Jewish Corporate Guilt and Zechariah 12:10By Russell L. Resnik,General Secretary, UMJA, USA
In early 2004, UMJC President Jamie Cowen and I wrote two statements in response to the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ. One of our points was to remind Gibson and his viewers of the participation of the Roman governing authority in the crucifixion, since concerns had been raised that the film contained an imbalanced portrayal of Jewish culpability.
Because of the history of Christianity, the Passion story must be presented without imputing blame upon the Jewish people as a whole for the sin of putting Yeshua to death. This presentation requires emphasizing Roman injustice as well as the specificity of the small group of Jews that violated the Torah in seeking Yeshua’s death. Any film on the Passion should include some explanation that the Romans bore ultimate responsibility, since they alone had the power of capital punishment. A rider or introduction with such an historical explanation would be essential.
When we were able to view the film after its public release, our concerns seemed validated. We wrote that in the film, “the Jewish leaders seem by nature bent on destroying Yeshua, and must persuade reluctant and basically humane Roman authorities to cooperate.”
These statements evoked a spirited response from those who read them. More than one reader objected to our placing of “ultimate responsibility” at the feet of the Roman authorities. In retrospect, the phrase “ultimate responsibility” was probably not the best. The Romans held governmental responsibility, but God himself held ultimately responsibility, as Scripture makes clear. And even the issue of ultimate human responsibility is more complex, as we’ll see below.
One of our detractors who felt we were too tough on the Romans also felt we were too easy on the Jews. He cited Zechariah 12:10 as evidence of a unique Jewish culpability in the crucifixion:
And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn (NKJV).
This reader commented that there was no time since the death, burial and resurrection of Yeshua when the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem looked upon Him and mourned. He concluded that, since this passage is yet to be fulfilled, it means that more than “a small group of Jews,” as we claimed, are implicated. Zechariah’s category of those who pierced Him seems to include even those who were not yet alive at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
In other words, this reader interprets Zechariah 12:10 as implying corporate Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion, and corporate recognition of this by the Jewish people in the future. To examine this interpretation, we will consider the treatment of Zechariah 12:10 in the two New Testament passages that quote it directly. These passages yield a more complex and profound understanding of Zechariah’s prophecy than our correspondent may have imagined.
For this discussion, we will accept the translation above for Zechariah 12:10, although it is debated, especially within the Jewish world. Note, for example, the JPS Tanakh: But I will fill the House of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem with a spirit of pity and compassion; and they shall lament to Me about those who are slain, wailing over them as over a favorite son and showing bitter grief as over a first-born. The Jewish Study Bible, which incorporates this translation, notes an “alternative and more common type of translation, which is at home in christological interpretation.”
What is the cause of the mourning [mentioned in Zech. 12:10]? — R. Dosa and the Rabbis differ on the point. One explained, The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, and the other explained, The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination.
It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son…
The critical point for our discussion, of course, is that the New Testament references also draw upon this interpretation of Zechariah 12:10, and their application of it to the crucifixion is sound.
Midrash on Zechariah 12:10 in John and Revelation
A key question, then, is the identity of “they” in the verse. “They” would seem to be the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem who look on the one they pierced, and mourn. As Walter Kaiser writes,
The subject of the verb “look” and the verb “pierce” is the same in Hebrew. Accordingly, those who pierced the Messiah, the same One who will pour out a spirit of grace and supplication in that day, belong to the same national group that will “look” and “mourn” over the pierced One, as one mourns over the loss of a “firstborn son…”
This reading does seem to point to some form of unique Jewish culpability in the piercing. The use of this verse in the New Testament, however, presents a more complex picture of culpability. John’s account connects the verse to the historical details of the crucifixion (19:34-37).
But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, “Not one of His bones shall be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.”
In this passage, “they” who pierced him are represented by “one of the [Roman] soldiers,” and “they” who look on him by the crowd standing around at the scene of the crucifixion. If there is a unique Jewish culpability implied in Zechariah’s words, John does nothing to express it. Rather, his passion narrative in chapters 17 through 19 consistently portrays a Roman-Jewish collusion. It reaches a climax here as a Roman soldier pierces Yeshua’s side, after the Jews ask that the process of crucifixion be concluded before Shabbat (19:31).
Revelation 1:7 applies Zechariah 12:10 in similar fashion.
Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen.
“They who pierced Him” may be those involved in the historical act of crucifixion, or the phrase may be understood in this verse as applying to “every eye” that will see him. All humankind, who will see Messiah’s coming, is included in “they who pierced Him.” This interpretation is reinforced by the second sentence in the verse, “And all the tribes of the earth will mourn…” John clearly includes all of humanity in the mourning of Zech 12:10, as the commentator G.K. Beale notes.
The rejection of God’s messenger and the consequent repentant mourning are not limited to Israelites but affirmed of all nations. Those who mourn are not those who literally crucified Jesus but those who are guilty of rejecting him. This is probably not a reference to every person without exception but to all among the nations who believe…
The wording “all the tribes of the earth” is echoed in Matthew 24:30,
And the land shall mourn, every family by itself: the family of the house of David by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi by itself, and their wives by themselves; the family of Shimei by itself, and their wives by themselves; all the families that remain, every family by itself, and their wives by themselves.
