Saturday, December 8, 2007

Anti-Judaism in Matthew's Roman Trial Narrative

by Ioanes Rakhmat

This is the second of four studies regarding anti-Jewish elements embedded in the Roman trial narratives of the NT gospels. The focus of the present study is Matthew’s Roman trial narrative.

In the Roman trial narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (27:2-26) we find three additions that Matthew inserted into his source (that is, Mark’s Roman trial account): first, Judas, the chief priests and the price of innocent blood (27:3-10); second, the dream of Pilate’s wife; and the innocent man (27:19); third, Pilate’s hand-washing, and the outcry “His blood on us and on our children” (27:24-25).
[1] These three Matthean additions require some discussion because they reveal Matthew’s own perspectives with regard to the Roman trial of Jesus.

Judas, the Chief Priests and
the Price of Innocent Blood

Knowing that Jesus had been condemned by the Jewish leaders (27:1), Judas regretted (metamelētheis) his actions in helping them to take Jesus into custody and then accepting thirty pieces of silver in return as the price for Jesus (see 26:15). This led him to the attempt to return the money to the chief priests and elders, saying to them, “I sinned in having given over innocent blood” (27:3-4a). This saying reflects Judas’ sense of guilt as a result of his now viewing Jesus as innocent (athō[i]os). It also shows his attempt to shift the responsibility for any action against Jesus onto the Jewish leaders. The latter responded to this with the words “What is that to us? (ti pros hēmas;) See to it yourself” (sy opsē[i]) (27:4b), words which clearly and callously reject Judas’ attempt to transfer the responsibility. In these words, Matthew creates a hostile picture of the chief priests and the elders.

The expressions “What is that to us” and “See to it yourself” are elliptic;
[2] and thus they represent a disclaimer of any concern on the part of the Jewish leaders. Matthew’s readers know that those Jewish authorities were most responsible for the death of the innocent Jesus because they themselves had sought false testimony against Jesus (26:59), had taken a decision to put Jesus to death (27:1; 26:66), and they too had given Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified (27:2,26). Yet, by their reaction to Judas, the chief priests and elders showed themselves as having no remorse, no interest and concern at all about the innocence of Jesus, the responsibility for the death of Jesus, and the sin and regret of Judas. Having no concern and interest at all for all these things, they proved themselves as the most callous men among all those who would be stained with innocent blood. Here Matthew’s antipathy toward the Jewish leaders comes to the fore clearly.

The callousness of the reaction caused Judas to throw the pieces of silver down in the Temple and then to end his life. The denouement of Judas’ life is summarized in the description: “He departed, and having gone away, he hanged himself.” (27:5b). This as the way Judas’ life ended is consistent with the words the first evangelist attributed to Jesus in Mathhew 26:24, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is given over! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” For Matthew, there seems to be no absolution for the Judas who had taken part in the shedding of innocent blood. Knowing that the thirty pieces of silver were blood money, the Jewish leaders in turn tried to rid themselves of the taint of any such money by using it to purchase a potter’s field (27:7).

The Dream of Pilate’s Wife

The innocence of Jesus is affirmed again by Pilate’s wife in 27:19 where it is noted that she sends word to Pilate while he is sitting on the judgment seat (to bēma), about to render a life-or-death sentence: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man (mēden soi kai tō[i] dikaiō[i] ekeinō[i]), for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” In Matthew’s Gospel, dreams are an unquestionable source of divine guidance (Matthew 1:20-21; 2:12, 13 and 19-20). As in the Jewish tradition, a dream can also be the means by which a truth is perceived by a Gentile.
[3] The words of Pilate’s wife made known to him during the trial serve as the Roman proclamation of the innocence of Jesus[4] ― a proclamation that Matthew intends to be seen as affecting the deeds and words of Pilate in the rest of the narrative (especially in 27:23, 24). In her suffering, Pilate’s wife is sharing some of the anguish brought on by innocent blood; her suffering must be seen by Pilate as a warning lest he make a judgment against the guidance given her in the dream.

Pilate’s Hand-Washing and the Innocence of Jesus

The motif of the responsibility for Jesus’ death appears again in Matthew 27:24-25. When Pilate saw that he could do nothing against the second, sharp, more insistent outcry of the crowd for crucifixion (“Let him be crucified!”), but rather a riot was taking place, he took some water and washed off his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” (hymeis opsesthe) (27:24). Then all the people answered, “His blood on us and on our children.” (27:25).

