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Blood libel

February 28th, 2004

The notion that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ may seem too silly for words, but it is obviously still taken seriously enough to require refutation, not surprisingly in view of the immense human suffering it has caused. My question is, has anyone ever suggested that Italians are collectively responsible?

To answer the obvious quibble, the term “Roman” referred, at the time in question, to any (free) inhabitant of Italy (Roman citizenship was extended to the whole of Italy in 89BC), and Pontius Pilate himself was of Samnite rather than specifically Roman origin.

I know from experience that irony is too dangerous for use in blogs. So, at the risk of boring 95 per cent of readers, let me be absolutely clear on my own position. I don’t think anyone now living can properly be blamed or praised for the actions of putative ancestors 2000 years ago. I also don’t believe we have, or are ever likely to obtain, sufficient evidence to attribute responsibility for the death of Jesus to any person or group.

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  1. February 28th, 2004 at 10:25 | #1

    Of course you are right, John. That’s a sensible approach. But there’s another angle to the ‘blame’ question, if you can stand a literary excursion.

    It’s difficult to treat ANY of this matter as merely historical. The story of the execution/martyrdom of Jesus is now — whether ultimately historical or not — mostly fictional. It’s too distant, too lacking in corroboration, too clouded in beliefs and emotion to be anything but a myth (I mean in literary, not pejorative, terms).

    That’s no accident: the 1-4th century apologists who wanted, after all, to give the story mythic proportions.

    THEY divided the jews into those who accepted that history had ended (the ‘testament’ of Moses was finished and the new testament with God, brokered by the Messiah, had begun) and those who were blind to this ‘fact’ and maintained their allegiance to the Temple. Only the former jews — now Christians — were saved by the crucifixion and the later were at best bereft and (possibly) condemned by it.

    This is where the story, as they told it, derives its pathos and its mythic power: that the CHOSEN PEOPLE, from whom the Messiah was to arise, were found wanting at the crucial moment WHILE COLLABORATING in the fulfillment of the prophecies (as interpreted by the christians).

    These writers had NO INTEREST in whether the Romans were to blame for the ending of history or not. The Romans were an irrelevant instrument of history’s inevitable fulfillment. Hence the totally uncollaborated gospel scenes of Pilate’s appearance before the mob, the surrender of Barabbas and Pilate’s washing of his hands. The gospel writers made the myth very easy to understand: the point of the story was that the Christ died at the hands of the Chosen People.

    The Gospels were a message aimed at one group of first centruy jews by people who considered themselves, at the time, the ‘new jews’. Does the story re-told today have anything to say about Jews of the 21st century? Nothing whatever unless, possbily like Gibson, you’re a mad evangelizer.

    Anti-semitic? Not at all. Actually, it was initially intended as a message of hope (a ‘gospel’) in the sense that no jew — or, after Paul’s politically adept intervention in the debate — no gentile was excluded from redeming the error of having crucified the Christ. A powerful fiction? Absolutely. The cultural history of maybe a third of human society owes a debt to this myth.

    But the story doesn’t have the same power if you say that ‘the Romans did it’. They were not even part of the picture.

    Best wishes,

    Peter

  2. Phil O’Reilly
    February 28th, 2004 at 12:58 | #2

    We have so little verifiable and factual material to understand the events 2000 years ago that nearly any commentary is necessarily nugatory. What we do know is that the supernatural had nothing to do with those events. Far more interesting is the glimpse we get of the interplay and the clashing of economic and political modernity and archaic societies, still resonant today. I see Jesus and his brothers as being political figures and modernisers similiar to Islam’s Mohammed 600 hundred years later with also the strong clan and tribal connections leading to the creating of a politico-religious movement following his demise. Surely there have been many such people, many of whom suffered similiar fates and for much the same reasons.

  3. February 28th, 2004 at 14:41 | #3

    As far as Italian guilt is concerned, the rule of thumb is that we wogs can get away with murder. Call it our guinea charm, but Ities never carry the rap for their wicked ways, no matter how much mischief we get up to – what with sprawling empires, murderous mafias and corrupt political parties.

