Problem Passage: Blood on Us

When Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was ramping up for release, it was widely scorned as anti-Semitic. One particular point of contention came from Gibson’s choice to include the self-imprecation of the Jews from Matthew’s Gospel:

Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was starting. So he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “ I’m innocent of this man’s blood, ” he said. “ It’s your problem. ”
All the people replied, “ Let his blood be on us and on our children. ” (Matt 27:24-25, CEB)

In a stark indictment, Pilate is absolved of all responsibility while the Jewish people invite the blood guilt on themselves. Make that “all” the people (πᾶς ὁ λαός). Not the leadership, not the Pharisees, maybe not even just the Judeans. All the people.

This seems to be a democratization of Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees from a couple chapters earlier:

Therefore, look, I’m sending you prophets, wise people, and legal experts. Some of them you will kill and crucify. And some you will beat in your synagogues and chase from city to city. Therefore, upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been poured out on the earth, from the blood of that righteous man Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. I assure you that all these things will come upon this generation. (Matt 23:34-36, CEB)

So the question is, what do we do with this, and the blood of Jesus thing in particular? The concern it raises, of course, is that such a canonized curse opens the door for all sorts of evil such as has, in fact, been performed by “Christians” on Jews throughout the course of history. What is a responsible twenty-first century reading of the text?

Here are a couple of thoughts:

First, I think we should take seriously the “this generation” of Jesus’ warning to the scribes and Pharisees.

There is a narrative line within the Gospels, especially during passion week, within which these passages fit; namely, Jesus prophesies that Jerusalem will be destroyed because it has rejected him as Messiah. This means that the judgment that the Gospels anticipate coming on “Israel” have a first-century reference and fulfillment.

Jesus, like Jeremiah and Isaiah before him, predicted the destruction of the Temple, and Jerusalem, as God’s punishment for faithlessness.

I know that this raises its own problems about God. But I do think it’s an important first step in reading these texts to realize that the promised judgment has come, it has been spent, and we are not called to be its agents and our contemporaries do not stand under it.

Second, though, we are confronted with the challenge of this being in our Bible, which we confess to be God’s continuing word to the church. What does it mean to read this within such a framework?

Here, I have been suggesting that we willfully read the text in light of the larger canon’s blood imagery. In Matthew itself, the blood of Jesus is the blood of the covenant. Might we reread the cry, “His blood be upon us” as a plea to be marked as the blood-sprinkled covenant people of God?

In 1 Peter, the very purpose of election is to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus. And Hebrews and 1 John make use of the notion that blood cleanses en route to forgiveness.

For the reader of scripture as a whole, the cry of all the people at the condemnation of Jesus need to be merely imprecatory. It might also be a beautiful instance of dramatic irony. What the people might mean as characters is not fully known to them. But to we who read there is another plain meaning to the words.

His blood be on us and our children. Amen. And by this blood may God forgive us all and purify us all from any unrighteousness.

9 thoughts on “Problem Passage: Blood on Us”

  1. I’ve long read this (harrowing) line in the narrative context of the Passover — that even though the people are putting Jesus forward to be executed, his blood will mark them to be saved.

    That doesn’t vitiate the catastrophic wirkungsgeschichte of the passage, but it sounds more Matthean to me.

  2. “What is a responsible twenty-first century reading of the text?”

    Is there one that’s specifically 21st century? I agree with your interpretation. I just don’t think it’s unique to our perspective in time. In fact, I heard it WAAAY back in the 20th century. :-)

  3. IIRC, John Heil wrote an article on this passage as an instance of Matthean irony commenting on the function of Jesus’ death.

    (another Michael, not the above poster)

  4. This is absolutely covenant language. For me it conjures the imagery of Exo 24:1-8. After reading the Law, Moses sprinkles blood from a sacrifice over the people of Israel, pronouncing “This is the blood of the covenant…” (v. 8). As he does that the people declare that they will certainly do all that’s in the Law (v. 7). The blood of the covenant is on them and it’s binding.

  5. In reply to Michael and Mike, I’d say that I’m a bit cautious about ascribing this meaning to Matthew himself. Matthew pulls no punches in his excoriation of, and predictions of judgment upon, the Jewish people who rejected Jesus.

    Can we read it that way? Yes, and I think we should. But I also think we need to be self-conscious about the fact that we’re engaging in a bit of healthy theological revisionism.

  6. Maybe this was written in the context of the temple having already been destroyed and the author is attempting to draw a connection. He is saying that the killing of Jesus drew God’s judgement in allowing the city to be overthrown.

    Instead of saying it in retrospect, he created a story that would let people draw that conclusion. Obviously the chance that the story accurately represents the sayings of real people is very very slim.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.