and it is debateable whether the stories are pre-Christian.
Secondly, the verse keys into the prophetic rhetoric of responsibility—the idea that the disasters which befell the Israelites and Judeans were a consequence of their sins. As Jeremiah and Ezekiel wrestled with the reasons for the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, they debated which generation was responsible – were the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children (e.g. Jer 32:18, Ez 18:2, both alluding to Ex 20:5–6)? After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, this prophetic rhetoric of covenantal theodicy was revived. Josephus writes,
Even God himself, for loathing of their impiety, turned away from our city and, because he deemed the temple to be no longer a clean dwelling place for Him, brought the Romans upon us and purification by fire upon the city…for He wished to chasten us by these calamities.
He is not, however, blaming the Jewish people as a whole, but the ‘brigands’ who have fomented civil strife and defiled the temple by committing murder there. He does not consider the relationship between God and Israel ruptured, and undoubtedly expects the temple once again to be rebuilt. Matthew links the fall of the city to the killing of Jesus. Its parable of the wedding banquet ends with the king whose invitation has been turned down becoming enraged. ‘He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city’ (Mt 22:7). When Matthew 27:25 talks of ‘our children’, it is not referring to all Jews down the generations, but specifically to the subsequent generation from the crowd outside Pilate’s headquarters, which would experience the siege of Jerusalem. The prophetic rhetoric of responsibility—equivalent to seeing the Russian invasion as divine retribution for Ukrainian sin—raises many questions. Whether in 586 BCE or 70 CE, Jerusalem stood no chance against the armies of the regional superpower. And while a people blaming themselves is perhaps understandable as a way of regaining a sense of control, it is quite another thing when an outside third party says, ‘yes, God was indeed punishing you’, which is how Christians have interpreted Jewish history. When Matthew places words on the lips of the people, it is not equivalent to the agonised reflections of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, because it is not self-criticism, but lays the blame on a group from which the Gospel is distancing itself. And rather than being an affirmation of the ongoing covenant between God and Israel, it implies the ending of that covenant for those who do not transfer their allegiance to the Jesus-believing group.
Timothy Cargal characterises Matthew 27:25 as a ‘double entendre’:
One level of meaning that Matthew does intend to assert is that the Jewish nation must accept at least partial responsibility for the execution of Jesus. But at a second level of meaning, he also relates the words of the cry of ‘all the people’ to the possibility of forgiveness opened to the Jewish people and others by Jesus’ shed blood.
Thirdly, therefore, there are echoes of the covenant ceremony held on Sinai following the giving of the ten commandments (Ex 24:3–8). The people make a commitment—‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do’ (Ex 24:3)—and sacrificial blood is dashed over them. Moses declares ‘See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you’ (Ex 24:8).
And fourthly, Moses’ words are echoed by Jesus at the Last Supper: ‘this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mt 26:28). Matthew presents Jesus as the solution to the cessation of the temple’s sacrificial cult—from now on, Jesus will provide atonement of sin. Anders Runesson suggests that the tearing of the temple veil (27:51) signals that ‘God is leaving the temple, and Jesus’s sacrifice is acknowledged as taking the place of the sacrifices offered there until the end of time and the final judgement’. Catherine Hamilton writes,
Jesus’ blood, as Matthew describes it, is poured out not only for the destruction of the covenant people and the temple but for their restoration. This restoration of Israel, however, happens in Jesus. …The authority that belonged to the temple resides now in him and in the community gathered around him. There, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name,’ is now the place of the presence of the Lord.
Matthew ties together the significance of Jesus’ death and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem with the offer of forgiveness available in Christ, but at the expense of the Jewish people. Only those ‘who join or relate positively to the movement Jesus has initiated, accepting his teaching of the law … will have a share of the salvation that results from this atoning sacrifice’. Here we see at its starkest how Matthew draws creatively upon the Jewish biblical heritage whilst at the same time condemning those who understand that heritage differently. How might Christian sermons creatively draw upon Matthew without maligning the life and faith of the Jewish community?
And so, we turn to the issue of how to read and expound Matthew 27:25 today, having learnt the lessons of the disastrous history of Jewish–Christian relations since the first century. Preachers are not bound by the methods of historical scholarship – we are empowered in the Spirit to use our imagination and creativity to seek new truths in old texts. Yet taking historical scholarship seriously is essential if we are not to repeat past mistakes, not to reinforce troubling and destructive stereotypes.
In Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, Ronald Allen and Clark Williamson recommend that rather than resorting to the traditional interpretation of this verse as constituting a curse upon the Jewish people, preachers ‘recall the blood of Jesus at the Last Supper, “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28)’. ‘Indeed’, they say, ‘that is the gospel’. Unfortunately, it is not that straightforward. The violence done by Matthew 27:25 to Jews starts by putting into their mouths words that they would never say – then or now. The significance of Jesus’ death, and the symbolism of blood in doctrines of the atonement, is a Christian discussion. Most Jews do not buy into that paradigm. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, in an Afterword to the Church of England’s document God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian-Jewish Relations, talks of the ‘fundamental right to the integrity of Jewish self-definition’. All the layers of Mt 27:25, whether ‘negative’ or ‘positive’, only make sense within a Christian framework. Matthew imposes them upon the Jewish crowd in its story, and Jewish people ever since have paid the price for Matthew’s slander. Repenting of all the violence done by Christians to Jews down the centuries, and renouncing triumphalism, involves recognising that Jewish and Christian frameworks, however intertwined they were in the first century, are now incompatible. We need to become aware of the ways in which our theological language demeans the motivations of those who live and pray within a different frame of reference. Taking interfaith dialogue seriously involves respecting difference, and allowing people to speak for themselves.
Another strategy for dealing with Matthew 27:25 is voiced by Mark Allen Powell:
Christian theology has always maintained that the human agents responsible for Jesus’ death are irrelevant: he gave his life willingly as a sacrifice for sin (Mark 10:45; John 18:11). Christians regularly confess that it was their sins (not the misdeeds of either Romans or Jews) that brought Jesus to the cross (Rom 5:8-9; 1Tim 1:15).
As he points out, in dramatic readings of the passion narrative, congregations are often invited to echo Matthew 27:25 and declare for themselves, ‘Let his blood be upon us and upon our children!’. This approach also papers over the harm done by Matthew 27:25 too easily. Yes, theologically speaking, we are all responsible for Jesus’ death. Once again, however, that theology only works within a Christian framework. A Christian congregation willingly taking responsibility for Christ’s death is not the same things as Jews having that liability forced upon them. For us, the killing of Jesus symbolises all the ways in which we, as human beings, turn our back on God’s will. But it doesn’t function like that for Jews – they have their own rituals of repentance. Yet Matthew turns the Jewish people, those who live and pray within a different framework, into the archetypal representatives of our sin – they are forced to take on a role they have not chosen, one which turns their own heritage against them. And following Matthew, the Christian imagination has woven a tight symbolic web linking Jewish lack of recognition of Jesus as Messiah with his killing, whereas in fact the two are unconnected. Jews following a different path, remaining true to their ancestors’ covenant with God, is not a sin, and did not lead to the death of Jesus. We need to untie the knots we have created, and recognise that part of our sin is the symbolic violence we have done to Jews and Judaism.
I prefer Mary Boys’ advice to use Holy Week as a time to grieve—showing ‘a willingness to be attentive to disturbing truths about (our) own tradition’, and ‘letting ourselves be affected by the wounds of history that Christianity has inflicted’. Boys provides plenty of examples of preaching about the cross which stoked up violence against Jews. Rather than blaming Jews for a crime they have not committed, we need to take responsibility for the way in which Matthew 27:25 has been used down the centuries, including justifying violent crimes against Jews. This involves informing congregations of the harm that has been done, and instead of trying to explain or ‘rehabilitate’ the verse, letting it stand in judgement over us, for all the ways in which we have put words into other people’s mouths, denied their right to self-definition, and imposed our frameworks of meaning upon them. Christian triumphalism may have begun vis à vis Jews, but there are plenty of other peoples throughout Christian history who have been manipulated, shamed, and silenced. Holy Week is a time to remember and repent of ‘the ignorance, the misplaced zeal, the violence and the triumphalism’ that have scarred the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to look out for opportunities, not only in preaching but throughout our liturgies, including prayers and hymns, for naming past sins, repenting of them, and praying for the forging of new, more lifegiving relationships.
Genuine dialogue between Jews and Christians can only take place if we as Christians are willing to take a long hard look not only at our history but also at our use of scripture. Too often we read scripture naively, expecting it to be straightforwardly inspirational. The history of Jewish-Christian relations, however, demonstrates how first century Christian rhetoric, enshrined in the New Testament, led to real-world pogroms. We need to ask questions about when and why each biblical book was written, taking account of its biases and misrepresentations. It’s not just a case of setting the historical record straight, but of unveiling and renouncing the symbolic role that Jews have played in the Christian imagination. In the case of Matthew 27:25, words from the New Testament became weaponised against Jews, and used to justify violent persecution. We need to face up to that, repent, and stop corralling Jews into our Christian frameworks of meaning by putting words into their mouths, granting them instead the respect of self-definition. Matthew 27:25 stands as a perpetual reminder of the importance of this task.
Ann Conway-Jones is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, specialising in biblical interpretation and early Jewish-Christian relations. She is an Accredited Lay Worker in the Church of England, preaching regularly in her parish church. She is also involved in Jewish–Christian dialogue, currently acting as Chair of the Birmingham Council of Christians and Jews.
