Jason Hensley
Uncovering the Jewish roots of Christianity

The Infamous Blood Curse Doesn’t Curse the Jews


The Gospel of Matthew describes an infamous scene: before the crucifixion of Jesus, a crowd gathers, waiting to view the prisoner. Pilate, the Roman governor, brings Jesus of Nazareth before the crowd. Washing his hands, Pilate declares his own innocence in Jesus’s death. In response, the crowd cries, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25; my translation, as are all subsequent biblical references). 

Many Christians hear these words in their church’s liturgy. Others hear the text read from the lectern. Yet very few spend time thinking about what they mean.

For centuries, Christians interpreted this verse as blaming all Jews––both those alive at the time of Jesus and those who would be born throughout time––for the death of Jesus. These words were the admission of guilt from the Jewish community. The verse was read out of its context, and thus, when Matthew stated that “all the people” said these things, “all the people” was interpreted as meaning all Jews, all of the time. 


Thus Origen, an early Christian teacher, taught that Jesus separated himself from the synagogue because of “His blood be upon us, and upon our children” (Origen, “Commentary on the Gospel of John,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers – Volume 9, eds. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995, 1019). The Passing of Mary, a fifth-century Christian text, has the Jewish high priest admitting that they had given in to the devil when they uttered “His blood be upon us, and upon our children” (“The Passing of Mary,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers – Volume 8, eds. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995, 1717-1718). John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, argues that the Jews themselves effectively crucified Jesus because of these words (John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Gospel According to St. Matthew,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers – Series I, Volume 10, ed. Philip Schaff, 1885; repr., Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 893–894). Throughout the Middle Ages, these words helped form the foundation of the blood libel, in which Jews were said to kill Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes. They developed a myth stating that Jews were born with a blood-stained hand attached to their forehead. These words created a terrible lens through which Christians have viewed Jews.

As a result, confusion reigns over this verse. Some who want to create better relationships between Christians and Jews simply state that the verse is anti-Jewish and that it reflects the widening gulf between Christianity and Judaism at the time that Matthew wrote. Wanting to avoid any kind of prejudice, they thus avoid the verse. Others are scandalized by the idea that all Jews, all of the time, could be blamed for the death of Jesus, and thus also avoid the verse. Unfortunately, however, these interpretations are largely based, not on the text of the gospel itself, but on the interpretation of the verse that developed within Christianity long after the verse was written.

Thus, to really understand the text and therefore to better grasp the crucifixion story, we must ask ourselves what Matthew himself wanted the verse to mean. What was the intention behind it? Was Matthew anti-Jewish? Was he trying to blame Jews for the crucifixion ad infinitum?

We can be fairly certain that Matthew was not anti-Jewish. The very first verse of the gospel makes it clear that Matthew is writing to Jews: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). A non-Jew wouldn’t have seen any significance in these words. Who was David? Who was Abraham? But to Jews, these words were weighty: these were the two Hebrew patriarchs to whom God made major promises (Genesis 12:1–3; 2 Samuel 7:12–16). The rest of the gospel confirms this Jewish audience. Over and over, Matthew paints Jesus as another Moses. Just like Moses, Jesus comes out of Egypt. Just like Moses, the king who sought his life is dead. Just like Moses, Jesus sits upon a mountain and gives the Torah to his followers. Matthew wrote his gospel for Jews, and therefore, certainly is not condemning all Jews, all of the time.


So then what was Matthew doing? What was the point of the verse? The literary context of the verse itself explains. Consider the ones who are actually responsible for what the crowd says: “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to destroy Jesus” (Matthew 27:20). The crowd wasn’t literally all of the people. Instead, it was a group that had been stirred up by one specific subgroup of people: the chief priests.

In fact, throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus references his death multiple times. Repeatedly, he blames one specific group for it––and that group is not the Jews. Instead, Jesus states that the chief priests will kill him (Matthew 16:21; 20:18). Matthew doesn’t blame all the Jews. Instead, he blames the chief priests. 

Within Judaism, the chief priests were responsible for the Temple worship. Just before his crucifixion, Jesus gave a prophecy regarding the Roman destruction of the Temple (Matthew 24:1–2). Nevertheless, in this prophecy, he didn’t explain why the Romans would destroy the Temple. The closest he came was a statement about Jerusalem’s house being left desolate, because the city did not know the time of its visitation (Matthew 23:37–39). In other words, God sent the Romans to destroy the Temple because of Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus.

The crowd’s words to Pilate advance the same idea. Stirred up by the chief priests and the elders, the crowd claims to desire Jesus’s blood on their own heads and on the heads of their children. Why did Matthew record this? Perhaps to place the blame for the destruction of the Temple. Who was it that rejected Jesus? Matthew’s answer was the chief priests. The ruined Temple, pulled apart within four decades of Jesus and the purview of these priests, fulfilled the request for Jesus’s blood to be on their heads and their children.

Though there is indeed an element of violence in these words, understanding Matthew’s intention allows us to appreciate the true meaning of the text, and thus to acknowledge the terrible way that the text has been twisted for generations. These words were not about all Jews. They were not intended to blame the Jewish community for the death of Jesus. They were not intended to support the idea that Jews attempt to recreate the crucifixion as part of their Passover rituals. 

These words are not anti-Jewish. Instead, they were written by a Jew, about the death of a Jew, in a Jewish context. As the Easter holiday approaches and Christians turn their thoughts to the death and resurrection of Jesus, perhaps then we can think of this event in a more nuanced and accurate way. Rather than the death of Jesus reflecting specifically on the Jewish community, it reflects on everyone. His death was intended, not as a sacrifice effected by Jewish wickedness, but one necessitated by all. Rather than being something that divides, the death of Christ was meant to impact everyone, and to bring them together with him.



About the Author
Jason Hensley is an award-winning author who specializes in sacred religious texts. He teaches Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek, and lectures regularly throughout the world on Judaism, Christianity, and the relationship between them. He holds an MA in Biblical Languages, a DMin in Biblical Studies, and a PhD in Holocaust Studies.
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