Comments on the Matthean Passion Narrative

Norman A. Beck, Mature Christianity in the 21st Century: The Recognition and Repudiation of the Anti-Jewish Polemic in the New Testament (exp. and rev. ed.; New York: Crossroad, 1994): 194-197.

27:24-25 May his blood be upon us and upon our children!

Since washing one's hands after completion of a particularly dirty or messy task is a common practice, and since various ritual hand washings to indicate innocence of responsibility are known to us from both Jewish and Greek sources, it is, as Eduard Schweizer proposes, not inherently impossible that Pilate may have washed his hands to signify his own nonculpability after he had given the order to have Jesus crucified, but it is hardly conceivable that Pilate would have made a public spectacle of his own illegal decision and the impotence of Roman justice when pressured by demands by a mob from within a subject population. It would have been physically impossible for the entire Jewish nation (pas ho laos) to have spoken with one voice as if in unison. Even if the population could have spoken in unison, it is not likely that it would have accepted for itself in perpetuity the full responsibility for the death sentence imposed by an oppressive occupation force upon a popular leader from among its own people. It is apparent that Matt. 27:24-25 is not a documentary of events but a literary composition that had as its purpose the removal of blame for Jesus' death from Pilate and Roman power and the transferal of guilt to all of the Jewish people forever. The bitterness of the invective here is approached in the New Testament only in some other portions of Matthew that are not redactions of Markan or "Q' materials, in the interpolation of 1 Thess. 2:13-16 into Paul's writing, and in the Fourth Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.~

For nearly nineteen centuries most of us who as Christians heard or read Matt. 27:24-25 have considered these verses to be a record of events as they actually happened, and we have responded with what we thought were appropriate anti-Jewish attitudes and actions. During the twentieth century, however, and particularly since 1945, many of us have called Matt. 27:24-25 into question. Christians within the Roman Catholic tradition have been notably sensitive to this issue, especially during the time when Vatican II was considering important changes in the Roman Catholic position regarding relationships with Jewish people. For example, Dominic M. Crossan, in a brief study of the "crowds" in Luke, the Jews in John, and the mob in the passion accounts of all four gospels, took the position that the often-repeated statement that the Jews rejected Jesus and caused him to be crucified is historically untenable and must be removed completely from Roman Catholic Christian thinking, writing, teaching, preaching, and liturgy.~ Continuing discussion of the issue, Joseph A. Fitzmyer recognized that there was no possibility that Vatican II would delete Matt. 27:25 from the Roman Catholic editions of the New Testament, or even tamper with its wording, since it is the inspired Word of God. In Joseph Fitzmyer's opinion, therefore, Christian exegetes will have to endeavor to bring the proper focus to the understanding of this cru-dal text. Fitzmyer attempted this with perhaps a measure of success by interpreting Matt. 27:25 within the context of Fitzmyer's postulated secondary theme in Matthew, namely, that Matthew was trying to explain to Jewish-background Christians why the "nations" were taking over the kingdom of heaven.

If our attitudes and actions are to be changed significantly, however, more drastic measures are necessary. The content of Matt. 27:24-25 will not be "removed completely" from our "thinking, writing, teaching, preaching, and liturgy" so long as it remains in the New Testament translations that we as Christians use. With equal respect for the New Testament documents as the inspired, dynamic, living Word of God, we can "prune down" Matt. 27:24-25 into small-type status in our translations and usage in order that the "vine" or "tree" of the Word of God may bear more and better fruit. Only if the "vine" were dead would it be diminished by this careful and conscientious pruning.

As stated elsewhere in this study, the pruning is to take place not in debate and "win-lose" voting in church conventions and ecumenical councils -- not even in a truly ecumenical council-- but in the marketplace of ideas, in the books we read, in the usage of the people. Only after many years of change in the marketplace of ideas will conventions and councils ratify that which by then has already occurred. Perhaps none of us who are here during this last decade of the twentieth century will live to see all of this happen to Matt. 27:24-25. This does not excuse us from the responsibility now to relegate Matt. 27:24-25 to small-print status in our translations and usage.

27:43 He trusts in God; let God rescue him now if God wants him!

At this point the Matthean tradition uses Ps. 22:8 and the Wisdom of Solomon 2:13-20 to compose an additional expression of spite and attribute it to the chief priests, scribes, and elders mocking Jesus as he hung suspended on the cross. The verse coheres with Matt. 12:34a, 45c; 15:12-14a; 23:13-33, 34-36; and 27:24-25 in its anti-Jewish intensity. For us as Christians, our teaching about the resurrection of Jesus within history is adequate vindication of the Jesus of history. We do not need in this instance ~ nor in others that are similar ~ the "left hand' of anti-Jewish polemic inherent in this verse in order for us to have the "right hand" of Christology central in Christianity.~ We would do well, therefore, to acknowledge that Matt. 27:43 is another piece of anti-Jewish invective in Matthean composition and reduce it to small print status in our translations and usage.

27:62--66; 28:4, 11-15 The guards stationed at the tomb, their embarrassment, and the cover-up arrangements.

From what may have been an oral tradition that attempted to present the resurrection of Jesus as an objective, provable fact, the Matthean redactor apparently fashioned and wove into the Markan sequence in three different places an account designed one more time to show the utter depravity of the chief priests, Pharisees, and elders. In addition to listing the many improbabilities in these accounts as many others have done, we should consider ways in which we today may repudiate the anti-Jewish polemic that appears to be the main reason for these verses in the Matthean account.

The most desirable response on our part would be for us to reduce Matt. 27:62-66; 28:4, 11-15, to small-print status in our translations and usage. For those who are not willing to do this and for those who wish to continue to try to prove the resurrection of Jesus to those who do not believe, interpretative translations and circumlocutions can be employed in which the "chief priests, Pharisees, and elders" in 27:62, 28:11-12, are rendered as "certain religious leaders," and "among the Jews" in 28:15 becomes "among many who do not believe in Jesus' resurrection."