“His Blood Be Upon Us”
by Katie L. C. Philpott
Katie and trout at Hat Creek in Lassen National Forest -->
The Passion of Christ Film
Do you remember when Mel Gibson came out with his film The Passion of Christ? There was one specific scene where Pontius Pilate has been brow-beaten by the riotous crowd gathered by the temple leaders outside his palace, so he symbolically washes his hands of the responsibility for executing Jesus The passage in Matthew’s Gospel says it this way:
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Since the crowd in the above passage was ostensibly all Jews from Jerusalem, and since Gibson intended for their utterance, “His blood be on us and on our children!” to be included in the screenplay along with general implications regarding Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death, members of the worldwide Jewish community in 2004 were desperately afraid. They anticipated it would stir up an entirely new round of global anti-Semitism and we would see a new wave of hate crimes against Jews. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization for education against anti-Semitism, still has on its website a question-and-answer section they posted before the movie was generally distributed.
The following are excerpts from that site:
Q. Mel Gibson has stated that many people are calling him an anti-Semite. What is ADL's position?
A. ADL and its representatives have never accused Mr. Gibson of being an anti-Semite. We do not know what is in his heart. We only know what he has put on the movie screen. The images there show Romans who behave with compassion toward Jesus. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, constantly expresses his reticence to harm Jesus. The Jews, on the other hand, are depicted as blood-thirsty. The Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, is shown as bullying Pilate, and the hundreds and hundreds of amassed Jews demanding Jesus' death.
Q. Is the film faithful to the Bible and accepted Christian teachings?
A. The script is based upon the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John. But in order to weave together the story, these different texts must be harmonized and holes in the story must be filled in. The Biblical text tries to project a story of faith, but some of the narratives also reflect the growing schism between the Church and the Jewish people. Modern scholars have taught that the Gospel narratives must be taught responsibly. Since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960's the Catholic Church has taught that the Jews of Jesus' time, as well as the Jews of today cannot be held responsible for the death of Jesus.
Was it reasonable for the Jewish community to be afraid? How might we interpret the New Testament passage above instead?
I see this passage as a collection of ironies, so many it is amazing. “When Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing”—here is Pilate who is trying to do his job of keeping the peace in a city that was never known for its cooperative citizens. We might say he was stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. He is desperate to get out of his dilemma. He is desperate to not have the crowd going in the direction it is going. He is desperate to have the favor of his emperor. But these are all working against one another. He is not going to get out of anything in the long run—he is indeed gaining nothing. The fact that a riot was threatening was his worst nightmare; after all, his main job was to keep the pax romana, the peace of Rome. He was there to make sure this kind of thing did not happen, and he was not having a good time of it. He was reading the Jewish leadership wrong, even though he was in a kind of collaboration with them. They were using one another, and a riot was beginning, and that was the worst thing for his job security. Indeed, he was eventually booted out and sent away to ignominy.
Innocent Hand Washing?
Then it says, “He took water and washed his hands before the crowd”--in an effort to demonstrate in some visual way his innocence. The commentators say it was both a Hellenistic and a Jewish custom, this symbolic water-washing. In the Jewish ceremonial law, hands were washed as a cleansing mechanism before participating in any holy or sacred service. (We hold an annual Passover Seder at our church, and we also do this symbolic hand washing to start the ceremonial meal.) So, Pilate and the crowd would understand what he was doing as saying that he was innocent of the man’s blood while washing his hands.
Then he says something to the crowd that is again ironic: “See to it yourselves.” The Greek wording is almost identical to what the chief priests said to Judas in verse 4 when he realized his treacherous error and frantically tried to throw the thirty pieces of silver back to them, saying “I am innocent.” They said, in effect, “Aach! It’s not our problem; it’s your responsibility; see to it yourself.” Isn’t that ironic? The very ones who had just a few hours earlier said to Judas, it’s not our problem but yours, are now getting it back from Pilate.
The Crowd is Impatient
Then it says, “And all the people answered…” Just before this, Matthew calls them “the crowd,” and they were likely placed there by the chief priests as an artificial rabble to be incited emotionally to cause Pilate a problem and make him relent. They may have had little idea who Jesus really was or what he had done. The crowd of people yell out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Let us understand this in context as a kind of swearing to demonstrate the deliberate or impatient nature of the statement, really as a way for the crowd to say, “OK, come on, get on with it! Yeah, fine, we will take responsibility for it.”
Among those who would find this statement in Matthew’s Gospel as providing evidence or justification for persecution of Jews, the claim is made for it being actual biblical prophecy. They see the Jewish crowd as making a prophetic utterance about what should or will happen to them or their children or future generations, whether they realize it or not. However, in the context of this part of the narrative, it seems safer to infer that they just want to get the job done they were gathered there to do and get back home to prepare for the Passover. But Pilate is so hesitant, perhaps has been toying with the people up until now, and he requires extra confirmation that he is not the one pushing for this execution.
There is another irony here: The crowd leaders think they are efficiently pushing the proceedings along as a righteous duty to God, the duty to do away with a man who has, in their understanding, uttered blasphemy and heresy in claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God. They do believe they are doing God a good service by doing away with Jesus. The irony is indeed in this utterance of putting his blood on themselves. Christians have for centuries, even millennia, taken this statement in this verse as a reason to persecute Jews, to call them Christ-killers, thinking they are doing God a good service in taking vengeance for the death of His Son!
Justification is Not Justification
It is no more justified that this particular verse should be used as a two thousand year prophecy against one group than against the rest of us, because here is the real irony: “his blood be on us and our children” is something we would like to claim, because the blood of Jesus brings salvation! Of course, we mean that in a completely different sense. If you are in the crowd on the before side of salvation (also called redemption or justification), you mean “Who cares about this guy’s blood? Let’s just get this Jesus out of here and forget about him; so OK, his blood be on us.” But if you are on the other side of salvation—maybe in a similar crowd on the Day of Pentecost when 3,000 Jews became believers in Jesus as their Messiah—you are grateful for the blood of Jesus, saying, “Lord, thank you that this blood has become the means of my justification, not the means of my condemnation.” Here is the supreme irony, that on one side of justification it is a curse, and on the other side it is a blessing. But what it is not and should not have been is the source of one group of people finding justification for condemning another group—a specific ethnicity, race, or culture of people.
If you saw the movie, you saw that Mel Gibson had to compromise and make the comment barely audible and in Aramaic as well. It was there, but you could barely make it out, and most people didn’t know what they were hearing. So powerful has this verse been in the life of the Jewish community for two thousand years, and so ironic is it that all of us are at some time in our lives on the one side of the blood of Jesus and only through God’s grace can be brought to the other side of the blood of Jesus.