Review of Christ Killers by Jeremy Cohen

Most readers of this review probably remember the sensation caused back in 2004 by Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. The film was a stunning success at the box office, but it was also surrounded by controversy. Much of the controversy centered around the accusation by many viewers that the film was anti-Jewish.

I listened to many, and participated in some, discussions about The Passion at the time. There was one thing in particular that I noticed about many of my Christian friends: Their comments about the film often betrayed their ignorance of the history of Christian treatment of Jews, and in particular of the way in which the charge of deicide had been used in the past to justify unbelievable atrocities. This lack of historical perspective meant that they frequently said well-meaning but insensitive things, and unwittingly caused further damage to Jewish–Christian relations.

For this reason, I regard Jeremy Cohen’s book Christ Killers as a must-read for every Christian. Cohen documents all the major historical strands of what he calls the “Christ-killer myth”; i.e., the notion that Jews, past and present, collectively bear the guilt of the sin of killing their God. Although I was already at least vaguely aware of most of the topics that Cohen discusses in the book, I found it very helpful to have them laid out systematically in a very readable manner. Furthermore, several sections of the book presented material that was entirely new to me. Here I will mention just a few highlights that I hope will whet your appetite for the book.

Chapter 5, “Fable and Fantasy,” details some astounding stories from the Middle Ages that were used to justify horrific acts of violence against Jews. Cohen classifies these stories into three groups:

(1) the ritual murder accusation, charging that Jews vented their hostility toward Christ and Christianity by regularly killing innocent Christians, usually boys and usually in the spring; (2) the Host-desecration accusation, charging that Jews defiled and attacked the consecrated Host of the Eucharist; and (3) the blood libel, a libel of ritual cannibalism, charging that Jews slaughtered innocent Christians in order to partake of their blood in their perverse rituals, typically as an ingredient in baking unleavened bread (matzah) for Passover or concocting potions for curing leprosy.

For example, a typical Host-desecration accusation would claim that some Jew had acquired the Host (consecrated bread) from a Christian, then attempted unsuccessfully to mutilate or destroy it using knives, boiling water, fire, or other violent means. The Host would bleed but otherwise survive intact, often performing supernatural miracles during the Jew’s attempted mutilation. Defeated, the Jew would either be converted or severely punished.

Chapter 9, “The Passion in Religious Art,” traces the iconography of medieval depictions of the Passion. Paintings of the crucifixion from the 11th to the 13th centuries often show a woman on Jesus’ right, catching in a chalice the blood gushing from Jesus’ side, and another woman on Jesus’ left, turning away from him. The former woman may be identified as Ecclesia, representing the Christian church, and the latter woman may be identified as Synagoga, representing the Jews who rejected Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. Such paintings are open to interpretation as making religious statements without racist intent, but as the Middle Ages progresses, the iconography evolves to express much more explicitly anti-Jewish sentiments. Ugly, evil-looking Jews are depicted inflicting violence on Jesus that the Gospels attribute to the Romans, such as scourging him and crowning him with thorns. The final figure in this chapter is one of the most nauseating images I have ever seen: The Frankfurt Judensau, a picture of Simon of Trent (whose death in 1475 was asserted to have been a ritual murder perpetrated by the local Jewish community, who were then systematically executed) lying nailed to a board in a Christ-like pose, while Jews below suckle the teats of a pig and eat its feces.

Other chapters of the book discuss the views of various Christian theologians and church authorities on the status of Jews, all the way from the Gospel texts themselves up through Vatican II and beyond, as well as various Jewish views of Christ’s death. The final two chapters of the book are devoted to the Passion on stage (the so-called “passion plays,” notably the famous Oberammergau Passion Play) and the Passion on the screen, including Gibson’s film and four others.

It is not Cohen’s primary intent to say how Christians ought to understand the death of Christ and the role, if any, that any Jews (individually or collectively) played in it. To the extent that he does so, he seems to believe that the proper attitude is to exonerate all Jews from any guilt, even though the Gospels are unequivocal in laying at least part of the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on certain of his contemporaries, some of whom were Jewish. For Christians whose view of the Bible does not permit them to agree with this view, Cohen’s theological perspectives will be of limited value. Nevertheless, the excellent historical scholarship in his book is of enormous value to readers of all theological persuasions.

Posted October 2010

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