Blood libel

by John Q on February 27, 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[1] are collectively responsible?

h4. Explication and disclaimer

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 – the point of the post is that a position that would rightly be regarded as ludicrous in relation to Italians is still taken seriously in relation to Jews. 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.

fn1. 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.



Micha Ghertner 02.27.04 at 11:05 pm

I wrote an article about inheritable guilt and collective responsibility for Jewsweek.

Incidentally, this issue carries over to others like Affirmative Action and reparations.


seth edenbuaum 02.27.04 at 11:16 pm

I wrote an article about inheritable guilt and collective responsibility for Jewsweek. [Jewsweek? …Oy]
Incidentally, this issue carries over to others like Affirmative Action and reparations.

Two very interesting sentences. And it says alot about the ‘right’ of ‘return’ as well I suppose.


S.E 02.27.04 at 11:34 pm

I’m misplling my own name now.


baa 02.27.04 at 11:41 pm

There was a great saturday night live skit on this, actually, where an anti-semetic rap band ‘reforms’

Key section:

“for two thousand years we’ve hear the news/the christ was killed by the Jews/now listen to these truths/the *Italians* did it!”

Followed by a string of anti-italian epithets.

Nice performance by Jon Lovitz as the reconcilliation-seeking rabbi.

Good times.


Chris Bertram 02.27.04 at 11:45 pm

I tried to compose a post about the Gibson movie earlier and gave up. But I did want to make one micro point which seems suitable for a comment. The blood curse uttered by Caiaphas in St. Matthew’s gospel has received a lot of prominence in the coverage of the film (it just got mentioned in the BBC’s Newsnight Review report about 30 mins ago). I do hope the claim that the film is anti-semitic rests on more than just the fact that this line is included. Because it is plainly possible to make a film including this line which is not anti-semitic: I’m thinking of Pasolini’s Gospel According to St.Matthew.

(Gibson’s movie isn’t released in the UK for another month, so I’ll have to wait before I can make an informed judgement.)

UPDATE/CORRECTION: I’m wrong about this. The line is not uttered by Caiaphas but by the crowd in St. Matthew. In the Pasolini film it is shouted by a single voice from the crowd off-camera.


micah 02.27.04 at 11:56 pm


I read your post urging American Jews to see Gibson’s move and to buy German cars, but I don’t follow the argument. I think there’s a difference between holding a people responsible for some crime committed generations ago and holding a corporation responsible for crimes committed by that corporation years ago. Assuming for the sake of argument that Corporation X committed a crime 50 years ago, and, assuming it hasn’t paid an appropriate level of compensation to its victims, it seems perfectly reasonable to criticize X for its moral failures. Now, I don’t know the history of German car companies (or, changing the example, how about a company like DeBeers?). I don’t know what type of reparation agreements they entered into after the WWII. Maybe the bias against them is no longer justified. But I don’t think your argument against assigning collective responsibility holds for corporations with continuous legal personality.


Alan 02.27.04 at 11:59 pm

Damn. I was going to score a point by saying Gallia Cisalpina (the area between the Rubicon and the Alps) was not part of Italy, but it was incorporated by the Lex Rubria of 43 BC.


Alan 02.28.04 at 12:00 am

Damn. I was going to score a point by saying Gallia Cisalpina (the area between the Rubicon and the Alps) was not part of Italy, but it was incorporated by the Lex Rubria of 43 BC.


decnavda 02.28.04 at 12:07 am

“My question is, has anyone ever suggested that Italians1 are collectively responsible?”

I know of one person – Jesus Christ.

From the American Stanard Version, used by Catholics here:

Matthew 20:17-19
17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples apart, and on the way he said unto them, 18 Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, 19 and shall deliver him unto the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify: and the third day he shall be raised up.

Mark 10:33
[saying], Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him unto the Gentiles:

Luke 31 And he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all the things that are written through the prophets shall be accomplished unto the Son of man. 32 For he shall be delivered up unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and shamefully treated, and spit upon: 33 and they shall scourge and kill him: and the third day he shall rise again.