    On the veracity of antiquarian sources: Aside from the, somewhat partisan, source of the New Testament, we dont even have reliable evidence that Christ in fact existed as a historical person, apart from a couple of dodgy looking quotes in Tacitus and Josephus. The story of Christ’s murder does, however, bear an uncanny resemblance to the murder of Julius Ceasar. I wonder if some ancient chroniclers did not simply project their grief over Ceasar’s assasination into the spiritual plane.

    This does not matter that much, since the ideas expressed in the New Testament are evidently Good. Whether or not Jesus in fact existed, the ideas attributed to the person of Jesus are clearly moral and conducive to good behaviour. Christian teachings ultimately embodied the real Holy Trinity:
    Jewish moral principles
    Roman civil law
    Greek philosophy

    Ultimately, contra Gibbon, Roman civil power was greatly enhanced by the appropriation of Jewish morality, much more than Jewish power was enhanced by Roman civility. Thus the Romans eventually got to cite the temple of their spiritual empire in Rome (St Peters) whilst they tore down the orginal Judaic temple in Jerusalem.

    Yet they blamed the Jews for creating the orginal mischief. Ungrateful buggers!

  4. Kinnich Gatsky
    February 28th, 2004 at 15:46 | #4

    If I am not mistaken, to a Christian, Jesus’ death (and resurrection) is the most important event in the bible. If he didn’t die, then there would be no salvation, no escape from sin, no special relationship with God and so on. Jesus had to die, he was always going to die. It wasn’t a accident for which someone must be blamed, it was God moving the chess pieces around to affect his grand design.

    What is the alternative if the Jews hadn’t killed Jesus? The messiah’s cantankerous great great great great etc grandson not letting anyone have the movie rights to the gospel? Or perhaps a 2000 year old Jesus turning water into crude oil as a favour to one of his greatest admirers?

  5. Homer Paxton
    February 28th, 2004 at 16:01 | #5

    KG is correct.
    Jesus had to die.
    Pilate was the only one who had the power to order it.
    The religious elite ensured it happened.
    However what has been missed is that if we were alive then we would be the religious elite.

    Who killed Christ? We did!

  6. February 28th, 2004 at 16:01 | #6

    t was God moving the chess pieces around to affect his grand design

    Right. Therefore, as I noted over at Crooked Timber (where John cross-posted this), God is ultimately to blame for Jesus’ death.

  7. Geoff Honnor
    February 28th, 2004 at 17:27 | #7

    “Who killed Christ? We did!”

    This carries collective responsibility a little far Homer and anyway: I have a cast-iron alibi.

    I wonder John if you’ve ever considered popping into a Greek Club (normally filled with those of that distinctive Turkic-Slav ethnic descent who currently bear the proud ‘Greek’ sobriquet) to challenge their assertion to putative ancestry from Socrates, Plato and Helen of Troy. If not, don’t. It’s almost as bad as calling them Macedonian :)

  8. February 28th, 2004 at 17:42 | #8

    Knock a zero off your comment, Prof, and you suddenly sound like John Howard:

    “I don’t think anyone now living can properly be blamed or praised for the actions of putative ancestors 200 years ago.”

    Hear! Hear!

  9. John Quiggin
    February 28th, 2004 at 17:52 | #9

    Actually, Tim, you need to knock two zeros off to get to Howard’s position. And a factor of 100 does make a difference.

  10. John Quiggin
    February 28th, 2004 at 17:54 | #10

    PS:Notice the symmetry in my point. If Howard wants to disclaim 50-year old crimes, he can’t turn up at Anzac Cove to associate himself with 90-year old heroism.

  11. Geoff Honnor
    February 28th, 2004 at 18:45 | #11

    “PS:Notice the symmetry in my point. If Howard wants to disclaim 50-year old crimes, he can’t turn up at Anzac Cove to associate himself with 90-year old heroism.”

    Yes he can. Both his father and his grandfather were World War 1 vets. Unless you want to strip the man of any vestige of human feeling in your pursuit of ideological primacy, you might like to consider conceding the point. There’s many points of difference between Howard and I but I don’t disavow the guy’s genuine, personal, heartfelt empathy with the era in question.

  12. d
    February 28th, 2004 at 18:46 | #12

    What happened in 1984 to be blamed for?

  13. February 28th, 2004 at 20:06 | #13

    Actually, the true position on “it had to happen, therefore nobody is on the hook” comes from the saying “these things must come, but woe to him through whom they come”.