The “land” and its “families” in Zechariah become “all the tribes of the earth” in the Revelation and Matthew. As Beale implies, Zechariah is speaking of repentant mourning, since it precedes the opening of a fountain to cleanse the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from sin and uncleanness (Zech. 13:1). Revelation applies this picture of repentance to the nations in a midrashic fashion. Beale, however, explains this application in a way that will be unsatisfactory to most Messianic Jews: “[T]he extended application of the mourning from the nation of Israel to the believing nations is not an inconsistent development, since the nations are now understood to be the true Israel…”
In place of this supersessionist interpretation, we may consider the following. Israel is the priestly nation, representing the nations of the earth. When the priestly nation and the embodiment of the gentile nations, Rome, join in rejecting the Messiah and piercing Him, they represent the whole of humankind, “all the tribes of the earth.” Just as Zechariah sees a future in which the tribes of Israel recognize their sin, mourn for it, and receive cleansing, so John sees a day when all the nations will do so. Israel does have a unique responsibility in the piercing, not because Israel alone rejects Messiah, but because Israel represents all of humanity. Furthermore, Israel possesses the Scriptures that reveal the promise of Messiah, and so bears a unique responsibility for rejecting him. But in all this Israel represents all the nations of the earth.
The Apostolic Portrayal of Culpability in Acts
This interpretation is borne out in the apostolic preaching on the crucifixion in the book of Acts. In our statement on the Mel Gibson film “The Passion” we wrote, The Gospels teach that only elements of the Jewish leadership, in unity with Roman authority, were involved in the death of Yeshua. Certainly, this was not the whole nation, nor the great majority of Jews, who did not at that time even live in Israel. In addition, the Bible teaches that Messiah died to atone for the sins of us all. The sin of all humanity was the reason for his crucifixion, and this was by the design of God. Only a gross misinterpretation of the Gospels supports anti- Semitism.
The words of the apostles in the early chapters of Acts are often cited as evidence of corporate Jewish culpability for the crucifixion. Thus, Peter concludes his sermon on Shavuot: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). It clear, however, that the “you” in this verse is not necessarily “all the house of Israel,” but those Jews who were actually involved in the death of Yeshua.
Our statement may have obscured the fact of Jewish culpability by speaking of “a small group of Jews that violated the Torah in seeking Yeshua’s death” and “a small number of Jews … [who] were the Roman collaborators.” We posited the “small group of Jews” in contrast with “the Jewish people as a whole,” who have so often been blamed corporately for the death of Messiah. This “small group,” however, may have included “multitudes” that were in Jerusalem at Yeshua’s final Passover. The account in Acts would certainly lead one to think that this group was in the thousands. Perhaps “small group” is not the best term to describe such numbers, but it is a small group compared to the Jewish population of the world at that time, or even to the number of Jewish pilgrims likely to be present in Jerusalem for Passover, estimated by the renowned scholar Joachim Jeremias at as many as 100,000 visitors in addition to the population of 25,000-30,000 resident in Jerusalem.
On one level, then, the specific Jews who participated in the death of Yeshua are uniquely guilty, not the Jewish people as a whole. But the telling of the Passion story throughout history has tended to ascribe guilt to the entire Jewish people. In the context of that corporate accusation, we spoke of the “small number” of Jews.
More to the point of this paper, the book of Acts conveys the same sense of Jewish-Gentile collusion suggested by the treatment of Zech. 12:10 in John and Revelation. The cooperation of Israel and the nations, represented by Rome, represents the collusion of the whole human race in rejecting God’s anointed. The apostles in Acts consistently cite this Roman-Jewish collusion, beginning with Peter’s sermon on Shavuot. Acts 2:23 states in the New King James Version, Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death…
“Taken by lawless hands” suggests that such hands are the means of accomplishing the deed through others. Thus the New Revised Standard Version reads, This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.
This reading is borne out in other passages in Acts. In 3:11-15, Peter preaches to the Jews about Yeshua, “whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate.” These Jews could only participate in the death of Yeshua by handing him over to the Romans. 4:24-28 summarizes the whole situation.
[The disciples] raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant [in Psalm 2]: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
In this passage, the disciples interpret Psalm Two as referring to the joint Jewish-Roman “stand” against the Messiah, which represents the stand of all humankind. In a parallelism, the Psalm speaks of “the Gentiles” and “the peoples” in one line, and “the kings of the earth” and “the rulers” in the next. The apostles define these categories in their time as “Herod and Pontius Pilate”—Herod as the Jewish ruler (albeit marginally Jewish), and Pilate as the Gentile “king” — and in a parallelism as “the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel.”
Psalm Two is about kingship. God is installing his anointed king (or King Messiah) “on Zion, My holy mountain” (vs. 6, NJPS), and he is opposed by the kings of this world. The Gospels portray Yeshua as the anointed king, presented by God to be installed in Zion, but rejected by both Jewish and Roman authorities, the kings of this world, and executed under the Roman charge “King of the Jews.”