Over and over again – Jesus says he will be delivered not to the Jewish people, but to their leaders, who will then deliver him not to Gentile leaders, but the “Gentiles” collectively.

And I doubt Christ was implicating Autralian aboriginies or the Imperial Chinese…


digamma 02.28.04 at 12:09 am

Why do lot of people on both sides of this debate have trouble distinguishing between the following two statements?

1. Some Jews who lived 2000 years ago were to blame for the death of Jesus Christ.

2. All Jews are to blame for the death of Jesus Christ.


Red Benny 02.28.04 at 12:21 am

Micah: I think most of the German corporations who employed slave labour and death camp labour during the holocaust finally apologised and made financial restitution to the survivors and to the families of the victims during the last decade. I know BMW was among those that did, but I don’t recall which other names were involved. These reparations were gained only at the cost of strenuous legal efforts from jewish communities in several countries.


Ben Benny 02.28.04 at 12:31 am

digamma: Thers is a line of thought which believes that the emphasis in the gospels on the efforts of the jews to see Christ killed was placed there specifically to discredit the jewish race. There were reasons why it would have been politically expedient at the time to play down the Rome’s role, while portraying the jews as the real villains.

The incident in which Pilate offers to pardon one jewish criminal for the passover (expecting the jews to choose Christ) is highly suspicious, for example. This wasn’t a normal thing for a roman governer to have done, and there is apparently no record outside the gospel of it having taken place. It is possible that it was fabricated for the sake of absolving Pilate and laying the blame on the jews.


Graham Lester 02.28.04 at 1:01 am

Probably nobody blames the Italians because Italy did not exist as a unified modern state until the 19th century. Since the area around Vatican was controlled by the Papacy, there wasn’t much point in Christians blaming the “Romans”.

If Italy had existed as a unified state for the past two thousand years and had not been the seat of Christianity, I expect that there would have been people blaming the Italians all along.


Jeremy Pierce 02.28.04 at 1:01 am

The problem with distinguishing between Jews 2000 years ago and Jews today is that Hebrew thought (at least then) really did involve this group responsibility notion. The prayers in Daniel ch.9 and Ezra ch.9 demonstrate this. A number of prophets implicate themselves in the sins of the people simply because they are a member of the people. When the New Testament authors assign blame to the Jewish people, it really does come to this.

The problem with leaving it at that is that it ignores all the other levels of responsibility assigned by the New Testament authors. A close look at who is said to have delivered him up to be crucified reveals this. I’ve discussed this elsewhere in more detail and with references, but included in the list are the Jews, the Romans (and Gentiles in general), Judas of Iskariot, every person who has ever sinned, God (in his eternal plan), and Jesus himself (who delivered himself up). The last three really do all the work necessary to remove the charge of anti-Semitism, as Mel Gibson has pointed out.


lazyman 02.28.04 at 1:56 am

I’m sure it’s been said before, but, umm, why would any sane person blame someone for being a necessary part of a preordained series of events? I mean, according to the story, Jesus was supposed to die all along. If I recall correctly, the fact that Jesus suffered is the basis of the possibility of salvation for your average Christian Jane and Joe. Zounds, if anything, assuming the supposed position of the film’s creators, they ought to be thanking ‘the Jews’ for what ‘they’ did.

Now, if you want to talk about foreknowledge and what, if any, connection it has to issues of ‘free will’ and responsibility, call me back.


Italian 02.28.04 at 2:08 am

My question is, has anyone ever suggested that Italians are collectively responsible?

Never trust those religious, the Romans believed in more than one god. Oh horror. Not until they converted were the Romans considered ok by them Christians.
Religious people tend to blame groups for all kinds of evil. Like the Homosexuals currently are destroying society in the US. As for a simple non religious person like me, well Hell, fury and the wrath of God is what’s awaiting me.