    But what I wanted to post about is this: any “silliness” comes from the lack of collective association. JQ is getting very close to stumbling over the problem with using that as a defence argument, if anyone ever did accuse Jews generically of collective guilt. JQ spotted that John Howard is deliberately associating himself with a past of nearly the age as the aboriginal issues he dissociates himself from. Me, I think that shows inconsistency and he cannot be right both times and, as it happens, he is right about the black armband thing.

    Now consider the parallel with a collective accusation against Jews; Zioinists, at least, do link themselves to a collective past that distant, and many of them even connect to Palestinians in the same collective way. They blame today’s Palestinians for the chutzpah of other Arabs’ invading in support of Palestinians and to get something for themselves while they were there. Similarly, Israel was perfectly happy to collect reparations from West Germany for Nazi crimes against Jews generically.

    So, Zionists cannot deny collective accusations with any integrity; only other Jews can. Zionists must perforce deny those accusations on the ground that it wasn’t like that, not that it was somebody else. They themselves assert their own identity with those Jews of the distant past.

  14. John Quiggin
    February 28th, 2004 at 23:10 | #14

    Geoff, I don’t deny Howard’s right as a private citizen to identify with the actions of his own family. In fact, the sooner he becomes a private citizen, the better, as far as I am concerned. As regards his actions in his Prime Ministerial capacity, I stand by what I said.

    d, I knew someone would quibble, but I was still too lazy to get it precisely right. So let be me precise. In log10 terms, Howard would need a reduction of 1.5 (not 1.0 as Tim suggests or 2.0 as I lazily wrote). As you appear to have a scientific training, you can do the maths.

  15. February 29th, 2004 at 00:25 | #15

    So, Prof, do you agree that people now living CAN be blamed for the actions of putative ancestors 200 years ago?

    If so, when does the time limit kick in? Somewhere between 200 and 2000 years, I guess, but when precisely?

  16. February 29th, 2004 at 01:20 | #16

    The statute of moral limitations should expire within the living adult memory of the oldest person in society.

    Since there are still Australian people who can remember the Great War, Howard is still entitled to be proud of it.
    And likewise Howard is liable to express regret for wrongs done to Aboriginals during the period of Aboriginal disenfranchisement.

    But some notion of residual cost-benefit would also apply, prior to that which obtained during the twentieth century.

    Thus Aboriginals can rightly claim to be aggrieved over property wrongfully misappropriated from them without fair compensation, and relatives wrongfully killed or harmed, without fair reparation.

    OTOH, Aboriginals should be respectful for Euro contributions to public infrastructure of this country which have increased Aboriginal life expectancy.

  17. February 29th, 2004 at 01:21 | #17

    In fact, the sooner he becomes a private citizen, the better, as far as I am concerned.

    This parting shot strikes me as mean-spirited and not in the best tradition of Quigginite fair play.
    Doesnt Howard deserve ANY credit for seeing Australian through a difficult foreign policy period, Timor, illegal immigration, terrorism, regime changes, Solomons, with low cost and low casualites? And strengthened alliances?
    And for not stuffing up economic policy? And for knocking off Hanson, gun control etc?

  18. Louis Hissink
    February 29th, 2004 at 06:17 | #18

    Especially when a Protestant school of thought. supported by Bhuddist, Islamic and Hindu supporters in northern India assert Jesus died of old age and was buried in Srinigar (Holger Kersten, Jesus lived in India).

  19. March 1st, 2004 at 00:41 | #19

    The mean spirited bit that Howard and co get away with in their black armband view is that the recognition of the past is about blame. Or that sorry implies guilt. That’s the natty little compression of complexity that makes the whole thing nasty.

    I would call myself a bit of a reader of military history. I find the story of Gallipoli immensely moving, but I don’t feel proud of it. It is a ridiculous concept for the reason adduced above – I wasn’t there, I wasn’t born.

    We should revisit it, honour it, recognise that our present was created partly in the cess pit of that brutally unnecessary and mindless time and learn its lessons.

    Just as we should revisit our frontier history, honour our pioneers who dug the ground and tilled the soil, celebrate those Aborigines who fought back, or adapted and started their own farms (particularly here in the south), acknowledge the cruelty and the crimes, and accept the paradox that present good comes from historical evil.