Pilate’s hand-washing is a ritual act containing a message that he himself conveyed: that he was innocent of the blood of Jesus; that he was not responsible for the shedding of Jesus’ blood. The elliptic expression “See to it yourselves” (identical with one in 27:4) means that from the moment he uttered it onward Pilate had nothing more to do with Jesus and his fate; this is in harmony with his wife’s warning: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man.” Although Pilate would condemn Jesus to be executed, the blame and responsiblity for the death of Jesus were now to be put not on him, but rather on the crowd. This shifting of responsibility is pictured as occurring because it was not Pilate’s own will to order Jesus’ crucifixion, but rather Jesus’ death was due to the crowds’ insistence on it. Pilate acceded to the crowds’ demand because a disturbance was taking place, and, as the Roman prefect, he had to end this disturbance and maintain peace and order at all costs. For Pilate himself, Jesus was innocent.

True, in 27:24 Pilate did not declare explicitly that Jesus was innocent. It would seem logical, however, that Pilate would not have been able to say “I am innocent of this man’s blood” had he found Jesus guilty.
[5] Moreover, in the light of the words of his wife, Pilate’s action and words in 27:24 are to be interpreted as an indirect or implicit recognition of Jesus’ innocence. Pilate’s words “I am innocent of this man’s blood” must be read “I am innocent of this innocent man’s blood.” Other ancient textual authorities (that is, the Koine textual witnesses) make explicit what is implicit in Pilate’s statement;[6] those textual variants have Pilate say: “I am innocent of this innocent man’s blood (athō[i]os eimi apo tou haimatos tou dikaiou toutou).” It should also be noted that earlier, in 27:23a, in response to the first outcry of the crowd and the Jewish leaders for crucifixion (27:22b, “Let him be crucified.”), Pilate threw a question at them, “Why, what evil has he done?” Despite the question form, unlike in Mark’s Gospel, here Pilate, already warned by his wife about Jesus’ innocence, indirectly recognized that Jesus had done no evil, that Jesus was innocent. This indirect recognition by Pilate of Jesus’ innocence was felt by the crowds and, because of it, they shouted all the more (perissōs ekrazon) for Jesus’ crucifixion (23b). Furthermore, other justification for the position that Jesus was recognized by Pilate as innocent can be found in the OT passage that serves as the background for Pilate’s washing ritual. (Note: in Graeco-Roman literary environment parallel materials for hand-washing as protective purification can be found as well.)[7]

The washing of hands in innocence is noted in Psalms 26:6 (“I wash my hands in innocence”) and 73:13b (“I...washed my hands in innocence”); for the phrase “in innocence” the LXX (Psalms 25:6; 72:13b) employs en athō[i]ois, thus containing the same word as that used by Pilate to declare his own innocence. The key account, however, is Deuteronomy 21:1-9 that describes the Jewish legal procedure to be followed when a dead man is found and no one knows who the murderer is. With the presupposition that the blood of the innocent victim gives rise to responsibility, the elders of the town nearest the body, witnessed by the priests, should wash their hands over the heifer whose neck has been broken and declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood” (21:7). In prayer, they shall ask God, “Do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel” (21:8). Pilate’s words interpret his hand-washing in the same manner as in Deuteronomy 21:7. The prayer in 21:8 makes it clear that “this blood” in 21:7 is the innocent blood. Thus, with Deuteronomy 21:8 as the background, the “this man’s blood” in Pilate’s words is to be interpreted as “this innocent man’s blood.” Furthermore, it is important to note that, while in 21:8 the elders pray that guilt not remained in the midst of God’s people Israel, Matthew in 27:24 makes Pilate say to the crowds “See to it yourselves”, thereby, as already noted, transfering the responsiblity for Jesus’ death to them.