But what’s the point? It’s just religion, it can change. The Bible is a book with widely different interpretations. The Jews and Christians differ about who Jesus was. And the Muslims have yet another interpretation of the Jesus figure.

So destroy some statues, nail some statements to church doors, and start a new branch of Christianity that blames the Italians. And don’t forget to fill out some forms to make contributions to your organization tax deductible.


lazyman 02.28.04 at 2:11 am

Ok, now for the more on-topic post. I think there’s an important distinction here to be made between the issue of whether there is such a thing as collective guilt which transfers through generations and the issues of reparations and affirmative action. A key issue is that it’s not clear in the case of the crucifixion of Jesus that the Jews gained anything. Let’s suppose (counterfactually) that ‘the Jews’ (note: it’s never “these particular Jews,” but I both di- and re-gress here) acts wrt to the crucifixion are heinous. Well, they didn’t really benefit by them, at least not in any direct way. It’s not as if Jews in the modern world are any better off as a result of their actions (and, if you ask a Christian, they’re actually worse off than the Christians … that damn point keeps coming back to haunt us).

OTOH, with the issue of reparations and affirmative action, there is a case to be made that your modern-day WASP (just to pick on a category) in the US has benefitted from slavery and segregation. I don’t want to get into the merits of that case here, but I think there’s something to be said in favor of that thesis.

The idea here would be that redistributing some of the social goodies now available helps to make up for the past injustices, since some of the beneficiaries of the current distribution did not earn their spots, as it were.


Jim Henley 02.28.04 at 2:56 am

Horrible Person is exceptionally well-named. Ick.


John Gorenfeld 02.28.04 at 3:27 am

Horrible Person, what part of “Jesus’s teachings were basically Jewish” don’t you understand?

We invented the Golden Rule, nitwit.


Nitwit 02.28.04 at 3:58 am

Horrible Person, what part of “Jesus’s teachings were basically Jewish” don’t you understand?

We invented the Golden Rule, nitwit.

Wasn’t there a bit of a misunderstanding at that time? Some Jews failed to recognize that Jesus was the Saviour, Christ, Son of God etc. and some got it right and were called Christians after that? Then would his teachings be called Christian or Jewish?


Jacques Distler 02.28.04 at 4:05 am

“If you’re willing to take collective credit for the golden rule (a point I’d like to see you support)…”


“Love thy neighbour as thyself.”
— Leviticus 19:18 (third book of the Torah, AKA the Old Testament.)

“What is hateful to you, do not do onto others.”
— Rabbi Hillel, Shabbat 31a. (written more than a generation before the birth of Christ).

I won’t even dignify the rest of your comment with a response.


drapetomaniac 02.28.04 at 4:35 am

Horrible Person, what part of “Jesus’s teachings were basically Jewish” don’t you understand?

the part about how he was the messiah, the part about how you have to believe in him to get into heaven, the part about the Law no longer counting as long as you believe in jesus ….

“we” invented the golden rule? i find it funny that people who don’t believe in collective responsibility do believe in collective accomplishment…

was the golden rule the one about smoking the amalekites and midianites?


Dick Thompson 02.28.04 at 4:41 am

Horrible person,

“Of course it was understood that “neighbors” were the Chosen People. And “others” were “other Jews”

That’s why we have the stories of Ruth, Naaman, and other cattle. You’re projecting.


Nitwit 02.28.04 at 4:49 am

Lev. 20:24

I therefore said to you, ‘Take over their land. I will give it to you so that you can inherit it – a land flowing with milk and honey. I am God your Lord who has separated you out from among all the nations.

Bible quotations 101: just find one that suits you.


Richard Vagge 02.28.04 at 5:03 am

Shouldn’t we really be blaming the Greeks. They’re the one the ones who came up with the concept of democracy. Pilate was a representative of authoritarian leadership but he yielded to the “will of the people”, as represented by the chant “give us Barabus”. Sylogistically its clear, the Greeks gave us democracy, democracy killed Jesus, the Greeks killed Jesus.


