Anti-Semitic Easter

1945 was a watershed year. Knowledge of the Holocaust jolted children's Bible authors and editors into a conscious awareness of the dangers of this damning narrative, and the longstanding tradition of using anti-Judaism in children's Bible tellings of the Easter story came to an end.
03/17/2016 05:53 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2017

Christkiller!" That's the word school bus bullies hissed when they shoved her, said the memoir writer about her Jewish childhood. That's also the word shouted from the bleachers at a Boston-area basketball game. Anti-Judaism with its vicious intimidations was long shaped and then cemented by the Easter story as it was told in children's Bibles.

For centuries, Christian churches all over the world taught children to hate Jews. Not only to hate them -- but to justify their murder. They did so with one crucial choice: to tell the Gospel story in the words and the content of the book of Matthew rather than in alternate tellings by Mark, Luke, or John.

Matthew repeatedly used his telling of Jesus' final days to exonerate Romans but to excoriate Jews for Jesus' crucifixion. He magnified his vision of Jewish perfidy (choosing clemency for Barabbas, a murderer, rather than for Jesus) and violent Jewish unrest (leading Pilate to fear civic riot). He provided the historic justification for centuries of retaliation against Jews for Jesus' death (Pilate washes his hands, tells the crowd to "see to it yourselves"), and provided the fateful formula, "His blood be on us and on our children."

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all name Jesus' accusers as the chief priests, scribes, and elders. In the Bible, these men then become an undifferentiated "they" who call for Jesus' crucifixion. Children's Bibles amplified this narrative when their authors nearly unanimously chose Matthew's narrative to recount Jesus' arrest, trials, and execution. In the process, these Christian writers made sure their readers knew that "they" were Jews. French and German Catholic as well as German and English Protestant children's Bibles edited Matthew's "they" into "die Juden," "les juifs," or "the Jews," all of whom, they wrote, called for Jesus' crucifixion, reflexively and repeatedly damning all Jews as Christkillers.

Matthew, and Matthew alone, inserted the image of Pilate shifting legal responsibility from himself to the Jewish crowd before him. Matthew alone incorporated the crowd's answering cry, "His blood be on us and on our children!" As medieval, early modern, and modern history has shown, it took little more to justify persecuting and killing Jewish neighbors in retaliation for Jesus' crucifixion. And yet, these words do not appear in three of the four gospel stories from which the story could equally well have been taken. The choice that children's Bible authors made was consequential.
What were -- and are -- children's Bibles? They are stories from the Old and New Testaments used throughout Christian culture to introduce children to core religious beliefs. These "Bibles" were little books, made for small hands and illustrated with pictures to underline their message.
From the middle ages through the 1700s, only children of the wealthy and powerful could afford the luxury of children's Bibles. But when literacy expanded and books became cheap in the early 1800s the numbers of child-readers increased exponentially. Millions of children, rich and poor alike, now read children's Bibles and were exposed to their anti-Judaic message.

Authors of children's Bibles -- teachers, preachers, and parents -- built a message of hatred into the New Testament Easter story of nearly every such book before 1945. Authors showcased Jews in this story as Jesus' direct murderers, and thereby implicitly justified their eternal persecution.
Children's Bibles in Spain, Italy, France, England, Germany, Austria, and the United States nearly all drew their wording from Matthew. And this was the case both in Protestant children's Bibles as well as in Catholic ones. All over the world, Christian children's first Bibles taught them that Jews were perfidious and that they had acknowledged guilt for Jesus' death in words inviting their own persecution and destruction.

1945 was a watershed year. Knowledge of the Holocaust jolted children's Bible authors and editors into a conscious awareness of the dangers of this damning narrative, and the longstanding tradition of using anti-Judaism in children's Bible tellings of the Easter story came to an end. After the Holocaust, nearly all children's Bible authors changed their depictions of Jesus' trial and execution. Now there were generalized "accusers" instead of particularized "Jews."

We know about the deadly dictatorships of the 1930s and 1940s -- the anti-Semitism of the Nazis and Fascists. But the Easter story in historical children's Bibles cultivated, embedded, and supported hatred in us Christian children on the high authority of the Bible itself. In most of the world, those stories are now gone, and have not been re-issued for over seventy years. Today's Easter stories are based on the other Gospels and today's children are not usually catechized about "the Jews" killing Christ. But those old words are like the feathers shaken from a pillow in the old fairy tale -- they fly about everywhere and can never all be retrieved. And so they live on and float freely, sometimes coming to a cruel rest in an elementary school bus or at a high school basketball game.