The Outcry “His Blood on Us and on Our Children”

In response to Pilate’s words and actions, all the people (pas ho laos) said, “His blood on us and on our children.” (Matthew 27:25). The phrase “all the people” is a collective term, referring to the people of Israel as a whole, to God’s people; in most instances the noun laos in Matthew means the Jewish people ethnically.
[8] By shouting these words, the people were implicitly affirming their conviction that Jesus was guilty and they were explicitly accepting the responsibility for the shedding of his blood, even if, for example, it might later be somehow proved that Jesus was innocent of the charges made against him. The Matthean phrase “his blood on us and on our children” has its background in the traditional formula of Israelite holy law indicating responsibility (and its consequences) for a transgression of the Law, a crime, or a death in the eyes of God: Leviticus 20:9,11; Deuteronomy 19:10; Joshua 2:19 (also Number 35:27; TalBab Yoma 21a); 2 Samuel 1:16; Jeremiah 26:15; 51:35; Ezekiel 18:13; Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5; and especially 2 Samuel 3:28-29 and 1 Kings 2:32-33) – thus it is very clear, that Matthean phrase is not a Jewish bloodthirsty cry or Jewish self-curse.

However, by employing the phrases “all the people said” and “on our children” (epi ta tekna hēmōn; meaning “on our descendants”) Matthew broadens and generalizes the responsibility, including any later divine pusnishment, for the shedding of Jesus’ blood, implicating all Jews even those who lived beyond his own time to the indefinite future.
[9] This, for Matthew, definitely included those who underwent the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that Matthew (in 24:21) calls the “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now.” Matthew interpreted disasters that befell Jews in 70 CE as God’s punishment for their role in the shedding of the blood of Jesus, the Messiah (see 21:41; 22:7; 23:37-38; 24:2, 15; 27:51).[10] As clearly noted in the interchanges between Pilate and the crowd and the Jewish leaders in 27:17, 21-22, during the Roman trial it is Jesus not as the “King of the Jews”,[11] but as (the one who is called) the Messiah, that is, as a Jewish religious leader, who was rejected by the crowd, the chief priests and the elders ― in short, by all Jews!


Clearly, the Matthean Roman trial narrative contains sharply anti-Jewish elements. In the Judas episode, the Jewish leaders are depicted in a hostile manner as callous men. And Matthew 27:25 constitutes one of the passages in the passion narrative by which Matthew presents most sharply his anti-Jewish bias, directing it to all Jews, even to those who would be living in the future, beyond Matthew’s own time, and emphatically blaming them for the blood of the Messiah Jesus. This anti-Jewish tone even continues in the passages that relate events that occurred after Jesus’ death (27:62-66; 28:2-4, 11-15). It is most likely that the struggle with and the hostility toward the Pharisees of the synagogues after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple generated this Matthean anti-Judaism. On the other hand, the Matthean Pilate is portrayed as testifying to the innocence of Jesus. Still, Matthew does not free Pilate from all blame: he was the Roman prefect; but, under the pressure of the crowd, and in order to avert riot, he abandoned his true opinion about Jesus and ordered Jesus’ crucifixion.


[1] These three episodes were composed by Matthew himself on the basis of an old, pre-Matthean popular tradition that reflected on the theme of Jesus’ innocent blood and the responsibility it generated. That this tradition existed, is shown by a parallel account in Acts 5:28 where it is noted that the high priest, representing the Sanhedrin authorities, angrily levels an accusation against the apostolic preachers: “You are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” (Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.833).

[2] Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.642.

[3] Cf. the dream of Julius Caesar’s wife on the night before his assassination (Cassius Dio, History of Rome 44.17.1).

[4] Cf. Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.789, 806.

[5] Contrary to Bond (Pontius Pilate, 134).

[6] See H. van der Kwaak, Het Proces van Jezus: Een Vergelijkend Onderzoek van de Beschrijvingen der Evangelisten (Assen: Van Gorcum & Comp., 1969) 105.

[7] Homer (Iliad 6.266-68); Sophocles (Ajax 654-55); Herodotus (History 1.35); and Virgil (Aeneid 2.718-20). See Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.834.

[8] J. A. Fitzmyer, “Anti-Semitism and the Cry of ‘All the People’ (Mt 27:25),” Theological Studies 26 (1965) 699 [667-71].

[9] D. P. Senior, The Passion Narrative According to Matthew (BETL 39; Leuven University, 1975) 260; Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.839.

[10] Van der Kwaak, Proces van Jezus, 123-125.

[11] Unlike in the Markan Roman trial where the charge of the political kingship of Jesus predominates the whole proceedings, during the Matthean Roman trial this charge appears only once in 27:11, that is, in the one and only exchange between Pilate and Jesus: “Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus said, ‘You say so’ (sy legeis).”