Henry Farrell 02.28.04 at 5:54 am

Horrible person – piss off. Now. You’re not welcome here. And you’re going to get banned.


James Russell 02.28.04 at 5:55 am

Ignore Horrible Person, please, Horrible Person is clearly nothing but a troll and responding to it only makes it feel like it has a big dick. Stop making it feel good about itself.

As for the whole issue of who’s responsible for the death of Jesus, if you believe what the Bible says then Jesus’ death was foretold and ordained. Therefore, since he planned the whole thing, God is ultimately to blame for the death of his own offspring.


John Quiggin 02.28.04 at 6:23 am

Thanks, Henry. I’ve been feeling guilty that a post of mine should provide a venue for something like this. I don’t particularly care whether it’s a troll or a genuine antisemite. Please boot it ASAP.


henry farrell 02.28.04 at 6:31 am

For general information – I’ve deleted horrible person’s comments. And will delete any more that turn up on this or other posts.


bad Jim 02.28.04 at 7:14 am

Allow me to note that the elision of horrible person‘s comment(s) makes this thread a bit difficult to follow.

Little of the commentary on Gibson’s grisly flick emphasises that crucifixion was rather routine. This was certainly a ghastly death, but one which was repeated thousands of times. Jesus was hardly unique in the manner of his death.

In the movie “Spartacus,” the hero and a great many of his followers are crucified. If “The Passion” turns out to be a hit, can we expect a more gruesome remake of that one, too?


msg 02.28.04 at 7:44 am

The Romans, for all their aqueducts and frescoes, are pretty commonly viewed as throwing early Christians to the lions. This being a blot on their escutcheon, to some, and but one more well-earned merit to others.
Collective guilt is interesting, not least because it’s so slippery, and because all of us inherit bloodstains, though most of them are scrubbed to the faintest outline.
The riddle, of the “crime” of Christ’s execution being at the same time a glorious gesture of redemption and mercy, never gets answered adequately.
It’s easier for me to see it as an essential truth encrusted with legend and co-opted by self-interest.
So that it changes, the lesson of it, from the martyrdom of a truth-telling rebel to a magic spell that means you should do as you’re told.
Looking at it that way makes it clear that any collective agency responsible would be more accurately defined by its position in society than by its ethnicity or religion. The contemporary members of that group are as unnameable and vaguely defined as their historical counterparts.

The Hatfield-McCoy feud of 19th century Appalachia, with its appalling metastasis of grief and vendetta, illustrates the bleak void pointless revenge can create. Collective guilt by itself doesn’t mean much without a clear template for response; what should be done about guilt? Guilty, what then? Punishment? We can’t even adjudicate contemporary crime equitably.

A more pertinent question is -Who killed Christianity, and left its re-animated corpse stumbling around the world bothering people?


bryan 02.28.04 at 9:26 am

hmm, off-topic but it seems to me that this thread shows one of the problems with deleting comments. I read all these condemnations of Horrible Person’s comments, I can sort of work out what some of them were by the tone of the responses, but they’ve been deleted so I can’t really know. And the thing is, the name used was Horrible Person, isn’t that sort of a weird name for a real anti-semite to use. In typical blog-commenting fashion it seems to me that Horrible Person might have used their name to construct a mockery of anti-semitism, sort of like when people post under names typical repug and then lambaste Bush.

I’m not sure if that actually qualifies as trolling, although it is somewhat close to it, and I can’t really tell if that’s actually what happened.


moira 02.28.04 at 10:34 am

It has to be said that the Gospels being quoted were written long after the fact, and it would be naïve to think that there were no ulterior motives.

And, I’ve always been confused how people who believe in an all powerful God also think that human actions can out finesse him. So if the death of Christ was a death foretold, hence God’s will, nobody is really to blame, are they? They were merely God’s pawns.