    That is the point of history. It is not a childish cartoon, a simple fable, an attempt to be grandiose by association – it is the complex and ever changing story of our past and the set of explanations we weave from remembering it.

    And I am sorry that terrible things were done. And sorry that people are still born who are damaged by that. To me its easy – because there is no guilt.

    It is exactly the same trick with the Jews. Who killed Jesus? Ooowah it was the Jews. So we can blame them for it. I don’t know that even the primitive Mel Gibson believes that, but millions have, and the idea is one of the most destructive in history, measured in the piles of dead.

    It’s that weird notion of blood pride and blood guilt.
    And to loop again, its that patriotic association that gave us World War One. And all the elements of this braided, repetitive, horrifying mistake turned up on the same thread. I’m not sure whether it is coincidence or collective wisdom.

  20. James Farrell
    March 1st, 2004 at 09:48 | #20

    What is your point, Geoff? It must be that pride and shame are purely personal feelings and therefore shouldn’t figure in official statements or form the basis of policy. Therefore, I guess you’re saying, we should humour Howard’s incessant manifestations of pride in diggers, Bradman, Menzies etc. but expect no expressions of regret about aborigines on the grounds that he lacks any ‘genuine, personal, heartfelt empathy with the era in question’.

    But Howard’s pride is not just personal in the way that, say, his favourite colour might be personal. It’s part of his public ideology. He never lets up gushing about how proud he feels of this or that great Australian or great Australian achievement. Last night he said on the news that he was proud of Menzies for funding catholic schools.

    So we have two choices. Either we can say: you didn’t fight at Gallipoli and you had no influence on school funding, therefore the feelings you claim to feel about these things are sentimental and phoney.

    Or, we can say: it is normal and justified to identify with the achievements of your family and countrymen even though you had no personal involvement; but this sense of pride must have its negative counterpart, in shame you feel at cruelty inflicted by family and countrymen, even if you were not directly involved.

  21. March 1st, 2004 at 16:07 | #21

    Aboriginals should be respectful for Euro contributions to public infrastructure of this country which have increased Aboriginal life expectancy.

    If Jack’s conceit wasn’t that he was in some way Italian, then we would have got “Anglo contributions”.

    But a question: should (and if so, how much), Aboriginals be grateful for Asian contributions to public infrastructure.

    And should Aboriginals be grateful to the Little Bugger for Practical Reconciliation which has done so much to increase the quality of their lives, if not their actual health.

    And should Aboriginals be grateful to Keith Windbag for doing QA on their shoddy oral historical account.

    And how much time in their busy days with all this being grateful should they neverthelss try to set aside to feeling somehow not yet understood or taken seriously?

    I don’t, like David Tiley, feel the slightest guilt over what happened to Australia’s original inhabitants. I don’t expect John Howard to either. But I do expect that a strong PM leading a country that had properly moved on from the days of Stolen Children and dispossession would be able to perform the profoundly symbolic act of expressing the country’s sorrow at past wrongs in a manner that did not involve wedging up the issue to the point where our tinmen persisted in the ignorant stance that Reconciliation was a demand that all other living Australians affect the posture of miscreants.

  22. JohnG
    March 2nd, 2004 at 15:45 | #22

    It has always been a great mystery to me that the christian story has been used to justify anti-semitism. The story as told by the four gospel writers and Paul has always been straightforward. A Jewish Rabbi with views different to the religious establishment is put to death by the Romans in conjunction with the religious leaders of the day. That happened to many other Jewish religious leaders at the time. The countryside was littered with their crosses.
    This alliance of State and religion to get rid of inconvenient people who are popular with the masses is common through history and happened often in christian societies.

    How you can get from a common politico-religious event to saying that the crucifixion of Jesus (who was a Jew) is the collective responsibility of all Jews is beyond me. The myth was only created and used by powerful people who found it in their interests to persecute Jews. It has no logical basis.

  23. March 4th, 2004 at 20:04 | #23

    That leads us to another frightening level of the debate. The “blood guilt of the Jews” is a crappy meme, as JohnG has pointed out. The trouble is, it stuck and travelled (widely and intermittently over a long period of time) because we want our scapegoats.

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