On a human level, both Jews and Romans are responsible for this death, those Jews and Romans “gathered together” in collusion with Herod and Pilate. The apostolic perspective, however, sees Jews and Romans as representing all humanity—Israel and the nations. The focus on Jewish authorities as rejecting Messiah, or on Rome as the historic and governmental entity that had authority to execute Him, should not obscure this more universal complicity. All who have sinned—all of humankind—share responsibility for the death of Messiah.
When the apostolic message goes beyond Jerusalem, its emphasis on joint Jewish-Roman responsibility is modified. In Acts 13, Paul is preaching in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. He says to the congregation of Jews (“Israelites” in v. 16; “My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family” in v. 26) and Gentile adherents (“and others who fear God” in vv. 16 and 26),
Those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know Him, nor even the voices of the Prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning Him. And though they found no cause for death in Him, they asked Pilate that He should be put to death (27-28).
Paul, preaching in the Diaspora, does not say “you” when describing Jewish culpability for the death of Yeshua, but “they.” You Jews did not condemn Yeshua, but those Jews, who actively appeared before Pilate in Jerusalem in that specific time and place, did so.
Paul reflects this same perspective in his letters. In Romans, for example, as much as Paul talks about the Jewish people and their need for repentance and faith in Messiah Yeshua, he rarely speaks of Jewish complicity in Messiah’s death. Indeed, a quick scan of Paul’s letters reveals only two references to the question of who killed Yeshua.
In 1 Corinthians 2:8, Paul says that the “rulers” or “princes of this world” in their ignorance “crucified the Lord of glory.” Such terminology clearly goes beyond specifically Jewish complicity to place the death of Messiah at the feet of this current, corrupted world system, much in line with the Acts 4/Psalm 2 reference. The only passage in Paul’s writings that seems to teach a unique Jewish culpability in the crucifixion is 1 Thessalonians, 2:14-15.
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus. For you also suffered the same things from your own countrymen, just as they did from the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they do not please God and are contrary to all men…
Note that the NKJV translates the Greek ioudaioi as “Judeans” rather than “Jews.” Either English word would correspond to the Greek, but the context favors “Judeans.” Paul is telling the Thessalonians that they suffered from their countrymen in Thessalonica (who were also Thessalonians) just as the “churches” in Judea suffered from their countrymen in Judea (who were also Judeans). These Judeans who persecuted the Judean believers also killed Yeshua and their own prophets and Paul as well.
The NKJV correctly translates ioudaioi as Judeans, but then incorrectly places a comma after the word, as do most translations. (The Greek original is not punctuated at all.) David Stern notes the significance of the comma, which functions “to make the predicate ‘who killed the Lord Jesus,’ apply to all Jews. Without a comma, it reads, ‘the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,’ so that the predicate specifies which particular Jews (or Judeans) are meant, namely, those who killed him, as opposed to those who didn’t. “
I Thessalonians is not imputing guilt upon all Jews for the death of Messiah, but comparing the suffering of the Thessalonian believers at the hand of Thessalonians with the suffering of Judean believers at the hand of those Judeans who also had killed Yeshua.
Zechariah 12:10 seems to picture a unique Jewish culpability in the death of Messiah, such as often forms a subtext within portrayals of the Passion. The house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, apparently not just those who were complicit in Messiah’s death, but representative Jews of some future age, will look on the one whom they pierced and mourn for him. Or so Zechariah is often interpreted.
The treatment of this verse in John and the Revelation yields a different picture. Jewish institutional rejection of Yeshua represents—in a sort of reverse priesthood—the rejection of Yeshua by all nations and institutions. A remnant from the nations must join the remnant from Israel in countering this rejection and receiving him as Messiah and Lord. In this sense, then, Zechariah’s prophecy does ascribe a unique culpability to the Jewish people, not because they alone rejected Messiah, but because, as the chosen and priestly people, their actions are representative of all humanity. All Israel has a share in the historic rejection of Messiah, just as does all humanity, and Israel seems to hold the key to universal acceptance of Messiah. They will mourn for him, and a fountain of cleansing will be opened. Zechariah’s prophecy concludes with a vision of the restored Jerusalem, to which all the nations are gathered “to worship the King, the Lord of hosts” (14:16). As Paul says of Israel in Romans 11:15, “For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!” (NRSV).
This interpretation of Zechariah 12:10 not only reflects the reading of the New Testament authors, but it counters the charge of deicide against the Jewish people as a whole, which has led to so much suffering and misunderstanding over the centuries. Jewish culpability is part of the larger picture of human culpability. Every person, every tribe, every nation has a share in the responsibility for Messiah’s death, just as all have a share in receiving him as Lord and King to the glory of God.
Russell L. Resnik
1. The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 1264.
2. FF Bruce. The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), p.378.
3. Jewish Study Bible, p. 1264.
4. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. The Messiah in the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995) pp. 224-225.
5. GK Beale. The Book of Revelation, in The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 197.
6. “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”
7. Beale, p. 197.
8. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) pp. 77-84.
9. David Stern. Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), p. 618).