Jeremy Pierce 02.28.04 at 12:42 pm

Moira, the biblical authors would never allow such a conclusion. Nothing can happen without God’s allowance, certainly. That doesn’t mean that the people who did it are absolved from blame. After all, they still did do it. Isaiah ch.10 has a long rant against the king of Assyria for destroying the northern kingdom of Israel, but the very same passage talks about how this king was a tool in the hands of God to bring judgment on God’s people. Isaiah clearly believed the two were compatible, and there are lots of other examples throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. My comment above details the most clear example of this, about the very event we’re discussing. Judas is certainly blamed, as are those who paid him (the priests and other religious leaders) and those who carried out the deed (the Roman authorities).


henry 02.28.04 at 3:18 pm

Yeah – apologies for breaking up the continuity of the thread – but we collectively decided a long time ago that we didn’t want to host certain kinds of comment that poison debate (and are offensive in the first place). Like John, I don’t know whether ‘horrible person’ was a troll or a genuine anti-Semite; either way, it was way beyond the line at which we ban.


Jacques Distler 02.28.04 at 3:47 pm

Like John, I don’t know whether ‘horrible person’ was a troll or a genuine anti-Semite; either way, it was way beyond the line at which we ban.

Well, I was going to comment that John should have distinguished between the charge of Deicide and the Blood Libel, the charge that the Jews use the blood of gentile babies to bake their Passover matzot.

Instead, I ended up responding to “Horrible Person”. Proof positive that such trolls lower the quality of the debate.

On the other hand, this movie has had the predicted effect of bringing such people out of the woodwork. Commenting on blogs is far-and-away the least harmful way they might express their hateful beliefs. So maybe it’s not such a great idea to drive them away and delete their comments.

Dunno …


Rich Puchalsky 02.28.04 at 4:06 pm

I think there’s a good case to be argued that many of the Prophets believed in collective responsibility as an actual fact even more than as a moral fact. In other words, everyone in a society suffers from the bad decisions of that society whether or not they personally approved of the bad decisions. Amos decries the attitude of the rich towards the poor, but when the day of social destruction comes, he still says that the rich and poor are going to suffer alike. The moral interest in whether or not one was personally pure or not just wasn’t as great a factor as it is now.

Not that this has much to do with the topic of the post, but attitudes toward communal responsibility were mentioned…


Trolling 02.28.04 at 5:19 pm

The trolling of this thead is caused by the irony and the strange view of religion in the post of John Quiggin.

He permits himself to mock the religious beliefs of the pre Vatican II Catholics. Yet he is offended by the mockery of Judaism.

And his final sentence is simply ludicrous.

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.

Jesus is a religious figure. To translate his existense outside religion and look for his murderers is beyond any sense of reality. Next your asking for proof for all the miracles, for the Resurrection, the virgin Mary, and the rest of Catholic beliefs.

But the only thing John asks proof of is who is responsible for the death of Jesus. And since that question can’t be answered he condemns a piece of religion.



LTH 02.28.04 at 7:33 pm

Two points: (comments really need threading)

The idea that God is to blame for his own child’s death is nonsense. Let’s look at the whole story here – Jesus was sent to Earth to save sinners. Thus, Jesus’s existance was required because humans had turned from the path of God, and it is these people who are to blame for Jesus’s death: this is the entire point.

But as we see, the God of the New Testament is a forgiving God, and all sins can be forgiven so long as they are repented.

The blood curse on the Jews is exactly that – they are supposed to have called this curse upon themselves, accepting collective responsibility. The very idea that this should be removed because it may not have happened is ridiculous – the entire contents of the Bible ‘may not have happened’ but Gibson was still able to make his film.


Mrs Tilton 02.29.04 at 1:29 am

Here I had been thinking about responding to Abiola Lapite’s very penetrating question, ‘Is there anybody out there who really doesn’t care about Gibson’s film?’. But then, I thought, responding at all would evince more interest than I really had.