 Jules Isaac, The Christian Roots of Antisemitism (London: CCJ, 1965), 8-9.
 This blog post reproduces some material found in: Ann Conway-Jones, ‘Matthew’s Gospel and Jewish–Christian Relations’, The Expository Times, online first (2023): https://doi.org/10.1177/00145246231156834.
 Gareth Lloyd Jones, Hard Sayings: Difficult New Testament Texts for Jewish-Christian Dialogue (London: CCJ, 1993), 15.
 Dial. 32.2; Thomas B. Falls and Thomas P. Halton, St Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2003), 49.
 Peri Pascha §81, 92; Alistair C. Stewart, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha (Yonkers, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016), 75, 78.
 Peri Pascha §96; Stewart, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha, 80; Eric Werner, ‘Melito of Sardes, the First Poet of Deicide’, Hebrew Union College Annual, 37 (1966). For more examples of early church writings linking Jews to the death of Jesus see Mary C. Boys, Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2013), 80-91.
 See Boys, Redeeming Our Sacred Story, 126–7; or the illustrations provided in the ICCJ video ‘The Jewish Crowd, Pilate, and Guilt’: https://www.iccj.org/resources/passion-video-series.html.
 ‘Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate’ (1965), §4: https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html.
 Karma Ben-Johanan, Jacob’s Younger Brother: Christian-Jewish Relations after Vatican II (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2022), 30.
 See Mark Allan Powell, ‘The Crucifixion of Jesus and the Jews’: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/the-crucifixion-of-jesus-and-the-jews/.
 For Matthew’s vilification of the Pharisees, see Ann Conway-Jones, ‘Matthew’s Gospel and Jewish-Christian Relations’, The Expository Times, online first (2023): https://doi.org/10.1177/00145246231156834. Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 134.
 See Catherine Sider Hamilton, ‘“His Blood Be upon Us”: Innocent Blood and the Death of Jesus in Matthew’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 70: 1 (2008), 86–9, for the legend of Zechariah’s blood and Mt 23:35.
 The work usually cited is The Lives of the Prophets, assumed to be a Jewish work of the late Second Temple period. David Satran, however, has argued that The Lives of the Prophets is Byzantine: David Satran, Biblical Prophets in Byzantine Palestine: Reassessing the Lives of the Prophets (Leiden: Brill, 1995).
 See Dalit Rom-Shiloni, Voices from the Ruins: Theodicy and the Fall of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021), 344–421.
 Jewish Antiquities 20.166; trans. Louis H. Feldman, Josephus: Jewish Antiquities Book XX, Loeb Classical Library 456 (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 91. Robert Goldenberg argues that leading early rabbis, however, ‘had serious doubts that such accounts of recent history would do’: Robert Goldenberg, ‘Early Rabbinic Explanations of the Destruction of Jerusalem’, in Geza Vermes and Jacob Neusner (eds), Essays in Honour of Yigael Yadin (Journal of Jewish Studies 33:1-2) (Oxford: Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, 1982), 519.
 See Goodman, A History of Judaism, 241–4; or Jonathan Klawans, ‘Josephus, the Rabbis, and Responses to Catastrophes Ancient and Modern’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 100: 2 (2010), 290–3.
 Kathleen O’Connor, who approaches prophetic rhetoric through the lens of trauma and disaster studies, argues that ‘when Jeremiah places responsibility upon the people of Judah for the nation’s collapse, he helps them survive because he finds cause and effect in a world that has come unhinged’: Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 44.
 Timothy B. Cargal, ‘“His Blood be Upon Us and Upon our Children”: A Matthean Double Entendre?’, New Testament Studies, 37: 1 (1991), 109–10.
 See Claudia Setzer, ‘Sinai, Covenant, and Innocent Blood Traditions in Matthew’s Blood Cry (Matt 27:25)’, in Lori Baron, Jill Hicks-Keeton, and Matthew Thiessen (eds), The Ways That Often Parted: Essays in Honor of Joel Marcus (Atlanta: SBL, 2018), 175–6.
 Anders Runesson, Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew: The Narrative World of the First Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 302.
 Hamilton, ‘“His Blood Be upon Us”: Innocent Blood and the Death of Jesus in Matthew’, 100.
 Runesson, Divine Wrath and Salvation in Matthew, 305.
 Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 36.
 Faith and Order Commission, God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian-Jewish Relations (London: Church House Publishing, 2019), 104.
 Mark Allan Powell, ‘The Crucifixion of Jesus and the Jews’: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/related-articles/the-crucifixion-of-jesus-and-the-jews/.
 Boys, Redeeming Our Sacred Story, 215.
 Boys, Redeeming Our Sacred Story, 261.
As always, guest blogs are invited to stimulate comment and discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.