Q&A with J. Christopher Edwards, author of "Crucified"

Jun 24, 2024 10:00:00 AM / by J. Christopher Edwards


Meet J. Christopher Edwards, author of Crucified: The Christian Invention of the Jewish Executioners of Jesus. Discover what inspired him to write Crucified, what challenges he faced, and what type of reader he had in mind when crafting this work. 

You touch on this a bit in the preface of Crucified, but for those who haven’t picked up their copy yet. Could you share what inspired you to research the false accusation of the Jewish people executing Jesus?

Certainly. At a very basic level, I was inspired to research it because no one seemed to know about it, including me!

If you close your eyes and imaging the crucifixion of Jesus, I’ll bet you envision Jesus being fixed to a beam by Roman soldiers—men with breastplates, helmets with red crests, and maybe even red capes. This modern cinematic vision matches the well-founded scholarly consensus about what actually happened to Jesus of Nazareth—he was indeed crucified by Roman soldiers. It also matches our earliest two narrations of Jesus’ crucifixion in the New Testament Gospels of Mark and Matthew, each of which depicts Jesus’ execution at the hands of Roman soldiers under the direction of Pontius Pilate. However, beginning with the Gospel of Luke, Christian writers depict Jews as Jesus’ executioners. This replacement of Roman soldiers with Jews makes sense when we consider that it could not have been advantageous to be a follower of someone executed for political crimes against the Roman state! The replacement of Roman soldiers with Jews, which begins in the New Testament, quickly becomes dominant in retellings of the crucifixion. In fact, we can reasonably assert that a narration of Jesus’ execution at the hands of Jews became standard across the Roman Empire within 100-150 years of Jesus’ death.

 It is also important to note that Christians who accused the Jews of killing Jesus were not interested in blaming a handful of malevolent Jews of executing Jesus in Jerusalem around the year 30 CE. Rather, they were interested in blaming the execution on Jews of all ages. They understood Jesus’s Jewish executioners to be unified with the monolithic wave of Jews who opposed the prophets, Jesus, and whatever activities existed in their Christian communities. This assumption of Jewish continuity across the ages has enabled Christians across two millennia to assert that the unbelieving Jews they know are one with those who killed Jesus and the prophets. Even more troubling is that in their quest to imitate the sufferings of Christ, Christians sometimes assumed that, like Jesus, their own troubles must be ultimately caused by Jews, the same Jews responsible for the death of Christ. In fact, it was not until 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, that the Roman Catholic Church finally renounced this assumption of the timeless Jew in Nostra Aetate.

 To return to the original question, I wrote the volume to remind us of the fact that the depiction of Jesus being executed by Roman soldiers is a minority narrative in Christianity, and the transition to Jewish executions is clearly on display within the New Testament. I think that without reading this volume, Christians will preserve a gaping hole in their understanding of what for so many centuries was the direct underpinning of Christian persecution of Jews.

What challenges did you face as you wrote this book? Both in terms of finding the motivation and time to craft this work and in the research?

Honestly, this is the first book I’ve really wanted to write! Because I had to, I wrote a book for my dissertation, and I wrote another one for tenure, but this book just happened naturally. I stumbled upon a shockingly understudied idea and filled in the gaps—the book basically wrote itself, very much unlike my first two! Also, I wrote during the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant I had a lot of uninterrupted time to focus. Plus, the staff at the Columbia University Library (where I have access) was very accommodating in retrieving all the volumes I requested, placing them in large paper bags where I could retrieve them outside the main library. If only it was still so easy!

What kind of reader did you have in mind as you write this book?

I wrote it for Christians who, like myself, will find it a difficult pill to swallow that the shifting identification of Jesus’s executioners from Roman soldiers to Jews first occurs within the Scriptures.

Not only does this mean that the Scriptures affirm something that is historically inaccurate, but it also means that the Scriptures serve as the foundation for the centuries of Jewish persecutions that were grounded in that inaccuracy. Of course, Jesus’s execution by Jews is not the only unfortunate detail affirmed in the Scriptures. Rather, it is simply another item that can be added to the list of more well-known difficulties, such as scriptural texts about violence, women, homosexuality, and slavery. For these issues, we Christians who treasure our texts but are committed to honesty will have to conclude that they are simply wrong at times. The only alternative would be to assert that, for example, in certain circumstances in the distant past, God said it was permissible for one person to own another. Assuming this is unacceptable, we must conclude that some scriptural texts, which present God conversing with humans about rules concerning slavery, are fundamentally wrong. It may be more difficult to extend such a critical eye toward Scriptures at the heart of the passion narrative, but the alternative of affirming that Jesus was executed by Jewish actors is, again, unacceptable.

Honest conversations about some of the shortcomings in our Scriptures and the history generated by those shortcomings are always welcome. Acknowledging one’s sacred errors serves as a sign of religious maturity. Every religion has traditions to be sorry about, and lamenting those traditions is good religious practice. Of course, it almost goes without saying that there are many wonderful teachings in Christian scripture about how to live a life of contentment, peace, hope, and love. There are also many treasured Christian teachings about Jesus’s divinity, humanity, and resurrection from the dead. None of these are threatened by humble and repentant self-criticism, whereby we repudiate the urge to defend the historical and moral errors within the Scriptures, especially the accusation that unbelieving Jews crucified Jesus. This accusation is not a minor footnote in Jewish history. Rather, it is a source of tremendous grief that we Christians can no longer ignore.

I like to ask all my interview subjects this question. What is a piece of media you’ve consumed recently that has resonated with you? It can be a book, TV show, or movie. And why did it resonate with you?

I recently enjoyed watching Shōgun on HULU. I never read the novel nor saw the 80’s miniseries, so it was a new experience. It felt a bit like The Last Samurai—a movie I also liked—but without as much white-savior vibe. As to why Shōgun resonates, I think it’s the general intrigue and beauty of a Japanese aesthetic for western eyes. It’s also the structured and communal ways that the Japanese characters interact. In the west, we typically assume that self-interested actions are part of human nature, but the Confucian values of relational deference and community cohesion reveal that western individualism is learned rather than innate. It gives me some hope that neither I, nor anyone else is hopelessly selfish, since anything learned can be unlearned.


Click here to learn more about Crucified: The Christian Invention of the Jewish Executioners of Jesus by J. Christopher Edwards. 


Topics: history, new testament, Interviews

J. Christopher Edwards

Written by J. Christopher Edwards

J. Christopher Edwards (PhD, University of St Andrews) is professor of religious studies at St. Francis College, Brooklyn. He is the author of "Early New Testament Apocrypha" and "The Ransom Logion in Mark and Matthew."