But the topic does seem to be getting people worked up. Without getting into the vexing questions of Jews and Christians etc etc etc., might I just point ut that you are all talking about a film by Mel fucking Gibson? Would any of you give a second’s thought as to whether Braveheart was a fair and accurate narrative of Scottish history, or The Patriot a valuable account of the American war of independence?

Didn’t think so. So, why are yiz dignifying his latest opus as you are?


jack 02.29.04 at 1:31 am

Theology is pointless. You’re debating about nothing. No one alive today is guilty of something done 2000 years ago.

If somebody attacks you with words or otherwise, you fight back. Don’t expect philosophical abstractions to offer a defense. Otherwise, if you’re Jewish and the recipient of anti-Semitism and blame Mel Gibson or the Gospel of Matthew for that insult, you’re engaged in the same blame game that Mel Gibson and the Gospel of Matthew may or may not be a part of. The person who insulted you is at fault- yell at them.

You can only know for sure that which is in front of you. It seems like everyone is getting agitated over a lot of things which haven’t happened.


Micha Ghertner 02.29.04 at 2:06 am


My article was responding to the Jews who refuse to purchase German cars, not because specific corporations may have a questionable history, but because they refuse to purchase cars built by any German company, simply because they are German.

But even if they are willing to purchase German cars, just not those made by particular corporations, I don’t think that makes sense either. Why should a legal fiction be useful when making moral claims? None of the same shareholders or corporate executives were responsible for any crimes committed 60 years ago; does it really make sense to hold them responsible?


Joshua W. Burton 02.29.04 at 4:05 am

On collective Roman responsibility….

When I was eight years old, I spent several days in a very Catholic hospital in Madrid: nuns in the halls, crucifixes over every bed, the works. Having just spent much of the summer tagging along with my mother and her art historian cousin, up museums and down catacombs from Toledo to Compostela, I did know the Passion story. But I had still not grasped the subtle distinction between _Romans_ and _Roman Catholics_.

So, picture this eight-year-old American Jew, weak with fever, with a slaughtered Member of the Tribe dangling over his head, in a hospital run by _the people who did it_. I naturally assumed they were bragging, and I was _terrified_. Wouldn’t let the sisters come within ten feet of me without screaming for mommy.


Joshua W. Burton 02.29.04 at 4:10 am

Also of note: when Paul VI made a brief visit to Israel in 1964, slipping across the Allenby Bridge and celebrating a quick mass in Nazareth without so much as a smile and a handshake (he sent a note to “Mr. Shazar, Tel Aviv” that made no recognition of either the country or its president), quite a few Israelis took offense. There are photos of protesters holding up big signs, saying (in English) “We did *SO* kill Him!!”

A class act, under the circumstances.


Zizka 02.29.04 at 4:21 am

Defeated nobles normally were killed rather than demoted, but their wives, children, other relatives, and dependents were usually enslaved, and it seems likely that all unfree Mongols became so as the result either of military defeat or kidnapping.


Adrian 02.29.04 at 5:12 am

It is almost epicurean to locate a concern for anti-Semitism on the imagination of Mel Gibson (“Mad Max”, for C*****’s sake!), when there is so much more of the disease locatable in bombs and politics that owe nothing to imagination at all.


John Quiggin 02.29.04 at 5:16 am

Micha, I don’t know if you noticed it, but I had a post on corporations and reparations not too long ago.

My central point – the fictional nature of the corporation means that we shoud be willing to pierce the corporate veil more often than we do.


bad Jim 02.29.04 at 6:43 am

Mr. Burton, both your comments actually made me laugh out loud.


Joshua W. Burton 02.29.04 at 2:36 pm

_“Member of the tribe”? The fucking tribe?_

No, no, the one with the tents. See Numbers 24. _That_ tribe.


Joshua W. Burton 02.29.04 at 2:41 pm

Sorry, we all seem to be jousting with ghosts today. My comment just now was in response to one by “horrible person”, which I quoted in full before it was stomped.

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